By Thomas B.

On the weekend of December 17—20, 2015, my wife, Jill, and I attended the 19th Western Area Conference of Young People in Alcoholics Anonymous. It was held at the Doubletree Hotel near the Oregon Convention Center in Portland with some 2100 AA members in attendance.

WACYPAA is an international Fellowship of young people in AA from the 19 most western states of the United States, the 3 western provinces of Canada and the 6 northern provinces of Mexico. Here’s how it describes itself:

The purpose of WACYPAA is to build and strengthen unity in Young Peoples Groups in Alcoholics Anonymous in the western area of North America and Hawaii . . . Each year, AA conferences provide overwhelming evidence that large numbers of alcoholics are achieving a lasting and comfortable sobriety in Alcoholics Anonymous. These conferences offer an environment for celebration of our sobriety, as well as an opportunity to meet and share experience, strength, and hope with AA members who reside in areas other than their own.

It was the first Young People’s Conference I’ve attended since I co-chaired the first New York Conference for Young People in AA during the spring of 1978. It was Jill’s first young people’s conference, even though she came into Wichita, KS AA at age 28, where she was active in a vibrant local LGBT community of young AA members.

We were most privileged to be on one of two panels conducted by secular members of AA, who are agnostic, atheist or freethinking. Our panel on Friday afternoon dealt with the 11th step as our topic. Ryan H. from Portland and Gary E. from Las Vegas joined us to share our experience, strength and hope in utilizing the 11th Step to augment our recovery process as agnostics, atheists and freethinkers who have maintained long term sobriety in secular AA.

Another well-attended panel of agnostics, atheists and freethinkers took place on Sunday morning. Mara S., Brendon K. and Andrew W. from Portland were joined by Brad W. from Berkeley, CA.  They shared their experience, strength and hope on the topic, “Believing for Non Believers.”

These two secular AA panels were among scores of panels dealing with multitudinous aspects of our 12-step recovery process. Marathon AA meetings were also held every hour throughout the four-day conference.

I was privileged to chair the Saturday night 12:00 am midnight meeting on the topic of Love and Service. This meeting was especially meaningful for me, since my first home group when I got sober in 1972 was the Midnight Meeting of New York City, where I had one of my first AA service commitments.

Jill and I were most gratified to experience that young people in AA today are just as raucous, just as energetic, just as enthusiastic about their recovery today, as we were in our youthful years of early recovery during the 1970s and 1980s. We both believe that our experience with other young people in AA during the early years of recovery was crucial for us to achieve long-term sobriety in AA.

Throughout the weekend, hordes of young members of AA, consisting of every gender, race and style, gathered together in the lobby and throughout the conference room areas of Portland’s Doubletree Hotel to spontaneously share their experience, strength and hope with new friends, while also reconnecting with other friends in recovery.

On both Friday and Saturday nights DJs orchestrated wild, rave-like dances throughout the wee-morning hours. The main ballroom overflowed its large capacity with undulating, sweaty bodies of all sexes, dancing to the rhythmic beats of an eclectic array of musical styles — R&B, Rock and Roll, Hip-hop, Dance, Electronic, Reggae, etc. The atmosphere of euphoric musical celebration was just as frenetic as any Heavy Metal rock concert, or Grateful Dead gathering, or disco dancing at Studio 54, during the 70s and 80s, back in the heyday of our being young persons in recovery.

On Friday night, while Jill was relaxing in our room, I attended and read a prose poem at the Open Mic for spoken word performances. The piece entitled “Compassion” describes how moved I was, watching a vibrant young man, Huey, comfort and soothe a derelict, chronic relapser at a Midnight meeting the three of us attended.

For a raucous two hours, some 25 sober members of AA performed slam poetry, hip-hop and music. It was a most exciting event that included as diverse a variety of spoken word art as any I’ve experienced anywhere, to include New York, LA, Phoenix, and San Francisco.

All throughout the weekend, everywhere in the public areas of the hotel, gaggles of vibrant young people gathered to hug, greet and joyously converse with each other, sharing in Fellowship of being clean and sober, while enjoying the fruits of full-living in recovery. My heart, still young in spirit within an elderly body, was gratified to witness the boundless exuberance of young people in recovery today. It gives me great hope for the future of the AA Fellowship.

A Downer Dynamic

There was one consistent theme, however, that somewhat concerned me. In a number of panels and meetings, I heard a number of young people severely chastise themselves with harsh judgments that they weren’t working the steps effectively enough or in the “proper way” to be able to experience the requisite psychic change, or spiritual awakening, that Appendix II discusses.

