Vancouver Pride season is fast approaching and, for the second year in a row, I’m putting on an event called Drag Carnival. The title is pretty self-explanatory: it’s a carnival-themed drag show. Last year, despite curating the lineup of performers and transforming the a space into a wacky carnival, I stayed in the shadows. I took a little bow at the end of the show and whispered “thank you” into the mic. I felt nervous and overwhelmed. I could see the version of myself I wished I was playing back in my head...charismatic and untroubled.
I haven’t felt like either of those things for a long time. I was four years sober sometime last month. I don’t know the exact date I quit everything, just that it was in June, somewhere in the middle. Because I’m so forgetful, I usually search “sober” in my tweets, or look at Facebook memories to remind myself when to celebrate. I’ve never been a one-day-at-a-time type; I’m very adept at blocking out the things about myself—and my past—that I don’t want to see. The addict in me has been walled off deep in my psyche to the point of not having to think about him anymore. There are some facets of my addictive personality that are still apparent. I can easily sink a few hundred dollars into a slot machine in under twenty minutes, but I don’t struggle to keep out of casinos. What concerns me is what other parts of my character are walled off alongside the addict. The parts of me that were tethered to it that I had to sacrifice in order to get a clean break...to survive.
I used to be fun. I was loud, boisterous, bawdy. Making people laugh made me feel proud. But after the parties ended, I was drunk, high, and alone. Addiction is just this cursed carousel you can’t get off of, cycling and repeating. That even though you might be sick of the ride, at least there’s a sense of normalcy and expectation in it. After awhile, you take solace in the familiarity of the carousel’s dinning music, of the spinning, grotesque animals surrounding you. Now that I jumped off the carousel, not much seems like fun to me, least of all myself. When I quit drinking and drugs, I quit socializing. For me, it’s difficult to have fun when I don’t feel like I’m fun for other people to be around. I want to reclaim that part of me; I want to make people laugh again.
Laughter is a huge factor of my art. Yes, I make art. The only reason I’ve had any artistic success at all is because when I got sober, I dove completely into making art. It wasn’t only a time-filling distraction, it was me trying to make up for so much lost time. I never made any good art before then. (I have a degree from Emily Carr to prove it.) But even if my art makes people laugh, there’s still an unfulfilling level of detachment that I want to erase.
Earlier this year, I published a book called Pop. It’s a short graphic novel about a clown named Pop. It’s set in 1955, and follows him throughout his day when he is desperately trying to scrape up rent money to keep from getting evicted. He hates kids, and hates performing. I had an exhibition in Portland in April where I released the book alongside a latex mask I sculpted of him. Somewhere in my head, I think I always had plans on turning him into a living, breathing character. I didn’t really consider using him as a tool to combat my social anxiety until a drag performer friend suggested how liberating performing as a character can be.
Despite fully embracing reclusiveness, it’s time to take leap towards returning to the lovable clown I felt like for all those years in bars and in afterhours. Pride season especially is synonymous with partying hard, and I sometimes feel a little more left out than usual. Being a sober queer has its own set of problems. But this year at my carnival, I am going to face those feelings head-on. I found a weird vintage costume shop and bought a ragged and well-worn devil suit that someone had handmade a long time ago. I took off the tail and sewed on giant pom-poms that look like heads of cauliflower painted blue. Two weeks ago, a special effects artist made prosthetics and did my makeup, and for the first time I became Pop Puppyteeth.
Drag Carnival is in another two weeks, on August 2, and I’m all set to transform into him again. I wrote an entire act that I’ve been rehearsing to host the show, and am excited to force myself into the spotlight. It might be a ham-handed approach at combatting my social anxiety, but the fact that I am using the premise of my own clown character coming out of retirement and performing for the first time in 50 years is really intriguing to me. It gives me a bit of wiggle room. All of the hiccups and missteps of my performance can be blamed on Pop’s extended sabbatical. I can’t wait to feel like the clown I used to be by becoming a new one.