New Orleans is a great place to drink. You'll have adventures, you'll be surrounded by witty, sexy people, and if you're feeling reckless, the rabbit holes here go so deep that if a pebble or a person gets tossed in one, he or she won't be heard hitting bottom for years. New Orleans has the best bars in North America; it's no wonder the city draws thirsty cats from all over looking for a comfortably cool porch under which to finish dying.
New Orleans gave me more than I could handle. After years of kidding myself, I accepted that the only way for me to drink less was to quit drinking altogether. I'd always considered people who didn't drink to be psychological cripples, at best uptight or constitutionally weak, at worst deliberately dull: individuals so afraid of themselves they cut themselves off from pleasure, limiting their palette to life's beiges and grays. Five years sober, I find that assessment to have been accurate.
I experience my sobriety as a disability, and being sober in New Orleans has been a process of adaptation: learning what's possible, learning workarounds, learning my own limits.
When you stop drinking in New Orleans, you find you've closed an entire Pandora's Box of other activities. It's not until you struggle to get sober that you perceive just how deeply the consumption of alcohol is woven into nearly every aspect of New Orleans life. From anti-capitalist, direct-action planning meetings to handshake real estate deals at the Boston Club, alcohol mediates nearly every interaction. It gives even the heathen access to the core Catholic cycle of indulgence and repentance. Here, alcohol is the wide, winding river along which all commerce flows, the sacred blood that washes away our sorrows and our sins.
Speaking from my own experience, the fabled "rock bottom," that personal nadir which is said to precipitate sobriety, is in New Orleans so hard to reach it remains largely theoretical, like the ever-expanding edge of the universe. Whereas in most towns showing up to work visibly hungover or returning sloshed from lunch — or both — would be a scandal, in plenty of New Orleans workplaces it's just the texture of a weekday. Getting fired for being drunk is something your friends will take you out drinking to celebrate; getting 86ed from a bar just gives you a good anecdote to take to the bar next door.
Being in bars is hard on me now. I sweat through my shirt. I gnash the ice from my Diet Coke and then gnaw the straw. There are situational exceptions — if the Saints are playing, you'll find me posted up with my posse in my neighborhood watering hole, barely aware of the temptation all around me — but by and large, time in a bar is like being a video game character wading through lava. I can feel my Heart Level drop second by second.
When I got sober, I did so with two other friends, one of whom has since left town. The other, Max, still goes to bars frequently; his preferred cocktail is Red Bull over ice. "I haven't been able to divorce myself from bars in this city," he told me. "Whether I'm trying to get laid, meeting up with friends, or going to see music, everything is in a bar. I do my laundry in a bar. I like being surrounded by lonely people, cigarette smoke and jukebox music. I like dim lighting, with daylight peeking through the windows. It relaxes me, and probably always will."
I've known multiple sober bartenders, including bar owners who work at their own establishment. It seems to me completely insane, but Addison, a sober New Orleans bartender who works on St. Claude Avenue, assured me it isn't so bad.
"You're around a lot of people with drinking problems — immersed in the tragedy of it," he said. The presence of multiple Ghosts of Christmas Future has a deterrent effect. "With so many far-gone drinkers all around you, you're like 'Oh, right, that's what I'd look like if I was drinking. Or that. Or that. Or that in a year or two.' You have access to all the booze in the world, so it's not as interesting."
My friend Dave, a stalwart of the New Orleans punk scene, is "straight edge" (punkers who abstain from alcohol, tobacco and recreational drugs). He not only doesn't drink alcohol, he doesn't do any drugs at all. With DIY and all-ages venues an endangered species, I wondered how it was being straight edge in a city whose punk shows are so often inside bars.
"At first I probably thought that people noticed [me not drinking] more than they did," Dave said, "but it turns out other people really don't care what you do or don't do. As I've gotten older, I make an active effort to contribute to bars I go to, out of respect for the bartenders and service industry folks. I learned which bars have Abita root beer on tap, which have sparkling water. I always make sure to order something, so I can contribute to the venue and tip the bartender."
On Sept. 15, 2009, I declared myself really sober, sober-for-real, and sent out a bunch of intense text messages about it. That evening I attended a downtown theater production so poisonously self-congrat-ulatory and irrelevant that, fleeing the show during intermission, I felt I had to either get drunk or kill myself. No other responses seemed possible; the show was unsurvivably, terminally terrible.
