Teenage Drinking

Stefan pulls open the blinds. It is barely 8 a.m., and he reaches for the glass case of brandy on the dresser. He takes a swig of the dark liquor, and without a grimace, makes a toast to another morning alive. Despite, of course, him almost being killed by a vampire hunter the night before.

“The Vampire Diaries” is a CW show depicting the lives of a group of high schoolers, played by actors with over-gelled hair, and who look awkwardly in their mid-twenties rather than teens. The show, like so many other forms of pop culture today incessantly incorporates teenagers drinking alcohol into its plot line.

To the relief of most parents, the show is more than just fictional in its tales of vampires battling it out with werewolves, but also in its false portrayals of alcohol in the high school setting.

Whether it’s Katy Perry belting out “Last Friday Night” on the radio, “taking too many shots” or “getting kicked out of bars,” or even Ke$ha waking up in the morning and brushing her teeth with a “bottle of jack,” alcohol has become more pervasive in the media today than ever, spurring exaggerations and idealizations of alcohol in teenagers’ lives.

Part I: Setting the Scene

On 9 p.m. Friday night, senior Josh (names changed to ensure confidentiality of students), watches his parents’ car pull out of the driveway. Waiting until his parents are out of sight, Josh calls his buddies and sounds the all-clear. By 11 p.m., there are least 20 people in his garage. Unlike movies where underage teens forge ridiculous fake IDs and even more ridiculous names like “McLovin,” and somehow still manage to purchase liquor for the night, 65 percent of teens obtain alcohol through friends and family (NIDA, National Survey Results on Drug Use). Three bottles of cheap vodka, and a 30 rack of Miller Light, all purchased courtesy of Josh’s 21-year-old brother, sit on the table.

Yellow ping pong balls bounce from red cup to red cup, music plays in the background, only with the occasional, “turn it down just a little!” But more importantly, a sense of well-being, excitement fills the atmosphere; the party has officially started.

Josh, like many underage teenagers who drink, takes the opportunity to throw a party when there’s lack of parental supervision. Without the presence of authority, Josh and his friends can explore the boundaries of their freedom.

At parties, junior Kelly prefers to drink vodka like Smirnov and Ciroc, because it has higher alcohol content. For her, drinking is a way to relax.
“There is definitely a difference between drinking to feel good, versus people who drink to forget,” Kelly said. “It’s almost always clear at a party who those individuals are.”

She notes that it is easy for parents to assume that every teenager who drinks is throwing up in the toilet or jumping off roof into the pool. Media portrayal is the main factor, she says.

“Drinking to the point where you just can’t think straight is uncomfortable, but drinking in general to relax … lets you have fun without being guilty about having fun,” Kelly said.

While Kelly drinks to de-stress, junior Paul says that teenagers also drink because “alcohol really gives some sort of a sense of freedom.”
Both Kelly and Paul agree that the high school drinking scene isn’t what the movies make of it: where one kid holds a mass rager with hundreds of strangers trashing the house, causing chaos.

“There’s usually one or two belligerent people … who get out of control, and they usually get kicked out,” junior Kevin said.
Rather, drinking is a more a laid-back, intimate activity.

“Mostly they end up in some kid’s garage whose parents are out of town,” Paul said. “There’s games [such as] beer pong, stuff like that. In the presence of alcohol, people seem to be a lot more open about talking to each other. You feel a lot more confident talking to strangers.”

Besides exaggerating what actually happens at a high school party, Kelly says that other than the occasional hangover scene, the media also rarely accurately touches on the negative aspects that come along with underage drinking.

“[In] movies, there’s always giant groups of people … and they’re all drinking lots of alcohol,” Kelly said. “But in reality, you always get that one person that’s like ‘no I don’t want to drink’ and that person gets bullied into drinking … And then there’s always that one person who drinks way too much and you’re freaking out about whether they’ll get alcohol poisoning … People can actually get hurt.”

Movies rarely portray the consequences of peer pressure, and drinking past one’s limit, but rather emphasize mainly what makes underage drinking so desirable―the fun, the freedom, the “feel good” atmosphere.

Kelly has first-hand witnessed friends bullied into drinking, something she is personally against, but says isn’t as avoidable as it seems.
Sophomore Jenna is a testimony to Kelly’s experiences. She has found herself more than once in a situation where although she wasn’t uncomfortable with the idea of drinking, she didn’t want to drink any more then she already had.

“It’s really easy to get caught up in the moment, because when you’re buzzing really hard, you feel this kind of excitement and people are telling you to take more shots when the voice inside your head is telling you, you’ve had enough,” Jenna said.

Part II: Drinking and Driving

Another important issue that shows like “The Vampire Diaries” fail to ever focus on is the dangers of drinking and driving. If anything, characters are good to drive after any occasion involving alcohol and no real consequences are met. The real issue with drinking and driving is not that teenagers do it to seem cool, or even for the thrill, whatever that may be. But rather, driving when under the influence of alcohol usually comes from impaired judgment, and the invincibility factor that emanates when one is tipsy or drunk.

