By Alex Otte
At age 13, I understood the consequences of drinking alcohol and getting behind the wheel. That’s how old I was when a drunk boater ran over me while I sat on a jet ski behind my dad’s house in the summer of 2010.
The crash left me with a traumatic brain injury and a broken neck, collarbone and jaw. It lacerated my liver and shattered both my femurs. The boat propeller severed my right leg below the knee. I still live with the effects of one man’s criminal choice. My jaw is made up of metal plates. I walk with the aid of a prosthetic and, sometimes, I must use a wheelchair.
But more than those physical injuries, the crash ended my childhood. It changed who I would have become. I knew soon after that I wanted to be the last little girl this ever happened to. As we mark Alcohol Awareness Month this April, I know that, tragically, I’m not. That fact makes me fight all the harder. It’s why I’m so passionate about not only sharing the consequences of consuming alcohol and getting behind the wheel but also underage drinking, which kills 4,300 young people every year.
Decisions we make when we are young can impact us — and others — years later. Underage drinking, as well as early drug use, can lead to early addiction and many other dangerous outcomes. Kids who start drinking young are seven times more likely to be in an alcohol-related crash, for example, and more likely to become a drunk driver later in life. It’s not about whether a young person is old enough to handle it. It’s about science. A young adult’s brain isn’t fully developed, making it more vulnerable to alcohol.
The choice to wait until age 21 to drink alcohol can be lifesaving — literally. Those who wait are 80% less likely to abuse alcohol or become alcohol dependent later in life than those who drink before age 15. They’re 85% less likely to become a drunk driver compared to those who drink before age 14.
If you’re a young person who is considering drinking alcohol, I want you to know that I’m not here to talk at you. I am you. I’m three years out of college. I’ve been in your shoes. I know a lot of people think you have to drink to fit in and have fun, or that everyone started drinking in high school.
I can tell you that not everyone did. I can also tell you that it’s possible to wait until age 21 before you ever take your first sip of alcohol and still have a great time in high school and college. I did.
If you’re a parent who thinks you’re doing the right thing by letting your teenager experiment with alcohol or other drugs at home, I want you to know that a decade of research here at MADD shows otherwise. We appreciate and acknowledge that you love your kids. But adolescents report drinking more when they are exposed to parents who appear tolerant of underage drinking. Likewise, parents are the No. 1 influence on their child’s decisions surrounding alcohol and other drugs. If you haven’t started having vital conversations about alcohol and drugs with your kids, now’s the time.
Alcohol Awareness Month also coincides with MADD’s PowerTalk21 kickoff, our decade-old, proven program that equips parents with all the tools they need to start engaging with their kids about this critical topic. This year, to celebrate 10 years of our program, sponsored from the beginning by Nationwide, we’re also issuing a national challenge to parents to get creative and make the commitment to engage with their teens by taking part in the #PowerTalk21 Ways to Engage Challenge, which starts April 21. Our parent handbook is a great way to get started.
Finally, regardless of whether you’re a parent or a young person, I want to encourage everyone to take personal responsibility for your own alcohol consumption and to be aware of those around you to prevent horrible things from happening when you can. After a year of restrictions and limited interactions, we’re all anxious to get out and resume the activities we once enjoyed. Let’s do it in a way that makes sure everyone gets home safely, and in one piece because I didn’t.