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The Party’s Over: Young Adults and Substance Abuse

people at party

“The party has been over for a long time.” — It’s an insight that many of the young people in treatment come to realize in their early recovery. Many young adults get swallowed up in experimenting with drugs and alcohol and are later surprised to find themselves addicted.

Influences on Young Adult Drug Use

We are all influenced by the main social institutions in our lives and for young adults those are the family of origin and school.  Families not only provide biological influence (does addiction run in the family?) but also impact a young person’s likelihood of drug or alcohol use through messages about drinking and using.  Maybe a family was open, and loose with rules around use and allowed children to try things at home.  Or maybe life at home was difficult and shame-based and drugs and alcohol provided early relief. 

High School and college environments offer strong emphasis on peer value and influence. The prevalence of drug use and drinking in a social group will influence a young adult’s age of first use, frequency, and contribute to a skewed sense of normalcy if substance use crosses the line from ‘use’ to ‘abuse’.  The younger a person is when they first use drugs or alcohol the greater the likelihood that they will be addicted to substances.  Many guests in treatment report first use between the ages of 11-13.

Understanding the Progression of Addiction

Drinking and drug use often begin as fun with friends and emulate the substance use modeled by adults in the family of origin.  However, early addiction progresses from fun, social use to using for relief from stress (school, breakups etc.), using in secret, and beginning to use alone more often than in groups.  As dishonesty increases, blackouts begin, and it becomes harder to stop using drugs or alcohol the disease has progressed. The next phase of addiction is characterized by behavior changes, negative consequences, and justification.  This is where we begin to see the characteristics for diagnosed substance use disorders.

Young adults will often struggle to identify the characteristics of addiction in their lives because of the prevalence of use in their social circles, the stigma surrounding addiction, and the normalization of insane thinking and behavior.  Young people don’t face the same consequences of their addiction as some older adults because they are living alone or with friends and don’t see impact on their families. Using in larger quantities than intended, amount of time spent in using-related activities, risk to personal safety, and tolerance can easily go unnoticed in a ‘hard-partying’ group.

Young Adults and Early Recovery

Substance abuse treatment that understands and targets the experiences of young addicts can better prepare them for the transition into early recovery.  Some of the biggest challenges facing young people in recovery are tied to social relationships. Romantic relationships can serve as a significant stressor and relapse risk for young adults as they transition out of treatment.  Young adults may find it especially challenging to abstain from physically and emotionally intimate relationships early in their recovery. Beyond dating relationships, it is important for everyone, especially young adults, in recovery to build a new group of friends and resist the pressure and influence from old using buddies. There can be a misperception among young adults in treatment that sobriety will never be fun and that their lives will be boring now that they don’t drink or use drugs. Getting
involved with social groups and experiencing activities sober again (or for the first time!) can help young recovering people to see what is possible in their lives again.

In the case of all challenges in early recovery, including those experienced by young adults, fully engaging a recovery process provides physical and emotional solutions. Carrying the emotional safety created in treatment through groups, individual counseling, and community can make all the difference in maintaining sobriety. Personal connection and sense of belonging are recreated and sustained by regular meeting attendance, finding a home group, working with a sponsor, and developing a support network. Those support systems help young addicts utilize tools and principles of recovery to meet the challenges and instill hope for a life beyond their wildest dreams.

Contributed by Primary Counselor Carolyn Byrne Rifkin, MS, LPC-A