Featured, Sober Berlin, Story

Sober Berlin: On bondage, sobriety, and the beauty of vulnerability

Text by Vanina Tsoneva
Illustration by Peter Wood

This is the first instalment in our series on artists living sober in Berlin—and how their creative practises have helped them maintain sobriety.

While I only partly remember the details of one particular drunk BDSM session, I will never forget the feeling of fear and anxiety to which I woke up the morning after. I sat in a cafe on a rainy day in Glasgow and was horrified by the fact that I didn’t remember chunks of the previous night’s experience. Did we use condoms? When did we actually start having sex? Did we really drink that much?

It was probably the first time I really worried about my safety in a BDSM session. It wasn’t as much because of the partners involved, but because I didn’t trust myself or respect my own limits. This was also one of these moments when I looked at myself from the outside and realised that, “This is a problem and you most likely need to seriously address it.”

I was, at this point, still naively thinking that I could control my drinking. This was, I thought, just a small obstacle on the path forward. However, I was already experiencing the slight flicker of a doubt, realising that I might not actually be in control of the situation. A few months back, after a boozy night and make out session with a friend, I made a pact with myself. If in six months I still had regular blackouts and two-day-long emotional hangovers, I would have to stop drinking.

Indeed, I quit drinking six months later. What started as a “break” soon turned into the realisation that I was not in control, that I needed to accept myself and the situation for what it was in order to deal with it.

I often get a surprised reaction when I say “I moved to Berlin and quit drinking.” Berlin is a well-known party town—famous for the techno, the day dancing, and the coming home Monday morning after a weekend of partying. And initially, this is why I wanted to move. I had DJ friends here and guest list access to Berghain and Tresor. Instead, I quit drinking the moment I arrived and began learning how to be sober in a city famous for its substances.

In general, being in a new place where I don’t have my regular drinking buddies made it easier to stick with my decision. I didn’t get as many, “Come on, just get one drink,” or “What do you mean you don’t drink?” as people just didn’t know how often I used to drink or when I stopped. On the other hand, having to socialize in a new environment—and a party one on top of that—without the fake confidence that a drink (or two, or five) can give you, is particularly awkward. Bars and clubs lose their charm—I started looking for places to have a real conversation rather than loudly shouting back and forth with a pint in hand. Probably one of the weirdest situations I experienced in was going sober to Berghain. It was absolutely fine for the first two hours, but after the club filled up it was just so much stimulation and I had to leave.

“I quit drinking the moment I arrived and began learning how to be sober in a city famous for its substances.”

Like any other big city, Berlin is multi-faceted and what is on the surface is not the only thing out there. You can do millions of different things here that don’t involve drinking until 10 am. I started really exploring BDSM when I quit, partially because I had all this time in my hands, but also because quitting drinking was driven by my enjoyment for BDSM. Truth is, being in Berlin and getting sober here—where there is a notable BDSM community and where people are so open about their sexuality—helped me deal with my sobriety. Thanks to the size of the scene and the supportiveness of the community, I don’t miss any social interactions previously associated only with drinking. Drunken dates turned into shibari practices, bondage jams, and sober bar and club outings. Some of my partners now consciously choose to stay sober during bondage sessions as well, and even at sex parties (which is wild, trust me!). Oddly enough, Berlin is the perfect city to get sober if you are willing to do the work. That is to accept and appreciate yourself, to be vulnerable and open.

It is hard to do this. Admitting to yourself that you can not just be a “social drinker” like all these other people you know. To come to terms and admit that you are no longer in control of something that played a huge role in your life for 20 years. Twenty years of outings with friends, Christmas drinks with the family, dates over drinks, weekly blackouts, and alcohol-fuelled depression. All of these life events defined or somehow related to alcohol. And also 20 years of using alcohol as a social lubricant, medicine for loneliness and depression, and a killer of awkwardness and goofiness. These uncomfortable emotions are what make us human, and to refuse to accept them is to refuse to accept yourself. Drinking has nothing to do with acceptance. If anything—it’s everything but. Denial and avoidance are integral parts of the process of getting drunk. The notion of having this first drink out of many, the idea of a bender weekend—it is all about “not thinking,” “switching off,” or “having fun now and thinking about it later.”

“Oddly enough, Berlin is the perfect city to get sober if you are willing to do the work. That is to accept and appreciate yourself, to be vulnerable and open.”

It is not a coincidence that BDSM was one of my main reasons to quit drinking and that it turned into a tool for dealing with sobriety. Acceptance is a huge part of BDSM. In order to get there, you have to become vulnerable first. Vulnerable is how I felt when struggling with drinking. Vulnerable is how I feel every time I step into the role of a submissive in a session. Not surprisingly, these are completely different types of vulnerability—the first one is the devastating and fearful feeling of being alone, naked, and unprotected, while the second is the warm and soothing emotion of being together, naked, and taken care of. By digging and exploring the latter, I managed to transform the first. And this would not have happened if I didn’t discover shibari.

