I’m a stand-up comedian, which means I talk publicly about things that other people would deem private or shameful, and people often tell me I’m “brave.” Maybe that’s just a euphemism for “crazy.” But I usually shrug off the word, because I feel like the most fearful person on the planet.
This fear is why I drank for the first half of my twenties like an alcoholic housewife in an after-school special. Then, five and a half years ago, I quit drinking and began adapting to life without alcohol. Compared with that experience, nothing else seems nearly as scary.
I’ve never heard anyone describe alcoholism more eloquently than Caroline Knapp in her memoir, Drinking: A Love Story. She sums it up in three words: “fear of life.” If you’re one of those people we alcoholics call “normies,” you might think: Umm, but isn’t it about alcohol?
Sure, kind of. But it’s not as if I just drank too much and then whoops, one day I was blacked out in Washington Square Park wondering how I paid for this pizza, and where are my shoes? It started years before I ever picked up a drink, when I was a finicky, anxious little kid, trying to find comfort in an inexplicable world.
My first sip of alcohol, at a sleepover in 9th grade, showed me that it could eliminate this fear. The more drunk I got, the braver I felt. Eventually, I got hooked.
It’s not that I ever had anything to be really afraid of. I had a happy childhood. I was encouraged to be creative. I had friends: some real, some imagined. I built forts out of blankets. I had no idea what an “iPhone” was. I didn’t grow up in poverty or a war zone. I went to horseback riding camp, for Christ’s sake.
Still, I was scared of everything. I slept with the light on until I was 12, I tell people. The truth is it was closer to 15, because my hyperactive imagination planted intruders in my bedroom. I had a phobia of heights that made me scared of escalators, skyscrapers and bridges. This fear would manifest physically: My legs would shake and my heart rate would accelerate. I would get dizzy from the very-real-yet-imagined sensation of tumbling stories down to my demise.
Another phobia was public speaking. My voice would shake if I had to speak in front of more than 10 people. I tried out for the school plays, believing myself to be funny and capable. But when I stood in the auditorium in front of teachers and fellow students, my voice came out in a pinched little squeak. I was always cast as a background dancer.
And horror movies? Nope. Still can’t watch them, unless I want to relive them again and again in the hours before I fall asleep at night. I’m still recovering from watching The Ring 10 years ago. No spoilers, but that dead girl still haunts my occasional nightmares, and thank God for cellphones because a ringing landline still makes me feel like someone is about to die.
And now I do stand-up comedy, which is a terrifying thing for a lot of people.
I know the people who say, “You’re so brave!” mean it as a compliment. But it’s a strange thing to hear, because comedy feels like a compulsion. Making people laugh is how I escape my anxious mind and float in a haze of euphoria for a few moments. It’s like drinking. Like eating. Like curling up in my bed with a box of cookies and melting away into a Netflix marathon. It’s not that I want to do it—it’s that I don’t want to do anything else.
I didn’t have an alcoholic “rock bottom” before getting sober, like in the movies. I wasn’t homeless or selling my body on the street or picking up DUIs. I was paying my rent and going to work each day. But I was miserable and isolated.
I stopped going out to drink with friends because I would get blackout drunk and do something I’d regret: kiss someone I shouldn’t, text someone I shouldn’t, lose my cellphone, lose my shoes (that happened multiple times). Instead I would stay home, guzzling vodka. “One day that could be me!” I thought, watching my favorite comedians perform on The Tonight Show. Then I’d pass out in all my clothes.
I got sober not just to protect my reputation, my liver and my dwindling shoe collection, but because I felt like I had no other choice.
I now see that I did have a choice. There was no intervention, no ultimatum, no job or relationship on the line. I could’ve kept up my nightly habit for years longer, crawling to work the next day, hungover and emotionally depleted and ashamed. But I was unhappy and I made the choice to do better for myself.
A quick Google search brought me to my first 12-step meeting. At the door of the church, my hands were trembling—and not just from the alcohol withdrawal. I didn’t have a lot of practice being honest and vulnerable, let alone in a room full of strangers. Nothing seemed more terrifying. When I shared, everyone looked at me with an earnest compassion that made me cringe.
But I faced it, and quickly got used to it. I realized I didn’t have anything to be afraid of in those rooms. It was just a bunch of drunks in folding chairs drinking bad coffees and sharing stories that weren’t so different from mine. And it didn’t take me long to realize I could make people laugh in meetings, holding the room hostage for early practice of my stand-up routines. I felt safe in there.
But the world outside the rooms became scarier than ever without my security blanket of booze. There was small talk to make, family members to see, parties to go to. I had to learn to sleep without alcohol. I had to face the idea that I might never be able to drink wine with my friends again. I had to think about the prospect of dating sober. Sober sex? My good lord, it was a gauntlet out there.
But I didn’t pick up a drink. And gradually, day by day, life began to seem a little less terrifying.
I was the Maid of Honor at my cousin’s wedding and made a speech and survived it. I went to birthday parties and drank seltzer. I made amends to people I thought I could never look in the face again. I went on dates. I kissed boys. I had sex. I got through it all in small increments, days or minutes or breaths at a time.
I was three-and-a-half years sober when I finally got up the courage to do the one thing I’d always wanted to do most: stand-up comedy. By then, I had been through so much sober, I felt like I could do pretty much anything. I had practice making a bunch of sober drunks laugh, so why not a bunch of non-sober drunks?
So I went to an open mic. I didn’t exactly “kill” my first time on stage but I got a few laughs. My addict brain took over: more more mooooore. I was thirsty. So I went back the next night. Like years before with drinking, I just never stopped. I’ve finally found an addiction that won’t ruin my life and leave a trail of shoes and cell phones all over the city.
Stand-up comedy is hard. I am regularly mortified. I feel high as a kite one night, and then the next I have a bad set and hate everything, mostly myself. Some nights I get home at 1 am and have to crawl out of bed at 7 the next morning to go to my day job. I’m riddled with anxiety in the hours leading up to a show. But even performing in front of hundreds of people—or once in front of an audience of eight that included my dad—isn’t as hard or as scary as getting sober.
I mean, I’ve had sober sex. Please, nothing scares me any more.
Maybe the word “brave” is better applied to firefighters, social workers, military, and all those people who take physical risks to protect others. Maybe it’s not a great fit for struggling narcissists like myself who feel compelled to do comedy. But for any of us, “brave” isn’t about being lucky enough to fear nothing; it’s about having fears, yet overcoming them. So as an alcoholic who faced getting sober, I’ll take it.
Just don’t mention The Ring.
May Wilkerson is a writer and stand-up comedian living in Brooklyn. You can follow her on Twitter: @shutupmay.