Navigating sobriety as a musician during COVID-19

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Illustration: Michael Haddad

I recently hit one year without alcohol, about a month after the onset of the COVID-19 lockdown.

The journey has been largely positive, but even as an introvert who’s highly comfortable being alone, I’ve felt a waxing and waning loneliness in my sobriety that I’ve never experienced before. When it became clear that we were amidst a global pandemic fraught with uncertainty and inevitable sadness (and having just moved to a new city days prior), I panicked a bit.

One of my first thoughts was how calming a drink would be. The second was, “How will I get through this sober?”

Fortunately, I was staying with friends who don’t drink at the time and I have the privilege of weekly teletherapy sessions. I was able to address what those feelings were and lean on my support network, routines, and other comforts to push through it. Though many are, not all of those comforts are “healthy” (I can be a bit of a workaholic and love me some carbs), but they’re a whole lot healthier than drinking for me.

This experience got me thinking. With all the content that floods our feeds every day, we don’t see or hear a ton of stories of musicians navigating sobriety. Instead, we hear about the fast rise and halting crash of the rockstar or famous producer. It’s typically a story dripping in pity – a cautionary tale for those who like to live hard and fast. But much like stories of creativity and creation, stories about the process of sobriety take all shapes and sizes.

I spoke with a handful of musicians who range from having recently experimented with incorporating alcohol into their lives again to people who’ve been sober and in the program for a decade. Spoiler alert: though their experiences vary greatly, a common thread was heightened creativity and a motivation to make.

I hope these stories bring you solace and a sense of community, whether you’re considering using this time to explore sobriety or have been on this path for some time now. Like anything, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. However, connectedness always helps.

A career in music is often paved with free alcohol

Sean Solomon has been sober for almost a year and a half. An artist, animator, and musician, his band Moaning released their latest LP called Uneasy Laughter on Sub Pop Records March of this year. He wrote half the album sober and the other half before he quit and says there’s a clear distinction between those songs for any listener. I heard it.

He shared that he’s been playing music his whole life, and drinking for a large part of it. Living as a professional musician, in many ways, normalized the act of using. He shared, “As a musician, the venues you play will always give you alcohol. When touring in Europe, I was given weed every day. It sounds cliche, but even if it’s just alcohol, it’s waiting for you. People tend to assume you do drugs and drink when you’re a musician. You start to use your identity as an artist as an excuse to get high. You convince yourself you’re a tortured artist.”

Emily Cross echoed this notion. She’s a death worker, artist, and musician who releases music under the name Cross Record and as a member of the band, Loma. When she quit, she realized how much free alcohol she consumed and how ever-present it was in her daily life. As a performer with stage anxiety, she also found it to be the perfect tool for coaxing that anxiety. It wasn’t until she truly spent time alone (and had to buy alcohol rather than it being given to her) that she became alarmed of how prevalent it was.

Drew Riekman, singer and guitarist of the band Blessed, agrees. He pointed out that alcohol is more readily available for musicians than food. Most bars and venues will give you a bottle of whiskey and a dozen beers before providing you with a meal or snack, because liquor is in their inventory.

He added, “Bands essentially sell booze for bars, and I wish that wasn’t the case. However, a lot of people have been saying that the turnout for the livestreams during COVID are proving that there’s a larger market for live music without the alcohol than venues thought. That gives me hope.”

Quitting is a process

Sometimes it takes a few tries

Sean Solomon quit drinking and smoking weed because he hit his limit with feeling depressed all the time; he knew that using wasn’t helping. He also realized that if you’re sober, you can be there for other people. You can be present and pick up the phone for others working toward sobriety. It was evident in his voice that he found great fulfillment in this discovery.

After a few false starts, he realized he needed to cut out both substances at the same time, absolutely. Partaking in one or both at night and telling himself he wouldn’t engage the next day didn’t work. For him, using one nearly always led to the other.

Quitting was a culmination of things. He got to the point of having no other ideas. He looked at it as something he’d try. And after a few times, it stuck. Solomon shared, “Getting sober was a lesson in sitting in my own skin and really evaluating why I was feeling the way I was feeling rather than masking it with drugs or alcohol.”

