The Sober Musician
the sober musician. an oxymoron.
It’s 8pm December 31st, 2018 and I’m alone in my room in Oakland. Sitting on a mattress on the floor. I am eating fried chicken and drinking kombucha. I won't go out tonight. And I'm ok with that. I quit drinking six months ago. I want to talk about it. This is hard to talk about and it was hard to live. It’s embarrassing and uncomfortable. But i want to talk about it. Because when I was at my lowest points, I needed to hear others’ stories. They motivated and healed me. I don’t want pity. I don't want a medal. I want to be open and honest and in doing so, I hope to make someone feel less alone in their strange journey.
The shows at bars, drink tickets, celebrations, anxiety, depression, cheap beer in the green room, happy hour, winter, summer, spring, fall, the end of a day, mini fridges in hotel rooms, fancy garnish, flirting, mourning, the smell of whisky, a frosty glass, socializing, being antisocial and so on and so on. There are so many places and reasons to drink. And being a working musician makes drinking exponentially more convenient and attractive. A musician with a drink in her hand is always accepted, and often expected.
Creating music always soothed me but the business of music was shrouded in darkness. It never felt natural to sit before a room of strangers, singing my secrets to them. The whole thing breeds narcissism and anxiety. I wasn’t good enough, they wouldn’t care, they were judging me. I never made enough money. I worked all the time. Always emotionally and physically worn down. Wishing for better opportunities, bigger stages, another CD sale, a good review, something.
All the anxiety and sadness felt lighter after a beer. Or four. It could be 3am and I’d be dancing sideways in my room alone. Writing a song, recording (vocals that weren’t very good and I’d probably end up deleting the next day). That instant warmth and confidence. I felt sexyhappynumb and it was maybe the only moment of freedom I'd felt that day. The more I drank, the better I felt. My quick, easy, fix.
Drinking everyday was an old habit. I’d drink at night, mostly alone. I always drank more than my body could handle. It was routine for me to wake up in the morning with a searing pain in my eyes. Slightly nauseated. Friends would tell me it wasn't THAT bad. I was OK. I guess I was. I wasn’t textbook alcoholic reckless. I didn’t black out or run my car off the road. I rarely got sick and I didn’t spitefully curse people out in crowded bars. My self destruction was quiet and solitary. I tried to quit again and again. I tired to quit for six years. I couldn’t. It was too easy not to.
After my breakup it all got worse. I felt no shred of self love. I lost all the light and faith I had. I couldn’t write. I stopped spending time with friends and family. I couldn't feel gratitude for the love I did have because I was so occupied with martyrdom and self pity. I was soaking in it. I stunk of despair. Wishing for a life and a love that was gone. Chasing ghosts. So i drank more. I had no interest in taking care of my body at that point. The depressed musician, the drunken musician, those are the stories we're told. That's the archetype people romanticize. So I drank before shows, after shows, at the bar, in the hotel rooms, in the studio. I lost a lot of time.
Change came slowly, slowly. No sudden revelations or life changes. Just time sitting in my sorrow. I was in Seattle playing gigs when I started to like myself again. I'd still cry at night. Stare into space. Walk for hours surrounded by mossy trees. Unfollowed all my ex's friends, erased all our songs- hopelessly attempting to avoid all traces of her. I’d play guitar and sing sad songs. Run by lake washington. Cook myself dinner and drink delicious craft beer. I was sad and content.
While in Seattle, I got to work on a piece called TAILFEATHER by Earth pearl collective. I scored and performed live for this magical ballet about birds, blackness, bois, and masculinity. I could hardly stay gloomy surrounded by bois dressed as birds dancing to my music. Basically my wildest dreams come true.
I was in love with music again. Living a purpose. And of course, when I finally realized that maybe, just maybe I didn't need that old love anymore-I met someone. The Scorpio. Gorgeous. Emotionally brilliant. Soulful. Her gaze cut straight past small talk and peasantries. She gave me chills just looking at me. Everything she did and said went miles beneath the surface. And she made me laugh. It occurred to me that I hadn't laughed, really laughed in months. We were both mourning old loves. Both excited about casual sex. Both entirely too tender and too gay to ever actually be “casual.” We’d drink whiskey and fuck and laugh deep into the night. Drink espresso in the morning. Dance in the trees. Hold our faces in fists full of lavender. We were so gay for each other, whispering about all the gay things. Family, future, art, dreams.
