The week Covid-19 hit Berlin in late February last year, Eliot Gardepe was the busiest he’d been in a long time. The 32-year-old American, who is a full-time DJ and event organiser, had just returned from touring, came back to throw an event at the club Kake and had a bunch of meetings to set his plans for the year in motion. Then Germany went into its first lockdown and his entire livelihood went up in smoke.
For Gardepe and others in Berlin’s party scene, a crucial lifeline to the world disappeared overnight, with not insignificant consequences for their mental wellbeing. The contrast between life before and during the pandemic was extreme. “It’s hard to go from a lifestyle of constantly socialising, seeing people, doing stuff, making all this queer art and all this crazy stuff that was going on,” he says, “and then suddenly being like, ‘Alright, I shouldn’t be seeing people, I have to stay in my apartment, there’s nowhere to go and nothing to do.’ Aside from being stressful, it’s depressing.”
From the outside, it might be tempting to view clubland as merely a place of drug-fuelled hedonism that should be easy to give up during a pandemic, but the reality is more complex. Like any cultural institution, clubs are places where many derive a sense of community and belonging, where they feel they truly fit in. In fact, alongside those working in nightlife, this sudden, enforced shift in lifestyle brought with it a sense of loss that was perhaps felt most acutely in sections of the scene like the queer community.
Gardepe, whose social and professional life is deeply intertwined with club culture, sees the club as a community centre for the queer community – the main gathering point for many – which has made two lockdowns and the long-term closure of Berlin’s clubs especially difficult to bear. “As much as it is easy to get lost in the party scene, it is also easy to get lost outside of it,” he says.
While clubs can be important social hubs, there is also a darker side: both punters and mental health experts agree that regular partying can take its toll on a person’s physical and mental wellbeing. As Gardepe says, the reality of parties is that they’re messy: there’s both a good side and a bad side to this lifestyle, both of which need to be acknowledged in order for people to have a truly healthy relationship with the scene.
When clubbing is the addiction
In fact, from a psychological standpoint, partying often becomes problematic when people start to over-rely on the club experience. Clinical psychologist Johanne Schwensen, who co-founded the online therapy platform It’s Complicated, has a particular interest in the intersection of mental health and club culture. Prior to studying psychology, she spent her late teens and early twenties DJing in both her native Denmark and abroad as half of the duo Ung Flugt, together with her good friend Najaaraq Vestbirk. Both have since moved to Berlin, and Najaaraq went on to DJ full time, under the artist name Courtesy.
While not at all critical of the lifestyle choices of her patients, Schwensen estimates that, prior to the pandemic, a third of people that came to see her were struggling with an overreliance on club culture. In these cases, she says, “the solution had become the problem”. “That’s often what happens: you have a coping mechanism and you start to over-rely on it. That could be my one glass of wine that turns into too many, that thing that I depend on to get a daily sense of relief. But like with a lot of young people in Berlin, it can also be over-relying on the experience of clubbing.”
“As much as it is easy to get lost in the party scene, it is also easy to get lost outside of it.”
The most common issues for those who push it too far are related to substance use and the actual time spent in clubs. Additionally, some party-goers report relationship issues: they seek therapy when they start to see the superficiality of some friendships formed in the club. “Some people struggle with the fact that everyone can seem so jovial and so close, and the relationships can seem so deep, but then they just dissolve into nothingness outside of the club,” Schwensen says. So, with Berlin’s clubbers forced to go cold turkey, how have they handled the club-less, dance floor-less life?
For Javiera*, a 28-year-old university student and graphic designer who was born and raised in Berlin, the last few months have actually given her a chance to focus on developing healthier habits and more meaningful relationships – and to re-evaluate the impact that regular partying has had on her mental health. For Javiera, who has been immersed in the club scene since her early twenties, both working at parties and going out on weekends with friends, being in club environments resulted in constantly comparing herself to others in a way that was harmful to her self-esteem. She says partying also al- lowed her to avoid bigger questions that she didn’t want to deal with, like deciding which career path to pursue.
“Sometimes it used to be a good kind of confidence that I got from going to clubs and dressing up and getting to know new people. But sometimes, especially for someone who is depressed and tries to get away from their depressed feelings, I feel like it can actually go the other way, that you feel very empty and that you are not as cool as the people you see there,” she says.
Javiera sees both upsides and downsides to not partying over the past year. While she feels she has more control over her mental wellbeing, she does miss the social activity that was so central to her pre-pandemic life. “At some point you’ve watched all the movies and done all the walking and done all the stuff you can do like baking bread or whatever, and that is the moment when you feel lonely. But in general I feel like it is easier to have agency over your own feelings.”
Others say that heavy partying did not affect them so negatively pre-COVID. In fact, for them the reverse is true. For Ellen*, 34, clubbing has been a central part of her life since arriving in Berlin from Sweden seven years ago. Prior to the pandemic, working freelance for language learning start-up Babbel afforded her enough free time to keep a pretty consistent schedule of partying with friends almost every weekend, with sessions lasting anywhere from a few hours to two days at a time. Before the pandemic, Monday morning closings at Berghain – where revellers stay until the very last track is played sometime well into Monday morning – were a regular part of her social calendar.
