Wine bottles clink as Amber Young checks labels and price tags at K&D liquor store on 16th Street. She quickly puts bottles back on the shelf, undecided. It’s the first time she’s buying alcohol since becoming sober, and she’s nervous.
She walks around the wine section several times before deciding on two bottles of red and two of white.
“Had I been more organized, I would have pawned this off on someone else,” she says, smiling.
Young lives within walking distance of 39 bars, 90 corner stores and 294 restaurants with full bars or beer and wine only. But she hasn’t had a drink since May 16, 2007, the day after she turned 23.
“I woke up and thought, this can’t be my life,” she remembers. “I can’t keep a job, I can’t finish my art projects, I can’t keep thinking about when is the next socially acceptable time to be seen drinking.”
Young is one of many recovering alcoholics that Mission Loc@l will profile in an occasional series that looks at what it’s like to be young, living in the Mission District and unable to drink because drinking has become more destructive than enjoyable.
Although Alcoholics Anonymous doesn’t keep track of the number of people in recovery, the organization estimates that there are probably 2 million people worldwide, according to an employee. When asked about the Mission District specifically, Li Lighfoot, an employee of Alcoholics Anonymous, says, “There’s a whole slew of people in recovery in the Mission.”
In San Francisco, there are approximately 500 meetings per week compared to New York’s 1,100. In the Mission District alone, 115 meetings take place every week, and often those inside look like the young and hip adults crowding the bars.
Young, who goes to meetings once in a while, actually thinks it’s easier to be sober in the Mission than in Cow Hollow, the neighborhood she lived in when she quit drinking.
“It’s almost easier to ignore; I tune it out,” she says. “It’s harder to do that in Cow Hollow, where there’s nothing else to do.”
But “the access to alcohol is pretty remarkable,” she says.
Young loves the social aspect of AA meetings — you can make friends who don’t drink, a group “that you can do things with but without the pressure of having to explain yourself — why you don’t want to go to a certain place or you don’t want to go that friend’s house,” she says.
She finds that there is a flip side to AA, however.
“If you didn’t get sober in AA, or use AA as a tool to maintain your sobriety, there’s a lot of, ‘Oh well, don’t you worry that you’re not going to stay sober?’ or ‘Your sobriety is really at risk if you don’t get yourself to a meeting at least once every week, or like four days or something,’ or ‘You didn’t get sober in AA, I don’t know how you think you’re going to stay sober,’” she says.
Instead of meetings, she went to therapy twice a week.
“I certainly couldn’t have stayed sober if I didn’t have some place to go, and I would never belittle AA and say that it’s not a good program,” she says.
Young says she didn’t drink every day, because she felt so terrible after one big night of drinking.
“I would need a night to recover, then I’d go out again, so my system was [to] kind of get through the day and then by 4-5 o’clock, when I could start drinking without social scrutiny, and then go hard all night until I passed out, basically.”
The next morning she would typically wake up with a bad hangover or have an anxiety attack.
“I am a firm believer that alcoholism is less about how much you actually drink [than] how much your brain orbits around drinking,” she says. “Some people drink a lot more than me, but they’re not ruled by it. Their life is not organized around their next drink, and mine was.”
Instead of bars and parties in the Mission, the 27-year-old now goes to art shows, movies and other cultural events where alcohol isn’t the main draw.
Young also walks her French bulldog around the neighborhood every day. She’s often annoyed when drunk people approach her.
“If I’m walking around with someone who’s sober, I can be around drunk people and not feel so stressed out, but if it’s just me, the only sober person, I find that I suddenly get inundated with questions from drunk people: ‘Why are you sober? Do you have an allergy?’”
She lives with her boyfriend and accepts that he drinks when he’s out with friends. However, having people over at their apartment can be difficult, because she always has to explain that no alcohol will be served.
Like many, Young started drinking as a teen, on weekends with friends.
In 2009, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention surveyed high school students across the country. Results showed that in the 30 days prior to the survey, 42 percent drank some amount of alcohol and 24 percent binged on alcohol.
Young, who grew up near Half Moon Bay, was 15 when she had her first drink.
Getting drunk was so fun, she says, that she would start planning during the week. Being underage, she had to find someone to buy alcohol before Saturday night.
“I feel like I really got addicted to alcohol right away. Even if I wasn’t drinking, I was thinking about it,” she says. “It was a means to an end. I thought, I want to feel like that again.”
Young kept on drinking at Kenyon College, in Ohio.
“I remember it being fun in high school. By college it wasn’t fun anymore. It was more like coping. I would have to drink to cope. Cope with what, I don’t know,” she says.
