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.
Even when I was a very young child, I saw and felt the heaviness of a family being torn apart by alcoholism when my father drank. I say that I felt it, because I too young to have words to put to what I saw. What I did have was really bad childhood eczema. I had an awful, itchy, scabbing skin rash all over my hands and feet for years. It was agony for a kid who just wanted to be the same as everyone else. I was teased by other children because of the obvious skin deformity, the big scabby blisters and redness on my fingers and toes. I had to soak my feet in purple medicated water, so my extremities also took on a purplish color, instead of the smooth brown skin that I have today. As an adult, I've researched the causes of eczema and learned that stress is a key factor. I believe I wore my family dysfunction in that physical manifestation. I grew up perpetually the oddball.
I got it from day one, because really, they were all waiting for me, as they are for all drunks that come in off the streets of despair and into the rooms with the solution.
It's no surprise that even though I went to meetings my whole young life, I still developed alcoholism as soon as I had access to liquor. With my first drink, I was instantly relieved of the fear, doubt and insecurity that had plagued me since I can remember. This was the elixir. I felt smart, pretty, thin and popular when I drank. As soon as I could, I drank as much and as often as possible. I started at family parties when my parents weren’t looking, I hustled beer in high school and went to as many keggers as I could get to in the college town where I grew up from ages 13 to 22. I ended my drinking career on the East Coast in a small apartment that I rented after college while doing an internship in Washington, DC—isolated, afraid and lonely, nine days after my 24th birthday.
I got it from day one, because really, they were all waiting for me, as they are for all drunks that come in off the streets of despair and into the rooms with the solution. I had the language down, I knew the drill and I realized in those early days, that I really was just like my dad. Just like my mother had said all those years ago. But, unlike my dad, I did not have to relapse and come in and out of the rooms. It's been over 26 years now. I've also given up cigarettes, caffeine, flour and sugar, and have been a vegetarian for years. I practice yoga and I have traveled to 16 different countries with my husband of 20 years and my two daughters. I've raised my children in a clean and sober home: no fighting, no chaos, no alcohol-related drama. The remnants of my childhood atmosphere show up as the One Day at a Time signage and the Serenity Prayer in the kitchen.
I am the next generation of recovered alcoholics. The cycle of alcoholism, family violence and poverty ended with my father when he passed it on to me, my older brother and my sister. I am not just passing on the solution and the miracle of recovery to my children, nieces and nephews like my dad did to us; I'm passing on the legacy of reaching for your dreams and living your purpose. I was able to graduate from college and law school and obtain a prestigious position as an elected official. My girls have never seen me drink alcohol. They've only seen me work hard, dream big, go to my meetings, work with my sponsor, sponsor other women and pick up my birthday chips. They only know that the sky is the limit and that whatever they want to be, they can be—even if involves some day one of them having to attend a 12-step meeting.
Eleanor Rose is the pseudonym of a writer who lives in California with her husband of 20 years and two teen-aged daughters. She's a faithful member of Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous, and the author of The Disease of More and The 12 Principles to Wellness.