In the dimly lit basement of Berkeley City College in 2001, surrounded by her classmates and the flickering glow of dimmed monitors, Tess Sweet was terrified. It was time for her Digital Animation class to showcase their final projects, short animated movies about a character of their choice. At the front of the room, another student unveiled his work: two animated cats crawled to the middle of the screen, paused, and licked each other tenderly on the cheek. The 31-year-old Sweet ran her fingers through her thick blonde curls, took a deep breath, and tried not to panic.
Eventually, it was her turn. She pressed play. A macabre black and white figure with Xs for eyes hovered on the left side of the screen, before collapsing to the floor and fading to black. Eerily scrawled words filled the screen: “I moved to San Francisco for love and to start a new life. Both of which I got, but not how I planned…when I got here my boyfriend blew me off and I fell hard into drugs.”
Her figure appeared again, naked, holding a bottle in one hand and a needle in the other. “To be honest, it became a steady diet of Jim Beam, heroin, cocaine, crack, and sometimes snickers bars. Most people don’t live like that, but I guess it wasn’t really living.” The class was stunned silent.
The next five minutes depicted, in grisly detail, Sweet’s bottom: The worst moment of her eight years of heroin addiction, the moment when she finally decided that she would get clean. The film concluded with a wildly discordant message: “Much better now! Thank you very much! Xxoo, miss tess sweet.”
“The teacher looked at me—I’ll never forget the look on his face—and said, ‘Did that really happen to you?’” Sweet says, laughing as she recalled the memory. “I said, ‘Yeah,’ and he just said, ‘Wow.’”
Now 46 and 16 years clean, Sweet is just as committed to sharing her recovery story through film. After graduating from Berkeley City College; she earned her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in filmmaking. And she is now the creator, writer and producer of Cleaner Daze, a web series about a youth rehab facility that’s now screening on YouTube and Vimeo after a sn appearance at the Tribeca TV Festival.
Her appearance, now, is just as discordant as her first film: she sports tattoos on both arms but wears a giant bedazzled “love” necklace; she has a sharp, angular face but undoubtedly warm eyes. And armed with a cast of fellow addicts and an indomitable spirit, Sweet is committed to bringing her message, “that recovery is a journey and that the most healing medicine we have is laughter,” to a worldwide audience—because everyone, she believes, is recovering from something.
“I’m not your typical sort of junkie,” Sweet says, when describing her childhood. She was born in Palo Alto in 1972 and raised in Maryland, in a household with “a lot of love” and two very feminist parents. At six years old, she was recording shows on a little pink tape recorder in the back of her mother’s car. Yet Sweet struggled with depression through her teenage years, and, in retrospect, believes she was self-medicating with marijuana.
Sweet’s life took a darker turn at 22, when she was violently raped. The resulting trauma was overwhelming: three days after she testified against her attacker, she says, she started using heroin, which consumed her life for the next eight years. And after spiraling, recovering, and finally getting sober for good, she faced a new problem: she didn’t know what to do with her newly sober hours.
“Through my 20s, I didn’t really know what to do with my life,” Sweet says. “Part of getting clean was discovering who I am.” But after moving from Hollywood to Santa Cruz for the man she’d eventually marry, Sweet felt lonelier and more lost than ever. To remedy this, she started volunteering at an alternative high school for teens struggling with addiction. There, she found solace—and the inspiration for a web series about rehabilitation.
“These kids’ stories were fucking heartbreaking and moving,” Sweet says. “And there’s something about the magic about the way kids are with each other: just laughing, kicking each other, and stealing cookies and being kids even though they’ve survived all this trauma.”
The plot of her web series follows the ex-heroin addict Jasmine as she begins a counseling job at a youth rehab facility called The Cliffs. Jasmine works alongside the formidable director Aisha, and the loveable yet absentminded receptionist Hector. Jasmine counsels a coterie of young addicts ranging from the volatile Zelda to the somber, haunted Squirt. But as she works to help the teens stay clean and overcome their demons, Jasmine struggles with her own history of addiction.
