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I worked for many years in substance abuse treatment hospitals, so take my word for it–drinking has become a rite of passage in Western society. Instead of a puberty ceremony, a vision quest or a formal debutante ball, teenagers tend to try alcohol to prove to themselves and the world that they’re becoming adults. In fact, the old Shakespearean question—to be or not to be?—has become “to drink or not to drink” for just about every teenager. Surveys indicate that approximately 80% of all teenagers in Western cultures experiment with alcohol. The peer pressure is enormous, and the stakes are high.
Sadly, that’s because alcohol can do massive, permanent damage, especially to adolescents.
In the United States alone, the National Institutes of Health says, 5,000 people under age 21 die each year from alcohol-related car crashes, homicides, suicides, alcohol poisoning, and other injuries such as falls, burns, and drowning. Beyond those deaths, statistics show that teenagers commit hundreds of thousands of violent assaults, rapes, and other serious crimes while under the influence of alcohol, ruining their lives and the lives of others. Bluntly put, alcohol destroys more teenagers than anything else. When you add up the worldwide impact of alcohol-related deaths, injuries and crimes, it amounts to the planet’s leading cause of teenage mortality. Drinking kills adolescents.
How does this happen? Why do people on the cusp of adulthood feel like they have to drink to fit in? What makes drinking so alluring and interesting? And can teenagers inherit alcoholism, otherwise known as alcohol dependence syndrome, from your parents?
I’ll try to answer those questions from my own experience. When I was a teenager, I began drinking seriously at about 14. Although my mother and father drank quite a bit every day, I had no idea they were alcoholics. I thought of an alcoholic as a homeless person, someone who constantly drank cheap rotgut liquor, smelled bad and couldn’t stand up straight. By contrast, I had never seen my father drunk—he was proud of the fact that he could “hold his liquor.” I did know, however, probably by the age of 6 or 7, that if I wanted to ask my father something, it was best to wait until after he’d had a few.
By the time I was sixteen, and had been drinking almost every night for the past two years, I was well on my way to following in my father’s addicted footsteps. It turns out, recent research has shown, that children of alcoholics are four times more likely than other children to become alcoholics, according to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. Science and medicine are just now figuring out how that works.
They’ve recently learned from many different studies of families—including twin and adoption research—that alcoholism definitely has a genetic component. The inherited “alcoholism gene” apparently resides in the A1 allele of the DRD2 gene, one of the dopamine receptors in our DNA, and is present in somewhere between 10-25% of human beings. Not all alcoholics have that genetic structure—but those who do are much more likely to become addicted to alcohol.
Do you have it? You can find out by getting an expensive genetic analysis; but I’d suggest a better and less invasive test—just look around at your family and see if anyone, including aunts, uncles, grandparents and other immediate relatives, has a drinking problem. If the answer is yes, you probably have a genetic predisposition to become an alcoholic—so don’t drink. Don’t even start. If you’ve already started, get some help and stop, now.
In fact, since alcoholism is so easy to hide and disguise, I’d seriously recommend never starting, no matter if or what your relatives imbibe.
Alcohol is a toxin, a central nervous system depressant, a serious health hazard and a deadly poison. In sufficient amounts, it will kill you, either quickly or slowly. It permanently destroys brain cells, damages your organs and your DNA, is a proven cancer-causing agent, and ultimately results in catastrophic consequences for a significant percentage of the people who use it. Anyone who grew up in an alcoholic environment can tell you about the extreme damage it does to children, spouses and families. The experts will tell you that it’s the worst possible disease, with the worst possible consequences, and it’s so easy to avoid—if you just don’t start.
The Baha’i teachings make the same recommendation:
Regarding the use of liquor: According to the text of the [Most Holy Book], both light and strong drinks are prohibited. The reason for this prohibition is that alcohol leadeth the mind astray and causeth the weakening of the body. If alcohol were beneficial, it would have been brought into the world by the Divine creation and not by the effort of man. Whatever is beneficial for man existeth in creation. Now it hath been proved and is established medically and scientifically that liquor is harmful.
As to the meaning of that which is written in the Tablets: ‘I have chosen for thee whatsoever is in the heaven and the earth’, this signifieth those things which are in accordance with the Divine purpose and not the things which are harmful. For instance, one of the existing things is poison. Can we say that poison must be used as it hath been created by God? Nevertheless, intoxicating liquor, if prescribed by a physician for the patient and if its use is absolutely necessary, then it is permissible.
In brief, I hope that thou mayest become inebriated with the wine of the love of God, find eternal bliss and receive inexhaustible joy and happiness. All wine hath depression as an after effect, except the wine of the Love of God. – Abdu’l-Baha, from a tablet to an individual Baha’i.
But people always ask me: what about the health benefits of red wine? What about the studies that show a glass or two of merlot is good for the heart?
The alcohol industry loves those studies, but they don’t often mention that the same heart-healthy compounds in red wine also exist in non-alcoholic grape juice. The alcohol in the wine hasn’t been found to deliver any health benefits.
So I hope, if you’re young, that you won’t begin drinking, not only for the health of your body and your mind, but for the health of your spirit.