Mishka Shubaly's Life on the Low Road

By Amy Dresner 05/11/16

Musician and author Mishka Shubaly tells Amy Dresner how he got his mojo back and came up with the brilliant I Swear I'll Make It Up to You

Mishka Shubaly's I Swear I'll Make It Up To You
Photo via Mishka Shubaly/Facebook

Mishka Shubaly is the best of both worlds: the degenerate low life of dive bars, bad tattoos and slumming, mixed with the elitism of a having an MFA in Fiction from Columbia, teaching summers at Yale and a literary ability that would make any writer envious. He is a singer/songwriter, author of numerous bestselling Kindle Singles, a long distance runner and humble as all hell. He is as dedicated to his career as he was to his alcoholism and that’s saying something.

I Swear I’ll Make It Up to You, Mishka Shubaly’s latest book, is an unflinchingly honest and personal tour through his life: his father’s abandonment, his childhood poverty, a school shooting, his binge drinking/drug use, his heartbreak (he gives as good as he gets), his tortured mind, rock 'n' roll in New York City and finally sobriety and salvation through...running. In gritty poetic detail, Mishka takes us from his marathon drinking to his marathon running and every dirty dark beautiful baby step in between. 

This book and some of your previous works cover your drinking and your sobriety, being a dirtbag made good. You’ve posted about fans puking while you sign books. Who would you say is your main audience? Runners? Drunks? Ex-drunks? People in AA? Men? Women?

This is a great question, one I’ve tried hard not to answer. Sadly, we live in a world where these metrics are a primary concern. I catch myself puzzling over them sometimes…and try to force myself not to make the analysis. I was talking to the writer David Gates once and I wondered aloud to him, cynically, if there was some way to crack the code, to discover the algorithm for making an emotional connection with readers. He gave me a withering look and said, “That right there is the death of writing.” I think his point was that writing is a form of black magic, and we must not strip the magic out of it. 

At my reading last night, I had a check in every box: drunks, runners, AA folks, folks who had gotten sober without AA, straight-up literature fans, men who had dragged women there, women who had dragged men there. At first I had anxiety about having everyone in the room together, as I didn’t know how to be the person they were wanting…and I had no idea how folks were going to get along. But folks got along swimmingly. And I have to remind myself that I just need to be the person I want to be, and if the drunks are bummed by my sobriety or if sober folks are bummed by stories from my past, well, it was never going to work out anyway. 

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How has your track to sobriety differed from the traditional narrative?

I stopped drinking without rehab or AA. I’ve never done the 12 steps. I’m outspoken about my alcoholism and my sobriety. Though I eat psilocybin a couple times a year, I will emphatically argue that I am sober. I push as hard as I can against the Hollywood narrative that a relapse is always lurking, or that my life is perfect now, or that sobriety has brought me happiness. I’ll go for months and months without having a craving for alcohol and, as a musician, I’m in dive bars all the time. I still get sad or depressed or frustrated or angry as I did when I was drinking, but I have tools to manage it now (and I actually try to manage it now). I also push against the AA narrative that I’m a dry drunk, because I don’t go to meetings or haven’t worked the 12 steps. And now I even push against the anti-AA narrative that AA is evil, as I’ve seen a lot of good and a lot of wisdom come out of the program.  

When you first get sober in the book you write, ”Sobriety had alienated me from the songs I’d written without quelling the urge to make music.” Please explain. What do you have to say about the link between addiction/alcoholism and creativity?

Well, the jury’s still out on that. There is a pervasive school of thought that all you have to do to make it as a writer is drink a lot, do a ton of drugs, and fuck a lot of people. If that were true, well, there would be a lot more writers. I would argue that the only thing that will make you a writer is writing. And we both know that’s a lot less fun than the other stuff. Someone who knew Hunter Thompson told me that he never wrote a word while under the influence, and I believe that. Bukowski is the exception that makes the rule because he was a poet, but most career drunks like him are just disgusting wife-beating shitheads. I know that I created stunningly little while I was drinking. And I know that since I’ve been sober, I’ve written the equivalent of about three books in five years. But a lot of that work has been about the life I led before I got sober. And I’ve written exceedingly few songs since I’ve gotten sober. So…I do think that many creative folks wind up addicts/alcoholics, and I think lots of addicts/alcoholics turn out to be incredibly creative. I think curiosity about the human condition drives creativity. But trying to learn about the human condition through drinking is like trying to learn about video editing by watching hardcore pornography. Sure, you may get what you’re after, but man, you will become warped along the way. And maybe lose your humanity entirely. 

As you know in AA, “sober” is defined as “nothing mind altering.” Your thoughts on that? 

Catholicism considers astrology to be a mortal sin. I don’t subscribe to the Catholic school of beliefs, so I don’t worry too much about their opinions. Similarly, I don’t subscribe to AA, so, though I give their opinions a little more weight, they’re still opinions, not facts. The Oxford English Dictionary defines sober as “not affected by alcohol; not drunk.” I adhere to this absolutely— no non-alcoholic beer, no kombucha, no nothing. The OED’s second definition of sober is “serious, sensible, and solemn.” In this regard, I have no desire to be sober. I want to have a life that is off-the-rails happy/fun/joyful/ridiculous. 

Rhetorical flourishes aside, psilocybin and LSD have a long, scientifically-documented history of helping break addiction. Recently, the public at large has finally accepted that marijuana was criminalized only due to a racist agenda. Marijuana is a medicine with the potential for addiction (but much less dangerous than alcohol). In the next 20 years, public opinion will come around to science, and hallucinogens will be treated as medicine. AA will have to evolve. 