The majority of teenagers, from some adult figure or another, have been given the ‘alcohol is dangerous’ spiel. They’ve been told that it can impair their judgement and guide them to make bad decisions, and that alcohol is something to stay away from until the legal drinking age.

Both seniors Katelyn and Eric have had their fair share of experience with alcohol at parties with their friends, and find that it is a practice that can be fun when done responsibly.

Unfortunately, alcohol can also lead to less desirable situations. The situations that people can find themselves in after drinking can often be quite dangerous, especially if such dangers catch people unaware like drinking and driving.

“I had one really bad experience with alcohol when I drank too much in a bad place and ended up throwing up in a gutter for an hour in the middle of the night in a sketchy part of Mountain View,” Katelyn said.

That night she didn’t drive and did not have a ride home. She ended up calling her parents to come pick her up in the middle of the night.
 However, parents aren’t always a phone call away. Sometimes teenagers find themselves trying to meet a curfew or just trying to get home. It is not whether one’s parents can come, it is the desire to avoid embarrassment or even punishment that leads to teens to attempting to drive home intoxicated and alone.

“All I could think about was that I had to get home,” Katelyn said. “I had to get my car home, there wasn’t really a moment where I decided to drive home buzzed or not.” Another factor that can lead to teens getting behind the wheel when intoxicated is the feeling of “invincibility” when inebriated.
 It is easy to find oneself behind the wheel under the assumption that it is safe to drive.  On another night, Katelyn found herself trying to drive home after a party.

“In my head, I was sober. The only way to realize I wasn’t totally sober was that later, after I got home, I felt more sober,” Katelyn said. “It’s incredibly hard to convince yourself of how intoxicated you actually are because you forget what it feels like to be sober in a way.”

While not drinking in the first place is obviously the safest option, it seems fairly unlikely that all people will avoid alcohol entirely. There are more than a few reasons why youth drink, and there are also more than a few reasons why teens drink and drive. The fact remains that even when teenagers are aware of the dangers of drinking, teens can still fall victim to them.

“The most important thing is to not be an idiot about it,” Eric said. “Plan ahead so you don’t do stupid things and you will be fine. If you understand what alcohol does to your body and mind and still choose to drink it, then you have to take the risks associated.”

Planning ahead can take very simple forms, such as setting a designated driver for the night or even just waiting it out. American Red Cross’ Safe Ride (1-877-753-RIDE) is a free service run by and for high school students to help teens get home safely after parties. Two-person driving teams pick up teens who call from 10 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. However, if all else fails, it is always better to wait it out before getting behind the wheel.

Part III: Teen Alcoholism

Although it can have humble and innocent beginnings, drinking can have destructive consequences. The Broken Box Theater Company decided to explore the social aspects of teenage alcoholism in their play “The Late Great Me.”

The play, “The Late Great Me” follows the story of Geri, a shy teenage girl, who starts drinking to impress a boy. Eventually, her drinking spirals out of her control.

Binge drinking occurs when someone intentionally becomes intoxicated by heavy consumption of alcohol in a short period of time. According to the National Survey Results on Drug Use, 23 percent of seniors and 16 percent of sophomores binge drink.

“It is something that many people undergo,” senior Sarah Weber, who played Geri, said. “In high school, we all have friends who drink. We may not partake it in ourselves but we’ve seen it around us, and … it’s good to acknowledge, especially in the play. With other plays, they’re much more farcical and this one not at all.”

Representing the high school drinking atmosphere was difficult for Broken Box. The actors erred on the side of caution, making the play especially serious.

“I remember having a conversation about how we couldn’t treat this as a joke,” senior Johnny Henriquez, who played Geri’s boyfriend, said. “A lot of the time when you have to act drunk on stage it’s meant to be funny, but this was a play where it couldn’t be funny because it’s a very serious topic.”

Many audience members who saw the play could identify with at least one of the characters, or with the realistic portrayal of teenage drinking.

“My mom, she talked to me about the show and she was like ‘it’s kind of scary because that is how it starts,’” Sarah said. “The play was realistic in that sense … it always starts at these small moments.”

In “The Late Great Me,” Geri starts drinking as a way to socialize, but becomes dependent on alcohol. The line between when students are becoming dependent on alcohol and when they are just using it as a ‘social lubricant’ can be thin.

“When the weekend’s coming and you’re looking forward to getting drunk instead of going to hang out with friends, instead of having just a good time in general … I think that’s when I think it’s a problem,” Johnny said.

For the members of Broken Box, “The Late Great Me” served as a cautionary tale.

“[The play] definitely made me just be much more cautious, because I know I’m going to drink in my life,” Johnny said. “It definitely showed me how it starts, and how even though everyone thinks that they’re not going to get stuck as an alcoholic. Once it starts though you can’t really stop it.”

Despite Geri’s friends seeing her problem with alcohol, she continually denies its effects on her. The play ends with Geri seeking recovery with someone who has also suffered with alcoholism.

“[Broken Box Director Nancy Moran’s] goal was if at least one person could be helped by doing that show, then it was all worth it,” Johnny said.