Morning is easy; time goes quickly then, the early light is lost in the clatter of coffee cups. Mimelike, she makes ready for a day that doesn't exist. She brushes her hair and, gathering her books, walks out the door and around the corner to wait until everyone's left and she can come home to the quiet and the march of minutes passing by.
Then the hours shine empty. Maybe a friend drops by and there's a conversation they can catch. You kill an hour with the soaps; "All My Children" is good these days, what with Eddie dead and Claudette confessing to the killing and Mrs. Tyler's daughter Ann recovering her memory just as Paul was planning to marry Ellen.
Sometimes she takes a second shower to help pass the time in those last stubborn hours before evening and then, thank God, it's sunset, the light is leaving and there's only one decision left to make and that's which AA meeting to attend and then, well, then she's done it -- she can kiss that day goodbye.
She's a girl who gets mad when the wind blows cold and she's been sober slightly longer than she's been 15. She was drinking daily before then and, although her memories are scattered now like toys on a summer lawn, this is what she remembers best:
She remembers laughter, laughing so hard the world swirled around her and how much fun the liquor made falling into mud puddles and the way it softened the sound of her mother's voice. And how hard it was to remember the night before and the things that happened that made her grateful for that.
She lives in a house where the Cadillacs are treated with kindness and to which her father returns from an office off a long cool corridor of the Washington fast track. "I know, I know," says the girl, called Jeanette in this story, through that is not her real name. "Why here? Why this? How should I know? That's the question everyone says I should be asking myself."
That's not the question her mother asks. "How do they go from sweet loving children to this?" is the question her mother asks -- the question that all mothers live in terror of having to ask.
Jeanette is recovering now, and everyone hopes she stays that way, but there's no way to know if she will.
There seem to be as many studies of teen-age alcoholism as there are brands of Scotch, but they are often at odds with one another over the nature of the disease and its extent. Estimates of the number of adolescent problem drinkers in this country range from 13 to 25 percent, but the picture isn't painted merely by the numbers.
"Come here any Monday morning," says a high school administrator grimly. "You'll see all the empties in the parking lot. The place will be covered with them, and it's not cheap beer like the teachers have to drink but expensive beer, the little bastards, Heinekens. The problem's not bad -- it's real bad.
"Every day they come to school drunk and we send them down to the main office, but they handle themselves real well; you'd never be able to tell. It's getting so bad you just shake your head and say, 'Well, this is the way it is.' What else can you do?"
"There's so little recognized about alcoholism among young people." says Tom Luckett, dirctor of alcoholism outreach for Fairfax County. "Parents are used to thinking of it as a skid row disease, but it's an equal opportunity problem.Parents look away and say it's a stage."
No one seems to know how many alcoholic teen-agers drop out of school or take to the streets or wreck their cars or ditch their futures and no one seems to know just how many of them are dying, at an age that assumes immortality as if it comes with the jeans and the gymnasatics lessons.
To be young, after all, is to see the way in which danger is exquisite, to follow in its wake without hearing the rush of consequences: the innocence of youth. Age 9: The Beginning
Jeanette sits in the kitchen of her family's home, brewing coffee. Her brothers have gone to soccer practice, her sister to diving class.Jeanette was the one who took gymnastics, practicing in the back yard while her mother watched and smiled. But that was a long time ago.
"It's so dumb, you know," she says, every word in italics. "I get so upset when she says, "Where have those days gone? You used to be such a cute, chubby thing.' Well, I was neer like she thought I was."
Her Gloria Vanderbilt jeans fit perfectly, although her hair deifes any restraint, hanging limply around her shoulders and in her eyes. She moves with intermittent grace in high heels and her face flashes the signal of each approaching mood as if it were weritten in neon.
The beer was warm the first time she got drunk. She and her friends were in the woods near the church and their flushed faces didn't begin to fade until the sun did. She got lost on the way home and when she arrived she fellon the stairs and had to crawl along the hall hugging the wall to find her bedroom before she passed out.
She felt fine the next day, she thought passing out was "pretty funny." Added to the giddy delight of doing something wrong was the fact that she had five more beers than anyone else. She was proud they were impressed.
That was in the fourth grade and she was 9.
It didn't happen all that often then. Instead, there was an occasional drink snatched off the dining room table when her father wasn't looking. It was a game she and her brother played.
"I liked the taste," she says. "It was like sipping milk."
