Lying on the floor of his friend's bedroom, Ricki Cochran opened his eyes to a massive hangover. His mouth was dry, his head was throbbing, he wanted to throw up. He was 11. The night before he had guzzled so much alcohol he'd passed out. He and two mates had downed a bottle of bourbon and a case of beer. It was his first time drunk, but not his last. Not by a long shot.
His parents had recently split and Ricki was messed up. He drank to be cool, to fit in with an older, surfing crowd and to numb himself of the pain. His older mates not only encouraged him but continued to ply him with booze. When he didn't have the money, which was almost all the time, they bought it for him.
Addiction came slowly, creeping up on him like a relentless, thirsty shadow, ruining his life and damaging his soul.
"After that first time I continued to drink occasionally with my older mates, to have fun and just get hammered," says Ricki. "But by the time I turned 13 I started drinking heaps. For two, three years I drank non-stop. When I was awake I was drunk most of the time. I was drunk more than I was sober. I'd start about lunch time and keep on going until I passed out at night."
He drank spirits, if he could afford it, mostly pre-mixed cans. When he ran out of money he'd drink anything he could get his hands on. He'd be wherever there was booze and that was mostly in MacCabe Park, Wollongong, where he would waste his days sitting with nothing much to do but drink alcohol with his mates.
"It got to the point when I couldn't remember what I'd done or where I'd been," he says. "I began to have these huge blackouts. It wasn't a good place to be in."
Ricki left school half-way through year 8, never to return. Now at 17, realising his job prospects are low, it's his biggest regret. His three attempts to complete year 10 through various training programs failed due to his addiction.
He knows life would be easier if he had stayed at school to finish his education. At a time when he should be feeling like he has the world at his feet, there's nothing but a sense of hopelessness as he tries to crawl his way up out of a black pit of addiction.
His prospects, though, aren't good and life at the moment is bleak. All of the TAFE courses he's interested in are full, and some job recruitment agencies won't consider him because he hasn't yet completed his year 10 certificate. It's a vicious circle, but one he's determined to break.
"To think that I could have done my year 10 three times over by now, I'm disappointed with myself," he says. "It's not a good situation to be in. I don't have a job, I'm stuck without work, the most I can do is try to keep busy as a volunteer.
"Drinking took me down the wrong path in life. It made me not go to school. I've made some really bad choices, choices I really regret."
Ricki now has the seasoned mind of a recovered drunk. Thoughts of partying well into the night on his 18th birthday, the age he can legally drink, seem pointless to him. He has lost his youth to a wasted, stupefied state, of which he has little or no memory.
"I did a lot of silly things when I was drinking," he says. "But since I've stopped I've not done one thing I'm ashamed of."
Ricki's risky behaviour included almost being hit by trains as he stumbled along tracks on his way home from marathon drinking sessions, getting into numerous fights and tattooing a picture of a skull and Grim Reaper onto his friend's leg.
"I was drunk at the time, but I remember I did manage to put gloves on," he says. "I think what I'd really like to tell young people is that they should stay kids while they can. There's plenty of time to drink when they turn 18. Stay away from alcohol until then. If someone offers it to you don't do it. Trust me on that. You don't want to go there. Don't drink."
In the past 10 months Ricki has made huge changes to his life with help from a range of programs at Access Community Group.
Twice a week he works in the group's garden at Corrimal, where he talks to youth workers about his addiction and employment and education prospects.
Not only has he avoided heavy drinking, he's managed to stay away from Wollongong in case he's tempted by the lure of MacCabe Park and his old drinking buddies.
Youth worker Kim Robin says Access helps young people reclaim their life by reconnecting them with education and training and warning them of the dangers of risky behaviour.
"There's a huge cross-section of kids from the community that tap into our programs and a large percentage of them are using drugs and alcohol," says Robin. "What we do is deliver programs that educate kids and warn them of risky behaviours. So that when they do go out and drink they keep themselves and their friends safe."
