Mishka Shubaly has gone through more in 39 years than most people ever will. He’s a musician with a loyal following, a successful author, a marathon runner, an aspiring comedian, and a recovering alcoholic. His albums How to Make a Bad Situation Worse and Coward’s Path have received critical acclaim, as have his Amazon Kindle Singles like The Long Run and Shipwrecked.
He’s overcome unbelievable obstacles on his road to success, which he details in his new book I Swear I’ll Make It Up to You: A Life on the Low Road (PublicAffairs). As a college student, he survived a school shooting, only to learn the next day that his parents were getting divorced. He turned to alcohol to cope, and spent several years in a drunken haze, before trading drinking for running almost seven years ago. Mishka Shubaly spoke to Men’s Journal over the telephone from his home in New York.
Obviously, you've got a remarkable life story. What made you decide to write a book about what you've been through?
I'll be honest with you: part of it was a determination not to work another cubicle job ever again. [laughs] The only thing more soul-killing than a life of addiction is a life of office work. I was first charged with writing about my sobriety and my transition, from being a gutter dweller to someone who had a deep investment in getting better, by my editor at Amazon in 2011. I didn't want to do it, because I just felt like the world was already glutted with these sort of bullshit inspirational stories that didn't speak to my own experience, how incredibly unpleasant it was to be a broke alcoholic. It's not like Leaving Las Vegas, man. It's brutal and it's lonely and it's humiliating, and it's very uncinematic and unromantic. So when my editor at Amazon said "You've got to tell this story," I resisted, and then I just went at it the only way I knew how to do it, to write it as ugly as it was. And that's something I really tried to do, to shine a light in every dark corner. [With] some celebrity addiction memoirs, it's easy for them to say, "Oh, my drinking was out of control." But what does that really mean in your life, for your physical health, for your wife, your girlfriend, your husband, your boyfriend, your family, your children? So I wanted to share just how fucking miserable it is.
Was it a painful book to write, or was it more cathartic?
It was absolutely painful and cathartic. Sometimes you sit down and your fingers just move across the keyboard, and the words appear on the page, and it's great. For every one time that happens, there's 100 times where fucking nothing happens. You're just sitting there, staring at a blank screen as your anxiety mounts. I had spent the last seven years crawling out of this cave, and in order to write this book the way that I wanted to, I had to crawl back into the cave. And it's scary, it's miserable. And to do justice to your own story as a journalist, as somebody who has a high investment in the truth, you have to remember these incredibly unpleasant scenarios where you made a mistake, and you understood at the time you were making a mistake, and to write it the way that it really unfolded, you have to go back and basically force yourself to make that same mistake again. There's definitely the temptation to go in and revise it. You know, "Let's make me not such a creep." I fought myself at every turn with that. I had to remind myself that my obligation was not to move units or to charm people or to make people like me, but to tell it like it was.
I remember sitting there one day at the computer writing about what a terrible son I had been, and how much my mother had loved me and supported me, and done everything and anything she could to try to help me, and make sure I had everything I needed. And I just fucking wasted it all. So I'm writing this, and I'm behind deadline, and scrambling to get this done, and my phone rings, and it's my mother calling to talk to me.
The book hasn't been out long, obviously, but surely you've heard from other fans of your music and your writing. Have they ever contacted you to say, "Hey, this helped me, it put things in perspective for me?"
Yeah, it's actually been really obnoxious. [laughs] So many nice messages, so many nice e-mails from old friends who knew me when I was going through this, or from fans who are like, "Oh, I never knew this about your life," or "I just knew you from the raunchy jokes you make in your songs about getting fucked up." So it's really been great. I still don't know how to respond to genuine sentiment, especially when people are being that positive. The most important thing is my relationship with my family. My dad's actually here with me right now; he came into town for the National Arts Club reading. He's in New York, and we've just been wandering around, talking about the book and the process of writing, and these long minefield kind of conversations we've had. He's shown a lot of trust, not [just] to tell his story, but he trusted me to tell my version of what I felt, what I perceived at the time. It's funny, because I feel like we've lost some of our topics of conversation, because we don't have anything to argue about anymore, so now we just have to be friends.
Have all of your family members read the book?
Yeah, everybody's read it. I think I made everybody cry. I cried. I guess I like making people cry. [laughs] It's been exhausting for all of us. You know, "Let's return to the early '90s when I was 15 and I really loathed myself. What exactly was I doing then?" That's not a fun trip. Nobody wants to revisit the most painful years of their adolescence. Losing the house, [my parents'] divorce, all that shit. But that's integral, I think, to growth and to development and to finding forgiveness. The shit that you fear the most is the shit that you need to go back and sort out. Because when you try and hide it from yourself, it always seems much bigger and much darker.
A lot of it is just tackling that darkness head on. When I had to sit down with my dad and say, "I have this information that I stole from [you]. Basically, breaking and entering. I stole this information from you. I discovered a secret and now I want to put it in a book. That's cool, right?" I really hated leading up to that conversation and broaching that subject. But my dad, he really took it in stride, and there was a tense couple of minutes, and then he was like, "All right, what else?" And I was like, "Fuck, that's it, man?" The anticipation of dealing with this stuff is always far harder to deal with than just biting the bullet and taking your medicine.