Even after years of successful recovery, they remain troubled by character defects, which God has as yet not removed, as indicated in our literature,  which is heavily influenced by the pietistic, evangelical ideology of AA’s Oxford Group beginnings. It’s as if they can’t accept themselves as normally flawed human beings seeking progress. They, therefore, berate themselves because they have not, as yet, attained perfection.

This is quite different from what Jill and I experienced as young people during the 1970s and 1980s. We were not so concerned about dogmatically following the “precise directions” as they are discussed in the Big Book and Twelve and Twelve.

Instead, we focused mostly on being grateful for the “daily reprieve” of our sobriety and were devoted to living the best life we could sober a day at a time. One of the New York City groups was named Y E S — Youth Enjoying Sobriety — and, let me tell you, we certainly did !~!~!

I hypothesize that this downer dynamic is due to the insidious influence of retrograde movements within AA, such as Back to Basics and Simply AA. These doctrinaire approaches to recovery espouse a dogmatic and rigid adherence solely on the language and “directions” of the Big Book as it was allegedly done in early Akron meetings. This results in a tendency for  some young people in AA to be morbidly self-reproachful, shamefully guilty of not doing the Program perfectly.

Essentially, these retrograde movements are based on the Christian doctrine of original sin, which holds that all human beings are fallen, miserable sinners, who can only be saved from eternal damnation by the intervention and grace of Jesus Christ.

This is one of the reasons I am so enthused about the positive influence we  secular AA members are having upon AA as a whole. I am encouraged by the number of young people, 20-and-30-somethings, who are recovering and active in our secular AA groups. They comprise some 35 — 40% of our membership in Portland, infusing our meetings with humor, wit and energy.

Same As It Ever Was

Even with the influence of retrograde movements within AA , a successful life in recovery is just as possible for today’s youth, just as it was for the hippies of “my-my-myah generation” during the 1970s and 1980s. In every way, today’s youth match the energy and enthusiasm for recovery in accordance with the styles and values of today’s youthful culture. That’s what Jill and I experienced during WACYPAA XIX.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, some elders in AA were concerned about the numbers of young, hippie members of AA, who were flooding AA rooms with our strange dress, different sexual mores and unorthodox behavior, which included rampant use of other drugs.

One elder AA member conveyed to Bill Wilson that younger members of AA “might be a very real threat to our wonderful God-given program!” Bill’s response to him, as is reported in the March, 1971 Grapevine article by Trustee Bernard B. Smith, “The Traditions in Action”, was typical of his tolerance and open-mindedness:

Some weeks ago there was a young people’s convention of AAs. Shortly thereafter, four of these kids visited the office. I saw one young gal prancing down the hall, hair flying, in a miniskirt, wearing love beads and the works. I thought, Holy smoke, what now!” She told me she was the oldest member of the young people’s group in her area — age twenty-two! They had kids as young as sixteen. I was curious and took the whole party out to lunch. 

Well, they were absolutely wonderful. They talked (and acted) just about as good a kind of AA as I’ve seen anywhere. I think all of them said they had had some kind of drug problem, but had kicked that too.

Today, some elder members of AA are similar to the person who communicated to Bill his concern about us young hippies. They may have forgotten what it means to be young at heart as well as in body. For example, at a recent meeting I heard an older member of my aging hippie generation castigate today’s youthful members of AA for not being able to get sober or properly work the program, because in his arrogant opinion they are too self-involved and selfish, capable only of focusing on digital technology and social media.

I’m most grateful to have a considerably more hopeful opinion about today’s youth in AA, as a direct result of participating in WACYPAA XIX.  Further, it gives me great hope for the future of AA during the next several decades, as they mature both in their lives and in their recovery.

About the Author, Thomas B.

Sober from his primary drug of addiction, Colt .45 — preferably by the case lot — since October 14, 1972, Thomas is grateful for the full life he has experienced in recovery for over 43 years. He’s been active at the group level throughout his recovery and in 1978 was the co-chair of the first New York City Young Peoples Conference. He is a co-founder (with his wife, Jill) and current GSR of Portland, Oregon’s Beyond Belief group. Retired from a 30-year career in addiction treatment, he and a fellow Vietnam Veteran colleague, Vince Treanor, were instrumental in establishing the correlation between addiction and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder during the 1980s.

