The Path Less Intoxicated
Drug culture is standard and social exclusion toward clean-living exists. So let’s change that.
BY BROOKE BECHER | June 3, 2017
It’s 2011 and I’m sharing an inflatable mattress in the back of my friend’s truck amongst strangers and clotting passersby. We’re midway through Coachella and man, was I coming down from the ultimate high:
Off-key, I shouted every lyric back at the greatest singer-songwriter of my generation, Conor Oberst. New York miserabilists, billed as Interpol, absolved my soul in reverb and I nearly slam-danced my triangle top off to Death From Above 1979’s saliva-inducing reunion. I also fell in love that night...with Arcade Fire, a deal sealed by giant, glowing balls plunging from the sky.
Seven Irish men and women all of who spoke in different regional dialects car-camped in the plot behind us. To our right was an abandoned yellow Lamborghini–because that’s a practical desert wagon–and to our left, was Wes and Joey.
Joey was 24 and a total babe. That tall, dark, and handsome bullshit fed to little ladies in training as they unwrap blinking, defecating baby dolls and pink, plastic kitchens. His medieval Helm must’ve been packed away in his tent somewhere.
As a couple of flamboyant ravers in neon headdresses infiltrated our camp, provoking a dance-off soundtracked by a shouldered trance-spewing boombox, I sunk deeper into Joey’s armpit nook. We shared a box of Cheez-its as life happened all around us. It was pure romance.
He leaned forward and offered me a cold one. I declined. He asked why, as if I’d answered incorrectly. That’s when I disclosed that I’m straight edge. He asks me to explain. Everyone leans in.
I don’t drink, smoke, or do recreational drugs–for life, by choice. For me, straight edge is about being fully conscious and aware in an existential sense. It’s become the core to my identity and a crux to why I act the way I act and why I believe in what I believe. It’s embedded in me in such a way that eliminates temptation. Without it, well, nothing would make sense.
"Without it, well, nothing would make sense."
Simply complete and total sobriety. Ooo’s and ahh’s sound all around our impromptu tailgate kickback. There’s really no telling how people will react–until they do, of course.
Straight edge is a subculture of the hardcore punk scene that promotes clean living for a conscious lifestyle–self-avowed abstinence from alcohol, drugs, and tobacco for life.
There is no manifesto or uniform. Just a 46-second anthem titled “Straight Edge” written in 1981 by Minor Threat that goes a little something like this:
“I’m a person just like you, but I’ve got better things to do / than sit around and fuck my head, hang out with the living dead / snort white shit up my nose, pass out at the shows / I don’t even think about speed, that’s something I just don’t need / I’ve got the straight edge.”
Frontman Ian MacKaye didn’t intend for the international movement that ensued. He was just sick of watching his friends waste themselves.
“[In the ’70s] pretty much what I saw were just people getting high,” MacKaye said at the Library of Congress in 2013. “In high school, I loved all my friends, but so many of them were just partying. It was disappointing that that was the only form of rebellion that they could come up with, which was self-destruction.”
"There is no manifesto or uniform. Just a 46-second anthem..."
Mackaye and his band mates began to drag marker tips in an ‘X’ —a along the backs of their hands before gigs at alcohol-serving venues to be clear of their clean intentions. This common minor-marking system predated wristbands and was swiftly adopted by adherents of the movement.
“[Self-destruction] just seemed counterproductive to me,” he continued. “If you wanted to rebel against society, don’t dull the blade.”
When conferring context, it all adds up. The sexual revolution liberated masses. ‘Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll’ became the concoction for a good time. LSD found advocates in the Beatles and Harvard Professor Timothy Leary. The ebb–the lax counterculture of the Beat Generation– gave way to the flow–nihilistic anarcho-punkers upset with society and the system in control of the conformed.