When casting and finding musicians for the show, Sweet knew she wanted to work with people who had genuine experience with addiction. This resulted in an unorthodox approach: “I hung signs all around Santa Cruz,” she says, “and asked people, ‘If you’ve been homeless or in the foster care system or addicted to drugs, that’s a plus. Please come to my audition.’”
At first, Sweet and her co-producer Cheryl Isaacson were nervous that no one would come. But as dozens of prospective cast members filed into Santa Cruz’s Louden Nelson Community Center, they began to feel at ease.
Sweet quickly won over many prospective actors with her script and story. But Karin Babbitt was more skeptical. A no-nonsense actress who is 41 years clean, Babbitt knew firsthand how hard it could be to produce a show in the small community of Santa Cruz. Her own venture, a 1998 comedy special called The Last Laugh, never made it off the ground. But as she learned more about Cleaner Daze, her skepticism faded.
“When I got the first script, I became so captivated and excited,” Babbitt says. She signed on immediately to play Aisha, The Cliffs’ jaded and temperamental director. “I realized, ‘Screw it, it doesn’t matter what size it turns out to be.’ This is truth.”
Babbitt was especially drawn to Sweet’s use of humor—a rare find in shows about addiction. To an outsider, it can seem a bit jarring: In one scene, Bea (played by Sweet) and Jasmine joke about putting Jasmine’s dead husband’s ashes in a dildo. But both Babbitt and Sweet believe that humor is a powerful weapon against the culture of shame surrounding addiction.
“Judging and shaming doesn’t help the situation,” Sweet says. “Two of my very dear friends died from this disease, and they had never stepped into a 12-step room. I’m hoping that people like that might see some of our therapeutic groups and see these kids and adults talking openly about their experience with drugs. And maybe—even though they don’t make it to a 12-step meeting, maybe they’ll see themselves and it could just help a tiny bit.”
In the months following the casting, Sweet and Isaacson crowdfunded the $13,000 they needed to start filming. They rented out the bottom floor of Isaacson’s production studio to build an entire mock rehab facility, and wrote to every restaurant in Santa Cruz asking for food donations. Their style, as Isaacson describes it, was “ovaries to the wall.”
“I’ve never seen anything like it in my life,” Babbitt says. “Coming from LA, there’s these huge crews of so many people, and everyone has a highly specialized job and a little niche. And here’s this tornado of a woman who’s decided she needs to take over this structure in downtown Santa Cruz and turn it into a recovery center.”
“If people put together real recovery centers that way,” Babbitt jokes, “Can you imagine how many clean teenagers there would be?”
Once the set was built, Sweet rallied the cast for a whirlwind two weeks of filming in January 2017, accompanied by her husband, Daniel Gambelin, (who works as a co-writer and producer), her mom, Deanie, and Isaacson. Filming hours were punishing—6 a.m. to 8 p.m.—but the cast quickly bonded over their shared experiences and mission. They swapped stories and faked Minnesotan accents to relax. A boom operator took days off from his real, paying job to work for free on the Cleaner Daze set.
“Our arms were around each other very quickly,” Babbitt says, crediting Sweet’s directorial style. “She said, ‘I want everyone on set to be people you love to work with,’ and that made all the difference.”
“She’s amazing to watch. I mean, she’s my daughter, but she’s so kind,” Deanie adds. “If she hadn’t had her drug addiction she would have been famous a long time ago. But the drug addiction is the thing that’s fueling the beauty of who she is.”
Sweet knew that her cast’s authenticity was what made Cleaner Daze special. To capitalize on that, she asked her actors to improvise most of the in-scene dialogue, rather than scripting it herself. She would give them a general narrative structure—ask Jasmine about her recovery story, tell her about yours—but let them fill the remaining space with their own truths and experiences.
