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Illustration João Victor @mirror_dsoul

Fashion Weak: rehab was basically a press trip

“My rock bottoms were snorting lines off my coveted Spice Girls Mario Testino-shot 1998 Vogue with the queer activist club kid “model” trust-fund types”

This is Fashion Weak, a five-part salacious/spiritual/sometimes sad series of essays about how a former unconvincingly closeted musical theatre major managed to get past the VIP New York City “fashion world” ropes, making a trainwreck of an entrance.

I’m one of the lucky ones: I survived the masochistic man bun, drill sergeant sides and all. It was the summer of 2014 when my insides were at their darkest, but my hair colour was at its bleached blonde brightest. The black roots aggressively powered through, though – darkness is attracted to light.

Well, that’s what Britney Spears’ former back-up singer and co-writer of “Everytime” informed tween me over AOL, according to what she and Brit learned at the Kabbalah Center. I had formed an email relationship with her – my history with delusion and semi-cyber stalking goes all the way back. I’ve since retired the red wrist string.  

Also just as aggressive as my raven roots was my barber, who felt the need to tell me that I’ve got “the biggest head in all of Lower East Side!” My messiness needed a touch-up, not a dig! After all, one of my only empathetic friends, who is besties with Katy Perry, was bringing me to Katy’s concert that evening, where I’d find myself playing with her puppy in her dressing room and responsibly turning down the offering of endless champagne. (Later that night, I Instagrammed a video of Katy crooning about how the grace of God saved her from her Saturn Return or something, with my caption being: SHE IS PURE LIGHT.) I guess this was my going-to-rehab-tomorrow gift. Anyway, my barber cushioned insulting my big head with kindness as I handed him the tip for my rehab-ready hair: “A BIG HEAD MEANS GOOD FORTUNE!”

My Medicaid wouldn’t cover Promises in Malibu, where Brit Brit and all of the young Hollywood 00s starlets were forced to check-in by their managers/courts for exhaustion. But I didn’t want to go there anyway – I was so serious about “getting better” and hair-whipping away from the whole Not A Famous Below 14th Street It Gay, Not Yet A Dead “27 Club” Member thing.

I wanted real, tough as shit love! No more of the some work, lots of play of the fabulous press trip, where I’m treated like a reality star for a week in exchange for writing about the event, and then shipped (sometimes) business class back to my (often) mice-mecca of an apartment.

But looking back, as I tend to always do, rehab was basically a press trip. And the most meaningful one to date – sex was prohibited. The Oprah’s Lifeclass viewings, the styrofoam cups of coffee, all comped by Medicaid. I should’ve stayed the suggested month rather than, you know, a week, but my constipated mind didn’t calculate that the demon-slaying overlapped with a New Zealand Fashion Week press trip, and I love a Flat White x Marmite on toast combo. Let’s be real, I also felt like I didn’t deserve to get better.

“As my cab driver plopped my cat-hair-covered suitcase onto the curb, three rehab attendees, ⅔ with meth teeth and all chain-smoking, greeted me with alarming eye contact. ‘What’s your name? Where are you from? What’s your drug of choice?!’”

Pre-rehab, I was lost at superficial sea. I didn’t know what was wrong with me, but I did know that I was not okay. I just needed a new life! Not white-picket fence, but not psych ward white padded walls, either. And, luck be a lunatic, I got what I wanted with the LGBTQ-only Pride Institute, located in a sad suburb outside of Minneapolis. I couldn’t wait to Instagram the “five acres of land” as Pride’s brochure detailed, to show everyone who aptly thought I was damaged non-designer goods that I was on the path to enlightenment. Alas, as my cab pulled up, I’d learn that the five acres of land was actually mostly a parking lot with a “view” of a Blair Witch-y forest that we, the fucked, weren’t permitted to explore.

And even if I wasn’t forced to turn in my obviously cracked iPhone 5C (reminder: 2014) during intake (along with its charger, due to its noose potential), the only thing worth Instagramming was a “NO SWIMMING” sign in the distance painted with bird shit, which referred to a creek that was apparently invisible.

Anyway, my aforementioned unfortunate man bun paired with my rehab arrival attire of a Paula Abdul concert tank top, Adidas track pants and Trash & Vaudeville creepers wasn’t so Instagram cute, and the lewk contradicted my not-wanting-to-stand-out goal. Yearning to stand out and make a name for myself only drove me mad in NYC, where it took me awhile to admit that there’s no fucking yellow brick road that’ll lead one to shining like Carrie’s crystal-tipped pumps.

