Getting Sober Young, Staying Sober Young

By Charlotte Grey 04/03/16

Desperate and broken, I committed to AA because it was the last thing left for me to try. 

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Getting Sober Young, Staying Sober Young
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I took my first alcoholic drink at age 7, blacked out for the first time at 8, got alcohol poisoning at 15, was hooked on angel dust, weed, and cocaine by 17, and could polish off four bottles of wine in a night at 18. I was expelled from high school halfway through my senior year for cocaine use, and arrested with two felonies and two misdemeanors for heroin and Klonopin the following year. By age 20, having already been a daily drinker and user for five years, my tolerance was so high that I could no longer get drunk or high no matter how much I ingested. So the fun was gone, but my body became so physically dependent on drugs that I would uncontrollably vomit if I didn't smoke angel dust and weed every two hours. I was 30 pounds underweight, my nasal passages had swollen shut, and I started displaying symptoms of chronic pancreatitis.

But I was still addicted to the sensation of escape. I loved how hallucinogenics altered my perception and seamlessly alleviated the emotional pain of years of psychological and physical abuse from my parents. My last nine months of using was a torturous reminder of how overpowering addiction is. I went to three inpatient rehabs, two detoxes, a halfway house, an outpatient rehab, and a psychiatric hospital, had woken up to my best friend overdosed next to me, was on probation, had been suspended from college and was facing expulsion, and none of it was painful enough to make me stop. I frustratingly conceded that consequences alone could and would not get me sober.

Enrolled in an outpatient program and attending non-spiritual recovery meetings, I couldn't put more than two days together. I identify with an AA speaker's acronym of HITTING BOTTOM: Hurting Inside, Totally Burnt Out, Turn To Our Master. Desperate and broken, I committed to AA because it was the last thing left for me to try. Suicidal, exhausted, and defeated, I finally got sober through AA at age 20. 

I went to meetings everyday because I didn't want to do anything else. For the first time, I enjoyed them and genuinely looked forward to them. I frequented women's meetings because I felt comfortable to share openly and the local 10 a.m. became my first home group. I was younger than everyone there by at least twenty years. At that point, I didn't care who was at the meetings or how old they were because I just wanted to recover. I don't feel like getting sober young means that I got sober too early, and I don't believe I was spared any amount of pain or hell, contrary to what the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions speculates. My bottom was as emotionally low as I could tolerate before surrendering. I didn't feel I had anything to prove to gain others' acceptance or that I needed others to validate my alcoholic experience for me to believe that I was ready for recovery.

I quickly learned to not compare my story with others'. I identified with the hopelessness and insanity of the disease. Many would talk about how they spilled more than I drank. Someone told me that I had no right to share on the big book chapter "To Wives" because I never married, even though it resonated with me in light of the unmanageable relationship I was trying to end. I understood that the criticism wasn't coming from a bad place, but probably from that person's pain. None of those comments bothered me, none of it deterred me from coming back to AA, and that ageist perspective is by no means exclusive to AA. Some people would sadly confess they wish they could have come in young, feeling they had wasted most of their lives away. 

Just after my ninety days, I got to speak at my home group. I shared honestly and without fear of judgment because in my heart I knew there was nothing that separated us; those who felt we were different only had to discover and discard that false belief for themselves. If anything, drug addiction had accelerated my bottom. After my qualification, nearly every woman confessed that they were humbled and a little shocked at how much they identified with my story, and apologized that they ever had looked at me differently because I was young. I felt honored to have been the conduit of the message to break down those barriers for them.

Just going to meetings and working the steps wasn't enough to solidify my sobriety; I needed a community of friends who lived in the serenity and joy I craved. A woman in my home group took me to a recovery party one night and introduced me to the network I'd been missing since I only went to morning women's meetings. They embraced me unconditionally. Together, we took road trips to Young People in AA (YPAA) conferences, where we would stay up until 6 a.m. dancing, playing Texas hold 'em, and smoking cigars. Years later, a group of girlfriends and I went clubbing until we got bored of it and stopped. With sober friends, I travelled to Puerto Rico, took frequent beach trips, and hopped on a Phish and Grateful Dead tour across the country. 

I got to let the wild energy of youth out of my system because I surrounded myself primarily with sober friends and cared for my recovery. I set aside time for daily prayer and meditation. On tour and on vacation, my friends and I make meetings. And because of our profound and real friendships, we're constantly checking in on each other and are a strong support when someone is in emotional pain or triggered. If any of us feel uncomfortable around the alcohol or drugs, we step outside or leave. Part of having fun in sobriety is being honest with myself about my limits when exposing myself to partying. 

I also make sure that I'm there specifically to enjoy the non-drinking entertainment instead of seeking vicarious fulfillment from my former lifestyle. Most of my friends now are older; I've never felt that I needed to exclusively socialize with young people in sobriety in order to fully enjoy myself. By giving myself permission to savor life, I don't feel I'm missing out on anything, and I combat the part of my disease that tells me doing something high would be more enjoyable. At ten months sober, I turned 21. Twenty of my closest AA friends and I celebrated at my favorite restaurant with my family, my mom ingeniously handing me a card that read, Now that you're 21 you can do all those things you've never done before...like, nothing. It was a funny yet comforting reminder that the glamor of legally drinking is a fantasy I had already shattered. 

I have no regrets or reservations about getting sober at 20. I don't feel "lucky" that I came into AA young because if I had continued drinking and using, I would have overdosed or committed suicide within months. By the grace of my higher power, my pain was great enough to motivate me to change not a moment too soon. Seven years and nine months later, I'm still in recovery and every new sober experience reinforces why I don't want to leave.

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