Last weekend, I played at Glastonbury on the Pyramid Stage with a brilliant band. I had a blast, and by some miracle, I didn’t have to drink.
When I was on stage, looking out at the thousands of people with the flags, singing and dancing, albeit in cagoules and thigh deep in mud, I had a lovely, glowy moment. “Well!” I thought. “This is a turn up for the books, for the girl who couldn’t get out of bed without having a drink and was never going to play the cello again for as long she lived.” Coming from where my alcoholism eventually took me, to being paid to play the cello at ANY level, is miraculous. I feel the same gratitude when I play in a background string quartet for a stranger’s wedding. In the old days, I’d have been drunk at the back of the church, a bottle of “water’ (vodka) at my feet or I simply wouldn’t have made it there and caused a lot of stress for whoever hired me.
However. Playing at festivals when you’re a recovering alcoholic addict is not easy. In my early sobriety, doing what I did last week would have been incredibly painful. A few years in, I had a couple of moderately difficult moments and a few transcendentally brilliant ones. And I’m not telling you this in a boasty, “I played at Glastonbury and I didn’t have to drink because I’m MARVELLOUS”, kind of a way. I take ZERO credit for my sobriety. It sounds weird but it has very little to do with me and everything to do with the legions of other recovering people who have helped me. I have managed somehow to stay sober i n spite of me, not because of me. So if anyone out there is newly sober and reading this thinking, “How the hell am I going to work at a FESTIVAL and not drink and take drugs?” I’m here to tell you: if this panic stricken lush can do it, so can you.
HOW TO WORK AT A FESTIVAL AND STAY SOBER
1. Know your limits.
In the my first year of sobriety, I got booked to play at Glastonbury, and then unbooked. There were too many cellos, so I got the chop. As the rest of the quartet I was a member of headlined the Park Stage with a brilliant band, I was waitressing in a burger joint on the Kings Road. I was about 8 months sober. The sense of rejection, isolation and injustice was profound. I cleaned bottles of condiments and served burgers to the red trousered people of Chelsea, weeping on the inside. In desperation I rang my sponsor who said, “You’ll hate me for saying this. But rejection is protection. You’re not ready.” I wanted to lob the phone at the wall, but as usual, she was right. I could not have got on a tour bus full of free booze and not drank at that point of my sobriety. I was still suffering huge amounts of anxiety, which peaked when I had to perform.
If you’re not ready, do a Nancy Reagan and Just Say No. We tend to struggle with that, particularly in the competitive freelance game we’re in. Contrary to what our heads can tell us, saying “no” does not herald the end of your career in music or mean that you will never be well enough in the future to work a festival again. There is a saying that anything you put ahead of your recovery, you’ll lose anyway. Looking after yourself first is always the right thing, no matter how alien it feels.
I try as much as I can to travel independently to festivals so I can leave when I like and I’m not trapped on a festival site. Sometimes that’s impossible, particularly if you are a member of the stage crew. Crew work longer hours, with bigger gaps of time off and it is their job to stay when all the turns have pranced off the stage. When it’s not possible to leave, I have hidden in my tour bus bunk with an ebook when the party atmosphere gets triggery. Ok fine, maybe I mean downloaded episodes of Call the Midwife. I love Sister Evangelina. Sue me. One of the reasons I enjoyed my Glasto experience last weekend is because I was there for a total of about 8 hours. I drove in on a tourbus, I played, I left soon afterwards. That’s about as much as I can deal with.
2. Get to a meeting, before, after or during. Or all three.
I try to bookend anything “big” with a 12 step meeting. One before the event, one after. I talk about the event in both meetings and possibly bore people to tears, but hey, as the saying goes, you can’t save your arse and your face at the same time. Some UK festivals have a 12 step tent where you can go and connect with other clean and sober people. Glastonbury’s Healing Fields has a 12 step dome for people in recovery. Most of the larger US festivals like Coachella have sober tents and daily meetings. If a meeting is not an option, you’d be surprised how many of us there are just milling about backstage. Recovering alcoholics and addicts tend to pop up when you’re in a bind. Like undercover angels. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been on the verge of a panic attack somewhere and a member of the 12 step community gets on the tube, or turns out to be on the PR team of the gig, or waves at me from a lighting rig. Just knowing I’m not alone by catching a glimpse of them, has kept me sober during difficult moments.
