‘When I was a kid, I thought an alcoholic was a wino. But looking at me, it’s obvious that any young person, even a model on TV, can have an addiction,” says Chris Beckman, 28. Beckman, a former cast member of MTV’s Real World: Chicago, is the author of “Clean: A New Generation Speaks Out.” “Alcoholism is cunning, baffling, and powerful. I don’t have the answers. All I have to share is my experience, strength, and hope.”
Beckman has been clean and sober for five years and counting and is currently an artist and Ford model living in New York. He tours the country addressing high school and university students about the perils of drugs and alcohol. To highlight Alcohol Awareness Month, he will speak Thursday, April 20, at the Robert Wood Johnson Hamilton Center for Health and Fitness, sharing personal and hard-won knowledge of the issues affecting young addicts and their families. Beckman addresses issues including genetics, family history, denial, treatment, 12-step programs, relapse, therapy, and self-care.
After completing a 28-day detox program in his hometown of Boston, Beckman spent his early days of sobriety under the watchful eyes of millions of MTV viewers, who tuned in every week to see if he were still on the wagon. And because of that notoriety, teens listen to what he has to say.
Beckman, whose father is an alcoholic and whose mother worked to support him and his younger sister, started drinking whisky at age 11 and smoking marijuana at 13. By the time he entered a rehabilitation program at age 22, he was habitually using meth, psychedelic mushrooms, straight vodka and in his own estimation, “whatever else I could get my hands on.”
What began as getting drunk on the weekend turned into a daily ritual and eventually a nightmare. “The biggest problem for me,” says Beckman, who is openly gay, “was that I was isolated from the world. Not being able to talk about my problems was a big part of my addiction. It’s very important for teens to learn how to network with friends they can trust and discuss problems with. That’s why in “Clean” we’ve included online resources and local 800 numbers where kids can go to seek help, as well as health services provided on college campuses.”
In addition to telling Beckman’s story “Clean” paints a vivid picture of the ugly side of substance abuse — including contributions from recovering teens and young adults describing what’s really going on in schools, cars, malls, and other places where kids encounter drugs and alcohol.
The book is a wake-up call for both kids and adults. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, alcohol is the leading cause of death among youth, and the extent of alcohol consumption by children is alarming:
— 3 million children, ages 14 to 17, are regular drinkers with an already confirmed alcohol problem.
— More than 100,000 12 to 13-year-olds report being drunk every month.
— 24 percent of eighth graders report using alcohol in the past 30 days.
— Ninth graders who drink are almost twice as likely to attempt suicide as those who don’t.
— 40 percent of those who begin drinking before age 15 eventually become alcoholics.
Parents, Beckman says, must first come to believe that alcoholism is truly a disease that kills. As to whether it is inherited or environmental, once use changes to abuse and then addiction, it doesn’t really matter. If that critical corner is turned, there is no going back; addiction is a progressive disease that never gets better, only worse — even when not indulged. Someone in recovery must never drink or use drugs again. Each slip has the potential to be the one that takes away a life. As one 12-step member claims, once you’re a pickle, you can never go back to being a cucumber.
“The disease is still inside of me,” says Beckman. “The only remedies are constant diligence and working my 12-step program.”
Alcoholism follows a predictable course and is influenced by both genetics and lifestyle. On average, alcoholics start drinking during adolescence, increase their intake in their early 20s, and taper off as they take on the adult roles of spouse, parent, and employee. The age one begins drinking, especially heavy drinking, is important because those who start earlier have a higher chance of becoming abusers and later addicts. According to Beckman, while nearly 1 in 10 teens is addicted to substances, only 1 in 30 of those enter a rehab program. Twenty-eight out of 29 relapse — some several times. In addition, many addicts and alcoholics die from substance-related health issues or accidents. Suicide rates are high.
‘I know parents don’t want to hear that their child is abusing alcohol. But they have to be aware that it’s part of the pop culture. It’s a part of being a kid now. And, although I don’t have children, I remember what it was like to want to explore,” Beckman says, “and how alluring alcohol seemed because it was forbidden, and how easy it was to obtain, and hide. I equated being an adult with using alcohol. It was a mystery that I wanted to discover all on my own.
“Even as a teen, I was already living a double life. I would tell my mother I was going one place, and I’d go to the house of one of my unsupervised friends. Ultimately, each teen has to make a choice. They can stay after school and do homework, or go out and....But, parents can’t protect them by holding them hostage.”
In fact, recent findings by the Drug Policy Research Center suggest that attempts to control teen alcohol consumption should focus less on the prevention of any use, and more on the prevention of misuse.
“Alcoholics and addicts are a stubborn lot,” says Beckman. “The more you point out their substance abuse, the more they deny it, and the more hostile they get. The use and abuse doesn’t stop, it just goes underground.
“A friend of mine found his 15-year-old smoking marijuana and told me he was going to lock him in his room and start secretly testing him for drug use. I believe that will just further impair the relationship.”
Don’t shame or discipline them for using substances, Beckman says. Shame doesn’t get adults sober and it doesn’t work on kids, either. “I can’t stress enough that open communication is the most important ingredient in prevention. The worst route is to create a communications boundary causing your kids to sneak around and only open up to their best friend. It’s important to begin dialogue early about how drugs and alcohol will impair school and life goals, not to mention threaten their lives. The best prevention is to have an open dialogue and be genuinely open to their questions, rather than say ‘You’re grounded for five months,’ which doesn’t work anyway.”
While sobriety is amazing, Beckman admits that getting sober wasn’t the answer to all of his problems, because alcohol wasn’t the cause of his problems, merely a symptom. “My 12-step program requires continued personal and spiritual growth, which allows me, on a daily basis, to understand and deal with the underlying pain that caused me to drink.”
Part of his recovery program depends on sharing his story with others. “I really look forward to these speaking events and hope the audience can benefit from my mistakes. All I can really do is tell them what I’ve done and where it got me. It helps me to remember how disastrous my life had become. The alcohol and drug solution certainly didn’t work for me.”
“Clean: A New Generation Speaks Out,” Thursday, April 20, 7 p.m., RWJ Hamilton Center for Health and Fitness, Quaker Bridge Road, Hamilton. $15. Register by calling 800-483-7436 or online at www.friendshealthconnection.org