Dear Straight Talk: I still have the photo. I'm at my best friend's house and her mom and stepdad are serving us whiskey and Coke. I am 15. It was my first alcoholic drink. From that point on, drinking, driving, partying, that's what weekends were for. Typical high school stuff? Not really. My parents didn't drink at all.
Fast forward 30 years. Sick of throwing up, hiding bottles, waking up not knowing where I am, I check into treatment. Alcoholism is sneaky when you can get A's, hold down a career, and stop for periods of time. I am writing to tell you: Drinking too young is the surest way to become an alcoholic -- and it doesn't always happen right away. -- Barbara
Dear Barbara: Congratulations on your recovery. You are correct on both counts. For those who start drinking before age 21, almost one in 10 become alcoholics. For those who start after 21, only 3 percent do. The younger you are when you start, the more your chances rise. It is a myth that in Europe, where drinking ages are younger and serving alcohol to minors isn't taboo, that there is less alcohol abuse. Europe has the highest worldwide rates of alcoholism and binge drinking -- both significantly higher than America.
The other way you are correct is that alcoholism often follows a responsible period long after the initial onset of drinking. Below are snapshots of underage drinking. To all who drank heavily at first and now seem to have it under control, please beware as you get older. --Lauren
Brie, 20: I was 15 when I started drinking. My weekends pretty much became drinking parties. Now I work two jobs and go to college full time so my blackout days are over. I don't have time to deal with hangovers and I worry because alcoholism runs in my family.
Jennifer, 17: A friend always talked about her parents sharing booze with her, but I couldn't quite imagine it. Then one day her mom was making margaritas. She pressed me relentlessly to have one and wouldn't take no for an answer. I finally accepted and ditched it secretly. It was so awkward! The kids in these households glorify their parents, but I have no respect for them.
Molly, 19: I was allowed the occasional drink at holidays and such, so alcohol wasn't a real big deal as I got older. Most of my heavy drinking was in high school but I never did anything terribly out-of-character and even when blackout drunk, I was responsible. While I still drink occasionally, it's not worth feeling sick the next day anymore.
Peter, 24: I got drunk the first time when I was 18, partied heartily for a few months, and now I'm as responsible as they come without actually giving up booze. I'll have a glass of wine or a beer MAYBE twice a week. My career requires me to set an example.
Justin, 24: I was 18 the first time I got drunk. I partied some senior year, but compared to most kids, I had little under-age experience with alcohol. My biological father is an alcoholic, so my mom was strict about never letting me drink with them, even at gatherings where other kids were allowed. Lots of serious substance abuse is shrugged off as "partying." It's not normal to get blackout-drunk EVER.
For more discussion, to ask a question, or inquire about being a youth panelist, visit straighttalkTNT.com.
More from LAUREN FORCELLA:
It's very important for parents, relatives, and other adults to not let young people drink until they are 21. People reporting first-use of alcohol under age 15 are five times more likely to become alcoholics than are those whose first use is at age 21. Even first-use between age 18-20, while better, still ups the odds considerably for being alcoholic later. There is scientific evidence that the younger you are, the more alcohol triggers the genes that encourage alcohol dependency -- even without alcoholic relatives.
The European model of serving kids alcohol in the home as a way of "normalizing the experience" has been whoppingly wrong-minded. We now have hard statistics from the European Union showing that they have the highest rates of binge drinking and alcoholism in the world. Our rates are much lower on both counts. Don't believe me? Google it.
Alcohol is the most commonly used drug by young people in the United States -- more than tobacco, pot, or other regulated drugs. Young people age 12-20 drink 11 percent of all alcohol consumed in this country and over 90 percent of that is "binged." (A binge is five+ drinks per male, or four+ drinks per female, per occasion, a "drink" being one beer, one glass of wine, or one shot of hard liquor.)
In the United States, about 50 percent of first-use alcohol is offered freely to minors from parents, relatives, and other over-21-year-old adults. In other words, alcoholism could be substantially reduced if we "grown ups" simply stopped giving alcohol to minors.
Readers: How did you start drinking? I invite you to share your experiences on our website comment section. --Lauren