Opinion: You can party totally sober and still have the time of your life

Aug 23 2019, 9:00 am

Written for Daily Hive by Michael Ianni, a media communications and public relations specialist exploring contexts in subcultures, music and mental health. He just went to a four-day rave completely substance-free.  

I’ve been raving and going to festivals for 20 years. Many people told me that I could do BC’s Bass Coast sober. I didn’t believe them. But as I learned this summer, Bass Coast’s vibe is like no other and so is its sober inclusivity.

With three daily support meetings, an impressive harm reduction presence, and panel discussions such as “Sober Curiosity,” Bass Coast is not only a leading electronic music and arts festival but also one making space for discussions surrounding substance use. This year they paired up with the team from Shambhala’s Camp Clean Beats, to offer peer-based support for those who are abstaining from substances and/or in recovery during the festival. Not only that, they had a lot of yoga and mocktail options! Rumour has it that a sober camping area might be in the works for the future too.

Courtesy Michael Ianni

With onsite drug testing and harm reduction services, people who do party with substances are doing so more mindfully and responsibly than before. This is promising, considering alcohol and drug-related hospital visits and deaths continue to grow in Canada.

My personal experience with raves and substance use spans two decades. My first rave was in 1998. I was 14. I started going to raves because they were safe and loving spaces for my young flamboyant gay self. Unfortunately over time, my substance use took its toll on my mental health and overall wellbeing. I was losing control. After a few serious rock-bottoms in my mid-20s and early 30s, I knew I had to make a choice.

Michael’s club kid days

When I first decided to live a sober life, my biggest fear was losing the community and connections I first developed at raves, while under the influence. Recovery can feel like a lonely journey. But surround yourself with the right people and you can enjoy a sober life and yes, even have fun as a sober raver.

Substance use problems and addiction aren’t a new phenomenon in countercultures and the music industry.  Neither is sober culture. Remember straight edge subculture in the 90s? More recently, we’ve witnessed prominent artists such as Eminem celebrating 11 years clean in 2018. Demi Lovato relapsed after six years of sobriety and then sang about it.

Morning rave disco at Bass Coast

Other notables who passed on due to mental health and addiction include Mac Miller, Avicii and Keith Flint of Prodigy. Mental health and addiction are on people’s minds. Solutions include education and harm reduction. Sobriety begins with curiosity about living a sober life.

Is it possible to work and play in rave subculture while sober? Absolutely! You don’t have to look far to see that many successful, respected DJs and big name celebrities are doing it.

My recent experience proved to me that I can return to rave culture feeling loved and supported, regardless if I’m using drugs or not. I don’t need to use drugs or alcohol to connect with anyone. I already connect and relate through art, music, movement and thought leadership. Bass Coast seems to be doing all of that right. My sobriety attests to that.

Roller skate at Bass Coast

Festivals like Bass Coast provide the sober raver or sober-conscious person a wonderland of arts and culture that can be experienced and enjoyed with or without substances. The audio-visual stimulation gets you naturally high. It was one of the most memorable weekends of my life…one I can remember and not be ashamed of.

I am in awe with the amount of support I’ve received throughout. Sure, there were times that I felt left out or a bit out of place, but overall, it was very empowering to own it and relish in rave culture, like I once did before.

Reset / Resort, a place for sober people at Bass Coast

Navigating through social engagements at raves and festivals can be intimating. If your party friends seem stand-offish, I assure you it’s not you, it’s them. Don’t take it personally. Remember how you were under the influence. No one is thinking about you, they are mostly thinking about themselves. It might hurt and leave you feeling like a loner for a short while, but there will always been an abundance of love and support for you, even from strangers! You’ll be surprised with how much respect and curiosity you receive from people when you tell them you’re sober.

At the festival, I met so many people who were either sober or sober conscience. For those who were partying with substances, for the most part, people were super positive and in good form. I rather enjoyed seeing everyone have a good time and I wasn’t annoyed or bothered by other peoples’ substance use. In fact, I found myself even having fun participating in sketchy morning banter. Many people thought I was high, and I was – but it was a contact high.

Going to Bass Coast sober allowed me to reflect on how I experienced raves before versus now. I’m no longer chasing drugs or people for a high. I get to use my clear mind to plan and follow through with things I set out for. I’m no longer missing sets because I’m still cracked out in my tent or over indulging to ease off the edge. Those patterns are in my past, part of an unhealthy vicious cycle I am proud to say that I have broken. And now I am reaping the benefits. I have more time and space for things. Time is non-refundable. Being sober in my mid-30s gives me more time.

Bass Coast / Michael Ianni Instagram

My advice for anyone curious about slowing down substance use or thinking about attending a music festival sober, is to try volunteering, it’s a great way to participate and feel purposeful. Connect with the harm reduction crew and don’t be afraid to reach out through social media. I met a lot of other people like myself this way.

Sobriety is a rebellious act. It is becoming its very own subculture.

Bass Coast’s wristband says: sleep, eat, hydrate, live, love, rave. I can live by that! Can you?

I want to give a special sober shout out to Unity Yoga’s Susan Horning and Nicola Bennett, Bass Coast’s Harm Reduction Coordinators, Staysee Marie, Co-Founder/Organizer at Good Night Out Vancouver, and Harm Reduction, Assistant Manager, Farah J.S. Also, thank you to Vicky Perow for hosting Sober Curiosity and Kaity Degen, who runs Sober Saturdays, Mandy Lawson, who leads Reset/Resort, Producer/DJ, Ben Sigrah, and Life Coach, Brad Gretzinger for their contribution to the discussion at Bass Coast. And to Andrea Graham and Liz Thomson, founders of Bass Coast, for implementing an extensive harm reduction program into the festival and making sober inclusivity not only possible, but enjoyable. 

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