Seeing other artists and musicians die from drug and alcohol abuse was also a wake-up call. He added, “After seeing so many people die, being a musician who doesn’t use becomes a more interesting story to tell.”

Some people wake up and make a decision

Emily Cross has been sober for nearly four years. In 2016, she had an artist residency in Berlin at the end of a tour. She was alone after being stuck in a van with eight people for months, plus being married for five years. Being still gave her the opportunity to assess herself, and as a result, she realized how much she was drinking and that she thought about alcohol every day. Her desire to drink drove decisions around where to eat and what to do.

She had explored dry periods without alcohol in the past for a few months here and there. She either wasn’t drinking at all or she drank every day. One night during her residency, she drank a bottle of wine and fell asleep on her computer watching QVC. She woke up and thought, “This is so dumb – why am I doing this?”

This time felt different from every other time for Cross. It felt like it had to be the last time. She said, “I had this distinct feeling of, “I’m going to quit and my whole life is going to change because of it, and it did. I just quit that day and every day was a new day that I didn’t drink. My mind became more and more clear. When I got back to Texas, whatever followed after that was informed by my new clear mind without alcohol, without that coping mechanism.”

She added that the space from alcohol has helped her see the ways it didn’t align with other areas of her life. She’s so intentional about what she puts into her body when it comes to everything else; it made no sense to her that she was poisoning herself by drinking excessively.

Tiffiny Costello, who releases music and performs as House Keys, shared that she was able to quit drinking cold-turkey because she has the tendency to go “all in, or not at all,” which she ties to her issues with drinking. She added, “I had a support system of family and friends, and ultimately, once I realized that I was truly committed, and knew why I wasn’t drinking, I started talking about it and sharing it on social media. I discovered an entire community that also helped me if I had weak moments.”

Others have a looser relationship with it

Rick Maguire has been making music under the moniker Pile for over a decade. He doesn’t identify as sober because he doesn’t want to compare his experience with others. Addiction didn’t have a stronghold on him. He quit drinking and smoking cigarettes about two years ago in order to achieve a clear mind for creating art, lead his band, and grow his career. His responsibility was increasing as Pile started selling more records and playing bigger rooms, and he wanted to be sharp and present for it.

He’s had a few drinks since, and he respectfully recognizes that’s not an option for many people. Particularly with the onset of COVID, he started incorporating alcohol into his life to see what the experience would be like since he didn’t have a tour to be as present for. After one night of too much drinking, he decided to totally cut it out again. He likes life without it better as it doesn’t do anything for him, and that’s where he stands now.

Quitting can be political

For Drew Riekman, the decision to quit was political. He said, “Alcohol occupies this weird space in almost everybody’s consciousness that makes it totally ok. You can be hanging out with people who think heroin addicts should be thrown in jail, but have no problem getting drunk seven nights a week.”

He added, “For some reason, society decided it’s acceptable to treat people with other addictions like they’re less than human. The addiction to alcohol, however, is hard to tackle because we’re fed from day one that it’s the norm. It’s the one substance that you can have an unabashed love for and be met with social acceptance. Politically, it’s been driven into this space in our brains where it doesn’t have the same effects as harder drugs, but meanwhile, it also kills people and tears families apart.”

The politics of alcohol also seeped into Riekman’s personal life. He shared, “When I took a step back and looked at what alcohol does to people I know personally and at a larger scale, I no longer felt like I could defend it. I didn’t feel challenged, per se, but I like to be able to tell people why I’m making choices in life. When I asked myself why I drank, it had no net positives.”

He added, “I didn’t quit to better myself; I quit because enough people around me struggle with it. I asked myself: Why am I engaging with this causally if it doesn’t make my life better and it’s making it harder for the people around me to exist in theirs?”

Adding to Riekman’s sentiments, I had a few conversations over the course of writing this piece about the marketing of alcohol and how disturbing it is. That’s too big of a topic to tackle right now but if you’re interested in quitting, I urge you to ask yourself why you drink in the first place.

