Sober Punks

Bonus Sunday post.


Out of curiosity, I did a google search and a Facebook search under the term “sober punks.” I didn’t find much, except a thought-provoking article from 2008 on sober spaces within the punk community. The article brought up a good point:

Within the punk and anarchist scenes there are many activities that are of interest to a broad spectrum of individuals- including people who drink/smoke/use drugs, people who never have, and people who are recovering addicts to certain substances. The problem is that many of these activities end up being organized in such a way that they are only accessible to people who drink, smoke, or do drugs. This means that there are significant sections of the populations who are either put in situations that are uncomfortable and lead to mental and physical health problems, even relapse, or are not able to attend at all. It splits our community. This is even a bad situation for people who do drink/smoke/do drugs. Because if they are not exposed to people who don’t do these things they may not realize that they don’t always have to do them to have a good time.

Many people do not take other’s addictions seriously, and spend more time goading them to return to substance abuse than they do supporting them.”


Addicts in recovery who attend a lot of punk shows and hang out in punk scenes can find they are being pressured to imbibe so that they are more fun or can be a part of activities they feel excluded from now that they are sober, especially if they used to use with the people they are hanging out with and those people don’t understand addiction.

Many punk shows I’ve been to have had booze flowing and other drugs, including mushrooms, ketamine, ecstasy, acid and coke. Personally, I’ve been called conformist, straight and boring due to my desire to stay completely clean from drugs, alcohol and pills for so long. It can be a dividing line within punk communities. When the goal IS community, how can this change so that it isn’t a dividing line anymore? Why the pressure to imbibe?

I have a logic tree in my head that takes me back to memories of what happened to me when I used substances. It goes something like this.

A) I didn’t feel good/didn’t fit in
B) I took a substance to feel better
C) I felt better
D) I kept taking the substance in order to keep feeling better.
E) The substance stopped working
F) The drive to obtain more substance became an addiction in itself
G) Relationships and belonging to a community became not important
H) I had to quit, and it was painful and empty and hard
I) I quit and life got better, eventually, after I got through the eye of the needle

Now, when I quit substances, I didn’t get either A) BORING or B) not wild and completely nuts. Contrary to popular belief, sobriety is not a boring thing. Once you get used to subtlety and not always seeking the rush of a thrill, things are actually much more complex and intense in a lot of regards. You feel everything instead of constantly numbing yourself out in order to cope with society’s demands. One of the main reasons I started using at age 12 was because I was so sensitive to everything, could see the flaws in the systems around me and didn’t know what the fuck to do about it.


Greg Graffin, lead songwriter and vocalist of Bad Religion wrote in his book “Anarchy Evolution,” about growing up: “I had no fashion sense. I did not have unique looks or cool hair. But I had started to develop a unique worldview from studying evolution and biology. I put all of my effort into developing the idea that if I could sing about unique subjects then it really didn’t matter if I wasn’t cool or whether I took drugs. I could carve out a niche for myself as something unique in the punk world: a singer of lyrically rich songs with an undercurrent of natural science.”


As a result of quitting substances, a lot of the drama in my life dialed down. I stopped depending on an inanimate object to make me feel better. I now have to continue to look at myself and find other things to make me happy. I can’t hide out anymore. In order to find meaning in my life, I actually have to face the structures that bring me down and try to change them, even if only to accommodate my own unique worldview and needs.

I can’t say I don’t have cravings and desires from time to time, especially if I am going to a lot of shows and seeing substances working for people, i.e., they are not having the consequences I used to have.

For me, I had bad extreme consequences by the age of 15. After getting out of the crustie street kid life, I stayed sober 4 years, but then picked up booze again and found myself a garbage pail for obliteration within the year. I got out of it through rehab, finding a job that would keep me and getting my own room in the city where I had new surroundings and peers, then immersing myself in a sober peer community. Sometimes, it’s sheer stubborness that keeps me sober in the form of 1) You can’t tell me what to do. I’ll be sober if I want to. Fuck off. and 2) I have made so many sober friends over the past ten years of avoiding alcohol and illicit drugs that if I did decide to drink/use, I would run into any number of them around town and have to explain why I completely changed my core value system. Oops.


Here in Oakland, there are quite a few punks who are sober. Most of them attend meetings religiously. I’m not a big 12-stepper, due to my experiences with religion and trepidation about anything that says it’s one thing when it’s actually another, but I have made a lot of friends with people who believe wholeheartedly in the AA program. The only problem with this is that it’s another barrier. Some people who adapt this program can’t accept that someone can be sober and learn from life without the 12-step program and that limits conversations. If everything always comes back to, “You’re not doing meetings? Why? Have you tried different meetings? How come you aren’t working the steps?” it becomes a fight to maintain independence and be accepted for who I am all over again. The argument sounds suspiciously like, “Why don’t you use drugs? Have you tried just doing pot? What about moderating your drinking?”

