Legal and Sober

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The girl in six-inch platform boots is hanging with her friends on a Catholic school stoop in Chelsea, New York City, watching a gaggle of boys playing hacky- sack on the street. As the sun sets, the group is joined by a boy wearing a striped, bright knit hat; a young man in a button-down shirt; a graphic designer — dozens of young New Yorkers of all shapes and sizes. As 9 p.m. approaches, they file into the gymnasium and flop into hard, brown plastic chairs arranged in the center. "Hi, I'm Andrew and I'm an alcoholic," says the 20-something sitting at the front. "Welcome to Never Had a Legal Drink."

Up to 100 young alcoholics are members of this Alcoholics Anonymous group, which meets each Thursday and is one of six groups for young people in the New York City area. "This is bloody awesome," says Robert, the middle-aged sponsor of a Never Had a Legal Drink member who has come to tonight's meeting. "Ten years ago, you never would have seen this many young people facing their addictions." Young AA groups have existed since 1945, but over the past 10 years, meetings for young people have been cropping up with increasing frequency, in every state as well as Mexico and Canada. AA doesn't keep formal membership lists, but at least 23,000 members are under 21, and another 104,600 are between 21 and 30.

Alex, 20, a recovering alcoholic who got sober in 1998, says his first meeting was with only four other members, straight from central casting — grizzled old men with decades of stories about life in the gutter. "They would talk about running liquor during prohibition," he says. "I thought my life was over. I was never going to have fun again. I was going to sit around with old guys, smoking and drinking coffee for the rest of my life." Now, he says, "I walk in and I see people my age, younger, and they're all laughing and having a great time. Through AA, I have friendships I never had when I was drinking."

The meeting follows the same procedure as any AA gathering. A volunteer reads the 12 steps and traditions, and then a guest speaker — in this case, a 29- year-old who has been sober for 11 years — shares his story. John, a computer applications designer who, with his wife, is considering buying a $1 million loft in Greenwich Village, talks about how alcohol and drugs caused him to lose scholarships to Harvard and Princeton. Once, he says, his sister found him on the bathroom floor with no pulse, resuscitated him — and watched him head out the door to the next party.

"Since I've been sober I've had some really hard times," he says. "When I first started doing the steps, that was the first time I thought I wanted to commit suicide. I had to deal with shit instead of drinking to make it go away."

Every underage alcoholic has a story — of drinking to fit in or to escape the pressures of adolescence, of lying, cheating and stealing to feed the habit. Many were straight A students. Others dropped out of school and ran away from home. Alcoholism ran in some families; in others, parents were unable to believe that alcohol could be the cause of their 13, 14 or 15-year-olds' problems. Moral: It can happen to anyone.

Some of these young people attend meetings up to seven times a week. They drink second-rate coffee and spend hours listening to stories of despair and hope, supporting each other as they try to exist in a city with a bar on every block. At the end of the meeting, gather in a circle, grasp hands and recite: "God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

Then they file out, and blend back in to the melting pot.