Straight edge became the anti to the anti, providing uncompromised youth with a drug-free alternative. It exchanged punk’s seemingly mandatory inebriated self-abuse and contradictory participation in mainstream drug-culture for clean-living dosed in a PMA, or “positive mental attitude.” The “sxe” movement challenged punk ideology and, through its extreme approach, queried adult rites-of-passage en masse, asking the obvious question–do we really need this stuff?
"The “sxe” movement challenged punk ideology and, through its extreme approach, queried adult rites-of-passage en masse, asking the obvious question–do we really need this stuff?"
And that Kierkegaardian idea–resisting the “supposed to’s” that marred my existential self–resonated with me. To rebel against the rebellion. To have the courage to really think for yourself. It was more punk than punk itself.
Every morning I double-stroked the fat, black Marks-A-Lot across the back of my left hand for school. A handful of kids actually followed me because “it looked cool,” quick to give it up until the next house party. The only other boy I knew to not sell out remains a close friend today. My mom was the “show-mom” that drove the two of us to hardcore gigs in our Pasadena stomping grounds.
We weren’t in it to be cool. We weren’t in it for each other. We sought to be clean to think for ourselves as best we could in the hyperstimulated, media-centric western world.
If there was a local straight-edge scene, we never found it. There may have been two or three prominent sxe bands we listened in on, one being late ‘90s Orange County metallers Throwdown, gargling charming sentiments like “Straight edge for myself / Fuck you, and everyone else” over a breakdown.
Quite explicitly, that was all it really was: a different path, the path less intoxicated.
Mackaye’s invention was as unintentional as my very first encounter with straight edge–an appropriated ‘X’ in black nailpolish at the base of my thumb.
But I couldn’t tell you what inspired that morning’s accessory. A friend had criticized my choice in class, “So, does this mean you’re straight edge now?”
No, it didn’t. It couldn’t, because I had no idea what that was and if I did, I wasn’t even doing it right.
That year I would Google search the term and marry it a year later. I researched the Teen Idles turn to Minor Threat, MacKaye’s other projects like Dischord Records and Fugazi, Davey Havok’s personal journey to sobriety, the PM behind Bad Brains, and so on.
That year I would also experience a particularly dramatic run-in with my divorced parents that led me to a couple of attempted suicides. I was unwilling to talk about it and knew I needed a new hobby than offing myself.
But if we’re going to pinpoint a VH1 “that’s where it all changed” moment, it wasn’t the functioning alcoholic father or the overworked single mom or the preteen episodes of regained consciousness from bathroom-floor tiles–it was seeing my best friend cry.
And if you don’t care then–for the love of God–stop reading because it’s about to get real after-school special right now.
I was probably in my elastic-waisted red skirt on the walk home–a tribute to my scant femininity and body-image insecurities, hiding from pant sizes so I just wore skirts until my hips stopped shifting. By my side, Penny’s dark, vinyl lips dripped from a Mac mask complete with the harshest onyx eyeliner only femme frontmen like Robert Smith or Marilyn Manson dared to draw on.
My stringy thrash-metal split ends. Her fishnets underlined by creepers. My TRIPP jacket. Her plaid bomber. We were a match made in Tim Burton’s hell. Actually, our mothers introduced us.
We were schlepping our way three long blocks to her house. She lived in an upstairs apartment off of a main street in Temple City. This was a simpler time before the city’s mayor did 16-months in a state penitentiary for accepting $13,000 in bribes or a home intruder murdered a woman by samurai sword.
We climbed that last step up at the top of the staircase. The door was unlocked. Her mother, Rachel, must’ve been home.
We went inside. Couch cushions soaked in my sweat. I probably wouldn’t remember this mid-afternoon trauma so intimately if it wasn’t for our immediately regrettable choice to watch Madagascar 2.
Penny's expressionless face contested all was in order, but the playful tone we walked home with didn’t follow us into the dead living room, it’s carpet now covered in eggshells.
Then, it clicks: My mother mentioned earlier in the week how customer complaints had sent Rachel home from work on counts of slurred speech and smelling like Jack Daniels.