As my cab driver plopped my cat-hair-covered suitcase onto the curb, three rehab attendees, ⅔ with meth teeth and all chain-smoking, greeted me with alarming eye contact. “What’s your name? Where are you from? What’s your drug of choice?!” Snorting the eternal lonely away? Self-harming via bareback sex in the Big Rotten Apple? Exclusively falling in love with gay and straight Facebook friends who I’ve never met and who live in chic European cities that I’ve never visited addict?

The answers to their questions should’ve been easy and clear for me, but nothing, besides being a “perfect Pride candidate” according to a nauseatingly blissful counselor during my phone interview, was easy or clear for me then. The “Hi, I’m Alex and I’m sexually compulsive…?” would speed up my soul’s decay like Hydroxycut would my twenty-year-old metabolism. All of my whisper-y intros in Alcoholics/Narcotics/Sexaholics Anonymous caused metaphorical internal bleeding. It felt like when Ginger Spice quit the Spice Girls before I was due to see their American tour, my third grade crush (Yumi) moving back to Tokyo without a goodbye, or Christina Aguilera’s mom never showing up to our date, where she was meant to advise me on how to be a diva, at a Pittsburgh Applebee’s circa sixth grade. I cried into a plate of nachos in true tween rock bottom form.

If I stood out at Pride, it was because I had bad hair and was dubbed a loner by an attendee who is now sadly dead. My rock bottoms were cat-nappy in comparison to my fellow fuck-ups. I didn’t shout “I AM COMFORTABLE WITH MY SEXUALITY!” in small group, after coming out to my wife (who he had a child with) that morning. The love of my life wasn’t now a vegetable following an alcohol poisoning-induced seizure. And I certainly wasn’t a “Hi, I’m Liza (‘HI LIZAAA!!!!’) and I’m a Child Of God.” (She was amazing, TBH).

“Am I even an addict?” was enthusiastically cleared up by Paige, a counsellor who several attendees would cruelly peg as the “bionic dyke” because of her mysterious prosthetic stainless steel legs, and her commitment to a stereotypical butch lesbian gym teacher aesthetic. According to her, you’re an addict if you say you’re an addict. Noted.

Announcing I was Sexually Compulsive (with a fisting anecdote thrown in for good measure) prompted a side-eye from a queen whose drug of choice was legit Pinot fucking Grigio. I preferred the non-judgemental and in-transition dramatics of Judy (yes, for Garland), who alleged in small group that she bathed in lighter fluid before lighting her unitard ablaze. And Thomas the choo-choo-train wreck, whose rock-bottom involved chit-chatting with a fridge before taking an uninvited daytime stroll through an elementary school and then awaking in a psych ward. My rock bottoms were more like: snorting lines off my coveted Spice Girls Mario Testino-shot 1998 Vogue, the only issue I own besides Britney’s, with the queer activist club kid “model” trust-fund types.

Meanwhile, the “You ARE a somebody!” affirmation cheerleader shouts would bounce off me like the sting of a volleyball to my face, which happened in a gym class or three, as I sat pseudo stretching, alone and silent on the sidelines writing psychotic nothings in my journal. A deluded lowlight: "I am a fucking artist! Time to follow through, to create, to fix it all. I refuse to surrender to a ’higher power.’ My life was never out of control. I just wanted it to be. I refuse to sink. I will swim. I will practice. To be the best that I can be." Jesus fucking Christ.

“My rock bottoms were more like: snorting lines off my coveted Spice Girls Mario Testino-shot 1998 Vogue, the only issue I own besides Britney’s, with the queer activist club kid “model” trust-fund types”

Those damn affirmations also felt like my imaginary designer boyfriend’s post-its. I suppose my superficial social life peaked in 2011 when I thought I was dating him. He who I might as well have chosen as my higher power in rehab, because He had the power to make me all semi-suicide-y. Our time together (three-ish months of sexless sleepovers – then, I only fell for the sexually unobtainable) was before he dressed SJP on the regular and when he recognised that I existed, and where post-it reminders in his East Village shit but chic walk-up were meticulously placed on his fridge (“protein shake”), bathroom mirror (“whiten teeth”), on the wall above his dresser (something like, “KNOW YOUR WORTH”) next to a photo of him hugging Oprah.

