The Drug Class Blog

Nov 22

Most Girls Drink to Fit In

Alcohol is still the number 1 problem drug, because society has a high degree of acceptance for alcohol use we often don’t see it “as bad”.

‘Most girls drink to fit in’ By Ann Dowsett Johnston

Sun Nov 20th.

It’s tea time at Tim Horton’s, and my guest is letting hers steep, her wary eyes focused on the long line at the till. A tall girl of 17, with glossy chestnut hair, Nivea skin and a winsome smile, she pauses and looks away before she begins her story. Who can blame her?

There’s a lot to tell. Laura, as she wants to be known, has never had a legal drink — and she hopes she never will. “There are days when I feel like I’m 90,” says the Grade 12 student, who celebrated one year of sobriety in January. “My friends say they think I could drink again, but I say no. I’d end up on the top of a building and have no idea how I got there.” Laura had her first drink at 9, and took to it immediately. “I thought I had arrived,” she says. “I remember thinking: the partygoers will accept anyone — the only requirement is to ‘get lost.’ I felt like I could lift buildings. And I thought, ‘I’ll never love anything as much as I love alcohol.’”

That love affair lasted several years. Sexually abused as a child, “debilitatingly anxious” and bulimic, Laura shuffled homes, from her mother’s to her father’s to various aunts’ and uncles’. Alcohol was a daily constant, often pilfered from relatives’ liquor cabinets. “As long as I didn’t have to be me, I would take it. I felt like my skin was two sizes too small.” When she was 14, her stepbrother got married and she celebrated by downing nine shots of tequila. “I ruined his wedding,” she says. Again, the averted eyes. “I threw up my body weight. My grandmother said: ‘I feel sorry for you.’ I didn’t hear her correctly. I thought she said, ‘I am jealous of you.’ That’s how much I loved drinking.”

The summer between Grades 9 and 10, Laura decided to turn her life around. She stopped drinking and joined a rugby team. But when she was injured, she took muscle relaxants, which she downed with alcohol. She overdosed. “My hands were yellow. My liver was failing.” By Grade 10, she was taking vodka to school in a chocolate milk container, drinking in class. At 16, she started stealing the anti-anxiety drug Ativan from her uncle, and buying it on the street. She loved OxyContin, did cocaine. At night, she kept alcohol in a Gatorade bottle next to her bed.

Her voice is very flat: “On Dec. 26th, I was raped by a family member. In January, I began having panic attacks, so I started mixing Ativan and alcohol. But I ran out and went into withdrawal. Two days later, I was called into the principal’s office. While I was there, my arm went numb and my head went backwards. I couldn’t inhale. They called an ambulance. Turns out I had a mild heart attack.”

When she was in the hospital, a crisis counsellor asked Laura: “When was the last time you liked yourself?” “I didn’t have an answer,” says Laura. “It changed my life. Two weeks later, I went to rehab.” She stayed for six months. Today, she announces proudly that she is 45 pounds heavier than the day she had her heart attack, and her grades are 30 per cent higher. Estranged from her family, she now lives with several sober friends and is making a documentary on addiction. She speaks in schools about her experience and has made formal apologies to her former teachers.

Most of all, she cautions others to pay alcohol the respect it deserves. “Girls are taken down a lot faster than guys,” she says. “A friend said to me: ‘I don’t remember last night.’ And I said, ‘Don’t you think that’s a problem?’” Laura pauses. “They don’t see the connection. I know girls who have gotten pregnant when they were drunk. But if you believe the Absolut Vodka ads, you’re going to sleep with some hot guy! Recently, a parent of a friend said, ‘I would rather my child took drugs than got drunk.’ She buys the alcohol for her kids.” Laura shakes her head. “Alcohol is trouble.” Alcohol is trouble for a growing number of girls and young women.

While Laura’s story is an extreme case — both in her journey down and her journey up — her issues are emblematic of many. New research between 2003 and 2010 shows rates of consumption rose significantly for underaged girls in Canada. When it comes to risky drinking, the gender gap is shrinking in most developed countries.

The beer-guzzling frat-boy stereotype now has a female equivalent: she drinks wine, spirits and shots, and she’s no stranger to drinking games. Belgesel Dress Up Games According to one second-year Queen’s undergrad, “The guys play more games than we do, but all of us take part.” What’s her drink of choice? “Red Bull and rum.” Recent tragedies at two Canadian universities — two drinking-related deaths at Queen’s University last year and one at Acadia this September — underscore the seriousness of binge drinking. Both universities are examining their campus drinking culture.

This year, Queen’s banned alcohol in its residences during frosh week; in fact, 92 per cent of its incoming residents were underage. How do you change a campus drinking culture? Gradually, says Dr. Mike Condra, director of health, counselling and disability services at Queen’s.