A few days later I got myself together and got sober again. I was embarrassed to have stumbled so soon, but it was an important lesson: Without the armor of alcohol, I am histrionically sensitive to bad art. Lazy or uninterestingly inarticulate art, art that comes from a place of complacency, psyschologically dishonest art — all are intensely triggering for me. This makes post-Katrina New Orleans a minefield; I avoid St. Claude on gallery night.
Identifying what triggers your cravings is a crucial piece of sobriety. To the degree that anything in my indolent lifestyle resembles work, being actively engaged in some activity, paid or otherwise, gives the desire to drink less space in my consciousness — but then, I don't work in our city's exploitative service industry.
How do you survive waiting tables without drinking? "Barely," according to Carley, a veteran waitress most recently employed at a family restaurant on Magazine Street. "Barely, if at all. Inevitably you slip up, because the pressure is too hard. Nine of the 10 times I've fallen off the wagon, it was after a hard night at the restaurant. Nothing sits on my tongue worse than being yelled at by my boss, and nothing drives me to drink like work.
"If it was busy and I worked hard, that hits me at a chemical level — my blood sugar, dehydration, all those things drive me to want to drink. But more often, it's the searing abuse. Being disrespected makes me want to drink, and waiting tables, it's constant. If you made a chart of work that was meaningless and work where you got mistreated, the service industry would be the apex of those crossing lines: pointlessness and abuse. ... It can't be worth treating people like this over anything, let alone over getting jalapeno poppers to a table."
One of modern life's biggest challenges is alienation, felt frequently as loneliness or a sense of being isolated in whatever literal or figurative way from other people, for instance being sober in a situation where everyone else is drunk. "Big events like Mardi Gras have lost a lot of their luster," a sober French Quarter retail employee told me. "I wish I could enjoy these iconic New Orleans situations without having a drink in my hand, but it's tough when just walking through the streets there's a good chance of someone spilling alcohol on you. If you kiss someone, their breath reeks of it. Going between Point A and Point B during any holiday, you have to exercise a lot of patience and self-restraint that you wouldn't have to if you were wasted."
I spoke with Alex, a sober friend who works in investment and keeps a busy calendar of high-end, relatively exclusive Uptown social events. I was curious whether he felt being sober held him back socially or professionally. "Ninety-nine percent of the time it's a non-issue," he told me. "Most people really don't care what's in your cup, as long as you're holding one." To the contrary, he finds sobriety gives him an edge. "If I had two drinks, I would probably have 14, regardless of the situation. Even at an event where I should have been paying attention to the people around me, to get their business, I would get too drunk and forget their names. So I think it's actually helped me in social situations that I'm sober."
I got the opposite answer from my waitress friend. "Not being able to go drinking with your co-workers is a setback," she said. "It costs you that feeling of camaraderie, which is really important in a workplace. And there's an economic aspect: To succeed in the service industry here you have to negotiate these interdependent relationships. Going to the bar together is part of that. There are two kinds of French Quarter bars: bars for tourists, and bars for people who serve tourists. One doesn't exist without the other. Going to the bar after work is almost like part of the job.
"I'd compare drinking and waiting tables to the Marxist-feminist concept of reproductive labor. In the same way a factory worker might have a spouse at home cooking, cleaning and doing laundry for them, and that's an off-site, unpaid part of the factory chain of exploited labor, drinking after work is an action you take in order to create the condition in which your body can continue to serve capitalism."
Parties are the next-biggest alcohol-powered pressure-cooker. Sober, you learn to show up unfashionably early, buying yourself a little time for conversation before everyone else is entirely sauced. "I always leave whatever the event is by midnight at the absolute latest," Alex told me. "11:30 or 12 is when people really get sloppy and it stops being fun."
You learn to bring your own non-alcoholic drinks to parties; it's that, or endless glasses of tap water. Depending on the circles in which you move, the person throwing the party may be sensitive to your condition, in which case you become like one of those people with a suspiciously contrived food allergy. The host's eyes dance with self-congratulation as she presents you whatever non-alcoholic beverage she procured specially for you, a little cup of Special Olympics bronze medal you can grip and sip just like the big kids.
