Isabel Rae McKenzie is the easiest person to get a laugh out of that I’ve yet interviewed in this series. Sometimes it sneaks out, others it bubbles, but it always got me to shut right up and appreciate the joy she was sharing. The conversation I had with McKenzie was not all laughter and mirth, we discussed her recent start on the journey of sobriety, coming to terms with being an alcoholic, and how that’s affected and evolved her as a person and an artist through honesty and fallibility alike:
OI: Before we started, you sent me what you referred to as your “favorite thing you’ve ever written,” tell me about why it’s your favorite personal work?
IRM: There are so many reasons. It’s not my favorite piece just because it’s the first piece I’ve been paid for. Being paid for the first time for your writing feels good, but I tweeted out that I’m thinking of writing a multi-book review of women’s sobriety memoirs I’ve read recently and can you tell me places that might want to publish that? I received an email from someone at Plough Quarterly and she said “tell me what you want to do, we’d love to have this.” That was 100% my first time getting something like that.
This essay is a review of a book called Drunk Mom by Jowita Bydlowska who’s a Polish writer. It’s about how she relapsed after three years of sobriety at the party celebrating the birth of her first son. It’s about descending into phenomenal addictive chronic alcoholic behavior for the first year that her son is alive.
The essay has turned into me talking about my own journey of getting sober and my own past- mainly a year but really few years of being an alcoholic. I discuss being born to an alcoholic mother and that I didn’t learn any of this from her. It’s this genetic thing that’s embedded deeply inside of me. I don’t blame her at all for it but most memoirs I’ve read- because I’ve read so many of these memoirs recently by women who are alcoholics- so many of them blame their mothers. In the opening chapters they say ‘well, my mom was an alcoholic and that’s why I’m an alcoholic.’
This is why this book spoke to me so much, just like Bydlowska, my mother did her drinking when I was very young and then sobered up before I had the consciousness of a child. So I didn’t see any of her drinking, I never experienced the negative effects but I know that in some way she did pass this onto me. I guess I’m spoiling things, but I close the essay talking about Bydlowska and her memoir talking about ‘am I still sober? All I can say is I’m still here.’ That’s how I’ve been ending my own writing recently.
My triggers remain the same as hers which is everything, nothing, morning, night, something. I have the same fears she does. I worry so much about my own genetic predisposition towards self-destruction being passed down to my children. Despite my hardcore leftist feminist politics I realized very early on that being a mother is more important to me than being a writer or anything else. Then becoming an alcoholic- or maybe I was always born to be one- I realized that there’s this heavy weight wondering of the implications of having children knowing there’s this predisposition inside of you.
OI: Tell me about how accountability factors into what you just described because it’s inherent in a lot of things you say and are valuing here.
IRM: It’s one of the most important things in my life right now. I think in a Twitter thread about relapsing, I said I wasn’t going to share with anyone that I relapsed. The reason I got sober was because I wrote this extremely honest essay, a confessional about being an alcoholic at 21 and posted it on Twitter and that’s why I got sober. Then I relapsed and said ‘there’s no way I’m sharing this with anyone.’ I think in that thread the closing tweets are about how my therapist said something along the lines of ‘isn’t the more powerful story not the one of flawless sobriety, but the honest one?’
I was like ‘fuck, I’m not fucking telling that story. I’m not going to admit that I relapsed. I’ve suddenly become this beacon of sobriety in a month and I’m not that. That was really the biggest thing that stuck with me from that meeting with my therapist. There’s no way you can remain sober if you’re not being honest.
If you read memoirs of addiction, people talk about this, especially in the book next to me right now, Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp- a woman talking about being an alcoholic in the past 30 years, that’s considered the original one. One thing she talks about is that alcoholics and addicts, we lie not just about drinking but we start lying about everything else because we’re so afraid to feel anything that puts us in a compromising position.
