Causes of Teen Alcoholism
Why can one person drink and never have to worry about developing the disease called alcoholism, while another person is in jeopardy by merely taking one sip, what causes alcoholism in one person and not another? Like the onset of many other diseases, alcoholism may afflict one person and not another because of individual factors or circumstances.
A Story of Teen Alcoholism: So Crazy, So Fast
By Ned Wicker
I really don’t think “Amanda” knew what hit her. She was in the hospital because of a pancreatitis flare-up, but her pancreatitis was not the underlying issue in her life. Her alcoholism was.
For those of you not familiar with pancreatitis, it’s painful, debilitating and sometimes chronic condition, which according to the Mayo Clinic’s web site, “requires immediate medical treatment and hospitalization during an attack.” Here’s the bottom line, however, 80 percent of pancreatitis is caused by alcohol and gallstones.
Pancreatic enzymes work in digesting food, but they are supposed to be triggered in the small intestine. But when these enzymes are triggered in pancreas they cause pancreatitis. In chronic pancreatitis, alcohol is the single most common cause. The Mayo Clinic explains that it’s characterized by upper abdominal pain which radiates into back pain.
The abdominal and back pain get worse after eating, and the person can have nausea, vomiting and an abdomen that is sore to the touch. In chronic cases, and remember these are most commonly caused by alcohol, there is also indigestion, unexplained weight loss and steatorrhea (oily stools).
A Frequent Flyer
Amanda needed to be in the hospital and her flare-up this time was particularly bad. She had developed the disease over the last 12-18 months and this was her third hospitalization. She was open about her pancreatitis and the discomfort and inconvenience it brought into her life, but she fell short of actually talking about what was causing it. Amanda is an alcoholic and the doctors have spoken to her about her drinking, about the connection between alcohol and her disease and they have tried to get her into treatment.
Here’s the kicker—Amanda is only 19 years-old. She admits to being a “drinker,” but swears she is not an alcoholic. She admits to starting when she was 15. She attributes the pancreatic episode to something she must have eaten. My encounter with her was rather brief, but there was enough time to at least get a sense of her and what was going on. A few things come to mind.
Emotional pain not physical pain was the culprit
Given all of the factors that can contribute to alcoholism, I saw a couple of things that seemed to be screaming out, but sadly were being silenced. She hurt, not so much from the obvious discomfort of pancreatitis, but from something much deeper. It’s that kind of emotional pain that never goes away and her way of dealing with it was to numb it. She told me she could control her drinking and that she could quit any time she wanted to, but that’s pretty much the standard answer from alcoholics in denial of their disease. Without treatment, Amanda has had no help in dealing with the pain and processing the events of her life.
While we were talking I was reminded of what I learned from Flo Hilliard, a faculty assistant at the University of Wisconsin’s Department of Continuing Studies, who explained to a group of chaplains, nurses and social workers that gender-specific treatment is necessary because a female needs to open up and confide in another female. This resonated with me, because as a chaplain, I may meet with a female patient/client once, but if any long-term relationship is required, I do not hesitate to make the referral to a female chaplain/pastor. While it is true that I got a sense of her, and I suppose to a very great extend could understand her, she needed a woman to hear her story. Likewise a man is not necessarily going to open up to a female the same way he would a male.
Back in AGAIN!
Denial is so powerful. Here she was in the hospital again, the doctors were telling her the pancreatitis was caused by the drinking, and still she denied having a problem. Her family was also involved and concerned, and nobody could understand how things got so crazy so fast in the life of such a young person. But the disease of alcoholism doesn’t care about age, and given the early age at which she began drinking the likelihood of her developing the disease was far greater than it would have been had she waited until she was 21 to take that first drink.
It’s hard to get your hands around the reasoning behind destructive behavior, but if you look at it in the context of a diseased mind trying to find pain relief, there is at least a root cause that you can focus on. That’s really the key. Bring the pain out into the open and let the light of day shine on it. That’s what treatment is about. Amanda can beat this. The help is ready and waiting. She just has to allow it.
Other causes of alcoholism in teens are that alcohol alters the balance of some brain chemicals. For example, gamma-aninobutyric acid (GABA) controls impulsive actions, but under the influence of alcohol, that function is decreased. Another chemical is glutamate which stimulates the central nervous system. Alcohol alters the levels of dopamine, which contributes to the pleasurable “click” that people with the disease experience when taking the first drink. When the brain chemistry is changed, the body begins to crave alcohol, thus more and more drug is needed to “feel good.” This is another of the causes of alcoholism in teens.
Trying to feel better or even good
People naturally want to feel good, and when something makes you feel good, such as taking a drink, it’s understandable you will want to repeat the experience. That's where teen alcoholism starts. That “click” should be a clear signal for potential problems, but often with teen alcoholism they ignore those signs. The disease progresses as alcohol changes brain chemistry. When brain chemicals are increased or decreased, the body craves more and more alcohol. The body “needs” the alcohol to feel good. Teen alcoholism has set in.
What risk factors cause teen alcoholism
There are several possible Causes of teen alcoholism and risk factors for the disease. The individual is the determining factor when assessing risk of contracting the disease. One or more of these causes/risk factors can indicate the presence of alcohol abuse or addiction.
Genetic: If your parents or grandparents were addicted to alcohol, the chances are strong that you will be vulnerable to the disease. Healthcare professionals will take a family history to look for risk factors for many diseases. Teen alcoholism is no different. Children of alcoholics will not necessarily become alcoholics themselves, but the medical history indicates a possibility.
Emotional Makeup: People may use alcohol to block the pain in the life. Alcohol is used as a coping device and there are certain stress hormones that may contribute to the progression of the disease. Teen alcoholism is really effected by hormones too.
Psychological: People suffering from depression or low self-esteem may be more likely to develop a drinking problem, low self-esteem is a leading reason for alcoholism. They are more likely to try to “fit in” with their friends, who “enable” the problem to continue.
Social: Alcohol is legal, readily available and drinking is socially acceptable. Alcohol is promoted heavily in the media, and having a few beers before, during and after a sporting event is part of American culture. There is a peer pressure to drink, to be a part of the crowd.
Frequency: Drinking alcohol regularly can cause alcoholism. People who drink regularly over time may be at risk of developing a physical dependence on alcohol. If studies show that one/two drinks per day for the average person (15 per week for men, 12 per week for women) is within safe limits, then it follows that going beyond that limit can produce problems.
Age: Young people are at greater risk of developing alcoholism, especially if they start drinking by age 16 or sooner.
Gender: Men are more likely to develop the disease than women.
If a teen has risk factors at play, that does not mean they are automatically going to develop the disease; it is not necessarily a causes of teen alcoholism. It is possible, likewise, for a person with no risk factors at all, no family history, to develop the disease. It is important for people to know the risk factors and the causes of the disease to avoid getting into trouble with alcohol.