Twenty-four years ago I made the trek to my very first South by Southwest, which happened to coincide with the launch of what is now SXSW Interactive. I stumbled upon a few of the panels — I remember something about authoring to CDs or DVDs — but I didn’t know then that the interactive (then called Multimedia) conference, the city where it was held, and the people I would meet would become the center of my personal and professional life.

And yet as I pack my bags to make the long drive back to my home in Indianapolis at the end of what has been the oddest, and most difficult, SXSW, I’m struck by how this thing has filled my life with a joy and meaning.

I know this because just a week ago I wasn’t sure that I was coming to the event. With just a few weeks of sobriety under my belt, I thought it might be too much to make my way through the crowds and parties that inevitably happen. Certainly I’d navigated this scene for eight years without drinking, but as my friend Jason said I looked “fragile, but good.” I wasn’t sure that fragility would hold.

But this is my home and these are my people. I spent each year counting down the days until this conference. This is where I learn. This is where I soak in what it happening around the world. This is where I immerse myself in conversations that challenge me. The idea of not being hear pained me, but I wasn’t sure I was strong enough to navigate everything.

After talking pros and cons with a gaggle of people, I decided that SXSW Interactive and Austin would be a welcome relief from the anxiety I’d felt back in Indiana. And so I came.

Mostly, I told myself, I’d use the this trip as a time to see my best friend, his wife, and my favorite fifteen- and nineteen-year olds, who both joined me for a night of La La Land, thai food, and ice cream.

In between those visits — and unlike past years — I decided that I wouldn’t venture into the teeming masses of SXSW. I wouldn’t stalk the panels. I wouldn’t seek out dinners. I wouldn’t make plans that spanned from morning until night. Instead, I would take it easy.

I found  a nice location — the downstairs lobby of the JW Marriott — and decided to just sit.

Each morning I invited my friends to come meet me. I sat in the same section each day, arriving around ten thirty in the morning, and staying until six. I told my waitress Brandy my plans, and let her know I’d move if I was taking up a valuable table. (She was happy to have a low maintenance group, she said, since the lobby was oftentimes overrun.)

I had no idea what those days would be like, and so I packed all my magazines, my Kindle, and my computer in case I found myself alone.

But I rarely found myself alone. Instead, I was treated to a revolving display of old friends from California and the Wired days, new friends who happened to sit down near me, and digital friends whom I’d only know through tubes and wires of the Internet.

Day after day, the fellowship happened. Day after day, I had the chance to forget a bit of my own angst and engage with the people who have helped shape my trip through the years.

Tonight, as I walked home along the trail around Lady Bird Lake, it struck me why this trip had become so meaningful to me. Those visits at the Marriott — the twenty or so people who swung by  — took on a very familiar vibe.

Every old friend who plopped down on the big, brown couches greeted me with a hug. But not just a hug. Each one of them grabbed me and asked how I was doing. How was I really doing. Two — at separate times — grabbed me by my shoulders and stared at me as they asked that second question. They did it in the way that you do when the words themselves don’t convey the totality of the question.

While I’ve tried to be open about my addiction, I’m still taken aback whenever people acknowledge it with me. I’m surprised, and confused, why they care. I generally shrug it off, assuming their feelings are directed elsewhere: “Oh, I’m sure they know someone who is an addict, and this is how they are processing it.”

What I never think is this: “Well, this person genuinely cares about how I’m doing.”  (That, my friends, is what alcoholism sounds like to an addict.)

At first, I didn’t notice that each of my friends was hugging me, holding me a little bit longer (or maybe letting me hold them), and asking how I was holding up.  I don’t actually know when I noticed that it was happening. I only know that once I noticed it, I noticed it each and every time a new friend arrived.

“That’s odd,” I found myself thinking. I kept trying to figure out why they were really hugging me and asking me how I was doing. It didn’t make sense to me.

“I don’t know your whole story, Brad, but you have been harder on yourself than just about anyone I’ve ever met,” my friend Jason said to me over a long, sprawling lunch on Monday. “You have to let that go.” (The irony is that Jason is equally hard on himself, which made the advice ring a bit more true.)

I kept running those words through my brain tonight. As I walked home, I stopped for a moment along the lake and just sat down on the ground.

I don’t know if I’ll ever stop beating myself up. I’m working on it, but it’s baked pretty deeply into my DNA. And yet tonight — at least for a moment — I reminded myself that while I am ambivalent about my own place in this world, I need to pay attention to the people who orbit my sphere.

Certainly some fly closer than others, but all of them — each one that I saw this week — brought a little light into my world. And they did so with that purpose in mind. They came to see me because they wanted to see me. They asked how I was because they wanted to know. They did, and said, as they meant to do.

So tonight I feel a little less hard about myself. Not because of me. Because of what I have seen in those around me.

Tomorrow, I’ll get in my car and begin the long, seventeen hour drive home. And my goal is to carry a little bit of this conference, this city, and these people with me as I go.