California Sober

For those on the ‘California Sober’ wagon, tippling is out — but tripping is A-OK.

It’s the memes, for me.

Throughout this pandemic, frivolous Instagram accounts like @boozybetch, @circleofidiots, @crazybitchprobs, and others have depicted everyday life as an unending series of lowest-common-denominator humiliations. They present a campy and meme-savvy, but otherwise culturally barren, version of our existence, with its ever-lower expectations, awkward adjustments to Zoom etiquette, and lackadaisical approach to getting drunk and high alone during business hours. Filling a wine glass to the brim and watching hours of TikTok on a Monday? Sure! Nothing matters anymore, and everyone’s doing it.

There’s a lot of truth to this. It’s not that we’re all drinking a lot more — wine consumption actually fell in 2020 — but we’re seldom, if ever, drinking together, and this makes people uncomfortable in a way that spurs us to share memes about falling down in broad daylight. My man and I have found ourselves on many a Tuesday night opening that second bottle of passable zin to binge another few episodes of Tiger King (way back when) or Big Mouth (now), and then zonking out wondering if that’s all there is. We’re all in this together — ”it” being a party with an open bar on a boat with wine barrels for ballast — floating down a river of bourbon-aged memes.

And so it was that sober January took on a new level of gravitas this time around. Ten months into COVID, eight weeks into our current lockdown, and with the dust still settling from the attempted coup, it feels like some form of permissive self-improvement is mandatory. But while abstaining from alcohol may help us break out of egocentric loops and lead our physicians to turn that frown upside down the next time they review one of our hepatic panels, do we really have to dry out entirely — like, from everything?

Enter the state of “California Sober,” an alcohol-free quasi-penance that still lets you enjoy that edible or bliss out in the park with a cap and a stem. Rooted in harm-reduction rather than the absolutism of 12-step programs, it’s also an acknowledgment that, 25 years after Proposition 215 legalized medical marijuana, cannabis has fully integrated into the fabric of California living — and psilocybin isn’t far behind.

“Cali sober” is not a new term. Technically, a writer for VICE coined it in an April 2019 essay. However, it has recently become a marketing buzzword for PR firms pushing products “in the wellness space.” The novel coronavirus seems to have played a role in hustling the concept into the open as a sort of ethical, discerning escapism, and over the course of the first (and hopefully only) January of the COVID-era, your Facebook and Instagram feeds may have been awash in ads encouraging you to “Elevate Your Sober January!”

Unlike the equally trendy practice of microdosing mushrooms or LSD, California Sober is meant to be consciously felt and enjoyed when most other adult outlets for pleasure have been closed off. Whether you’re spiritual or a hedonist, it’s a way to consume and indulge without becoming a slurring mess.

It’s the ambiguously decadent status of our time.

Tee-Partialer

I am a heavy social drinker. I’m a writer, I’m queer, I’m a Pisces, I’m Irish-Catholic, I’m a former bartender, and most of all, I’m an extrovert who loves parties and festivals, so I can really put it away. While we’re being candid, I’m also a recreational user of some drugs. 

Moderation doesn’t come naturally to me, in any area of life; I can only do abstinence or excess. I don’t believe I have any physical or psychological addictions. But I have a strong social dependency on alcohol, which years of writing about food and nightlife only solidified. Throughout COVID, I’ve had boozy weeks punctuated by five or six nights of abstaining, and during periods when it’s been OK to socialize outdoors, I’ve probably eaten more mushrooms than in any comparable period of my life. What I barely consume, though, is cannabis, which even in small doses makes me slow-witted and antisocial, and leaves me lethargic and depleted the next day.

Right now, mostly but not entirely unrelated to this assignment, I’m on a 40-day break from all drugs and alcohol, and I’m actually surprised by the absence of temptation. I’m averaging 15,000 steps a day, cycling like crazy, and listening to new music in a structured way (although I can’t stop spinning The Avalanches’ plunderphonic space odyssey We Will Always Love You while pedalling to the beach and back). I’ve grown obsessed with my stats as an indicator of self-worth. To paraphrase Lykke Li: Strava, you’re my boyfriend / Strava, I’m your girl.

