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Sober Stick Figure
By Amber Tozer
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- ebook $13.99 $17.99 CAD
- Hardcover $24.00 $30.99 CAD
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As a teenager, Amber is an overachieving student athlete who copes with her family’s alcoholic tragedies by focusing on her achievements. It quickly takes a funny and dark turn when she starts to experiment with booze and ignores the warning signs of alcoholism. Through blackouts, cringe-worthy embarrassments, and pounding hangovers, she convinces herself that she “just likes to party.” She leaves her hometown of Pueblo, Colorado to follow her dreams, and ends up in New York City, spending lots of time binge drinking, passing out on trains, and telling jokes on stage. She then moves to Los Angeles, thinking sunshine and show business will save her. Eventually hitting rock bottom, she has a moment of clarity, and knows she has to stop drinking. It’s now been seven years since that last drink, and she’s ready to tell her story. Sober Stick Figure is adventurous, hilarious, sad, sweet, tragic — and ultimately inspiring.
The first time I ever tasted alcohol was at my grandma Babe’s house. I was seven years old. My uncle Woody let me take a swig of his beer, and I thought it tasted like sour pee. I knew what pee tasted like because I was a fucked-up kid. He also let me take a drag of his cigarette. Score! I felt like I was going to experience what men and loose women experienced in the movies, extreme coolness. As I took a big-ass toke off that cancer stick and my lungs filled with smoky chemicals it felt like my guts had just been set aflame. It felt horrible, like the most uncool thing I had ever done. I took another swig of beer then coughed so hard I almost threw up. Luckily, only long strings of saliva poured down my chin. My uncle smiled and said, “See. It’s bad. You shouldn’t drink and smoke.” Then he took another puff.
My family said that Uncle Woody was an “alcoholic.” They also said my dad and Grandpa Mac were “alcoholics.” I could feel it in my bones that it was a very bad thing because when they said the word alcoholic their tone slipped into sadness. I intuitively knew that it was bad, but at the same time drinking alcohol was just something everyone did. I felt like I was hearing, “Alcohol is very bad, but everyone loves it and drinks it all of the time.”
I probably thought this way because my parents owned a bar-restaurant called the Do Drop Inn, a local hot spot in my hometown of Pueblo, a midsize lower-middle-class city in the foothills of Colorado. Do Drop Inn, or better known as “the Do Drop,” served pizza, burgers, and booze, and like all classic dive joints, had a dart board and a pool table. Me, my older brother Adam, and younger sister Autumn, were always around men who sat on stools with their elbows on the bar drinking one drink after another. They seemed fine. In fact, they made drinking alcohol look like a great idea. They were always laughing and smiling and when their favorite song came on the juke box they’d get up and dance. I loved walking in there with my family. Those boozy boys would pick me and Autumn up and say, “Hey, kiddos!” then toss us in the air. There is nothing more fun than being tossed in the air by a drunk when you’re a kid. In that moment you feel both carefree and full of life.
I was happy my parents owned the bar; it was one of the coolest places in town. There’s not much to do in Pueblo except breed and drink, so that’s what everyone does. If you’re not making babies, you’re boozin’—sometimes people did these two things at the same time.
Mom’s pizza recipe was a smash hit, and Do Drop became the number-one pizza place in town. Business was good, but I could tell something was wrong at home. My dad turned out to be a very sad and angry and depressed man. I had to take care of Autumn when my mom was at work because he wouldn’t come out of his bedroom. I don’t know if he was drinking in there or not because he kept the door closed. He slipped into a very dark depression that lasted years, and no one ever talked about it. I hated the silence.
Mom ended up divorcing him. She said the last straw was when he started hitting me and Adam with a cutting board. When my mom said we were moving out, I pretended to be sad because that’s how kids acted in after-school specials when their parents got a divorce, but I was thrilled. I could not wait to get away. I hated him. Of course Mom got custody of us, and the cool thing was, my dad didn’t want the Do Drop. He said if Mom gave him a lot of money she could have it.
