In this episode of YR’s Adult ISH podcast, a young adult letter writer in our “Dear Adult ISH” series grapples with the question: What would your social life be like without alcohol? Host Nyge Turner is joined by alcohol-free bar owner Chris Marshall (Sans Bar) and sober podcaster Cynthia Wright (“Getting Your Sh*t Together”), with bonus insight from YA author Mary H.K. Choi. All in an effort to better understand what it’s like to be young, sober and struggling.
Adult ISH (@yrAdultISH) is produced by YR Media and brought to you by PRX’s Radiotopia.
Nyge: Welcome everyone to Adult ISH produced by YR Media and brought to you by Radiotopia from PRX. This season we are accepting listener letters that ask for advice on navigating the ups and downs of adult life. Today’s letter comes from Olivia in Texas and we’re gonna play it for you now. But I do just want to say this episode includes mentions of suicide and substance abuse, including alcohol.
Dear Adult ISH, I’ve spent most of my 20s drunk and partying. While I maintained a professional job as an engineer. I hit rock bottom in early 2020 with a suicide attempt. Failed, obviously, and subsequent struggles throughout the pandemic and staying sober. I was in and out of the psych hospital all year for inpatient stays into outpatients later. I finally maintained my sobriety for eight months. I think one of, if not the hardest parts of sobriety is that our culture here in the U.S. promotes and accepts alcohol abuse. It’s been very difficult to find activities that don’t revolve around alcohol or friends who want to do sober things. Although boozy brunch means or mommy wine culture, accessories promote and accept as the norm a lifestyle surrounded by alcohol. Sobriety is lonely in your twenties and thirties.
Nyge: On behalf of the whole Adult ISH team, we wanted to start off by saying, Olivia we are so grateful that you trusted us with this letter. You really moved us with what you wrote and we wanted to just start off this episode by sending love your way first.
Personally, I had honestly never really given sobriety much thought before reading this letter. Which is pretty surprising because I started drinking at a really young age, and I definitely had a point in my life also that I was drinking an unhealthy amount. But sobriety kinda just didn’t really feel like an option. Possibly for some of the same reasons brought up in this letter, like the effects it can have on your social life.
There are so many different reasons people might decide to stop drinking. And for the people who make that choice, one of the biggest ways sobriety can change your day to day life is by altering your social life and your friendships. So we figured that we needed to speak to someone who has gone through all of this first hand.
That’s where Cynthia Wright comes in. She’s a photographer, writer and the podcast host for “Missing Figures” and “Getting Your Sh*t Together,” where she’s shared a lot about her sobriety journey. Cynthia lives in Brooklyn, and she works in advertising, and was kind enough to join us on the show today.
I started out by asking Cynthia about what got her to the point of needing to make a change in her drinking habits, back in the day.
Cynthia: Back in those months, I was going through a lot of things physically, healthwise, I actually had a health scare and my doctors told me I was starting to have like early, like cirrhosis of the liver because of how much I was drinking. So I was like, what? You know? So that was something that kind of freaked me out. She’s like, “I had to go and actually get like a sonogram and everything.” She’s like, “You’re not supposed to drink at all. Don’t drink until after this test.” But of course, that made me nervous and I still drank. I drank through the entire time I wasn’t supposed to because I was just like, I couldn’t handle like the anxiety with everything and I didn’t know what to do.
Nyge: Well, how did your sobriety change your relationship to your friends and like other just relationships?
Cynthia: Oh man, ughh, I mean, you know it depends. It’s a, am I gonna say, it was cool with all my friends. No, I lost some friends in the process. And I know it’s hard for a lot of people, especially when you’re younger to think about because your social circle is very important to you for the most part. And if they’re all doing something, it can be kind of like isolating, even though it may not. No one may want that to happen
Cynthia: But I look at it as your real friends and people that really want the best for you will support you no matter what, whether they would want to do that for themselves. They will support you like my best friend. You know, I have, you know, she drinks and does stuff. But you know, when I told her what I was going to do, she was like, “How do you want me to show up for you?” And then I’ve had other people that we’re really close to me for a long time and they don’t know how to be around me. And I also will say that, something that really helped with me is learning boundaries because I realized that I had none. And when I really learned to realize that, you know, people, when they, if they react a certain way, it’s more than likely, it’s about them. And something that is upsetting or triggering to them. I know people may not like using the word trigger and all that, but it’s like something that’s kind of setting them off. And it’s not really a reflection of like, you.
Nyge: I think that’s so true, like because I think, I even just I know just to be honest about myself in the past, I know friends, if I was like drinking a certain night or something like that and then like, I try to like, you know, pour them up a drink or anything like then like, “Oh no, I’m good.” Then automatically, you kind of feel like, Oh, so like, am I weird for drinking or anything like that?
Nyge: And then you have a negative reaction, but it’s all based on. Now you’re feeling insecure
Cynthia: Yeah, exactly!