I’ve taken breaks like this before, because sobriety always seemed like an all-or-nothing proposition, like uniqueness or being dead or alive. You’re either in a state of intoxication or you aren’t. But as with degrees of vegetarianism, it might be better to reconsider sobriety less in terms of absolutes than as a state of being with gradations. It’s also more of a culturally constructed concept than a static definition. For instance, I have a friend who’s sober and won’t do poppers (amyl nitrate) but who consumes nicotine and caffeine without compunction.

I asked another friend who makes a good living, and who I know to be a regular cannabis user, what he thought about all this.

“You’re the first person to call it ‘California Sober’ to me, but I like the title,” Eric tells me from somewhere near Sacramento on his drive back from a long trip home to Iowa. “Reduce my alcohol consumption in general, but keep the cannabis. I don’t sleep well when I drink too much, and everything about my life is poorer, so why not curtail that?”

Eric was never a big drinker — “maybe one or two, and usually only on the weekends,” he says. Hangovers have intensified as he’s grown older, and COVID presents fewer opportunities for socializing, anyway. On most points we agree: January is a good time to pull back, food is the real comfort these days, doing ketamine alone doesn’t sound fun, getting high in the Jacuzzi after a 2,000-mile drive does. California Sober fits the moment.

Psychedelics, which I’ve come to think of as the crucial supporting cast member of California Sober, are more of a group activity for Eric, so he hasn’t even had any mushrooms since the onset of the pandemic. Others have, though. Jason Raffin, a chef who used to run Comstock Saloon in North Beach before moving to Maui a year ago, got sober a week after his plane touched down.

“I realized that I basically had just been getting fucked up my entire life, and it’s been great and I don’t regret a single second of it, but I wanted more for myself,” he says. “I could have stayed in San Francisco and owned restaurants and done very well for myself and lived this lifestyle, but I wanted to search other crevices in my existence and see what else is out there.”

He attended a few AA meetings, concluded that it wasn’t for him, made a circle of sober friends, and began working out consistently while putting in 60-hour weeks in the kitchen. When COVID ground tourism to a halt, he and a friend decided to live on the beach for 10 days in that tropical way that makes everyone in the Lower 48 realize they’re caught in the rat race.

“We just cooked and took acid and went on floaties off Lahaina and the only thing you had to worry about was starting the fire every morning and cooking dinner,” he says. “Everyone was freaking out about COVID, we were drinking water straight from the coconut and going on adventures — very noticeably on drugs, by the way.”

At one point he was singularly focused on caramelizing a pineapple over an open flame, and little else. While his camping buddy had a beer in his hand most of the time, Raffin himself never felt the urge to crack one open.

“I haven’t gone to AA in nine months,” he says. “I support my friends who do, but fast-forward to 10 months after I stopped: I’ve lost 20-30 pounds of fat, I’m in the best shape of my life, I’ve started a nonprofit called Chef Collective for COVID, I wrote a cookbook Keto Like a Chef, and I did the entire food program for Curio remotely in June.” 

New Life & Ego Death

Others are celebrating different achievements. This past New Year’s Eve marked 19 years without a drink for a person I’ll call H. A trans woman in Marin County whose wife cultivates cannabis, H. had relied on the black-and-white strictures of AA throughout her recovery, until she recently began smoking pot as well as consuming mushrooms.

“I didn’t have any room for gray, because I almost died several times. I lost a legal career, I was addicted to crack cocaine, I lost everything,” she says. “I don’t want to have someone in AA say, ‘Look at her! She smokes pot!’ I don’t want to be a distraction.”

What she wants to do in AA is talk about her desire not to drink. She has long since lost the urge, and largely smokes to be sociable or when doing mushrooms, which is always on special occasions in the company of her wife.

“I can make really sound decisions around marijuana,” H. says. “MDMA I’ve done, and I really liked, but the jury’s still out on that. It’s synthetic, and it does mess with my brain chemistry a little bit. It’s harder the next day, coming down. I think I could find the [drawbacks] outweigh the benefits.” 