I was lying about the most insane things. My dad would ask ‘did you park in the correct spot today?’ and I’d lie and say, ‘yeah!’ but I got ticketed that day, and I lied about it anyway. You just learn to do that, to be afraid to feel any form of vulnerability. Since getting sober, today I had a really difficult phone call with my mom- I had been putting off this phone call for a while. I was rereading Knapp and she says: “I think my pride kicks in that moment. My life was so woefully embarrassing: the drinking, the running from man to man. It was embarrassing and tedious and exhausting and in the end, what was the point? Where was all this leading? You drink to avoid all those painful choices and you wake up in the morning, all those choices are still there with you, still unfaced. All those unresolved problems are still hanging around your neck like pieces of lead weighing you down, keeping you from moving forward, humiliating.’
I realized very recently that I drank for so long to defuse my problems and woke up every morning and the problems were still there and worse and I was just hungover.
OI: So if you’re lying from fear of feeling and movement, does honesty necessarily mean the converse?
IRM: There’s a saying that’s thrown around in rehab groups: the moment you start having an addiction, your growth is stunted. Until you stop you remain the same person you were when you started. I started after I had a break up with the person I thought I was going to marry. That was the first night I was staying at my dad’s house and I just reached into a cabinet and put back everything that was there. Months before I got sober, probably six months ago I realized: I’ve never dealt with the pain I was feeling. I see the first letter of his name and I lose my head.
There are so many pithy, vaguely spiritual sayings in AA and rehab that are so vapid, but this notion that you remain the same person? It’s really true.
OI: So if addiction and lying stunts you, what are you finding honesty to be even with regards to being honest about stumbling in the journey?
IRM: Honesty for me feels like- and this gets at the question from the last person-
OI: Beverly Baigent, who asked, “what do you want your legacy to be?”
IRM: Honesty, for the first time in a really long time, is the most important thing to me. Sobriety has given me this sudden ability to confront situations head on. I realize that if I sleep on them, even if I’m not drinking, they’re still there the next day. I have to confront them.
I’ve been brutally honest about a lot of things recently, like things online and essays that are going to be published and have already been published about things that do not make me look good, at all. I’m not a bad person and I believe that. I don’t think there’s anything morally reprehensible about struggling with alcoholism or addiction or sobriety or relapse, but I’ve hurt people, my family, I’ve lost the trust of them and I’m learning to gain it back from them.
OI: How does this ability and honesty that you’re working through and evolving inform decisions of day to day living as well as your writing?
IRM: Being honest and creating a space where people feel moved to message me saying ‘hey, your writing about sobriety and being an alcoholic and relapsing made me either want to get sober or encourage me in my sobriety or look at myself differently’ or realize they have a problem.
What I always say to people is: ‘I am not an expert on sobriety, I’m an expert at being an alcoholic. Sobriety is so new to me.’ I don’t know if this is just me or if it’ll apply to everyone but when I always used to feel this way when I read my own writing. I thought my writing had such a fear in it. I looked at it and felt like I could see myself not ever saying the things I really wanted to.
I thought my best work would be literary criticism because that was all I used to write until I got sober. My mentor texted me the other day and said, ‘I seem to remember a time when you said you don’t write poetry and you don’t write about yourself, and now you’re doing both.’ I always read my writing and felt such fear in it and that there was so much I was holding back. I was afraid of my parents reading it or my friends reading it, or my mentor, or anyone reading it and I was afraid of seeing myself on the page.
I didn’t even journal because I hated looking at my own writing and when I did journal I wasn’t even honest. I actually thought: what if someday someone reads this? The day I got sober I wrote this brutally honest essay detailing almost everything about my alcoholism, which I posted online and people responded. I thought if I can post that I can write anything else.
OI: With that work that didn’t feel like it was saying what you wanted it to say, was the lack of honesty keeping it from achieving a level of quality you wanted?
IRM: I think the lack of honesty definitely stopped it from being what it could be. The only thing I wrote in the past year before I got sober was my senior thesis. I was drunk every single night I worked on my thesis, and every single night I told myself all the lies we as alcoholics tells ourselves. “If I drink tonight, it’ll finally clear the cobwebs and make me write better. If I drink tonight it’ll defamiliarize me and improve my ability to edit.’
