Burning Man! A Sober Guide to The World's Hottest Party - Page 2

By Ruth Fowler 04/05/11
On Monday 50,000 people will gather in the Nevada desert for a free-wheeling festival of wacky art, free love and free drugs. But while the legendary event is not exactly a bastion of sobriety, there's no reason you have to miss out on all the fun.
The 50-foot-tall Man stands watch until he is burned on Saturday night. Adam Croce

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For those of you who are already shaking your head and thinking, “The last thing I wanna do at Burning Man is hit a Twelve Step Meeting,” think again. The kind of Twelve Steppers drawn to Burning Man are, well, radical, and never dull. This is Alcoholics Anonymous Over the Rainbow. “There’s something about attending a meeting in the middle of the desert with a fairy, a man dressed in liquid latex and a naked chick,” says Kelly, a 34-year-old ex-pat Australian tattoo artist living in New Mexico with two years of sobriety. “Believe me, AA meetings at Burning Man are different from anything you’ve ever experienced before.”

Gazelle volunteers at one of the tents in Anonymous Village, a portal between the sober community and the city at large. “It’s a whining-free, drama-free, proselytizing-free zone. We serve Bloody Shames [a ‘mocktail’], play a game specifically to encourage ‘bad’ behavior in sobriety and sit around telling drunk- and drug-a-logs,” she says. “It’s a structure designed to help people learn to have fun, and to stress out the Big Book–thumping curmudgeons. We have a motto: ‘We’ll laugh at you until you can learn to laugh at yourself.’” Gazelle invites all Fix readers heading to Burning Man to stop by.

This is Alcoholics Anonymous Over the Rainbow. “Imagine attending a meeting in the middle of the desert with a fairy, a man dressed in liquid latex and a naked chick,” says Kelly.

There are also many “healing” camps that offer support to an alcoholic or addict in crisis through yoga, reiki, meditation, massage, workshops and other holistic activities—an alternative to simply getting loaded. If meetings aren’t enough, AV even has tents set aside specifically for campers who suddenly find they’re out of their depth in their own, nonsober camp or who simply need to be around a Twelve Step environment.

One of the blessings of being sober on the playa is that you can float free of the nasty buzz about undercover fuzz—every year the DEA sends in more and more agents o bust people and collect fines. Last year, some 150 citations were issued for drugs, largely marijuana, LSD, mushrooms and ecstasy. Granted, that’s not many, but it can cast a long shadow over the playa nonetheless.

Burning Man is a unique experience—and one not to be missed just because you no longer get wasted. It truly is about the full expression of your creative soul in a community of the comrades—exactly what being in recovery should be all about. Anyway, as you know all too well, the fuzzy obfuscation and distortion of chemicals only gets in your way. “It’s incredibly freeing to know that I’m not missing out on a thing—I’m getting to do all of the things I always loved without poisoning myself or the experience,” says Gazelle. “I learned a lot from my past, and I’m eternally grateful to be able to report that the lessons weren’t lost.”

But be kind to yourself. Have realistic expectations, and listen to your fears. If you decide at the last moment that you’re putting your sobriety at risk, gift that ticket to a friend, and work hard on your program, so that next year you can see the Man burn, and know that you didn’t risk your health to get there.

Ruth Fowler has written for The Village VoiceThe GuardianThe Huffington PostThe New York Post and The Observer. Her memoir, No Man's Land, which documented her pre-sobriety experiences as a stripper in Manhattan, was published by Viking in 2008.


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Ruth Fowler is an ex-stripper, Cambridge-grad and writer. Find Ruth on LinkedIn and Twitter.