“Today, I live in a way that makes no sense in terms of normative life. I am not monogamous, I’m not straight, in general I don’t support most of the institutions that my parents would say are how you’re doing a good job at life, but I’m really happy with myself and I’m able to be introspective without just crumbling from the pain of that—and that’s from being sober.”
It took me a really long time to get clean, and I went through lots of different programs—to detox, I lived in a halfway house. I didn’t think it was something that I wanted to do because I was like, “I never want to be normal,” until I met somebody who basically explained to me that she didn’t get clean to be a normal, respectable member of hetero-society that lived in any particular kind of way—she got clean so she could be alive at all, because otherwise both of us were going to be dead.
I think a really big part of my story is my family. I come from a family that’s filled with addicts and alcoholics and incarcerated people and dead people, and also a family with a lot of depression. But I never thought about that as much as I do now, and it makes me really comfortable acknowledging that presence in my family tree.
I am an only child, and I was a really lonely little child, and really grumpy, and really desperate to connect with people—and I blossomed into a really grumpy, desperate-to-connect-with-people kind of teenager.
When I was a young teenager, my family moved from Memphis, Tennessee to upstate New York, and it was the biggest culture shock of my entire life. The culture shock and the isolation of that move really just exploded. I think at that point in time was when I decided, “Being alive is painful; I have to figure out how to do this.”
I came out of the closet. I was super lonely and disgruntled, and felt most connected to the people around me when I was able to get really intoxicated with them, or maybe have sex with them—that was the other kind of connection I discovered people might have with each other to avoid just feeling totally alone.
So when I was eighteen I was living in upstate New York and it was beautiful, but a little bit isolating just for a normal person, so a lonely person really might have a hard time there. I had saved up money working and I moved to Brooklyn.
Eventually I went to college and then I had to leave because I had to go to a detox, and then I lived in a halfway house, and then I left the halfway house but didn’t maintain any kind of clean time. I wouldn’t say at that point I ever passed as a functioning alcoholic or addict. I was more like the kind that you see and you’re like, “Oh, no. Something very bad is going to happen to you/has already happened.”
I would wake up on sidewalks, or I have one particular memory of waking up on a roof being like, “This is a really beautiful roof. Why am I sleeping here, though?” I would be like, “I can’t account for the last three days and I am sleeping outside in New York City.”
I basically got a close friend fired from her job just—well, because I did. She and another friend basically told me, “You seem like you’re dying. Your health is at risk and it’s gross and scary.” I think I really appreciated people noticing that about me at the time, and it felt like a form of love to have people look right at me in my mess and tell me that they were hoping I got better.
I started going to meetings with other people and felt at first really different from them. I felt like, “I don’t want to live a militant lifestyle, and I don’t want to be someone who doesn’t have sex for a year, and I don’t want to be someone who only has sex with one person.” I just felt like, “I don’t want to be these people, but I want to be happier the way they are.”
I eventually met someone who I did want to be like. If you can find someone who you do want to be like in a lot of ways, not just in the fact that they’re sober, then you’ve really hit kind of a jackpot. I met someone who was willing to be my sponsor who was like, “You don’t have to be anything different. You don’t have to be a straight arrow to be clean.”
She was not a monogamous person and had no shame about being practically polyamorous and also politically [polyamorous]. I remember she had a sticker that I am now obsessed with on some of the books we would read, and we’d read them in public and there’d just be this big sticker that would say, “Outlaw poverty, not prostitutes.” People would just kind of look at us like, “Something with those people makes me uncomfortable.”
I felt proud of myself talking to her and sticking it out with her because she was really a role model more than just that she didn’t use drugs or alcohol. She was willing to learn about herself and try things that are scary in our culture to do, like live outside of norms—while being sober—which I think is hard.
There’s this story that we have I feel like about people getting better by, I don’t know, climbing the Pacific Rim Trail by themselves, or moving to a nunnery, or a long time of solitude where you’re removed from all outside stimulation and then you’re okay, and that’s how you be okay.
But I have no intention of living like that and I have no intention of never taking risks again in terms of my relationships with other people or my involvement with social justice or sharing who I am. I just want to do it while I’m clean and sober and have to feel the effects of all of it. That’s what I was afraid of before getting clean—was that none of that was an option.
Today, I live in a way that makes no sense in terms of normative life. I am not monogamous, I’m not straight, in general I don’t support most of the institutions that my parents would say are how you’re doing a good job at life, but I’m really happy with myself and I’m able to be introspective without just crumbling from the pain of that—and that’s from being sober.
I’m in touch with a lot of anger I have about some of the things I’ve experienced, particularly gender-based violence. I think that another thing I was weary of coming into the program was the idea of when you got sober you should be really zenned out and not be mad because then you’re not forgiving people and you’re doing it wrong or something.
I absolutely reject that notion. I think that there’s something so healing about connecting with your anger as a sober person. Not like getting wasted and smashing shit, but just you and your thoughts and your memories—whatever you have left of them. Getting in touch is just a way to really heal.
You look at me and I’m not any of the things that you would expect. I don’t really look queer, I seem like a timid, middle-class Jewish person who likes cats—and I do like cats—but I don’t fit into any neat little boxes that one might expect at a meeting about somebody who made a lot of mistakes and is now getting on their feet and is now going to live this very quiet life.
You don’t need to be a nun or any kind of person to be a sober person. I know that the program is still for me and that it works for me. I don’t need to apologize about any of my differences to be part of that group.
Photographs taken at Hannah’s apartment in Brooklyn, NY.