Barney Gumble, a regular character on the TV series “The Simpsons,” is a stereotypical portrait of an alcoholic: middle-aged, obese, disheveled – and drunk most of the time.
But as a child, Barney had a bright future. Intelligent and studious, he was on track to attend a prestigious college until he met Homer Simpson, who introduced him to cigarettes and alcohol.
Barney's fictional situation is not uncommon in the real world. Young people often find themselves in similar situations. According to the National Institutes of Health, people who start drinking at age 14 or younger greatly increase their chances of developing problems with alcohol later in life. In addition, alcohol problems are highest among young adults ages 18 to 29.
Y-Press recently talked with four young recovering alcoholics from Central Indiana who were introduced to alcohol and narcotics as teens. Dustin, Jonathan, Lauren and Autumn, whose last names have been withheld to protect their privacy, recently described their past alcohol use and how Alcoholics Anonymous is helping them to recover.
Alcoholism is generally regarded by medical professionals as an illness, not a failure of willpower or self-control. The Health and Science Center at West Virginia University says alcoholism “is characterized by continuous or periodic impaired control over drinking, preoccupation with the drug alcohol, use of alcohol despite adverse consequences, and distortion in thinking, most notably denial.”
Dustin, 20, said that alcoholism can be fatal if left untreated and is “a lifetime disease.”
Autumn, 17, added that alcoholism can be hereditary and can affect anybody at any time. “I don't believe that alcoholism is picky. I have seen judges, lawyers, doctors, bums, you know, lower class, I've seen everybody in (AA) meetings.”
They started young
All four of these youth started drinking young. Lauren and Jonathan, both 18, were 12 when they had their first alcoholic drinks. Dustin was 16, and Autumn was even younger. “I took my first drink of Jack Daniel's at the age of 9, and then my heavier drinking started when I was about 11,” she said.
Autumn started drinking because of an unhappy family life. She had an absent dad, five older brothers and a mother who didn't drink, but didn't have too much time for her either. Autumn's father materialized when she was 12, but instead of being a comfort he was a “full-blown” alcoholic. “It's been pretty rough, but that was my escape. That was how I didn't deal with reality,” she said.
Lauren also drank to cope. Both of her parents were alcoholics, and her stepfather would sometimes hit her mother.
“I came from a pretty bad home, and there was domestic violence and stuff, and I pretty much grew up with (alcohol) around,” she said. “It was always there, and I hated it for the longest time, and then when things got bad, I thought maybe if I drink I won't feel this way. It was an easy out.”
Jonathan was influenced by the father of a friend.
“I was over at a friend's house, and we would see his parents drinking. And then one day my friend stole a beer from his dad, and I thought, 'Well, hey, let's drink it! Let's drink it as fast as we can' – to see if we can get drunk like his dad does.”
They did, and Jonathan kept on drinking. “I mean, all my friends were
starting up drinking and using drugs, and so I thought, 'Heck, I might as
well be a follower.' ”
Hanging with wrong crowd
On the other hand, Dustin was influenced by peers. “I don't have an excuse. Both of my parents don't drink. They're real godly people. They were always there for me. I went to a Christian school, so I really wasn't around that kind of stuff. Then I went to a public school my freshman year and started hanging out with the wrong crowd, and I got influenced easily.”
All four followed a similar pattern: They started out drinking on weekends, then eventually were drinking every day. They were able to consume vast quantities of alcohol, and they began using drugs as well.
“It used to be just the weekends,” Lauren explained. “And then I'd go home right from school and I'd pour myself a drink, go to my room, drink that, do my homework – or not really do it, but say that's what I was doing – and hide out in my room and just drink until I went to bed that night.”
Not surprisingly, all said their schoolwork suffered, mainly because they were skipping school. More importantly, family relationships deteriorated. By age 14, Autumn ended up in foster care, and Lauren was placed with her grandmother. While Dustin and Jonathan had been on good terms with their parents, their drinking had made them untrustworthy and devious.
The first time Jonathan's parents caught him drinking, “I was 15 or 16 years old. I came home and they didn't really know I was drunk at first, but then like I went up into my bedroom and ended up throwing up on myself. So they kind of figured it out.
"My parents basically never wanted to call the police on me,” he continued. “They didn't want me to end up getting in more trouble than I had to. So like when I would go away, I would stay away for maybe three or four days just binge drinking or using drugs, and basically they really didn't have any control of me from about age 16 on.”
Dustin had a similar experience with his parents. “I was stealing from them. I know they didn't trust me. My siblings, I didn't have good relationships with them anymore.”
Dustin became heavily involved with drugs and ended up in rehab – twice. “The first time I went to rehab, I didn't go to any (AA meetings) because I went there and they're all like 40-year-old men, 60-year-old men, and I just felt so out of place. Mostly I kept rationalizing that's why I wasn't an alcoholic because, you know, look at all these people – they've been drinking for 30 years and I was drinking for, you know, three and a half years, four years.”
He joined AA about a year ago after his second round of rehab. “I really didn't want too much to do with it or know what it was about, but then they moved me to the halfway house and I started going to meetings and stuff on my own, realizing that the fellowship was really helping me. I saw what it was doing in people's lives.”
The other three ended up being arrested for a variety of offenses, mostly drug- and alcohol-related, before coming to AA. “One time I had come home and I was really high, and I had been drinking, and I got in a fight with my parents. And the police officers took me to the station and handcuffed me and just had it out on me and told me I didn't know my head from my butt. But it didn't stop me,” Lauren said.
Mom guided her
What did stop Lauren was seeing the transformation in her mother, who was going through rehab while Lauren was living with her grandmother. “I visited her and I saw that she had changed. I continued using and drinking a few months, and then I went and I saw her at her new apartment, and she invited me to an AA meeting, and that was my first meeting. It was about a year and a half ago, and it started there,” she said.
Jonathan found AA after being arrested for possession of an illegal narcotic. “I was going to go into NA (Narcotics Anonymous) and then I got a sponsor that ended up being an AA sponsor, and I told him that I also had an alcohol addiction,” he said. He has been sober for five months.
Autumn had been arrested for a variety of crimes through the years, from disorderly conduct to involvement in a drive-by shooting, before she took AA seriously. “I got involved with AA when I was 15 because I had gone to jail for different stuff, but it was all drug- and alcohol-related, and I was ordered to take drug classes, and then the drug classes ordered me to go to AA meetings.
“I went because they told me to; I was the last one in, first one out,” she continued. “I didn't care what anybody had to say. And then I went back to doing the same thing I was doing . . . and it landed me back in jail again. And that time it really stuck, and that was when I was 16. So it was a little over a year ago.”
Program brought friends
Lauren said she has bonded with the women in the program. “I never really have gotten along with women very well, and the friendships I've made in the program are with people that are there for the same reason as I am. Even when I'm like having a bad day, I can call them, and that's nice.”
They agreed that younger kids need to be educated about the dangers of alcohol, especially middle-schoolers, because that's when most of them started drinking. Autumn and Lauren have already started speaking to youth about the importance of avoiding alcohol and drugs.
All of them point to their lives as examples not to follow. “Stay away from it,” Jonathan said. “I'm an 18-year-old and I am a junior in high school. I'll be 21 before I graduate.”