Written by Kevin O’Neill

A few weeks ago I celebrated the 18 month mark of my sobriety from all drugs and alcohol. I had my first drink at age twelve, my first joint a year later. It made me feel relaxed, fun, mature, and intelligent, regardless of those silly DARE classes. I experimented with psychedelics while in high school with a small group of friends, and we questioned the nature of reality and the authenticity of authority on countless hilarious nights.

Kevin O’Neill

When I found the live music community in my late teens I fell in love with it instantly – here was a place I could be my real self, my silliest and most outrageous self, all while witnessing some magical musical moments and doing whatever I pleased. I found myself surrounded by like-minded people who’d come to party and have the most fun possible – and that fun often included various psychoactive substances. I’d found my home, my community, with people who wouldn’t judge me based on my clothes or how much money I had or what family I came from or what I’d done in my past. I think most of us fell in love with the live music community for similar reasons – that perfect combination of feeling included and loved and free to be whoever you want.
In 2009 and 2010 I went to as many festivals as I could manage and broke a million laws in the process.  I was doing what many young adults do with their newfound “freedom” – I was doing whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. I was eventually arrested for possession of an array of psychedelic substances and sentenced to prison time, serving a total of a little over four years.  As you can imagine, I finally had time to stop and think about my actions and the trajectory of my life. Who am I? Who do I want to be? Is this all it will ever be, a constant game of cat-and-mouse? Most importantly, what is freedom?

According to Oxford, the main definition of freedom is “The power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint.” Obviously with the current US administration and the recent urgent conversation about net neutrality, we could dive down a rabbit hole and discuss those types of freedoms for eternity…or until they’re taken away from us, at least. I’ll try to stay on topic, though.

Kevin surrounded by lovely ladies at his Advocates of Change table in Asheville, NC. Photo by Roger Gupta

There came a time in Spring 2016 when I realized that I didn’t feel very free at all, despite my having been released from prison in late 2013. I felt trapped by my desires and my compulsion to satisfy them. I felt like I wasn’t doing my best, wasn’t fully focusing on the goals and dreams and community I’d fallen in love with. I knew that in order to do my best for myself and for my community through my work as director of Advocates of Change, I’d need to free myself from whatever was hindering me, whatever was taking away my power to act and speak without restraint. On May 16th, 2016, I decided to commit to leading a sober lifestyle. Since my first shot of whiskey at age 12, I’d never been sober longer than six months. I thought that surely it couldn’t hurt to try something new.

Kevin (in tuxedo onesie) with friends feeling free

My challenge to each of you reading this article is this: ask yourself, do you feel free? Ask that question today and again in a week or two, then again after that. If you are living up to your fullest potential, you will know it deep within yourself. If there is anything in your life weighing you down, please know you have the power to release it. Remember: “Life isn’t happening to you, it is responding to you.”

Sometimes it’s easy to accidentally enable another’s destructive behaviors because we just don’t want them to feel judged, and we don’t want to feel like we’re judging others. Sometimes we may even hesitate to make that “judgement call” when our friends are engaging in unhealthy behaviors because to do so would be to admit the same about our own behaviors. It can be easy to blur the lines between celebration and over-indulgence, and the lines between loving unconditionally and enabling.

Because we ARE such a strong and loving community, I think we owe it to each other and to ourselves to be and do our best. We should always be there for each other, we should always love each other unconditionally  and support each other. I think the clearest route to that kind of love and support is through self-honesty and by being the change you wish to see. I don’t think we all need to be sober, necessarily, but I do know that we should all feel free.