January 2011: Young, Drunk and Broke
From the January 2011 Grapevine Magazine
Sleeping in a dumpster was just the beginning of the end
"I no longer had any control whatsoever. I hit the bottom of the barrel."
I grew up in a family environment that was riddled with both alcoholism and drug addiction. As far back in my memory that I can go, I remember my mom or some other parental figure drinking or using some type of drugs. By the age of 12, drinking alcohol was something everyone did everywhere, all the time.
This was also when my mom decided she needed help and went to AA. She often took me along with her while she attended meetings and I hung out playing pool in the room below the meeting. By age 15 I was attending Alateen on a regular basis and by 17 was going on and off to AA for myself. I ended up in a treatment facility after overdosing on drugs and drinking a massive amount of hard liquor.
My stay in that facility was my first real attempt to stay sober, though I was not completely convinced I had a serious problem and I found sobriety fleeting at best. I relapsed one more time and this time I found myself in even more serious trouble. I was arrested with a case of cheap beer and a lot of illegal drugs. It turned out that the arresting officer knew my family (who by now lived in another state) and convinced my parents to take me in one last time, on the condition that I stay sober when I arrived. I agreed and drove to the city where my parents were living ready to start my new life in AA.
I attended an AA meeting there that day only to find the members were all at least 30 years my senior. I was 18 years old, in a retirement community, trying to get sober. I used the “I am too young” excuse and in a short time found myself on the streets again.
This time everything was different. I found I no longer had any control whatsoever—I couldn’t stop for any reason. This relapse lasted for about seven months and in that time I hit the bottom of the barrel. I ended up staying in a dumpster behind a fast-food restaurant because I couldn’t afford a hotel room. Even at this level I didn’t believe AA would work for me; after all, I had been in and out of AA for the last few years. AA didn’t work for people like me—people my age.
Then one day I had a very different thought shoot through my mind—if I didn’t stop drinking I was going to die. It didn’t matter if AA worked or not; I needed help. So I decided to give AA meetings one last shot. I got a hotel room and stayed sober for the next few days. One evening, all the street friends I had showed up at my door and brought drinks and drugs. That night I couldn’t get drunk or loaded no matter how much I put in my body. I told my friends it would be the last time I ever drank with them and asked them all to leave and not come back.
That was Jan. 7, 1982, the day that turned out to be my sobriety date. I had just turned 19. When I walked into the AA meeting place again, the same old people were there and they all welcomed me back. I sat just long enough to hear the beginning of Chapter 5 of the Big Book. It was like someone had hit me on the head with a club—every word applied to me. That was almost 29 years ago now and Chapter 5 still has the same impact today.
Being sober in 1982 at 19 was such a very lonely experience, it’s almost hard to describe. Everyone I met my age was in the midst of the “wild life.” In my entire city there were only three other AA members under 21 and none of us liked each other. When I faced problems in AA and asked other members for help, they would just look at me and tell me, “When I was your age I was drunk! Sorry, I don’t know what to tell you—you’re going to have to figure it out yourself.” Well I did, often with horrible results. I often share that I have made all the same mistakes any other person has made, either in AA or not. Only I couldn’t say, “Yeah, I did that, but I was drunk when I did it.” I had to admit that I made those same mistakes sober and had to stand up and be accountable for my actions later. I found it was all just a part of growing up, only I grew up in AA, literally.
I stayed through the end of my teens, through my 20s, through my 30s, and now through most of my 40s. I didn’t just read the Twelve Steps, Twelve Traditions and Twelve Concepts; I have made them a part of my life and learned to live their principles. My life today is absolutely incredible.
Because I got sober so young, I am able to reach just about any young person who walks into AA and let them know that AA will work at their age, that alcohol doesn’t see age, sex or heritage—it’s an equal opportunity destroyer. I usually direct them to the local Young People in AA meetings and also try getting them involved in our Local Young People’s Committee, which supports other larger state young people’s conferences. In California it’s ACYPAA, which stands for All California Young People In Alcoholics Anonymous, something that I had the privilege to chair here in 1999. Two years ago our area was awarded the ACYPAA conference again, and with an entirely new group of young people running it, became the largest ACYPAA conference to date. I have literally watched a fellowship rise around me. Today there are several thousand “young people” members in this state alone, something I never dreamed I would see. Today I am a part of a growing number of once young people in AA who have stayed sober for many years and found a life, and lifestyle, that is so far beyond anything I could have ever hoped to have all those years ago when I stumbled back into AA for the last time.-- Jamie L.