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Breaking through addiction stereotypes

"I'm an alcoholic."

The words struck me as odd. After all, they were coming from a young man standing before me in a dorm hallway my freshman year in college, and yet they flowed as smoothly and gingerly as a fish gliding through water. It wasn't at all the image I had of an alcoholic. The picture that suburban living had fostered in me for years was one of a homeless, dirty, toothless person living in downtown alleys. Yet there I was, a college freshman standing before a dormitory neighbor who had graduated from high school with honors - and who had spent much of his later teen years in a stupor.

The face of alcoholism and substance addiction, it turns out, looks a lot different than one might think. According to the 2002 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: National Findings, more than 36 percent of American 17-year-olds reported using alcohol. The same survey also found that, among youth ages 12 to 20, more than 19 percent are binge or heavy alcohol drinkers. Just because teenagers grow up does not mean that, as adults, they are any less vulnerable, either. Research has shown that alcohol problems are very common among the American workforce. More than 77 percent of adults with any alcohol or drug use disorder are employed, and more than 60 percent of adults know a person who has shown up to work under the influence. When it comes to addiction, illicit drug use is highest among American Indians, Alaska natives and people of mixed race (two or more races). The news is getting better, at least among kids locally. The Coalition for a Drug-Free Greater Cincinnati recently released a survey showing declining rates of certain drugs among many kids. Yet many people, when asked to describe "addiction," say it is the dirty homeless person walking a dark downtown street who carries a crinkled, brown bag-clad bottle.

September is National Alcohol and Drug Addiction Recovery Month, a time to learn not only about the dangers of drinking and other substance abuse but also about its many faces. In the process, we might also learn that, despite the statistics and the stereotypes, there is hope for recovery no matter the addicted person's color, age, gender, political affiliation or religion. All it takes is one hand reaching out to break through the old images and see a person anew.

John Cummings

8 September 2004

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