In reality it just made me fall asleep and then have to write tons of stuff for the next morning meeting with my advisor. At my school they award the best thesis with the distinguished thesis award. I remember thinking as I was writing it, ‘I know I’ll get that just because the quality of my writing is good, and that’s it.’ I haven’t read my thesis since it was published, I know I’m a good writer but I know my thesis does not deserve that.
It’s not me self-loathing because I’m not a self-loathing person, but I know that it didn’t deserve that because I know I’ve always been able to form very honest and sincere looking words. Actually writing them for the first time and putting myself on the page and seeing myself?
OI: You’re able to hold yourself accountable with a certain detachment and know that even if this looks like good writing to everyone else, you do to yourself what a lot of teachers do to lazy students and say to yourself, ‘this is good, but you’re capable of more.’
IRM: I wasn’t ready when I graduated to at all look at myself. It took being hungover and that lowered inhibition state to write something honest. In that sense I don’t regret everything because this is the insane series of events it took for me to start writing honestly.
OI: We’ve talked here and there about certain problematic authors, but I’m interested to hear your thoughts on the broader image of how the alcoholic writer is romanticized vis a vis Hemingway and Fitzgerald say.
IRM: One of the things that stopped me from talking about my own issues with alcoholism was feeling like there was something unfeminine about it and I’m someone who presents very feminine. It felt like somehow it was unladylike for me to be an alcoholic. I want to say about Fitzgerald first of all that This Side of Paradise was the first book I read that was just so smitten with. I almost got a tattoo of the last line of it, “I know myself and that is all.”
With Hemingway, I’ve never read a single work of Hemingway, but my grandmother passed away in April 2017. She was one of the most wonderful people I’ve ever known. When she died, my mom and I drove up to her place in Rochester, Minnesota, and I found this biography of Hemingway with a series of paintings and photographs people had made and taken of him throughout his life.
When I saw those final photos of him and his suicide letter, even before he committed suicide that was the first book I ever cried reading. I’ve had a photo of Hemingway on my wall ever since. That’s something I’m always afraid to admit to people because ‘he’s the portrait of alcoholic misogynism’ but I think of him as such a tragic figure.
OI: I think it’s evident in his writing that he’s at odds and wrestling with a lot of the ideals he and his male characters are aspiring to. So is there a fun side to your honesty in your writing?
IRM: Are you going to ask me about sex?
OI: Not in particular, but that is part and parcel of your writing and your upcoming work. When you described lying about everything as consequence of lying about drinking did you find honesty having the same chain reaction throughout other aspects of your life as well?
IRM: This ties into a lot of things and I’m not sure it’s appropriate for the interview-
OI: Whatever you want to be appropriate is appropriate.
IRM: I tweet a lot about reply guys on Twitter, and having sexual conversations with guys on Twitter and stuff, I said [to one recently] ‘it was so much easier when I was drinking, I felt so good at all of this, and now I feel so stumbly. Very sexy on my part admitting I’m insecure,’ which is funny but also something I never would have done before: to say this person who has had sex with demon masks and all this other random shit being like ‘now I’m sober and very insecure about these things.’
Honesty has, in the best way, invaded all the aspects of my life. If I’m talking to my dad and he asks ‘did you water your plants?’ I say ‘no, but I will now!’
OI: Double edged sword?
IRM: It’s not a double edged sword! I have no reservations about it. When I send a message that’s really honest, for a moment I feel embarrassed then I just feel relieved. I know that if I’m saying what I actually feel then that has some kind of actual worth. Especially with sex. In my original essay I wrote about being an alcoholic at 21, I made an ironic but entirely true statement about ‘I guess this is why I’ve only had drunk sex for the past year.’
When I wrote that, what I meant was that I’ve woken up not knowing if I’ve had sex, or not knowing the person next to me, or having my underwear off and keys still in the door not knowing what happened. For the first time, being able to say to someone ‘yes I want this,’ or, ‘I’m just not in the mood right now,’ is scary but feels really right because I’m respecting myself a lot more. I don’t regret all the sex I had, some of it I vaguely remember and know I enjoyed it. There’s so much that I don’t remember. I have another essay coming out, On Losing 21, it goes back to what we spoke about earlier about how you’re stunted from the moment you start drinking alcoholically.
