Bingeing Youths are not the Issue


I’m thinking many years back now. It’s my post-HSC muck-up day, and the Year 12 class of my respectable, middle-class State high school has taken over Sydney’s Warriewood beach. There’s a couple of hundred of us, and we’re armed with enough alcohol and weed, just, for Hunter S Thompson’s breakfast.

By dawn, the scene like Hieronymous Bosch‘s take on Dunkirk. The beach is littered with bodies. Most lay still, some twitch occasionally, or roll over to throw up their last on their towel, the person next to them, or on the sand, much of which is now soaked in a sticky mix of booze and bile.

A young man edges out of the toilet block. Coming to a halt, he leans against the brick wall in an effort to stabilise his wobbly boots. But no, his knees give way and he crumples, bottle in hand, like Robert Capa’s falling soldier, rolling down the grassy verge and over the low retaining wall with a fleshy splat on to the rough tarmac of the car park. The bottle flies from his hand and smashes somewhere nearby. There he stays, and no one cares because no one’s sober enough to.

Zoom out a bit. See a solitary figure sitting up on the south-end headland, removed from the gross vulgarity of all below. Ask him what his thoughts are and you’ll have to inject him with a special serum to get the truth – which is that he’s feeling utterly disconnected from all that humanity on the beach, who’ve spent the night having so much fun, even if they are paying the price now. And while he has a bottle of something with him, from which he sips steadily, he’s not particularly drunk. He imbibes evenly, just enough to take the edge off.

Most of those bodies on the beach came to, hosed themselves down, collected their HSC and sallied forth into life. An education, a trade, a job. Love. Career. Marriage. Loss. Mortgage stress. Children. Changes in direction. Renovation. Acceleration. Deceleration. Fluctuation on an upward curve. Along the way, as their core solidified into an identity and a sense of place in the world, alcohol lost its importance. By the time many were in their thirties, anything more than a glass or two was but a memory. Pot, too, fades into history for most of us as we ripen.

Of course, no such group of a couple of hundred kids escapes untouched by the mortal scythe. Several of that crowd went by way of road accident. A couple were taken by cancer and the like. Someone’s supercool boyfriend from another school went to Bangkok for an affordable repair job on his heroin-ravaged teeth but rediscovered affordable heroin and came home in the hold of a 747.

Having completed the exercise in bewilderment that was fitting in at school, our loner descended from the headland, got on the bus home with the others and embarked on the seemingly insurmountable task of fitting in with the rest of humanity. To him, it was as if everyone else had some knack for living that somehow eluded him. It took its toll at school – you’re weird, mate – and at home – God, you’re so aimless.

In the absence of the real thing, he tried his best to emulate the knack. Sometimes he pulled it off. Mostly he just botched it – you’re such a tryhard, mate… yeh bullshitter. For some such kids, the mere business of living in their own skin is intrinsically painful. It’s a pain from which there’s no escape. Wherever they go, they take themselves.

Until… they pick up a drink. Which was what he did, many times every day from the moment he left school, for a decade and a half. In the course of roughly 5200 days, you could count on one hand with fingers to spare the days on which he didn’t end up with a skinful (there were a fair few such days before he left school, too). It was his reward for surviving the sensory assault of another day’s life in a hostile universe. It lubricated celebration. It salved a grazed heart. It cured guts aches and flu, anger and panic attacks. When you’re born a couple of drinks short of normal, a couple of drinks is what it takes to ease you into the way most people feel without a couple of drinks: normal. Okay. After that, every drink’s a bonus, an entrée into the realms of the kick-arse supernormal.

This is why the whole ‘drink responsibly’ agenda is bunkum: because for that small percentage of the population, responsibility dissolves in the first drink. Most teenagers are 10 feet tall and bulletproof. This little lot, lubed up, are 30 feet tall and nukeproof. The guy on the headland happily drove drunk virtually every night of the week for more than a decade.

For those working on curbing teen drinking, this is where the real problem lies: with that limited number of people who seriously can’t drink. They’re the ones who find, normally in their teen years – when we’re all at our most vulnerable to such promises – an instant solution to problems of identity, sexuality and the like. Crack a can of creativity. A magnum of personality in every glass.

Take our man on the headland. It’s the ones like him who, decades later, clog our hospitals with pancreatitis and cirrhosis; our psych wards with all manner of psychoses and delusional behaviour and denial, and our post-psych wards with wet brains.

Here and there, one or two land on their backsides hard enough for their minds to crack open. They go through detox units and rehabs and to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and an even smaller subgroup of them walk free of the clutches of alcohol for any length of time. And then only subject to the right conspiracy of circumstance and intuition.

Because once they lose their impulse control in the face of a drink and slide into the territory of regular blackouts or hospitalisation, their chances of scrabbling back out are very, very slim indeed. A few lucky ones will rise to the challenge inherent in that statement. And they’ll only succeed for as long as they remember there’s no cure for what they’ve got, and that it’s the first drink that does the damage.

Our man on the headland got lucky. But his luck will only last until the day he starts taking it for granted. No rolled gold guarantees there. Day at a time and all that. For him, there’s no such thing as responsible drinking. There’s no such thing as "one or two drinks". When you’re in it, the pain of not being drunk will fuel that drive for the first drink. That’s the one in which responsibility dissolves. Thereafter, something takes place in their central nervous system that drive them to the second, the third… I know all this, because that loner on the headland was me.

Rubbing teenage noses in reality will work for that huge majority in the way that preaching to the converted always does. In its own time. But that doesn’t work on people who’ve discovered a way to make reality optional. For them, perhaps the only viable strategy is to make sure they don’t kill themselves or anyone else and hope that one day they get a tap on the shoulder from forces far more powerful than any government.

Low-key loners might be campus massacres in the making or nothing more than short-term emos. Nick D’Arcy might be nothing more than a two-pot screamer. While they’re discovering whether they’re alcoholic or not, kids like him might kill themselves and others. Or they might simply get away with it and grow out of it.

But this serves only to extend the scope of the problem. Particularly for youngsters who’ve yet to accrue the necessary drinking experience to gauge their true reaction to the stuff and to process it into insight.

Australia’s modern foundations are drenched in alcohol, just as America’s are planted firmly in gunpowder. There are plenty of obvious parallels there. Probably with solutions to match, if only it were the problem we were really trying to fix, and with long term solutions.

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