In this series, Lucy Nichol proves you never know who mental ill health will come after next by celebrating the diverse qualities and eccentricities of her lovable friends and acquaintances. This week, she’s talking alcoholism with Amber Tozer.
Remember that duvet cover from the 80s with the sad clown? That clown was Pierrot. He might have made people laugh but, inside, he was hiding a terrible pain. A pain caused by his unrequited love for Columbine, who, as far as I can tell, had the hots for Harlequin.
Pierrot wasn’t really born in the 80s; he was actually appearing in French and Italian pantomimes hundreds of years back. The sad clown. A mask hiding an unrequited love….
I recently read a book about somebody else who makes people laugh and lives with an unrequited love. An unrequited love for alcohol.
Amber Tozer is a US comedian and writer, and she will tell you now, no matter what she invested in her relationship with alcohol, she got nothing back. Zero. Nada. Because, in fact, alcohol had the hots for destruction…
So what does destruction looks like? Waking up underneath the desk having passed out – again; jumping in cars with strangers in the dead of night; terrible relationships with terrible men; blacking out in a taxi and driving miles away from home; peeing in a takeaway bag and finding it in the communal garden, with your name and address stapled to it for the takeaway delivery driver…
And that’s just the bits that Amber remembers.
Some of these things might sound funny – if they happened once, maybe. But for Amber, these kinds of events were a nightly occurrence. And for years, she convinced herself she was just doing what everyone does: partying and having fun.
At the time of Amber’s flirtation with stranger danger and backseat blackouts, she was breaking into the comedy scene in New York, so the bar became her office.
She says: “I feel like any culture normalises drinking. Whether you are in a band or in banking, you will find people to drink with. Sure, being in comedy means you’re in bars every night and when you’re ‘trying to make it’ as an artist it is very easy to turn drinking into something romantic and cool and edgy.
“Many successful artists have been big drinkers – a lot of them have died horrible deaths but you don’t think about that. You think, ‘Everyone drinks. I’m normal. I’m fine. I don’t remember what happened last night and I lost a shoe and I feel this horrible sense of shame and guilt but that’s OK. Maybe I’ll write a joke about it!’
“For me, comedy was a place for my insanity to go” Amber continues. “Otherwise it just sits in my head and I feel like a cursed victim. It’s empowering to utilise my sensitivity and warped perception. I like paying attention to it and turning it into something other people might connect with.
“This way, it feels more like a blessing. I mean, I don’t always do this. I have spent an embarrassing amount of time feeling sorry for myself, but when I’m able to spin it around into something fun and funny, it feels really great.”
Addiction is a mental health issue. It’s not something people live with just because it can sometimes be fun or because they like annoying people or they enjoy fucking up. Who would choose a life like that?
I recently interviewed writer and former marine, Chris Thrall, who lived through a destructive crystal meth addiction. He talked about the ‘rat in the cage’ experiment: how the rat would push the button and get a reward, but that once the reward was taken away, it couldn’t help but keep pushing the button.
It’s a compulsion. It changes the make-up of your brain and creates – via the development of alternative neural pathways – new patterns of behaviour, which can become like an autopilot setting.
Then of course there is the physical addiction. Your body becomes so used to alcohol that it depends on it. It has to have it to feel normal. A person with a serious alcohol addiction (and I’m talking about a serious physical addiction here) should always seek advice before going cold turkey – immediate total withdrawal without medical support can be as serious as it gets.
All of this is only the start though. Once sober, there’s a huge amount of work to do to rediscover who you really are, and how to manage any of the problems you previously dealt with by sticking boozy Elastoplasts over them.
“If you can’t stop drinking or using drugs, reach out for help. Someone will grab your hand.”
Amber says: “There is much more to alcoholism than drinking and not drinking. If you’re an alcoholic, the root of the problem is your thinking – so when you stop drinking, you have to conquer your fucking thoughts!
“Once the boozy fog cleared, I had to deal with my loud, mean thoughts; the reason I drank in the first place. Then I had to do some work to quiet and manage the noise in my head without the easy and accessible assistance of booze and drugs.
“That’s why, for me anyway, I talk things through with other people in recovery and reread books about alcoholism to remind myself that my mean thoughts aren’t real – they are just a fucked up chatty committee of evil bastards that live in my head.
“Some people assume that once we stop drinking and using drugs that we are ‘all better’. No. For me, I know and feel that my mind is still off so, on a daily basis, I have to shift my perception out of the crazy zone to the practical zone, so I can go on with my day.”
“It’s tough because, ultimately, it does come down to the obvious choice to not use or drink, but until you’ve experienced what it’s like to live inside the head of an addict, you have no idea how difficult it is.”
Now seven years sober, enjoying a successful career in writing, performing and television and a happier relationship with her family – and herself – Amber is proof that you can come out the other side.
She said: “If you can’t stop drinking or using drugs, reach out for help. Someone will grab your hand.”
To learn more about Amber’s journey, read her book, Sober Stick Figure. It will make you laugh and cry. And if you do relate – it might help you to take the first steps to turning your life around.
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Neurotic hen-keeper, feline friend and mental health blogger. Prone to catastrophisation and over excitement at the garden centre. Caution: do not give Diet Coke after dark.