Stand-up comedy is a drinking culture, but it was also my path to recovery.
Content warning: This piece describes suicidal ideation, as experienced by the author.
I started stand-up comedy as a way to quit drinking. This sounds counterintuitive. Why would anyone think a business that revolves around alcohol and chicken finger consumption could help them quit drinking?
I was at a tipping point
I was on a week-long binge. Whiskey from sunup to sundown. Drinking to keep the shakes at bay so I could function. My job was making pizzas at a shop in Normal, IL. (Yes, that was the name of the town.) I was 25 years old on New Year’s Eve, 2011. That morning I walked into my pizza job and quit outright. I was done. Truth is, I was also done with my life. Everything and everyone I ever loved had been pushed as far away from me as I could get them. My only true friend, I thought, was the bottle.
By night’s end, I was sitting on the couch in the living room of a dingy college apartment. It smelled of stale beer. The music was deafening. The people carried on and celebrated. There I sat, in my suicidal thoughts. I remember thinking, “If I died right now, nobody would care.” They would just think, “Woah, there’s a dead guy!” Ultimately, it wouldn’t matter. This is what my life had become. There I was, contemplating suicide. I felt alone in a room full of people. I don’t know what compelled me to do so, but I told an acquaintance I came with what was going on inside my brain. They did not take it lightly. They whisked me and a couple of others off to another apartment. We smoked pot and I wept. I vowed to never pick up a drink again. I didn’t want to feel like dying anymore.
Comedy gave me a sense of purpose, but I needed more
The next day I awoke with a sense of determination. But what would I do with myself now that I wasn’t going to drink? What would be my new pursuit? A comedy club had just opened in my town. Making people laugh was something that had always been enjoyable to me. Laughter helped break the tension with my parents, strangers, or anyone I wanted to convince that I was cool.
I went onstage with my silly ideas jotted on a bar napkin. I got a few laughs. It was exhilarating. This was it. I found my replacement for alcohol. It was exciting in the way that stealing alcohol to drink in the woods had been exciting when I was a teenager. It was new, it was thrilling … it wasn’t enough. I wasn’t drinking, but I was still doing other drugs that first year. I had a purpose, but I still didn’t like myself very much. The substances were a tool that I used to deal with that.
After a year of working at the craft, not drinking, and feeling like I wasn’t REALLY an alcoholic, I drank again. I lost everything in 3 short months. Fired from my day job, DUI from a car crash, and a breakup all happened in fast succession. It wasn’t long til I was suicidal again. It was like I had never stopped drinking.
I found a path to long-term recovery
I checked myself into rehab at 25 years old. When I walked through the doors, I felt a sense of ease wash over me. “Maybe if I go in here and do what they say, I won’t feel like dying anymore.” They made us go to 12-step meetings. I started listening. Sure, I didn’t have 5 DUIs like some of the people, but I could relate to the hopelessness. I needed the camaraderie. I started working a program. Things got different. I didn’t have anything else left. This is just part of my story, and I am in no way saying this is the only way to go about a path of recovery, but it wouldn’t be a full picture if I were to leave it out.
After losing everything, stand-up comedy, my recovery, and a little bit of hope were all I had. I built a crew of sober friends and started really pushing to get better. I wanted to be a better person and a better stand-up. But the people at the rehab cautioned me. They didn’t think it was a good idea that I continued stand-up. I was devastated at first. I couldn’t give up comedy. Then older members of my recovery community told me that if I stayed close to them, I could go anywhere in the world as a free person. This was nearly 10 years ago. I’ve been a stand-up comedian ever since.
Stand-up comedy and my recovery are intertwined
Learning to stay sober on the road wasn’t easy. I worked in bars, clubs, and breweries almost nightly. I was nervous. My first rule was once I was done performing, I would leave. There was no reason for me to be there after the job was done. This seemed crazy at first. I loved the social scene after the show, but ultimately, I knew I would get thirsty. Until I had enough sobriety, that’s exactly what I did. I would even sometimes step outside before getting on stage and call a sober friend just to calm myself. I was doing it, but I wasn’t doing it alone. I was staying sober in an uncomfortable environment.
Over the years my career got bigger. I started doing more out-of-state gigs. I made finding meetings part of my job. I would get to town and start really enjoying meeting different people, collecting phone numbers like baseball cards, and experiencing sober life in every city I traveled to. I also listened to recovery speakers on podcasts and digital recordings. It kept me sane while driving for hours to a gig. Sometimes I’d talk to other sober friends on the phone. It helped the hours go by. I’m so grateful for them. I still do this even with almost 10 years of sobriety.
Even when life is hard, I don’t have to drink
I’ve experienced almost every kind of pain on the road. Breakups, deaths, and everything in between. I have not picked up once. I heard a friend say a long time ago, “I haven’t found it necessary to take a drink in many years. Not that I haven’t thought about it; I just haven’t found it necessary.”
To me, that’s the deal. Creating a life of recovery where the substances aren’t necessary anymore. Finding a purpose. My purpose—making people laugh. I’ve found a sense of contentment even in my worst moments that alcohol could never give me. People will hear me do jokes about my sobriety on stage and still offer to buy me a drink after. I laugh because they’re just trying to be polite, but the truth is I don’t need it anymore.