5 Survival Tips for New Orleans Musicians in Early Sobriety

Updated: Mar 30, 2019

Written by Carolyn Heneghan: Mardi Gras 2019 was another for the books for many of us and a deeply personal triumph for me. But for once, that triumph was not found in having managed to party on no sleep for four days straight or having already entirely lost my voice by the end of Muses. Instead, this was my first Mardi Gras since declaring my independence from alcohol this past July, after a 17-year battle with alcoholism, bred along with me here in the Crescent City.

The past nearly eight months of sobriety have been a whirlwind of ups and downs, from newfound clarity to bitter regret, from emotional turmoil to pure elation. But never have I allowed it to sever my ties with the music scene I’ve loved, supported, reported on, and been a member of for most of my remembered life.

Early sobriety ebbs and flows in the ease with which you can handle triggers, stressors, and celebrations without your poison of choice. That poison could be alcohol, cigarettes, opiates, or any other recreational substance or habit that negatively impacts your health. But in a city renowned for debauchery -- and the substance abuse often associated with such a lifestyle -- maintaining sobriety is no easy feat. Especially at Carnival.

If you’re considering cutting back or kicking a substance-related habit, rest assured, you can still enjoy and operate within the New Orleans music and nightlife scene. Keep these survival tips in mind as you manage your early days of sobriety in one of the world’s most infamous party capitals.

1. Bring a refillable water bottle.

Hydration is critical for musicians whether or not they’re attempting sobriety, but toting around a refillable water bottle may seem like a hassle. However, a water bottle can easily fit along with other gear musicians already have to load in, and many people, including musicians, often have a beverage in hand while socializing anyway. A refillable water bottle also means less trash from fewer water bottles and plastic cups being used throughout the night.

A few drawbacks to consider: Some venues won’t allow water bottles at all, some only allow them if they’re empty upon entering, and others may hesitate to fill it for you, especially if they’re busy. Just be sure to tip your bartender when asking them to refill it.

2. Research and factor in beverage options when making plans.

Whether you’re performing or going out to a bar or venue to socialize, take a minute to scope out your destination’s drink options, usually found via online menus or social media images. Some venues offer separate non-alcoholic beverage menus, such as mocktails, juices, or kombucha. But you can also browse their traditional cocktail menu for an idea of what types of mixers and other drink ingredients they carry or produce in-house.

Arriving prepared with an idea of what you might order to drink can mean less confusion and anxiety while attempting to order if the venue is loud and crowded.

3. Rehearse answers to questions about your substance usage.

By the time I finally made the decision to quit, my own inner motivation to drink had almost entirely left me. Ordering anything but beer or bourbon became easily more routine. But in those first months especially, I was often woefully underprepared for the series of questions related to my new lifestyle choice, especially after having been a notorious drinker since my teenage years.

Many people will be genuinely happy for you to have found your way to sobriety, whether they have made that choice for themselves or not. But do know that others may project their insecurities about their own substance usage habits onto you. Even well-meaning friends and strangers can unleash unintentionally triggering statements or questions in weak moments.

To be less caught off guard, meditate ahead of time on answers to such questions as:

  • Do you want something to drink?

  • Why aren’t you drinking tonight?

  • Are you quitting forever or just taking a break?

4. Practice your refusal of beverages or other substance offers.

Everything gets easier with practice, including saying no to substances or habits that may have at some point in your life brought a lot of fun and memorable experiences. Before going out, practice how you will refuse offers of whatever substance you are cutting out. That might include answers to questions similar to those listed above, or any other statements or gestures that offer you self-confidence and reassurance in your decision under pressure.

Some people may be pushier than others when it comes to offering you substances, especially if they themselves have already been partaking. Be prepared to stand your ground however is comfortable for you in such an environment, knowing ahead of time that the pressures can be intense.

5. Plan engaging experiences that don’t revolve around substance usage.

As with breaking any habit, healthy and productive distractions are critical for early sobriety, especially here in New Orleans bar country. If you’re planning to go out for a show that’s not your own, it’s easier to focus on not drinking or using substances if the entertainment and atmosphere are engaging enough themselves.

Lean toward venues and events with thoughtful decor, themed menus and amenities, and high-quality music, art, or other performances and demonstrations. These experiences offer your mind more rewards and objects to focus on besides substances themselves or the thoughts or emotions you might be using the substances to numb.

For your own shows, brainstorm other ways to make your experience more engaging, whether that’s mingling with the crowd, getting more zen about set changes and load-ins, or journaling about thoughts you had during your performance.

Abstaining from alcohol and other recreational substances while maintaining a career and social life in the music industry can be challenging, especially here in New Orleans. But if you’ve decided to make this incredibly personal decision for yourself -- one which no one else can or should make for you -- take a moment to pat yourself on the back, and be proud of yourself. This is a huge step many refuse to make before it’s too late.

The journey of early sobriety includes a variety of distractions and landmines, and of innumerable unexpected obstacles, pressures, and setbacks. But it’s a change that can revolutionize your life, health, career, and relationships in tangible and lasting ways. And what better backdrop is there for a clean slate and burst of creativity for musicians than right here in New Orleans?

Read about Carolyn's 11+ years of history in culture and check out her work at carolynheneghan.com

Photo of Dave Easley in The Quickening by Marissa Altazan 12/1/18 in the Howlin Wolf Den