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Soberchella: Coachella minus the drinks and drugs

Soberchella: Coachella minus the drinks and drugs
Tent in the shade terrace at Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival where daily 12-step meetings are held for concert-goers who are in recovery from alcohol or drug addiction. (Randy Lewis/Los Angeles Times)

Talk about oxymorons: It might be necessary to go back to classics such as "jumbo shrimp" and "military intelligence" to match the inherently contradictory ideas seemingly at work in the concept of Soberchella.

But there is a growing community of alcoholics and addicts in recovery who still yearn to experience the music and sense of community that is the annual Coachella music festival. Now they prefer to do so minus the intoxicants that often are considered part and parcel of this and other events.

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"I was so glad to find this group, and to find out that out of 100,000 people who are here, I wasn't the only one who is doing Coachella sober," said Rick, a pseudonym for one of two dozen festival-goers who met at noon Saturday to hold a 12-step meeting, based on Alcoholics Anonymous program ahead of their marathon day of music and revelry.

The group allowed a reporter to sit in on their meeting on the condition of respecting the participants' anonymity.

Raul generated a laugh when he preceded his share with the others saying, "I think that's the first time I've ever heard Chapter 5 with a back beat. It was awesome," he said referring to the chapter of the AA "big book" typically read before meetings, and the thumping drum-bass beat rumbling over the entire Empire Polo Club while they met.

Awareness of Soberchella, which has its own Twitter account, @soberchella, Google Plus message group and Facebook page, is growing modestly but steadily.

"The meetings are bigger this weekend," said Ed, another recovering alcoholic who nominally helped facilitate Saturday's daytime meeting in the shade court, a stone's throw from Coachella's beer garden and other stands selling alcohol. "Last weekend we had 8 or 10 people."

As different members of the ad hoc group took turns sharing their experiences at Coachella and other music events, both sober and not, a common theme emerged.

"I feel so grateful to fall asleep at night, not pass out, and wake up refreshed," said Don, who appeared to be in his 30s and who said he has attended Coachella for several years. "This morning I got up and saw the sun rise at the same time the moon was setting. That was my God shot today. When I was still drinking I never would have experienced that. I wouldn't have started my day until maybe 11:30."

This group was made up mostly of men, about 20, along with half a dozen women. It was otherwise a diverse group of whites, blacks, Asians and Latinos who have in common their prior struggles with addiction and now, their sobriety. Some have as little as a few weeks of sobriety, others have been sober for 16 and 18 years.

"When I tell people I'm doing Coachella sober, I think a lot of friends and family who haven't had experience with this program have a really hard time understanding it," said Greg, who is in his 30s.

"They say, 'Wow, it must be really hard,'" he said. "They don't understand that I am having more fun now than when I was using. My life is so much better. I fully experience the music in a way I didn't before. When somebody would ask me what acts I saw at Electric Daisy in Las Vegas, I'd have to say, 'I have no idea.'"

Jason, who is in his late-20s, said a severe windstorm had kicked up, wrecking havoc in the campground where he was staying.

That gave him an example of the difference attending Coachella sober than when he was still drinking and taking drugs. "That would have been enough to make me start drinking before," he said. "But cooler heads prevailed, I reset myself and now I'm out here ready to have a great day today."

The sober community connect through an e-mail group soberchella@gmail.com. Some wind up sharing rides to and from the festival grounds. Others connect to socialize one on one or otherwise offering one another support outside the daily meetings at noon.

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"Anybody up for a meeting tonight at 8?" one group member asked the others in an email.

The Soberchella group has no formal affiliation with the festival and is separate from the safe harbor room that the Recording Academy's MusiCares program hosts at Coachella, Stagecoach and other major pop music events for the benefit of performers and crew members.

"I just want to say I think this is so cool," said Teresa, who'd decided at the last minute to try to get in this year, found tickets on EBay and drove out with a sober girlfriend for the weekend. "I've traveled a lot and been to a lot of different events, and it's so great to have people I know will support me wherever I go."

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