My 21st birthday (I’m almost 22 now) I was blacked out from about 3 PM for the next two days. I woke up about two days later with my underwear off, key in the door, purse spilled over the floor, and I had no idea what happened. Someone just told me the other day they know who I went home with. It was hard to hear. Losing 21, this idea that for the past year I drank to the point where I missed almost every single night- every single day, I can’t remember the end of it. It’s almost like I’m turning 21 on my 22nd birthday because it’s like I missed a year.
OI: How is sex not just with a sober mind, but also for it being divorced from your drinking routine that it went hand in hand with and exploring it within its own space?
IRM: I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I have not had sex since I’ve gotten sober. The day I got sober I started talking to this guy and wasn’t planning on admitting to anyone who I met on dating apps that I was sober because who wants to date someone who’s sober as a 21 year old? But I started talking to this guy and told him as a spur of the moment thing and he responded with this long message saying how good and admirable he thought it was and that he was thinking of cutting back on drinking too, and we went on our first date.
In the past year I have never not had sex on the first date because I was drunk. It doesn’t mean I didn’t really like those people, but even when I didn’t I was so lonely that I just wanted to go home with someone. On our first date this guy asked if I wanted to go back to his place but I was so scared, but we ended up sitting there and talking all night. We’ve been seeing each other a month and haven’t had sex and it’s really wonderful, so slow but I don’t dislike it. It’s good because I’m afraid to have sex right now, but we met in the same place.
OI: Tell me more about your thoughts on the hereditism of alcoholism and what you were born to be in follow up to everything you’ve now shared about what you’re aspiring to be.
IRM: Did you see Rocket Man? I love it. I’ve never listened to Elton John before, but loved it. His struggle with addiction was so central to it, and I wrote an essay called Getting Sober with Rocket Man being published soon. I talked about how I saw that a few days before I got sober with my mom, and feeling like it was the first time that I saw someone and realized it’s possible to be creative and magnetic and sober because I thought that if I got sober I’d lose those things.
This is a line from the essay: “one of the first lines said in the trailer to Elton John: ‘you’ve got to kill the man you were born to be to become the person you want to be.’ I was born- in terms of my genetic predisposition- to be an alcoholic.”
OI: What other upcoming work do you have that people can look out for?
IRM: I have my essay, Alcoholic Motherhood, coming out through Plough Quarterly in a few weeks. I’m doing a weekly satire series at Queen Mob’s Teahouse called Internal Sobriety Monologue, and then just bits and bobs coming out elsewhere- a few prose/poetry pieces I thought I’d never write but did.
That’s a really huge thing since I’ve gotten sober: I’m writing every day, which I didn’t do for so long and it feels really good.
OI: Cliche question but what is your writing routine?
IRM: I love that question! That’s always the question I would ask when I used to go to literary festival at my college, I’d ask that. I never just sit down to write. I always write in those sort of liminal spaces. I edit when I’m on the train for work, and I write in my head while I’m in the car usually. I tend to go for really long drives during the day, that’s something I started doing when I was trying to quit drinking at night, so I tend to write in my head and then I go back and scribble it all down then edit in the morning on the train to work. That, or I write while I’m waiting for my therapy appointment, I guess it’s these moments where I’m alone with myself and ‘well, there’s nothing here but me.’
But I never sit down to write, because if I sit down to write it doesn’t work for me. It may work for so many people but it doesn’t for me. I lack discipline out the wazoo. When I’m forced is ‘I’m in a train car, so I must.’
OI: But, you’re getting it done.
OI: So what should I ask my next interviewee?
IRM: What is the one thing that motivates your actions more than anything else? To me it’s desire, but I’m curious what others would say.
Isabel Rae McKenzie is a regular contributor to Queen Mob’s Teahouse, has work coming soon with Plough Quarterly, and you can follow her on Twitter and Instagram, and check out her personal website for continued updates on her work and life.