Growing Up in the Rooms of AA
A childhood of AA meetings didn't save me from my own drinking problem. But at least I knew where to go when my own end came.
I was raised in the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. My mother has been going to Alanon since I was two years old because my father was a falling-down, sometimes violent drunk. She knew almost from the beginning that I was also likely to be an alcoholic. She would lecture me about how I was “just like my father,” and told me that I was self-centered, selfish, stubborn and never thought of others. My mother coped the best she could, but she saw the writing on the wall and couldn’t help but break into the occasional diatribe. I remember thinking to myself, “Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” I was seven.
My father was in and out of the rooms of AA. He got sober and then he would drink, go to jail, get sober, drink and get arrested again. I'm pretty sure that mom knew I was an alcoholic long before I took my first drink because I had all the early symptoms: sugar cravings, irritability and extreme self-centeredness. Throw in the genetics and the chaotic home life and the die was cast. I came by my addiction quite honestly.
I'm second generation AA. I was that child running around the meetings when everyone was trying to share and refrain from using profanity because there was a child in the room.
They say that we're all prayed into the rooms by someone. My mother knew that it was only a matter of time before I would have to attend a 12-step program—she tells me that she began praying for me early. I'm pretty sure that while other mothers were hoping that their children would finish high school and get into a decent college, mine was praying that I lived through high school without getting arrested or pregnant. That's definitely the kind of adolescent I was. Just surviving adolescence was a miracle.
So I'm second generation AA. I was that child running around the meetings when everyone was trying to share and refrain from using profanity because there was a child in the room. I loved AA, loved everything about it. The smoking, the smell of coffee, the sweets that were always around and the people. They were smart, funny, compassionate and generous. I remember that one nice couple gave us a huge, beautiful cherry-wood kitchen table. I still have that table in my own kitchen today. I don't recall a single negative memory from those meetings.
I also loved AA because when my dad was going to those meetings, there was no hitting, yelling or police activity at our house. I didn't have to hide with my sisters, crouched in our bedroom, when the violence started, with no idea what was happening or when it would end. When dad was going to AA our family had periods of relief and even joy. Those are the memories I cherish most. We had meetings at our house. The women were in the kitchen and the men were in the living room talking. This was the 1960s. My dad smoked Lark and Taraton cigarettes and I loved emptying out the ashtrays.
I played AA, instead of house: at four or five years old, I would set up the odds and ends of chairs I could find around the Section 8 apartment complex that we lived in, on our porch behind our apartment. I would pass out ashtrays and set up a podium. I would always be the speaker. I have no idea what I could have been saying, but all the neighborhood kids came to the meeting and I remember feeling admired and purposeful. It's no wonder that later when I got into AA at the age of 24, that I really did feel like I was coming home.
My father’s alcoholism caused our family to be thrown into various situations that most other children don't experience. I remember visiting him at “work” on the weekends. It was actually jail—where my father was allowed to do yard work, wearing a bright orange jump suit. We would drive by, say hello, give him some food and leave. I think now, knowing what I know about the criminal justice system, that he must have been doing some sort of weekend work program as a jail sentence. I can't imagine today that anyone’s family would be able to drive by and give an inmate lunch, but that's what we did then.
I remember watching Mayberry RFD and feeling great compassion for Otis, the town drunk. I later realized that my father was the town drunk. I was always so happy when Otis would sober up—and when my father did. My father would not drink for stretches at a time. Everything was different when he was sober. The atmosphere was lighter; we were all happier.
But I also know that I waited. I was a vigilant child and I knew intuitively that the monster would be back. It was just a matter of when.