Your book is sooo detailed, and you were loaded so much of the time. Were you chronicling this stuff as it was going on? Do you fill in the gaps with novelistic creativity? Have the memory of Rainman?

My memory is eerily good. I used to freak people out when working the door at bars because I remembered everyone’s names. My sisters (who never drank like I did) are still stunned at how much I remember and how well I remember events of which they have almost no recollection. That said, memory is a distorted impression, not a photograph or a recording. I’m not perfect, so I know I must have gotten some things wrong, but I have made every effort to make everything in the book true to my memory. As my father said in an interview, “People misremember things. Even if I remember it wrong, this is how I remember it.”

I’ve kept a few secrets for people, as it is the job of a memoirist to reveal their own secrets while keeping the secrets of others. But I have done everything in my power to keep "novelistic creativity" out of my memoir entirely. You can tell the story of your life and embellish, change a few details, gloss over a few dark times— that is called "fiction."  

You write, “One hard truth I stumbled upon is this: I drank because I wanted to drink. Every single drink, every single drug I took, I took because I made the decision to get fucked up, and fuck the consequences.” Okay, so I’m assuming you do NOT believe in the idea of powerlessness. What about the NIDA brain scans and all this scientific data showing that we actually do damage and change our brains through constant use/abuse, essentially blowing out the brake system?

I’ve been careful not to present my story as THE story. It’s one story out of millions. Was I ever powerless? I honestly don’t know—I know that I wasn’t always powerless. Was it important for me to understand myself as never having been powerless in order to move forward? Yes. Do I believe that some people are powerless? Absolutely. Do I believe that alcoholism/addiction changes brains? Yeah, I agree with the research I’ve read on that subject and that makes sense to me. 

You are brazen about your dislike or disagreement for AA: “This idea that I had to be humble not just before a God I didn’t believe in or people I’d hurt or nonalcoholics but before everyone and that my ‘recovery’ would last the rest of my life ... fuck that, all the way, in every way.” Do big book thumpers or AA fundamentalists write to you, criticize your sobriety in reviews, etc.?

It’s worth noting that the sentence you quote here was one point on a timeline. It’s true to how I felt in the moment, but I’ve softened towards AA over the years. 

Yeah, I get some pushback from the hardcore AA folks, usually in the form of condescension. It’s frustrating as I don’t think being smug furthers the conversation. I’ve also been stunned by the amount of support and acceptance I’ve gotten from veterans of the program.

It’s probably worth noting here that I don’t think AA is wrong and I’m right. If AA works for you, that’s fantastic. I stumbled upon something that worked for me. I do think that it’s foolish to think that any one program is going to solve a problem as tenacious and individualized as addiction.

Running is your recovery program. I love this quote, ”Running was an inverted drunk—you felt like hell first, and then you felt great.” What does it do for you and do you think this type of sustained fiendish hellish exercise would help other people get and stay sober? 

Oh man, there’s almost too much good stuff about running. There’s an increasing amount of hard data about how good exercise is for depression, anxiety and mental health (and particularly how good sustained cardio is for brain function), but I’ll leave that to the scientists to exposit. On a personal level, choosing to tackle a difficult thing and then completing it is self-affirming. Choosing to do an unpleasant thing because you know it’s good for you is a great exercise in caring about yourself. Tackling a difficult, unpleasant thing and failing is still good for you because you’ll realize that failing to run a 10K or a half-marathon or a full marathon has no negative consequences and that, in fact, before you failed, you did a lot of good for yourself. I really feel like it is the exact opposite of drinking. When you drink, you’re saying, “Fuck my life. I’m willing to endure long-term negative consequences to escape this moment.” When you run, you’re saying, “I care about my life. I’m willing to endure this moment in order to escape long-term negative consequences.” It’s that tidy.

You write that you have this scorpion inside you, coiled around your spine that is your alcoholism and that now, at six years, it's sleeping. But you also say that you created it, built by each of your bad decisions. So what do you think alcoholism is? And you mention that it’s not just booze that wakes it up a bit but also porn, eBay video games, Facebook, candy. What’s it been lately?  

I’m not sure I have a neat explanation for what alcoholism is, but I know it’s rarely an either/or scenario. Sometimes you’re powerless, sometimes you’re not. Sometimes it’s a decision, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s genetic, sometimes it’s not. I can say that alcoholism is a mental and sometimes physical addiction to alcohol, but that seems to fall very short of describing the demon I’ve struggled with, as that mental addiction will often manifest as an addict refusing to admit they have a problem or that they need help. In order to keep my alcoholism at bay, I have chosen to envision it as an aggregation of bad decisions. That puts the responsibility on me when it comes to the harm I’ve inflicted and the decisions I make going forward. That vision of the scorpion I had, well, that reminds me that I’ve gotta stay vigilant.

Amy Dresner has been a columnist at The Fix since 2012 and is the author of the forthcoming My Fair Junkie. And she is on Twitter.

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Amy Dresner is a recovering drug addict and all around fuck up. She’s been regularly writing for The Fix since 2012. When she isn't humorously chronicling her epic ups and downs for us, she's freelancing for Refinery 29, Alternet, After Party Chat, Salon, The Frisky, Cosmo Latina, Unbound Box, Addiction.com and Psychology Today. Her first book, My Fair Junkie: A Memoir of Getting Dirty and Staying Clean was published in September 2017 by Hachette Books. Follow her on Twitter @amydresner.