It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. Christina Shamerger Volkmann had given up her teaching career to stay home with her three sons, to volunteer in their schools, to attend their numerous sporting events, to get to know their friends. To be there for them in their early years so she could confidently send them off as responsible adults headed for success. And it seemed to be working.
In the fall of 2003, with one son in graduate school, another embarked on a promising career, and Toren, her youngest, six months into a Peace Corps assignment in South America, Volkmann figured the hard part was over.
But it all fell apart, or seemed to, on September 22, when Toren called to say he’d been removed from his Peace Corps assignment and was about to enter an alcohol rehabilitation program in Washington, D.C.
In Our Drink: Detoxing the Perfect Family, Chris Volkmann ’70 and Toren take turns describing and trying to understand how a young man who had everything going for him—especially loving, involved parents who tried their best to set limits and impose consequences—became an alcoholic, most likely before he even graduated from college.
As the Volkmanns came to realize, Toren’s experience is not unique. While college-age drinking is much in the news, it is clear from growing research evidence that alcohol abuse often starts in high school, or even junior high.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that an estimated 1.5 million youth aged 12 through 17 met criteria for admission to alcohol treatment programs in 2002. Specifically, SAMHSA reports that in 2002, two million youth aged 12 through 20 consumed five or more drinks on one occasion at least five times a month.
According to studies by Henry Wechsler of Harvard University, about 44 percent of college students across the country are binge drinkers, defined as male students who consume five or more drinks or female students who consume four or more drinks per occasion.
John Miller, associate director of health promotion at Washington State University, says the definition of binge drinking is somewhat controversial, because there are so many variables. If a 200-pound male drinks five beers over the course of a gathering that lasts five or six hours, with a meal included, he won’t necessarily become intoxicated. Instead, Miller says, health professionals at WSU prefer to talk about “high-risk drinking.” That, he says, means any drinking that impairs a person’s judgment and causes him or her to make unsafe choices.
Miller says the rate of heavy drinking at WSU is far below the national college average, but any high-risk drinking is a concern. The consequences are immense, ranging from property damage and lowered academic achievement to assault, rape, and an estimated 1,400 deaths nationwide each year, mostly from motor vehicle crashes.
Miller and colleague Jeanne Far were co-principal investigators on a study funded by the U.S. Department of Education that looked at effective alcohol abuse prevention programs, including social norms theory.
Social norms theory is the idea that behavior is significantly influenced by the perception of what other people are doing, coupled with the finding that people tend to overestimate the negative behavior of their peers and underestimate the positive behavior.
When asked about drinking behavior, Miller says, most students think their peers are drinking much more than they really are, and so they tend to drink more to fit in.
Though there are many caveats, Miller says, his research showed significant improvements when students were presented with a more realistic picture of peer drinking behavior, which covers an entire spectrum at WSU from nearly 20 percent total abstinence to addiction.
Sitting in the Bookie II in Pullman on Dad’s Weekend, a stack of books on the table in front of him and his mother at his side, Toren is bright-eyed and engaging. Sober for more than a year, he still isn’t sure what his future holds, but for now he is enjoying visiting college campuses to promote their book and talk about high-risk drinking.
He smiles when asked if his message today is one he would have heard four years ago. “I think a lot of people have to run their course,” he says, but everyone is different. “I think social norms are a good way to bring the average down for people who are in between.”
Patricia Maarhuis, coordinator of WSU’s Alcohol and Drug Counseling, Assessment, and Prevention Services program, agrees. Social norms theory is part of their approach, she says, but the emphasis is on “harm reduction.” Students who want to drink will find a way, she says, so counselors try to listen to why students are engaging in high-risk behavior and then give them the information they need to make better choices.
Sometimes, she says, students simply need to fully understand what a single serving of alcohol is. For instance, she says, one young man didn’t understand how a “couple of beers” could cause him to become drunk. But it turned out that the beers were 40 ounces each.
Chris Volkman, who earned her teaching credential at WSU, agrees that part of the problem is our sense of proportion.
“We are in the Super Size generation,” she said. “It has changed since we were in school.”
One positive change in the last few years, at least from Volkmann’s perspective, is that colleges are more likely to notify parents when an underage student is caught with alcohol.
WSU’s official alcohol policy states that no underage alcohol use is permitted, and alcohol use among adults is restricted or prohibited on University property and in organized living groups such as residence halls, fraternities, or sororities. On the first violation of the policy, a student is required to attend a University-sponsored alcohol education class and, depending on the severity of the situation, parents might be notified. On the second offense, parents are notified if the student is underage, and the student is placed on disciplinary probation. A third offense would result in parents again being notified and the student being suspended for a minimum of one semester.
Toren, who maintained good grades throughout college, had a series of run-ins with school officials who tried to curb his drinking, but his parents were never notified.
“I did everything in my power to make sure my parents didn’t know,” he says.
Volkman and her husband, Don, an anesthesiologist in Olympia, were themselves responsible social drinkers. On those occasions when they caught one of their underage sons drinking, they imposed swift and significant consequences. She and her husband assumed the problem was maturity, she says, and counseled their sons to make good choices. But, she says, with Toren, who appears to have inherited a predisposition to alcoholism, their counsel was too little, too late.
Now, she says, she realizes that teenage drinking is not necessarily a phase that young people outgrow. As she writes in Our Drink, within their family alcohol consumption is now openly discussed and monitored. “Drinking is now considered as dangerous as a bad sunburn—a weekend souvenir that can progress to death,” she writes, “the beginning of a haunting cancer.”
Indeed, data collected by the National Longitudinal Alcohol Epidemiologic Survey reveals that young people who begin drinking before age 15 are four times more likely to develop alcoholism than those who start drinking at age 21. It is not clear whether starting to drink at an early age increases one’s risk for alcohol addiction, or whether it simply indicates an existing vulnerability to high-risk drinking.
Volkmann had long been a journal writer, and in the months following Toren’s admission of a drinking problem, she turned to her journal again and again to deal with her guilt over what had happened without her realizing it, her relief over what could have happened but didn’t, and her fear over what might happen in the future. Whe
n her son started sending her long self-revelatory e-mails from his rehabilitation program, she knew they had a story to tell. It’s a personal story, but it is also a cautionary tale that speaks to the millions of parents raising adolescents in an alcohol-saturated culture.
“Our intention was to write down the process of what was happening to us,” Chris says. “Knowing we were creating a book would have been too frightening. We really were writing it for ourselves.”
Published in August 2004, the 213-page soft-bound book contains not only the Volkmann’s personal story, but an index of alcohol awareness references and resources, a screening test, and the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.
“I have attempted to keep the focus of this story primarily based on my experiences with alcohol and how I got to where I am today,” Toren writes toward the end of the book. “This self-serving, premature memoir-in-a-bottle may be something that someone else can relate to, appreciate, or learn from, so it may potentially be of use to people other than my family and me.”