Mushrooms, though, have been beneficial, H. says, helping her realize she can’t take care of everyone or control the outcome of every situation. The day after ingesting them, she typically feels relief and a sense of purpose. Like alcohol, psilocybin can decrease anxiety, but in other ways, they’re worlds apart. Mushrooms de-emphasize the ego whereas alcohol amplifies it, sometimes to the point of physical violence. They intensify colors and make the wind moving through the branches of a tree appear unfathomably beautiful, while getting tanked impairs sensory function. It’s an entirely different diminution of inhibitions, more cosmic, more unifying.

Learning that Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, did around 50 guided acid trips later in life also helped H. find peace with her decision to try psychedelics as long as certain conditions were met. 

“We never talk about that in AA,” she says.

It’s true, though. In Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind, he writes about how puzzled researchers in the 1950s were by LSD, many of whom administered it to themselves. Analyzing its effects by watching people trip in a lab setting — which sounds like a horrible way to go on that odyssey, and the opposite of H.’s loving environment — clinicians determined that acid could mimic delirium tremens, jolting severe alcoholics who participated in their studies into sobriety. 

This met with some long-term success. Between 1950 and 1965, there were six international scientific conferences and more than a thousand clinical papers on psychedelics, Pollan writes. To call this a “secret history” sounds a little overblown, but recent trends in psychology are reconnecting with it under the banner of harm reduction, that meet-people-where-they’re-at approach to our all-too-human struggles.

“Harm-reduction doesn’t have to do with substances,” says Douglas Russell, a counselor who specializes in the field. “It’s more far-reaching than people want to admit. It’s about the philosophy of what in your life is causing you harm and how do you mitigate the damage: a behavior pattern, a toxic relationship, substances, things that get in the way of becoming who you want to be.”

While careful to acknowledge the benefits that some get from12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, Russell notes that the tenets of AA are modeled not only on Protestant sermonizing mixed with Freudian dogma about the superego, but on outdated medical science — like the notion, popular in the 1930s, that people who could no longer manage their drinking were allergic to alcohol.

“Most of my clients bring up a lot of feelings of shame, because the language of theology — or any sort of moralistic language — uses shame as a motivating factor,” Russell says. “And ultimately, shame does not create long-lasting change. There has been so much proof that peer-based programs, with no quote-unquote professionals in the room, absolutely, 100 percent work, but they don’t necessarily work for long periods.”

Phrases like “fell off the wagon” imply personal sloppiness, but individuals who must contend with chronic pain or mental-health issues may actually function better by using substances than while sober. Increasingly, the modern goal of recovery is improved decision-making, and professionals recognize that abuse of one substance won’t necessarily translate to another.

“What I felt, when I was in 12-step, was I had problems with meth — not with marijuana. I would very rarely use marijuana. I use it now more than I ever did meth and I’m still not a regular user,” Russell says. “I have pills in my cabinet that other people would be desperate to steal. But if I walk into AA, they’ll say ‘You were using meth problematically!’ There’s a lot of areas to be judged on.”

Programs that encourage radical honesty or surrender to a higher power can put such people at a disadvantage. They may consciously lie to the group about something they don’t feel they have an issue with, like cannabis, which has therapeutic uses like the alleviation of anxiety.

“Why do we have to look at that as problematic, unlike Prozac or any of the other psychoactive drugs that a psychiatrist would prescribe to make them feel more in control of their life?” Russell asks. “‘California Sober’ should be recognized and not looked at as illegitimate. There’s still a public perception that if you are a chaotic drug user and somehow this is your cross to bear for the rest of your life, you’re always going to be three feet from the gutter and the only way forward is not using. That’s bullshit.”

High Time

The concept of sobriety itself might soon need what linguists call a “retronym” to differentiate California sober from sober-sober, just as the advent of almond and soy milk require us to specify “dairy milk” when referring to what used to be plain old milk. 

