“I always compare myself now to a night when I was drinking and I looked in the mirror. I saw a lie, wearing a suit and full beard, and…I tried to kill myself.”
A point on a map is the product of two dimensions, the x and the y, or longitude and latitude. For example, a liquor store or your plug’s house is located at the intersection of two streets. For example, one street might trace back to your childhood home. Or maybe trace to a moonless night in a park, your peers starting to circle up. Maybe one of your streets crisscrosses the inertia of a fist. Or the colored lights in a club filling your eyes like cups. Etcetera. Etcetera.
Everything, including us, our identities and our addictions, exist at the intersections of other things. The human landscape is a network, and this interview series has sought to delve into the complexities by dialoguing with poets who write from personal experience, and by giving purposeful attention to how substance misuse can overlap with marginalized lives and histories.
This new installment welcomes torrin a. greathouse, a trans woman in recovery from both bipolar disorder and substances, and who self-describes as a cripple punk (more on that below).
Despite only being 23 years old, she’s already well into a strong career, having landed publishing credits on Poets.org and Submittable’s journal, Frontier, and garnering a shoutout from poetry star Kaveh Akbar in The Paris Review. torrin’s forthcoming chapbook called boy/girl/ghost is a winner of The Atlas Review poetry contest, and this past year she published her debut Therǝ is a Case That I Ɐm on Damaged Goods Press.
torrin has an inclination towards bravery in the way she does the work of transforming pain. It’s an exemplary case of someone using poetry to chew through toughness, to make sustenance out of issues that would otherwise choke us or rot and become pestilent. Even when her poems seem to conclude in a surrender, it feels like torrin achieves a type of mastery over the monster by at least naming it. Furthermore, displaying an energetic craft, she reaches for sophistication in form and concept, hewing down the opaqueness of personal uncertainties into sculptural elegance. Through processing her own story, she asks us to think about how the causes of addiction can be much deeper than the individual suffering.
During the interview, we discuss how different lineages of addiction alternately rob and empower torrin, while we take a close look at some of her poems. We talk about soundtracks to gender transition. And more. Throughout our conversation she is candid about her struggles, and the violences that happened within her family while growing up in the Pacific Northwest. Before you read, it should be emphasized that the content traverses a number of sensitive topics, including suicidality, domestic abuse, and of course, substance misuse.
The Fix: Can you tell me about some of your experiences, where transness intersected with addiction?
torrin a. greathouse: Like many things that bring people into states of addiction, it became a method of coping. To be drunk or high allowed me to feel outside my body. And also, drugs allow you to disconnect not just from the physical body, but from life.
An experience that is common among trans communities, is not necessarily being able to survive in the same ways as other people; having to turn to alternate forms of income creation like sex work. I was doing certain types of sex work that were not always conducive to my emotional wellness. I used alcoholism to cope with that as well.
More often than not, conversation about coping focuses more on dealing with emotional or mental stressors, like trauma, for example. But there are also physicalities that people seek displacement from. Which makes me think about body dysphoria.
You can’t feel dysphoric about your body if you can’t feel your body, was a point that I hit. I always compare myself now to a night when I was drinking and I looked in the mirror. I saw a lie, wearing a suit and full beard, and…I tried to kill myself. I think of myself now, in comparison to that moment.
Wow. That’s so real. I know it’s such a tender subject and I value your sharing. A common characteristic of personal histories with addiction is that substance use “works” until it doesn’t. Sounds like you are describing one of those pivotal moments.
I’m interested in recovery spaces, and I don’t know what your experience is with treatment or peer support, but I don’t hear as many stories from trans folk, or even queer folk.
I wish going into rooms was easier. I’m lucky in a sense, that when I got sober, it was because of a DUI. I was in a collision, driving drunk, and went to jail, and then the court mandated I attend a peer support group. Had it not been court-mandated, I don’t think I could have managed to keep going, because those spaces are harder for folks that aren’t a specific subset of culture, primarily straight and middle-aged and male. Trying to get my pronouns used was pretty much impossible. Eventually I gave up and stopped presenting as trans.
There are peer support groups meant for queer folks, but again, unfortunately, this ends up being cis-gay, middle-aged men. I’ve faced a lot of transphobia in those rooms as well. Luckily, there are new spaces opening up, like one in Long Beach, specifically for trans folk.
My recovery consists of—and poet Kaveh Akbar also talks about this in the other interview—we can allow something else to subsume the addictive part of you. For both he and I, poetry has become that thing. We throw the same addictive energy at something healthier.
Ok, now let’s talk poetry! Where are you at right now in terms of writing about addiction?
Right now I’m in a double-headed mode in how I want to talk about the intersections of addiction. A big interest for me is the idea of alcoholism as lineage, as familiar bloodline and form of inheritance. My father was a drunk. My grandfather and grandmother on my mother’s side are drunks. My father’s father was a drunk. I’m thinking about how addiction ties into cyclical abuse; how leaning into it allows a lineage of violence to continue.
And then the other direction I’m looking in is the ways in which queerness, transness, and addiction intersect with the prison industrial complex. Those violences. My father growing up was a prison guard, and so the familial abuses I faced were intrinsically linked to this other separate system of violence I wouldn’t experience personally until much later in my life.
This is stuff you are tackling in an upcoming release? Like a collection?
I’m working on a full-length manuscript. Also, a pet project tentatively titled Cell, meant to observe the different definitions of the word. Cell as a space, a physical confinement, a unit of memory, a telephone network, a part of the human body.
I think of your poem, “Burning Haibun.” There’s the line about cells, how when alcohol is used to disinfect a cut, the scarring is worsened and made thicker, which you liken metaphorically to a blackout. It’s a brilliant poem, and I’d love to usher it into our conversation.
