My final days of using weren’t to feel good or to party – because I hated what I had become. I was using to feel nothing. I had drifted into a world where I was living like a zombie. I was a walking dead man with no direction, no reason to exist and no faith in anyone or anything.
That hadn’t always been the case. In college, my friends and I enjoyed summers traveling to see the Grateful Dead and other musical acts. I never saw a single show without trying to time my buzz for precisely that moment when the lights went down and the band took the stage. It was as close as I could get to a Christmas thrill. I was hooked.
Over the next decade, I tried everything to hush the voices inside my head that told me I wasn’t good enough and would never amount to much of anything. Eventually, smoking cocaine fueled my rapid decline – drugs and alcohol removed their arms from around my shoulders and placed their hands around my throat. When the original Dead were done playing in 1995, I was in full-blown addiction that nothing could quench.
On December 6, 1996, I was the fortunate recipient of a family intervention that sold me on the drastic idea of going to treatment. I quickly realized the program’s curriculum didn’t include teaching me how to smoke cocaine like a gentleman. In fact, they preached absolute abstinence and Twelve Step recovery.
At 30 years old and newly clean and sober, my loving family allowed me to move back into my childhood bedroom. But successive relapses soon pushed them to the brink of asking me to leave. Fearful of being homeless again, I attended my first Twelve Step meeting where I met several men who took me under their wings. One of those men approached me after the meeting and said he was willing to be my temporary sponsor. Thus I fearfully began my journey into a new way of living.
Bruce M. and I began meeting every Friday night. Because I was unable read or comprehend much of anything, he read the Big Book to me every week. I took my last drink on November 25, 1997, and realized using was always going to make my situation worse, never better. After that night, I held onto my sobriety date as my most prized possession.
The summer of 1998 rolled around, and the concert season revved up. Bruce had assured me I could go anywhere and do anything I wanted to do, as long as I was willing to pay the consequences of my actions. But, I feared I would no longer be able to attend live music concerts.
I was wrong. That June, I attended the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and went to my first out-of-town Twelve Step meetings. In Ohio, later that year, I saw the first incarnation of the remaining members of the Grateful Dead. At that show, I attended my first set break meeting of the Wharf Rats.
At the “yellow balloon” Wharf Rat table, I met a few people who were to become lifelong friends. They explained that the Wharf Rats were a group of Deadheads who chose to live drug-free. They offer support in an otherwise slippery environment and use the yellow balloons as a way to find one another. I immediately felt welcomed and at home. Although the yellow balloon groups are not affiliated with any Twelve Step recovery program, most members are in recovery and speak the language of the heart.
The following summer, I returned to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and again attended the Twelve Step meetings in town. There, I met people who were organizing a group of clean and sober String Cheese Incident (SCI) fans, called The Jellyfish. That weekend, we held yellow balloon set break meetings during the SCI concerts.
At the end of the festival, they invited me to be the group’s East Coast table coordinator. My responsibilities would be to secure two volunteers for all East Coast SCI concerts. In 2000, some of us helped organize a yellow balloon group for fans of Widespread Panic.
In 2002, when my yellow balloon friends and I heard about a new festival called Bonnaroo coming to central Tennessee that was headlining our favorite bands, we immediately made plans to support one another and enjoy the atmosphere and music, all in one place. This festival became an annual pilgrimage. The festival’s field operations people soon began to offer us space in a coffee tent each year. By 2005, we were receiving free admission to Bonnaroo in exchange for our service. We started calling ourselves “Soberoo.”
One winter day in 2008, I was invited to participate in a conference call with the festival owners and heads of security. I thought we were in trouble for naming our group Soberoo and became concerned about our future at Bonnaroo.
They asked me what we had been doing the last six years. I explained that we provided a safe lounge for drug-free people attending Bonnaroo. After a moment of silence, one of them asked how many people were part of our group. “We’ve had meetings with over 100 people,” I told him. Another spoke up, “Let me get this straight. You are helping me sell 100 or more tickets every year to our festival?” I laughed and said, “Yeah. I hadn’t thought of it like that, but I guess so.”
They immediately wanted to know what they could do for us − and, suddenly, we were an official part of the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival. From 2005 to 2007, we helped those same promoters at a festival in Las Vegas called Vegoose. They also invited us to serve from 2006 to 2008 at a festival in Miami called Langerado.
In 2012, we began to field more and more requests from other events. Today, we offer support to twelve North American music festivals and will be adding more to that list this year.
As a volunteer-driven organization, we are dependent on a group of fans in recovery who pay their way to these events and who buy their own food and lodging at festivals where there is no camping. They do this for the opportunity to participate with our team and to be of service. They staff yellow balloon tables at concerts around the country so others may enjoy live music while being clean and sober.
Bruce, my sponsor, had promised that if I worked and lived the Twelve Steps, I would have a spiritual awakening and would be free to contribute to life. That promise has come true. I am blessed to have lived the past 17 years in a community of many enthusiastic recovering people.
We have witnessed a huge increase in the number of events seeking our services as more promoters take an interest in our work. It became obvious that we needed to be better organized to ensure we could sustain our operation in the event of an unexpected incident or tragedy. So in 2013, a group of directors was assembled to begin the process of becoming a nonprofit corporation in order to raise funds to cover insurance and other expenses. Last year, we received official status as a 501(c)(3) and took the name Harmonium.
Every festival has a uniquely-named space in keeping with its theme where we offer harmony through music and recovery. Look for yellow balloons and some sober signage at these shows. There you will find smiling faces − and rest assured, we will be the most happy, joyous and free people at that event.
Patrick Whelan was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, and is a graduate of the University of Kentucky. He has two younger sisters. One is a homicide detective and regular on an A&E series called The First 48 and the other is a retired principal dancer for the New York City Ballet. Whelan has worked in sales his entire professional life. He has worked the past eight years for a family-owned coffee and tea importing business.For more information about Harmonium visit www.harmoniuminc.com.
2016 Harmonium Festival Schedule
Beyond Wonderland SoCal
Lightning in a Bottle
Lightning Without a Bottle
Governor’s Ball Music Festival
Electric Daisy – New York
Electric Daisy Carnival – Las Vegas
Forecastle Music Festival
Lockn’ Music Festival
Beyond Wonderland – Bay Area
Electric Daisy – Orlando