In recent years, Condra has noticed several changes in the way students drink: “First of all, style. People pre-drink — drink before they go out — because it’s cheaper to drink at home than at the bar. It leads people to have more alcohol in their homes. Secondly, there is the issue of quantity: it is more common to drink to serious intoxication. I know because I’ve observed people who have drunk to the point of vomiting, and then gone back for more. Thirdly, there is the peer cultural influence to drink: it is considered unusual not to drink. That influence is very strong. We have an enormous amount of alcohol marketing in society, and alcohol is associated with a happy, young, positive lifestyle.”

Drinking at university is one thing. Drinking before high school is another. In September, Lois Rowe, vice-principal at Havergal College, told a group of Grade 8 parents: “Be aware that your daughters are going to face the question of whether they are going to have a drink at 12, 13, 14 or 15.” In fact, the average Canadian has their first drink at 15.9 hat makes a young person vulnerable to drinking at an early age? A recent British study reports that the odds of a teenager getting drunk repeatedly are twice as great if they have seen their parents under the influence, even just a few times. “It’s easy to capture the trends, but the multi-million dollar question is: can you capture the ‘why’?”

This is the voice of Elizabeth Saewyc, lead researcher on “A Picture of Health,” a major study of the highlights of the B.C. Adolescent Health Survey of more than 29,000 B.C. students aged 16 to 18. “This study did so — and it proved there is such a thing as starting too early.” According to her study, several key factors help tip the scales as to whether a person will drink at an early age: • A history of physical or sexual abuse; • A physical or mental disability or condition; • Poverty; • Identifying as gay, lesbian or bisexual; • A family history of attempting suicide.

Females who start drinking at a younger age are more likely to report experiencing extreme despair, purging after eating, having suicidal thoughts and having attempted suicide. Who is likely to wait until they are 15 or older to try alcohol? Those who are more connected to family, have friends with “healthy attitudes about risky behaviours,” meaningful community engagement of one sort or another. For girls, two other elements are important: cultural connectedness and involvement in organized sports. Students who delay their initiation to drinking are more likely to have post-secondary aspirations, some connection to a teacher or their school and are less likely to have unprotected sex.

Starting to drink too early matters for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which is evidence that the still-maturing brain is particularly susceptible to damage from heavy alcohol use. The broader consequences of early drinking are profound. Says David Jernigan, head of Baltimore’s Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth: “If you drink before age 15, you’re four times more likely to become alcohol dependent than those who wait until they’re 21; seven times more likely to be in a motor-vehicle crash after drinking; eight times more likely to experience physical violence after drinking; 11 times more likely to experience other unintentional injuries like drowning and falls. “The bottom line? There’s a strong public health interest in delaying the onset of drinking. What’s the connection to marketing? The more marketing kids see, the more likely they are to initiate drinking at an early age.

These young women have grown up in the most alcoholized environment of any generation since the ’20s and ’30s. This is 360-degree marketing, embedded in Facebook, on Twitter, on YouTube, on television and in the movies.” Those ads send a clear message that being slim is essential. According to Ann Kerr, a Toronto eating disorder specialist, more than 40 per cent of female bulimics will have a history of alcohol abuse or dependence.

In anorexics, the figure is much lower. “Drunkorexia” is shorthand for a troubling phenomenon, a mixture of eating disorders and getting drunk also known as “drinking without dining.” As eating disorders have increased in recent years, so too has the connection with binge drinking. “Each person with an eating disorder has their own rules around how they get their calories,” says Kerr. “The intention is to drink to relax or unwind — and the rationale is, ‘This is how I’ll get my calories today.’ But these are empty calories. And the likelihood of blackouts and seizures is very high in someone who’s starved.” Most importantly, mixing alcohol with an eating disorder makes ending the disorder impossible. Says Kerr: “We can’t treat you unless you’re clean and sober.” Kerr echoes the observation by Condra at Queen’s about the new drinking pattern among young women: “Their agenda is to get drunk fast. That’s their intention. They may not drink and drive, but they ‘pre-drink’ — they get smashed before they go out. Usually, they don’t eat ahead of time because it’s a date. And girls tend to drink straight alcohol because no one wants extra calories.” What’s changed in recent years? “The intensity of the experience,” says Kerr. “And calling an ambulance — that seems part of every evening.” Laura agrees. “Most girls drink to fit in — if you’re the girl who doesn’t drink, you’re the loser. There’s social pressure to play drinking games, guys drinking shots out of girls’ belly buttons, girls chugging. That’s when the ambulance gets called. People used to ask me how I was getting home. I’d just laugh and say, ‘I’ll take the ambulance!’”

Award-winning journalist Ann Dowsett Johnston is the 2010 recipient of the Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy.

What do you think?

Show All Blog Posts