One of the most striking results of this approach occurs in Episode 3, “Please Don’t Write Back,” when Jasmine tells the teens to write goodbye letters to their drug of choice. In preparation for this scene, Sweet asked each of the teenage actors to write their own, honest, letters. Each teen wrote something poignant and powerful—but Jay’s (written and delivered by Sweet’s cousin Zack, who is now two years clean) stood out:
“Dear Mrs. Black,” it began, “First off, fuck you for taking Ian and fuck you for taking Danny. I wish I could say parting is such sweet sorrow, and sometimes, it is. But right now it isn’t. You loved me conditionally, and your conditions were cruel. You took more from me then you gave, every time.”
“You told me you’d love me in lieu of me loving myself. But now I am told I can love myself better than you ever could. But to do that, I must choose life. And to choose life, I can’t have you in it. So I bid you farewell heroin, please don’t write back.”
Abigail Reno, who plays Jasmine, will never forget this scene. “It made it heavier, knowing people weren’t really acting at certain times,” she says. “I was not having to try very hard to cry on set.”
Yet none took to Sweet’s improvisational style more than Mitch Sousa. He plays Hector, the facility’s receptionist. Throughout the show, Sousa delivered a series of impassioned, genuine, and totally unscripted monologues about his experience with drugs and his time in prison.
But working with addicts like Sousa has forced Sweet to confront the darker side of her mission. Filming more seasons will prove difficult, because three of her actors have relapsed—and two, including Sousa, are currently in jail.
And although Sweet has been clean for 16 years, she knows she’s not immune to the same pressures . “The thought of relapsing publically terrifies me,” she says. “It’s really scary to put myself out there as ‘the woman who’s clean, and she’s a filmmaker.’ If something happens to me—the farther you go up, the bigger you fall.”
"I’m definitely not cured,” she adds. “I just have a lot of days of recovery stacked together.”
Sweet’s mission grew more complicated six months after filming, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. While traveling nationwide to promote the show, she repeatedly returned to Santa Cruz for chemotherapy treatments—all of which she broadcast on Facebook Live. Sweet’s condition has since improved, and she has gone into remission. But the fragility of her existence wasn’t lost on her.
“It’s been a big impetus for me confronting my own mortality,” she says, determined. “Like, I don’t have time to fuck around. The time is now. And so I’m just going at this with 150%.”
In recent months, Sweet has certainly been working at 150%. Last August, she released a 30-second teaser for Cleaner Daze, which received 20,000 views in its first two days. She’s flown nationwide to attend screenings, from Vermont’s ITV Fest (where she and Gambelin won Best Writing) to the Austin Film Festival (where Cleaner Daze won Best Scripted Digital Series). She’s started a Facebook group, Loud and Clean, which has doubled as a platform for promotion and a community for recovering addicts. And through it all, she hasn’t lost a touch of her dark humor: in meetings with studio executives, she’s brought along dime bags of rock candy emblazoned with the slogan “Cleaner Daze is binge-worthy.”
Sweet hopes that Cleaner Daze will follow the trajectory of series like High Maintenance or Insecure: release on the web, develop a loyal fan base, and eventually attract the attention of a major studio like HBO (which produced both High Maintenance and Insecure). She has already attracted some attention from larger studios, Sweet says, but she keeps running into the same problem: producers want a more stable, bankable cast of celebrities. Sweet won’t let that happen.
“I’m always going to want to cast people who have experience with addiction,” she adds. “I’m not interested in casting names; I’m not interested in casting people who have a headshot. Unless they really struggled and can relate to the material, it’s just not going to come across as authentic.”
And after surviving cancer and a heroin addiction, she sure as hell won’t back down from a pushy executive. She’s committed to telling this story—her story—in her own words.
“We all, especially filmmakers, sort of come into it with one story that’s yours to tell,” she says. “And I feel like Cleaner Daze is my heart. It’s definitely the one.”
All photos courtesy of Tess Sweet.
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Victoria Albert is a Boston-born graduate journalism student. She covers reproductive justice, health policy, and feminism, and has written for In These Times and Alternet. She tweets at @victoria_alb3.