What Happens When You Accidentally Slip On Stage?

By Mishka Shubaly 10/20/14
Mishka Shubaly was on tour with Doug Stanhope when he unknowingly took a sip of alcohol in front of hundreds.
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Joseph Purdy

I broke my sobriety in front of six hundred people last Saturday.

I've been sober for more than five years now. It's a big part of my identity and a big part of my success. I am a writer and my biggest selling story to date is "The Long Run," a mini-memoir about my transition from ultra-drunk to ultra-runner. But I’m a musician first—that’s where my heart is, if not my success—and my music is inseparable from my alcoholism. Some of the press my last record got now strikes me as cruelly ironic: “How to Make a Bad Situation Worse is all the title claims. One listen will send an AA meeting into complete disarray.”

I would not have any kind of music career without the iconoclastic comedian Doug Stanhope. My phone rang one night in the winter of 2007 while I was high on morphine. It was Doug calling to express his affection for my songs. In March of 2008, he called me just days after my band had broken up and I had gotten fired from my construction gig and invited me out on tour with him. More than any sober person, I have to credit Doug with my sobriety. While he spirited me around the country as his opening act, I was inside his aura of renegade celebrity, and I got every single drink and drug I had ever craved, a few I had never even heard of, and some I still haven’t identified. The chaos and trouble that followed finally alienated even Stanhope. I bottomed out, and in the spring of 2009, I got sober.

This August, I opened Doug’s three-night-stand at Highline Ballroom and it was fine… ‘fine’ being a relative term. I got a warm reception, I sold a lot of CDs and T-shirts, and the strongest drink I was offered backstage was an orange juice. But while I was up on stage, belting out my old songs in praise of inebriation/ annihilation/ oblivion, I felt like a total hypocrite. 

I have never written a song espousing sobriety. I probably never will. Sobriety is rewarding, but it’s also less comic and less tragic, and thereby less entertaining in song. Moreover, I don’t believe alcohol is a poison. It’s absolutely a poison for me, but it may not be for you. Alcohol is like peanuts—for some, it’s a source of nourishment; for others, it’s life-threatening. Alcohol is like a bee sting—for some, it’s a minor annoyance; for others, it means a trip to the Emergency Room. Alcohol is like a child’s video game—it’s not a right, it’s a privilege, and if you abuse that privilege, it will get taken away. 

If you want to get sober or stay sober, I support you. If you want to drink, if you want to get wasted, if you want to destroy your life, I’m not going to stand in your way. I hope you get what you want out of this life. In my drinking days, many good people bent over backwards to help me. Help never helped. When my best, truest, most trusted friends started to back away, when I was left alone to discover I had become a stranger even to myself, well, that scared the shit out of me and I stopped.

Doug did something that first night that put me at ease. He got up on the mic after me and roundly mocked me for my new life running ultra-marathons, eating healthy, and staying sober. I can’t say why it put me at peace, but it did. Spilling a secret often robs it of its power over us.

We even talked about it once backstage. Or at least it came up. 

“I quit drinking once,” Doug offered, drawing deep on his cigarette. “In 1995. I woke up with a broken nose and two black eyes. Twenty-one days.”

“You don’t strike me as much of a fighter,” I said.

He chuckled. “Oh, there wasn’t much fighting. It was my fault. And I deserved it. Believe me, I was given every out possible.”

I had a blast with him in New York so I leapt at the chance to open his shows in Philly and Falls Church, VA. Philly crowds are notoriously tough and I was ready to be heckled, ready to heckle back, ready to throw a punch if it was necessary. But when I stepped up on stage at the sold out Trocadero Theater, people immediately started clapping and cheering. It freaked me out because I was sure they thought I was someone else and they were going to be sorely disappointed. When I started playing and they cheered louder, it freaked me out more. Jesus Christ, these people are actually listening to me. I better not fuck this up. I didn’t. 

Often in our lives, unique moments slip past us without recognition. Only in hindsight do you understand that that was the moment you forgave your father or the moment you fell in love with her or the last time you would speak to an old friend. Two songs into the set, I realized I was playing the greatest show I had ever played. I fucking loved it.

When I was walking out on stage in Virginia the next night, I grabbed the wrong cup. I played my first song to lukewarm applause and then took a big swig to lubricate my throat. It wasn’t grapefruit juice. It wasn’t even grapefruit juice and vodka. It was a Stanhope-strength vodka-with-a-splash-of-grapefruit. I won’t lie to you, it tasted incredible. It tasted like my youth.

I realized immediately what had happened. I had three more songs to play, three more songs about drinking, three more love songs to alcohol. My throat is always dry enough to strike a match on so I need to drink between every song just to be able to choke my lyrics out. Maybe I could just slurp an ice cube out of the cup and crunch it up? I glanced at the cup. All the ice had already melted.

Why not just take another sip? Two sips wouldn’t do anything to me. But then, I had already fucked up. Why not just drink the whole thing? And then another and another and another. I’d fantasized more about returning to drinking than I had about losing my virginity. It would taste so good, it would feel amazing. I’d said it a million times: the best thing about quitting drinking was fucking up and taking that first drink again. 

No. I know what lies down that path. I’ve done extensive field research. I know how that movie ends—waking up on the sidewalk or vomiting blood or weeping on the floor of a stranger’s bathroom. I can’t drink. 

I finished my set cotton-mouthed and rasping, walked offstage and pounded two bottles of water. Then I bummed a cigarette off a kindly security guard, grabbed my friend Joe and ranted and raved to him until I felt better. 

In the green room later that night, after Stanhope’s set, I told him what had happened. Concern flickered over his face, then he grinned.

“Hey, as long as you’re off the wagon…” he said.

“Fuck you, Doug, don’t you dare offer me a drink.”

“Mishka, have I ever offered you a drink? I have never once offered you a drink.” 

The conversation moved on from there—talking trash about the people who had stormed out of his set, Doug berating himself for screwing up the punch lines for a couple of gags. 

“You should quit comedy, Doug,” I said, “You’re obviously finished. The writing’s on the wall. You’re through.”

“Shut up, Mishka,” he said with a grin, “you’re drunk.”

I have a string of five more shows with Doug in October. I’m going to sing my old songs about drinking for his fans. I’m not going to drink. You can bet that I am going to be a hell of a lot more careful in keeping an eye on which cup is mine. I think Doug will support me in his way.

I have a lot of regrets about my lost years but I’m not going to pretend they didn’t happen. It’s part of who I am now. I accept my friends, drunk or sober, as they accept me. I value the wisdom I’ve gained by getting really fucked up and then unfucked up, but I’m not narcissistic enough to think that wisdom is true for everyone. Sobriety doesn’t work for everyone, and it doesn’t have to. But it works for me.

Mishka Shubaly lives in Brooklyn, where he is at work on a full-length memoir for Public Affairs. His Kindle Singles—ShipwreckedThe Long Run, Are You Lonesome Tonight? and Bachelor Number One, have all been bestsellers. He last wrote about doing sobriety his way and he has also been profiled by the site.

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