Will My Insurance Pay for Rehab?
Amber Tozer is a comic, a writer and a Twitter legend. She’s a tiny brunette with a big smile from Pueblo, Colorado who went from overachieving in academics and athletics to excelling in boozing and blackouts. Her new memoir Sober Stick Figure is an illustrated, incredibly funny and staggeringly honest account of her childhood, her impressive alcoholism, and finally, her incredible recovery. Here, Amber talks to The Fix about drawing, humor as a coping mechanism, and how “big opportunity = horrifying experience" for alcoholics.
You write, “The nagging dark side of me that wanted to be bad was finally being fed and the wrongness felt right.” I think as alcoholics we are oddly drawn to the dark side, even romanticize it. Do you still feel that magnetic force towards the shadow side? And if so, how do you manage it?
Yes, I do still feel drawn to bad stuff. There have been many times in sobriety where I’ve explored the dark side because I’m still addicted to drama. Especially with personal relationships, if I know the person is bad news and my instincts say, “This will not end well, do not get involved.” I end up getting REALLY involved. And then the relationship is a nightmare and I beat myself up for not following my instincts, and it’s extra painful because I’m very aware of what I’m doing and have to feel all the feelings. But, I’m happy to say, the longer I stay sober, the less stuff like this happens. In the past year I’ve only made three horrible decisions that led me to the dark side!
I really liked how you broke down the fourth wall and talked to the reader a la “I’m trying to be poetic. I hope you love it.” Or, “Keep reading. Is this a thrilling cliffhanger or what?” It created an intimacy and a vulnerability which I found very cool. How did you decide to do that?
I didn’t really decide to do that. It just was in my head and I typed it up and I didn’t delete it.
I loved the book and I especially loved the drawings. There are, as you told me, so many “hidden jokes” in the drawings. Did you do them as you wrote the book or after?
Thank you! With the first chapter, I would write a couple of paragraphs and then draw an illustration, but it messed with my flow. So, I decided to write the entire book, then go back and create the illustrations. They are my favorite part of the book. I hid little jokes in a lot of them. They were fun, but also a huge pain in my ass.
There are a lot of addiction memoirs but it’s refreshing to read one that is actually light-hearted. Is humor one of your coping mechanisms? How important is humor in getting sober?
Laughing at something that used to make me cry is one of my favorite things in the world. I often sit around waiting for hilarious retrospect to hit me because it feels very good to move past shame and guilt and self-pity with a few healthy laughs. Is humor one of my coping mechanisms? Yes. For sure. I used humor when I was drinking as a way to keep drinking. I’d make fun of myself for being a drunk, and it got a little tricky because, if you can laugh at your destructive behavior, why stop? But recovery is hilarious to me because the truth comes out, a new perspective takes shape, and you look back on all of the crazy shit you did—and it turns into one of those situations, like at the end of the movie Steel Magnolias, where Sally Field screams at her friends about her dead daughter and then they all start screaming and get into a fight, and then they burst into laughter. It’s really fun! And I love hearing other alcoholics talk about their lives. I have keeled over many times listening to someone get honest and talk about their drunken past with a sober perspective. It is some good, funny shit.
You pointed out that for alcoholics, a “big opportunity = horrifying experience.” That is so true. Why are we more afraid of success than failure?
I think we’re more afraid of everything. Our minds are inventors of horrible thoughts! When it comes to success, for me anyway, there is a level of expectation that mortifies me. When you’re a failure, you have nothing to lose and it’s easy to impress people. When you’re a success, it’s scary because what if it goes away? What if you fuck it up? What if people expect you to be great and they find out you’re not? It’s much more comfortable to be a lazy loser. I’m happy that in sobriety I’ve gotten my spark back and manage to move through the fear. Do I still FEEL afraid? Yes. I’m very afraid. I think the difference now is in how I respond to it.
So you were basically “struck sober” on that air mattress in Oakland, which is incredible. Would you say that was a spiritual experience? A spiritual awakening?
