If you're stepping into 2019 sober: congratulations! And to those who are considering reducing their consumption this year, congratulations to you, too! Taking steps toward sobriety is huge. Making a commitment to rid substances from your life isn't easy; even the introspection required to really understand your situation can be emotionally trying, if not debilitating. But the benefits, of course, outweigh the struggle. Sobriety could change your life in the best way possible. (It has for me.)
It's important to know that you're not alone, though—because this can be a lonely process—so we've talked with seven artists about their personal sober journeys to make clear the community that exists.
These stories are unique to each individual—everyone's sober journey is their own. It's not an objective, black-and-white concept; it can mean different things to different people. You'll find that it varies among the sober folks below. What they've got in common, however, is that need for eliminating factors that are holding back their happiness, mental clarity, or physical well-being.
If you're working through sobriety now or thinking about starting, learning how other people have navigated their way to feeling better might help. It's truly possible to take back your life.
This story is meant to provide insight, not treatment. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism provides a guide for finding treatment
, and the resource guide for the National Institute on Drug Abuse is
. If you need urgent help with a medical crisis, seek out a hospital, or call 911.
Jen Clavin of Bleached
You have to really want to get sober, Jen Clavin stresses. It's hard work, but the benefits are undeniably worth the fight. The co-founding vocalist and guitarist of Bleached committed to sobriety three years ago: "When I look back, I'm like, how did I even survive that time? Because I was doing some really crazy stuff."
She'd hit a lot of rock bottoms before, she says, "but this was just the ultimate—where I was like, I can't do this anymore. I have to surrender right now. And so I did." The beginning was really scary, Clavin adds, and a 12-step program was critical then—and continues to be a major part of her life. Supportive friends have been crucial, too. Reaching out to a sober friend who connected her with other sober people led to a sober crew that Clavin says saved her life.
"I think a lot of times, if you don't give yourself to a program and you don't have sober companionship, you start isolating, and that's when it's really dangerous, because you're like, Then I'm just going to start drinking again, since alcohol was my best friend before. You start missing it," she says. "So you really need that support system."
And while returning to old haunts isn't right for everyone, for Clavin, who in those early days wanted to begin adjusting to the bars she'd soon encounter on tour, hanging out in places she was formerly blacked out in—only now, as a sober person—was a positive breakthrough.
"I ran into an old, old friend that I used to party so hard with that was also sober, and me and him just started doing all the things we did as active users, but sober," she says. "We would go to all these house parties, we'd go to shows, we'd go to bars, but we were there together, and, for some reason, that really helped me."
Her first year was one of firsts—every experience felt brand-new, and birthdays and holidays were especially difficult. "But then, once you pass the year, you're like, Oh my god, I did it. I got through it," she says.
Clavin emphasizes that it's a process, though. It was in her second year that she started to uncover underlying issues, like depression and anxiety. The program and therapy have given her tools for coping she didn't have before. When faced with any problem, whether alcohol-related or not, she reaches out to sober friends who she knows will understand.
"The happiness and the peace of mind that I have is one of the best gifts I've ever been given. Because who I was before, I didn't even want to live. I wanted to kill myself. I wanted to die, but I didn't want to die, I wanted to live but I didn't want to live—it was just so twisted," she says. "Who I am today, I'm just so grateful that I experienced those lows, because now I know what true happiness is, and I know what I'm working towards."
As Bleached readies another album, Clavin was enthused—sobriety has actually improved her songwriting.
"A big struggle for artists, in the beginning, is finding that artistic side within them, because a lot of times we think the alcohol or the drugs brought that out. I can say now personally as a sober person that is not true," she says. "I feel like I've done my best work in this upcoming record, and it's what I'm most proud of."
Sydney-based musician Naif-Jamie has been working on sobriety for 10 years, trying different routes of addressing mental health, like medication and therapy, and getting better at it each time. These past two years of sobriety—her longest stretch—feel different.