So, she worked full-time at the gas station my aunt Sabrina owned until she made enough money to buy him out. Here she was, a newly single mom with full-time custody of three kids, going through a divorce, and working as a cashier at a gas station. I wondered what she was thinking, because you never knew, she was just always working toward a solution without emotion. I felt okay with everything because she seemed okay. I loved that she worked at a gas station because sometimes I’d go with her early in the morning before school and she would give me a day-old donut. Score.
My mom was a rock. She was a working warrior, doing whatever it took to maintain a stable life for us. I felt safe around her, but at the same time there was this hardness to her. Her style of lovin’ was very tough, and she had no tolerance for feelings. I guess you can’t be a softy when you have kids to feed and a fucked-up ex-husband. If she sat around and focused on her feelings she would have gone nuts. I believe my mom intuitively knew what to focus on to make things better, but what she didn’t know is that we aren’t all like that. I never, ever saw her feel sorry for herself, and that’s how she wanted us to be.
My siblings and I handled the divorce pretty well. Adam was always focused on something like karate, bike riding, break dancing, or throwing Chinese stars at everyone. He did a good job keeping himself distracted. Autumn was real young, so I don’t know if she knew what was happening, but she seemed okay. She was a mellow and sweet kid. I’ve always felt like an insane person no matter what was happening, so I guess I was feeling normal.
Okay, let me use these little stick-figure emoji bullet points to plow into this next portion of my life. After my parents got a divorce and my mom got the Do Drop, this stuff happened:
My mom met and fell in love with a fireman named Mark. He had a big beer belly, but considered himself an athlete because he was good at sports in high school. I thought he was great because he at least came out of the bedroom. I was like, “This guy is great! He comes out of the bedroom to drink beer!” They got married and had my half sister, Rochelle. She was so cute.
I was going through puberty and was full of suppressed rage and was mean to Autumn and Adam. I was also very horny. We all moved into a big house together “out in the country,” and I loved my new school. I found an outlet for my pent-up rage and horniness—sports.
Autumn, Adam, and I rarely saw my dad because he was still a mental mess.
My mom was a workaholic and worked seven days a week at the Do Drop. Mark helped me with sports and took us camping and drank beer when he wasn’t being a fireman.
I was content. I liked our new house, I was excelling in sports and school, and I loved my friends—but I had this other side of me, this nagging sense that I needed something else. Something was missing; it was like a lonely feeling, a pit in my stomach. I thought being a good kid would make me happy, but since it didn’t, the dark side seemed very tempting.
This is why I wanted to try alcohol again. I wasn’t a kid anymore taking baby sips of my uncle’s beer; I was thirteen years old and ready to party my training-bra tits off. It was the summer of ’89, and I was with my friend Tammy-Lou. She grew up in the country, so that’s why her name is like that. She was a real tall girl with rich and cool parents. I loved her family. Tammy-Lou and I lived in the same neighborhood, went to school together, played sports together, and my stepdad was friends with her dad. I liked her because she was so much fun and laughed a lot. And if you did something stupid, she’d get a kick out of it and even encourage it. A perfect friend to have—tall, fun, funny, rich, sporty—and she enabled stupidity.
One night, Tammy-Lou was staying the night at my house, and we made a plan to sneak out and meet some boys we went to school with, Jason and Peter. These were the days before cell phones, so our plans consisted of one phone call to a landline and a lot of faith.
My house was super easy to sneak out of, especially on the night Tammy-Lou stayed over because my parents weren’t even home. Mark was working an overnight fireman shift, my mom was working late at the Do Drop, and I don’t remember where my siblings were. Hopefully, I didn’t leave my little sisters home alone. Anyway, we could have just walked out the door, but I made Tammy-Lou crawl out a small window.
I loved the feeling of doing something my parents would not want me to do; it was an adrenaline rush. The nagging dark side of me that wanted to be bad was finally being fed and the wrongness felt right. Even though sneaking out would be a mild thing to “bad kids,” it was a huge deal to me. When you’re an overachieving three-sport athlete who spends a lot of time making your hair perfect, sneaking out feels like you’re committing a felony.
