This article originally appeared on VICE Sweden
Seven years ago, just after I'd turned 18, my dad told me that he had joined Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Apparently he had been regularly going to meetings for six years by then. I'd always known that my dad was incapable of having only one drink, and that he turned into a different person once the second one kicked in. My relationship with him had been strained for a while – right around the time I started noticing he was drinking too much, my parents got divorced. That made me sad and angry at both of my parents, but the fact that my dad drank got me even more upset. When he was drunk, instead of taking care of me, I had to take care of him.
Although there were some pretty bad moments and he became a shitty person when he drank, he was a good father. And it had never occurred to me that he was an alcoholic – that he needed help and support to avoid falling off the wagon.
Once he had confessed, he asked if I wanted to tag along with him to an AA-meeting. I didn't know much about AA. I'd only seen scenes in films, in which people sit together in a circle and say: "Hi, my name is X and I'm an alcoholic." I was also aware of some of the criticism surrounding the organisation – some claim it's overly religious, bordering cult-like, that there's no science behind the treatment. But I'd never had any direct experience with it. Curious – and a little moved by my dad's vulnerability – I accepted his invitation.
We set out to the meeting on a warm summer day. I was in the car with my dad, driving to the outskirts of a Swedish town. I began to feel nervous and worried about how the rest of the group would receive me, but also about how I would react to everything the group members would open up about. What if someone wasn't comfortable with me being there? My dad assured me that if anyone was uncomfortable talking in front of outsiders, they wouldn't join that day's meeting.
We parked the car outside a building, which the organisation rented a couple of days a week from the Swedish Church. We walked in and up a flight of stairs into a rather large room with 15 chairs placed in a circle. We were early. A man, who seemed like he would be running the meeting, greeted my dad and me. He had a friendly face and an American accent. "Your dad has told me so much about you, and you know what, you're lucky to have such a great dad. He has a really big heart, and he has helped so many people here. I'm glad that you're here today!" He was so overwhelmingly nice, that I had no idea how to respond.
More and more people came in – most of them were men and seemed to be in their thirties and fifties. Still being 18, I felt like a baby. Soon, we were all sat in the circle. The friendly guy cleared his throat and opened the meeting.
"Hi, I'm David* and I'm an alcoholic," he said.
"Hi David," everyone, apart from me, answered in unison.
It was just like in the movies.
David welcomed everyone to the day's meeting, and introduced me as Andreas'* son. As it turned out, I was the only family member there. But I felt too nervous to actually speak. Observing seemed fine, but the thought of sharing my personal stories with strangers made my heart beat faster.
"Who wants to go first?" David asked.
There was a short moment of silence before a man raised his hand.
"I'll go first. I'm Mats*, and I'm an alcoholic."
"Hi, Mats." This time I chimed in.
Everyone got the chance to speak, and while all stories were unique, they carried some common themes – a thirst for what you know you can't have, the chaos following a relapse, guilt, shame and sadness.
About 20 minutes in, just as the person to my right had finished speaking, all eyes turned on me. I started to feel panicky again. I hadn't planned on saying anything.
"Hi, my name is Charlie*, and I'm not an alcoholic," I mumbled.
It sounded awkward and the fact that I diverged from the standard phrase earned me a few confused looks. But a few people in the circle replied: "Hi, Charlie."
I thought about what I wanted to say. My own relationship with alcohol is somewhat complicated. I drink when I'm out with friends, sometimes too much. It's happened that I see my dad when I'm hungover, and that always feels awkward. One time, at a Father's Day lunch, it became especially painful – he was so disappointed and I felt like shit. And every once in a while, when I'm upset, I can feel the urge to drink. But then I think about how my dad used to handle his problems by drinking, and that's made it easy for me to ignore the urge. I don't see myself ever getting to the point of drinking to block my feelings. I guess in that regard, something good has come out of my dad's alcoholism.
"I'm here today," I told the group, "because I wanted to see what an AA meeting is like, since I know how much you all have helped my dad." My father smiled at me encouragingly. "I'm very grateful for that, and it's very generous of you to let me be part of the meeting today and allowing me to listen to your stories," I said.
And it was. I clearly remember feeling the lump in my throat when I was done talking – not just because I'm terrible at public speaking, but mostly because I genuinely felt touched hearing everyone's most private stories. They told me things they would normally not have shared with anyone who wasn't a part of their group.
Next, it was my dad's turn to speak. Just like the time at dinner a few months earlier, he introduced himself as an alcoholic. Thankfully though, during this meeting, he didn't bring up any specific moments from before he got sober, when I was growing up. I realised that had been part of my fear of going to this meeting, that I'd have to re-live those experiences with so many people around us. I was just happy that both me and my dad had put all of that behind us. I'm sure he has shared those stories in other meetings, but with me there, he chose to talk about how much better he felt now that he was sober.
Joining an AA meeting with my dad was overwhelming. I felt so many emotions at once – happiness, pride, love, hope and gratefulness, but also a profound sadness considering how difficult life had been for my dad and the rest of the attendees. At the end of the meeting everyone stood up and joined hands. We said the "Serenity Prayer", which I didn't know the words to. It's pretty famous though, starting with "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change..."
I later discussed with my dad that I thought the whole experience felt quite drenched in religion, but he said he felt you don't need to be religious to be in AA. He explained that it does help if you believe in "something bigger than yourself" in order for the steps to make a difference. But he and many other people in AA choose to see the other members as that "higher power". I thought he may have a point there, realising that my relationship to my dad is one of the reasons I try to be a better version of myself.
My dad is about to celebrate 15 years of being sober. To this day, he still goes to meetings and he's told me he is not sure if he'd be able to stay sober if he stopped going – even after all these years. "I go to meetings to be reminded of the fact that I'm one of those people who should never drink. They've helped me a lot," he tells me now. These days, he also acts as a sponsor for other members.
I will never be able to get rid of the memories of everything my father did to himself and our family while he was drunk – but that's alright. We're both so much better off than when he was at his worst. AA isn't for everyone, and it certainly isn't the only way to sobriety, but in our case, I like to focus on the fact that without my dad getting help that way, he might still have been a stranger to me.
*The names of the characters have been changed to protect their anonymity.