Live Music in Recovery

I went with a recovery community to see one of my favorite bands live and, despite the pot smoke clouds and crowds of stumbling bleary-eyed drunks, I had the best time I could remember at a show.

live-musicEver since I was little, I’ve loved music. As a dancer, I experience music as a medium that enables me to explore and express my emotions when words escape me, and live performances enhance this connection. I frequently went to concerts when I was at my worst with drinking and using, where people would openly smoke weed, drop acid, pop Molly, and snort cocaine. There were many sleepless nights peppered with hazy recollections, like coming out of blackouts on the side of a highway, waking up in the passenger’s seat with blood splattered on my clothes and car interior, getting into fist fights with a boyfriend, collapsing onto the jagged glass shrapnels of a broken bathroom mirror, or watching my best friend overdose next to me. The memories were horrifying. My AA sponsor asked me to wait until I’d finished the 12 steps before going to a concert again so that I would have integrated some recovery tools to feel strong enough around drugs and confront my traumatic past. She reminded me of the section in the AA Big Book that says we can go anywhere a free man can go, and that I shouldn’t deprive myself of a passion. I now have seven years sober, but I didn’t start going to shows again until recently.

At 5 ½ years sober, I overhead a few friends say they were going to see one of my favorite bands live, and that they were part of a recovery community there! I went with them and, despite the pot smoke clouds and crowds of stumbling bleary-eyed drunks, I had the best time I could remember at a show. I immediately fell in love with music again and started going to shows with these sober friends. I mostly see jam bands like Phish, Phil Lesh and Friends, RatDog, and The Disco Biscuits. They each have sober communities. Recovering alcoholic and addict volunteers set up a table at the venue to give support during the show and have meetings at setbreak. They aren’t 12-step affiliated; they’re there for anyone choosing a sober lifestyle. “Sober” is a broad and roomy term here. Some are recovering through non-12 step programs; others just want to stay off substances for the show but don’t identify as alcoholics. They’re all welcome. When there isn’t an official table, usually a bunch of us get together and make one. I sometimes go to shows alone knowing that I’ll run into friends there, and if I don’t, I make new friends at the table. Many festivals now designate sober camping sections, too.

We wear yellow stickers to find each other in the crowd, an extension of the yellow balloons that signal where the table is in the venue. The tables are well-known in most music communities and the stickers can break anonymity. But in my experience, sobriety is as respected as using is and no one passes judgment (or if they do, they don’t vocalize it). A group of people who were drinking at a show once opened up to me about their friend who had overdosed. They expressed how much they admire the work we do at the tables, and how happy they were that I got the help I needed. Moreover, I feel no pressure to smoke a joint when I’m handed it, which happens at least once every show. I stay close to the tables so I can turn drinks and drugs away when I’m offered them.

The communities at the tables give incredibly strong support, making it easier to instinctively refuse a substance. There were over 200 people who came to the table the first time I ran the setbreak meeting. Some told me their stories and were figuring out if they wanted to be in recovery, others were supporting friends newly in recovery. From being open about sobriety in a drug-heavy environment, the message of recovery reaches a lot of people, and I’ve enormously expanded my sober network thanks to that transparency. I’ve made friends from all over the country from the tables. I share hotel rooms, drive, and fly with them. We get together for pre-show meals, barbeques, and pool parties, which are advertised with an open invitation on the affiliated Facebook pages. Spending so much time together on tour bonds us deeply, each leg of a tour feeling like its own recovery retreat. It’s special to share this lifestyle with someone, and even stronger to share the spiritual connection almost all of us feel through the music.

I now make it a priority to tour with sober friends. Last summer, I did a three-show run with 10 non-sober friends. They openly did Molly, acid, cocaine, and drank around the clock. Crammed first in a hotel room and then on a congested campsite, I couldn’t get away from the excessive partying. It triggered me. Some people are comfortable with that kind of use, but I’m not—at least not for four days in a row. Then, as I started fantasizing about getting high, my higher power gave me a beautiful opportunity to be of service. I ran into a girl in the tent next to mine who was newly sober and struggling. I shared my experience with transitioning into a lifestyle of recovery and took her to the table that night to introduce her to our enormous recovering family. That service stopped me from focusing on the cravings, but it’s not the only way I need to nurture my recovery.

Self-care can slip pretty easily when I’m hitting shows almost every night. On tour, my sober friends and I go to local AA meetings every few days. The table meetings are a great check-in, but for me, they don’t replace AA meetings. I maintain my daily prayer and meditation routine, and stay out of HALT (feeling hungry, angry, lonely, or tired). I make sure to get a full night’s sleep between shows and drink plenty of water to compensate for all the exercise from dancing! I carry enough healthy, nourishing meals and snacks for each trip. If security hassles me about bringing outside food into the venue, I explain that I need it and they let me keep it. When I take care of my basic needs, I get to be present and enjoy the music, even amidst the drug-heavy crowd.

There’s something incredibly powerful and awe-inspiring about 20,000+ people in an arena simultaneously absorbed in the music, cheering and dancing in unison as the improvised jams peak and flow. Read more “the fix”….


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