Experience, Strength and Roller Skates: Sobriety in Roller Derby

by Justice of the Peach

When you introduce yourself as a member of the Holy Church of Roller Derby, there are several conclusions that most people seem to instantly jump to:

  • You’re a lesbian
  • The only thing you dress in is tattoos and fishnets
  • You have recently round house kicked someone in the head
  • You know how to party
  • Oh, also, you’re a lesbian

Derby is known for well-organized debauchery. Skater check in is at 5 PM, the bout is at 6 PM and getting crunk time is from 7:15 PM onward. Type RollerCon Black’n’Blue Ball into your search engine right now and you’ll see what is meant. The bumper sticker My Drinking Team has a Derby Problem, is a glib but not inaccurate representation of our culture. By and large, derby folk are a fun loving, hard partying bunch. It kind of goes hand in hand with willingly playing a game where people are deliberately trying to knock you over. So not drinking and winding up in the hotel swimming pool after hours, fully clothed and brandishing an In-N-Out burger bag like it’s a sack of gold, is not something that’s usually associated with our sport.

Derby is one of the most richly diversified sports in the world. It’s made up of men, women and Trans individuals of all varying kinds of sexual and gender orientations. It is semiprofessional, which means everyone has real people jobs to support their habit. Skaters are librarians, teachers, car dealers, paramedics, case managers, doctors, cooks, and waitresses. We are also, in some cases, alcoholics or drug addicts, either in recovery or not. In light of September being National Recovery month, RMRG would like to call recognition to this facet of the derby community. A few Rocky skaters who are living in recovery have chosen to share an account of their stories, what it was like before and how it is now, and how addiction and derby played roles in their lives. Animal (also our September Skater of the Month!) kicks us off:

“I struggled with substance abuse for 12 years of my life. I had always felt different than others, like less than, or not good enough. It began in middle school where I began to use multiple substances [to compensate for that difference]. My life quickly unraveled and I followed [my use] further and further down the rabbit hole. I moved out of my parent’s house when I was 16 and was in and out of homelessness for years after that. It got to a point where I had lost everything. My family would no longer answer the phone for me. I had lost myself completely. I would look in the mirror and had no idea who the person was staring me in the face. Finally, I hit a wall. After multiple bottoms I finally decided to stop digging and reached out for help. I made a choice that forever changed my life. I made the decision to relocate from the Western Slope of Colorado to go to a two-year treatment center here in Denver. I completed the program and have since became involved in other support groups and a recreational sports league for people in recovery. My sobriety date is 10/17/2013.”

Animal’s story is not an uncommon one. Another skater we spoke to in the league who chose to remain anonymous, told us about her senior year of college and the two years afterwards marked by what people call “functional alcoholism,” (a person who outwardly does the things they are “supposed” to do, like holding down a job and relationships). Privately she was being dragged increasingly further under by her drinking, and showed no signs of stopping, or even slowing down, despite suggestions or pleas from friends and family. She justified herself since she was holding down two jobs, was never absent or late for either and graduated on the Dean’s List, typical behavior for most high-functioners.
“I did such an amazing job hiding everything, no one even knew what was going on except for my close friends and family,” she says, “Which was even more isolating because I was living a double existence. And then when I did tell people they kept looking at me going, Are you sure you have a drinking problem? because I presented so well.”
For almost 2 solid years she was stuck in a wheel of self-punishment, relapse and grief. Dry spells could last weeks or months before inevitably she’d be knocked off balance. It took AA, a therapist, and a pair of roller skates before she could get back to good. She still describes each day as “a gift and a fight.” This skater fully attributes a large part of her recovery to finding derby.
“I needed a whole different horse,” she laughs. “And that was what derby was, something completely different. You have all this high voltage, nervous energy when you quit drinking, and I don’t just mean because you’re not hungover and hunting for pizza rolls anymore. There is a tremendous effort that goes into being wasted all the time, so in order to not just sit still and white knuckle, I bought a pair of skates. I watched a single practice and was all in. I was about 30 days sober and Bambied out of the dressing room in Derbyville where I was seated on the bench, and my mom went, So this is what you want? I’ll be forever grateful that she floated me the $250 for those first pair of awkward, clunky Riedell Vixens.

Teams descend onto bottomless Sunday brunch mimosa bars like the Brides of Dracula onto an unsuspecting Transylvanian village. Locker room gift baskets for traveling games are full of lip gloss, silly string and shooters of Fireball. We can make a dragon boat of axe and mead horn welding Vikings look a Methodist Church Picnic. So what’s the appeal of derby for women in recovery? Simply put, partying is a perk, not the reason the sport exists. Skaters find community, support and passion in the game.