Parties stop being a great way to get laid: Drunk people can't give consent, especially not to some creep who hasn't had a single drink all night. If you persist in going to parties, eventually, inevitably, perhaps early on and frequently, you will be propositioned by a drunk person you find attractive. Sexually rejecting someone you want to sleep with is a thankless ordeal, but it's that or being a rapist; there is no third choice. A sober person having sex with a drunk person is rape. There will be people you want to sleep with who are drunk all the time. You can't ever sleep with them.
My friend Megan, who's sober, recently broke up with her partner, who had an extreme drinking problem. Could she date a casual drinker, though? "I don't want to sound snide," she said, "but I don't know that many casual drinkers in New Orleans. I think I could date someone who drank in a less self-destructive way. If you can't find a way to be comfortable around people who drink, you're gonna have a miserable time overall."
For all you lose being sober, there are things you gain, including a sometimes merciless clarity. "Alcoholism extends beyond your relationship to alcohol," a sober friend who works in the DIY theater scene told me. "I recognize alcoholic tendencies now in my social group that don't even necessarily occur while drinking: people needing more and more space for their feelings to be validated, more and more space claimed for their terrible self-esteems. I'm not saying we shouldn't be sympathetic, but there doesn't seem to be a limit to it. That strikes me as very alcoholic.
"So many people I know here have serious drinking problems. People come to you over and over, talking about how they feel terrible in the mornings, they're crippled by anxiety and depression — and the common factor is alcohol. But in the past year, the majority of my core circle of friends have dramatically reduced the amount they drink. It's a weird, crotchety renaissance. People are ready to admit their bodies just can't handle the way we used to drink in the past."
While the very notion of parenthood makes me want to reach for the bottle, for some it has the opposite effect. I spoke with Khaila, a recent first-time mom who's also a doula in New Orleans. "When I found out I was pregnant, I stopped drinking right away," she said. "That was the plan: no more for the next seven or eight months. But like most people, I was already four to eight weeks pregnant by the time I found out, and I'd been drinking and more during that period, so I think some of my zeal had to do with absolving my guilt.
"I'm a pretty heavy social drinker, so when I was out and about without a drink people immediately noticed. They got it right away: 'You don't have a drink? You're pregnant, aren't you?'
"My decision changed throughout pregnancy. When I first found myself breaking down and having a glass of wine I felt so guilty about it, and if you're drinking while you're visibly pregnant, that feels very taboo. But talking it over with other moms and my friends, toward the end of my pregnancy, it became a thing I felt justified in: I am allowed to have this one beer, I am allowed to have this glass of wine. The [American Medical Association] says no, but they treat pregnant women like vessels. In other parts of the world pregnant women carry on with their normal lives.
"The people in the birth-work community are about half and half. Either it's 'Of course you don't drink!' or 'Those people are idiots; of course you can have a glass of wine.' It's a little adversarial. I will recommend to the moms I work with that since pregnancy is stressful and isolating, especially for first-time parents, if they want to sit in the bathtub and have a glass of wine, they deserve it.
"But it's hard to have one glass of wine. It's hard to have one beer, especially when you're out and about and everyone else gets to have five or 10. For me that one drink was my compromise: I wasn't satisfied with a glass of wine, but I felt like I was at least not denying myself entirely."
Even New Orleans' famous laissez-faire has limits, especially when it comes to womens' decisions over their own bodies. "When I had a glass of wine while eight or nine months pregnant, I could feel the eyes burning into the back of my head," Khaila said. "I was taking good care of myself and doing this really good job with my pregnancy, and all these barflies were judging me so hard. It really pissed me off."
She wasn't off the hook post-delivery. "There were all these jokes and greeting cards about how I was going to have martinis in the delivery room, but it wasn't like that," she said. "It's hard to drink while you're nursing, and that's frustrating. On the flip side, for being such a drunken city, New Orleans has so much going on: art and culture, day and night. During my pregnancy was when I really got into going to second lines. While pregnant, or with a little baby, I could be sober and dance in the sunshine with everyone else. Instead of a day sacrificed to a hangover, Sunday became the best day of my week."
New Orleans is a hell of a challenging place in which not to drink, but it still offers experiences nowhere else can. Somewhat to my surprise, it's possible to build a life around those experiences without alcohol.
Living here sober is strange, but if you live here, it's unlikely to be the strangest thing about you.