Editor’s note: Lee Benner shared the following story at town hall meetings in Clancy and Boulder on Oct. 24 and Oct. 29, respectively. The meetings, organized by Jefferson County Prevention Specialist and DUI Task Force Coordinator Barb Reiter, focused on the challenges facing youth today. These are Benner’s speaking notes, which have been lightly edited.
My husband and I lost our son, Corey, to alcoholism a year and a half ago. Alcoholism isn’t selective on who it kills. Corey, who was 33 when he died, started drinking alcohol in his teens. He was incredibly unique and talented. He lived in Belgrade, was married, owned a beautiful new home, and worked at his dream job building and customizing vehicles. He had everything going for him but lost it all.
Corey was one of two sons my husband and I raised. We enjoyed a wholesome, middle-class life with our sons at the center. I was a stay-at-home mom until the boys neared middle school. They played sports. They built and flew radio-control airplanes, sang in the church youth choir, and played in the school band. They had two sets of adoring grandparents who spoiled them. We took them rafting, backpacking, four-wheeling and hunting. Sounds like a fulfilling childhood, right?
Alcoholism is progressive. For Corey it started in his teens with beer parties with his friends, then progressed to the hard stuff drunk with coworkers in adulthood. He told us he knew he was in trouble when his hangovers turned into life-threatening, seizure-like withdrawal symptoms.
Corey said he wished he would have stopped drinking before it got to that point but couldn’t. Alcohol got a grip on him. It poisoned his brain and his body. He suffered with pancreatitis, anxiety, liver disease and depression. Alcohol changed his personality to the point that near the end of his life we barely recognized our own son.
Corey expertly hid his drinking. He lived such a secret life we had no idea he had been drinking since high school. Even his wife didn’t know he had a problem. He was in the grandest state of denial until he could hide it no longer. A couple of years before his death he became so sick and chemically dependent on alcohol that we finally figured it out, and all the pieces started to fit together.
At the time, I knew nothing about alcoholism. I was naïve. I didn’t grow up around it, and my husband and I didn’t drink. We were in the dark. I wish I would have been informed on underage drinking and what to look for so we could have seen the warning signs that our son was heading down that awful road.
I can say we missed some of those warning signs. Once my husband and I went out of town and found evidence of a “party” at our home when we returned. Corey swore it never happened. There was the time he drove off the road late at night and rolled his car in a ditch. We were so involved in rescuing his car that I never thought to question if he had been drinking. Our son wouldn’t do that, right?
I suppose I trusted Corey when he would go out with friends and didn’t think to warn him about the dangers of underage drinking. My goal in life is now to tell my story and hopefully save a life.
During the last year of Corey’s life, after his wife left him, he lived with us much of the time. We tried to convince him to stop drinking. We pleaded, we cried, we begged, we told him how much we loved him. All to no avail. He spent two stints in rehab, time in jail, and received two DUIs. But despite his willpower he couldn’t quit.
One night after binge drinking, he fell and hit his head in his home. We found him dead. The coroner said he suffered a fractured skull and a brain bleed, an ugly end to a beautiful person. My life will never be the same.
I have seen alcoholism described as “a chronic, progressive disease, genetically predisposed and fatal if not treated.’’ That’s the scary part, I say when I speak in schools. No one knows if they are genetically prone to becoming an alcoholic until it’s too late. I beg kids not to start drinking or if they do, to stop. Why take a chance and gamble with their lives, I ask.
Alcohol is the most widely used substance among American teens, among whom the average age for the first drink is only fourteen. More teens are killed by alcohol-related events than all other illegal drugs combined. Those who begin drinking before age fifteen are four times more likely to develop alcoholism than those who begin at age 21.
Teens experiment with alcohol for many reasons: seeing their parents drink; wanting to exert their independence or to self-medicate; lacking confidence; succumbing to peer pressure or even boredom. Forty percent of teens don’t recognize the dangers of alcohol, and we adults need to do something about that!
Parents hold a tremendous influence on whether or not their child decides to drink. Be clear that you disapprove of underage drinking. Find opportunities to discuss the dangers of alcohol with your child. And know the risks: 90% of underage drinking takes the form of binge drinking, and young people ages 12 to 20 drink 11% of all alcohol consumed in the U.S. Drinking impairs judgement that leads to poor decisions and risky behaviors. Each year over 4,000 young people across the country die as a result of underage drinking, whether due to car crashes, homicides, alcohol poisoning, falls, burns, drowning or suicide. The structure and function of teens’ brains are more vulnerable to alcohol because their brains are still developing. Underage drinking increases the risk of alcohol problems later in life.
Parents, if you drink, model responsible drinking behavior. Show your kids how to celebrate, play and relax without alcohol. Supervise parties in your home and know where your child is socializing. Communicate your expectations and rules when your teen goes out. Let them know that they can call you to be picked up if they get into a risky situation. Calmly communicate with your kids, ask questions, and let them know they’re being heard. Discuss the negative effects of alcohol in terms of mental and physical health.
If your family history includes addiction, your child has a much greater risk of inheriting the gene. Keep an eye on your kids. Warning signs of teen alcohol use include dilated pupils, difficulty focusing, a flushed face, mood changes, being loud and obnoxious, being unusually tired, driving recklessly, being secretive, getting in past curfew, and using incense or other smells to mask alcohol. Search their rooms, for kids can be creative when hiding their alcohol. And don’t overlook their cell phones. Social media posts can hint at alcohol use.
If you discover your child is using alcohol, start talking. Set rules and enforce them. If something appears wrong, take action. Alcoholism is a disease just like diabetes, and 90% of addictions start in the teen years. A child with a psychiatric condition like depression, anxiety or ADHD is at increased risk for alcohol problems. Kids with difficulty regulating thoughts or emotions or controlling impulses, or who take risks or have a history of trauma, are also at a greater risk.
Remember, your child’s addiction can grow before your eyes. Is their personality changing? Do they use gum or mints to cover up their breath? Are they getting in late, avoiding eye contact, being secretive or unmotivated or losing interest in favorite activities?
Parents should prepare to take action. Gather evidence and prepare yourself for the conversation ahead. Expect to be called a hypocrite or lied to. Talk to a counselor or specialist for a personalized course of action or treatment. There are many sources of help available. Finally, don’t yell or punish, have open dialogue, and above all, show your child love!
We adults need to do all we can to curb underage drinking. Communicate with young people and get involved in their lives. Together we can make a difference and save lives!
Lee Benner is a retired teacher and coach at Clancy Elementary School and has lived in Montana for 23 years.