Whether we restructure the idea of sobriety in our minds, the list of things we ingest or don’t ingest to stay healthy or remain upstanding moral people is still fraught with illogic and in-group politics. Metaphors of purity and contamination have a dark history to contend with. Fur-clad insurrectionists demand organic meals in jail, racist wellness advocates propose “clean” versions of established cuisines, and anti-vaxxers obsess over the allegedly nefarious properties of a particular class of life-saving medicines. Much of this is emotional, not scientific, rooted in a vague, all-encompassing wariness of unspecified “chemicals” that take away our sense of control. Sometimes, the cumulative effects are tragicomic. Consumers prefer visual evidence of safety and sterility, so our world has become one of excessive Amazon packaging and shrink-wrapped supermarket cucumbers — and as a result, carcinogenic microplastics have become so entrenched in the environment that they’re found in Arctic ice cores

A few weeks into my extended break from drinking, I’m pleased to find myself much more conscious about what I eat. I can say no to things more easily. But I also think about the devil’s lettuce more and more. Now that we inhabit a consumer wonderland of cannabis products, much of it aimed at people who don’t want to get baked off their ass, it’s impossible to resist. So I reached out to Phil McGarr, cofounder of Wünder, a low-dose, sparkling, cannabis-infused beverage. 

A 20-year cannabis veteran, McGarr and his colleagues noted that at one point in their lives, they’d all been drinking to excess, so they wanted to create a cannabis substitute that approximated the experience of a can of beer or glass of wine — trickier than it sounds, given that cannabis is an oil.

“In the last two years, there’s been a revolution in emulsion technology, so we partnered with Vertosa out of Oakland,” he says. “They’ve been working on making cannabis water-soluble. That’s a huge evolution.”

Sobriety in a social setting has been hard, McGarr observes. If you show up to the party with a six-pack of O’Doul’s, good on you for trying to enjoy “glorified hop-flavored water while everyone else is relaxing and giggling.” A series of happy-hour focus groups at his home in the Lower Haight yielded an ultra-low-dose formulation cannabis beverage that’s heavier on the compounds that give you a body high (CBD plus delta-8 cannabinoids, as opposed to the more psychoactive delta-9) and flavored like an Italian soda. They’re intended to be sessionable, so you can have more than one without becoming overwhelmed. You can even drink an eight-ounce can before yoga without worrying about passing out in shavasana. 

Wünder is very much a San Francisco company. McGarr calls Dolores Park “ground zero” and “a safe haven to get weird.” Indeed, Dolores — hallowed ground for the Ohlone Ramaytush, former Jewish cemetery, and epicenter of San Francisco’s summer-free endless summer — is as evocative of California Sobriety as a camping trip to Mendocino, a ginger-turmeric iced tea at the Ace Hotel, or the hashtag #vanlife.

“I think ‘California Sober’ is totally appropriate” as a term, McGarr says. “A lot of the psychedelic movement, and the health and wellness movement, really burgeoned out of California in the last 30 or 40 years.”

Nowadays, he only drinks “very intentionally,” and takes periodic breaks from cannabis, too.

“You don’t have to have sobriety from cannabis to be healthy. I just need to be conscious and aware of my consumption,” he adds. “Having Wünder was this great thing to be able to relax and tune into my body. There are people who have a problem with substances and you need to draw a line and say, ‘What’s a problem for me?’ ”

Wünder is for hanging out, but it’s also something of a performance-enhancing drug. It puts McGarr in a flow state, he says, such that he uses it in his meditation practice, freely volunteering that many people might find that sacreligious.

“I feel my body in a primal, animalistic way,” he says. “I feel grounded and present. With an edible, I’m not always present.”

On the 21st day of my sobriety, I hiked Mt. Diablo’s Waterfall Trail with two friends who are more into cannabis than I am. I brought along the sample pack of Wünder that McGarr had sent me,. along with chips, water, and dried fruit. We shared Blood Orange Bitters and Grapefruit Hibiscus (the best one) in the parking lot and saved Lemon Ginger for a snack break. Forty-five minutes in, I felt like I had taken two baby steps toward the land of Not Making Any Sense Whatsoever — this is typical for me — but otherwise McGarr was right. Inhaling the cool air, I could feel the astringency of the bay trees in my lungs and the satisfaction of noting my quads at work.