Nyge: About your drinking, and it’s not even about that person who was making that decision. It’s about…
Cynthia: You’re kind of waking somebody else up.
Nyge: Yeah, you’re like waking somebody else up to kind of like their journey.
Nyge: Yeah. And I really I really like that point, I guess kind of in the same vein of that. How did you find support from friends and family and others in recovery like you kind of talked about your best friend saying, How can I show up for you? Like, how did people show up for you?
Cynthia: Yeah,a lot of my friends, like she showed up for me. She would listen to me. And she’s still like this to this very day, even though, like, now I’m like, I can be around whatever. You know, do it, do you? You know?
Cynthia: But she would always ask me if this is OK, like, is this going to bother you? Do we need to go somewhere else? You know, that type of thing? Um checking in with me.
Nyge: That can come off as like, annoying or anything like that. That’s something that you appreciated. because I think that’s something people are like insecure about. They’re like, “I don’t want to make a big deal out of it. If you’re not trying to talk about it, like if you’re cool in these situations,” but at the same time, you’re still thinking, like, is this OK that I’m drinking around you? Is this OK that we’re in this environment or anything like that? How do you ask those questions, and be that support system to somebody without coming off, as you know, crossing a line?
Cynthia: Yeah, I know. I think it’s like a, it’s a touch and go, you know, right? Because, it’s not a one size fits all type of situation and some, you just have to just be. I feel like. I feel like it’s be open, but have boundaries and also know like the cues of your friend, you know, but not like, it’s and it’s still like a fine, like a fine dance or a fine walk,
Cynthia: I don’t know. Like for me, I know what has helped me a lot is that I’ve had friends that have reached out and they have done it in a very subtle way. And it wasn’t a very, it wasn’t like in front of a lot of people. It was a very private thing. And just to just like to have a check in, you know, and I think if you do something like that with your friends, you know, more than likely, you know, they it’ll be fine, you know? But it’s, I wish it was like one thing that you could do, but people are people and everyone. Recovery is very personal and it’s very different
Nyge: In your like Instagram bio. It’s well for for the show. It’s a Black woman in recovery. And I think it jumped out to me because I think when I think about, you know, sobriety and recovery and of, and that whole like community, it doesn’t seem very Black to me.
Nyge: And so I was just wondering if you could speak to being a Black woman in recovery and what that’s like and what could be out there for other Black women or Black people or people of color just out there looking for their community?
Cynthia: Yeah, I mean, great question. It is. I know that for the longest time, like, that’s another thing that actually prompted me to even start my show and just put it out there because I was scrolling through Instagram and like looking up those hashtags about like, you know, recovery or in recovery over January. And I saw no one that looked like me or like maybe one person out of like the hundreds.
Cynthia: And I’m like, We’re out here. So what’s up, you know? And what’s been beneficial, especially during COVID, is that a lot of sober like circles have started to formulate and are still going. There’s like sober sisters, sober Black girls club. There’s a lot of things out there, Black and recovery. Um, there’s groups out there, there’s movements we’re trying to. We’re trying to make waves,
Cynthia: We’re trying to have spaces for everyone.
Nyge: This topic is coming from a letter that we received that somebody wrote in. What advice would you have for them or would you give someone who’s newly sober and struggling with the sense of community? 5]
Cynthia: I know it’s, I was like, I always go back. It’s like, I know it’s hard because you do want that sense of community with your friends, but it’s also you have to learn to have a sense of like community with yourself. And I know that you can’t control others and their reactions to things. You can only control how you react to it, you know? And just realizing it’s, this is just a period of time, but you’re growing and you’re changing and I tell people, just lean into that discomfort just even if it’s just for a little bit and and just be OK, It’s gonna pass. And you know, it’s, you’re not always going to feel this way. I think sometimes you feel like you’re always this is, this is it. This is your life now, and it’s not. Hmm. [00:15:08][55.8]d
Nyge: Thank you so much. This is amazing.
Cynthia: Thank you!
Nyge: You can catch Cynthia’s podcast about recovery, “Getting Your Sh*t Together,” on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. You can also shoot her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nyge: Something a lot of people worry about with sobriety is that they won’t even know where to go with their friends anymore to just hang out. So many of our adult activities revolve around alcohol, so as an adult where can you find safe alcohol-free spaces to be around your friends? Whether you’re in recovery or just looking for something new, the good news is there are people out there trying to create those spaces.
Chris Marshall is the founder of the alcohol free Sans Bar based in Austin, TX. Before opening the bar in 2017, he spent eight years working as a substance abuse counselor. But back when he first got sober in 2007, he felt like his friendships were falling apart.
Chris: It was like all the inertia out of my social life just ground to a halt. I did not have any clue how I was going to move forward in life. All my friends were still drinking. All my friends were still partying, going on vacations, and I just felt like I was not included anymore.