You've been sober for seven years now, is that right?
It'll be seven years in May.
When you quit drinking, did you feel better pretty quickly, or did it take a while?
It took me two or three weeks to get over the acute physical withdrawal, where I just felt sick all the time. Then, once you stop feeling bad all the time, you feel good some of the time and terrible some of the time, and that's almost worse than feeling bad all the time, because at least when you feel bad all the time, it's consistent. There's no worse feeling than early sobriety. You're starting to get a handle on things, and then you miss the bus, and you're like "Fuck this, fuck everyone, fuck this whole world." So that's difficult to recover from. Your moods are so erratic, and you have trouble sleeping. You go to the bathroom and step on the scale, and look at yourself in the mirror, and you're like, "I'm fat and skinny. I'm sure I have forty cavities. I'm 32 and falling apart. Is this is what an adult male is supposed to look like? I look like a chubby 12-year-old girl." It's brutal, man!
But then, a couple of months into it, when I started running, that made me feel much worse and much better. It was just brutal, it was torturous. But the worse you make it for yourself in early sobriety, the faster it gets better, the faster it gets easier, the faster you start actually felling good. After that, three months after quitting drinking, you start to feel good about yourself, good about your life and the decisions you're making. That lasts for a year or so, and then you're like, "Oh, now I'm just sober. This is boring." That's a difficult time, because then you have to figure out what the next thing is, what you're going to do with your life. There's lots of challenges. People always say, "Oh, seven years of sobriety, that's so great!" And I'm like, "Yeah. Most fucking boring seven years of my life." And also the most productive and the least miserable, so there's a trade-off.
In the book you talk about having worked at a bar shortly after you quit drinking, which is maybe the ballsiest thing I can imagine. Was that a deliberate thing? Were you trying to confront your demons head-on?
It was absolutely desperation. I always get people writing to me, and they're like, "I really want to quit drinking, but I don't want to go to AA. How did you do it? Tell me your technique." And I'm like, "Technique? Are you fucking kidding me? I had no idea what I was doing." I just flailed around and accidentally found something that worked for me. I fucking failed doing everything else. I was basically unemployable other than working at a bar or lifting heavy things. Those were the two things I was qualified for. And I had to fucking pay the rent. If I had it to do over, I would absolutely do the same thing again, because it was great.
Here's the thing: alcohol is everywhere. If I want a drink, and I can't get to a bar or a liquor store, there's hand sanitizer in the van. That has alcohol in it. There's rubbing alcohol, there's cough syrup at the fucking drug store that's open all night. There's Listerine. To remove temptation, that's an illusion. Temptation is everywhere, all the time. You need to burn out the temptation, and just get real clear with yourself in your mind: what's important to you, what life you want to lead, who you want to be, what you want to do. You want a drink? It's right here. Take it if that's what you want. And I was like, "No, I'm fucking done. I'm absolutely done."
A lot of your music is about drinking and alcohol. Was there a point after you got sober where you were thinking, "Shit, now I have to come up with something different to sing about?"
I didn't write any songs for five years after I got sober. And I thought, "Oh, I guess that part of my life where I'm a songwriter is just over." And it bummed me out, because it was something that was very important to me, and I thought I'd always do that. But there's got to be a trade-off. You can't always have everything. But in the last year and a half, I got dragged out on tour by JT Habersaat, a comic I'm friends with. So I was out on the road with him; we did 38 shows in 40 days in January and February of last year. I was in dive bars every night singing my old songs. And when it started out, I was like, "This is really stupid. I'm fucking putting my head in the lion's jaws, and everything could fucking fall apart." But by the end of the tour, I was just like, "What's up, you fucking degenerates? Here's a bunch of songs about destroying your life. Don't do it. I'm not a role model. I don't want you to destroy your life. But I'm big on personal responsibility. If that's the choice you've made, then here's the soundtrack for it."
It reminds me of some of the musicians I love who sing a lot about alcohol, like the Pogues and Mark Lanegan, who I noticed you thanked in the acknowledgements, along with Cáit O'Riordan from the Pogues.
Yeah, [O'Riordan] is coming to a reading I'm doing. It's weird, I got to be friends with her, and I got to visit her in Dublin, and she sang a couple of songs with me. Man, to have fucking Cáit O'Riordan from the Pogues as a friend and a fan is a weird feeling. Ironically, I don't think I would've gotten through to anybody in the drinkingest band in the world if I was still drinking. I remember seeing [the Pogues] in 2007, and Shane MacGowan is definitely a man who has drunk every drink that anyone ever bought for him. And it's taken a toll on him, you know? A lot of time I'll talk to people about the Pogues, and they'll say, "Wait, Shane MacGowan's still alive?" And I'm like, "Fuck you, yeah, he is!"