Sober spaces and support at Pagan festivals

Terence P Ward —  June 17, 2015 — 14 Comments

For those who participate in one or more festivals during the warm weather, it’s an opportunity to let down some personal guards and be temporarily freed from the pressures of the overculture. Festivals are often the only way for many Pagans, Heathens and Polytheists to worship in groups, learn from respected authors and elders, and compare notes with co-religionists. Within these spaces, they can recharge their spiritual batteries and become inspired to deepen religious practice.

Attendees dance at Pagan Spirit Gathering, photo credit cara Schulz

Attendees dance at Pagan Spirit Gathering 2014 [Photo Credit: Cara Schulz]

Joy and revelry are also not at all uncommon. As such, festivals represent a mixed blessing for would-be participants who struggle with a substance abuse problems, or those wishing to continue a recovery process without backsliding. Alcohol and, in some jurisdictions, marijuana are legal for adults to consume, and can be readily found. These and other temptations can prove difficult to resist for a recovering addict, but they are part and parcel of these beloved festivals that offer valuable opportunities to connect, learn, and celebrate.

The Wild Hunt reached out to organizers of a wide range of festivals to find out what, if any, resources are available for people in recovery. The answers varied, depending on a number of factors, including the size and age of the event, the interest level of participants in there being sobriety supports, and the philosophy underpinning the festival itself.

12 Steps and More

The 12 step program, first developed for Alcoholics Anonymous, is by far the best-known support system for people in recovery. It is also strongly rooted in Abrahamic tradition and, therefore, it is often presented in a strongly Christian context.  However, there are adaptations designed to be more explicitly Pagan-friendly, such as Spiral Steps. With those changes, it is possible to run a 12-step meeting for Pagans that provides participants with the support they need.

Rev. Selena Fox wrote the book on Pagans in recovery called When Goddess is God: Pagans, Recovery, and Alcoholics Anonymous.  It is the 60-page thesis that resulted from research done as part of her Master’s degree in counseling. While the work wasn’t published until 1995, Fox’s applied work in the field began much earlier, and led to the creation of Amethyst Circle at Pagan Spirit Gathering.

Amethyst is both a site for daily 12-step meetings during PSG, and a camping area that is alcohol-free. Zan, one of the coordinators, took the time to talk to us, even while packing for this year’s event:

We have meetings at lunchtime every day.There is a lot going on across the festival at that time, but we are located away from most everything. We never talk to anyone about who we saw at our meeting, or what was said.That is the norm for 12 step meetings so we can feel safe to talk. As far as I know, there has never been a problem involving anonymity. I have had people run into me around the festival and talk about issues. This might be indicative of the quest for more anonymity or busy schedules, I cannot be sure.

The camping area is open to anyone who does not plan to drink. Many people camp there who are not familiar with 12 step programs [and choose to camp there] because it is a quieter area of the camp. In truth, there are few people who go to our meetings who actually camp in Amethyst camp itself. I chock that up to relationships people have formed over the years.

Florida Pagan Gathering also has similar meetings. As explained by organizer Ann Marie, “We had a request from some of our patrons about 10 years ago, and since that time we do have onsite AA meetings,”  which are run each evening by a longtime attendee. She added, “We set aside a very private space for the group to meet. Thus far everyone has stated they do not want a sober section and prefer to camp with all of their friends, but if we had such a request from even one person we would designate an area. FPG supports sobriety and are happy to accommodate the needs of our patrons whenever possible.”

Hand in hand with confidentiality is discretion, which is part of why camps like Amethyst Circle are away from the main traffic areas. At Kaleidoscope Gathering, discretion extends to the programming, which according to organizer Maryanne Pearce includes this blurb for AA and NA (Narcotics Anonymous) meetings:

Some people have a difficult time with the Well of Dionysus, the gold of Aegir’s Cauldron, Kvasir’s Blood, or the products of Faerie Wings. If that describes you, then you are welcome to hang out for some positive support, on-site temporary sponsorship, or simply get some things off your chest.You’re not alone. We ask attendees to maintain the trust and anonymity of other participants. Come together, and find support for your path in life from a community of sober, magic-loving people. Meetings daily.