For some, a program is the only way

Another artist who chose to stay anonymous shared, “I had quit drinking for periods of time for different reasons, but largely because my behavior was embarrassing when I drank. I’d be out in a club and people would be drinking; I felt separate and lonely. I’d start drinking again and it’d be delicious – then, I’d be hitting it harder than ever before. But as I grew older, it felt like my ability to come up with new solutions to navigating my life was diminishing. I was becoming a baby who didn’t know how to deal with a changing career and this world. I was getting older and brittle.”

They added, “Eventually, I found that I couldn’t keep my word to myself that I’d stay sober. Integrity is important to me; it was slipping away and I felt ashamed. I developed an elaborate process for quitting that involved planning out how many non-alcoholic beers I’d alternate with real ones. A friend pointed out that a program exists for a reason.

After my first meeting, I got the Big Book and really liked it. The idea of being able to control this impulse was attractive to me. So, after one last big drunk at a music festival, I went to a meeting. I spent that first month riding my bicycle to meetings. I thought AA would teach me to manage my drinking, but by the time I was six months in, I was on this fascinating journey and there was no way I was going to get off.”

Reflecting on the program, they said, “Before entering the program, I thought AA was for losers or unattractive men sitting outside of strip malls smoking cigarettes. But in fact, it reminds me of the best of us humans. Being able to talk about what’s hard. To break it down to the nuts and bolts. People are on the same page. They’re in there because they’ve hit the bottom.”

We talked a bit about how lonely it can feel to quit, especially in the music industry. They added, “For me personally, it’s five trillion times easier to be sober than it was to be dry. I have a community, the steps, and a completely different way to look at the world. It was more challenging when it was more private. I didn’t have the shift in perspective the program allows for me. It’s a new outlook on life.”

I asked them about the religious aspect and some of the controversy around the origins of the program highlighted in books like Quit Like a Woman by Holly Whitaker. They said, “…I make of it what I need to make of it because I am a creative person. We’re all making it our own in whatever way we do. There’s no one right way to do it. The point is to try things and the program is a safe place to do that. It’s a bunch of people trying.”

Sobriety is a process for all

Drew Riekman had a built-in support group when he quit two years ago. Two members of Blessed were already sober and he and their drummer, Jake, quit in solidarity. He admits that he exists in a bit of a bubble, but he’s found more and more artists who are sober to hang and tour with. He also recognizes that quitting is not an overnight process for most.

He said, “There’s so much runway you can give yourself. Maybe you don’t even quit this year. At some point, you do need to make a choice but I take a long-term approach to everything. I think people put too much burden on themselves to accomplish things right away and at a hundred percent. It’s ok to forgive yourself for slip-ups. Quitting is a major life decision; it’s ok to take time to figure out how you feel about it and to make progress happen. Messing up doesn’t need to define your narrative.”

Lillie West, who releases music and performs as Lala Lala said, “I always say: it’s never too late, it’s never too far gone. There’s no dark place you go to that you can’t come back from. If you’re afraid of losing something by getting sober, it isn’t worth it. There is no reason you need to drink or use. If you think you should be sober, you probably should be. I honestly think everyone would benefit from it in some ways.”

Tiffiny Costello added that she still turns to things to cope, just not alcohol. She said, “I knew alcohol caused so much destruction, so it had to go. Not all of my new coping skills are healthy, though. I’ve started to learn that I am more of an ‘addict’ than an alcoholic, but my highs are different. They might come from texting an ex, arguing with my dad about politics, listening to sad music that makes me cry, running until my knees hurt, drinking three Diet Cokes in a day, journaling, drinking a ton of coffee, or consuming lots of sugar.”

Reflecting on these conversations and my own experiences, it’s important to remember that sobriety is a process. I decided to not tackle cutting back sugar or caffeine when I first quit drinking because I knew it’d be too much. A year later, I’m starting to explore limiting those things. You don’t have to go all-in on an entirely new and healthy lifestyle right away. You can if that works for you, but certainly don’t feel like you’re doing something wrong if you don’t.

