Blind drunk at sweet 16
The phone rang. It was a garda, calling to tell us they had our lovely, intelligent, legless daughter at the station, says Claudia Kerr
Honest to God, I thought he was joking. I was in bed with a book when the phone rang, just after 11pm one Saturday. The caller identified himself as a member of the Garda Siochana. They had our 16-year-old daughter, he said flatly. She was drunk. Very drunk. He needed us to come to the station and get her. As soon as possible.
I called my husband, who had been dozing downstairs, waiting until midnight to collect our daughter from the local disco. We stared at each other in mutual incomprehension. None of it made sense.
At the garda station, we were shown to a small, brightly lit room while they went to get our daughter, whose frantic sobs could be heard throughout the building. She was helped into the room by a burly policeman.
My child was virtually unrecognisable from the striking, auburn-haired beauty who'd pecked a light-hearted goodbye on my cheek at 9.30pm. Rivulets of mascara and make-up streaked a putty-white face. Her hair was a tangled mass of vomit. Patches of it stained her light jacket, top and skirt. She was barefoot and hardly able to walk. Her tights and bag were gone.
A garda wearing plastic gloves entered the room -- we learned afterwards they'd had to mop up a large amount of vomit that our child had spewed on the floor of the station. The garda was carrying a pair of extremely high-heeled and slightly battered reddish shoes, which I had never seem before.
I said they weren't my daughter's. The gardai shrugged. She'd been wearing them when the patrol car picked her up, said one, but was unable to walk in them.
My daughter wept and apologised. She said she wished she was dead. She wailed that she's let us down. She was really sorry, she cried. Shocked into stillness by the sight of her, I said nothing. Her father was speechless. It had taken just 90 minutes to shatter a trust built up over 16 years.
A garda told us what little they knew of the events of her evening. We apologised profusely. We'd only dropped her off at the disco at 9.30pm, we said, bewildered. They nodded noncommittally. I got the feeling that they'd heard it all before. Of course they had -- a survey published last year showed that nearly half of all Irish 15 to 16-year-olds reported being drunk in the previous 12 months and that three-quarters of them had consumed alcohol. Ireland has one of the highest rates of drunkenness among school students, according to the European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs.
But surely not my daughter. Not my daughter, who comes from a decent home where there's no drink or pub culture; the kind of home where the occasional bottle of wine is produced to accompany a nice weekend meal or when people come to dinner -- or on special occasions like Christmas.
Not my daughter, who seemed so mature when we discussed the issue of teenage binge-drinking, who assured me she thought it was "stupid", and insisted she had no interest in alcohol or the loss of control it brought.
But as a garda stepped forward and handed me my daughter's phone and the €10 note I'd given her for the disco entrance fee, I realised she'd never gone to that disco. And, probably, had never intended to go.
My husband and another garda helped my bawling, staggering, shoe-less daughter into the car. We got her to bed and, afraid to leave her alone, I got in with her, a basin close to hand, listening as she twisted and turned, sobbing to herself. She eventually slept.
I rose early after a sleepless night. I vacuumed the house. My husband rose early too, and worked in the garden. Around lunchtime, our daughter stirred. After a while, she called out that she had a terrible headache and was thirsty. "Mum," she said. "Can you bring me some water?"
"Get it yourself," I told her.
Eventually, my daughter was forced to come out of her room. She was green in the face. Her hair was crusted with dried vomit. She stank of sweat and stale booze. She moaned as she staggered down the stairs, holding on to the banisters. The water made her feel sick she said. I shrugged.
Late that afternoon, we all had a long talk. Initially, she lied and lied and lied, repeating she didn't remember anything, but when we revealed that we'd spoken to her friends' parents, she spilled the beans.
All the others had been doing it for ages. Everyone her age drank, she said defiantly. Everyone. She was tired of being the odd one out. She'd removed her tights because her friends had bare legs. She'd borrowed the red shoes because they were nicer than her own, and she drank because she was offered it. It was stupid. She wouldn't do it again.
We revealed that the gardai wanted to see her again that evening. She tried vainly to hide her terror. In the station, the policeman bluntly explained that under-age drinking was illegal. He outlined the implications for her should she do it again.
Then, she was brought to a prison cell and shown where she could end up if she didn't get her act together. He suggested she meet up with a juvenile liaison officer to hammer home the message. We accepted. Some weeks later, she met the liaison officer
Since then, she has refused to discuss the events of that night. She was very quiet for a few weeks, but we're still unsure if the message really got through. She's had a bad fright, but as she's 16 and living in a society where under-age drinking and binge-drinking is seen as a rite of passage, it's uncertain whether one awful experience will be enough to discourage her completely.
We naively assumed that a warm, supportive and loving family environment and good role models in ordinary, hard-working parents with sensible values, was sufficient against the monumental pull of peer pressure. We were wrong.
We don't necessarily believe her now when she says she wishes to join her friends at the cinema, the disco, or in their favourite Chinese restaurant. We know we'll have to come to terms with this eventually, but for the time being we don't trust her, and her socialising has been severely curtailed.
What we have discovered since then is that everybody has a story. There's a crisis in youth drinking in this country and whether you're aware of it or not, it's impinging on your child.
So what do you do if, as in our case, the issue of teenage binge-drinking crashes into your home late some Saturday night?
Once you smell alcohol on your child, delay any confrontation until the following day. That's according to family psychologist Mike Power, who's met lots of parents like us. Get the story, he says, and make sure to communicate the seriousness of the issue.
He recommends negotiation around the suspension of privileges. Try not to alienate your teenager. Keep communication flowing and, above all, don't make threats you can't follow up. Sanctions only have limited effect.
Consider contacting the parents of your child's drinking buddies. "If you contact other parents, you will find others are suffering silently with the same issues," he says.
And above all, don't cave in to guilt. "Under-age drinking is a matter of personal choice and they must endure the consequences," he says. "More intractable cases may require professional help, such as the Aislinn Centre in Kilkenny for youngsters with drug and alcohol problems."
Hopefully for us things will never get that far. But how can we know for sure?