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Stop Talking About My Age

I came into AA when I was 18. That doesn’t mean we have to keep talking about it.

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Taking my seat. No need to congratulate me. Photo via

By Taylor Ellsworth

09/30/12

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Nothing makes me want to angrily stomp out of a meeting or take up smoking (again) more than hearing something like, “It’s so great to see you young folks in here,” or “You’re so lucky you were able to get sober at such a young age—I never could have done it,” and so on. Not only is it condescending but it’s also cross talk and it juxtaposes the under-30 meeting-going set with the so-called adults to highlight our differences. It’s the same treatment I got when I was little and saw the Sarah McLaughlin animal commercials. I would tearfully tell my parents that I wanted to save the animals of the world and they’d give each other knowing smiles while patting my head, reveling in my gumption and pluck, while holding onto the knowledge that I would never, ever save all those one-eyed puppies and scruffy kittens. When someone tells me that it’s so great that I found AA at my age, the only part of the sentence I hear is “your age” and then I know that this person thinks that I am different from everyone else.

Nobody would ever point out a homeless man during a share and say, “It’s so great to see a homeless person here!”

Nobody wants to be singled out at a meeting. If I’m not missing the point, AA’s only requirement—a desire to stop drinking—exists to avoid, if possible, excluding any drinkers or drug users who may find help within the rooms. When someone congratulates me for finding the path to recovery at my age, it reminds me that I don’t fit the norm. This often happens when someone is sharing in a meeting. They welcome the newcomers, congratulate those with sobriety birthdays, then commence to discuss how incredible it is, or what a miracle it is, that the young people in the crowd had the courage to get sober, as if we are their children who’ve just won a T-ball game. My face turns red and I don’t know how to act. Suddenly, though I didn’t raise my hand to share, all eyes are on me because I am one of the “youngsters” in the crowd that some suit-wearing, 50-year old man who looks like a modern day Bill Wilson chose to single out. Do I thank the stranger for using the guise of a compliment to remind me that I don’t belong? I could ignore his comment, or I could I smile and wave at the crowd, welcoming the stares like a rodeo princess at a parade; instead I usually settle for an awkward half-smile while I dig to China with my pupils until he’s done comparing his 20 years of drinking to my five.

Meetings exist to provide a forum where alcoholics can identify with one another; they provide a temporary safe harbor where we can all be ourselves because we know we fit in. Though people toss this pseudo-complement about young people around at meetings, nobody would ever point out a homeless man during a share and say, “It’s so great to see a homeless person here!” That would only remind the homeless man that he is a misfit; instead, we treat him like we would everybody else, ostensibly in the spirit of the third tradition. Anyone is welcome in AA: homeless, one percent-ers, felons, drug addicts, Christians, Buddhists, Atheists, 20-year-olds, 80-year-olds, Native Americans, whites, African Americans, and everything else in between. Why, then, aren’t young people in AA given the same one-size-fits-all treatment as any other group?

Maybe it’s jealousy that motivates people to point out my age. Young people are privileged in that we’re often able to avoid the pain that comes with drinking through college, marriage, starting a family, working on a career, and the general tribulations of adulthood. We are addiction escapees, sliding under the chain-link fence that separates alcoholic prison from the free world while the rest of our kind serve full sentences. I’m not sure what sets my young peers and me apart from those who get sober much older. Maybe I got tired of my bullshit excuse for a life at 18 because I have a lower tolerance for pain than the grandma who goes to the grave with a glass of gin in hand. Maybe it was circumstance—my parents have been in and out of the rooms my whole life; it was inevitable that I would eventually end up in the same place. Maybe it was sheer dumb luck—they say that we get these moments of clarity and it’s up to us whether we use them or not. If I hadn’t called my dad and asked him to take me to a meeting when I did, I might not have gotten another moment of clarity or grace or whatever it was for another whole decade of blackouts, cocaine binges and regret—if I made it that long. I’m fairly certain there is nothing particularly special about me or anyone else that gets sober at 18, or 22, or 15. We get lucky, whether it’s our environment, tolerance for misery or just random cosmic circumstances. Which means that we don’t need to be congratulated as if we won the sobriety Special Olympics or condescended to as if we didn’t earn our seats like everyone else. Nobody ends up in a room of AA by accident; I just want to be given a chance to exist in peace within the confines of its walls.

Regardless of the various motives that drive fellow AA’s to comment on my age, it minimizes the validity of my alcoholism. The implicit ageism within the statement is much less visible than the type of ageism that’s directed at the elderly. When someone says, “It’s so great that she is going back to school at her age,” it translates to a thinly veiled stab at the person going back to school for living on a timeline that doesn’t match up with the rest of the world’s. It’s so much easier to write off ageism against young people; those who perpetrate it will likely, if criticized, insincerely list all the reasons they wish to still be young whippersnappers. Infantilizing me within an AA meeting is akin to straight up telling me that my alcoholism is a childish delusion. The implied message written between the lines of “It’s so great to see you youngsters here—I couldn’t have done this at your age” is: you haven’t experienced the same pain as me because you are still so young; you and I are fundamentally different; you don’t belong here. It makes me feel alien in the very place that is supposed to feel like home.

The constant reminders of the vast differences between my life and the lives of other alcoholics reinforces an insecurity that nearly all young people in AA battle: that we aren’t bad enough alcoholics. Tales of homelessness and shooting up with dirty needles make my war stories of drunkenly peeing on myself sound like fairy tales. My story will never stand up to the gravity of those that most alcoholics’ and addicts’ tell. People who partied alongside me have already gone on to study abroad, take on internships, and start families. For many of them, it was just a phase. For me, there might always be that free-floating question mark: that fear that I don’t quite belong in AA; the idea that maybe, just maybe, as an adult, I might be able to manage to drink and do drugs socially in a way I couldn’t as a teen. It doesn’t matter whether other people “buy” my alcoholism or not. What matters is that I continue to be sold on it, in order to remain sober, and external factors, however small, can impact that from time to time. There is enough pressure to be a normal, drunk 20-something from my former schoolmates, co-workers, the media, and my own psyche; I wish that I didn’t have to face it in AA as well.

It’s undeniably true that I will probably never experience some of the pain that countless other alcoholics have suffered as the result of lifetimes of drinking and using themselves nearly into their graves. I don’t know what it’s like to forget to pick my kids up from school because I have to get high first or to fail out of school because I can’t maintain both full-time drinking and full-time student statuses in conjunction. Hopefully, I’ll never know. What I do know is the crippling social anxiety and depression that descend with the force of an angry Justin Bieber fan girl Twitter mob when the coke runs out and the Sailor Jerry’s runs dry; I know what it’s like to think of nothing but how much I hate myself when I’m not completely obliterated. Those feelings alone are enough to qualify anyone for AA forever. 

It might appear that I’m overreacting here. If this were a one-time instance, I might be, but I hear some version of the phrase at nearly every meeting I attend that isn’t labeled Young Peoples’ on the meeting schedule. On the rare occasion that the age comment is truly meant as a sincere compliment, the merit of such a statement still falls flat. Alcoholism, and with it, AA, weren’t facets of life that I got to choose or really ever wanted—they just happened to me. I’m in recovery because I was born an alcoholic and I will die an alcoholic, and I have made the choice every day for nearly four years to try and make the best of my situation. And—I hope—that would be true if I showed up in the program at 18, 28 or 98.

Taylor Ellsworth writes from Portland, Oregon. She also wrote about getting fired by a sponsee and managing her eating disorder, among many other topics, for The Fix. Follow her on Twitter here.

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