Some time passed. And eventually- with love, and in the kindest way a woman could leave, she left me. I miss her every day, but I'm grateful for the time we had. Before she left, she told me she used to go to AA and that I should give it a try. I'd always wanted to go, friends encouraged it-but I stopped myself. I never knew someone firsthand who'd been. All I knew were the depressing and/or comical references to AA meetings in movies and TV. The sad dark rooms. People at their lowest points telling their saddest stories. When the Scorpio suggested it, I thought about it. It couldn’t hurt to go, right? You want to quit don’t you?
So I found a queer AA meeting near my spot in Seattle. I put it in my calendar for the next day. Got in an uber, and ten minutes later I arrived at someone's house. wrong address. “East”, my driver says. This is west, you probably meant to go east. Right. We plugged in the correct address and headed over. When we arrived, the building was gone. Literally gone. Just rubble in the dirt. The information hadn’t been updated online, but apparently the entire community center was being rebuilt. I thanked my driver and walked slowly back to the house. What is this supposed to mean? Ancestors, God, spirit, whoever, what does this mean? I got back to the house and drank two beers. Not yet, I guess.
I spent another two weeks drinking myself to sleep every night. I woke up, like any other day-with a sharp, unforgiving hangover in DC. I don't know what made this day different. I was tired. I was ready. I don't know. I just needed to try something. I found the closest AA meeting, got in the car and drove there. In some ways, it was exactly what I expected. A sad dark room. Sad stories. Bad coffee. But I found something there that I didn't expect. That sad room was overflowing with Joy. What’s beautiful about these sad stories is that they're past tense. Every person in that room is alive and sober. Every person survived. They are living fuller lives. They are changing their world. They are laughing with each other and listening. There is love and faith like I’ve never experienced in my life.
An excerpt from A letter to My Ex: The Musical I just finished:
"Everyone here gets it. We're all grateful to be alive. And there's this unconditional love. Like you could be a complete stranger, but people take you in like family. They love you. They look out for you. It's the way church is supposed to be but isn't. I found god in a group of drunks."
When I left the meeting, I walked out into a torrential summer rainstorm. Ancestors, Spirit, God-what does this mean? Is this a baptism? A clean slate? Just another really frustrating obstacle? I laughed in the rain. I laughed at myself. Soaking wet and cold and dirty. Knee deep in the street. I laughed and ran. Then I cried. Hopeless and sad and beautiful. I haven't had a drink since then. I went to a meeting everyday for months. I cried at every meeting. I cried out of regret for the time I'd lost. The songs I didn't write. All the work I could have done better. Cried for the grace that brought me and everyone else there. I listened to sad stories and hopeful stories. Eventually I worked up the courage and I told my own.
It was hard work. I had to feel. I had to look at myself and really see what I’d done wrong in the past. See the ugliest parts of me. I had to get stressed and anxious and not turn to my quick fix. I had to be sad. Celebrate. Be alone. Be with friends and family laughing and chatting with drinks in hand. I had to go on tour and give away drink tickets and ignore fridges full of beer. I had to drink A LOT of coffee, tea, tonic water, eat gallons of ice cream, hundreds of cookies, french fries, chips.
And on the other side of it all, I grew. I replaced drinking with AA meetings, music, work, food, working out, sex. I had so much time and energy I had to plan to do twice the amount of work I was used to doing. I saved a lot of money. My my anxiety diminished. I forgave myself. I forgave my ex. And the best part. Everyday I was sober, I loved myself more. This sounds extreme, it’s not. All of these incredible gifts require practice. But It's true. I love myself more every day.
