Alcoholism is a disease that can strike at any age. Two 20-somethings share their stories of sobriety.
By Hilary Abrahamson
The last time 22-year-old Olivia Parker* drank was Sept. 22, 2012. She came to consciousness in the back of an ambulance just after midnight with missing teeth, a banged up face and a blood alcohol content (BAC) of over .30. A BAC between .40 and .50 is usually lethal.
“Have you ever heard the phrase, ‘One is too many, but a thousand is never enough?’” Parker said. “You have one drink and you can’t stop, but a thousand would never be enough. It sounds crazy, but it’s how I was living.”
For the majority of young adults, their 20s is the first time they truly experience independent decision making. It’s the age when most people attend college, enter the working world and take on new social and legal responsibilities. It’s also a time of experimentation and celebration, newfound freedom and reaching the legal drinking age.
Nearly 4 out of 5 college students drink, and about half of those who do drink participate in binge drinking. Most people who drink excessively are not alcohol dependent, but for over 18 million Americans who are alcoholics, this kind of behavior can trigger a devastating addiction.
“It’s a disease that doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t care about age, race, gender, your income.” Parker said.
Parker began drinking alcohol in high school, but never imagined that her fun-loving lifestyle would escalate into full-blown alcoholism by the time she reached college. Parker’s father is an alcoholic who has been in recovery for 36 years. Even though Parker knew the disease was hereditary, realizing she had a problem with drinking was difficult to grasp.
“That’s just what I thought college was,” Parker said.
In February 2012, Parker’s mom began noticing signs of alcoholism and had Parker evaluated when she was visiting home in Minnesota. They advised outpatient treatment, but Parker denied the issue in every way possible. Parker returned to school and promised her mom she would stay sober for six months. She didn’t last a week.
Parker tried switching her poison — drinking water in between shots, only drinking mixed drinks — typical practices alcoholics try before coming to the conclusion they can’t stop and don’t want to.
It wasn’t until Parker returned home again after being released from the hospital in September that her mother had her admitted into a treatment center. She returned home the next day to get cleaned up; to get her teeth fixed and heal her face. To her surprise, that Monday morning brought her worst nightmare, which she now says is the best thing her mom ever did for her: calling a treatment center and reserving a bed.
“Tough love was what I needed. I was a stubborn bitch who thought life without partying was unrealistic,” Parker said.
Parker withdrew from her senior year of college and completed a month of inpatient alcohol treatment, followed by two weeks of outpatient therapy and two and a half months of after-care.
And then she went back to school — sober.
“You don’t realize how much college is surrounded around drinking until you’re sober,” Parker said. “That’s how people make friends, that’s how people keep them and I couldn’t do that anymore and it was terrifying to me.”
Between sororities, fraternities, alumni events, house parties and meeting up for drinks, alcohol can play a major role in the way students on college campuses socialize. In a 2011 study by the CORE Institute, over 52.4 percent of students surveyed felt that the social atmosphere on their college campus contributes to alcohol consumption.
“When I went to college, it just became easier,” said 27-year-old Gregg Van Wyk. “I didn’t have to worry about my parents or about coming home drunk.”
Today, Van Wyk has been sober for over 600 days. Like Parker, Van Wyk began drinking in high school, but he didn’t realize he was an alcoholic until he had finished college and entered the workforce.
“At first I was like, how could people do that? How could people drink on work nights?” Van Wyk said. “Then I started doing it and I was like, oh, it’s not that bad.”
At 25, Van Wyk was charged with his third operating while intoxicated (OWI) violation. He had gotten two previously at 18 and 20, and his third offense required a jail sentence.
“I had to spend seven days in there, and the night before we had a hellacious party at my house. That wasn’t going to stop me; that didn’t stop me,” Van Wyk said. “The first thing I did when I got out of jail was go to the bar to celebrate.”
For Van Wyk, the desire for somebody to tell him to go to rehab constantly circled his mind. He knew that for some reason he wouldn’t do it on his own. He needed that outside push to check himself in.
But on July 16, 2012, Van Wyk made the choice for himself and he took some time off from drinking.
“A week turned into two weeks, two weeks turned into a month, and I said, ‘If I can go a month, maybe I can go two months. And plus, if I take some time off, it will be cheaper for me to get drunk whenever I start drinking again,’” Van Wyk said. “Two months turned into six months, and next thing I know its been a year. Now I’m at 650 days or so. I just keep setting goals. Now it’s 1,000 days.”
The path to sobriety at such a young age is different for everyone. For Parker, her recovery required the help of 12-step programs and a complete overhaul of her life. In the beginning of her sobriety, she moved into her own apartment to avoid the temptations of social drinking. Today she works for a startup on the West Coast, where she lives with two roommates who drink. Even though she’s reached a place where she is secure in her recovery, she still fields questions constantly from people who don’t understand her disease.
“It’s been hard at my age because everyone expects that you’ve either started to drink or you’ve been drinking for a while,” Parker said. “Nobody expects to hear that you’re sober at 22.”
Van Wyk is still able to be around his old friends and can even hang out at bars without the fear of giving into old habits. He finds solace now in sharing his story with others; He has been a speaker at one alcohol awareness presentation and hopes to do more in the future.
“I know a lot about getting drunk, but I don’t know a lot about being sober,” Van Wyk said. “I’m still trying to learn to live with this, even a year and a half later.”
*Name has been changed.
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