Why the hell would I want to moderate? What a chore!

Some of my friends don’t do AA, but don’t really go to shows anymore either. They have kids and businesses and new responsibilities and have left the punk scene behind, although the attitude is still completely who they are. I’ve not met many of the straight edge punks, but have heard conflicting opinions. But the rest of the punks I know imbibe. A lot. More power to them. If substances worked for me, I’d still be doing them.

My tendency on any scene is to stick to myself. Like I’ve said, I’ve never really jumped into the center of any group. Groups scare me. As Aldous Huxley’s points out in this essay talking about self-transcendence, people do things when in large groups (herd intoxication), that they would never do as an individual outside of the group. Because of this, after spending a lot of time with any certain group, I have to disengage, analyze and go into the woods for a while to reaffirm I’m committing to my own code of conduct.

Punk values I espouse include living within your means, not focusing on money, building your own community, DIY, music, questioning the systems in place, following your own heart, etc. My friend Amy likes to say to me, since I was born in 1981, “Punk is a thing that happened in the 80’s and is dead now.”

It’s all a matter of opinion. There is still a punk scene happening, especially here in Oakland. It may have morphed, many of the old-school punks may have ditched what they’ve decided was youthful idealism in lieu of giving their kids the best they can or making enough money that they don’t have to live in punk squats anymore. But in my opinion, it’s not about dress code or adapting to a conformist code within yet another group. It’s about values. It’s about an attitude.

Even this wave of punk veganism has me all riled up. I have been vegan at many points over the course of my life, and predominately eat vegan now. But everyone’s choice is their own. Soy and wheat and corn are just as much a problem as factory farms, even though murder of an animal is not involved. Ethical choices with food are one of the many values I’ve adapted. Early punks may tell you they lived on a steady diet of snickers and coca-cola and wore jeans and t-shirt, none of this veganism stuff. Again, things change over time, group values evolve and change.

What I’m trying to do is write a blog post to attract sober punk artists, however people define “punk” these days, mainly those who don’t conform to a religious system or prescriptive living. Where the fuck are you people? And why is it so hard at times to be sober within the punk community? It’s more of a nihilistic attitude I’m seeing, still: drink today, fuck tomorrow. But tomorrow does come for many of us, and the substances end up being a distraction from the loftier goals like changing the system, making great music and building community. How many punks do I know who have best buddies who have died from drug addiction, are in jail, have pockmarked faces and don’t look so hot or are now gathering in garages to talk about the good old days while snorting rails of speed? A lot. Too many.

I don’t know what the solution is to this, only that in order to be part of a bigger community I’ve had to draw huge lines and boundaries about my stance on substances. This is one thing I can never allow myself to bend on, whether they work for other people or not. And if I have to protect myself by leaving a venue where I feel triggered or people are pressuring me to imbibe and calling me a wuss, then that’s what I’ll do. Mostly, the annoyance is more in the casual teasing conversations that come up from people who don’t understand the shambles my life became within a relatively short frame of time when using substances in my own personal life. “You don’t use ANYTHING? How boring!” And then I feel like I’m being treated with kid gloves. Fuck that shit.

Au Contraire. How boring was it to never be able to go anywhere without first checking that there would be booze or drugs, or having to stop at the liquor store to pick up a six-pack last minute and have conversations with people I wouldn’t even remember the next day? How boring was it to fuck around with people I didn’t even care about, wasting time not building anything of purpose. None of my old party buddies are anywhere to be found, even though I had some of the best and worst times of my life with them.

Being sober isn’t easy. It’s an uphill battle at first, but it gets easier after your nerves right themselves and you build a different sense of community that doesn’t revolve around drugs. I only wish that there were more people who could be open without trying to change everyone else to be like them.



  1. KT says:

    I appreciate this post soo much. I’m not familiar with the punk movement but I have been somewhat of a “rebel” my whole life. I’m more into the hiphop culture and have a group of friends that use substances the same way as u described in your post. This is definitely an encouragement, and it shows me how much i can have in common with a culture i feel so distant from. We are all one, i see proof in your post here. We’re not so different. thnks for opening ur heart, mine was definitely touched by it.

    • Thank you so much for reading and commenting. I had trepidation about even writing this, but I’ve realized sometimes the more truthful I am, the more I want to take a post down and pretend I didn’t write it, which means I usually need to leave it up.

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