Utilizing the form of the haibun, which is traditionally just a prose poem followed by a haiku, I began working from this moment when my mother accused me of throwing alcohol and gasoline on my emotions.
The poem was a process of peeling off layers of trauma, the night of my DUI, and the night my father tried to kill himself by driving through a telephone pole. Then, I started writing about the ways addiction is not just a lineage I carry from my parents, but also a prevalent condition in queer communities because of the ways we are forced to survive.
The first erasure narrows down to thinking about how I’ve been indicted by my father’s blood. I’m told being an addict makes me like him. “Once I just watched the wound accuse me of my blood. My father’s possessing the body. How each drink too is not mine, or I claim guilt.”
But the bottom of the first two stanzas calls out my separate lineage. “My father hidden in an erasure of me. Each drink mine, my faggot blood.” So even if this is a lineage I carry from him, it is something my own, and it is something that belongs to another lineage, of queer addicts that have been a part of my life, some who have helped me in recovery.
If I understand what you said correctly, by acknowledging the different threads of lineages that twist together, you deny your father from being the main contributor to your addiction. There is no single lineage.
This poem allows me to access an identity as an addict and an addict in recovery that doesn’t make me like my father. My addiction doesn’t make me him.
It’s interesting to think of lineage as biological, but also behavioral, which you are talking about, like the nurture from your parents, but more specifically, queer culture passed down between communities and generations.
Tracing a lineage that is not genetic is inherent to queerness. Creating found family. Many queer and trans folks don’t have access to a genetic source of lineage, a family that supports and cares for them.
I think this is a good time to talk about your poem “Inheritance.” What are some of the things happening inside that poem?
This past year was the first time I was able to access mental healthcare, and I was diagnosed with a rapid cycling form of bipolar disorder. “Inheritance” is part of a series that, once again, recontextualizes experiences of lineage. Actions my mother and grandmother have taken. Actions I took. Because bipolar tends to be inherited from the mother’s side, she denied any family history. So this poem is responding, “Yes. Yes. There is a history of broken objects, shards, and of alcohol being a method of coping with the disorder.”
Your opening lines are about your mother buying plates marketed as unbreakable. Within the poem, does the denial of breakability or the aspiration towards unbreakability become not only a symptom of mental illness, but also a path to it?
No one seeks out something unbreakable unless they know they break the things around them. This poem is very much about my family’s denial of mental illness. In the poem I shattered one of these unbreakable plates by throwing it at my brother’s head while in a manic rage. I remember all the things my mother broke when I was a child, throwing them at my father. My grandmother smashing wine glasses. I tried to introduce this litany of evidence, but never put the reader inside the moment of breaking.
That’s interesting, because I sensed this distance during my first read. I felt like I was looking at a pile of shattered memory, piecing together what happened. I felt removed. It’s almost paradoxical, but does your embracing of breakability and mental illness give you the best chance at being as unfractured as you can be?
This poem ends, “My mother and I both know the slow ballet a glass shard makes beneath the skin.” Despite denial, all of this breaking is in our blood. For me, it’s interesting to be in a dual state of recovery, because recovery is also a term used in the treatment of bipolar disorder. Living with the disorder, when I’m manic, I feel invincible. Often times, also, addicts in the height of their addiction feel superhuman. So to turn away from these two modes of invincibility, you have to embrace or open yourself up to being broken.
Wow, there are so many things I want to talk to you about haha. But let’s touch upon “wind-chime aria [for four hands].” I’m curious about the musical component, and about how the wind-chimes act as a vehicle. What is the music of this poem?
I come from a pretty musical family, sharing music, singing songs together. It’s also as simple as the opening line, “My mother has always loved windchimes.” The house I grew up in, in Portland, was surrounded by windchimes. Music connects so much to memory in this poem, the spirit of Mozart, and the parental trauma in his experience.
If this poem was a song, what would it be?
Probably performed by Tori Amos. High energy, but creepy feeling. Maybe “Cornflake Girl.” I adore that song. This poem is from my forthcoming chapbook, called boy/girl/ghost, and written during a time when I was leaning into a feminine energy, after coming out as a trans woman, and needing to claim a softness that I hadn’t been previously allowed. Tori Amos was part of a soundtrack to that period of my life. There’s a line in my poem, “he became wind or light bulbs / began bursting on their own becoming a confetti of blades…” Even this violence is trying to find its own softness.
The last thing I want to talk to you about…your bio includes the label cripple punk, and I know the term cripple holds political significance for the disability justice movement. Do you think mental health and substance use disorder have a place within this movement?
I identify as a cripple punk specifically because I’m physically disabled. I have a spinal deformity. As a teenager, I hurt all the time and didn’t know why, and this began my abuse of painkillers. One of the hardest things about being clean and sober, I have no pain management anymore. Describing myself as a cripple punk is a sharpening of my identity, a fuck you to people who look at me and can’t imagine someone as both young and needing a cane.
I’m only one individual and cannot speak for the entire community. As someone who is both mentally ill and physically disabled, I know both require a similar sort of activism and space. At the same time, many spaces where mental health is allowed to take on the same texture as physical disability, physical disability gets so erased. The conversation becomes dominated.
So solely for the purpose of creating space for physical disability, I don’t personally like to see the picture overlap too much, but at the same time it becomes important to talk about the comorbidities, and intersectionality. So it’s a tough question. I think there needs to be room for both.
Again, thank you so much for sharing about all the experiences and intersections that inform your writing. What’s on the horizon for you?
My chapbook boy/girl/ghost is coming out through The Atlas Review chapbook series. Then also the chapbook Cell, which I plan on spending the upcoming month writing. Also just finishing up my undergraduate degree and surviving.
This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.