But there were times when she drank alone, and then she drank in the cool darkness of her father's den, where the glass bottles stood in long rows and caught small flecks of amber light. Then she would sip from each of them, turning from one to the other as if they were dignified guests in a long reception line.She sipped from them all, the Jack Daniel's Black, the Southern Comfort, the Super Punch, until the unbending light of afternoon had finally faded to the understanding of evening.
In the fifth and sixth grades she got pills. She started with her parents's Valium and moved on to anything else in the medicine chest. "I'd usually take five of anything there was," she says. "Except for No-Doz. I ate the whole package. And aspirin. I loved the taste of aspirin. None of it seemed to do anything, though. But then I was drinking when I took them."
Back then, Jeaneatte says by way of explaining why she started to drink, "everyone talked about the buzzes they would get. I wanted one too. I was trying to have a feeling of freedom. I thought it was a way of being free.
"I wasn't allowed to do anything," she says, and her complaint resembles a long murmured mantra. "No parties, no late nights, no anything. My mom thought that if I went to parties, only two things could happen -- either I'd get pregnant or I'd die in a car wreck."
All of this is delivered in a near-perfect rendition of Teen-age Monotone with alternating currents of drop-dead indignation. But the Mask of Cool is fitted on a small, heart-shaped face whose featurs have yet to emerge firmly from the ambiguity of childhood.
Somewhere in there is the girl whose mother remembers practicing flips for hours and defying only gravity . . . whose father remembers the wide-eyed seriousness in which she alwyas seemed to be lost . . . a girl who even now forgets her nervousness and the latest personality she's tried on to describe her world with keep irony and sharp-eyed awareness. A typical teen-age girl, caught between daydreams and panic.
She had her first cigarette, her first tab of acid, her first amphetamine and her first marijuana on the first day of seventh grade. Most of the time, however, it wasn't quite so intense. Most of the time they drank or smoked marijuana on their lunch hour, sitting in a circle in a field just over a small rise from the school. Or in the bathroom, where the towel lady would tell them if someone was coming.
In class, she wouls coat her lips with a lip gloss container filled with rum and lick it off and smile to herself, pleased with what she was getting away with. It was as if she were a guerrilla behind enemy lines and had managed to blow up the ammunition depot.
In the seventh grade, she got in trouble for the first time, and she makes it sound like a rite of passage, much like her first dance, with which it happened to coincide.
She never made it to the dance, of course. It was off instead to a prim little suburban home where a friend was baby-sitting and where about a hundred friends seemed to be. The music was loud and they were smoking PCP geting "k'ed out" they called it, the killer weed competing with the Bacardi for a place in their synapses. Eventually, they all landed in the junior high school parking lot, she's not sure how exactly, but that's where the school officials found them.
They called her parents and they came to get her. "Everyone else noticed I was high, but not them," she says. "The school gave us a couple of days' detention, but they didn't do anything." There is a pause, and a stare into space. "Our family clashes a lot. Nobody accepts anybody. When I stopped drinking, I noticed something. Nobody here talks to anyone."
All around her as she talks are the signs of suburban grace. Persian rugs cover the floors, the dining room table reflects the light of the chandelier. Carpeted hallways muffle sounds from other rooms. A Cadillac is at rest in the driveway. The house sits at the end of cul-de-sac in one of those suburbs made of bridk walls and glassed-in porches where the sense of commonality comes from the theme around which the streets are named. The Wheel of Tears
"She was such a sweetheart when she was young," says her mother as she eases silently into the room. "She loved shcool, she loved to read; she was a great reader."
She has been recovering from the flu and her face is pale and drawn. She hesitates for a moment and then launches her litany, the phases coming swift and choppy, crashing, at times, into her daughter's denials, a painful pas de deux that mothers and daugters dance.
"I don't understand her attitude about anything. School means nothing to her, it's either too boring or it's too hard. I've got no idea if she's even enrolled right now." She looks both amazed and detached, an old song that regains its ability to surprise when played from a stranger.
"She's lost every value, she doesn't seem to care about anything," says her mother. "I blamed myself in part because I work. I got hysterical a few times. You don't consider that it could be happening to someone that young. We didn't notice what was going on.
"You didn't notice? her daughter says, her voice taking a hike up the register. "How could you not have noticed? I was falling down the stairs."
"I thought you were clumsy," her mother answers. "We're all clumsy at times. I saw her attitude change, and I thought well, girls go through this at her age, these ups and downs."
But by Jeanette's freshman year, her mother realized she wasn't going to class, and the wheel of tears and screams and threats turned all the faster. "I couldn't look at her anymore," her mother says. "She would head out at 2 in the morning in the rain and my husband and I would get in separate cars and go looking for her because the police won't, they don't have the time, they told us, for all the runaways."