"There's no shame in relapsing or taking steps forward and backward. It's not a linear thing; it's your journey, it's no one else's," she says. "I always knew that I wanted to get to this point that I'm at now, but I didn't know when it was going to happen. I just kept trying."
Working with a drug and alcohol counselor, recurring words kept popping up in their conversations.
"Gender, masculinity, and general dissatisfaction with where I was," she says. "That sort of led me to the realization that I did need to start transition and come out, instead of just sort of maybe doing it behind closed doors or thinking about it or living with it privately. That was the start of that big journey for me. Once I realized that, it sort of gave me a lot more strength to take my sobriety a bit more serious, because I sort of knew why I was self-destructing a little bit, because I was hiding so much of myself and suppressing so much of myself, and I was very stuck in a place where I thought change wasn't possible or I was incapable of change."
Starting hormone replacement therapy and making connections within Sydney's queer and trans community, as well as its ethical punk scene, eventually weakened those urges to drink and use.
"Why I was drinking and using was very directly linked to that. There was a lot of shame, because I was socialized and raised as a man. There was a lot of stigma surrounding that, and drinking and doing drugs seemed to be the only masculine thing I could do. It was the thing that made me a boy, essentially, but I really always wanted to stop," she says. "Because that was my goal; I didn't want to be that way forever. And I did eventually want to get the strength and courage to come out and transition."
Naif-Jamie stepped away from music for a period; separating drinking and using from the partying associated with playing in a touring band was tough at first.
"That was kind of like a learning curve, and I sort of had to relearn how to play. It was really fun, actually, once I got sober," she says. "I wrote down all the reasons that I liked playing music and I liked writing music, and it was all those things happened before I had a relationship with drugs and alcohol. I loved going to shows when I was a teenager, I loved making music when I was a teenager, and I wanted to get back to those initial sort of enjoyment that I got, instead of the relationship that it had become, kind of like a party thing, or drink X amount of beers before I play and do this, do that."
Playing shows under the influence had devolved into tightrope walk, she continues. It was a type of game she was good at—but it's not sustainable: "You don't realize that you're playing with yourself. You're destroying yourself as you do it, because you're not addressing the larger issue."
She started volunteering at a local Girls Rock Camp, then started reconnecting with the music scene and queer community.
"I had a few friends transitioning and had been out for a bit longer, so they were really helpful, and helping me navigate things, and helped me find my people a little bit," she says. "And there was a bunch of bands with women and queer people in it that I loved and worshiped, and sort of forced myself to get to know them and put myself out there, instead of being unhappy with the friends I had. I think it's important to realize, especially when you have burnout friends that you just do drugs with, you don't have to hang out with them. There's like 7 billion people on earth—just hang out with some other people."
There are people who drink and party among her friendships now, but they're supportive and considerate: They check in with her at shows, bring her waters from the bar.
Getting her mornings back—she used to sleep in, then suffer through the emotional downturns of hangovers—means she'll sometimes spend an entire day making music. She also brings her drum machine-equipped iPad with her everywhere—a go-to mechanism for coping that's especially helpful for passing moments of panic or urges she might experience while out in social settings. (She's got a comic book app on there, too.)
Through sobriety, she's made tons of new music with new friends and new band, Naif-Jaime says. She also went back to school for nursing—something she's always wanted to do—and is now working part-time as a nurse and a teacher. "I've been transitioning for the two years as well, so the more I become the person I felt like I've always been on the inside, the happier and more confident I am," she says. "They both sort of go hand-in-hand for me. I think I've been really lucky in that they're quite connected. The more I do one thing, the less I want to do the other."
Mark Tennyson of Boy Untitled
Early in November last year, Mark Tennyson found himself physically restricted: Chronic sciatic nerve pain had peaked to the point that he could hardly move without the help of his husband. The recovery process, which is ongoing, required that he not move—at all—for two weeks. But in that stillness, Tennyson says, he found clarity, especially in terms of his artistry. Bolstered by the experience shared by a friend who'd spent a year abstaining from all substances, he began to consider how he might stretch out the positive byproducts of that mandated stillness. He devised his own plan: mindful sobriety.
