True rite of passage because we knew no different
Was it ever any different? It certainly wasn't 20 years ago when falling over drunk and getting sick was as much a part of growing up as it is now, writes Liz Kearney
Published 12/01/2014 | 02:30
Our first reaction on hearing about teenagers as young as 14 getting drunk is usually one of horrified moral panic.
But moral panic is often infused with collective amnesia. Because ask yourself this: were you really an angel when you were a teen?
When I was a teenager 20 years ago, our social lives revolved around regular and extremely popular alcohol-free junior discos held in the function rooms of south county Dublin.
To warm up for the night, we liked to go 'knacker drinking' -- that obnoxious phrase -- on the greens and fields of Foxrock, Stillorgan or Shankill, before hopping on the bus and feigning sobriety for the benefit of the doormen.
Drink was never difficult to get hold of. Someone would brave the off-licence with a good fake ID, or get an older brother or sister to do the honours. If that failed, there was usually a well-stocked parental drinks cabinet to raid.
The boys swilled cans of lager, the girls sipped from naggins of vodka, which they then stashed in handbags and added to their diet cokes once inside the disco.
Those nights were filled with excitement at mixing with kids from other schools and maybe, if things went exceptionally well, having a quick word with the handsome captain of the Junior Cup team.
There was the delicious thrill of freedom from strict parents and boring teachers, but there was anxiety, too, brought on by flirting with a drug, alcohol, which we didn't know how to use or respect.
By 15, we knew a bit more. We knew that hospitals used charcoal when you had your stomach pumped. We knew if someone was throwing up, you couldn't let them go to sleep lest they choked on their own vomit. We knew that beer was a safer bet than spirits if you wanted to remain upright.
One night at a junior disco, I watched as one drunk girl laughed hysterically when she'd cut her hand on a chipped ceramic sink. As the blood pooled with alarming speed on the bathroom floor, her laughter turned to frightened tears.
She was quickly removed and taken to hospital by one of the adult organisers. On other occasions, unconscious teens were removed by ambulance.
Little has changed in 20 years, except for the clothes. In the early 1990s, the preppy girls wore smart blazers and Levi 501s. And yet, the modest dress didn't always translate into modest behaviour.
That teenagers are a mass of unpredictable hormones is hardly a by-product of X Factor inspired hot-pants.
So how worried should we really be that our teenagers are experimenting with alcohol? After all, those same boys and girls who were occasionally found passed out in the toilets are now, for the most part, happy, healthy adults with successful careers as lawyers and doctors and teachers and bank workers. From the safe haven of our mid-30s, we can look back and say smugly: sure, it never did us any harm.
But that won't comfort the unfortunate parent whose son or daughter has a devastating drink-related accident, or an alcohol-fuelled sexual experience which scars them psychologically. While we might have normalised drinking culture across the generations here, elsewhere, they have a different approach.
When I was 16, I spent a summer with a family in the heart of the French Medoc, home of the world's most famous wines.
In the evenings, we'd meet up at someone's house where the French teenagers would drink a couple of glasses of beer or wine over several hours.
Their Irish counterparts, of course, drank more -- and inevitably, it was one of our group who drank so much that she was sick in the car on the way home one night.
Later, I spent a summer working in Chicago, where the relentless partying among the Irish students was the source of much amazement to the American girls who lived upstairs.
In turn, we dismissed the Americans as kind of square.
Being abroad proved to me that our teenage drinking wasn't fuelled by just youthful exuberance, but by a societal diktat that said that drinking was the best way to have the craic -- something we'd learnt from our own parents, not from our schoolfriends.