What would she have done if she had known earlier about all the drinking and all the drugs? "I would have smashed her hard into the wall," she says. "I would have gotten her counseling. A happy child would not do that."
Whatever the rules, says Jeanette, "I slid around them." To her it's all of a piece -- the time she was in the first grade and deliberately jammed her arm in a stair rail to miss a class, the hours spent in front of the stereo, dreaming over the car magazines and sipping rum instead of sitting in algebra class.
It wasn't the drinking that defined her, through the afternoon passed in pleasant dreams. It was the long, fierce war declared so long ago on the way things were the identity that was ordained. "People," she says, as a hard light settles in her dark eyes, "expect so much out of you. You have to be a saint to please them, they all want you to be perfect. I just wanted to make people laugh. I wanted the attention. I would do anything to make people laugh."
Liquor, Jeanette found, could confer a special status once you were part of the group that staked its reputation on the amount of partying it did and the nonchalance with which it broke the rules. And so she learned to take the risks, go the distance, impress the lonely crowd on whom she'd place her bets.
"You could tell guys that you had liquor at home and ask them if they'd like to cut class and come over," she says. "It was terrific. None of them ever caught up with me. I'd drink everything straight and they couldn't and I thought that was hilarious. I started trying to get people to come over all the time. Once I felt real good, I asked this guy to come over and he said no, he heard I could drink any guy under the table. I had a swelled head for days after that."
It was the same with marijuana. They would dare her, and, like a tomboy desperate to prove herself by climbing the highest tree, she would take their dare. "We would be sitting around and some guy would say, 'No girl ever takes more than three hits off a bong and I would say, 'Oh yeah?' and I'd take 15 hits. They'd be passed out and I'd keep on going. I was a partier, all right."
In this way, she built her reputation, carved a place for herself, a way station on what F. Scott Fitzgerald called "the lonely secret road of adolescence." She was 14 years old.
"Kids are very mobile today," says Jeanette's guidance counselor. "These kids do anything they want. And what do you do in the suburbs? There's nothing to do. A lot of these kids are displaced persons." He is the one man in her school in whom Jeanette confides. "I've spent hours with this little girl," he says. "I've gone the extra mile, given her the extra break, and boom! She's off again. I kind of feel sorry for her, all of them, and there are a lot like her, don't kid yourself. My heart went out to her, but there didn't seem to be a damn thing I could do about it. And the hard part is she's so sensitive, some of these kids are so hardened, but not her, she's dying inside, she's dying, you can look at her and see that." The 'Airhead' in the Closet
Jeanette talking, the old bravado glinting beneath darkly shadowed eye-lids and lashes clotted with mascara: "The freaks called alchy and the drinkers called me druggy and everyone called me airhead and I thought that was the coolest thing. Sometimes I'd be so out of it I couldn't hear the questions they asked me and I couldn't remember what happened the night before. I thought that was fun. If they called someone else airhead, I would just fade away, I'd pretend it was worse than it was so they'd keep talking about me. I didn't have to pretend much. Sometimes I'd be out walking and I'd think just a minute had passed, and I'd notice that I was an hour away from where I thought I was."
Last year, when she was 14, she lost her virginity, although it is more accurate to say it was stolen -- taken when she was drunk. "I didn't want to and he did," is the way she puts it, with eyes lowered and her small hands taping a nervous tattoo. It happened more than once with more than one boy, and more than once, she says, after it was over, the memory would wash up like a wave in a brackish harbor. Then she would stab her wrists with a pair of scissors and sob without stopping, "because I felt so worthless, because I was sure that all I was good for was sex."
Last spring, she ran away for three weeks. She doesn't remember why, it was like all the other times, a tug of wills with her mother, accusation and anger, the sound of a door slamming. She went to Seven-Eleven, a young man bought her beer, took her to his apartment.
She stayed there awhile, until one day he picked her up in her stupor and threw her out and locked the door behind her, a rag doll carried the wrong way over the threshold. She drifted after that, hitchhiking to Colonial Beach, where she hung around a bar where "everyone was at least 75." The old women bought her drinks to relieve the bordom, funny little kid, tossing back doubles in a dingy bar, making the ladies laugh.
When she came home, she wandered. At night, she stayed at the houses of friends, who would sneak her in at night and hide her in the morning when their parents came to wake them for school. Then it was off again, hitchhiking to all the familiar suburban oases -- the Seven-Eleven, the pizza parlor, the auto shop at school to see who was making a beer run.