3. What other people think of you is none of your business.
This kernel of 12 step wisdom has saved my life. Honestly. Assimilate this. Absorb it to your core.
Vast swathes of my early recovery were spent worrying that people who knew me thought I was weak, for being an alcoholic panic mechanic, or worse still, BORING for
Being sober and never partying. I know people who have relapsed because it was so uncomfortable being the only person not drinking in any given situation. Years of not drinking and Irish goodbyes at after parties have taught me this: NO ONE CARES. I have this weird euphoric recall that when I was drinking I was the life and soul and in the thick of things, connecting with everyone and having fun. The reality was grim, and dark, and lonely, and lasted long after the party was over. In 8 years of not drinking, someone has been a bit of a bellend about me not drinking or talking about it, on maybe 3 occasions. At the time, it made me feel lonely and defective. Those people have always been big drinkers themselves, and a couple of them have since had to stop drinking. Painfully, I learnt that it was never really about me, and very much about them. On that note, try to resist comparing yourself to other people drinking at a festival or in your touring crew. It’s pointless and painful. I did so much of this at the beginning. I was obsessed with how people drank socially without incident and then went to work the next day with a bit of a hangover and not like they were on the edge of an emotional abyss. It doesn’t matter. All I know is, I can’t do it.
4. Don’t worry if you have a hangover afterwards even if you didn’t drink.
This sounds weird and unfair. But that’s only because it is. I felt wobbly for two days after my Glastonbury experience. This happens after every “big” gig I do. For a hyper sensitive person who feels too much, all the time, playing in front of thousands of people whilst coursing with adrenaline is no small thing. Even when it’s caused by excitement and not fear, adrenaline is powerful. When I come off stage, there is no alcohol or drugs or letting off chemical steam. It’s just me, and my adrenaline. Then put me on a tourbus where people are drinking the rider in a functional and good natured way, (ie not like a frenzied animal, like me) and it still just me, fizzing with flight or fight chemicals. Then I go home to my beautiful toddler who has decided lately that sleeping is for wimps, and the crash back down to earth is extreme. I have felt it for most of this week, in the form of extreme tiredness and low level doom in my solar plexus. On Tuesday, I went to a meeting, I said, “I have a hangover even though I didn’t drink.” Lots of heads nodded sympathetically. I felt less alone with it.
5. Practise gratitude
When I was first sober I did a lot of angry grieving. Accepting I was an alcoholic and that I couldn’t drink safely was acutely painful. Dealing with debilitating anxiety without my medicine (spirits) was revolting. I felt angry and resentful and frightened a lot of the time. I found it hard to be grateful and easy to feel hard done by and sorry for myself. My loneliness was confounded when I went to work with people who drank and had what I thought looked like a great time. I had to go through that horrible stage to get to the far nicer place I’m in now. These days I’m grateful to know what’s wrong with me. I don’t mind that my colleagues can get pleasantly trollied without consequences after a gig. Sometimes I want to codependently remind everyone to line their stomachs, but that might be because I’m a mother now…..anyway, all I need to know is: I don’t drink like them. I never have, and I never will. Now I’m just glad that I get asked to work at all. I show up on time and avoid any potential dramas. Onstage, I try and play as well as I can on stage but to be honest I’m largely thinking about what my son’s eating for dinner or if my mum or husband are alright looking after him while I’m at work. It’s very different in my head now. Thank God.
In my zombie like state the day after I got home from Glastonbury, my son and I watched the set I played in on the old gogglebox on demand. While I watched, he toddled around shouting and periodically ricocheting off the furniture. About halfway through there was a close up of me playing and smiling because I was actually enjoying myself. (My resting face for a long time whilst playing the cello looked like rigor mortis, such was the fear and mental effort.) My boy pointed at the screen and said “MAMA!” like it was the best thing ever and it may have been the tiredness, but a little bit of gratitude did spill out of my eyeballs. Eight years ago this scenario was simply not on the cards. It’s all possible when you put the substances down.