As Tammy-Lou and I walked in the dark, down the dirt road that led to the tennis courts, we could see Peter and Jason standing by the net. They were both tall, thin, and blond. Jason was a troublemaker; he was always doing crazy shit and getting in trouble. I liked him because he didn’t give a fuck and wasn’t intimidated by authority figures, or at least that’s what it seemed like. Peter, on the other hand, was a good kid. Sort of like me, but not as needy and way more kind. Jason and Peter were best friends, probably drawn to each other because they were opposites.
As Tammy-Lou and I got closer to the courts, I got another burst of adrenaline. The thoughts in my mind were very staccato. We. Are. Sneaking. Out. To. Meet. Boys. And. Drink. Alcohol. SO. BAD.
We reached the tennis court entrance and greeted the boys with our awkward pubescent ways of communicating, which I’m sure involved a few insults. Maybe Tammy-Lou and I said something like, “Hey, dummies.” And the boys said something like, “Hey, fatties.” But I don’t remember what we said. All I remember is Jason pulling out a huge bottle of Jim Beam from the inside pocket of his jean jacket and drinking it straight from the bottle. I could not believe how much he did not give a fuck about shit.
Peter was next. Jason passed him the bottle, and we all just stared at him waiting for him to take a drink. It was the rawest form of peer pressure. Eyes on you, Peter. Whatchya gonna do? He put the bottle to his lips and took a big swig, no big deal. I was pretty sure these two boys had done this before.
Then it was Tammy-Lou’s turn. I knew she would be able to handle it because she was so tall and athletic. She took a swig, scrunched up her face, yelled “UGH,” and passed the bottle to me. I could not wait to taste this disgusting beverage. I took a big drink real fast, wanting to get it over with. It tasted like something the devil made, but I enjoyed the warm sting as it traveled down my throat into my belly.
We continued to pass the bottle and drink. After a few more swigs, I was officially drunk and experiencing the psychic transformation that alcohol provides. It was like I had just poured a solution to all my problems over my mind.
I felt like a superhero, like a very hyper, athletic, sexy, smart, courageous, teenage superhero. I ran around hurdling the net and climbing the fence. I didn’t know if I was showing off or trying to get my friends to worry about me. I liked the idea of being so crazy people worried about me. Then, I thought maybe I should kiss one of the boys, but I had no idea how to flirt, how to communicate, and my way of connecting with people was impressing them. But on this night, I realized all that shit didn’t matter.
Tammy-Lou, Peter, and Jason stood in a huddle talking or whatever they were doing. I didn’t know and I didn’t really care because I could not contain my energy. Jason was usually the one to act like a nutjob, but on this night, it was my turn. I finally saw him as my equal. Jason was nothing but another kid on the planet. I was just as crazy as he was, and I would no longer hold him on a pedestal for being a bad kid who didn’t give a fuck. I was the bad kid who didn’t give a fuck. It was an incredible transformation. The nerves I had just an hour before were briefly drowned out by the voice of Jim Beam. A voice that I felt like I had been waiting for all my life.
I was feeling incredible and thought I should probably drink as much as possible so I could get MORE of those incredible feelings. I guess feeling drunk wasn’t enough; the darkness that lurked inside of me kept telling me I needed MORE. I went from experiencing my first drunkenness to experiencing my first blackout in less than a couple of hours.
All I know is that I was at the tennis courts trying to be crazier than Jason, and the next thing I know I’m in my basement with Tammy-Lou and my mom having somewhat of a normal conversation. Apparently we had rushed back to my house, making it just in time before she got home from work. She brought us some pizza and asked us why we had our coats on. We couldn’t say, “Oh, because we just got back from binge drinking whiskey with some bad boys at the tennis court, and we didn’t have time to take our coats off before you got here,” so I said, “We’re cold.” Tammy-Lou chimed in, “Yeah, it’s cold in here.” And that was it. Mom was sort of like “Huh, okay” and walked away to get ready for bed. She didn’t know we were drunk AND she gave us Do Drop pizza. DRUNKEN SUCCESS STORY!
