Sober Stick Figure: A New Life for the Life of the Party

In many ways, it was a morning like any other. Amber Tozer awoke with a raging hangover after too much partying and too much wine and vowed never to drink again. Only this time, it wasn’t the usual halfhearted, soon-to-be-forgotten self-reproach. It was a piercing moment of clarity that reached the status of an out-of-body experience. You have to stop drinking. If you don’t, your life is going to be awful. Eight years later, the now 39-year-old comedian and writer still hasn’t had a drink, and while she’s learned to understand herself better than she ever dreamed possible, she still can’t explain the source of the sudden epiphany that motivated her to reach out for help at last. “Alcohol wasn’t working for me for a long time, but I don’t know why it happened that day,” she says. “I think about it and it drives me a little crazy. Why did I have that moment? Why doesn’t everyone get a moment like that? I think it was a gift, and I’m just trying to take care of it.”

Planting Sober Seeds

One way she’s currently taking care of it is by sharing her experiences — the good, the bad, the ugly and the hilarious — in a memoir titled Sober Stick Figure that she hopes will “plant a few sober seeds.” When her agent suggested she write the tale, she wondered if the story of her addiction, although high on the wild and crazy scale, was sufficiently harrowing to qualify as a recovery memoir. “I was just the party girl,” she explained, the kind of person who loved the confidence and fearlessness that alcohol brought, its ability to quiet the negative thoughts in her head, and who believed that if one drink made you feel good, more had to be better. But she came to realize that plenty of people were likely to see themselves all too clearly through her experiences, and such a book might be a needed eye-opener. “I’m hoping that those people who are just miserable and ‘like to party’ can relate to it. Because I feel there is a whole world that lives like that.” Illustrating (literally) her hard-earned insights are stick figure drawings, which act as a kind of comedic Greek chorus throughout the book, amplifying and illuminating each stage of her romance and breakup with alcohol. In one illustration, a stick figure Tozer is depicted praying, asking, “Hello God. Is that you?” A voice answers from above: “No, it’s Jim Beam.” And yes, Tozer drew all the stick figures. They were born out of her response when asked if she might be able to illustrate a comic book she was working on. “I was joking and said, ‘I can maybe draw a stick figure….’”

The sketches seem a somehow perfect accompaniment to Tozer’s raw, no-holds-barred narrative, which moves from her first swig of beer at age 7, courtesy of Uncle Woody, one of her family’s many problem drinkers, to the realization by her early 30s that “I just couldn’t stop, and that’s a scary place to be.” In between, she moves from classic overachiever polishing her multiple academic and athletic awards to a rebel who loves nothing more than to push the envelope — whether that means moving to New York with no job and nowhere to live, getting up on a stage to do stand-up comedy, or having relationships with men who are deeply wrong for her — as long as there is a steady supply of wine and vodka on hand.

The Big and Little Joys of Sobriety

With support, education and hard work, Tozer found her way to recovery after that morning wake-up call, and hopes her story might help others do the same in whatever way works for them. Her advice in a nutshell? “Ask for help, be brutally honest with yourself, and trust that everything will be OK if you don’t drink.” She minces no words about how tough it can be — sobriety just takes away the substance, after all; it doesn’t take away the reason you started using it in the first place. And there are still days when she finds herself thinking What’s the point? Who cares that I don’t drink anymore? When that happens, she knows it’s time to do all the things her former self would have laughed off as completely uncool: writing in a journal, making a gratitude list, meditating, admitting to needing help. The reward for all that effort, however, is a life worth living. As she writes in her book: “Drinking takes and takes and takes; sobriety gives and gives and gives. The natural joys I found in sobriety are way better than any chemically-induced high, little joys that are authentic and beautiful.” Blueberries, for example. “I remember early in sobriety, I was eating blueberries,” she says, “and I was like I LOVE BLUEBERRIES. I had no idea.”

A Clear-Eyed Look Ahead

These days, Tozer splits her time between Los Angeles and Colorado, her home state, and focuses mostly on writing, although several projects are in the works, including a solo show. She does some occasional performing, but the stand-up comedy she once adored doesn’t have the same appeal. It had turned into a way to binge drink and chain smoke, she writes in her book, “like I was some sort of interesting and troubled movie character in an independent film about stand-up comedy in the early 2000s.”

Now, she doesn’t need the excuse and is somewhat startled to find her extroverted self just fine with not always being the center of attention. “I love being alone and reading and being a dork, and that sort of surprises me because I thought I was this cool chick. And now I’m surprised at how cheesy I am — and OK with it.” Asked about the favorite change in her life since embracing sobriety, she doesn’t hesitate: “Not being hung over. There is something glorious about just waking up and looking forward to the day as opposed to regretting everything you did the day before.” By Kendal Patterson Follow Kendal at @kendalpatterson

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