Imagine that it’s 2:00 am in Las Vegas. Hordes of teenagers and 20-somethings are thrashing their wet hair and throwing themselves against each other, ostensibly dancing to the static-y beat of Lil Jon and LMFAO’s “Get Outta Your Mind.” An abundance of tattoos—multicolored roses, cheetah spots, insects, seemingly arbitrary dates—are visible beneath the film of sweat that seems to cover everything in the room as one couple makes out in a chair. Almost as many people are gathered up outside, engulfed in a cloud of tobacco smoke. Girls in neon mini dresses and fake lashes shiver in the nighttime desert wind as they chatter with clumps of boys in backwards baseball hats.
Now imagine, six hours before, the same horde of kids clasping hands to recite the Serenity Prayer in unison after sitting through a two-hour speaker meeting and sobriety countdown. The mix of people is so diverse that it could only be an AA meeting: there are 13-year old Candy Kids with pink and purple hair; two 80-year old men who got sober before the last two editions of the Big Book were published (like the rest of AA, conferences are not limited to any age group; those who define themselves as “young at heart” often attend and are welcomed as easily as the 15-year olds); tanned bros who patrol the hallways shirtless in aviator sunglasses, channeling the Situation; hipsters in ragged denim, smoking American Spirits and looking bored.
Instead of bonding over a pile of white powder and cases of beer, we were bound by our shared affliction and the choice we had all made to rejoice in spite of it.
This all takes place at a cleverly acronymed annual young people’s AA conference (WACYPAA, or Western Area Conference of Young People in AA) where teenagers and 20-somethings from all over the country gather for a weekend of nonstop energy drinking, dancing, gambling, 12-stepping, games of Love Thy Neighbor (our generation’s version of the game where you reveal scandalous details of your past to random strangers while discovering who has done similar things), hot-tubbing, and sobriety. While dancing, nobody seems to notice the irony of the lyrics as the speakers make the whole room vibrate: “Flip cup, tip cup, beer pong, shots/N*ggas on the Goose, bitches on my jock/Bartender, gimme whatcha got/They’re dancing on the table, I got n*ggas smoking rocks.”
The first time my friend told me about young people’s conferences in AA, he described it as “a ton of fucking crazy sober young people. Lots of energy drinks, sex, and no sleep.” I was 18 years old and two months sober, which means that I was practically foaming at the mouth to be a part of the epic three-day sobriety party that he described. My addiction had yanked me out of the world that I thought I was supposed to be a part of and I knew I would probably never stay up past dawn in the Ace Hotel railing coke with my friends. Yet I was determined for sobriety not to let my youth pass me by.
On the eve of my second conference (my first was in Eugene, only a few hours from home), about 20 of us boarded the same $90 Spirit Air flight from Portland International Airport. When we got off the plane in Vegas, a limousine was waiting in the parking lot, courtesy of a member of our young, sober crew. It was absolutely surreal; I, of the addict parents and student-loan income, was gobbling an In ‘N’ Out burger (animal style) surrounded by my best friends while I watched the neon lights and palm trees pass by in a limousine as it cruised down the Vegas strip. And I remember every glittery, knockoff-Barbie-plastic moment of it.
By the end of day three, I’d been to Caesar’s Palace, Aria, and all the other overpopulated attractions in between. I’d pretended to shop at Louis Vuitton and Tiffany, mindlessly fed the aesthetic seizures that are slot machines, and watched my peers throw their bodies around the dance floor. I was tired, but not tired enough for bed.
That morning, a group of us had risen at 7—the absolute crack of dawn, really pushing the impossible—to perform a bid skit, which is, essentially, a 15-minute long play consisting of community-theater caliber humor, big egos and off-key but heartfelt song and dance performed for a committee of former conference-throwers and anyone else willing to get up at 7 am. All of the roughly 10 skits that were performing were competing to host the conference in their cities in the upcoming year. The committee awards the conference to whichever city has the strongest need—it has little to do with the skit, but it’s still an intrinsic part of the conference experience. Ours was a condensed caricature of one of our committee’s business meetings, complete with an exaggerated 13th-step scenario—one of our male members aggressively explaining to a young woman after the “meeting” ended not to hesitate to call him if she needed anything—and the control-freak rage that often rears its ugly head at AA business meetings. We had stayed up until 5:00 am the night before, rehearsing until it felt like we could all recite the script in our sleep. Maybe it was the lack of rest, but when we got on stage, nearly every alcoholic among us blanked on their lines and failed to improvise with much success. It didn’t matter though; what mattered were the hours we’d spent the night before, eating bologna and mayonnaise sandwiches for lack of better options, cackling hysterically when the same person forgot his second line for 30 minutes straight. It was the camaraderie of pushing towards a shared destination until dawn with those closest to us. Instead of bonding over a pile of white powder and cases of beer, we were bound by our shared affliction and the choice we had all made to rejoice in spite of it.
By navigating my teens (and now, my 20s) sober, I know that all I’m missing out on is more blacked-out nights of shameful undressing and slurred confessions of hatred and/or desire. When I drink, a switch flicks inside of me and the invisible chamber that holds my heart and morals goes dark. I don’t need to re-prove it to myself; I’ve proven it enough times and I’ve seen enough of my family members struggle to maintain the veneer of a career and family while failing to manage their addictions. I don’t want that life, that infuriating cycle of endlessly treading violent waters.