Sobriety begets creativity

Coming out of a haze

For Sean Soloman, the idea that drugs and alcohol enhance creativity is completely false. He says it’s another excuse addicts tell themselves to hold onto the comforts of substances. In his sobriety, he creates much more art, faster. He’s also become a better editor. He’s observed among himself and friends that when people are high, they tend to be precious about things and may play the same chord for three hours.

Alcohol and drugs were slowing him down, though he believed the opposite for a long time. Being sober has allowed him to finish songs he started when he was “too stoney and confused to know what to do with it.” He’s now able to fine-tune everything.

Lillie West had a similar experience: “For me, getting sober was like coming out of a haze. I was extremely creative in the months afterward. The lasting impact has also been great. Before I got sober I was very much stuck, not improving or exploring. I was completely stagnant. Now I feel like I move all over the place, forward, upwards.”

Tiffiny Costello also says she has more follow-through, rather than sloppy ideas and lofty, cloudy aspirations that don’t go anywhere. She said, “Sobriety has created space for working on technique. My emotions run the show when it comes to creativity, and I have learned how to know when that is happening. I capture ideas when they strike, and then go through them later on.”

Performing and touring sober

Solomon found that touring sober was also much more pleasant. He said, “You don’t wake up hungover and everything is much easier. I used to hate touring, waking up grumpy, and having to move heavy equipment around. Now, loading and unloading are highlights in the day and an opportunity to get some exercise after being stuck in a van or greenroom for several hours.”

Emily Cross says she feels like she has more time with a clear mind. She feels more in touch with herself and says that might have impacted her writing. When it came to playing shows, it was hard. It was simply a matter of pushing through it until it wasn’t as hard anymore. She’s thankful for having to face stage fright head-on because she can learn how to deal with it.

West had a similar experience. She said, “I definitely had a period of learning how to perform sober; really, learning how to perform at all. I was a terribly unreliable performer as a drinker. Nowadays, touring is only hard sober when everyone is drunk except me, but I try to always tour with another sober person. Or, we have a rule that one person stays sober with me every night.”

A new look at old relationships

A common thread among the folks I spoke to and my own experience is that when you quit or get sober, the dynamics of your relationships are going to change. Oftentimes, for the better. Regardless, there’s no real way around it.

Cross, for example, was married when she drank and now she’s not, though her ex-partner remains a good friend and collaborator. When she quit, the fog she didn’t know was there lifted and she found parts of her personality she didn’t know existed. She adds that she doesn’t see the friends she once only went to bars with.

Drew Riekman said, “Meaningful conversations can lose their meaning when alcohol is involved. It halted a lot of progress in the relationships with people close to me. As I approach 30, I’ve found fewer people find alcohol fun; they look at it as part of the routine. I began to ask: if so many people want to quit, why do we make this something we gather around? Now, my relationships are deeper and even more respectful than they were.”

Navigating the music industry sober

Our anonymous contributor reflected, “I gained an attention span that has allowed me to study other stuff beyond music. I don’t make a distinction between career and personal growth. It has to be for my personal growth, or I simply can’t do it. I started making furniture and built a darkroom.”

They added, “These are challenging times for the non-narcissist: streaming, lack of resources, the gig economy requiring constant hustling. This is the era of the narcissist, and for me, that’s not fulfilling. There’s such a clear distinction between what we’re trying to get out of the outside world—a reassurance that we’re ok—and something we’re able to generate ourselves. Today, I make art and perform for catharsis to be lost in the music.”

Navigating COVID-19 sober

Changing plans and adapting

Emily Cross is a person who loves to know what her plan is. Considering that she was going to move to England in a couple of weeks, this moment is offering her a learning and growth experience. Having already moved out of her place in Austin, TX, she found refuge in a friend’s empty apartment in Tucson, AZ. All of her professional and creative endeavors are being re-assessed as well. She’s an end of life doula professionally who organizes living funeral ceremonies and makes music and art.

