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  • Writer's picturePaul Burston

20 weeks sober

Me and Alexis Gregory

Earlier this week I hosted my first onstage event in seven months. It was a major one, too – Polari In Heaven. Even with social distancing measures in place, the audience was one of the biggest we’ve ever played to and the atmosphere intense.

Being on such a prestigious stage at such a big event can feel pretty daunting, especially after long periods of social isolation. It’s one of those occasions where I’d usually have a drink or two beforehand – “to steady my nerves.” Only I stopped drinking months ago and have no desire to start again now.

Among the performers at Polari In Heaven was Alexis Gregory – the man I jokingly refer to as My Representative On Earth. Alexis was performing an extract from his verbatim play Riot Act – the section based on an interview with me about my years as an AIDS activist in the late 80s and early 90s. I’ve seen him perform it several times and each time I’m transported back to those dark, frantic, grief-stricken days. I usually shed a few tears. I usually neck a few drinks.

Alexis performing part of Riot Act at Polari In Heaven

People told me “it’s okay to take the occasional night off” and maybe they’re right – for them. For me, there’s always the fear that it wouldn’t be the occasional night but would quickly lead to the kind of problem drinking I’ve worked so hard to avoid. I’m not good at moderation. I never have been.

I didn’t sleep well the night before the show. I rarely do. I woke early and by mid afternoon I was feeling pretty exhausted. But I arrived at Heaven for the tech run and soon got into the swing of things. Then I received an email with some disappointing news. My first reaction was to think, “I could really use a drink right now!” Then I talked myself down and pushed the thought away.

By the time the doors opened and people began to drift in and take their seats, I had butterflies in my stomach, but no more so than usual. When the moment of truth came and I walked out onto the stage, the butterflies felt more like bats. But I did it. I welcomed everyone to Heaven, made a few opening remarks and introduced the first performer of the night. I didn’t dry up or have a panic attack. I didn’t lose my nerve. I did the job.

As the night wore on, I relaxed into it without the need for “Dutch courage”. I had all the courage I needed. And despite the lack of sleep and the strangeness of being back on stage and surrounded by people after all this time, I enjoyed it immensely.

This was on Wednesday. Today is Saturday and marks 20 weeks since I stopped drinking. I think I’ve got this!

For details of upcoming Polari events go to

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