I don’t know what the fuck it was. It was crazy. I did a bunch of blow the night before and I often joke that I’m not sure if it was God or the coke that inspired that moment. It was an out-of-body experience and it was really powerful. I just knew right then and there that I was done drinking. I had to stop. For years, I knew that I SHOULD stop, but for whatever reason, that morning…in that moment…I was done.
You write, “Sobriety doesn’t make you automatically smart; it teaches you painful lessons until you become less stupid.” What painful lessons are you still struggling with?
I think when you drink for a long time, you live in a state of arrested development. So when you get sober, you’re a child in an adult situation. Life felt like an experiment to me in my first few years of sobriety and there were a lot of growing pains to move through. For me, my bad choices didn’t stop when I quit drinking because I just did what I was used to—dating unhealthy men who I wanted to fix, being jealous of others, manipulating people to get what I want, holding back kindness and love as a way to “get back” at people who are annoying me. I could go on, but I don’t want everyone to know all the bad stuff about me. It feels horrible to repeat these patterns without numbing myself because I know it’s wrong. It feels wrong. I have to figure out new ways to move through life in a way that doesn’t make me feel like shit; and it takes some work and it’s a very big pain in my ass, but it’s worth it. A magical shift happens and new behaviors set in that feel real good, but I’m sure I’ll aways be a little bit dumb. Every once in a while I like to dip back into my bad behaviors just to get a boost of that sweet negative adrenaline.
You are so honest in this memoir about pee and boys and your family, especially your anger towards your dad. It seems like you never edited your thoughts at all. You let us in on every inner conversation with all their contradictions and lunacy. Were there moments when you worried about how you would be perceived? An instinct to polish it up, defend yourself—if only to protect yourself from your own judgment?
Well, now that the book is out, I want to change everything! I want to polish it up! But when I was writing it, I tried to not think about the reader and what they would think of me because it messed with my mind. I pretended I was writing in my journal, all except for the last two chapters where I talk about recovery. I thought about how I might connect with someone who was struggling. I was nervous about being too preachy, or acting like an expert or sobriety spokesperson, because I am not. I am just a girl with a story.
Memoir is the ultimate in self-examination. You’re reliving your life but without, in your case, the blinders of booze or the ignorance/denial of that time. Were there parts that were particularly painful to write? Did you learn things about yourself that you didn’t know before?
The stuff I wrote about my dad was difficult. I almost left out a few things about him, but the story needed it. My relationship with him influenced both my drinking and decision to get sober, so I put it all in there. There were also some things about my mom that I wrote that made me nervous, only because she is a badass and one of my heroes, and I didn’t want to hurt her. I let her read one of the earlier drafts just to make sure she was okay with it, and she was cool about everything and said, “I love this book. It’s too much information for a mother to know about her daughter but I love it.” She is cute.
Did I learn things about myself? Yes. I learned that I am a nut job who can’t draw.
You write “alcoholism is such a baffling condition and I’m sure it’s even more confusing to people who aren’t addicts.” If you were talking to a room full of non-addicts, how would you describe it in a few sentences?
Like I said before, I’m not an expert, but let me pretend to be one so I can answer this question. I will use the terms “we” and “us” because it reads better that way, but I’m speaking from my own experience.
Alcoholics have scary thoughts and are very uncomfortable, and drinking quiets the voices in our heads and makes us feel incredible. Drinking offers such a relief to alcoholics, that not drinking would be a crime. We would be doing ourselves a disservice by not consuming what feels like a solution. Eventually, the “ism” takes over and it turns into a beast that wraps itself around our minds and tricks us into thinking that without alcohol we will die. When we are in the throes of full-blown alcoholism, “quitting drinking” is not an option for us. It’s an obvious choice, but we will refuse it for a long time no matter what damage we cause to ourselves and others. Then, if we are lucky enough to experience enough misery and are willing to get sober, that “ism” is still alive, screaming at us, and we have find natural ways to quiet that horrible beast who lives in our mind. And, if we can do that, we’re onto something very special.
PS: Here’s that scene from Steel Magnolias in case you’re wondering what recovery for me feels like sometimes:
Follow her on Twitter @AmberTozer
Amber’s book comes out May 31st. You can buy it here.