Her work is evolving in the wake of the pandemic. She’s currently helping develop a virtual death doula network, which is a lot to conceptualize. She’s also working on ways to bring living funeral experiences online. She says she’s particularly motivated by the fact that she doesn’t have an income right now. It feels fear-based for her. It’s out of necessity.

Music, on the other hand, isn’t a constant or reliable stream of income for her, but that hasn’t stopped her from creating. She’s been creative in how she’s connected with people through her music. People have paid her $5 for a quick improv song posted on SoundCloud. She said she’s usually a very slow writer so she was surprised when she wrote 30 songs so quickly. She’s also been collaborating with other musicians here and there.

Like many artists, Sean Solomon and Moaning have had at least 40 shows canceled, along with other projects postponed. He said something goes wrong almost every day. He describes it as almost feeling like a joke, but not a very funny one.

Regarding live-streaming and other digital options, he’s not overly excited about them. He wants to be on tour, but he’s working on being open-minded and adapting. He doesn’t dwell on the negative parts of his life; he says, “They seem very insignificant compared to what other people are going through. Literally every single person is impacted by this – there’s no point in dwelling.”

Trying new ideas and doing things you didn’t have time for

For Rick Maguire, this time has presented an interesting opportunity to solve problems creatively. He said, “I’m realizing that I like logistical puzzles, especially if they’re functional in some way. Because tour is usually that for me and is out the window for the foreseeable future, I can apply all that energy to figure out how to make music and a living and do something different that’s fulfilling to me. This time has been good for thinking of those ideas.”

Maguire finds that routines and getting outside when he can help keep his mind clear. Even simple acts like making dinner and baking have helped alleviate pressure to be creative in terms of making music. In regards to writing new material, he added, “I can use this time to turn any ideas I have upside-down without wasting anyone’s time. I can filter through and refine those ideas now, so when the band gets together, I’ll have concrete ideas to bring to the table.”

He’s also been doing livestreams on Instagram and Facebook and made a new agenda for the year: he’s releasing a cassette of ideas, demos, and experimentations designed as a “dissociative mixed tape.” He’s also going to make solo recordings of past Pile records. From there, he’ll start working on the next one. He expressed excitement about these projects, adding, “The process of making things… I feel like exciting stuff happens along the way that people don’t really get to see or hear. I’m trying to figure out a way to share them with these projects.”

A unique opportunity to explore sobriety

Solomon reflected, “Now is a good time for people to get sober because you’re forced to sit with your emotions and look in the mirror. Every time you’re uncomfortable, it’s normally because of some sort of growth that needs to happen. It’s definitely a hard time for everyone—sober or not—but I think if I were stoned or drunk, I’d be in a ball crying all day. As a sober person, I’m able to be present and hop on the phone if someone needs help, or focus on my mental health and community.”

He added, “That said, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t hard. This is one of the few times in the past year and a half I had the urge to drink or smoke, especially with the record release. But I had the tools to snap out of it and it only lasted a day. When you use, you suppress your emotions so they last longer. People say, ‘Oh I’m sad, so I’m going to drink and feel better,’ but by doing that, you’re prolonging it. If I were drinking and using now, I’d be the absolute worst. No one would want to hear what I had to say.”

Our anonymous contributor echoed the idea that this pandemic is offering a unique time to examine what it is that drives us and what we want out of life. They said, “Being sober has changed my ego and why I want to be on stage, what I’m trying to get out of it. In a certain way, people are getting this lesson right now, having to be by themselves. We don’t get to perform in front of people and have that real connection. I think this is an incredible opportunity to ask what you’re getting out of this – if you have a hole you’re trying to fill. I think people are going to start looking at what’s bearable and what isn’t, and re-prioritize their lives for time over money.”

They added, “A really weird gift of the pandemic is these virtual meetings. You can hop around time zones and join multiple meetings in one day.”

Drew Riekman says this time of isolation and social distancing offers an opportunity to quit without fearing pushback from your community. He said, “To be honest, the first year sober can be a bit isolating. My personal opinion is that the first six months of sobriety should be used to distance yourself from past routines, patterns, and relationships to look at how they related to your using. But they don’t need to end. Slowly, let your life return to what it was or some new or varied version of that. If you’ve been considering quitting, now feels like an optimal time to do so since we’re all isolated anyway.”