Finally she stayed with a friend in whose closets she didn't have to hide, his mother promised not to tell hers where she was.
"I thought my mom was an old bat and this lady was real cool," says Jeanette. "You could smoke at her house and everything." In the end, however, she was betrayed; life is hard in the underground. Someone called her mother when she was overheared to say she was leaving for Southern California. It seemed like such a good idea -- she chose her destination from a photograph a friend had sent her from there. It was a photograph of a sunset and she had always loved sunsets. Her father came to pick her up. The next night her mother took her to a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. The Strangers Next Door
"She was really not the one I expected trouble from," says Jeanette's father. "She was always the sensitive one, the concerned one. It's very, very hard to comprehend, and I still think she's exaggerating. I don't think it's as bad as they say.
"When she came home, she had lost a tremdous amount of weight. She had a full examination and the doctor said her liver was mushy or something. That got to me, but you still have only a 50-50 chance of convincing me."
Like his wife, he is a professional he works hard at his career, and on the phone he sounds restrained, sincere, unaccustomed to talking about the tenuous bonds that form a family and a father's love. "My wife of course was a lot closer to her. She had more to do with her upbringing, maybe she understands what happened. I can't really pinpoint what occurred. My wife and I don't smoke, and we hardly every drink. We keep the liquor around for guests.
"You have to understand, I come froma large family and there was a closeness. We all lived in the same town, some of us on the same block, and people kept tabs on each other, this sort of thing simply couldn't have happened. There was always someone around.
"Here, you might see the people who live next door, once a month. You never know if they're home, they wouldn't know if your kid was home all day. There's just no assistance at all, no support.
"I still don't know why she went so overboard. Last year, she was on the cheerleading squad. . . Didn't she tell you? It was a very, very select group. I was so proud."
Alcoholics Anonymous didn't mean much to Jeanette at first. "I thought it was like school when you ask the teacher a bunch of questions to run out the time until class is over. I'd go sober for a week and then celebrate (by getting drunk) and then I'd go a month and celebrate. But they get to you after a while. I started to take it seriously."
"She's got a good chance if she's willing," says the young man who helped teach her the rules and ways of AA when she first began. "But she needs to be hugged. I think she's hurting for love."
Jeanette rarely goes to school, except to take driver's education; she goes to an AA meeting every evening and after it's over she goes out into the night with the friends she has made there and around whom her life now revolves.
There is a restless search for ways to quench the overflowing adolescent energy. "I dance all the time now, I go bowling, to the movies. I smoke cigarettes. Lately somebody's talked to me abaout singing in a band. Maybe I will, it might build self-confidence, I don't know. I'm still scared." Learning Not to Except
In the smoking lounge at school, Jeanette says, they're always talking about the weekend they had, who got the highest, drank the most, had the biggest buzz on. "When I hear that, I still want to be a part of it, still want that fifth," around her old friends, "they'll come down real hard on me. They think I'm lying when I say I have a problem. It was really getting to me until this one guy said, 'I guess I won't believe you because if I did, it might mean I have a problem too."
It's hard now, to go back to school "I feel real guilty now, because they've already given me so many chances." When she talks about the future, it doesn't seem to extend beyond tomorrow and her eyes wear a distracted look, her face clouds as if she was being confronted with the most abstract of concepts.
There is vague talk of waiting until she is 18 and then taking a high school equivalency test, getting a job, a house, a car. But all that is years away, and meanwhile it's the days that need getting through, the afternoons that stretch long and lazy, and somehow she find a way to fill them all.
She's learning. "I'm learning about expectation," she says. "A friend of mine has a sign that says 'People who expect little or nothing out of life are seldom disappointed.' I'm tryin to think like that. Nothing every works out the way you think it will anyway. When I was 10, I wanted to be 12 and when I was 12 I wanted to be 15 and every time you get what you want, you always end up saying, 'Wow, this is it? This is all there is to it?' Having goals is that way too. I always wanted to sing, but look at the ones who make it to the top, it's not so great for them up there. If it was, why would they want to try and kill themselves and stuff?
"I've just got to learn not to expect to get what I want. Like this year, I'll still think it's unfair if I get bad grades and fail, even though I didn't go to class. I'll still think I deserve straight A's, I don't know why think I deserve I did try, I felt like I was doing it for someone else. It's just too much for me to handle."
She still gets mad, she says, when a cold wind blows but now "I try to think about the fact that I have a warm place to go, that I have shoes on my feet, I try to think about the things I have to be grateful for. I try to think how amazing it is that I'm still alive."