The meetings at Kaleidoscope Gathering arose spontaneously, and were formalized some 10 years ago. “Given that one person cannot know everyone, or all those in AA, [the organizers] thought having it in the program was important,” Pearce explained. “Now that we run KG and own the land, one thing we did was to provide a physical space. Meetings are in the schedule daily, and held at 7 pm in the children’s area, which is empty at night. The door is off to the side, so those entering can do so discretely. The people who first told us about the meetings no longer come, but that is fine. Many people do attend. No one had asked us to do this, but we thought it important. However, in the past 3 years, I would say there is at least 1-2 people who are new that contact us or staff about meetings. This is why its so important to have it in the schedule and program.”

SSF GraphicFor someone for whom a 12-step program works, knowing that there is support available can make all the difference. Todd Berntson, president of Summerland Spirit Festival, speaks from experience. “Over the past couple of years we have scheduled space for people in recovery,” he said. “I have been sober since 1983 and have been active in twelve step programs since then. Several of our other attendees also have a considerable amount of sobriety, so we make it a point to hold a couple of meetings for people in recovery throughout the week.” In addition, “We just try to make it known that there are sober individuals who are available and times set aside so that people who are in recovery can find support.”

However, not every event that has 12-step programming gets any interest.  At  Michigan Pagan Fest (MPF), Jim Ekhardt has offered a 12-step program that he calls Chalice Well, but so far he’s not had a lot of takers. It’s the same program that he has facilitated at ConVocation for many years, and he freely admits that Amethyst Circle was part of the inspiration. But like Spiral Steps, Chalice Well has tweaked the classic AA formula to make it more relevant for Pagans, and so a name change was in order. “You can’t say it’s AA if you change it,” he explained. The eponymous well in England, he said, is “where people go to put their troubles in. They make offerings to Cerridwen or the Goddess, and we thought it would be a cool symbol for a recovery group.” The rewritten steps, which are “easier on the ear for Pagans” and adapted so that members of any 12-step program would feel included.

Ekhardt said that, while 2-3 meetings a day can be supported at ConVocation, he has only had one person approach him at MPF. “I think it’s because a lot of people are local, and can leave the site, and know where the meetings are,” he said. However, he believes that having it available is important, because an initial meet-and-greet can provide people with familiar faces, and allow them to seek each other out for support at any time.

Joy Burton explained that Beltania, in Colorado, provides 2-3 support group meetings over the four days of the event, and staff have laid out clear guidelines for the use of intoxicants:

“Alcohol and legal marijuana is not allowed in community space and must be confined to private campsites, and there is no smoking in or within 20 feet of any building (as the new and uncertain legal marijuana situation unfolds, we are defaulting to combining our smoking and alcohol regulations).So it is an expectation that everyone should arrive sober at any ritual, workshop, or other activity. In the rare case that alcohol is a part of an event (like a mead-n-greet or Heathen blot) it will be clearly stated in the program. Rituals that offer cakes and wine will have a non alcoholic option always available.”

Free Spirit Gathering also has support meetings, and sometimes a sober camping space. Coordinator Eve reported, “We have two staff members for sobriety support who also offer a meeting every evening. We’ve had a sober cabin on and off when there have been folks who requested one. No one requested for this year.”

According to Cecelia Thomas, Communications Officer for Dragonfest, sobriety has long been part of that event’s traditions. “Dragonfest is celebrating our 30th year here in 2015, 15 of those years we have had a dedicated sobriety circle. Phoenix Circle is a drug and alcohol free space for those looking for recovery support. Families and friends of those with drug and alcohol problems are also encouraged to join us. We have daily recovery meetings and plenty of fellowship. We also have a nightly fire circle until 10 PM.”

Depending on the year, they have also hosted various workshops and rituals, two repeat favorites being the Wild Breakfast (spicy and/or weird foods) and the Caffeina Ritual. No further information on either of these rituals was available at this time.

Beyond the 12 Steps

While 12-step programs are widespread and are being used with or without adaption at Pagan events, the tenets do not sit well with all comers. That’s why the organizers of the Heathen event Trothmoot have been exploring other options, including SMART Recovery and Rational Recovery. One of the leaders of those ongoing discussions, Su Eaves, explained what these systems have to offer:

“Both SMART Recovery and Rational Recovery reject labeling the person in recovery as a lifelong ‘addict’ or an ‘alcoholic.’ Neither uses god or any sort of divinity in their approach to recovery. SMART Recovery lists four points as its main goals: it helps a person to enhance and maintain motivation to abstain, cope with urges, manage thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and balance momentary and enduring satisfactions. . . . Unlike SMART Recovery or AA, there are no support groups in Rational Recovery. In fact, this is the issue that caused the two systems to break apart. Rational Recovery . . . . claims that the desire to attend groups comes from the AA model that tells people that they will have a relapse if they do not attend meetings. They say that this self-doubt is the addictive voice, and reinforces the belief that one cannot stay sober independently.

