Although young people are less at risk when it comes to substance misuse related deaths, those who are struggling and seeking recovery still deserve our attention, support and compassion. Claire* shares her experiences of alcohol abuse from a young age, and why receiving support at an earlier stage might have avoided years of pain and trauma.
I started drinking heavily at the age of 13. For me it was a way of numbing the experience of mental illness, but it very quickly began to exacerbate my illness and led me into a lot of situations which were deeply traumatic. When I look back I can recall being aware that my drinking wasn’t ‘normal’. My peers would drink with me – it was fairly common in my town for people to start drinking in their early teens – but there was an urgency and desperation in my drinking that I didn’t see in the behaviour of my friends. While they were happy to drink on weekends I was drunk in school, shoplifting bottles of vodka, and stealing money from my parents and siblings to fund another day of drinking. At regular Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) appointments I would tell my psychiatrist how much I was drinking but it was never taken seriously. Even after keeping a diary of how often I drank I was told that I must have been misremembering or exaggerating.
By the age of 18 my mental health had worsened and I realised that alcohol was a problem for me, so I began trying to cut it out without any support. These periods of sobriety would sometimes last a few months until I would drink again – each time I fell back into drinking it was worse than before. There were more trips to A&E, more confrontations with police, and my behaviour was increasingly self-destructive. I felt angry at the mental health services who I thought were there to help me. Despite telling them that I was sure I had a drinking problem I always had the impression that they thought I was simply too young to receive any support.
Finally, at the age of 22, I found a supportive GP who listened to me. I told her how often I drank, and how it affected me, and she referred me to the local Community Addiction Team. It took five months of attending appointments there for me to finally give in and admit that I couldn’t drink safely. I realised that I would never be someone who could have a few drinks with friends or enjoy a drink with a meal – I had to make a choice between a slow death or complete sobriety. Shortly before my 23rd birthday I began attending a community rehabilitation service which offered counselling and group therapy. The process of healing and staying sober was slow and arduous, but today I have been sober for almost four years.
Judging by my own experience and conversations that I have had with others with similar experiences, I believe there are few better ways of truly understanding yourself than going through recovery. It requires rebuilding yourself, bringing together what is left of your identity and nurturing those pieces until you feel whole, possibly for the first time in your life. The peace and acceptance that I have now finally outweighs the painful memories from my childhood and adolescence. The quality of my life now is beyond comparison to my past, however sobriety in your 20s does occasionally feel lonely. Despite having good friends around me who are incredibly supportive, I still often find myself in situations where I have to politely decline offers for drinks multiple times, often followed by questions about why I’m not drinking. The vast majority of people are understanding and even apologetic when I explain, in a roundabout way, that I never drink alcohol. The stigma still frustrates me. Not only does it feel inappropriate to be honest with people and say that I’m in recovery, the stigma attached to substance use problems and recovery means that there is often a misconception that it’s something that doesn’t happen in your 20s.
Whilst I was conducting research on substance use for my degree I became aware of the ‘ageing population’ of recovery and substance-related deaths. The most recently published statistics on drug-related deaths in Scotland show that the 15-24 age group has seen the only reduction in average deaths when comparing data from 2004-2008 and 2014-2018. Whilst the causes of this reduction may be due to differences in substances used, length of time spent using substances, or underlying health problems, young people are evidently at less risk when it comes to drug-related mortality. Yet I still fear that young people in need of support, particularly for alcohol use, are often ignored when they look for help. Young people in recovery or in search of recovery don’t fit the stereotypical image that we have come to know as the ‘(recovering) alcoholic’. Perhaps our drinking seems like relatively harmless adolescent rebelliousness but for some of us, myself included, it is life-threatening. I know that I came into recovery at the right time – I could see in myself that I was at a breaking point, that my physical and mental health were suffering and that each day brought more risk. Of course I am endlessly grateful for that compassionate doctor who recognised this and took me seriously, but I often wonder how different my life might have been if I had received support four years earlier when I first expressed my concerns to CAMHS.
One thing I have learned through recovery is that it’s not helpful to imagine the ‘what ifs’ of life, so I try to stay grateful for the fact that I managed to get support when I was still so young. However, the years of pain and trauma that I might have avoided have made me want better for younger generations. Perhaps young people in recovery are a minority, but we still matter. We deserve adolescent mental health services that recognise our problems and take us seriously. We deserve compassionate teachers, carers, health professionals and social workers who are aware of recovery services and know that nobody is too young to receive support. Everyone seeking recovery deserves a chance at a different life regardless of age. Not everyone will find stability in recovery at a young age, or any age for that matter, but we all deserve to be heard and to be offered support.
About our blogger
Claire is a young woman from Scotland’s west coast, and is now at university. If you wish to contact her, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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