"I say mindful sobriety because it's in those moments that I really choose to just remain clear," he says. "That's kind of the mantra that I keep coming back to in my head: remain clear. Because that clarity is going to bring the power that I need to do all the things."
Tennyson thought a lot about where he wanted his music to go, and how he'd get there. He's since rebranded—his electronic pop project is now called Boy Untitled—and learned that he doesn't have to partake in partying to push his work forward. A former club kid, he wondered if he'd need the scene to get his music heard.
"There are so many things attached to being a successful musician: that you're an awesome social media manager, that you're an influencer, that you're a fashion icon, all these things," he says. "For me, [mindful sobriety] has really kind of stripped away all of that stuff, and so right now, I'm just focused on music, focused all my efforts into making the music that I'm proud of. And from that, opportunities will rise."
Having a drink on occasion isn't outlawed in Tennyson's version of sobriety. For him, taking substances was a means of control, rather than losing it: a choice to get fucked up, a coffee to wake up, a pill to induce sleep.
"It's about submitting to the ebb and the flow of your own natural rhythms," he says. "And the rhythms of this universe and this world that we live in."
The outcome, Tennyson says, has been amazing. Feeling more productive than ever, he loves his weekend mornings especially. "There are moments where it's hard, but, more often than not, I'm immediately satisfied with the choice. Whatever it is, it all boils down to the fact that I'm very much in alignment with who I am as a person, my relationship with my husband, who I am as an artist, again, the slow, progressive slog that it is to get to the top of the mountain," he says. "I'm just in that, and mindful sobriety completely supports that. And now it's become a thing that I just want to keep in my life. Whatever it is, it's working."
Jimmy Tony of Dilly Dally
"It really came right before the first album [of 2015], actually, when it became really apparent to me that I had to quit drinking completely, and that I couldn't drink responsibly at all anymore," says Jimmy Tony, bassist of Toronto band Dilly Dally. "It wasn't ideal timing-wise because, right after that, we started touring nonstop."
High stress and a lack of autonomy on tour, he adds, led to a few relapses while on the road. But Jimmy Tony kept trying, stepping away from Dilly Dally for a bit so he could work on his sobriety, and learn healthier ways of coping with depression and anxiety.
"The thing I think that was most helpful for me was meeting with other people and talking with other people who had shared same experiences, other alcoholics and addicts," he says. "I was reaching out to any sort of group and organization. I would go to the Center for Addiction and Mental Health, and I went to groups there, and I tried other self-organizing group as well. Just being able to talk about your experiences with people who understand and know what those feelings feel like, and hear other people talk about it as well—because alcoholism can be very isolating. It's helpful to know that you're not alone. To be able to share with people who understand what you're going through, that was extremely helpful for me."
Cognitive behavioral therapy was another beneficial tool, especially in addressing mental health. Today, Jimmy Tony is two years into sobriety, and is touring with Dilly Dally again; now better equipped, he's no longer tempted to drink. He doesn't want to.
"Sobriety has kind of improved every aspect of my life, really. I felt like I was in arrested development for my entire 20s," he says. "I didn't feel like I was growing at all or going anywhere; I was kind of just always following the path of least resistance."
Tangible benefits, he adds, like the extra money—once reserved for booze and drugs—and a general betterment of his physical state are a major plus. His relationships have improved, too.
"I mean, everything didn't get better with the flick of a switch. It's a process," he says. "But it really has improved pretty much every aspect of my life." For anyone who's considering sobriety, Jimmy Tony advises: "Don't try and suffer through it alone. Reach out to people for help who have some experience with it. If you don't get it right the first time, there's nothing wrong with that, but keep working at it."
