"Sober Stick Figure"—Comedian Amber Tozer's Fleshed-Out Portrayal of Alcoholism and Recovery

Aug 02 2016

“Sober Stick Figure”—Comedian Amber Tozer’s Fleshed-Out Portrayal of Alcoholism and Recovery

August 2nd, 2016

Comedian Amber Tozer believes that her childhood in Pueblo, “a lower-middle-class city in the foothills of Colorado,” where her mom owned a bar—The Do Drop Inn—was the perfect gateway to alcoholism. “There’s not much to do in Pueblo except breed and drink,” she writes in her illustrated memoir, Sober Stick Figure, “so that’s what everyone does.”

Tozer’s recent career has involved writing for the Cartoon Network’s animated sketch series MAD and Adult Swim’s Moral Orel, and appearing on NBC’s Last Comic Standing and on WTF with Marc Maron.

Her new book—recently featured on the A.V. Club‘s list of best books of the year—documents her experiences of growing up, saving money while waitressing at her mom’s bar, and then, in 1999, moving to New York City, where she worked a series of jobs at internet companies (“the dot-com world was booming”). After self-confessing her dreams of being a comedic actress, she found her way to the burgeoning alternative stand-up comedy scene. She eventually left New York for Los Angeles, drinking all the way.

Finally, after three decades alternating between drinking and attempting to quit, Tozer says she had a revelation. She describes it as an “out-of-body experience,” fueled by “either God or cocaine.” She recalls: “the only thing that existed was the clearest thought that I had ever had in my life, which was, ‘You have to stop drinking. If you don’t, your life is going to be awful.'” She has now been sober for seven years.

The arc of her recovery narrative is familiar, calling to mind predecessors like Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story, Sarah Hepola’s Blackout, or Heather King’s Parched. But Tozer’s disarmingly straightforward prose, her eschewal of melodrama, and her childlike stick-figure illustrations uniquely convey the pathos of addiction—and provide revelations about pain, gender and sex, family, self-obsession and self-control.

There’s something strikingly direct about Tozer’s descriptions.

For example, when she’s out playing pool with a man who’s been trying to help her get a job:

“I wanted Chad to like me, and I thought I owed him something. I thought he was so cool for starting his own company and teaching himself to spam people […] I better let him touch my body or something.”

Describing the mixed message she got about alcohol growing up:

“Alcohol is very bad, but everyone loves it and drinks it all of the time.”

Or on driving drunk during college, even after her five-year-old sister was almost killed by a drunk driver (three other family friends, including a six-year-old child, died in the accident):

“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 […] And you know how I got to class? I drove drunk. Yep, little miss ‘don’t drink and drive because my sister almost died’ was driving drunk to school.”

In spite of its dark subject matter, Sober Stick Figure really is funny. Whatever Tozer is recounting—proudly buying a briefcase for her first office job in New York (and filling it with snacks); or working at a company concerned with Magic: The Gathering, while wondering, “How can I be passionate about something I don’t understand!”—her self-deprecating tone and perceptiveness are a winning combination.

She spoke with me about her recovery, the part Augusten Burroughs played in it, and how Tony Robbins is the best pick-me-up.

 

An animated illustration from Sober Stick Figure.

 

Sarah Beller: How did the book come about?
Amber Tozer: I tweeted a joke about needing a job and a literary agent responded with “have you ever thought about writing a book?” I had written some funny stuff on sobriety before, and I was working on a comic strip. He asked if I could illustrate and I said I could draw a stick figure. It was his idea for “sober stick figure.” I didn’t think my story was crazy—I wasn’t trying to shop my life story around or anything. It snowballed from Twitter.

Are you interested in illustrating more in the future?
[Laughs.] Well it would have to be stick figures, because I can’t do anything else. But I would do it again.

You talk about alcoholism being prevalent in your family, and it was involved in the deaths of your father and uncle. What are your thoughts on a genetic component to alcoholism?
It’s confusing to me—I’m not a doctor or addiction specialist by any means. I think I was born an alcoholic, because the few times I did experiment when I was a teenager I could not have only one drink. But I also think you can become addicted. Maybe some people are born alcoholics and some people can turn into ones. I feel like I was born one—I think I just got the gene.

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Comedy seems to be a survival tactic for many people in recovery. Why do you think that is?
Everyone is drawn to laughter—it’s just a healthy way to take the burden of shame off yourself. If you’re able to laugh at yourself, if you can twist it around until it’s funny—it’s healthy. I don’t mean laughing at the damage you’ve done to other people. But sometimes the truth is hilarious—the flat-out bad decisions.

In the book, you describe getting in a “blackout of of positive thinking” thanks to [self-help guru] Tony Robbins’ Personal Power CDs. Then, one day in New York, you actually ran into him! And he invited you to attend one of his seminars in New Jersey for free! Tell me about your relationship with Tony Robbins.
I will always have a place in my heart for Tony Robbins, even if he’s a nut. Over the past couple of years I’ve gotten into Marianne Williamson. The healthier I get the less I’m drawn to self-help. Now, I’m not constantly reaching for it. But Tony’s always a great pick-me-up. And Marianne Williamson—she’s brilliant—I love her.

Who else are you into?
The Dalai Lama, Eckhart Tolle… They just sort of put things in perspective. A lot of my problems come from self-obsession, needing to be great, control and manipulating. It’s always good to get a blast of positive and spiritual perspective—as opposed the very capitalistic American way which says “get more.”

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You emailed Augusten Burroughs after reading Dry to ask for help on getting sober. Have people gotten in touch with you after reading your book?
People are emailing, messaging on Facebook. I try to respond to everyone. You feel so safe emailing a stranger. I think [Burroughs] was the first person I emailed after my boyfriend. When he responded it meant a lot—it planted a seed.

What did he say?
I’m so upset because I had Hotmail, and Hotmail deleted everyone’s history, so I don’t have it anymore, but he suggested 12 Steps… He said, “it sounds like, since you’re emailing me in the first place, you might have a problem with drinking, and this is what helps me.”

Do you still attend AA?
I’ve been traveling a lot, so I don’t go to meetings every day, but it is my favorite type of serenity. The cool thing about 12 Steps is you can work it toward anything—food, relationships. It was written in the ’30s in this sort of old-timey way, but the important parts are understanding what you have control over and what you don’t, taking responsibility for your own stuff, being of service—you can do that with anything.

Did it feel scary—like jinxing it—to write a book about recovery?
Oh yeah, I think I’m afraid of being like, “sobriety’s great!” and then I relapse. Of course I’m terrified of that, but I also understand that I’m an alcoholic. I’m not a spokesperson, but this is my story. I’m not an expert—alcoholism is tricky—but this is what works for me.

What’s next in terms of your comedy and writing?
I’m not quite sure what’s next. I go back to LA next week and there’s a couple of TV show ideas that I’m developing. I want to write a screenplay. I definitely want to work on bigger projects where I’m writing, but I don’t know yet.


Sarah Beller is an associate editor of The Influence. You can follow her on Twitter: @sarahlbeller.