Music is the Drug: The Sober Festival Experience

Music is the Drug: The Sober Festival Experience

First, let me put this out there: this piece isn’t intended to be pro-sobriety or pro-drugs. I am proudly pro-choice in this matter. I believe each of us is entitled to make our own decisions and learn along the way—it’s your life and your journey! That being said, I will always advocate for everyone to be well-informed, so you can make those choices to the best of your ability.

Maybe that means being savvy and taking those tabs you brought to the DanceSafe tent for testing. Maybe that means deciding you don’t want the extra bump or dose that everyone else is taking. Or, maybe that means choosing to rave sober at your next festival (or at every festival). The choice is yours!

I’ve been on both sides of the festival scene: raving with a cocktail of substances in my system, and raving entirely sober. They’re certainly different experiences, but, I can tell you, both are equally awesome. For me, the drugs became the focal point of my life—beyond the music, beyond the festival weekend—and I found myself in a cycle of substance abuse. I chose a life of sobriety in recovery for my own well-being, but it took some time for me to realize that didn’t mean my festival days were over.

If you’re living in recovery from substance abuse, it’s absolutely possible to revel in a music festival sober. Even if you’re just a recreational user who wants to take a break from substances at your next festival, you absolutely can live it up just as much. Whether you’re raving with or without drugs and alcohol, it should always be your choice. And, as anyone who loves the fest life will tell you, there’s so much more to music festivals than the drugs.

The Heart and Soul of the Festival

The music festival culture has become stereotyped by heavy drug and alcohol use, and fest-goers often get a bad rap because of it. We read stories all of the time about substance-related problems and tragedies at music festivals, and it’s become a point of criticism against music festivals. In reality, it’s a pretty unfair judgment, considering our culture, in general, tends to pair celebration and ritual with intoxication (just think about holidays, sports events, live performances).

Sure, there’s plenty of alcohol and drugs flowing around at plenty of music festivals. I won’t lie, drugs were a major factor that attracted me to music festivals. I had some incredibly fun and wildly mystical experiences at festivals while I was under the influence. And, yes, there are serious risks associated with using substances at festivals—like dehydration, heatstroke, overdoses, and even deaths. It’s one of the many reasons we need organizations like DanceSafe.

The buzz of a drink (or a few), the urge to love and dance rolling on ecstasy, or the oneness you might feel tripping on LSD all have the potential to enhance the festival experience, if a person chooses. But, they’re not the purpose of the festival. The heart and soul of a festival is, without a doubt, the incredible artists, their music, and the opportunity to experience it all live.

A festival is also a congregation of like-minded people, immersing themselves in the music and positive vibes. There’s friendship and new bonds being made. There’s often beautiful scenery, an electric sort of energy, and powerful memories to be had every second. What’s so often not talked about is that, in the same crowd that’s lit up in neon lights and swaying along to the band, there are people taking tokes and tabs, and there are people who are sober.

Soaking in the Scene Sober

To some people, it might be obvious, but others may feel a pressure or obligation to pair a music festival with mind-altering substances. As I said, it is always your choice to make. But, if you have your doubts, you should know that anyone can have a blast at a festival sober—whether you’re in recovery from a substance use disorder, or you’re just a recreational user who is curious about a new experience.

Music festivals are places of community, love, and acceptance. That energy is one of the things I love most about them. There’s room for all people and all lifestyle choices, without judgment. If you choose to rave sober, most people at a fest will be supportive. (Plenty of people will assume you’re high anyway!) Music is the connecting force between us all. You may feel hesitant or worry that you’ll enjoy the music less while sober, but, in my experience, good music doesn’t need drugs to make it awesome.

When I’ve raved sober, I’m more aware of my surroundings, I appreciate the lights and sounds differently. Rather than dosing myself into a kind of numbness like I’ve done in the past, I can stay high on the energy and positive vibes around me. I see more of the shows and I skip the severe comedowns. I enjoy the people-watching, I actually eat the fest food, and have real interactions with people. (I also save some money…) You can be sober and still be genuinely moved by the performances you see, you definitely don’t need to be drunk or rolling to dance your heart out, and the glow sticks are just as beautiful with or without acid.