This isn’t for everyone, I know. It is for me because I don’t have the capacity for moderation when it comes to drinking. I couldn't drink less. I was all or nothing. I had to admit that, and decide I’d rather live a life without drinking. It is not perfect. But it is fuller, more productive and peaceful.
And to be clear I don't judge folks who enjoy drinking. Drinking is a blast! Wine is yummy! I'm sober, not a wacko. If I'm eating a meal with you, it's OK for you to oder a drink. It's OK if you forget and offer me some. This is my magical journey. It is difficult and lovely. I so appreciate the love and support AA gave me. It's not my only way, but it's in my box of tools. The anonymity bit is wonderful, and useful for a lot of folks. It keeps people safe, and inspires honesty, vulnerability. I am choosing to share what I can. If you see me around and you want to talk about it-let's. If you had a life-altering disease-I'd want you to feel comfy talking to me about it. I want this kind of conversation to be normal. I dream of Black neighborhoods with as many marketscafesbooks stores as liquor stores. Bars with juice! Mocktails! Dance parties in the morning! Sober first kisses! Sober fucking! Drinking can be a blast. Not drinking can too.
I'll end this adventure with my sober tools and treats! Since I'm six months sober, I'm an expert and I know everything and you should absolutely do what I do. Ha. No these are just things I love as a newly sober guy. And you certainly don't have to be sober to enjoy these treats.
1. Gratitude lists. Everyday. I write them. I repeat myself. NOthing is too small. Coffee and my mom. Those are always both on my list. Also tough things. I'm trying to learn to be grateful for sad or hard things. Things that brought growth and perspective.
2. Sunlight. Get a dose when you can. As a leo of african descent (the working title of my memoirs)-I need that sun, son! When I don't get it, I become a sad ghost. So i take blocks of time out to work or exercise outside. If it's very cold, I cover my body and walk or run. I love to Be a green thing and tilt my face up to the sun.
3. Morning treats. I wake up and drink a huge cup of warmish water. Then. My favorite thing. A fancy cup of coffee. A milk frother. Fancy creamer. Lavender honey. OR dark dark abyss black tea. PG tips. Earl grey. Oatmilk lattes. Taking time to really make the hot drink of your dreams.
4. Nighttime treats. Drinking was my nighttime treat. So I had to do a lot of work to replace that ritual. Now I like to keep the freezer stocked with fancy ice cream. I'm currently obsessed with those Häagen-Dazs milk chocolate and almond covered pops. Sweets were especially great in my first few months of sobriety because my body was so used to consuming huge amounts of sugar (beer, wine, etc) at the end of the day. Also salty snacks. Chips, popcorn, crackers whatever. Something really tasty that feels like a reward for getting through a tough or magical day.
5. Mocktails. I'm an alcoholic, and I also just really like drinking things generally. So I can drink tons of water, teas, juices. At a bar or house party, I must have a drink in my hand. Even the most bare bones bar probably has options. Water with a splash of juice and lime, club soda with a splash of pineapple and bitters, cranberry tonic, ginger with sour mix. If I make a mocktail for myself, I make sure to throw a raspberry or smash up some mint. Make it sexy. I try to put time and care into making a mocktail. When I drank, I wasn't a fan of sweet drinks-so if I'm at a bar I'll usually ask the bartender to make something non alcoholic and not-too-sweet. I had a really yummy virgin strawberry mojito in DC a couple months back.
6. Sober kissing and sex! Being present and observant is very sexy. Also alcohol dehydrates your body. So sober sex may be a bit more delightfully slippery as well. ;)
7. Sweat. If you're lucky, you can get that in with #6, but if not- RUN! Walk swiftly for ten minutes! Bike! Dance! Find a way to get some energy and toxins out! I love running because you don't need equipment, membership or a designated space to do it. So you have no excuse not to. I am a dopamine fiend now. It feels amazing to access natural highs while loving on your body and mind.
8. Sober laughter. Laughing at a party or a show, anywhere exists and happens. Fun exists and happens without alcohol. Sounds obvious. But for folks who drink often, it can feel strange and new. Try it out.
That's all I got for now. Thank you for reading with an open mind and heart. Here's me sending you light!