The Only Kid at the A.A. Meeting

Sarah Heikkinen
Dec 21, 2018 · 6 min read

Fourteen months ago, I had my last drink.

I had never thought anything of my drinking habits until my life underwent some serious changes, but looking back, there was nothing healthy or normal about the nights I’d spend alone, drinking a bottle of that dumb Dave Matthews’ wine or tossing back one gin and cranberry lime seltzer after another. Every time I did it, I’d tell the wary voice in my head that it was fine, I was just having fun, it was “self care” somehow.

I ignored the part of me that truly felt I needed to drink to feel better about myself, because even though I’d seen firsthand what alcohol dependency could do to a person, even after they got sober, it was never going to happen to me. It couldn’t.

But it did. I gained weight, I stayed in a relationship where drinking was 90% of what we did together, and I never started feeling better about myself. And then, on October 27, 2017, I stopped.

My dad is 31 years sober. By the time I was born, he had been clean for seven years, and yet, his addiction was, and still is, an ever-present aspect of my life, even though we don’t have much of a relationship anymore.

I never fully understood his sobriety — and, on another level, his addiction — until my parents separated when I was in second grade. Their split was pretty standard: my mom had primary custody, my dad had me every other weekend. I don’t specifically remember how they told me they were splitting up (maybe it was on the couch, maybe it was at our big, beautiful dining room table that I gave away to a neighbor I barely knew when I moved across the state last fall), but I remember the fighting, and I remember suddenly eating my lunches and talking about my feelings in the elementary guidance counselor’s office with the other divorce kids.

I also remember that the fighting didn’t stop, even after my dad moved out.

I remember trying to distract myself one Sunday while he, locked in the bathroom, screamed into the phone that he hoped my mom died, and not understanding why. A few years earlier, when I was eight or nine, I had to comfort him while he cried in his bedroom and said, through tears, “I’m a bad dad.”

That’s when he started taking me to his Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings with him. Part of it was probably convenience — his meetings were on the weekends and I was too young to be left home alone in whatever sketchy apartment he was living in at the time. But looking back, I’m inclined to think that he thought he was being a better father by showing me that part of his life, that he was saving me like he’d saved himself.

A few of the meetings were at my old preschool, a Catholic school about twenty minutes from where I grew up. We would walk in, he’d introduce me to his friends, who always smelled like old cigarettes and looked much older than they were, and I’d grab a stale cookie before he would give me his flip phone to play with and usher me into one of the empty classrooms before the meeting started. I was always the only kid there (surprising!), so I would play with toys I was too old for and books far below my reading level and text my sister blurry pictures of the classroom, feeling cool because I figured out how to text without help. Sometimes, I would peek my head out of the classroom and listen to the meeting. I don’t remember what I’d hear, but I remember people crying.

But looking back, I’m inclined to think that he thought he was being a better father by showing me that part of his life, that he was saving me like he’d saved himself.

None of this stopped me from having my first drink when I was 15. As a child, I’d been adamant that I would never, ever drink or do drugs. Addiction runs in my family — both sides! — so I’d made the decision early that I wouldn’t risk it. I saw how much it hurt my mother, who to this day won’t drink and wishes that her children never started, to have had an alcoholic father and three younger siblings with alcohol and drug addictions. I wanted to be better than them all, for her sake. But I was also curious — maybe it wasn’t so bad, maybe the bad genes skipped me, maybe I could be one of those people who only drank socially and never blacked out after drinking most of a liter of shitty Pinot Grigio at a party in college, and if I was one of those people, it would be fine because I was just having fun, getting the college experience, making memories that could only be recalled through Snapchat stories and blurry pictures of shiny, drunk faces on my phone.

I thought it was normal, wanting to blur out my life with whiskey sours and hazy IPAs I didn’t even enjoy. The birthday shots were supposed to sting. The sex being bad and barely consensual was totally normal. The incoherent sobbing about my dad leaving in bathrooms and bedrooms was just part of it. Drinking was helping me — i was just getting it out of my system. But, unlike my dad, that trauma never really left, despite how many drinks I tried to drown it in. If I’m honest with myself, it probably never will leave. And that’s okay.

…I was just having fun, getting the college experience, making memories that could only be recalled through Snapchat stories and blurry pictures of shiny, drunk faces on my phone.

Now, just to clarify, I don’t have anything against people who drink. I understand that it’s fun, and not everyone who drinks is a drunk. But do I think that the culture that surrounds and promotes excessive drinking is toxic and should be dismantled? Yeah, kinda! Does it genuinely disturb me when people share godawful memes about needing wine after work, or joke about getting a liver transplant because of how w a s t e d they got last weekend? Absolutely!

Don Draper was normal and well-adjusted and treated everyone with respect, right?

I think Vice’s Eve Peyser said it best in her article, “How I Quit Drinking in a World that Wants Me Drunk”: “You can feel pressured to drink by your peers, but also by a society that expects its young people to be reckless, and is often endeared by it.”

Here are a few facts and figures, courtesy of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: In 2015, over 15.1 million adults and 623,000 adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 in the United States were reported to have Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD). Despite being the third most preventable cause of death in the United States, alcohol kills nearly 90,000 people every year.

If I hadn’t stopped drinking fourteen months ago, I don’t know who, or where, I would be right now. I’ve realized in the past year that I was never as happy when I was drinking than I am now that I’m sober. I still have a lot to work on — like, a lot — but I’m not drowning it in pink gin anymore.

Being the only kid at the AA meeting taught me a lot. It showed me what the reality of addiction, and the overcoming of it, truly is — sitting in a preschool classroom on a Saturday afternoon with a group of people you would have never become close to under any other circumstances, smoking cigarettes with shaking hands and red eyes fifty feet away from the door after telling that group about what you wanted to forget, trying to hold it all together.

Maybe those lessons didn’t stick as soon as they should have, but that’s okay.

I’m here now.

Sarah Heikkinen

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I’m a Troy, NY-based freelance journalist, aspiring critic, and hypocritical vegan. More info/inquiries here:

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