Okay, it wasn’t a total success. I woke up a few hours later and threw up Jim Beam, pizza, and all the happy feelings that I thought would last forever. I laid on the bathroom floor like they do in the movies, curled up in a very dramatic fetal position wondering what had happened the night before, knowing that a chunk of time was missing. Flashbacks of running around the tennis courts and talking to my mom flooded my mind and filled me with dread. I promised myself I would never, ever drink again.
My first real addiction was attention and validation, so from the age of 15 to 18 I was focused on being the fucking best! These years are a blur of academic and athletic accolades and I rarely drank. When I was writing about all of this stuff I got bored. Here’s what I looked liked when I originally wrote this chapter.
Honor Roll! Most Valuable Player! All-State! My bedroom wall was covered with awards. I’d look at them and daydream about the day I’d be someone really important.
Although I wasn’t drinking during this phase of my life, it doesn’t mean that I was free from alcoholism. I was surrounded by it and could not get away. I was like a pile of shit, and it was a fly. Let me see if I can draw that.
My dad was drinking, my stepdad Mark was drinking, my uncle Woody was drinking, and Grandpa Mac ended up dying of cirrhosis of the liver. Alcoholism was everywhere. It was the root of the dysfunction, but I never felt “too close” to it. It wasn’t an obvious problem in my life. I rarely saw my dad, I didn’t know my grandpa that well, and Mark and my uncle Woody were fun drunks. They came to life when they drank. They made jokes; they laughed and smiled more. It never occurred to me that it was genetic, and I was clueless that I was at risk of being an alcoholic. And I thought maybe drinking too much was a “guy” thing because all the women in my family were solid.
I never really registered how bad drinking was until the summer before my senior year. My cute little five-year-old sister Rochelle was riding with her best friend Chelsea and her family when they were hit head-on by a drunk driver who was going the wrong way on a major highway. Rochelle’s best friend Chelsea died on the side of the road. She was six years old. Chelsea’s loving and kind dad was crushed by the steering wheel and died instantly. Jennifer, Chelsea’s older sister, made it out okay, and her mom, Linda, was stuck between the front and back seat and they had to use the jaws of life to remove her from the car—she survived. Lucky for the drunk driver, he died instantly. He escaped never knowing the horror he caused—the deaths, the pain, the broken bodies, and the broken hearts.
Rochelle was hanging on for dear life and was flown on a flight-for-life helicopter to the hospital. She was in a coma with a concussion, a broken neck, and a lacerated spleen. The entire family rushed to the hospital to be with her. My mom was in tough-love mode, she was like, “Don’t cry in front of her! She needs us to be strong!” We weren’t allowed to be sad in front of Rochelle. We were all either in shock, weeping in the waiting room, or trying to stay busy by taking care of each other. The entire town sent flowers and food and prayers.
I couldn’t process any emotion. I think we were all going insane, pacing and waiting and wondering if she was going to make it. Thank God she woke up and recovered like a champion-warrior, superhero baby girl.
This accident shook our entire family to the core, and I vowed to never drink and drive. My senior year I was nominated for homecoming queen and my speech was about drinking and driving. I urged everyone to not do it, and I promised I wouldn’t. I didn’t win; a girl who joked about her dad’s farts won.
Even though I wasn’t homecoming queen and my sister almost died and the men in my family were drunks, I thought high school was a great experience. I was too wrapped up in my greatness to notice anything was wrong. I was on the honor roll all four years, racked up eleven varsity letters, a shit load of athletic awards, and a basketball scholarship. I worked my ass off and took all these accomplishments very seriously, and when it was time to finally graduate, I made the decision to drink as much alcohol as my body and mind would allow. I needed some relief. The pressure of being all I could be in high school really made me a high-strung asshole, and I needed a drink.
The night before graduation, my friend Bobby had a big party in the garage behind his house and it was so fun. There was a keg, random bottles of hard liquor, and weed everywhere. A bunch of football players, cowboys, cheerleaders, pot heads, and intellectuals were there. The best part about our senior class was the cliques clicked with each other, diversifying our parties. Cowboys would pour shots for the stoners; intellectuals told jokes to the jocks. It was such a fun-loving group of kids, and the alcohol helped us love each other even more.