Animal explains it this way, “I have always been passionate about sports. I lost sight of that in active addiction, but once I got sober I found it again, and most importantly I found myself. Since playing in the [other] recovery sports league, I created an amazing support network. A friend who played encouraged me to try out with RMRG. I doubted myself and questioned if I would even be good enough or make the team. I had not skated since elementary school. My friend told me to just go for it. She supported me the entire way through tryouts. Since then I have found a new passion in life which is skating with these amazing women. Everyone has been so supportive of me and encouraging of me since day one on skates with shaky legs.”
Our anonymous skater states, “When I found derby, I was like this just hatched baby bird, I had been stripped down to my skin, my disease had kicked my ass. There was no self-worth left and I had been left bewildered by my drinking. I couldn’t stand up on my skates when I started, so learning derby from the ground up was an actual, tangible gauge of accomplishment in my sobriety, something I could measure. On skates what was really important was drilled into me in a very simple mantra: Get up, get up, stay up, which is really what sobriety is all about too.”
Derby is about more than the extracurricular fun (it’s not golf for God’s sake). Skaters become hooked on the sport and how it transports and transforms you; something that most skaters will attest to, no matter what their situation or struggle. Both women are in agreement about the confidence boost that derby provides.
“I struggled with body image issues, as well as feeling not pretty enough,” Animal says, “Not smart enough, or the socially acceptable size a woman “should be”, and I thought I found a solution in the use of substances. I was more or less just hiding from myself and becoming what I thought others wanted of me and my use quickly progressed.”
“Alcohol can make you feel awful pretty,” our other skater agrees, “Until it doesn’t. That’s also how derby raises me up. It lets me celebrate what my body does for me, instead of just worrying about how I look. And when I do worry about how I look, I remember I’m damn sexy in a helmet, or barring that, can throw anyone who says otherwise across the room. It’s a win-win.”

When asked about the after parties, our anonymous skater laughs, “Sometimes I’ll go if I’m not too beat up after the game. Initially when I get there I’m focused on shoveling as many chicken wings into my face as fast as humanly possible. By the time I’m done with that, I don’t mind being around my friends enjoying their beer. There is a lot of good feeling that runs high after a bout, so it’s nice to sit there and enjoy that. My friends who know my deal plonk a tonic and lime in front of me, which makes me feel very supported and happy. It’s a small thing, but it means they know what’s up, and they love and support me. We tell stories, discuss bullshit calls and good hits in the game, and hopefully someone starts a yowling karaoke round of Don’t Stop Believin. Sometimes it still does make me feel lonely or different, but it’s a boundary I need to protect. When it’s time to leave it’s time to leave. This is true of derby, a bachelorette party or a concert.”

When asked if there is anything the skaters wanted people to know about substance abuse this is what they had to say:
“Think about rethinking what you think.” Anonymous speaks slowly, feeling out her words, “People seem to perceive substance abuse and the mental health issues that result from it as some kind of moral failing. We’re taught in recovery your using is a symptom of your disease, not the cause of it. You use because you’re sad, or scared and don’t have tools to work through things, so you end up using a convenient out in the form of substance. [Addiction] is a tricky ass disease and people just assume you lack strength, and if you have a good enough reason like kids, or a new job, or a nice significant other you can just pull yourself up by your bootstraps and stop. Like if I could John Wayne my way out of this don’t you think I would? It’s not fun, you just tell yourself it is because you can’t stop and it’s terrifying. Then people act like you’re some sort of weakling for what you genuinely can’t control.”

For those reading this that have been touched by substance abuse, Animal wanted to reassure them there is hope: “There is not one clear cut way to recover. Everyone’s recovery is their own. There is hope and recovery is possible and there is a beautiful life waiting after addiction. We are all fighting battles that no one knows anything about and there is no shame in being a warrior.”

Rocky Mountain Rollergirls would like to celebrate those in recovery in Derby around the world and offer their love and support. We recognize your struggle and applaud your bravery. We allow that the disease of addiction and recovery is complex, multifaceted and an ongoing journey and it’s not just about what you put into your body. We urge anyone suffering themselves to seek help, whatever that may look like, because if there is one thing that individuals in recovery can speak to, it is the danger of isolation. We also recognize the loved ones of those who suffer and offer our positivity and support. Addiction touches everyone around them, not just the sufferer, and to say that you too absolutely matter in this narrative, that your selfcare and wellbeing is also vital.
Thanks for those who share their story, bless those who find solace in the sport and community of derby, props to those who support their fellow teammates in times of trial as well as happiness, and for those on the road to recovery, jam on.

For an overview of information, please visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Website.