11 Joys of the Sober Music Festival (Yes, They Exist)

By Bridget Phetasy 04/22/16

From Burning Man to Coachella, turns out there is sober support everywhere—here's how to find it.

The Joys of the Sober Music Festival (Yes, They Exist)

When I first got sober, I was like, “Well goodbye, live music. We had a great run.” Now if this statement sounds ridiculous to you, congratulations on your lack of substance abuse problems. It wasn’t ridiculous to me. What would a festival be without drug-fueled shenanigans? The unknown bruises from multiple face-plants? The stories of surviving the long walk home at the end of the night from the random party you ended up at on the campgrounds? If the entire weekend wasn’t a fuzzy blur I barely remembered, how could I possibly enjoy myself?

It turns out, I can do more than just enjoy myself—I get to have a completely new and different experience. Since I’ve been sober, I’ve been to Burning Man, Outside Lands and multiple Coachellas. Here are just a few of the things I’ve learned about my new relationship to a very old tradition:


My biggest fear was that I wouldn’t be able to stay sober, that I would be the only loser white-knuckling every minute of the entire weekend. Just the idea of a festival was such a massive trigger, it felt dangerous for me to ever return to the scene of so many crimes. But I didn’t get sober to turn away from life. I got sober to lean in. And it turns out there are heaps of sober people out there who still love going to festivals and have found a new passion in helping others stay clean, one set at a time.  

One year, I went to a daily meeting the festival had backstage for musicians that was chock-full of notoriously fucked-up rockstars. (I spent the whole meeting thinking, “Holy shit, if these guys can stay sober in this environment, I certainly can.) Burning Man has an entire sober village with meetings multiple times a day and a safe space for people having serious drug-induced meltdowns. “Soberchella” is an actual thing and it’s a network of dope, likeminded individuals who are more than happy to buddy up and support each other. Once I focused on making sobriety a priority, it was as if resources from a secret society magically appeared. Turns out there is support EVERYWHERE—you just have to look for it.


It’s normal to feel tempted in an environment designed specifically with the intention of tickling your every hedonistic funny bone. Have a plan. Bring a buddy. Have multiple numbers to call. Find a space to go be zen. If you need meetings every day, make the effort to get to them. Don’t leave yourself open to making split-second, regrettable decisions. Do yourself a favor and... 


I had no fucking clue how to do this when I got sober in normal life, let alone at a music festival. I had to double down on my efforts to ensure I didn’t HALT (Hungry Angry Lonely Tired) before it was too late. If I am HALTing in real life, I’m in danger. If I’m HALTing at a music festival, I’m setting myself up for a relapse.  


Did you know they had food at these things? I certainly didn’t—other than the greatest roaming pizza on the planet, Spicy Pie, that I would end the night with in a drunken moment of starvation. I wouldn’t eat anything for three days. Luckily these festivals have become a foodie’s paradise—Coachella, in particular, steps its culinary game up every year. This is a part of the festival experience I never got to explore, and it’s been like a fun treasure hunt every year to discover the best artisan ice cream or the renowned fish tacos. Sounds pretty lame, right? It is. Deliciously lame.


Holy shit. These festivals are CROWDED. Kind of like I never noticed LA traffic until I quit smoking weed, I never really noticed the crowds, the lines, the dust storms, the litter, the lameness of celebrities or the TRUE disgustingness of the porta-potties until I was fully present. I no longer had my happy buffer and that definitely led to feeling like, “I’m too old for this shit,” more than once, until I saw my next favorite band play and was immediately like, “I’m never gonna outgrow my love of this.” One of the hardest parts of sobriety for me has always been that in exchange for no longer being a numbed-out zombie, I’m now fully aware of the millions of irritations that go along with (festival) life. Instead of being hard on myself, I try to remember all these annoyances are just more opportunities for me to practice what I preach: compassion, tolerance and patience. And that’s what I repeat. A million fucking times a day.


I get the opposite of lonely at festivals now that I am sober: sensory overload. At a certain point right before sundown, I’m hot, cranky and feel like an overstimulated baby who needs a nap. What I need is some alone time. When I start to feel this way, I usually just find some quiet and some shade, and sit. Maybe I’ll write. Maybe I’ll meditate. After about 20 blissful, restorative minutes, I usually feel ready to face the music for another five hours.


Did you know that you could leave a festival feeling well-rested? I didn’t until a few years ago, when I got more rest on my weekend getaway to the desert than I had in months of grinding in Los Angeles. My first sober festival, I felt like a loser for needing sleep. Then I realized I was just a normal human. Gone are the days of all-nighters and mornings with the shakes. In their place are sweet dreams, afternoons reading by the pool and morning smoothies.  


Wow. Even eating my way through the festival puts ONE-TENTH of a dent in my pocket than drinking did. No comparison.


My last enduring drugs of choice, like many addicts, are caffeine and adrenaline. I thought that I would crash early, but I was wrong—these two are the only drugs I need. In fact, without the bipolar energy swings from uppers and downers, the moody hangovers and the hole in my brain from too much Molly and not enough serotonin, my energy level remains consistent the entire weekend. I’ve had more people ask me if I was on drugs since I’ve been sober, than when I was ever doing drugs. Probably because of that dumb goofy smile I can’t wipe off my face. I feel so happy to be alive.


Speaking of which, I’m probably also LUCKY to be alive. The last festival I attended while still actively using, I was rolling pretty hard. It was the headliner band on Day 3. I had been drinking, drugging, not sleeping and definitely not consuming enough water. I looked at my friend and said, “I am fucking rolling…” and then I went down like a bowling pin, almost taking three people out in the process (so I was told). I came to with four cops standing around me. “What day is it?” Uh oh. “Sunday,” I responded. “What time is it?” Okay. No one knows this at a music festival, even when they’re sober. “Um about 11?” I said. “Okay. Drink some water.” And they were on their way. I had never passed out like that from drugs, and when I came to, I was dead sober. It was like my brain did a factory reset. We laughed it off as a “disco nap,” but that experience shook me. You can only push your body (and your luck) for so long. Every festival I get to attend now is a miracle. I shouldn’t even be here.


And finally: I REMEMBER THE SHOWS. ALL OF THEM. I never did. I would remember snippets of shows. Blurry recollections. And I’m not that poser who goes to a music festival but doesn’t care about music. I’m a music junkie. It’s the most nauseatingly cliché thing I could say, but music truly saved my life. Now I get to remember details. I remember the way the light was hitting the guitar during my favorite solo. I can feel the fullness of the sound in my whole body and the sun on my face and my heartbeat. Thousands of people singing, dancing and rejoicing together in sound will move me to tears. “This is one thing humanity got right,” I’ll think as the sun sets on another day of incredible music and laughter. I’ll feel grateful. And humbled. And, as it turns out, sobriety is the biggest trip of all.

Bridget Phetasy is a writer and comic in Los Angeles. Twitter: @bridgetphetasy

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