I believe that both of these systems can have a lot of merit for Heathens. Heathens highly value self-reliance, courage, and strength of character. Both of these systems emphasize self-reliance and teach coping techniques. They don’t rely on a higher power, but on one’s internal strengths. Because of this, I believe that these systems could be very beneficial to Heathens attempting to get (and remain) sober.

trothTogether with Robert L. Schreiwer and Laurel Mendes, who have also guided these discussions, Eaves explained that other parts of the popular 12-step programs aren’t a good fit for Heathens. “For example, stating that one is powerless over one’s addiction is, in the minds of many, not a Heathen value. While we do not see a particular need to create a program within the Heathen religious context, we do need to consider the content even of secular programs to be sure that they are consistent with the general Heathen mindset.”

Some forms of alcohol, such as mead and ale, are widely considered sacred by Heathens, said Schreiwer, but groups usually make accommodations. “For example, Urglaawe ceremonies typically include two steins: one with alcohol and one without, and the two are considered equal,” he said. “The Troth has typically had two horns at some Trothmoot ceremonial events for many years, [but] having two horns became an official Troth practice at Trothmoot this year.”

Other Strategies

Not every event is set up with formal recovery supports, for a variety of reasons, but every organizer who responded indicated that the use of intoxicants has at least been considered. Here’s a sampling:

Equinox in the Oaks: “Our host site had specific rules about use of alcohol use,” said organizer Manny. “However, we did note to participants that we would set up a private sober area and none of the participants requested the accommodation. Also, we make clear expectations of sobriety at rituals and have mandatory clean and sober events such as fire-walking and similar challenges.”

Spring Mysteries Festival: ” Our festival is very spiritually focused. The schedule doesn’t allow time for drinking and partying, so we have never had a need,” said Belladonna Laveau.

Free Cascadia Witchcamp: In a similar vein, the unsigned response read, “Free Cascadia Witch Camp is actually an entirely sober event!”  It continued one to explain, “There are designated spaces for people who medicinally use cannabis to take their medicine, but recreational use of alcohol and drugs of any sort are not permitted. This camp is a program in teaching magic, ‘the art of changing consciousness at will.’ From our perspective, learning to shift and change our state of awareness at will takes focus and concentration, and requires a clear state of consciousness as a starting point. Blending our awareness and raising energy together in ritual flows easier when consciousness isn’t pre-altered by chemicals or alcohol. Out of respect for the intensity of the spiritual and healing work we do here, we encourage participants within the circle of camp to engage in the transformational work of changing consciousness at will without the use of externally intoxicating substances.”

Starwood: A full response was not available by press time, but organizers did reply, saying, “We do have sobriety programing on our schedule.”

Beltaine: Pagan Odyssey Festival.  Organizers provided an unsigned statement which read, “Actually, the sober space embraces the whole festival except for the over 21 camping area, and BYOB under a dining tent. It solved the whole problem as too many get sloppy and rude when they are drinking. We have discussed a support group at festival, and there was one person who wanted to lead one but he left the temple. Still open to that idea. The Panthean Temple is a sober space at our other public events; even the ‘ale’ is pomegranate juice.”

PanGaia: Co-director Katrina Rasbold advised in part, “Guests are aware that alcohol is served by the VFW [Veterans of Foreign Wars, owners of the site] and it is their choice to remain there or leave with that being the case. We do not provide support groups for those who might be traumatized by the fact that someone in the general vicinity has consumed alcohol. There has been no discussion by the North Western Circles Association (who hosts the festival) to add these services or options to future events because we trust each guest who is of legal age to be a discerning adult who knows how to excuse themselves from what they perceive as an unhealthy situation …We have security in place to handle anyone who is over-served, as well as information cards giving guests options for designator driver services. We have had events at this venue for more that fifteen years and have never had an issue of the type your questions might address. The greatest issue we ever encountered was from VFW members who became volatile when drinking alcohol, not festival guests, and they were managed quickly and efficiently by event security.”