Shibari, or kinbaku, is a Japanese form of bondage that in recent years has made its way into Western culture.  Although it started as a way to torture prisoners, it later transformed into a more erotic form of tying that can take different forms, depending on what you and your partner are trying to achieve. It can be executed purely for its visual aesthetic, for the restriction and suffering it can cause, for the meditative state of mind you can achieve with it. For me, shibari is a very intimate and often sexual experience. It can sometimes be more intimate than sex because you are giving away the control of your wellbeing to somebody else.

Never have I thought that losing control might have a positive meaning. For a long time, control in my life was associated with my drinking, and the lack of it always perceived as a negative. The thing is, in my 20 years of drinking I never made the conscious decision to not be in control. I never had a choice—there was never a defining moment when I decided “I don’t want to control my alcohol consumption.”  It just happened. No one asked me, I didn’t authorise my addiction to become the monster it did. And at some point, I accepted its existence and continued my life with it.

“These uncomfortable emotions are what make us human, and to refuse to accept them is to refuse to accept yourself.”

In shibari, nothing could be further from the truth when speaking about control in a safe exchange, such as a dynamic between a rigger (the person who is tying) and a model (person being tied) when there is trust. Before a session, I always have a chat with the person who will be tying me. We discuss what will be happening, if there are any injuries we should be careful about, and if I feel rested and healthy. I authorise the transfer of control of my being to them. I am completely free of the responsibility for my own existence, and this is a conscious and wanted decision. There is so much power in this act, in fully giving control away so you and your partner can build a specific dynamic and energy exchange. It can sometimes be a cathartic experience.

This act also sets the path for subspace. Subspace is a mind and body state often compared to being in a trance, drunk, or high. It is sometimes connected to the level of pain received by the submissive, but it can also be achieved by being restricted in some way (as in being tied, suspended etc). Combining these sensations with pleasure produces both endorphin and enkephalin, thus causing something very close to a prolonged euphoria. You feel light and happy, sometimes not very coordinated or coherent. It is often times compared to runners high, but also an out of body experience, losing touch with the real world, not being completely present. I usually go there easily, sometimes even in the first 10 minutes of a session. It is, however, part of the experience, and not the end. The path leading to subspace is as enjoyable as simply being in it. A lot of people would say it is an altered state of mind, therefore dangerous and potentially addicting, but I haven’t found that to be true.

“[T]hese are completely different types of vulnerability—the first one is the devastating and fearful feeling of being alone, naked, and unprotected, while the second is the warm and soothing emotion of being together, naked, and taken care of.”

I can’t really have too much of subspace. I listen to my body and I take a break when needed. Something I never had with drinking. Back then, I would just continue drinking and go from absolutely sober to blackout drunk without even a notion of sickness. I don’t have this greediness and uncontrollable desire to have more and more that I have with alcohol, sugar, and TV. I also can’t have subspace too often. Shibari and BDSM can be emotionally and physically exhausting and you need some nice food, relaxing time, and cuddles after a session (also known as aftercare). You might need a break for a few days or weeks. You can’t really force it and you can’t do it too often, simply because it is exhausting and requires care. You listen to your body and your mind, and you go step by step.

I am just at the beginning of my BDSM exploration. And still, in this short time it has changed my life. BDSM helped me quit drinking and it still keeps me away from alcohol. I discovered how freeing it is to be vulnerable, how control can be a powerful and rewarding exchange, and for the first time, how it feels to be fully accepted. I realise I wouldn’t be able to enjoy shibari and BDSM the way I do if I wasn’t sober and vice versa. I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy it simply because I was lacking the clarity, the mental and emotional richness I feel is necessary for me to really get there. Not being constantly in hangover clouds gave my mind the opportunity to explore, to spend some time with my demons, but also my angels. To really dig deep and discover my triggers, but also the things to make me happy, the things I long for. It completely changed the way I enjoy life and what I want from it. It has made me more giving and less demanding. It has put human connection and expression on my list of priorities. And BDSM very much reflects this—the desire of the human condition to connect, to accept, and to be able to express yourself free of judgment. While drinking alcohol was me trying to cover my fears and insecurities, then BDSM is me facing them, accepting them and going further into the adventure of dealing with them.

Vanina Tsoneva is the founder of www.sluttish.us, a platform that aims to explore sexuality by creating and curating adult sex ed, feminist and alternative porn, practical sex tips, and everything that turns us on and needs exploring.

All drawings by Peter Wood are ink on A3 paper. Peter drew Vanina and her tying partner live as they practised shibari: “As Vanina and her tying partner were constantly in motion, it was a challenge to capture any position with detail. As a result, over the course of 3 hours and 30+ drawings, I had to refine the process into its simplest possible form. Often with just one or two lines, and the pen never leaving the paper. Vanina’s dark hair was an obvious anchor point. By only filling in the hair, this helped to ground the perspective and provide a visual focal point to the quick drawings.”