Idris Vicuña of Eyedress
Smoking weed constantly—every day, every hour—was complicating an already hectic life for Idris Vicuña, the Filipino artist who makes music as Eyedress. Last fall, he decided to take a break.
"I couldn't handle it. Before, I'd just smoke, and it'd be nothing to me, but, at some point, it was starting all this extra mental stuff, and not to be vague, but things like paranoia and PTSD were coming back to me. I'm 28 now, and it felt physical," he says. "I felt like I had to stop doing everything and just detox, in a way."
The hiatus from smoking lasted five months, during which Vicuña didn't drink, either. "I feel like drinking affected my behavior a lot; it made me a little aggro, "he says. "I had to give that up."
He jokingly calls it his "pure wave," but that break had serious benefits. Today he's reincorporated substances into his life, but with newfound perspective. Substances are an indulgence, he says, an extra, and routinely relying on them "can make you feel stuck." "I think maybe every year it's good to kind of reflect on everything and kind of be clean. Because sometimes when you take in so much stuff, you start to feel dirty. It's like if your mind is like a room, you put so much stuff in there, sometimes you gotta clean it out and rearrange everything," he says. "That was what it was for me—just kind of rearranging my mind and my lifestyle, just taking a second look at who I was becoming."
Philadelphia-born Chynna's latest track sums up her commitment to sobriety quite succinctly: She doesn't do drugs anymore, but, more specifically, she doesn't touch opiates.
"A lot of the time people think if you're getting sober or clean, that would be every possible thing that's considered a substance. I'm still going to smoke weed and do simple things that weren't my problem or my particular vice or preference," she says. "People have different levels and stages, and not even every addiction is necessarily going to be a substance. I try to keep it a little more open-ended."
For Chynna, who now lives in NYC, steering clear of enabling environments has helped.
"Whatever those places are that you be getting high or feeling comfortable in doing these things, you need to make the decision to not hang out there, or even if it's those people. Love them from a distance, whatever—you just have to put yourself in a new environment completely to start," she says. "The less triggers you put yourself around, the better off it's going to be."
Chynna's also turned to journaling as a way to clear her mind: "Literally like a hard drive; free up space to think other things."
In the year since she's been sober, her thoughts have developed more cohesively, and she's experiencing a creative renewal. "I'm like a new person. I like new shit. I like things that I didn't know I'm interested in checking different shit out," she says. "I've found myself wanting to hang out in different places or just spend my time different ways. It's a pleasant surprise, getting to know yourself again."
Lillie West of Lala Lala
"The first couple tries I feel like I was so depressed by the idea of not drinking forever, because, as much as it was destroying my life, it was also, like, my favorite thing," says Lillie West, aka Lala Lala. "It was so distressing and overwhelming. My entire life revolved around getting fucked up. But that's an aspect that I wish had been described to me as exciting. Like, you have this opportunity to start again in whatever way, and change. There's not a lot of opportunities in this life for drastic change or clarity, which now is what I'm seeking all the time."
West says her life didn't really start until she stopped drinking. That was more than two years ago now; in July, she'll celebrate three years.
Abstaining from alcohol is second nature to her now, but part of living with addiction is accepting that the will be situations that aren't so comfortable. West has learned to think her way out of them.
"Occasionally I have a moment where I'm like, I would love to get super-fucked up. Or I see a group of people that I love, drinking and enjoying themselves, and I think, I would love to partake in this as well," she says. "But I try and remember it's just not possible. People who can't control their drinking, it's like we want to have one or two drinks and go home and be normal, but it's just not possible. So what you're wishing for doesn't actually exist, which I find makes it easier. I desire something that is not real." Sobriety is amazing, West stresses. Not only was the change crucial to her survival, she says, but only good has come of leaving behind her old life, which she doesn't miss at all: "I feel like I thought of it as this sad death sentence that I was getting, but, really, it's exciting and positive."