WFDD's Radio 101 has chosen to use initials in the following story due to the sensitive subject matter and to protect the students' privacy.
It only takes one night for a life to change forever. M, a 16-year-old high school student, learned this in the harshest of ways.
M grew up in an unstable family environment. A verbally abusive stepfather and other members of her family who themselves were struggling with mental illnesses made it so M could not ever truly feel safe at home. When she was around 10 she started to struggle with anxiety and depression. According to her, some days, even getting out of bed to go to school was a challenge, which led her to start failing classes and having to switch schools frequently. When she was 13, M started to self-harm as a way to cope with what she was going through at home. Nobody in her family knew. Nobody in her family would know what was really happening with her for another three years.
In the fall of 2020, M changed schools once again and it was in this new school that she met a friend, K. K felt like a breeze of fresh air. They would do everything together. When they were hanging out, M would be able to forget the problems at home and feel like she didn't have a worry in the world. But it was also with K, that M started drinking and using drugs.
“It's easier to drink and forget than to deal with your problems,” said M. “And I'm not gonna lie, that's how it was at the beginning. It was great. It felt amazing. It was so nice not to have to deal with that type of stuff. But it gets to you fast. Like, after a while, it starts to hit you harder. And then you know, the addiction type part starts rolling, like where it's like, it's mid-afternoon, but I need a beer. But like, the more you get, you know, you build up a tolerance to those types of things. And that's how an addiction settles in. And so it's like, the more tolerant I got, the more I smoked, the more I drank.”
Data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration shows that the majority of adolescents will engage in some sort of substance use before they graduate from high school. Legalities aside, the main issue with underage drinking is that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, teenagers' brains are still developing. So, while it's easy to pursue pleasurable rewards and avoid pain, it's really hard for them to know when to stop. An apt metaphor for a teen's brain is a car with a fully functioning gas pedal (the reward system) but weak breaks (the prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain in charge of assessing situations and making sound decisions). And the use of substances can carry negative impacts well into adulthood. The latest Youth Risk Behavior survey states that “Youth substance use is associated with increased risk for delinquency, academic underachievement, teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, perpetrating or experiencing violence, injuries, and mental health problems.” All in all, risky behaviors, which brings us back to M.
One night M and K were invited to a graduation party. M started drinking with the party host. “There was this new type of beer that he was trying and he wanted me to try it,” said M. “And I was like, okay, cool, you know, give it a try. I thought it was revolting. I thought it was disgusting. Worst thing I ever tasted, but he, like, challenged me or, like, provoked me, ‘Oh, you can't drink it. You can't do it. You know, I bet you can't.' And so you know, then I took it as a challenge. I started drinking. You know, I started dancing doing this and this.”
M blacked out.
What she didn't know at the time was that her friend had filmed her at the party while she was black-out drunk. M found this out once she saw a video circulating on social media. In it, she could see herself stripping down and dancing around the house in a sports bra.
“To know that other people saw me like that, like, not only at the party but other people that weren't even there had the chance to see me like that,” said M. “And the fact that I didn't even I don't, I still don't even know how many people saw it. Or if other people sent it to other people and the video is still out there. It's just really, it just was really, really embarrassing to see that. That type of thing was out there on the internet.”
When M saw the video, she decided that something needed to change. “I have an old friend. And she is going through some things right now that, you know, not my story. So I'm not gonna share. But there's someone in her life who is a very heavy abuser of alcohol,” said M. “And it scares me to see that if I kept going down the road, I was going … that I could potentially turn into that. Because someday I want to be able to have a family, I want to be able to have, you know, nice things for myself.”
M did not seek professional help. While her mom is aware that M got really drunk at a party, she doesn't know a video of that night exists. “That's something I don't think I could ever share with her until I'm way older,” said M. “But she does know about the events that took place and she was … she was ... a lot of people in my life were really disappointed in me but they weren't mad at me they were just disappointed that it got that bad.”
For M, the story seems to end there. She claims to be doing better, to have put the days of coping through alcohol and drugs behind and found new and healthier ways to deal with her issues. However, the available data suggests that M's story is not unique at all. And not everyone out there might be able to stop this harmful behavior without professional help. For those people, know that the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration maintains a free 24/7 helpline for anyone struggling with mental health or substance use issues. The number is 1-800-662-HELP (4357).