After school I came home to my mom for the first time in five days. I sat next to her and cried for an hour. She told me she was joining Alcoholics Anonymous and again assured me that she was committed to getting better. I went to a few AA meetings with her, especially in the beginning, when I was scared to be away from her for an extended period of time. I heard stories there from people with addictions of all sorts: stories about people spending all of their money on drugs and alcohol to the point of becoming homeless, people losing custody battles because they couldn’t put down the bottle, people who had been to rehab 12 times but always went back to drinking afterward. My mother’s suicide attempt had been enough to drive the point home, but these stories certainly reinforced my decision to stay away from substances of all kinds.

When I went off to college a year and a half later, staying sober wasn’t something I ever debated—I was too terrified of becoming an addict like my mother. I made a ton of new friends, some of whom drank and smoked weed fairly often, but no one ever pressured me to ingest anything I didn’t want to, nor did they ask why I didn’t partake (and I didn’t tell them). Real life turned out to be nothing like the scenarios I was made to play out in second grade: there were no “cool kids” who were going to bully me to smoke or drink. My new friends always asked if I wanted to party with them, but they didn’t pressure me—they just wanted to allow me the choice. And even though I said no every single time, they never made assumptions. I really appreciated that.

The summer between my freshman and sophomore years, gender-identity issues that I’d been suppressing for most of my life resurfaced, and I became really depressed. I returned to school in awful shape, and moved into a house with a group of strangers, a couple of whom I clicked with enough that I told them a bit about my past, and about my mother.

A few weeks later was my friend Michael’s birthday party. I had to drag myself there, through the heavy fog of depression. At the party I was surrounded by people who were drinking and laughing and having what looked like a lot of fun. I wondered what it would feel like to be so uninhibited, so weightless. And so when Michael came up to me with a bottle of Patrón, I decided to take a birthday shot with him. I was so distraught that I no longer cared if drinking was “bad.” I just wanted to know what being drunk felt like. Misery was resting heavily on my shoulders; I wanted to feel weightless.

As soon as I took the shot, I felt more relaxed. Even as I felt my old fears creep up (Was I throwing away my personal values? My future? Was I crossing over to the dark side? Would I become an alcoholic like my mom?), I was able to turn down the volume on them for once and have fun playing drinking games with my friends. For the first time in a very long time, I wasn’t thinking about anything other than the present moment. At one point, I remember, Michael tried to teach me to tap-dance, and I fell to the floor laughing. I felt like a kid again—everything was funny and distorted, and no one cared about grades, appearances, or anything that tended to held so much weight in our day-to-day lives. I laughed and played all night, and it was a blast.

Later that night, my new friends and I sat in bed talking, as one does after a particularly fun and raucous party. I don’t remember what we were talking about when one of my roommates said, “Hey, Tyler, are your parents really alcoholics?” Before I even knew what was happening, I burst into tears. All my worries, which had been on hold for those few drunken hours, came crashing back down on me: my gender-identity questions, my mother’s illness, my fear of becoming an alcoholic, my shame at having become the person who cries when they’re drunk (I really did not want to be that person!). My friends held on to me for a really long time, and promised me that it was OK to cry.

After that night, I relaxed my “no drinking” policy. I had been taught at a young age that drugs and alcohol were only for “bad people” who would try to bully me into doing them, and that anyone who tries them gets addicted to them and dies. But in college I got to know a lot of good people who casually drank alcohol and smoked weed, and who managed to do very well academically and socially—something I had thought impossible. I realized that drinking wasn’t always a bad thing.

Drinking at Michael’s party lifted the weight of my depression for a few hours, which felt good. Now, I was very aware that I was drinking to self-medicate (I do not advise this at all), but because I was drinking in moderation, I didn’t beat myself up about it. I’d occasionally drink in my friends’ rooms on weekends—usually one beer, sometimes two or three over the course of five hours. I got really drunk a couple of times (always at birthday parties!), but never to the point of blacking out or stumbling around. I had learned at my mom’s AA meetings what addiction looked like, so I knew what the red flags were, and I made sure I wasn’t exhibiting any of them (unlike some of my friends, who would excuse excessive drinking with phrases like “It’s not alcoholism if you’re still in college.” This isn’t true, by the way—you can be an alcoholic at any age).

I also learned in AA that addiction is often hereditary. My mother’s not the only addict in my family tree, so it’s possible that I’m prewired with a tendency toward those issues. But there’s always a starting point, and a bunch of signs you have to bypass to get to a full-blown addiction, and knowing that I may have a biological predisposition to have problems with substances keeps me alert to those signs. Any time I do something that would be unhealthy in excess (drinking, overspending money, eating tons of junk food, being online a lot), I ask myself, Why am I doing this? Am I doing too much? Do I feel that I absolutely 100% need to do this right now, or can I walk away? Is this becoming an issue? Should I talk to someone about it? And I answer myself honestly, which is key.

Today, my mom is five years sober, and I couldn’t be more proud of her. She’s still going to AA meetings, talking with her sponsors outside of the meetings, and working the 12 steps over and over. She sponsors and advises a handful of fellow addicts who are just starting out in AA, letting them know that they are loved and important, and that there is always a chance to try and fix any aspect of their life they aren’t happy with. She never stops working on her sobriety, and never takes her sobriety or her life for granted.

I rarely drink anymore—not because I’m scared of becoming an alcoholic, but because since I started my medical transition to guyhood and dropped out of college, I just don’t feel the need or desire to do so. But if I feel like having a beer sometime in the future, I’m not going to freak out about it. I can’t escape the way I was raised, or what challenges my parents have thrown my way, through behavior or biology. But my mother also gave me many gifts; one of them is that I know what’s in the deck of cards I was handed at birth. Learning how to play with what I’ve got—which now includes what I’ve made for myself, too—is what it means to grow up. ♦