Michelle Tea is a queer author, poet, and literary organizer who has been sober for close to two decades. I am also queer and sober, and a big fan of Tea’s work, so talking to her was an honor. We spoke about addiction, recovery, and how being sober impacts her writing and creative life.
What prompted your decision to get sober?
I don’t know that I decided. It felt like a moment of desperate grasping out. I had been slowly walking towards an acknowledgment that things were not normal. It was hard to know what was normal, because I was part of a celebratory queer bar culture. That really confuses things, because you’re like, “The culture already tells me the way I live is wrong and weird.”
I’d done some things like “I’m not going to drink for a month.” I hit the point where all my efforts to abstain kept failing so profoundly. It made me feel crazy. It really is that definition of doing the same thing and expecting different results.
A friend who is older than me and had been sober for like 20 years—who had mentored me in other areas of my life—came to town. The last time I had seen them, I wasn’t drinking. Since that time, it had fallen apart. They asked how not drinking was going and I burst into tears. I was like, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me; I can’t stop.”
We tried to go to a meeting that night and there was none when we got there. I was like, “It’s a sign; I’m supposed to get wasted tonight.” I did, and it was ugly, awful, and scary. Then in the morning, I went to a meeting with this friend, and it was amazing. I felt such relief at seeing all these other people, and hearing them having struggled with what I was struggling with. I didn’t realize how alone and coocoo I felt until I heard other people.
I relate to so many of the things you’ve written and just said: the destructive relationships, doing things that were really dangerous, and trying to quit or moderate so many times. I remember even telling myself, “I’ll quit when I have irreversible health problems.”
I love being around sober alcoholics, because I love hearing the stories of how our brains worked. I think the real gift of being sober is the sense of humor that everyone ultimately cultivates. You have to, and with distance it is funny.
It’s so absurd, too.
As we were leading up to this interview, I was thinking about how much I’ve changed since being sober. It made me wonder how those changes in self impact memoir writing.
It changed my writing process in general, because I wrote when I was drunk. You get confused and think that’s where your creativity or talent stems from.
What I found was that obviously that’s not the source of my creativity, but it’s hard to sit and write. You face your insecurity and self-doubt and inner critic. While I was drinking, those voices were dulled. The writing was an excuse for drinking; the drinking kept me sitting and writing. They were intertwined and needed to be pulled apart, but it wasn’t so hard to do that.
When I was in this dark spot, where I was trying to quit on my own and couldn’t really do it, I was basically trying to rewrite my book Valencia. “Then we got drunk and had sex in the bathroom.”
I was like, “That isn’t that interesting,” but I was trying to make it interesting because I was stuck there—in the way that when you’re in your alcoholism, you’re so stuck. I was repeating myself, or this weird idea of myself.
When I got sober, I didn’t want to write about that anymore for a while. When I wanted to write about drinking and using again, it felt like there were new things worth exploring about it. I wasn’t just rehashing the same vibe that had gotten me a moment of attention a decade ago.
In Black Wave—which is more recent, right?—I wondered about Michelle getting sober as the apocalypse is happening.
Yeah, I wanted to talk a little about sobriety; it is sort of an apocalypse in itself. It makes me think of the tower card in the tarot. It’s about something being necessarily destroyed, and it’s traumatic. In this card, there’s this idea that the eye of God is opening up, looking at the earth, and saying, “What the f*ck is going on down there? I’m going to destroy all that and start over.”
It’s like when you can’t unsee something. Once I got sober, I couldn’t unsee the way I was living my life. Drinking sort of propped up and prettified my poverty, and all these things that I was scared of. When I was drunk, I was like, “Yeah I’m drunk and don’t need anything; anyone who needs more than a 40 oz-er is a f*cking idiot.” But once I took that away, I was like, “I actually don’t want to be struggling. I don’t know how to not struggle.”
To look at that without bravado—really look at the vulnerability of that—is what I wanted to talk about, even moreso than getting sober.
How did getting sober affect the cultural aspects of the creative world, like readings and things like that?
When I first got sober, I was very much like, “Nothing in my life is going to change; I’m just going to take alcohol out.”
After a point, I realized certain environments made me really uncomfortable. I gave myself permission to not feel like I have to tough it out. After allowing myself not to be in social situations that made me anxious, now I can actually go.
Performing felt really weird for me for a while, because I had always performed drunk. I felt like my personality was smaller. I missed the bigger feeling, but that’s addiction—you always want to have the biggest feeling. Part of reckoning with addiction is realizing life can’t be on 10 all the time. It will periodically go up to 10 and then it’ll come back down. My life probably goes up to 10 more than the average person, so I’m quite lucky.
You talked about being queer and going to bars. Do you think your queerness has impacted either your sobriety or addiction?
I feel like I was born an alcoholic out the gate. But yeah, my queer life absolutely influenced my alcoholism. Queer life happens in bars and clubs. Everyone’s drinking; it feels fun and normal.
I remember when I was in my early 20’s, a doctor asked why I drink every night, and I was like, “I just go out every night.” It was so exciting in the 90’s to be queer in San Francisco; there were all these fun things to do every night. I think it did accelerate my alcoholism. It could have maybe progressed in a way that was less in my face, and I might have taken a lot longer to recognize it as a problem.
I think of you as an activist; I don’t know if you think of yourself as one. I was wondering if your relationship to activism changed after getting sober.
I don’t consider myself an activist, because I don’t do consistent, on-the-ground organizing. I have in my life been more of an activist. I hope that my writing brings inspiration and entertainment to people who are activists and share my values. I still have the same values as I ever have. If anything, having clarity of mind allows for a deeper analysis and understanding of how systemic and terrible our social ills are.
Somebody who is a therapist and sober person suggested to me: alcoholism serves as a metaphor and template for racism. I inherited racism and white privilege the way I inherited my alcoholism. I don’t have to drink and be an a**hole, and likewise I can bring anti-racist consciousness and be less of an a**hole and more of an accomplice to people of color.
Also, when I got sober, I was such a man-hater. I kind of hated straight people too. I was basically like, “If you’re not like me, or more oppressed than me, f*ck you.”
Being in AA, I was suddenly thrown into these rooms with people who were so different from me, but what we had in common was more important than anything else. That was humbling and great, because it broadened my world. It created more alliances with more people.