“Every time I’ve gone to a psyc doc or therapist since I got sober, they’ve asked me if I was trying to kill myself and/or pointed out how unlikely it is that I am still alive. I didn’t want to kill myself, not really. I’d gotten over the suicide bent when I was eighteen. I just wanted to get really fucking high. I was super good at getting really fucking high.”
Juliet Escoria’s 10 year decent into drug and alcohol addiction began when she was 15 years old and newly diagnosed with bipolar disorder. While other kids were splitting coolers and rolling their first joint, Escoria was mastering the art of drug amalgamation in her own private bedroom pharmacy. Pot and somas, champagne and ecstacy– it was all a case-study towards the right kind of numbness. Ketamine and alcohol were great together, and cocaine and meth proved interchangable. Opiates and benzos were fun to mix and match. “At one point, I seriously thought I was a sociopath because I had no emotions”, the writer recalls. There were no emotions, but there was a sense of control.
At the ripe age 26, Escoria got sober. Given the weight of her usage, one could assume she’d spent her days at home in a housecoat patting a hypothetical pet cat, when she’d actually just graduated from university with a 3.8 GPA, and was looking into grad school. It took 7 years to complete her undergraduate degree, but the prospect of post-grad studies and startling results from a blood test caused her to shift away from over a decade of defining vices.
It’s been close to 2 years since Escoria completed her MFA in Creative Writing from Brooklyn College. She’s since moved from New York to her hometown of San Diego where she lives with her mother, teaches children at a hyper-Catholic boarding school, and works on her first fiction novel. Last June, Escoria began a blog Rapture Rapes The Muses as a means of documenting the progress on her forthcoming novel. It’s here where she speaks candidly about her history of drug abuse, current-day emotional flux (good, bad, and the neutral), and the clarity sobriety has brought to her life. Oh, and her writing. No, this is not Cat Marnell rebooted– Escoria isn’t going for shock-factor, nor sporatic streams-of-consciousness. Here we have the careful records of a writer who’s come full circle; a delivery of prose that weaves darker days into a more inclusive body of work. As a writer, she’s sharp, and romantic without being sentimental. She’s a head you want to climb into and sit in for a little while.
I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Juliet over Skype. You can find her writing in publications like Electric Literature, Black Book, The New Ohio Review, amongst others. In light of Mental Health Awareness Week, please enjoy the selection of bits from our conversation below:
How is life different now that you’re clean?
Oh, Jesus. I can’t even begin to describe how different my life is, and by different I mean better. Getting sober was, by far, the best thing I have ever done for myself. I’m still prone to cynicism, but I actually feel happiness most days. I used to think it was impossible for me to be happy, that it was impossible for any intelligent person to be happy because the world was a shitty place and life was shitty and there was no point to anything at all. Now I feel excited about life. I have passions. I have actual empathy and love for people. I’m generally on time for things, and if I say I’m going to do something, I generally do it.
I don’t like the term ‘miracles,’ so let’s just say these are wondrous, completely unexpected, and almost illogical changes for a person who used to be like me. Once I did an interview with Mike Doughty and he said something about how he preferred the term ‘grace.’ I liked that. Me staying sober is a total and complete act of grace.
Did you have a particular “aha” moment to make you decide to change?
It was the intersection of two events: I was about to go to grad school, and I was scared shitless, considering how much of an effort it took me to get through undergrad. Also, I went to the doctor to get the tests you have to do biannually for Depakote. The ALT levels in my liver were at three times normal. I thought maybe I should try to quit drinking for a month to see if that was it.
What resources did you have to help?
I went to an AA meeting with a friend, who had been sober for around two years, because I knew AA helped if you wanted to quit drinking. I had a panic attack in that meeting, but I was smart enough to realize this was because I had realized I actually belonged there, in a tweve-step meeting – which is a horrible fucking realization. I probably should have gone to rehab, or at least detox, but I had no idea how physically addicted I was at the time (I got off the opiates and booze at the same time, which caused horrible withdrawal, and I took the Restoril for three more months, as prescribed, and kicked that separately. I have no idea what would have happened if I kicked all three at once).