At times, if you’ve been used to getting high, you might feel twinges of “missing out” on something. I certainly felt that at times during my first festival sober. But, I’ve found that what you get out of it and how much you enjoy it is all up to you. Those moments will pass, and it’s helpful to bring friends and supports with you who are also appreciating the festival sober. For me, the biggest difference in my sober festival experience has been that I am fully present, in the moment for every performance, and I actually remember the performances that I see.

Sober Raving is Actually a Thing

In case you didn’t know it, lots of people go to music festivals sober. Some who are living in recovery after a difficult history of substance abuse, and some who attend festivals sober because they want to be in the moment, fully enjoying the experience. Either way, just like there are resources available to help you rave safer, there are also resources available to help you stay sober, if you so choose.

If you’ve been to some festivals, you may have seen yellow balloons floating in the crowd. More often than not, those yellow balloons are beacons of the Wharf Rats—a group of Grateful Dead fans that joined together in the 1980s to stay away from the drugs and alcohol while still enjoying the music. Plenty of other jam bands have grown groups of sober fans, and major festivals now even give dedicated tents to sober communities. Movements like Soberoo at Bonnaroo or Lightning Without a Bottle at Lightning in a Bottle offer support to the many people who want to experience festivals sober.

Most people who have raved sober will tell you that it’s an experience worth having, if you haven’t already. The natural adrenaline rush that accompanies the excitement of a festival does wonders, and you gain a different perspective on the whole experience. You can still have fun and love your fellow ravers. You may be able to help someone else in need. Even if you don’t choose to rave sober, you can love those sober ravers all the same. When it comes down to it, music festivals are about music and togetherness—living fully in the moment, feeling surrounded by love and acceptance, losing yourself in a song or dance.

Substance Use is Different than Substance Abuse

By no means does any and all drinking or drug use equal substance abuse, or even indicate there’s a risk for substance abuse. Substance use is something very different than a substance use disorder—a chronic condition marked by “functionally significant impairment” (i.e. inability to control use, risky behavior, health problems, failing to meet major responsibilities) due to continued substance abuse.

The reality is, for some of us, recreational use can turn into abuse or dependence. Does a music festival without drugs or alcohol seems worthless? At one point, it seemed that way to me. Maybe it’s time to step back and reevaluate. For some of us, the partying goes beyond the celebration and enjoyment of the festival, and it can become a legitimate problem in everyday life. If it does, or if you’re worried about that possibility, know that your fest days aren’t over! A sober rave may open your eyes to a new experience, or even to a new way of living that you want for yourself.

Raving Sober Still Means Raving Smart

There are plenty of us out there, still raving and loving the music alongside everyone else—just sober. If you’re living in recovery, you’ll have to weigh the decision in your mind. Attending a music festival early in recovery can be dangerous. You’ll likely face some temptations, which come with a risk of relapse. But, it is possible to enjoy a festival safely and sober, you just need to be mentally prepared. Go with sober companions for support and concrete plan for how to handle potentially dangerous situations. Set clear expectations for yourself and for the group to stay sober, so there’s no second-guessing.

Most importantly, check your motives before going to your first festival sober living in recovery. Do you want to go for the experience of the music, the community, and the electric energy? Do you have hopes lurking in the back of your mind, that an opportunity to drink or get high will present itself? If so, you may want to reevaluate going to the festival, or wait until you’re better mentally prepared.

At your first festival sober, staying sober may be challenging. But, the more you get through the festival and truly enjoy yourself without substances, the easier and more natural it can become. I can’t say it enough, raving with drugs and alcohol or raving sober (or not raving at all) is your choice. Whatever you choose, know that your festival experience can be out-of-this-world incredible, and there are resources available to help you rave safely.


via Nadia Sheikh, Sober Nation, “Passionate wordsmith and weirdo, hungry for adventures.Want s’more? I write for Sober Nation, The Huffington Post, and sometimes some other places.”

Share This