The Life and Death of Danger Girl: A Firsthand Look at Why Good Kids Get Wasted

Sep 17, 2020

Last night, I was driving home late when I came upon a terrible accident where a car was literally wrapped around a tree.  It turns out that the driver was someone that I know and love and while I pray for his recovery, I can’t help but think about all of the kids who are making destructive decisions because “Just Say No” doesn’t even begin to touch on the real reasons they drive recklessly, binge drink and abuse drugs. 

Kids aren’t saying yes to life-threatening activities because they are dumb, they are doing it because they are numb.  The truth is that dangerous activities meet their needs, mask their trauma, and alter their state and this happens no matter what neighborhood they grow up in or who their parents are.  This I know firsthand.

I am a friendly, outgoing, “people person”, I have above average intelligence and a loving family, and I can drink a fifth of Jack Daniels straight from the bottle and still function.

Guess which one of these traits helped me meet my needs as a teen. 

I’ll give you a hint – it wasn’t my brain or bubbly personality.

My ability to drink obscene amounts of hard liquor at a young age earned me the respect and admiration of my peers and my older brothers, it gave me a new level of confidence, and it also led to the birth of my alter ego.

“Danger Girl” was born on the top deck of a cruise ship in the Mediterranean when I was 17 and her antics became legendary.  Truthfully, my liver was already renowned at this point in my high school career, but giving a name to the phenomenon took everything to the next level. 

Danger Girl had moves like Jagger, muscles like the Incredible Hulk, and a very un-Patty like ability to flirt and act with absolute confidence around anyone and everyone.  She also had a tendency to get emotional, do stupid things, and completely black out, but those things rarely made the morning recap (which I affectionately referred to as the “Damage Report”) because she was so “fun” and incredibly “hilarious”. 

Even after the naming of Danger Girl, I was not the kind of kid most people would peg for party girl.  Thankfully there was no such thing as social media back then, so my binge drinking never negatively interfered with my reputation or my academic success and most adults would never guess what I was up to on the weekends.  The same was true for my entire posse full of academically successful, well-behaved kids from good families and that is why this story is a really just catalyst for a very important, and much bigger conversation.

To add just a little more context to this story, I was also raised in a family where addiction runs deep and my goal in life was to become a teacher.  So, I was bright and fully aware of the negative consequences of substance abuse and I STILL chose to drink my face off.  That leads us to the important question at hand – one that has taken me more than a decade to dig through:

Why would a kid like me who had “everything going for her” and very compelling reasons NOT to drink make such destructive choices?

If you would’ve asked me back then, I would’ve told you it was because it was fun and it definitely didn’t seem destructive when I felt like a rock star and was finally getting the attention and connection that I constantly craved.  At that point, I had no clue about coping mechanisms, emotional trauma, or my basic human needs, but it turns out those things all had an important role in my weekly rendition of “white girl wasted”.

It also makes complete sense that I have devoted my career to teaching young people about coping mechanisms and human needs while giving them empowering tools to manage stress and emotional trauma.  We often teach what we need to learn the most and, on my journey of growth and healing, I had to lay off the Jack and look a little deeper at my behavior and my beliefs.

I wish I could say that Danger Girl died because I had some sort of epiphany about the dangers of alcohol abuse, but the truth is I didn’t stop binge drinking until I began to suffer from massive anxiety and panic attacks and that didn’t happen until just a few years ago.  Even after watching my mom go to rehab and losing my older brother in a drunk driving accident, I kept lining up the shots because I thought I was different – I didn’t drink every day, I didn’t crave alcohol, and I could drink most grown men under the table, so drinking was clearly my gift and not an unhealthy coping mechanism.

I thank God every day that I lived through that phase without becoming a full-blown dysfunctional addict.  I am so glad that I survived without getting caught, hurt, raped, or killed.  I have even found gratitude for the panic and anxiety that led me to stop because without that, I would just be another example about how easy it is to get away with doing stupid stuff. The unfortunate truth is that I know I am one of the lucky few and sober life still doesn’t always meet my needs at the same level Danger Girl did.  This is where I want to shine some light for young people and the adults who love them. 

I mentioned earlier that Danger Girl met many of my basic human needs at a high level and I want to explain that a little more clearly so you can explore the areas in your life where these needs may or may not be met.  I also want you to think about how we can encourage young people to meet their needs by making healthy and empowering choices.

