Do you ever feel like you were just destined to be friends with someone? You meet and it's not weird at all. It's like you've known each other for years. It's a rare quality in a friendship and I got to experience it this past weekend. I finally met my online friend Beth after catfishing her for a year and a half (I kid.) Our paths crossed in the rarest of circumstances. We both wrote about our sobriety and our posts both got picked up by the Huffington Post in May of 2014. We both wrote each other emails and discovered we shared the same sobriety date. Just like that we became friends. We started talking, texting, and snapchatting daily. A year and a half later, I finally met her in the flesh and blood when she came to Florida last week. Beth came down to go to ICYPAA - the International Conference for Young People in Alcoholics Anonymous and I went with her. She had attended in 2014 and told me it was a good time so I figured since it was in Miami this year there was really no reason for me not to go.
I picked Beth up at Fort Myers airport on Tuesday September 1 and it was like we had already hung out a million times before. We laughed and joked around right away. We headed over to Miami on her birthday (September 2) and the conference started on September 3. I wasn't sure what to expect, but she gave me a little preview and said that it was much different than the typical 12 step groups I go to. Man was she right! My first ICYPAA experience was awesome and I learned these 7 things.
1. Normal 12 step routines are a little different
At a meeting I'm used to saying: Hi, My name is Kelly and I'm an alcoholic. Then everyone says back to me: Hi Kelly! At Young People meetings there is a different way to do this. I would say Hi I'm Kelly and I'm an alcoholic and everyone else says, "Hi Kelly! We love you Kelly! LOTS and LOTS and LOTS! And WHOLLLLEEEEEEEEE BUNCHES!!!" This is said with spirit fingers and a lot of screaming. Additionally, when the infamous "How It Works" section is read before every meeting there are added in shouting parts to poke fun. For example: There are those too that suffer from grave emotional and mental disorders (ME! ME!) - The result was nil until we let go absolutely (WHO'S NIL?) - At some of these we balked (insert noises made by chickens.) During the reading of the 12 steps, there is a 13th step added at the end and something said (I'm not sure what) but the ICYPAA host committee requested that people please refrain from saying this, which I thought was good. I think shouting something about the 13th step would be very disrespectful.
2. ICYPAA is like the greek life of 12 step programs
ICYPAA is like the biggest sober frat party of the year. People come from all over the world to attend and some scrape together pennies just to be there. I didn't understand just how involved YPAA is. They don't just have this conference. Each state has their own conference (Florida = FCYPAA) and different areas of the United States are broken into regional sections - and they all have their own conferences (WACYPAA = Western Area Conference of Young People in AA). There are committees, panels, chair persons, and bids for all of these huge events. Crazy, right?! I never realized how much organization is put into this sect of a semi-secret society. Different cities dressed up, brought huge groups, t-shirts, and costumes and put on bid presentations to sway the vote of the location for next year's ICYPAA. I had to buy a Philly bid shirt, but Tennessee ended up winning.
3. People straight up party sober
I always think of myself as someone who is social and still likes to have fun sober. I still go to the nightclub once in awhile and I enjoy dancing the night away. The attendees at ICYPAA gave another meaning to the phrase: partying sober! Every night after the main speaker there were dances and other activities that wouldn't end until 4 a.m. There were pool parties with sober (and super cool) DJ's. There were rap battles, a masquerade ball, and even a drag show! People did not sleep. Some attendees sustained injuries and had to go to the hospital. Craziness I thought ended when the drinking stopped! People mentioned having "ICY" hangovers. As for me, I was still in bed by 11:30 p.m. But anyone who thinks sober people can't have fun has never been to ICYPAA.
4. You don't have to be young to be in YPAA
Although the acronym stands for Young People, there were attendees of all ages present. Some of them attend YPAA meetings where they're from and some just wanted to attend for 12 step fellowship and fun. Many of the panelists and all of the speakers were in the older age brackets. Some of them got sober young and some didn't get sober until they were older. It was interesting hearing all of their stories. Some people resonate better with the young people and some like the energy of their meetings. There is no age limit, so don't think because you're 35 they'll kick you out.
5. They talk about down to earth issues
Being amongst a younger crowd of sober people there were a lot of issues I could relate to. For example, one session we attended was called, "So you're going to have sex sober: that thing nobody ever talks about." It was an extremely enlightening panel and I'm so grateful the people on it took the time to share their own experiences with sex and sobriety, especially to young people because these are topics they need to hear about. In fact, these are topics all sober people need to hear about, but I didn't see any panels like this in Atlanta in July. Sober sex and relationships can be awkward and new. Some of us have unhealthy views about sex and our own bodies. Sobriety brings us into unknown territory and we have to completely change our old ideas (about many things.) There was another panel I enjoyed called "We could even be zebras: How to be yourself in the herd." The theme of this panel was finding yourself in an unlikely place and how it can work for you. Lastly, "the Carrying the Message Online: A Digital Think Tank" was another workshop where I voiced my opinion on being open about my recovery. The panelists asked the audience questions and we gave our opinions by a show of hands. It's good to see 12 step programs being more open about the impact the internet is having on sobriety and recovery.
6. The sobriety countdown is for everyone
One of the coolest parts of the conference was the sobriety countdown that took place on Saturday night. I heard they did this in Atlanta too, but I wasn't at the meeting where it took place. Beth teared up and I got goosebumps. They started at 50 years and counted down and each person stood up at their length of sobriety. There weren't too many high number of years since most of the people at the conference were young and newly sober. People got very excited seeing those that stood up. Beth and I stood on our chairs and cheered into the ballroom when 2 years was announced. We high fived everyone around us and we hugged. We felt the power of sobriety in that moment. Perhaps the most touching part of the countdown was when they got down to counting weeks.. 3, 2, 1. Then days. There were a few people who only had one day of sobriety. Others ran over to these people and hugged them fiercely. Chants of "Keep coming back! Keep coming back!" vibrated throughout the room. Those newcomers felt hope just as we did.
7. 12 step programs are diverse
The best thing I learned from my first ICYPAA is that 12 step programs (especially this one) are extremely diverse. It's not just old people reading out of the Big Book all the time. It's young people from all different walks of life who then turn into older people who got sober young. These young sober people have their own definitions of spirituality. They work the program the way it works for them. They aren't ashamed or scared to be themselves. It's a beautiful thing seeing such a large group of people who all look and act so different, but can come together for this same movement. We share the same struggles, we have overcome, and we move forward together.
I'm so glad I got to experience ICYPAA with my sober sister and sobriety date twin Beth! We'll see if we make this a yearly event. For now, I'm content with my sobriety and the new things it teaches me every day.