My First Sober Mardi Gras

Sober and exhausted from dancing at my best friend's wedding 2016  (Photo credit)

Sober and exhausted from dancing at my best friend's wedding 2016  (Photo credit)

Rituals

My best friend and I started every Mardi Gra the same way every year: at her apartment applying  glitter and false eyelashes and drinking coffee. This was before the rents spiked in New Orleans, so she lived on the ground level of a Garden District mansion where the cypress floors gleamed from light flooding through floor-to-ceiling windows.

We followed the same route every year, with Mardi Gras magic intervening when we needed a bathroom or to get out of a downpour. We always began with Zulu, flinging ourselves at the floats to get our hands on hand-painted coconuts. When the crowds swelled, we wandered along St. Charles. For Mardi Gras, they close the road, floats on one side and a pedestrian walkway on the other. The neutral ground is for grilling and ladders topped with children.

My first year sober, I feared losing the magic of this day more than any other thing about sobriety. What if I got out there and realized Mardi Gras was nothing but a bunch of hedonists degrading themselves in their own vomit? What if I never gave a shit about Mardi Gras again?

Running into Nikki in 2013, my last drinking Mardi Gras. I honestly don't recognize myself.

Running into Nikki in 2013, my last drinking Mardi Gras. I honestly don't recognize myself.

Mardi Gras gets real

By that first sober year, my best friend had already moved out of town but was coming back. I was afraid to ask to tag along with her because my sobriety was new. I didn't fear for it, but I definitely feared being the wet, sober blanket around which everyone tiptoed. That's what I remember most about early sobriety: worrying this new thing would alienate me from the people I loved most. 

My friend is lively and brilliant and has no shortage of people who love to spend time with her. By the time I asked, she had made plans with another group of friends. Sobriety - whether chemical or emotional - is all about scouring the stories we tell ourselves for truth. In my story about sobriety, nothing would change. I was sober, but I could still stay out in the Quarter dancing until dawn. I could go to the same parties and talk to the same people and be the same person, just with a water in my hand instead of a 12-pack of beer. This was the moment I had to face that story wasn't true.

My friend is wiser than I am. I won't speak for her, but I would guess a newly sober me on the drunkest day of the year felt too dangerous to risk. Two years later, this makes perfect sense. Our annual pilgrimage across the city involved reveling in abandon. While she could wake the next day and leave the debauchery, I couldn't.  

But that's not how I felt. That moment confirmed everything I suspected about sobriety: I would lose all my friends, I would never enjoy anything as much as I once had, and things I loved like Mardi Gras would suck, forever embittering me until I died.

I've lost most of my Mardi Gras pics, so here's another great one of the wedding. Photo credit

I've lost most of my Mardi Gras pics, so here's another great one of the wedding. Photo credit

Sober Fat Tuesday

Of course, that's not what happened. 

I called two of my friends, a couple in their fifties I knew as mild drinkers that loved parades nearly as much as I did. Kathy, a fiesty giant all of 4'11, would whip between much larger parade goers and snatch prized throws before they even saw them while Summer stood in the back rows, content to bob to the music. 

We wound through the city following a nearly identical route as I had every year since I came to New Orleans. We got coffee and sausages on St. Charles and watched Zulu cut the corner at Jackson. We trekked through the CBD, stopping in that tiny magical bar to use the bathroom, then veered into the Quarter in time for St. Anne, a parade famous for its grassroots and extravagant artistry. We ended up in front of Lafitte's Blacksmith's Shop, the same as I had every year, where I saw my best friend and danced maniacally to pop music blaring from giant speakers. 

Were there drunk people? Absolutely. If you're looking for that Mardi Gras, you'll find it. There are plenty of examples of keening frat boys too drunk to get their dicks out of their pants as they piss in an alley (right before the cops handcuff them, because you can do a lot here but pissing on the street ain't one of them). There are women dancing naked on balconies, wobbly enough that you're afraid they're going to fall off. There is vandalism, exhibitionism, drug use, and drunk people galore. Everyone knows this: it's what they come for.

But that's not my Mardi Gras. Mine happens in the side streets of small neighborhoods, running into friends I hadn't seen all year, all of us glowing like kids who got exactly what they wanted for Christmas. I love Mardi Gras. And, like the magical holiday it is, Mardi Gras loves me back. 

Do you know what did change for my Mardi Gras? I got home at a decent hour and remembered the entire day. I didn't get into a fight with a single person, the emotional fallout lasting weeks into Lent. I didn't put myself in dangerous situations and thank the Mardi Gras gods that I had made it out. I didn't skid across the sidewalk, my knee scarred and a little achy to this day. I went out, I paraded, I danced, all while sober.