No matter our age, race, religion, or background, we all have the same basic human needs and they explain our behavior and our choices – depending on how we prioritize them.  According to Tony Robbins, there are technically six of these needs, but the first four are the core human needs and when a choice or action leads to at least three of these needs being met on a consistent basis, it becomes an addiction.  The problem is that we can become addicted to good choices AND bad choices, so please understand that the following explanation is not intended to glorify my bad choices – it is intended to paint a clear and logical picture about why I perpetuated those choices.

The first need met by Danger Girl was certainty. The teen years are filled with uncertainty, but there were quite a few things that I could be certain about whenever Danger Girl made an appearance.  I was always certain that I would feel great (at least for a while), that I would be the center of attention, and that I would either impress someone or make someone proud with my antics.

As nice as it was to have that certainty, binge drinking also met my need for variety (or, as teens call it, “drama”).  No one ever knew what Danger Girl was going to do or say, what new dance moves she would invent, or which picnic table would become her dance floor.  Danger Girl attracted a large variety of new friends and generally provided at least a few new stories for everyone to tell on a trip down memory lane.

Certainty and variety were important needs for me, but the two that were clearly my biggest focus in retrospect were significance and connection and these two go hand in hand to ultimately illustrate my point about good kids and destructive choices.  I was convinced that Toby Keith wrote the song “Whiskey Girl” about me and chugging whiskey gave me significance because there weren’t many other 130lb female Honors students polishing off a whole bottle in one night.  The ones who did rarely stayed standing and they didn’t head into school the next day to ace an AP exam.  I’m not saying that my other brilliant friends weren’t drinking with me – many of them were, but I was the only one who guzzled liquor like it was my job on a regular basis.  As I created this little drinking niche for myself, complete with a pseudonym and theme song, l had found a new level significance and it felt awesome.

As fun as it was to feel significant in my drinking ability, the thing I most wanted (like many teens) was connection.  Danger Girl created all sorts of connections for me.  I experienced my first reciprocated crush and my first kiss when I was wasted, I made new friends at parties, and my brothers finally expressed pride and admiration for me after I proved myself to be a legit drinking buddy.  Even though all of the above would’ve been possible when I was sober, I was creating a powerful association that many other young people create while drunk or high on drugs or adrenaline.

In addition to meeting these needs, my binge drinking also helped me achieve a positive change in my state.  When I was drunk, I could dance and sing and be seen and those were all things I would never do sober.  While I was partying, I was using my entire physiology and creating the positive neuro-associations that come from that but I was connecting them to the whiskey instead of connecting them to my physiology.  I know I’m getting a little nerdy here, but I basically felt great from the singing and dancing but I had myself convinced that those good feelings were from the booze.  It really is no wonder that I always wanted to drink my face off because it led to me feeling really great.

Paradoxically, I also drank so that I didn’t have to feel at all.  I had a pretty significant amount of emotional trauma – especially in my twenties – and when I was drunk, all of that pain would disappear (or so it seemed).  We all know about the incredible numbing power of drugs, alcohol, food, shopping, etc, but millions of us self-medicate in this way every single day.  Most of us also know that the pain is still there and it often gets worse after we sober up, get on the scale, or check our credit card statements but we keep perpetuating the cycle and that creates a pretty solid pattern for all young people to follow – even the good kids. 

The truth is that my story took place almost twenty years ago and things have gotten much worse.  Now heroin is cheaper than beer and the prevalence of overdoses and deaths related to opioids is a full fledged epidemic.  Even though the drug of choice may be shifting, the patterns and motivations are very much the same.

Luckily, any pattern can be broken and we can all work together to heal.  We all know that the statistics are staggering, but it is important to put faces and names with those numbers so we can heal the epidemic instead of putting a Band-Aid on it. If any of this resonated with you or if you know a “good kid” who may be making some dangerous choices, start with yourself.  Look at how your basic human needs are being met, look at what you do with your unhealed emotional trauma, and pay attention to how you use your body to feel good.  It will never be enough to tell young people what not to do or even to tell them what to do and how to do it if we aren’t willing to do the work ourselves, but the good news is that this new conversation leads to certainty, variety, significance, and connection so we can begin to offer healthy alternatives like mindfulness, aromatherapy, tapping, and other social and emotional skills right from the start.    

Leave me a comment below with your thoughts about giving young people alternative ways to meet their needs and heal their trauma instead of chalking their bad decisions up to their age. 

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