Ellen has seen this fast-paced lifestyle take its toll on some, but says this wasn’t the case for her. She describes her relationship with partying pre-COVID as “time consuming but joyful”, even if it still had its spillover effects. “Before Corona, when I used to do the Monday morning closings every single weekend, Mondays, Tuesdays and sometimes even Wednesdays weren’t very productive days,” she says. “I sometimes felt like I could give so much more socially, intellectually and work wise, but I was just too tired. So in that sense, yes, it has an effect. But for me it was never really an issue where I wouldn’t know where to stop.”
While the post-pandemic reactions from clubgoers differ, the loss of community and connection to others is something that is keenly felt not just by the people who frequent clubs, but also by those inside the DJ booth. Just like with Gardepe, who saw his professional and much of his social life completely derailed by Corona, Najaaraq Vestbirk, aka Courtesy, is one of many full-time touring DJs who have been put out of work by the pandemic.
When playing on the Berlin-based live streaming show HÖR during the summer, the experience showed her just how much she was missing the connection with the crowd – and how impossible that is to recreate with streaming and other online formats. “I was playing and by the end of the set, I actually started crying. I thought, ‘This just doesn’t work without the audience.’ A DJ playing in their living room with a bunch of plants around them just doesn’t cut it.” To Vestbirk and others, the physical element of being in a club dancing to music and sharing this experience with others can’t be downplayed: it reflects an essential part of what it is to be human.
“Dancing and being together in crowds is something that happens in all cultures. It happens everywhere in the world regardless of drug consumption and it also happens in countries where you don’t drink alcohol or even mix genders at parties. And so how do you recreate that kind of intimacy? How do we just fill that space – even just a little bit – so that we don’t have this insane global trauma from this?”
An antidote to clubs
As Berlin enters month five of its second lockdown, it seems clubbers have found different ways to cope. In the summer, this took the form of the now infamous Hasenheide raves, as well as other large, illegal events, such as those held at abandoned spaces outside the Ring. More recently, Berlin’s second lockdown has coincided with the darkest and coldest time of year, leading many to continue with small-scale indoor gatherings and flat parties, which have provided an antidote to the feelings of boredom and isolation. Increasingly, the reality that no one knows when clubs will actually reopen – the Berlin Club Commission is now predicting a return to normal for clubs in late 2022 – is sinking in, too.
During the summer, Johanne Schwensen says some of her clients reported having small parties in order to recreate the “borderline transcending experience” that clubs usually offer, although that experience cannot be replicated in full. “Even if only for five to 10 hours, to just have a space where other rules exist and where people are free in a new way – I think that can be a pretty healthy space to embody,” she says. “I get them, that they miss that a lot and nothing is going to replace it.”
“Dancing and being together in crowds is something that happens in all cultures. It happens everywhere in the world regardless of drug consumption and it also happens in countries where you don’t drink alcohol or even mix genders at parties.
Others, it seems, have turned to other means. A recent mini-survey conducted by safer nightlife organisation SONAR Berlin revealed the extent to which many people are struggling: asked to rate their current wellbeing, respondents rated an average of just 3.8 on a scale of one (very bad) to 10 (very good). The survey was a first for the organisation and while there is no earlier data available for direct comparison, studies such as the OECD Better Life Index show Germans usually rate their wellbeing and life satisfaction around 7 (the OECD average is 6.5).
The SONAR survey also indicated that the use of downers – including cannabis and other substances with a sedative effect – is on the rise. Tellingly, it revealed a polarisation in terms of drug use: some people are taking drugs less often because there are fewer occasions to do so, while some are consuming them more frequently due to increased stress.
However, not all clubgoers have taken to drugs or risky illegal raves to cope with the pandemic. Schwensen points out that some clients have used this time to forge healthier habits: much like the rest of society, they’ve started exercising more or picked up a regular meditation practice. “I think people are just finding whatever works for them.”
To return or not to return?
While many people from the party scene describe the pandemic as a double-edged sword that has brought about plenty of challenges, it has at least presented many with a rare opportunity: the chance to take a proper party break, without any fear of missing out. “Right now, when all the outside noise gets narrowed down to just your friends and your close relationships and the stuff that you do, you have more influence on what you let into your life that is making you happy and what you are letting in that is making you sad,” says Javiera. “So I feel like it’s not all bad that comes out of the lockdown.”
Vestbirk, too, has been able to use this time to focus on other things, including her psychology studies, a new role teaching music online at the conservatory in Copenhagen and an experimental live music project. On a personal level it has been a welcome hiatus from a hectic touring schedule. “It’s really made me realise the things I need to change in my life,” she says, before quickly pointing out that the option of “taking a break” is not available to everyone. “That comes from privilege: if you can’t pay your rent, if you’re sick, if your family is sick or you lose a family member, fuck having a break to think about stuff.”
For many, a return to nightlife after the pandemic is inevitable. It’s both the community-building and political advocacy elements of his former role that Gardepe misses most, especially after witnessing how the pandemic has disproportionately affected marginalised groups. “It remains the case that it [club culture] is super important to me, super important to a lot of queer people and no matter what, if and when it comes back, we will be there,” he says.
Meanwhile for Ellen, the former hard-partying Berghain regular, she used to think the idea of taking a party break was an urban legend – something no one ever actually succeeded in doing. But she recently started working full-time at music streaming service SoundCloud and doesn’t see partying taking up so much of her time in future. “I predict that I won’t go out quite as much, even when everything opens back up. Except for at first,” she says with a laugh. “For a little bit, I’ll just go crazy.”