Like a typical addict, I thought I had everything under control, until I had some sober time and realized I didn’t at all. I honestly don’t think I could have gotten sober when I did without the help of a couple of my friends, who were also in the program, and didn’t mind if I followed them around, which was a godsend considering I was incapable of making decisions for myself (this is, apparently, normal), let me watch movies at their house when I was afraid of being alone, and could explain to me about the God business. The God business really freaked me out. Also, I have to mention this: If you’re struggling with addiction and the God business of twelve-step programs, don’t let that freak you out. It isn’t a cult. Far from it. I know complete atheists who have made the program work for them. Give it a chance. If you don’t like it after thirty days, drugs and alcohol will always be waiting for you.
What was the charge you felt when you got your fix?
I’ve always felt things more deeply and intensely than most people. I’ve always been a little too sensitive to others’ moods/’energy’/’vibes’. I’m a total control freak. Drugs and alcohol temporarily deadened my feelings, and made me feel like I was in control. I’ve also always had some degree of self-hatred, due to feeling like I was ‘different’ and there was something terminally wrong with me, and drugs and alcohol made this no longer matter. Plus, I just like being really high.
How do you deal with bipolar these days?
I could write pages on the meds I’ve been on in my life; I haven’t been on all that many since I got sober. Well, I suppose that is only sort of true; I’ve been on six. I’m on a low dose of Seroquel and an average dose of Lamictal now. Seems to be working… so far. Nothing really major in terms of side effects – just dizzy spells and an ability (which is not a need, mind you) to sleep for twelve hours at a time.
In sobriety, what are your vices?
Coffee. Cigarettes (Oh, fuck, do I love / hate my cigarettes. My addiction to them is completely pathetic. I am totally powerless, and my addiction feels totally unmanageable.) Unconventional romantic entanglements. Sleep. Work. Writing. Compulsive book & make-up buying. Kombucha. (I’ve recently discovered Kava, and I love it.)
I’d like to get into gambling, but every time I try, I just feel like I am throwing away money. I would also like to get into working out, but working out is boring and makes me feel like a housewife.
Is it difficult to maintain balance without exercising the quick relief you went to for so many years?
I don’t know what balance is. My belief about addicts is this: We are obsessive people, as well as emotional escape artists. We will most likely always be this way. You cannot eliminate this obsessive streak, although you can lessen it and invest it into less harmful vices. And, like the twelve-step programs say, you do have that option of a daily reprieve – but that means you have to work on your addiction daily.
By the way, I think the 11th tradition is totally misinterpreted. I hate having to say I am in a ‘twelve-step program,’ when I am in AA and I mostly totally love AA (although sometimes I hate it). I don’t work a perfect program, and am certainly not a model for how AA should be done. But I try, and I try hard, and it has worked wonders for me. However, it is certainly not for everybody.
Why do you write?
It’s something that I’ve always done. I started writing poetry when I was little– you know, that angst-ridden horrible stuff that people seem to write. And it’s something that helps me sort out my thoughts… and I’m not as good at talking as I am when I’m writing. And I think I get kind of fixated on things and I think I definitely have an obsessive streak…and that it helps me get that stuff out by writing it down.
What can you tell us about the novel you’re working on?
I’m hoping to have a first draft finished by June because that’s when i’ll have been in San Diego for a year. It’s fiction, but it’s based heavily on my life. I don’t know how much it’s going to divert from real life, but it will to some extent because fiction is sometimes more truthful than nonfiction. Also, I feel I don’t remember enough to weave together a complete story.
How is fiction more truthful?
You can create events that are more meaningful than just reporting the straight story, and I also feel like you can use it to get into the heads of people who aren’t you. There’s something kind of magical about that. It also seems kind of mysterious because you don’t know where the story is going, and in nonfiction you might not know where the story is going but you essentially know where the story is going to end up. In fiction, you end up creating this world that’s in your head but you don’t always have complete control over it and it does what it wants. I feel like when you write something you didn’t initially intend to write, you discover something about a character that you didn’t mean to discover… that’s when writing is really the most rewarding… for me at least.
What advice can you give to writers and aspiring writers?
Just start writing. Everyday. Realize that what you have in the beginning doesn’t have to be there at the end. When I first started grad school, my stories tended to have what my teachers called “writing into the story”, and so I would write 3 pages or a paragraph setting myself up for the story. There was a lot of exposition but not enough action. Being unafraid to put words down and knowing that they aren’t necessarily the final draft, and knowing that writing is a process where you may end up cutting a lot of what you originally wrote. It’s not a waste because you figured things out while you were on a path…
Photo Credit thanks to the lovely Katelan V. Foisy