Written by Paulo Murillo for WehoTimes
Ashlee Marie Preston needs little introduction in recovery spaces. The Louisville, Kentucky native is a media personality, producer, writer, speaker, and civil rights activist. She is the Host/Executive Producer of her own podcast/vodcast entitled “Shook with Ashlee Marie Preston” where she examines news, politics, entertainment and pop culture through a social justice lens.
Preston has an extensive roster of accomplishments, from being featured in Teen Vogue, NBC, New York Times, BuzzFeed, HuffPo, The Washington Post, and much more. Preston has been seen on E! Entertainment, TMZ Live, Adultswim, and other networks. She was named one of The Root 100’s “Most Influential African Americans of 2017”, and was profiled as one of LOGO/NewNowNext’s 30 Most Influential LGBTQ Influencers of 2017 & 2018 and PopSugar’s top 40 LGBTQ’s of 2017. She made history as a candidate for California State Assembly District 54 in 2018; making her the first openly trans person to run for California State Legislature. And she was very recently added to the prestigious list of Out Magazine’s Out 100, 2018.
Preston discusses how she found her voice in recovery and she maintains her spiritual fitness while tackling fiery issues like transphobia and racism. She revisits the genesis of her activism in sober Los Angeles where she didn’t always feel held in early recovery. Her message continues to inspire those who are disenfranchised to find their voice and gives them the courage to speak their truth
How much clean and sober time do you have?
I have over six and a half year. My sobriety date is March 11, 2012.
Why did you decide to get sober?
It didn’t do what it used to do. My using spree was this long funeral procession because I was mourning the loss of the feeling that I got when I first picked up or puffed. I spent the entire time chasing that feeling. That feeling was the only thing that had ever made me feel alive. I always heard people talk about how people were restored to sanity and I had never tasted sanity. I never knew what that was like because I had outside issues. When I was younger, I was hospitalized, so I had already been to institutions before I had ever taken a drug. I had an honest hard moment where it’s never going to be the same and it’s never going to be as good.
Does your recovery come up a lot in your activism?
I think my recovery is definitely an integral part of my story. I recently talked about it in my TEDx talk in Pasadena. Sobriety and recovery are starting to become less stigmatized. People are able to talk about it more freely and they’re able to—I don’t know, I feel it’s become a larger part of the conversation than it was before.
At what point in your recovery did you find your voice and decide to be an activist?
To be honest with you, I actually found my voice when I stopped pulling myself up in the rooms of recovery. It’s a weird thing. When you’re a newcomer, definitely meetings are important, and you want to make that your priority, but what I found is that there were people in certain sobriety spaces who were using recovery as a weapon. And what I realized was that they were stifling my voice and trying to make me feel ashamed for recognizing that aside from my addiction, I also have to navigate racism and transphobia. I didn’t really feel held in some of those recovery spaces. I didn’t really feel there was an opportunity to address those issues. When you look at the demographic and the types of people who are in recovery in the Hollywood scene, for a long time, I was one of the few trans women. There was only two or three of us, and we didn’t all go to the same meetings. I found my voice when I was able to connect with people who had similar experiences, but they were also able to kind of validate those experiences. And then fast forward to November 2016. It was this weird thing. I remember thinking, OK, we played by all the rules. When they went low we went high. I voted. I educated. I spoke this way. I didn’t say those things. Eventually, I realized it was a great disservice to subscribe to respectability politics put in place by people who don’t respect us. I realized that by complying, I was being complicit. That was the turning point for me. It was not just in the political space. It was in my recovery. It was all of these things that people had said and done, but really recognizing that at the end of the day, there is always room for growth and opportunity. Sometimes it’s hard for us to learn more into to the nuance, because of the noise. I just removed myself from the noise. Even in Recovery, I had to start going to some different meeting. I had to start talking to some different folks. I had to find a different sponsor. I had to recalibrate.
You’ve had quite a transformation from when you first got sober. Change seemed to happen overnight. How long did it actually take to find your voice and get active in your sobriety?
It wasn’t a rapid thing. I’ve always been doing that work. A lot of people in the recovery space didn’t really know me. What we fail to realize is that we’re supposed to take what we learn in the rooms and go out and practice those principles in all of our affairs. The reason that it seemed like such a sudden change for a lot of people is because they never saw me take it outside of the room and practice it in all of my affairs. I was kind of living in that space and I was also living a couple of different lives. Yes, in recovery, I was who I was, but when I was outside of the rooms, I didn’t really talk about trans issues. I wasn’t even out as trans. 2014 was one of the deadliest years of trans murders. Actually, 2016 beat 2014. I remember seeing that they were being murdered. They were finding their bodies in dumpsters. They were finding them in alleyways and across the country shot in the head in a hotel room. It was one of those things where I kind of realized that I’m on borrowed time. And if I didn’t speak up, not only would I have the blood of my sisters and brothers and others on my hands, but I realized that like Audre Lorde said, ‘My silence won’t protect me.’ I think that’s when more people starting seeing more of my confidence and my outspokenness and my authenticity and unapologetic nature. It was because I had arrived at a place where I no longer needed to keep track of my different identities. I also really did not care. There came a point in my life where I wasn’t afraid to go off script.