For Ricki, being able to work in the garden keeps his mind off having a drink.
"At the moment I'm just trying to keep myself occupied and this is a good way to keep busy," he says. "I'm really trying to do the right thing now, trying to stay on track. I was a hard alcoholic but I'm just trying to stick to myself."
A recent survey shows the average age that a young person has their first drink today is at 15½, compared to the '60s when a teenager would wait until they were 19.
Young Queenslander of the Year Chris Raine was 10 when he first got drunk, at his father's third wedding. The next time he was 13. In year 10, his entrepreneurial skills had him smuggling $10 bottles of booze into boarding school and selling them to his mates for $20 a pop. To help pay his way through university he later worked as a marketing manager at a nightclub.
While his family weren't big drinkers, alcohol was a big part of Raine's life before he'd even reached 20.
While working for an advertising agency in Brisbane, Raine was given the task of coming up with a creative direction for a youth anti-binge drinking campaign. That gave Raine, then 22, the idea to give up alcohol for a year. He decided to write about his "stone cold sober" experience on a blog he named Hello Sunday Morning.
For Raine, getting smashed on a Friday or Saturday night seemed like the Australian thing to do - now he was forced to go out into the world of nightclubs and bars sober. It was a challenge and his year of sobriety changed his life. He recognised that government fact sheets about alcohol had little impact on young people, what was required was a cultural shift. Australians, he thought, needed to change their attitude towards alcohol.
As notoriously heavy drinkers, Australians drink as a crutch to socialise, to celebrate and to commiserate. Raine plans to change that ethos, to reinvent the Australian psyche.
He has the backing of state governments that collectively have given him almost $700,000 to challenge and inspire Australians to redefine their relationship with the bottle.
So far 5000 people have signed up for the Hello Sunday Morning Challenge. Each one pledges to give up alcohol for three months or longer and if they wish they can blog about their experience on the website. There are no heavy messages about the harmful affects of alcohol, or the toll it takes on society, no 12-step program to follow or professional support. Instead HSMers, as they're called, support and encourage each other as they write about their life without alcohol.
Hello Sunday Morning is now a registered charity and at just 25 Raine has been hailed a revolutionary. In 2011 he was named Young Queenslander of the Year.
"I want people to redefine the value they have in alcohol," says Raine. "Hopefully as a country we can do that. There doesn't have to be this big drinking culture. We can all redefine the way alcohol is used in our lives. There needs to be an exchange in value."
A survey of HSMers shows that there are three main reasons why people drink.
"We've been able to see what people get from alcohol. We know that they drink for confidence," says Raine. "That alcohol stops people having negative thoughts about themselves. It allows them to be someone else for a while. It also helps them deal with stress after a big week or day at work. It's a drug that can stop you feeling angry or anxious. For some young people it can also be about identifying with particular brands of drink."
Raine says meaningful change can be made in people's lives through periods of sobriety.
"When you learn at the age of 15 that drinking gives you confidence, when you see your parents drinking after work, it becomes such a huge part of our life. When you give up drinking and change your attitude towards alcohol, things change. Our lives don't have to revolve around drinking. People are now living different lives because they've made a choice. That choice doesn't have to be forever. We just want people to sign up and have a break from drinking, to have different experiences."
A recent study shows that 80 per cent of NSW residents think Australia has a problem with alcohol abuse and that more than a third of drinkers drink alcohol to get drunk.
Lance Barrie, research manager for the Centre of Health Initiatives at the University of Wollongong, says an industry-based code is failing to protect children from alcohol-related sponsorship and advertising placement in sport.
For example he says in a recent article 75 per cent of kids over the age of 12 could identify the Bundaberg Rum bear.
"That product is promoted widely and is known amongst that age group," says Barrie. "It's my personal view that there needs to be a complete review of alcohol sponsorship in sport, similar to what happened with the tobacco industry. These changes need to be made at a government level and there also needs to be clear exposure of this type of advertising." ■