Playing it cool, I tried to carry the afternoon despite my friend’s blatant aberration–embarrassment coated in uncertain fear. She didn’t want me there, as a witness, but didn’t know how to ask me to leave. My mom wouldn’t be off for three more hours and Uber wasn’t even conceptually in the works at this time.
About two hours into our hang-out-gone-awry, Rachel barked from her room for Penny's bedside assistance. This would now happen every three or four minutes. With each exchange, my friend was being stripped of a wall she had carefully mortared sub rosa.
For reasons unknown to me, Rachel wanted a phone. She grew more and more desperate.
“Do it. Do it or I’ll fucking kill you.”
“Do it. Do it or I’ll fucking kill you.”
Cue my reflexive intervention.
It was so much easier to sit there half-asleep through this terrible fucking animation of ridiculous, dancing African wildlife covering Reel 2 Real. How was I supposed to react if I wasn’t even sure that the events materializing directly in front of me were actually happening?
But I had to get sure, fast. I also had to somehow stop shaking. I shouted, but whatever I mustered to voice broke like a prepubescent boy reading out loud in class.
“You do NOT talk to her like that. That’s my friend. I don’t care who you are.” I didn’t even curse, mostly because I wasn’t expletively active yet.
That Mac mask that lit up at our inside jokes and bottomless Spongebob references was now smeared to ruin. Well-versed in self respect (thanks mom), I drew the line, but for a moment I was convinced that maybe I was the one who crossed it. Penny didn’t want to leave.
Blacked-out instinct took over. I got us outside and phoned her aunt for rescue.
Later that night, my mom walked into a scene scripted in vomit puddles. She checked Rachel into a withdrawal facility, then a rehabilitation center 72 hours later. Penny would sleep over a lot after that. Not once did we talk about that afternoon, which was fine. She was safe.
These hours play out in a flash every time someone asks me why I chose straight edge. So if I give you a zen bromide instead, take it.
Joey would reject me that night in the desert valley. He said it was because I was “too innocent.” Not the first time I’ve gotten that.
How can I put this gently–I’ve never been drunk or high; I’ve never tripped on anything but shoelaces and cracks in the sidewalk.
My complete lack of temptation often instigates a challenge around hostile crowds. There’s always charming threats to get me “fucked up” or drug my drink when my guard is down. Honorable mention goes to the condescending drink offers from friends already in the loop. And let me tell you, it is just an absolute delight having to revalidate my beliefs–especially at family gatherings with bets placed on when I’ll “grow out of it.”
"The danger here is that it’s actually socially-accepted exclusion: The sober lifestyle is likely the last sanctioned discrimination in progressive societies of modern day."
Alcohol is so normalized in society that my identity as a straight-edge person is seen by skeptics as nothing but a laughable, interim phase. It is ironic to assume (as many critics of the movement do) that straight edgers are sanctimonious when I’ve so often been spoken to as if I was lesser than; a subordinate child unaware of what’s best for myself.
The danger here is that it’s actually socially-accepted exclusion: The sober lifestyle is likely the last sanctioned discrimination in progressive societies of modern day.
Fifteen percent–the all-time low recorded in 2015–of adult Americans smoke cigarettes according to the CDC. Notwithstanding, drinkers of five or more alcoholic beverages in a day capped at 32 percent for men in 2009 and has remained steady, almost level at 31 percent in 2014. Heavy-drinking for women has normalized, reaching 17 percent that same year, and only the Washington Post has been talking about it.
As for our casual drinkers, Gallup notes that social consumption climaxed a 25-year streak since 1985 just last year, while those completely abstaining from alcohol consumption is in atrophy.
Despite heroine having a moment–a 145 percent increase since 2007, drug-usage has been steady, according to 2016’s World Drug Report. But the waning definition of the term “drug” proves to be vague in a time where the populace legalizes a natural plant while businesses shelve pre-workout containing methamphetamine analog that will only be regulated by the FDA after it’s made available to the public.
