Bonnaroo is not the ideal setting for someone in recovery from addiction. Every year, there are dozens of drug arrests, sometimes big ones, and alcohol-related illnesses or even hospitalizations. But hundreds of sober concert-goers now gather each year to enjoy the music substance-free.
Patrick Whelan, who works in the coffee importing business in Louisville, was nervous about going back to music festivals since that's where he did his heaviest using. Still, it was also kind of depressing to think his social life could only entail 12-step meetings and no more jam bands.
"Am I stuck in this cocoon in Louisville, in these rooms with these people doing meetings or can I go and live?" he asked himself.
Whelan ended up at the first Bonnaroo in 2002 with like-minded friends. And over the years, organizers took notice. They started slyly letting him in without having to pay and allowed him to use the corner of a coffee house tent to host 12-step meetings.
Now he and a group of volunteers not only get in free, but they're given their own tent and seating for people to sip coffee and mingle — Soberoo, they call it. They even hold multiple sobriety meetings each day during the festival.
About a hundred have signed up to camp together and hang out this year. Whelan expects 200 more will stumble upon them.
"We just get people who are so fresh and so afraid, they don’t go with a plan to find us. They don't even know we're there," he says. "They just wander up, and they don't leave us after that."
Whelan welcomes anyone serious about sobriety, though some mistake the tent as a kind of detox unit. He sends those who are drunk or high to the medical tent and tells them to come back when they're ready.