Pagan Unity Festival: As reported by one of the organizers, Star Bustamonte:

puflogoPUF is a family-friendly festival.Our policy regarding alcohol is, no alcohol in original containers in common or shared areas. What you do in the privacy of your own cabin or tent is your own business, provided you are not causing a problem or disturbing others. Drunkenness is prohibited. Alcohol (and the consumption of it) is not allowed in any of the areas where children and teen activities are conducted.

The grounds where PUF is held are large enough to find plenty of places to avoid revelry that might include drinking. And while we do not have a policy about alcohol during workshops or rituals, I cannot remember a single incident where drinking was an issue at either. To my knowledge, no one has ever expressed a desire for a sobriety zone or for any type of support group. If someone were to ask, we would likely suggest they take on organizing it and would support them in their efforts to do so.

Sun Wheel Music & Arts Festival: “We believe that sobriety is an important aspect of much of our festival, especially in sacred spaces [and] ritual,” responded Terry for the organizing team. “As Sun Wheel Festival is an outdoor camping event, we do expect that some folks are going to want to unwind and socialize with a drink, but we are also a family event, and many folks bring their children to the festival. As a result, we try and keep the families with children in one area of the tenting/RV space, away from the tenting areas where folks without children will be.”

MerryMeet: Gordon Stone, Public Information Officer for Covenant of the Goddess, had this to say about CoG’s big annual event: “The workshops at MerryMeet are provided by volunteers from within the organization. The facilitator chooses the topic for a workshop, which is then submitted to the organizing committee. CoG welcomes any proposal from our members to provide sober space or a support group meeting during MerryMeet.”

Many Gods West: Niki Whiting explained how this polytheist gathering is positioned.

Many Gods West does not have any designated sober spaces. We are a small, first-time gathering, and this year our focus was on affordability, access for the mobility restricted, and diversity across race, tradition, sex and gender. We do have two 21+ events, a social and musical gathering at a local venue and one ritual. I can see that that might be alienating to some. We at MGW would be happy to work with people if they are concerned. If someone wants to offer their room as a safe space we can include that in the program (we already have one person offering up their room as a shrine space during certain hours) and get the word out to our attendees.

Ultimately, everyone’s sobriety is their own responsibility, but Many Gods West aims to be a supportive, inclusive, harassment-free gathering. Peer pressure or other activity that aims to override anyone’s consent in any regard will be unwelcome and not tolerated. Depending on the feedback we receive after our event, we will decide not only how to best serve our communities, but also if we will do a future gathering!

Coph Nia: “We do not currently have a designated sober space but the sole reason for that is that we have not had a request for it. While Coph Nia is a festival for the larger queer pagan community, our sponsoring organization Ordo Aeternus Vovin, is a Thelemic organization so there’s a lot of emphasis on personal choice at our event. Because we’re small (about 50 men), we’d prefer to provide networking, support and sober alternatives over a designated sober space. In a festival our size, our worry is that a designated space requested by someone might be stigmatizing or single them out or isolate them,” advised Julian Hill.

Harvest Gathering: “HG hasn’t had the ‘sober spaces’ before, but we do offer activities that don’t encourage drinking,” said organizer Gina Martini. “During the day it’s all about learning, not really the format for drinking festival style. Evenings we offer all sorts activities that have nothing to do with drinking, walking an illuminated labyrinth, yoga by candlelight, rituals, relaxation tents, and we have a massage therapist. We don’t want to single anyone out as ‘the alcoholic.’ We provide a relaxing environment for everyone. If someone would like to talk or feels the need for sober space, we have someone to talk who also doesn’t drink.”

[Photo Credit: Martin Cathrae / Flickr]

[Photo Credit: Martin Cathrae / Flickr]

All told, those events without a formal program tend to focus on personal responsibility or simply avoiding exposing young people to intoxicants and intoxicated behavior. Most event organizers were open to the idea of a more robust program, particularly if someone stepped up to organize it.

Being an addict doesn’t necessarily mean being cut off from the festival circuit. There are many events that make available supports for those in recovery, but there are quite a few others which placemore of that burden on the attendees themselves. Anyone in recovery should take the time to find out what policies and programs are in place for any given event, and decide whether or not to attend accordingly.

Terence P Ward

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Terence P Ward is a moneyworker, journalist, Hellenic polytheist and convinced Friend who lives in the bucolic Hudson Valley with his wife, five cats, and multiple household shrines.