I was on the edge of oblivion the first weekend I saw Jason Isbell perform.

The 400 Unit was playing at Bonnaroo 2016, and I was barely a month removed from quitting my job as the Managing Editor of Baeble Music in New York City. I had moved back home to West Virginia to finish college (and because I couldn’t afford to live in Brooklyn anymore without my salaried job), and Bonnaroo was the final obligation I had to Baeble. It was the epilogue to my career as a music journalist.

I spent the weekend in the most desperate drug binge of my life.

I was at Bonnaroo as press. I was “working,” but I wasn’t being paid so my internal logic was that as long as I provided my articles each day, I could do whatever the fuck I wanted that weekend. Bonnaroo was my beat at Baeble and had been years before I became the Managing Editor. Bonnaroo is synonymous with jam bands and drug use, and I’d indulged in that stereotype. My favorite article I ever wrote for Baeble was from Bonnaroo 2014 and it was about watching Elton John with a fellow music journalist that I’d fallen for over the course of 24 hours. We were on mushrooms during Elton’s set. That part didn’t make it in the article.

In previous Bonnaroo’s, I’d paced myself. I’d smoke some joints/bowls. I’d share an eighth of shrooms with a friend. I knew my limits and I respected them and the added presence of the Tennessee sun which would bake you more than the drugs could ever hope if you weren’t careful. 2016 was different. There was no pacing or respecting my limits or any concern about professional responsibilities. I was sprinting towards the edge until I collapsed over it.

Bonnaroo’s a four day festival. The smaller bands (who often steal the whole weekend) play Thursday and then you get the bigger acts on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Most folks arrive Wednesday so they can set up their tents and spend the night and pre-game for the festivities. Thursday morning I woke up and got to know my neighbors (a group of women in their early 20s aka the sort of folks with the stamina to party with an intensity that I hadn’t been able to match even when I was their age). We were greeted casually at our tents by three separate drug dealers, and I purchased wares from all three. I bought an eighth of an ounce of shrooms from a bearded hippie, an eighth of grass from a hipster, and five tabs of LSD from some dude that looked like he just stepped out of a college macroeconomics class. He was selling Good Shit as it turned out.

The girls and I did the shrooms Thursday, and I did half of the acid by myself on Saturday. I smoked the pot intermittently throughout the whole weekend.

The shroom trip was fine. I did them in the late afternoon when the heat was dissipating (and Thursday was mercifully “cool” compared to the 98 degree temperatures with 50% humidity we’d have the rest of the weekend; it became the hottest Bonnaroo on record). Psilocybin and LSD are both known to help folks with PTSD and severe anxiety, and the mushrooms helped all of the anxiety I had been carrying since I left my job in NYC with no assurances I’d ever write professionally again dissipate for the evening as well as the crippling anxiety I get any time I have to deal with the sorts of crowds you get at Bonnaroo. Large crowds make me want to pass out, and when I did those shrooms with the girls, I had a nice body high and I remembered briefly what it’s like to not feel so much anxiety all of the time that I can hardly breathe. It was completely gone.

The acid trip almost killed me. I’ve done acid more times than I can remember. It was the first drug I ever did. It’s my favorite drug. I’ve been sober for a couple months now, and it’s been a year and a half since I’ve done acid, but of all of the drugs I’ve done, acid made the most positive impact in my life. You can’t overdose on it. You can’t become physically addicted to it and your body builds up a resistance to it so quickly that it’s hard to become psychologically addicted it. You can only really do it once every two weeks or so if you want it to have any effect, and good luck finding a regular acid person to supply a once every two weeks acid habit. When the FBI shut down the two biggest labs in the country in the 90s, it got rid of something like 95% of the acid supply in America.

I did not make good acid decisions at Bonnaroo 2016. Neo-jazz titan Kamasi Washington was playing with his band on Friday and if you haven’t heard The Epic yet, it’s maybe the best jazz record since Kind of Blue or A Love Supreme. It’s psychedelic, afro-futurist perfection. I bought the acid specifically for his set. I figured it would help me deal with the social anxiety I’d get being in a large crowd for his set and also help me open myself up to the grooves of his album.

Instead, it got so hot that I drank three bottles of water in like twenty minutes waiting for his set to start, and I began to feel the essence of my personality seeping from my pores as I started coming up on the trip. I left his set fifteen minutes in to escape to the air-conditioned press tent where I laid on my back for a couple hours just staring at the ceiling, telling concerned journalists that I just got a little over-heated. That night, I didn’t get any sleep and I spent the next day stumbling around the festival grounds barely conscious with the added torture of the heat and humidity causing my (waterproof) sunscreen to constantly melt directly into my eyes. I missed every afternoon set Saturday cause my body was shutting down. I spent the day hiding in the cinema, just trying to hide the fact that I was barely alive and get away from the sun. I missed sets from Haim, Grace Potter, Band of Horses, and Chris Stapleton which were all shows I had been dying to see for months.