He’s been an active participant on AA Agnostica since early in 2012 and has had the following articles published: 

He and his wife, Jill, live in gainful retirement on disability in Seaside, Oregon with their dog Kiera, and two cats, Savannah and Elsa, writing and helping to expand secular AA throughout Oregon.

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Joe C
5 years ago

Well done, Mr. Young at Heart. I was inviting members to join us in Austin for WAAFTIAAC. Symposium of AA History had a good crowd  and reports about the histories and experiences of Women, Lesbian/Gay/Trans, African American, young people and yest – atheists and agnostics. We won some hearts  and serveral expressed interest in coming to Austin in Novemember to show support for their secular brothers and sisters. I’m off to a WAAFTmeeting in Phoenix tonight and then I start my trek home tomorrow.

Thomas, I enjoyed the report and I enjoyed the other chatter on the site today.


boyd p
boyd p
5 years ago

The energy for WACYPAA Portland was palpable in southern Oregon, rural Josephine County as the date drew near.  Our young people’s group, Next Gen, was a buzz.  In my five years of recovery the Next Gen group has been a touch stone, a path of hope.  I joined the counter culture in the seventies and have never returned.

Celebrating twelve years, Next Gen has become central to the vitality of AA here. Last night they sponsored another packed fundraising event to support our central office.

Thanks Thomas for documenting the experience in Portland.

Thomas Brinson
Thomas Brinson
5 years ago
Reply to  boyd p

Ah, thanks, Boyd . . .

Yes, I still regret I was unable to speak at the gathering last October that the Next Gen group of young persons in recovery organized due to me being on vacation back east.

I’m convinced the future of AA depends on us attracting younger members to our meetings. The Beyond Belief  and Secular Sobriety groups in Portland have some 35-40 per cent of folks in their 20s and 30s who are not only staying sober, but are active in general service — it’s most gratifying and encouraging !~!~!

5 years ago

What a great post!  I certainly value what I might call “the critical edge” of AA you present in your narrative. The value of the critical edge in any institution, particularly in one where our lives are formed and revised by the experiences of others we share long moments with, is one of the full capacity to see and tell the truth. I must say this is the case in New York YPAA as well.  I moved myself away from that particular niche of AA because I found the methods of sponsorship and sharing in meetings to be both rigid… Read more »

Thomas Brinson
Thomas Brinson
5 years ago
Reply to  Chet

Chet — so I take it that the dynamic I experienced at the WACYPAA of young people begrudging themselves for not doing the program right is also happening in NYC YPAA? What a shame !~!~!

What’s important is that you have found a group of like-spirited companions to help each other remain sober through sharing stories and exploring how to unravel the common conundrums that we all experience as we face and deal with positively the  challenges that life always presents.

Bill D
Bill D
5 years ago

Another informative and well written piece by our friend Thomas B. Thank you for publishing it. AA Beyond Belief is an integral part of my Sunday morning. “…and those young at heart.” In 1992 the Michigan state convention was held in conjunction with a MYCYPAA convention at the Pontchartrain Hotel on the river front in downtown Detroit. A place  of significant importance in my recovery. Three years prior I had my last drink at a service station on 8 Mile Rd on the way downtown to meet my wife at that same hotel. She was staying there while attending a… Read more »

Thomas Brinson
Thomas Brinson
5 years ago
Reply to  Bill D

Thanks, Bill — what a wonderful story of synchronicity and a full circle being completed several levels up the gratitude quotient to make it all extraordinarily worth while. Thanks for your sobriety and continuing young-at-heartedness . . . 😉


5 years ago

Thomas, thanks for this. It is indeed both beautiful to see the young people’s energy, and disturbing how large a proportion of them wind up subscribing to a very god centered personal recovery program. As for flyers disappearing – and now I’m going to go off on a lengthy tangent about that – it still occasionally happens that flyers for our Freethinkers meeting disappears from the clipboard at the two fellowships I go to with some regularity, or that it gets put way in the back. Whenever it happened in the beginning I used my share time to talk about… Read more »

Thomas Brinson
Thomas Brinson
5 years ago
Reply to  life-j

Thanks life-j — I salute you for the steady willingness to continue to quietly with respect and tolerance for those so intolerant of your meeting to just keep replacing and/or moving your flyers.

Also, I’m extraordinarily grateful that Portland’s AA community, at least at the Alano Club, where we meet is much more tolerant of our meetings.