He added, “It took a year, but I eventually started doing all the things I did when I drank – they just didn’t involve alcohol. Over time, I’ve been able to go out with my friends who like drinking without it impeding my life. That space provided me enough time to solidify that I don’t need it in my life to hang out with my friends or go to shows. If you feel confident in yourself, you won’t become a boring stay-at-home person (outside of isolation) because you quit drinking. Just give yourself the grace of an adjustment period.”

Tiffiny Costello said, “I am so thankful I am sober right now. I have definitely been challenged, but thinking about how awful being at home alone with booze would be has kept me focused on coping differently. Being sober makes you feel everything. Some people think getting rid of alcohol will rid you of the reasons you drink, but it actually puts them front and center and forces you to deal with them.”

She added, “Being able to numb out would be so nice right now. The emotional stress COVID is causing me (and others) is putting a toll on my body, emotional health, social health, etc. But, I am spending lots of time reading, journaling, being on FaceTime with friends, watching movies and shows, and trying to stay busy. I have days where I can’t get out of bed, and while I struggle to accept being okay with that, I am trying to just be okay with everything.”

Leaning on routines, practices, and tools during this time

The tools Sean Solomon relies on when he feels the urge to use include calling a friend who’s also sober, meditating, going for a walk, or playing guitar, which is like meditation to him. He doesn’t sit there in self-pity. He says that’s a big issue with being an addict – self pity.

Instead, he’s been using this time to read, write, and learn new instruments and techniques. He’s doing things he’s always wanted to do and is learning how to be more productive. Every night, he writes a to-do list he looks at as a suggestion for the next day, and that keeps him on track. He says he’s been more productive because he doesn’t have an excuse to go out. He adds, “I’m sure everyone has wished they had more time to do something specific. Now’s your time to work on the projects you want to or check in on your friends.”

Emily Cross has a tea practice she engages with every day for at least an hour or so. That’s her time to write in her journal and chill before she starts working. It’s a ritual that keeps her grounded and happy. When she was drinking, she didn’t have a semblance of a schedule. Now, her existence and her days are more intentional and balanced.

Lillie West exercises, journals, and makes art and music. She added, “More than anything, I envision the life I led compared to the life I lead now, and that makes it easy. Whenever I get down about other people drinking and partying and having fun, I try and remember that it wasn’t like that for me, and it wouldn’t be now. Most likely, I wouldn’t have lighthearted fun with my friends – I would destroy everything.”

Resources to explore

If I took anything away from these conversations, it’s that none of us are alone. There are many people and resources ready and willing to help, or at the very least, to listen. AA and other recovery support group meetings have gone totally virtual in this time, allowing you to explore new communities or attend several in a day.

You can find online AA meetings here or see how your local group is meeting online. AA isn’t the only option, either – I suggest researching other groups that align with your values and interests.

Emily Cross liked to engage with the community found in the Stop Drinking subreddit both in search of support, as well as to provide it. She also found comfort in the book This Naked Mind by Annie Grace and the blog, Hip Sobriety.

Tiffiny Costello reminds us that online therapy is highly available right now, and that there are therapists who specialize in recovery. She said, “Having a professional perspective and support to guide you in uncovering what you’re feeling during sobriety, and eventually why you drink or used to drink, is incredibly helpful.” Check out Open Path Collective for sliding scale therapy options.

Costello also suggests “finding sober social media resources like Recovery Happy Hour, The Temper, and Marlee Grace to help keep you inspired and feeling supported as a sober person.”

I personally recently read Quit Like a Woman by Holly Whitaker, which brought up a mix of emotions for me. I found both comfort and discomfort in reading it, but I would recommend it if you feel like you could use an extra push.

Do you have an experience or resource you’d like to share with your fellow musicians? Leave them in the comments below.

April 23, 2020

Shannon Byrne Shannon Byrne is the founder and host of The Process podcast, an interview series exploring the process of survival as a creative. She's also the brand writer at Splice.