They start drinking when they are little more than children. And they never end. Because, as Gabriele S. says, 'you can also put a muzzle on physical addiction, the mental one stays inside you for life'. I travel in an emergency that makes no noise. But it devastates thousands of familiesScenes of ordinary (and alcoholic) nightlife
Alcohol addiction is devastating many very young people. They start drinking at 12 years old. And they never end. We did an investigation into an emergency that makes no noise. But it devastates thousands of families.Alessia Marcuzzi in Piazza Duomo in Milan with pajamas... Alessia Marcuzzi in Piazza Duomo in Milan with pajamas...
A LIFETIME STRUGGLE - 'Please don't write that I made it. You write that I'm doing it.' Gabriele S., 32, knows that the worst is over, and the best is a lifelong struggle. He realized he was an alcohol addict in 2014, one morning 'when I got up and not drinking it seemed to me that they were tearing my soul apart: tremors, retching, panic attacks'. His first hangover had taken ten years earlier, on July 8, 2004, the day of his fourteenth birthday. «To celebrate me, two friends bought a bottle of tequila: we went to a park, they drank a glass each, I downed the rest». To his parents who went to pick him up he promised: 'Never again'. The problem, when you're just a little more than a child, is that 'never again' is not a promise. It is a premise, the beginning of an impossible resistance.
Gabriele is a light in the middle (not at the end, in the middle) of a tunnel that many of his 'little brothers' - statistics say that the first hangovers occur between the ages of 11 and 12 - do not even know they have entered. Alcohol is a danger that is diminished, because it immediately fools you, but it takes a while for you to understand it. This underestimation is an error of concept, but also of calculation. Because in Italy alcohol, and not drugs, is the leading cause of death (and also of disability) for males between 14 and 28 years of age. The latest ISS report - 'Epidemiology and Alcohol Related Monitoring in Italy' - also says that there is an army of almost a million very young drinkers at risk. That in 2020 120,000 kids between the ages of 11 and 17 got drunk. That the year before, 4,723 minors were taken to Italian emergency rooms because they were exhausted by alcohol (11 percent of the total: earthquake data, alcohol monitoring system). If the numbers aren't enough, our squares or weekend bulletins are advancing: kids thrown like balls of yarn on the sidewalks, an incredible amount of alcohol which then 'vents' in brawls, in fatal accidents, in hospital gastric lavages.
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IN THE EMERGENCY, 3 OUT OF 4 ARE GIRLS - Giuseppe Bertolozzi heads the pediatric emergency room of the De Marchi clinic in Milan. This hall with colored walls and stuffed animals scattered everywhere has always been the home of ear infections, the redoubt of 'fever fevers'. In recent years, a caravan of drunk teenagers has joined: 'They arrive by ambulance, and they are either dull or agitated: they vomit, they scream, they pee on themselves'. In 2021, De Marchi treated 68 of them, but, warns Bertolozzi, «their percentage weight, on the total number of admissions to the emergency room, has doubled. Three out of four are girls, who now drink like boys, but can handle less because they have a smaller body mass and slower metabolism. Many come from wealthy families, and 'when we call them, and they come here to take their children back, the parents fall for the pear tree: the truth is that we have lost control over our children'.
Control should be exercised soon, very soon. Pediatrician Luca Bernardo explains: «A child has his first contacts with alcohol at the age of 8-10, in the family. Maybe dad lets him taste some wine, adding a few drops to a glass of water. It's our story, it shouldn't be demonized. But due to the age and weight of the child, those few drops give a feeling of euphoria that is imprinted in the brain, and connects pleasure to wine. I'm not saying it leads to drinking, but it's best avoided.' Also because, if alcohol 'engages' you as a child, it gives you a nightmare adolescence.
LIKE A LOVE STORY – «I divided mine between drugs and a couple of communities», says Gabriele S., «but I never became addicted to drugs because I had and still have a love story with alcohol: it's a kind of monogamy, if you know what I mean.' In pain, in this path that is a marathon repeated every day, he has developed the wisdom of a sociologist, and says that in Italy 'there is a cultural problem and an excess of opportunities'. The cultural problem: «In homes there is always a bottle of red at the table; in the restaurant the first thing they give you is the wine list». Opportunities: 'Alcohol is worse than drugs because everywhere you turn, you have it. You have to go looking for smoke and in any case it costs money, and then you are afraid that they will 'get you caught'. With my first pocket money, at the age of 15, I went to Eurospin and for 5 euros I got a bottle of rum: at the time, the cashiers didn't even look at what they put in the bag (the law that prevents the sale of alcohol to minors is of 2012: the Balduzzi decree, ed)».
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SHOTTINI DI GIN E VODKA A 1 EURO - Low prices and ease of finding are the main fuel of this epidemic. Shottini, cicchetti, chupitos: with one euro, thousands of young people repeatedly shoot 50 milliliters of white spirits (gin, vodka) down their throats perhaps mixed with colored juices, because, explains Professor Emanuele Scafato, the president of the National Alcohol Observatory , «whoever sells knows very well that the taste buds of young people are 'attracted' by sweet and fruity flavours». Here a difference needs to be excavated: while drugs, especially hard ones, are a solitary vice, alcohol has “thickening” powers: it makes you feel part of a group, and within a fashion that is more of a conformism than anything else («They drink everyone, why not me?», is the photocopied justification of the boys). A widespread conformity even among adults. 'Just think that the other night at dinner a friend of mine, an eminent professional, said to me: 'I don't trust you because you are a teetotaler.' What messages can a guy like this give to his children?» asks Professor Gianni Testino, 61, gastroenterologist and president of the Italian Alcohol Society.