Such a special and inspiring gay who pretended like he believed in me, but also had a penchant to order me to fetch him cold brew replete with his semi-JKing “Do you know who I am?”. I, of course, fantasised about what I’d wear to the Met Gala as his date. (Dior.) I wondered what my family would think when I brought him home for the holidays. Was I special? Surely, I thought, heart racing, particularly after his SS11 show, when I noticed I came first in his thank yous, before Anna fucking Wintour. (I helped with the show soundtrack, suggesting Florence + The Machine’s cover of “Addicted To Love” – lol, I’m so subtle – as the opener.) I turned cardiac arrest red, comparable to 19-year-old, closeted and attention-starved me after learning I was one callback away from being cast on MTV’s The Real World. (I wasn’t cast. There was nothing real about me!) Oh. The acknowledgments were in alphabetical order. Triggered.

I needed to stuff all of those meaningless fashion evil world experiences into a blender. I wanted my mantra to be Jenny “PROTECT ME FROM WHAT I WANT” Holzer-y. I simply wanted to be “normal” and to survive. Rehab peers and their dreams were more along the lines of regaining custody of their children, to never overdose again, to never again prostitute for pills. This was an LGBTQ marathon of Survivor, but we weren’t competing with one another. Our morbid fear squealed like a baby elephant in the stuffy rooms – all windows were aptly anti-suicide sealed.

Did I mention I only lasted a week? On the seventh morning, I’m the only human outside, because everyone is lining up for morning meds. I’m chilling on the boiling parking lot curb, puffing on my last cig, having a moment with the four fawns standing in Madame Tussauds poses like a foot away from me. They’re so peaceful but also scary. Then Judy and her flailing wet spaghetti arms emerges like a Shelley Duvall meltdown in The Shining. The fawns leap away. Please tell me the kitchen’s on fire. Nope. Candy, a painfully immature trans 18-year-old, had accused me of stealing Robitussin from a Walmart field trip, even though I slept through that field trip and have never been one to Robotrip. Minutes later, there Candy is, high as Mount Fuji, being carried into a minivan while growling “FUCK YOU PRIDE!”. A peaceful moment turns to parody. The dark comedy of my life.

That night, the evening meditation track would be recovering cutter Demi Lovato’s lousy “Let It Go” cover. I squeeze my fists tighter than a Bravo Housewives’ facelift. That’s it. Run, fuck up, run!

I didn’t even trip in my creepers.

My cab driver agreed that “everybody needs a break, sometimes,” which resulted in me humming “everybody hurts, sometimes,” as he drove past the deserted factories and Psycho-like motels en route to the Minneapolis airport for my 2:25am flight to Laguardia (the worst). It was all very Girl, Interrupted, although Winona Ryder’s character, a hot messy albeit free-spirited writer searching for healing and meaning wasn’t wearing a Britney Spears’ concert t-shirt in her cab to destination: real world.

“Was I ever really crazy? Maybe. Or maybe life is,” I heard Winona’s signature wet whisper say in a voiceover from the film’s melodramatic closing scene, as my driver popped the trunk shut, offering me a chill “Good luck.” I’d be back in my apartment in a few hours, reunited with my fat cat, where I’d frame the Spice Girls’ Vogue onto my inspiration wall and sort of commit to the treatment plan packet I took with me from Pride. I’d work on my intake assessment, which detailed my Potential barriers: client reports lack of self-esteem and self-worth”, “Needs: Support and to be liked” and goals “A) be happy B) be a better person C) learn to have an intimate relationship.”  I did go back to black via drugstore hair dye, donate my creepers to Bowery Mission, and have my barber chop off the man bun. I wasn’t doing well, to be honest. I was yet again a quitter. But the lights weren’t off anymore, they were at a dim. Progress. Don’t quit on yourself, don’t quit on New York City. So, I’d continue with the affirmations, hearing the seated circle of humans who I rudely didn’t say goodbye to and who too were dying to get their lives on stable track: “You are loved! SO LOVED!!” And so lucky! For now.

Follow Alex on Instagram @acatinheat, and our illustrator João Victor @mirror_dsoul. Stay tuned for part four, coming soon.