The second in our series on alcohol and activism is a piece on the social positionality and wider power-dynamics of sobriety. We welcome all kinds of feedback on the ideas presented in this series, so please feel free to share your own story or thoughts in the comments section.
i’ve been sober my entire life. it’s one of the things i am most proud of about myself and who i am. and i recognise that it’s the culmination of fortunate circumstances that has led me here rather than any noble or clever decisions on my part. it feels accidental. and in other ways it feels completely normal, like i don’t know any other way. but sobriety is by no means an escape from the problematic structures and cultures associated with non-sobriety. it’s just that sometimes i feel like i’m the only one who is even thinking that things could be better than they are in some way.
alcohol is everywhere in our society, it’s big business, a weapon of political control. i’m so lucky i didn’t grow up with it in the nuclear family i happened to be born into. my dad didn’t drink, he was a racing car driver and had to be sober for race meets on the weekend, i don’t think he was ever really embedded in social drinking cultures anyway, and my mum only ever had a sip of something on special occasions, so alcohol was never around the house. many of my friend’s parent’s fridges would have some kind of alcohol inside, or there’d be a cabinet with odd bottles in a rumpus room. neither of my parents smoked anything or did any other kinds of drugs. a few people in my extended family drank and/or smoked and these activities were casually established in my family as transgressive, harmful or otherwise undesirable things to do. alcohol killed my grandfather when i was young and an old aunt was ridiculed for her alcoholism. as a weedy, shy, socially-awkward person with glasses, the broader smoking culture was too masculine and Cool to be something my socially constructed self could acceptably participate in freely without hassle. other drugs seemed well beyond the realm of anything i could ever engage in. shit! i couldn’t bring myself to overcome to bubbles of fizzy drink or the smell of coffee beans to ever positively engage in sugary and caffeinated substances let alone imagine myself smoking a joint.
and so it was for many years until i started going to parties when i was about 14 or 15 where people my age were drinking alcohol. i loved parties. i loved the comparative freedom. i loved the conversations and the music and the bands and hanging out with people i would consider friends. someone on the edge of my social circle passed me some kind of faux-boutique beer. i reluctantly took a sip. it tasted like cat’s piss. they told me i just had to get used to it and it tasted better after a while. i couldn’t understand the reasoning, i didn’t like fizzy drink. i wasn’t going to persevere with something that tasted like shit and was going to cause me to loose control of my ability to think and navigate the world around me in the context of this party. for whatever reason, the peer pressure didn’t work, it never came on too strong and i felt confident enough to assert that it wasn’t something i wanted to participate in. this would continue to baffle, impress and earn the respect of people around me through the later years of high school. when coupled with the often quoted fact that Angus Young from ACDC was sober, and my ability to play the guitar less crappily than almost anyone else at school, i managed to escape ostracisation.
for many years after high school i played music in my local DIY/independent music community (whatever that meant/means), which constantly put me amidst house parties, shopfronts, galleries, warehouses, pubs, tours, buses, cars, the street and all kinds of other places where weird, alternative, transgressive, non-normative, queer, politically conscious, free thinking folks congregated and i crashed head first into the drug use associated with these communities. mental illness enmeshed with addiction and my basic understanding of these things prevented me from judging people around me beyond the occasional failed attempt at a soft, considered critique. i began resenting the systemic way in which drinking culture made the social interactions i wanted to have problematic. during this time I was introduced to the fugazi-esque philosophy against alcohol/cigarette capitalism applied to the DIY music culture and started getting more involved in politics and activism, but i never knew more than a couple of sober folks with whom i could advocate for sober spaces with.
one of the best days for me personally came somewhere in the middle of 2007, when state government laws came into effect banning smoking indoors. i could breath more easily at gigs, i could see without my eyes watering, i could dance harder and for longer, i could involve my soul more intensely in playing my instruments, i could have more engaged conversations. and when i went home, my clothes didn’t smell like the toxic concoction of benzene and acetate. without smoke in my hair, in the morning my pillow smelt like my pillow. activist spaces, though harbouring much better politics generally, and a greater proportion of supportive, understanding people, weren’t immune from drinking and drug cultures and were/are never as self-reflective, supportive and critically-conscious as we so deeply long for them to be or pretend they already are.
i recognise that being socialised as a male, benefiting from colonisation, the intellectual privilege of my parents, having access to supportive and understanding people, the benefit of the circumstances i just happened to be born into, has enabled me to claim this place where i am sober and proud to be. i am so lucky, so privileged. shit! being sober is massive privilege! i have more money to spend on food and shelter, i can get by with selling less of my labour and have more time to try making the world a better place and working to undermine the power afforded to me by the different ways in which i am privileged. i get to have amazing, consensual interactions with people and the possibility exists that they can blossom into unique and beautiful ongoing relationships that we make into whatever we want, ourselves. all the things i’ve mentioned here have built within me more effective ways to deal with the problematic elements of drinking and drug cultures and further solidified my ability to maintain my sobriety. which is fantastic! but this has also involved a process of normalisation. it has become normal to retreat to spaces where there was no smoke. it has become normal to avoid social situations where i felt drinking culture would prevent me from feeling safe. it has become normal not to develop friendships or relationships with people who often drank, smoked or used other drugs. even the process of defining wet spaces and opening up dry spaces is problematic in the socio-spatial divisions it cultivates.
being the forever sober friend, the amount of hours and emotional and physical energy i’ve given to friends and strangers is enormous. i am the designated driver who drives the drinking musicians and their equipment to all the places, many times picking them up and dropping them off at their houses and train stations. i am the sober activist who has people’s backs, respecting the dry camp space while the wet camp depletes our ability to resist, struggle and fight. these are things i enjoy doing, roles i am happy to fill, but the problem is in everyone’s assumptions and expectations; that i will be fine with it always, that i will be looking out for people, that because i own a car i can somehow afford the registration and petrol without anyone benefiting from these things contributing something in some way to the free transport i provide. i only maintain a car because of what it offers to the communities i’m a part of. and i increasingly feel a responsibility to maintain my sobriety for the benefit of others beyond myself.
for me, the experience of being sober isn’t so much about deciding not to drink alcohol or take drugs. it’s more an experience of facing questions of control, power, choice, liberation, domination and that endlessly unsolved tension between individual freedom and collective responsibility. and i’m not even sure where sobriety begins and ends! i mean, i drink tea, i indulge in copious amounts of oxytocin-inducing cuddles, i love chocolate and at different times i use these things in problematic and unhealthy ways, sometimes i rely on them, but thankfully the repercussions of a cuddle binge are far less harmful than that of an alcohol overdose. what i can be sure of is that in a political climate in which i’m economically and socially controlled and exploited and relatively disempowered, i can’t help but want to hold onto and maintain whatever it is i do actually have control over. i want to revel in my ability to choose to generate my own amazing experiences and come to my own revelations without needing to ingest or rely on a substance. and i love the possibilities of what we can achieve whilst sober. i’m not going to tell people to go sober and i’m under no illusions that sobriety has, is or will be an all-encompassing answer to anything. but the thoughts, ideas and experiences of everyone contributing to this zine point towards the need for non-sober folks to engage with questions of sobriety. a better world lies in our ability to make this happen together.
Another Sober Zine is a series of 6 vignettes and essays published by anonymous Australian writers in April, 2014. To get in touch contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
What are your thoughts about sobriety and radical politics?