It was a good high — but I don’t think I’ll ever find the strain or the edible or the product that gives me exactly what I want out of cannabis the way brioche-y sparkling wines will always be the perfect alcohol. I want to giggle and feel relaxed and full of warmth without suddenly wondering if what I just said was actually incredibly offensive somehow and maybe everyone barely puts up with me. Fundamentally, I don’t love anything that takes me deeper into my own mind. I want to feel like I stared into the void and came away with renewed confidence that all we have is now, so let’s be kind to one another and Choose Life (in the George Michael way, not the anti-abortion way).

Coming Clean

Right after New Year’s, my doctor’s office randomly called with a questionnaire about drug and alcohol use. Knowing that admitting to five drinks in one sitting once a week is likely to set off the klaxons, I almost always lie on these things, but for once in my life I decided to answer honestly — or almost honestly.

I didn’t fib or equivocate, but I also didn’t volunteer that my most recent LSD experience was one of the most incredibly beautiful days of my life or that at Dirtybird Campout 2019 I went hard from about 10:30 a.m. to 5 a.m. every day and still remember most of the sets at that mind-blowing weekend.

I’ve never been arrested. I’ve never had a DUI. I’ve never injured myself or someone else, or lost a friend, a job, or a boyfriend because of substances. I’m not a weepy drunk, an angry drunk, or an out-of-control drunk. I don’t write drunk. But I can easily consume 10 drinks at a party, go home, drink some water, sleep it off, maybe feel a little sluggish until 4 p.m., and not think anything of it. Nevertheless, while all of this is true, I’ve never felt it wise to say as much to a medical professional.

I also worry about saying something glib, like referring to myself as a temporarily hibernating party animal. So I usually answer the question “Do you ever need a drink in the morning?” with extra horror in my voice. (I don’t drink in the morning, for the record.)

Two weeks after I came (mostly) clean, my doctor called. By the time she rang, I had been dead sober for 16 days. To her, my break sounded like I wanted to make a permanent change and didn’t quite know how, but all she could prescribe were drugs like naltrexone or Campral to combat insatiable urges to drink. Mercifully, I didn’t have to protest because she quickly dismissed their applicability out of hand.

She wasn’t especially judgmental, but the call ended ambiguously. It was strange being held to account for medically inadvisable habits I currently have no trouble refraining from on an extended basis. It just felt like one more way I’m a big dumb misfit. As a somewhat overweight, nonbinary partier born in 1981 I’m neither obese or fit, male or female, Gen-X or Millennial, out-of-control or especially sensible. I needed to talk to someone more on my wavelength in terms of a lust for life — but also willpower.

Jason Raffin, the chef on Maui, was using President Biden’s Inauguration as a celebratory occasion to break his sobriety with a three-day party.

“I created a menu and I got a bunch of extracurriculars and we’re buying a ton of alcohol,” he says. “We’re doing Pisco Sours, gimlets, a 23-year sherry-cask whiskey for Old Fashioneds, an adventure into all the drinks I missed for the year, have them all in three days, and go back to being sober in February.”

That’s very similar to the birthday blowout I’d long been planning for myself this coming March, until the pandemic decided to stick around longer (minus the queer disco orgy on the first night). My plan had been to rent a house in Marin and have everyone go nuts, plus there’s going to be oysters. It will be called “Dynamite with a Laser Beam: The 40th Birthday of Peter-Astrid Kane” and it will knock the earth off its axis.

I’m still doing it at some point. But until speaking with Jason, I hadn’t given much thought to what would come after the world reopens. A resumption of former habits or something healthier? I’m surer than ever it will fall somewhere toward the latter. As Rivers Cuomo sings on “Running Red Lights” by The Avalanches, “California life is all right with me.”

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