Do you consider yourself a spiritual person?
Is there a conflict between your spirituality and your activism?
Nope. Definitely not. In fact, I think a lot of my activism is around—not only changing the social ecology in the political space but also thinking about the way we think about spirituality and who are included in that space. A lot of what we’re looking at with a lot of the political battles we’re in, it’s been behind Christian ideas of morality and all of that.
How do you maintain calm, cool, and spiritual when dealing with the heated issues you tackle?
Even in the Christian faith, Jesus turned over a couple of tables in a temple or two [laughter]. People have this idea that spirituality is passive, it’s meek, it’s mild. No. It’s fierce. It’s passion. It’s unapologetic. It can be fiery. I think that’s what people connect with more when they come to engagements that I’m speaking at, or read some of my posts. I think people feel more spiritually centered when they hear somebody say it like it is. It doesn’t have to be poetic. It doesn’t have to be manufactured or taggish. It doesn’t have to be policed. It doesn’t have to clear the respectability politics committee. Sometimes that truth is what makes people feel connected to God, whatever that God is to them. I think truth is universal. I think when it comes from a place of truth, it comes from a place of God.
How are you staying sober these days and keeping addiction at bay?
I go to various meetings. I travel a lot, so I don’t really get to have consistent ones. I feel so cliché for saying this, but there is this Hollywood meeting that I go to on Fridays that a lot of celebrities and Hollywood people go to and it kind of feels like a safer space, because I understand that sometimes when I go to other meetings I can’t really focus on my recovery, because people are approaching me about different things that have nothing to do with what we are there for. It’s cool and everything but, sometimes I just want to focus. As far as addiction goes. To be honest with, it’s just not a good look. I’m keenly aware of what the alternative is. I have tried it so many different ways and I’ve had so many great ideas and sometimes it scares me a little bit more, because unlike the other times, this time I have social capital, there’s financial capital, there are things—like I would have enough to take me out for good. I’m actually doing what I love. I’m following my passion. It’s better than any drug I ever had. I learned how to get high off life. Every day that I wake up, it’s the same adrenaline rush that I used to get when I was a kid, and my mother had my favorite toy under the tree and I used to force myself to go to sleep, so I could wake up and tear that package to shreds. That is my life at 34-years-old. I wake up every single day excited about the possibilities that life has. I think that enthusiasm and that optimism substitutes the drug. I just don’t crave it like I used to.
Would you say it’s harder for trans people to stay sober than LBGQ?
Oh most definitely. The thing is when you listen to the promises and you hear people in program talk about, ‘Oh I got clean and sober and now I have my family back. I have this amazing job. Now I make a quarter of a million and this, this and this,’ but for many of us, what is it that we’re getting clean and sober for? Once we stop using, our families don’t always come back, because they’re not in acceptance of our gender. Sometimes, once we stop using or getting drunk, that job is still not going to hire us, because they don’t quite understand why it that we present what we do. And now we just had a Federal ruling that they can legally discriminate against us and there are no repercussions for it. When we get clean and sober, all of our problems don’t just go away. It’s not a spiritual, metaphorical thing of, ‘Oh, I’m now free because I’m sober and I’m not using drugs’—no, no, no, our freedom and liberation is not on standby the minute we put down drugs and alcohol. We still have our battles to fight. We have to fight them even harder because our own community isn’t always in solidarity with us.
Who inspires you?
The people who inspire me the most are the people who message me and they go in my comments section and they tell their stories about their challenges and their struggles and they tell me how much my work has meant to them and how much they benefit from it. That literally brings me tears every single time, because I remember being in a lot of the same circumstances. I remember having a lot of the same feelings like I wasn’t valid. I remember feeling like I wasn’t worthy. I didn’t have an Ashlee Marie Preston, or a Janet Mock or a Laverne Cox. I didn’t even have language for who or what I was. I didn’t even know what a trans person was. We have no idea what it’s like to be an LGBT person in middle America, in a conservative town where you’re the rarity, where everyone else is on the same page, but you. And then to still have the courage and confidence to live out loud and unapologetically, that’s remarkable and that’s all inspiring. There was no way in hell I was going to figure that out and transition in Kentucky.
Do you have any activist, celebrity or high profile person that you look up to?
No. I don’t have any celebrity heroes. If there was a high profile person where I was like, wow, I think they’re amazing, it is probably Michele and Barack Obama. What I find interesting and really inspiring about them is they challenged all of the stereotypes about a black family, and our capacity to thrive in positions of leadership. I love the fact that he was the first president that ever came out and proudly announced that he and his family were allies to the LGBT community. They didn’t just say they were allies. They actually put laws into place that Trump is working so hard to backtrack. They actually put their efforts where their mouth was and that really made feel good—in fact, it made me feel more connected with African America community than I ever did before.
