Children who drink before the age of 15 are the most vulnerable to alcohol abuse later in life, according to the charity Drink Aware. As part of an LEP series on the issue, STEF HALL speaks to two teenagers whose drinking escalated to alarming levels.
‘Peer pressure was cause of my problem’
As the speeding car rolled over and came to rest there was an eerie silence.
Inside, a 17-year-old boy, who had fallen asleep at the wheel, was semi-conscious.
Zahid* says he knew his drinking had reached dangerous levels when he woke up in a car he had taken without consent, following an accident on Morecambe promenade.
Miraculously he escaped without a scratch - but ended up with a criminal record. It was a turning point that made him face up to his issues with alcohol.
Zahid, who is from a Christian working class family, moved to north Lancashire 10 years ago from his native Zambia with his mum and dad, who are electricians.
He was just nine years old.
Keen to form a new circle of friends and fit in with his peers, he admits he first had an alcoholic drink aged 10 at a party with friends.
He explains: “I had to find new friends when I moved to a new country. I was 10 when I had my first drink, but was not drinking heavily at that age. My parents did not know.
“I got into high school - I would say I was 14 to 15 when the drinking was getting out of hand.
“It was always on a weekend with friends. It’s your own doing because you don’t want to be left out. You want to have a good time. At first we used to have a crate of lager but between a large number of us, so maybe two cans. It was only to get us tipsy.
“I would tell my parents I was staying with a friend, but really I was out drinking.”
By 16 he was drinking up to 15 cans of lager BEFORE he went out drinking with older friends in pubs around Lancaster city centre.
Zahid hid his habits from his parents who he says had strict views on alcohol.
He adds: “At 16 I knew my drinking was not normal. Sometimes I was so drunk I didn’t know where I was. You knew you couldn’t go home because you would get found out.
“I could drink 15 cans before going out and still think I knew what I was doing. My confidence was really high after a drink - you think you can do anything.
“At 17 binge drinking was a constantly occurring routine, I didn’t see it as an addiction.”
But Zahid started to get into trouble with police.
By day he was studying construction at college and playing football as a hobby - but he says in his mind all he could think of was the next weekend.
Things came to a head when he took a friend’s car without consent and crashed it, while under the influence.
He had fallen asleep at the wheel.
When he woke he fled the scene and tried to walk 15 miles home but was later arrested.
He recalls: “ My mum was devastated that I had not thought about other people, and that I had done this to a friend. Drink makes you selfish - if you want to do something you will do it. This area is quiet and there’s not a lot for young people to do. Drinking is a way out of boredom for some young people. It was only when I was in touch with Addaction I realised how much danger I’d been in. I would just say young people yes, drinking seems fun, but there are other ways to have fun. I had been in trouble for criminal damage I’m lucky I had the chance to change - I could have been badly hurt.”
* Names have been changed
‘Alcohol helped me cope with stress’
IT is hard not to warm to Hannah*.
The pretty 17-year-old, with long flowing hair hidden under a bobble hat, is candid and witty.
The intelligent teenager is animated as she tells of her dreams of becoming a counsellor. But her rosy cheeks and smiles mask the stress she suffers which has driven her to drink.
Each day Hannah attends college in Preston. But until recently, she spent most nights alone in her room drinking a bottle of vodka or lager in a bid to cope with her feelings.
At her lowest ebb she was consuming up to three bottles of vodka and 21 cans of lager a week - a colossal 116 units, which is nearly EIGHT times more than the levels recommended by health chiefs.
Unknown to her parents, for the last few months she has been having support sessions from a charity that helps young people with alcohol problems.
Hannah, from Preston, is currently being helped by Young Addaction based at the Urban Exchange on Mount Street.
Her first alcoholic drink was at home, aged 13, while her mum and dad were in but did not know.
She recalls: “I think I started because I had seen other people drinking. My friends were older and had access to alcohol.
“We used to go to the woods or the park.”
At first Hannah’s parents grounded her when she arrived home drunk.
But as she reached the age of 16, her mother relented and allowed her to drink what she believed was a small amount.
But, away from the watchful eye of her parents, Hannah would go to one of the newsagents she knew sold to underage kids. While her friends would be “merry”, Hannah was “wasted.”
She says: “I realised my drinking was a problem when my friends were only drinking at weekends and I was drinking in the week on my own at home. My body got used to it, though I got the occasional hangover.
“I used alcohol as a way of coping with stress, I found college stressful.”
She became disruptive at college and after having a chat with her teachers, during which she admitted how much she was drinking, they advised her to contact Addaction.
It was a big step forward.
She said: “It has helped me because I realise what I was drinking isn’t right. Sometimes I felt like I needed a drink and craved it.”
Hannah still drinks but has managed to cut down her drinking slowly.
England’s Chief Medical Officer has said children aged under 15 should never be given alcohol, even in small quantities.
Yet it is legal for parents to give a child over five alcohol in the home, leaving mums and dads conflicted.
Lou Walmsley, who has worked with Addaction for two years, says: “In soaps, and in real life, people generate towards pubs and alcohol, in times of celebration, loss, trauma, Drinking is seen as normal.
“Parents are stuck between a rock and a hard place.
“These days we see very few people drinking on the streets. We sometimes see groups of children drinking in a home and there is also a trend of people hanging around with older friends who are able to buy alcohol
“One girl aged 15 I spoke to was regularly drinking with her mum who used alcohol and drugs.
“We often find young people don’t realise the difference between types of alcohol and its strengths - they buy white cider because its cheaper without realising it is far stronger. Just half an alcopop can affect a child who has not drunk alcohol before.”