At the time, whiskey was Young’s drink of choice. When she started having panic attacks after drinking it, she switched to vodka, a favorite for many alcoholics because it doesn’t smell as strong, she says.
“I spent a lot of my college years apologizing to people: ‘Sorry, I shouldn’t have said that, I shouldn’t have done that.’ I spent a lot of post-college doing that, too — ‘Sorry I broke that thing in your house, it was an accident.’ It was always an accident,” she remembers.
She came up with techniques to control her drinking. Every time she had a drink, she took a marker and put a line on her hand. Eight lines meant she was drunk. By 10, it was time to go home. On some days, she made herself wait to have her first drink.
“If I can do this, then maybe I’m not so much of a drunk,” she remembers telling herself.
Young says she talked to her parents about drinking, but she didn’t tell them how bad her problem was.
When she decided to quit drinking, she didn’t want her sobriety to be a life-changing experience. She started going to therapy and went to meetings from time to time, but insisted on going out to bars with friends as if nothing had changed.
“I went out a lot. If my friends were doing something, I would suffer through it, sitting there ordering up to nine Cokes at a bar,” she remembers.
“I really put my sobriety at risk.”
After a while, she realized that it had to be a life-altering experience after all. Nowadays she avoids bars and big parties.
“Getting spilled on is definitely the main reason I don’t go to bars,” she says.
When someone spilled a drink on her, “There would be this mad dash to get the shirt off and take one from my friend and be like, OK, get in there and clean up my arms and whatever else got spilled on and try to regroup,” she says. “In bars you can’t do that as easily, because who carries around a spare shirt?”
Alcohol is very visceral for her, Young says. She doesn’t like smelling it on herself and avoids contact with it altogether.
“It’s like an aversion to having any part of it seep in, even though in my rational mind, I know that [I] can’t get drunk by having stuff spilled on me.”
On the rare occasions she goes to bars, she orders a soda. People often ask her what’s in her Coke. When she tells them it’s just Coke, they ask if she’s allergic or if she doesn’t drink for religious reasons.
Going out to eat can be tricky, too.
“I am constantly scouring the menu,” she says. “Is there any alcohol in this? Is this going to be a thing where the bread is soaked in rum?”
Meat can be cooked in wine, and desserts can have alcohol in them, for example.
On the day of her fourth anniversary of being sober, Young ordered a barbecue sandwich. She took one bite and couldn’t eat any more; the meat had been marinated in bourbon. To her it seemed as if someone had poured alcohol all over it.
Suddenly she panicked. Could she still say that she was four years sober, or did that count as a drink, she remembers asking herself.
Nowadays she feels more confident in her ability to stay away from drinking, but says she still feels the cravings from time to time.
“It can be really rough at times,” she admits. When she gets the urge to drink, she stays home or focuses on an art project.
As an arts curator, she often has to go to events where alcohol is served. She says she’s not too tempted by wine, but still feels uncomfortable buying alcohol.
On a recent Friday, as she carried a bag with four bottles of wine to bring to an art opening she organized, she made sure to stop for Pellegrino sparkling water, as well.
She doesn’t go to a party without it.
“That’s my strategy for any social situation: Sparkling water. It takes the edge off,” she says, laughing.
Would you like to share your story with Mission Loc@l? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
nice article, I see my daughter in it. Gives me hope she will find sobriety some day soon.
Thank you for writing this piece. The insightful first-person observations of the young “recoverers” moved me. To keep sober in this town is a great accomplishment.
Who controls liquor distribution in the Mission District and benefits most?
Great article and looking forward to the series. This is a major life challenge for those so afflicted and I have a lot of respect for those, like Amber, who are actually able to get/stay sober.
Great article! It is probably very hard for such young people to deal with alcoholism, because socializing and booze often go hand in hand. Good luck guys!
I’m 40, have been sober almost 2 years, and live in the mission. Bars, etc., were a way of life for me through my 16 years in SF.
It’s interesting to be on this side of it and really see how alcohol figures into SF / Mission life. It’s so prevalent from “happy hour” down to early morning hardcore street drinking, seemingly everywhere one goes.
I don’t have enough conviction about it to stand on a soapbox and say “it’s a problem and we need to do something about it” but it is a problem, along with many so other issues in this neighborhood.
It’s impossible to avoid in this neighborhood, but I choose my battles. I don’t walk around Valencia on weekend nights because i can’t stand the hordes of drunk folks. I still go to bars sometimes, but leave when the drunk energy starts happening.
I don’t feel like my sobriety is at risk, drunk behavior just makes me uncomfortable…
This will be a really interesting series. Must be hard being young and sober around here. Great journalism!
I really like that Mission Local is looking critically at the influx of bars and the availability of alcohol in the Mission. Keep it up!
Thank you Suki!