The easiest way to bring down consumption would be to raise prices as much as possible. But politics is against it, perhaps, explains Testino, «because it has to protect those 12 billion euros which are the producers' legitimate revenues. However, we spend 25 billion in direct costs to treat the damage caused by alcohol: cancer, cirrhosis of the liver, accidents, subsidies for those who lose their job because they drink'. Yes, because if alcohol puts you at the center of a tribe, alcoholism creates a vacuum around you.
A LARGELY SUBMERGED DRAMA - «She», says Gabriele pointing to a girl sweeping the garden, «is my ex-girlfriend, and she's the only one who has stayed close to me. Her and my two dogs. The others all fled.' In 2015, before moving to another region, Gabriele's mother took him to pavilion 10 of the San Martino hospital in Genoa, where Professor Testino directs the addiction pathology and alcohol-related hepatology department. «The first thing I said to the professor was: 'I don't come to stop drinking, but to drink longer'. I let myself have drips to postpone the cirrhosis, so I would have had a few extra years to attach to the bottle », she says.
A PROTOCOL IS MISSING - The ISS report says that only 10 percent of 'harmful consumers' (minors and adults) are intercepted by the national health service. Of these, only a third receive treatment. There is no common protocol that manages what happens as soon as the acute phase flares up. Because minors collapse in the emergency room, and then are sent home without an indication, a cure. Testino explains: «When young people consume alcohol or drugs, it is easy for them to have psychopathological manifestations, to show a schizophrenic, autistic or borderline trait. It is not said that they are schizophrenic or borderline, yet they are immediately put on psychopharmaceuticals. We detoxify them, draw up personalized therapies, evaluate them from a psychiatric point of view after some time: if we understand that anxiety disorders or schizophrenia are primitive, we cure them with medicines or psychotherapy. Otherwise we need to find a solution because we risk psychiatrizing a generation'. Adolescents accept the drug or the psychotherapist's session, but not to get involved: they are aware that they have a problem, but they are not aware that they have to solve it themselves. The only remedy, according to the professor, 'are self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous'.
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THE PANDEMIC WAS AN ACCELERATOR - Expanding the field of the investigation, and pushing it back two years, it should be emphasized that the pandemic has been a formidable accelerator of the spread and consumption of alcohol among very young people. First of all because, as Dr. Bertolozzi says, it has made 'neuropsychiatric problems soar - anxiety, depression, anorexia - which predispose to drinking'. Secondly, because it blew up age checks on buyers. Professor Scafato explains it well: «During the lockdown online purchases increased dramatically and on the web it is impossible to make sure that the buyer is of age. What appeared as a necessity – everything was closed, you couldn't go out – has become a means of getting around the bans ». The collision between isolation anxiety and the euphoria for 'liberation' then led to an exponential increase in binge drinking (literally binge drinking), drinking a lot and in a short time to get high. Among young women this practice has grown by 40 percent (source: Iss).
If you ask Professor Testino what is an “acceptable” dose of alcohol for a young person, the answer is not a quantity, but a comparison: «The Pope will never tell you to swear in moderation; ethics require us healthcare professionals to tell the truth: even a single glass of alcohol is bad, especially for young people». It is bad for the body: ethanol, i.e. alcohol, has been included by the WHO in group 1 of carcinogenic substances ('Like smoke, like asbestos, like the radiation from Fukushima', lists Testino). And he directs the spirit: 'When you approach a psychoactive substance (therefore also drugs), in children up to 25 years of age the risk of becoming addicted rises by 35 percent compared to what adults run', says the president of the Italian Society of Alcohol.
What happens under the skull of a minor who exaggerates with alcohol is explained by Professor Giulio Maira, a world-renowned neurosurgeon and formidable 'biographer' of the brain (he has written two books that tell the story better than an anatomy treatise: the the latest, to be released by Solferino, is The Magic Loom). «Between the ages of 10 and 20, the temptation to exceed is natural: we are like a horse that is full of energy, but without a rider. This is because the 'seat' of emotion - the area of the limbic system, which drives transgression - is complete, while that of rationality - the prefrontal cortex - is still in formation. Alcohol abuse especially in adolescence, contrasts the correct formation of neural networks and synapses (the 'bridges' between neurons), and interferes with the structuring process of the prefrontal cortex. Each new synapse is one more thing you can learn: if you blow those bridges through alcohol, the damage is serious».
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HER TALE TO THE CHILDREN - Now Gabriele does socially useful work at the Croce verde in Quarto, «where I found a fantastic environment, and I hope that sooner or later they will hire me. You have to take care of the day, otherwise it's the end of it». He repeats several times that you can muzzle physical addiction, but mental addiction «you carry it on forever: I take antidepressants and anxiolytics, I do psychotherapy. Without this help, I wouldn't make it. Sometimes I have small relapses, because the idea of quitting completely drives me crazy: but I know it's like playing Russian roulette ». Last week he went to an elementary school to tell the hell out of him to the kids. «In high school they would make fun of me, these children listen to you, they ask questions. I hope to leave him something. To show them the rag I was, and the person I'm back to being.'
WHY THEY DRINK - But why are these guys drinking? We polled sociologists, child neuropsychiatrists, psychologists specializing in addictions. The most convincing answer was given to us by a priest, Don Salvatore Giuliano, parish priest of the basilica of San Giovanni Maggiore, in the historic center of Naples. One Saturday a month, he leaves his church open until late at night: «I pick up the rubble of the nightlife in the alleys, 12 or 13-year-old kids thrown like balls of yarn on the sidewalks. We bring them here, we listen to them. In my opinion most of them are victims of the 'pacifier syndrome'. When a newborn cries, the cry is stopped with the pacifier, and instead that cry should be translated, decoded (perhaps it wants to be hugged or changed). And when that newborn grows up, we continue to shut his mouth, we get him used to keeping his communication inside. This plugged communication becomes dynamite. And sooner or later it explodes.