I decided to drink beer that night because I thought maybe it wouldn’t make me throw up like Jim Beam did. I kept track of how many beers I drank. I wrote tally marks on my hand and ran around showing everyone, “Look, I’ve had seven cups of beer!” I think I got up to around eleven or twelve cups before I passed out in Bobby’s pickup truck. It was a comfortable place to sleep until Bobby started banging on the driver’s side window the next morning yelling at me because I got mud all over his seat and he said I peed in his mom’s greenhouse.
During the graduation ceremony, I was so hungover and panicky. I didn’t like seeing the friends I was with the night before because we were sober and awkward. I didn’t remember everything that had happened and that made me nervous. I thought peeing in the greenhouse was funny, but I wondered what else I did and was thankful I did not take a shit in the greenhouse. As nice and open-minded as my friends were, they would have no problem nicknaming me “Tozer the Fertilizer.”
It’s the weirdest feeling to know just hours ago you were drunk and laughing and dancing and now you are nervous and shaky. It sucked because this was the day we had all been waiting for, and I was dry heaving and hiding behind sunglasses. I couldn’t believe how unexcited I was about the entire ceremony. I think I did a good job pretending to be happy, but I just wanted it to be over.
After breakfast and getting a bunch of hugs and congratulations from friends and family, I felt better. My spirits were lifted, and my 17 year-old body recovered from the hangover. When my friends said what I thought were encouraging words, “Oh my God, you were so fucked-up last night. It was hilarious!”, it made me happy. I forgot about those few hours of hell during the graduation ceremony and got excited about life again. High school was over! Holy shit! I was getting old!
I kept waiting to feel like an adult and wondered if I should I do my hair differently, read more books, or buy a purse. I didn’t change much, I just partied a little bit more. I didn’t drink often, but when I did, I drank A LOT. I remember one morning I woke up on the floor of my bedroom in a puddle of my pee.
When it came to drinking, I didn’t know how to do it “right.” I couldn’t just have a couple, but I thought that was normal. And since I was only drinking once in a while, I was fine. I wasn’t anything like my grandpa, my uncle, my dad, my stepdad, or that drunk driver who killed my sister’s friend. I was just a kid doing what kids do. And I wasn’t just any kid. I was special. I was a girl who did really well in high school and was going to college.
The basketball scholarship I got was to a Division II school in Durango, Colorado, so that’s where I went. I did not have a good time. Within the first month, I was overeating, and since I hated puking, I’d take laxatives and shit a lot. Then I was like, “This is disgusting” and got my pseudo eating disorder under control. I just felt trapped and needed some form of mutilation or stimulation. I couldn’t party and socialize because there was no time. All I had time for was basketball practice, class, homework, and sleep, and the rest of the time I was crying.
We had a very intense conservative coach from the South who would yell, “MEANWHILE BACK AT THE RANCH,” which meant, “You’re slow and lazy and need to catch up.” We were always in the gym lifting weights, so the freshman fifteen I gained was all muscle. I felt like I had lost control of my body because I didn’t know what to do with my powerful muscles.
I couldn’t quit basketball; I needed the scholarship money. I was like a basketball whore.
I lived in a dorm with the sweetest girl on the planet. I couldn’t stand her, and I felt guilty about not liking her because she was so nice.
Thankfully, in the spring of my freshman year, an opportunity to move back home fell in my lap. The college in my hometown offered me a basketball scholarship! I could play basketball and go to school for free back home! I moved as soon as I was finished with the spring semester.
Adios, beautiful mountain town Durango. Hello, Pueblo, you sweet, little, lower-middle-class town in the foothills of Colorado. I was so happy. I loved Pueblo, and as much as my family drove me nuts, I missed them. I felt much more grounded being in that familiar environment, despite the fact that my mom had just divorced Mark because she said he drank too much and my biological father was on a downward mental illness and drinking spiral. It was okay. It felt normal, and I wanted to be there.
- On Sale
- May 31, 2016
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Running Press