Special Report

Rehab For Kids

One sober journalist squares off with the cutest group of alcoholics you've ever seen.

By 9.14.11

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Stand up straight. Don't talk with strangers. Never chew with your mouth full. Say "please" and "thank you." Don't shoot heroin. These maxims have been repeated by every responsible parent since time immemorial. No one would disagree with such basic nuggets of advice. Except, perhaps, the city fathers of San Francisco, where I once saw a billboard advising junkies that when they shoot up, they should do so with a friend. You know, for safety's sake.

On my first trip to the City by the Bay about ten years ago, I not only saw this billboard, but witnessed two men following the sage advice. One was plunging a hypodermic needle into the eyeball of the other.  Sharing is caring, kids. I should have known I was in a shady area by my surroundings; the men were performing this act in the doorway of a Bloomingdale's, that most obvious sign of urban blight. When I see upscale department stores, the second thing I think of (after being waterboarded with cologne samples) is retinal drug use.

I returned to San Francisco this past weekend, and was confronted with a different, even more obnoxious face of addiction. While wheeling my suitcase into the hotel lobby, I was greeted by hundreds of unruly kids ranging in age from 13 to 18. They were pierced, tattooed, mohawked, and generally attired in the kinds of clothing that teenagers who claim that they don't want attention wear when they are desperate for it. Many were loitering outside the building chain smoking. I asked the woman at the check-in desk what convention was booked for the weekend. She failed to understand that I was discreetly asking about the group of Red Bull chugging brats and so mentioned a conference of German scientists. I did not see any future Wernher von Brauns among the pint sized punk rawkers. But then the woman mumbled something vague about a group of young people.

I spied a conference lanyard for ICYPAA, and through the magic of Google was introduced to the International Conference of Young People in Alcoholics Anonymous. The group is billed as being for younger AA members and anyone with "some growing to do." I can assuredly say that they have some growing to do. They spent the weekend holding loud parties in rooms all over the hotel and abusing energy drinks as ersatz booze. I cannot imagine how these children must have partied on a bender, because they were thoroughbreds even while sober.

ICYPAA was first established in 1958 at a meeting of young Alcoholics Anonymous members from across the country. The group claims to have been "founded for the purpose of providing a setting for an annual celebration of sobriety among young people in AA." Ironic, then, that the group spent the weekend acting decidedly intoxicated. During one meeting, hundreds of conventioneers kept up the mood by listening to the dance hit "Like a G6" by Far East Movement. Lyrics include a reference to sizzurp, a mixture of codeine and promethazine favored by hip hop artists, as well as the boast that "when sober girls around me they be actin' like they drunk." Perhaps the girls in question are ICYPAA attendees.

I spent several hours in the lobby one night people-watching and conversing on Twitter with fellow hotel guests besieged by this odd convention. One of these strangers, a friendly woman by the name of Klaudia Kelly, turned out to be an actress of the adult cinema -- to put it politely. She was dumbstruck by the intensity with which the youngsters of ICYPAA partied, and found it incongruous that they would engage in such behavior as a substitute for substance abuse. Given Ms. Kelly's line of work, I am inclined to trust her professional opinion.

I'm all for self-improvement and I generally have nothing against AA. Thanks to several close friends who are social workers, as well as encounters with substance abusers in my personal life, I know that breaking free of addiction is difficult if not impossible. If you are an addict, the blunt truth is that you are statistically unlikely to recover. AA and other recovery programs have the potential to give people tools to save their own lives. But I can't help but be skeptical of this particular group.

As I looked over the hundreds of teens crowding the hotel lobby, I wondered how many of them were alcoholics and how many were just rebellious youths who had done stupid things in the name of experimentation. Could some of these kids have benefited from more aggressive parenting rather than meetings in dingy church basements culminating in a yearly, caffeine and cigarette powered junket?

The outward appearance of the group also struck me. They all wore the clothing and bore the ink and piercings of those who wish to alienate themselves from mainstream society. You could say that they were conformist in their "non-conformity." Were many of them simply looking for a readymade group of like-minded friends? A chance to bond with people who understood them and could fulfill their basic desire to fit in? A place where everybody knows your name, and they're always glad you came?

Ultimately, I cannot answer these questions because I do not know these kids. Perhaps each and every one of them would be selling their bodies in the streets of Tijuana but for AA. But if that is the case, is the cure worse than the disease? According to ICYPAA's mission statement, the three legacies of AA (recovery, unity, and service) form the backbone of the group. While I certainly saw unity amongst the attendees, I would be hard pressed to give them credit for recovery in light of their unruly behavior. And I saw few signs of good citizenship, let alone service. A young lady scoffed when my wife and I made it into an elevator despite her efforts to close the doors on us. Who was she serving but herself?

From what I witnessed over a short period, these teens act in such narcissistic ways that they stand out even amongst their peers. They claim to be in recovery but send messages at every turn that they wish to be alienated from the mainstream. No reasonable parent would be proud of their behavior.

As I left my hotel just after checkout, I encountered a bum using a frying pan to collect change. While I was a bit spooked by the large and heavily intoxicated man wielding a blunt object, the etymologist in me appreciated the experience. The man yelled after me as I walked past without chipping in for his next bottle of Thunderbird. I chuckled to myself as it dawned on me that this man is running a more honest racket than ICYPAA. He wants money for booze, and uses unveiled threats to get it. But at least he doesn't call his offensive behavior "service."

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About the Author

Bill Zeiser is a communications consultant living in New York City and a 2012 Publius Fellow of the Claremont Institute. Follow him on Twitter @BillZeiser.