We’re neck-deep in drug culture, so it’s hard to fake surprise when there’s blatant discrimination aimed at my party’s beliefs. Boohoo, I guess?
Oddly enough, smartphone usage may be forefronting a decrease in drug usage including alcohol. In the New York Times report, scientists have identified a correlation, not causation, that “interactive media appears to play to similar impulses as drug experimentation, including sensation-seeking and the desire for independence.” “Monitoring the Future,” a national study, reports the starkest disinterest in drugs, alcohol, and tobacco amongst teenagers in grades 8, 10, and 12 since the 1990s.
In this Twilight Zone episode that is my life, those under the influence pack me in the judgmental prude box or the inept purist box in under two minutes of our meeting.
I’m not the militant prick edger snuffing druglords in my spare time or the holier-than-thou pusher preaching conversion. If you ask, I’ll reply. But it’s remarkable how often outings head toward a taproom.
From what I’ve gathered in my limited 25 years, there’s a menagerie of reasons to “go out for a drink”: to celebrate, to cope, to grieve, to socialize, to date, to get laid, to have “a good time,” because it’s Thursday, because it’s Friday, because it’s the weekend, because it’s Monday, because you survived Monday to make it through Tuesday, because it’s hump day, because it’s 5 p.m., because it’s 5 p.m. somewhere, because it’s cheap, because it’s expensive, because it’s a way out of the house, or even just because.
I’d like to think that social human experiences are not only worth pursuing if everyone’s boozed up or tripping on stars. The fact that I go to parties as an empty-handed conversationalist wrecks the 20-somethings on the receiving end. In those moments, I’ve never felt more like a fish in an aquarium. I swear, I’m the last surviving unicorn.
"I swear, I’m the last surviving unicorn."
The paramount bummer of it all is that my lack of participation tends to project others insecurities, avoided addictions, or self-judgements they may have onto me, regarding a lifestyle I chose for my individual self. It’s just easier for many to label me as a boring or naive person who is “going through a phase.” Go ahead, I’ve heard it all.
In large, there’s uncalled for shame that surfaces in a millisecond for drinkers across the spectrum–from slow sippers to blackout drunks...and there’s no reason for it! I support your choice. Hell, I envy it.
One request: Can we drop the “I was so wasted” excuse?
So as long as there’s an inebriated alibi–it’s okay? Do you hear how pathetic and rapey that sounds? Often criticized for my “extreme lifestyle,” I wonder: If drinker’s depend on Dutch courage to let loose, then who is really the control freak?
I’ll never have this magic get-out-of-jail-free (okay, maybe not actual jail) statement, meaning if I’m jumping off this roof, it’s because I want to do it. I’m smashing this TV set on the side of the road because there’s a bat in my trunk and it seems like fun. And when we collide in total mosh chaos, it’ll be because it’s fun and it happens to match 2/4 time–not because you’re drunk.
Let’s be stupid for the sake of being stupid.
"Let’s be stupid for the sake of being stupid."
The cosmic joke to this rant on exclusion is, of course, that sobriety not only provided an identity for me, but surprised me with an unforeseen side-effect–my own personal people filter.
Those who stuck around into the third minute of this theoretical sobriety spiel have proven to be some of the most genuine humans I’m honored to have met. They don’t hesitate to hang out, knowing I can include myself in just about any situation. And to the handful that have trickled through my grasp due to frequenting other friend circles reliant to the bar crawl, I get it–it’s just easier.
In order to truly be my authentic self, I must be mindful in every given moment. I’m behind every decision I’m allowed to make, anticipating those with unfavorable ends, and I’m executing it to my best ability. It’s all me.
Speaking as your friendly neighborhood straight-edge kid, let’s revel in mutuality and pledge to not give a fuck what the other person is or isn’t consuming with reciprocated regard and be aware in our own respective debaucheries.
Stay true. Stay you–whoever that may be.