Then Sunday rolled around. Every day, the press tent hosts press conferences with performers. It’s usually folks from the mid-card and the lower card who are playing that day. Jason Isbell was playing Sunday that year, and he was one of the performers being interviewed. Jason Isbell is a recovering alcoholic. The interviewer asked Jason what it felt like to be a sober performer at a festival where so many people are drinking heavily and doing drugs. The paraphrased version of Jason’s response was that he was glad folks could relax and enjoy themselves at his shows. He didn’t begrudge his fans a drink at his concerts. He wished he could have one, but he knew he couldn’t have just a drink or two. If he was going to drink, he was going to drink too much.

I wasn’t in the press trailer during this conference because I was excited for the press conference. I was there to escape the heat for a little bit, but I was transfixed by basically everything Jason said the whole interview, but that answer in particular woke me up from the drug and heat hangover I’d been suffering through for more than 24 hours.

I knew I had a drug problem going into that weekend. I’d known I’d had one since the previous summer when I had to flee a Chvrches concert in Central Park because I was sober and it was the first concert I’d been to sober in months. However, like most addicts, I convinced myself that I had enough will power to keep my problem under control. And the drug that I was addicted to was weed. It wasn’t like I was ever going to overdose on it. However, like most addicts, I had chosen one substance to be the temporary bandage for all of the pain and confusion and dysphoria in my life (and I wouldn’t realize I was trans for another six months after Bonnaroo 2016 and really start to get to the heart of a lot of the trauma and dysfunction in my life), and I jumped at the chance for harder substitutes to soothe that pain when they were present. And like most addicts, I couldn’t ever use “just enough” to feel better. Whenever I had to cover a concert for my job in NYC, I’d leave work a little early saying I needed to eat before the show. And I would eat but what I really wanted to do was powersmoke three or four bowls by myself in about half an hour so that I would be completely gonzo for the subway ride and the interminable waits for sets to start and just coherent enough to be able to collect my thoughts during the actual performance but not sober enough that the anxiety would return.

I spent all of Sunday thinking about what Jason Isbell said and then I had the pleasure of seeing him perform, and it was love at first sight. I only knew “24 Frames” going into his set. It was the song of his that was on the artist playlist that Bonnaroo put together for that weekend, and I spent the entire drive home from Tennessee listening to Something More than Free and Southeastern on repeat. I must have spent two hours alone listening to “Cover Me Up” which had me crying in the field outside of Bonnaroo’s What Stage when I heard Jason Isbell sing it directly to his wife (and the incredible fiddle player for the band, Amanda Shires).

Jason Isbell was saying so many of the things I’d wanted to say about Southern identity and southern masculinity and addiction. He and his music came into my life at just the right moment. Jason Isbell’s speech in the press trailer at Bonnaroo wasn’t a cure-all for my drug problem. It took me about a year and a half afterwards before I did finally get sober. I’m still an addict. I’m just a recovering one. Jason’s speech wasn’t the thing that let me sober up. Realizing I was trans helped me get sober. Accepting the trauma in my life helped me get sober. Beginning to transition helped me get sober. Meeting my non-binary trans partner helped me get sober. On Valentine’s Day this year (a couple days before I’d get to see Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit for the second time at the Charleston Municipal Center), I sang them “Cover Me Up” as a Valentine’s Day present because I couldn’t think of a better way to let them know how much their presence meant in my life. Jason Isbell wrote that song for his wife before they got married, and it was a testament to how much she had helped him heal and how he could give up the things that were destroying his life because she could use him for good.

That’s what Tina has become for me.

Last Saturday, I did get to see the 400 Unit play. I was with my Mom who I got into Jason Isbell’s music in the months after that Bonnaroo. She was someone else that was integral in my recovery. I had to live with her when I was first trying to sober up so that I could start trying to give the drugs up. I knew I couldn’t do it on my own. And we were with several hundred people. And there were plenty of folks drinking. I was sober. I had my terrible anxiety again. I’ve started transitioning my gender externally. It’s basic stuff at this point. Painting my nails. My long hair. It’s small stuff, but in West Virginia, that’s enough to mark me. To quote Laura Jane Grace, “they just see a faggot.”

I desperately wanted to smoke a bowl. If you’re an addict, you’re never not an addict. Just one joint or one bowl and I would be able to literally feel the tension coming out of my shoulders and my back and my stomach. It’s like heavy weights being laid all over your body and then someone just lifts them off. But I know I can’t just have the one. I’d smoke the one and then I’d want more. And then I’d want more and the whole cycle would begin again. And then Jason sang “Cover Me Up” with his wife. And I remembered I had someone that “knew I was meant for someone.” Someone to use me for good. And I remembered I can make it through.