You’ve had some highly publicized confrontations with the likes of Caitlyn Jenner and Tomi Lahren. Would you say these feuds catapulted you into the glare of the limelight?
Caitlyn Jenner was an interesting situation, but a lot of people actually know me because of my work. Interestingly enough, people still have a hard time recognizing my work. It’s because we come to a superficial, cookie-cutter space and call it art and creativity. I think people are really responding to me saying all the shit that people think and they want to say, but they don’t want to go against the pack and be the lone wolf or the social pariah. They want to be accepted and they want to be cool, even if their acceptance is at their own expense. There is a reason why Marsha Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were the leaders of the LGBTQ movement in the Stonewall days. Your fiercest warriors are going to be the ones who have absolutely nothing to lose, but life itself. Their identity was so on an intersection where they didn’t have any privilege to lose. That was where I was.
How did the recovering community respond when you had these infamous confrontations?
To be honest with you, none of them had anything negative to say to my face. I mean, think about it, seeing me in media, they’re not going to confront me. I noticed that whenever we voice our experiences and we set boundaries with people, we’re often villainized. There were a lot of people who never confronted me, but they unfriended me on Facebook. We had been connected for years. I just never really cared about that, because quite honestly, some of the most crotchety, miserable, bitter people in the recovery spaces that I have been in, are those who are dry drunks and addicts anyway. There are people that are not upset or in disagreement about how I work my program, they’re upset and because they have stayed clean and sober, but they have not done the work on a deeper level where they can take what they learn and practice that on the outside of those spaces in the role or in a position where they want to be. I was keenly aware of those kinds of people and I just don’t want to surround myself around it. When I go to meetings, I’m focused on the newcomer. My favorite meeting to go to is the Van Ness Recovery House. The people there have been using for so long and so recent that they don’t own TVs. When you’re in addiction, you’re on real time, so it’s good to go to recovery houses where people don’t know who you are and you get to be a worker among workers and you just get to be an addict helping another addict.
Did anyone ever say your behavior was not sober?
No one ever told me that it wasn’t sober behavior, because at the end of the day, if I read somebody for filth and I didn’t have a drink or a drug, then that’s sober behavior. The question is whether or not it affects my spiritual fitness. That’s a whole different story. That’s why I’m grateful to have a sponsor and I just tell the truth about where I am and what I’m doing.
You went to Hawaii Recently. What was that like?
Yes. That was my first vacation. I was freaking out. I even made a post about it, so there was some accountability there. I was letting people know that I was going to be off social media for the time that I was in Hawaii. I was somewhere where people just didn’t care and they weren’t that interested about celebrity—actually, that’s not true, there were four people who knew who I was in Hawaii, which shocked me. Most of the people didn’t know who I was. They couldn’t care less. I didn’t have to wear makeup. I wore these muumuus. I hadn’t felt like that in a very long time. I didn’t realize that I was in breakdown mode because I had learned to normalized the chaos. When I was just sitting there with me, it was very interesting. All I did was eat, sleep and take pictures of nature and I was just an awe.
What do you do to unwind and self-care?
For me, self-care is inspiring other people to hang on. Showing up for other people. I never thought about it before, but some people see it as the opposite. They don’t see it as self-care, I’m still working, but for me, it’s self-care, because it’s me getting out of my own mental space and me caring about other people. I’m very intentional about creating positive messages to counter all the chaos. I know a lot of people have said that they have drawn a lot of strength and inspiration from my posts lately. There was a time when I would kind of be feeding into it, where I would be like, ‘I can’t believe he said that…’ but now it’s more about getting outside of myself and being of service, even in the digital space, to allow other people to know that you’re feelings are valid. You’re seen. You are understood. This is kind of who we are. I think that is probably—dare I say—the ingredient to my sobriety. Showing up for other people when I can’t show up for myself sometimes.
Earlier in this interview, you mentioned that you’re not where you want to be. Where do you want to be Ashlee Marie Preston?
There are a couple of things that I’m doing in the entrepreneurial space, but really what I want to do is have financial security and then I want to be able to take the resources that I’m afforded and spread prosperity to others who are like me, in different ways. I’d like to mentor and bring people up with me. There is no fun reaching the top if you’re there by yourself. I want to see people win. I really want to retire early. I’m a workaholic in a lot of ways, so I’ll probably never retire, but I kind of want to see the world and travel and do really positive things. Mentally, I’ve had a long life. I’m 34-years and people say, ‘you’re a baby,’ but they don’t understand that in the spiritual space we age differently. I’ve always been aware about a lot of things from a really young age. It’s almost like I’ve been here before. I really just want to do philanthropic things. I want to see people smile. I want to make people’s lives easier. I want to always speak the truth and to have that space always be open for me to do so. I want to help others speak their truth and give them inspiration and hope to live authentically. That’s it. I’m just want to be a philanthropic socialite, who wants to eat really good food and have good experiences.