So the last time I drank alcohol was about two months ago. I did reach a certain degree of intoxication. I did remember everything that happened to me whilst drunk the next day. I did not throw up at all. I do not feel that I can identify myself as being, in the strictest sense, straight edge any longer.
I don’t know if I feel bad about not being straight edge anymore. I don’t know what I mean by the word “bad” in that last sentence, actually. Do I feel guilty? Like I’ve let anyone down? Like I’ve let myself down? Not at all. I mean, I know that my life is not going to transform into some mad bacchanalian orgy just because I’ve decided that complete and total temperance isn’t really for me. But it is definitely strange to change your mind about any aspect of your lifestyle when you’ve already aligned yourself with some movement or idea, because suddenly you’re swamped with other people’s ideas, and every movement you make could turn you into a hypothetical situation. Its hard to turn away from straight edge when people already have their own ideas about what that move means.
The figure of the ex-straight edge kid who becomes a raging alcoholic as soon as they can legally do so is a familiar caricature in the dell’arte of the punk scene. There are certainly many potential reasons for this, for example, straight edgers are often perceived as a group with an inflated sense of their own moral superiority and very little in the way of a sense of humour, so the irony of their fall from temperance has elements of humour and schadenfreude, (although obviously the humour vanishes when you over-analyse it like that). Sometimes the “fallen” straight-edger has even gone so far as to get triple-X tattoos advertising their temperance, which acts as a physical manifestation of the moral that is invariably implicitly attached to the character: i.e. pride comes before a fall, if you attach yourself to these codes too zealously then you are setting yourself up to be made into a fool.
Alternatively, you could argue that punks are inherently cynical due to the subculture being all about rejection of social norms and mainstream politics, with the posi-core kids as the sole idealistic exception. Therefore they become instant and obvious targets for their peers with a strain of humour that they aren’t really interested in.
The metaphor fixed in everyone’s minds is of a dam that’s straining under the pressure of suppressed rebellious urges. Imagine that the dam is holding back whisky instead of water. Then when it breaks, the unpractised individual is thrown into a sandbox of intoxicated possibilities and has no idea how to organise them all. So they just give in to everything and to excess.
Oh yeah, and that’s another potential reason for the possibility of the popularity of the fallen straight edge character. The exaggeration of the fallibility of the abstinent can make the “normal person” who does engage in some moderately unwholesome practices seem worldly and knowledgeable in comparison. It subverts the idea of self-control on its head, (especially self-control as the Gorilla Biscuits fan would understand it) and says instead that you can’t control the way you deal with something you’ve never tried. Complete temperance is only ever a set-up that is going to get knocked down.
So the fallen straight-edger is – like most stereotyped caricatures – backed up by a lot of reasoning, even if it’s not real. I’m not saying that this character doesn’t exist in real life – there’s no reason that they shouldn’t – but it really only tells one part of the story, and the whole point of this article is to go beyond that. I think one of the scary parts of letting go of straight edge is that people will assume that you’re not letting go, that you’re falling off. There is a difference between choice and self control in the same way that there’s a difference between leaving a movement and running away, high speed, on rocket-powered roller-skates.
My own decision to leave the straight edge thing behind parallels my reasons for being interested in the idea to begin with. One of the first things that appealed to me about straight edge culture was that it was an excellent source of defiance and anger. Here was a group that was feisty and even ready to defend itself from a huge chunk of the counter-culture, so surely they’d never be afraid of the mainstream? As a teenager, I always felt kind of weird and angry about everyone being out of their skulls all the time because I was scared that people did it as an excuse and an escape. I wanted to be alert and informed and productive and the sheer excess to which people get hammered – Wikipedia describes binge-drinking as “the modern definition of alcoholic beverages with the primary intention of getting intoxicated” – made me feel like I was living in a world that just didn’t care. It was as if everyone was more than happy to drop out of the present and the now, and just sit in the swill of their own dying thoughts. How could drinking to excess ever be rebellious and different when everyone does it? Drunkenness seemed to be the preferred state of mind of the accountants and office workers that I dreaded someday growing up to become.
So I’m pretty sure that my decision to drink again – from time to time, and if I want to – is based upon several different strands of reasoning, but for the sake of the cohesion of this article, I’m going to assert that most of all, it comes from outside forces. From watching the people around me having too much fun while they drink and feeling like an outsider, from the greater need for a distraction from my own inner cynicism, from everyone else making it look so cool. Stuff like that. I think the way that I’ve changed as a person over the last few years – especially since being at university – has left me no longer feeling that same connection to the whole straight edge thing that I once felt. And I don’t think that this is altogether a change to get pessimistic about, I think its just a shift in areas of concentration and what’s important to me. One of the things that I loved – and still love – about bands like Gorilla Biscuits and 7 Seconds was the way they got me so excited and inspired. I felt young and energised and like I could do anything and it didn’t suck to be a teenager after all. On the other hand, I am now nearing twenty and scared, and cynical enough that I want to scoff at that last sentence. I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this way, we all just want to be the same person we’ve always been on the inside, but so long as we’re all looking for validation and inspiration from the world around us, everyone’s taste in music and literature and everything is going to keep changing.
So is there a right and wrong way to quit straight edge? While it can be sad to put a movement that was once so important to you behind yourself, the trick is to do so in the knowledge that in the future you’ll be able to look back on it with the right kind of nostalgia, and that you can still admire the rules that someone else lives by, even if you can’t connect with them yourself. And what’s sadder is the idea in the minds of some people that the only way to change as a person is through disillusionment and quitting. The idea of someone plunging straight into the thing they’ve always hated, and the use of black humour as the only response to that is the kind of dark thinking that’s perfectly valid but can breed narrow-mindedness. If you’re a cynical person, or just turning into one by default because time is stealing your idealism, well, that’s okay, that’s just what happens sometimes. Just be aware that there are still people out there who think differently to you, and that you’re going to have to find a way to interact with them other than just as the butt of your jokes.