How to Stay Sober at Burning Man and Have the Best Burn of Your Life
By Carrie Hoffman
I mean, really, you’re never going to be at a meeting in the “default world” sitting between a rainbow unicorn and a naked old guy.
The author, Carrie Hoffman, in mid-air, jumping with arms outstretched and mouth open.
Nowadays I get to make real connections with fellow burners, give something back, and freely express myself, sober, along with all the best of Black Rock City. image via author
Have you ever been to Burning Man, that strange, magical world where anything is possible? Where strangers become friends in under an hour? Where food, water, gifts, and substances are shared freely through the “gifting economy,” and the parties rage 24/7 for eight days straight? If so, maybe we’ve shared some common experiences on “the playa.” Have you ever woken up in a pile of dust, impossibly far away from your own camp, trying to piece together the events that led you to your blackout dust pile? Have you ever taken LSD so many nights in a row it actually stopped working? Have you come into Black Rock City with the best intentions of practicing yoga and meditating every day, only to fail once you got three PBRs deep by 10am? Have you booked it out of Burning Man to the nearest Motel 6 like a bat out of hell, driving your car feeling like it’s the most challenging video game you’ve ever played? Has coming down and getting “back to normal” after the burn felt like a torturously long, horrible process? Have you left the playa feeling like you had an incredible time but kind of wishing you could remember more of it? Me too.
If you’ve only heard stories or seen news reports about Burning Man, the infamous “playa” is usually depicted as nothing but a mecca for party drugs, weird sex, apocalyptic art, and daytime debauchery. It’s the last place on earth a recovering alcoholic could willingly go to and stay sober. In actuality, behind all the psychedelic media-portrayed madness and in the midst of the drug-fueled frenzy, there exists a whole community of sober “Burners” who do the seemingly unfathomable. We come to this crazy place every year and let our freak flags fly, share our art and our experiences, dance until dawn, make new connections, survive in this thrilling temporary society, love it and hate it, and do it all SOBER.
My first two burns were driven by my love for alcohol and drugs, so my Burning Man experiences reflected that. My third burn, however, came almost one year after some shit hit the fan in my life, forcing me into the reluctant journey of recovery. Despite my hesitant beginning, by the time I hit the one year sobriety mark and took off to Burning Man, I was fully in love with my new sober, sane (“saner” than I had been before but still going to Burning Man so not too sane, obviously) state of mind and my ability to be fully present and remember the adventures I was having. Thus, my third burn, which I experienced as a sober woman in recovery, while very different from my first two years on the playa, was actually the best Burning Man experience I’ve had yet! Here’s why it was so great and why I can’t wait to go back to Black Rock City—still sober—this year.
There are endless opportunities to explore in Black Rock City: classes, workshops, lectures, parties, music, art tours, ultramarathons, you name it. When you get to Burning Man, you get a book that’s a couple hundred pages long of all the events and activities available. Before I got sober I would look through this book in wonderment, circling things and making grand plans for all the workshops I would attend and everything I would learn. In reality though, I would usually get distracted by a Blood Mary oasis on the way to whatever wellness-oriented activity I was trying to find. The self-improvement plan would end there.
Nowadays, I can actually make it to a few of these events I pick out of the wonderful guidebook, because I have the willpower and determination to get to where I am going without “free vodka FOMO” stopping me. Well, sometimes I’ll still stop for a virgin Bloody Mary bar experience to giggle at and feel superior to all the raging hangovers around me. I’ve gotta let the misery of others remind me why I’m sober occasionally. Most of the time, I can make it to my intended destination. Having my activity options limited because of my sobriety is actually very helpful in that it forces me to focus my attention on a narrower but still huge range of the healthy “woo woo” non-booze-oriented options.
I’m so grateful my sobriety allows me to participate in Burning Man more fully than I was ever able to when I was fucked up. Today I get to make real connections with fellow burners, give something back, and freely express myself, sober, along with all the best of Black Rock City.
Seven tips for how to actually stay sober at Burning Man:
Go to meetings, even if you don’t regularly attend them in the “default world.” Burning Man meetings are awesome, and you can even get your own Burning Man token for your 1st, 2nd, 3rd and so on sober burns. Anonymous Village is the biggest sober camp and is located at 5:30 & G, with multiple “Any-A” meetings for anyone in recovery from any addiction every day. Other sober camps—Camp Run Free and Camp Stella—also offer daily open meetings. I mean, really, you’re never going to be at a meeting in the default world sitting between a rainbow unicorn and a naked old guy.
Practice good self-care and rock your boundaries. If you don’t wanna stay up all night every night, then you don’t have to! If you don’t want to be a dirty, sleep-deprived dustball all week, you don’t have to be! Go find those life-saving nail salons or hair-washing stations when you feel the need for some real TLC. And if you’re an introvert like me, don’t be afraid to lie in your tent and read a book or nap when you need some down time to recharge your batteries. Sleep is great, and can really help you enjoy your burn more. If you’re not enjoying a party or activity or person, then politely excuse yourself and go find something else, or go home. The week stretches long when you’re sober, especially if you don’t take care of yourself.
Find other sober burners! They are out there. Last year one of my best friends on the playa was four months pregnant, so we both had good reasons to have lots of sober fun together and practice lots of self-care.
Choose one sober activity to structure your day around, then go from there. That overwhelming little booklet of activities can help you find a mind-blowingingly awesome good time that’s not caused by mind-altering substances. So next time you find yourself jonesing for an adventure, just page through your book and choose between “Naked Fire Spinning for Complete Beginners,” “Make Your Own Tutu and Pasties Party,” watching Tuesday’s Ultramarathoners run dusty laps around the city, an appointment with a Monkey Psychiatrist, or a classical orchestra concert with homemade ice cream at an art piece in deep playa. Get excited about that one sober activity and all the awesome people you will meet, then let the rest of your day flow from there.
Embrace the daytime activities and workshops that you were too hungover to enjoy in the past. Before I got sober, I would miss out on so much of the art and yoga and educational offerings on the playa because I would start every day with those morning Bloody Marys and beers. My FOMO and addiction would take over and not let me say no to a drink or a drug. Now with those options off the table, I have some of the most fun riding my bike around the playa in the early morning while most other people are still sleeping off the party or just trudging home. Last year I made it to an aerial silks class, two Shamanic breathwork sessions, multiple yoga classes, and a few guided meditations. Thanks to all these workouts and personal development activities, I left the burn actually feeling more physically and mentally fit then when I got there.
Be of service. Be available to be of service to other burners. Participate in the gifting economy by bringing something to share, no matter how small. It could be fruit, coffee, cookies, hula hoops or Chapstick to give away. Or you could teach something, or set up a table of art supplies for passersby to stop and get creative. I’ve found that most burners really appreciate heartfelt, healthy offerings, because they’re rare in a popup city crowded with bars and clubs. You can also take on a temporary sponsee from one of the many meetings in the city.
Enjoy being fully present. Whatever happens on the playa, you get to notice it all, feel it all, and remember it all. Take the bad with the good and always look for opportunities to be of service. Remember, sobriety is a gift that lets us go anywhere and do anything! So enjoy it!
Burning Man is from August 26-September 3. More info here about experiencing the playa clean and sober.
2016 Burning Man Festival in Black Rock City, Nevada, USA