Chris: So there was like a period of my life where it was really tough to kind of accept that I was not going to be able to socialize in the same way that I was previously. Yeah, but eventually I found a way forward.
Nyge: Is this just because you stopped drinking or you stopped hanging out in like those spaces altogether?
Chris: You know, I tried to hang out in those spaces, but I found that even when I did, I just did not feel included and I didn’t feel like I was really a part of the, the scene anymore. I noticed that there was a point in the night where I just couldn’t identify with where people were. You know, people were continually kind of changing their conversation in their, the way that they were behaving. And I was not. I was pretty much the same person I was when I walked in the door. So there was a bit of a disconnect there.
Nyge: Right. I can, I can feel that for sure, especially like when you’re, you know, when you’re like the only sober person at a party and you just feel like super left out of everything. People have like, inside jokes going on things like that, and you’re kind of just sitting there kind of like, “All right, I don’t I don’t really know. Y’all know how y’all look right now, but this, is this is interesting.” How did sobriety impact your friendships and what was your social scene like before and after?
Chris: Yeah. So my social scene before I stopped drinking was pretty normal and routine. I would say what most twenty-three year olds were doing back then in college, I was going out Friday nights, trivia, karaoke, doing things like that. And then, suddenly, like, life just stopped on a dime like I wasn’t going out anymore, I wasn’t hanging out with friends. I was noticing that a lot of the friends that I was hanging out with, stopped calling. I noticed, that I look on social media and I would see that they were going to vacations in Mexico or doing things on the weekend, and I wasn’t invited.And that hurt. It did. It hurt a lot to not have the invitation to not even have the option to decline. I just wasn’t being invited. So that was a pretty difficult time in my life. And then what I did notice was that eventually some of those friends,came back into my life, they started to ask, “can we meet up? How are you doing? You know, how do we move forward now that you don’t drink?” And I notice that a lot of my friends didn’t quite have the language to describe what was happening? I know I didn’t, I didn’t know how to say, like, I miss you, but I don’t miss the fun we used to have or the way we used to have fun. Like I want, I want to see you. I want to hang out with you. And I think that my friends also did not have the language to say, we miss you. It’s weird and awkward for us to not know what to do now. Like, like, we don’t want to make you feel weird, but we do miss you. We just know that you’re not drinking anymore. So how do we handle that? Alcohol was the currency in many of my friendships, it was how we relate to each other, it’s how we said we cared about each other, that’s how we handled stress together. That’s how we bonded and grew together in some way. So to have that removed was really hard. I think we’ve struggled for a while to figure out how to navigate those early days of my sobriety. What I did notice was that a lot of those friends did come back. They had tea with me, they had coffee with me. They were my real friends and they really missed the person I was, not the person I was when I was intoxicated.
Nyge: Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know why people just feel like, “Oh, I need to kind of like mask my feelings behind this alcohol. And yes, I’m, you know, telling you that I love you and I’m telling you that I care about you and all these things. But it’s like, it’s kind of because of the alcohol,” when it’s like, nah you felt that before you walked in there, you kind of just said it. But I mean, we’re all working on a lot of things. Can you tell us a little bit about Sandbar? So what led you to start Sandbar?
Chris: I believe that the best version of anyone’s self is without alcohol, without filters, without conditions. Being who you are, being your authentic self is the most authentic way to connect. So I just wanted to create a space that was focused on connection, focused on human beings who didn’t know each other. Having those conversations that we usually relegate to environments where alcohol is present to have these deep conversations, to connect in ways that we don’t normally connect outside of spaces with alcohol present.
Nyge: What and what is Sans bar for the people who, who don’t know?
Chris: Yeah, so first of all, see, as far as an alcohol free space, it is all the bar without the booze. It is a fun place to go on a Friday or Saturday night when you just want to hang out. Like, so people like, OK, why is it not a coffee shop? It’s not a coffee shop, because a coffee shop is a place you really go to meet people you know,
like you’re not going to go to a coffee shop and like on Singles Night at the coffee shop. Somebody that you like is thats…
Nyge: where and mingle at the coffee shop.
Chris: Yeah, you’re not going to, you know, meet someone new at the coffee shop. But what’s going to happen at an alcohol free bar is that you get to meet new people, new friends, maybe new love connections like that is something that is possible because its a bar. It’s a space that’s dedicated to great drinks, most importantly, deep connection.
Nyge: Did your years of experience as a substance abuse counselor play a part in your decision to open Sands Bar?
Chris: Oh, for sure. I mean, I was working with people of all different walks of life as a counselor, and many of them came into my office and they did not have any of the typical like alcohol problems. They weren’t alcohol dependent. They just, you know, maybe had some legal trouble or maybe they were at work. And, you know, they had some, you know, occupational problems, but they did not have the severity of alcohol dependance that would warrant treatment or anything like that. So I, I quickly recognized that there were a bunch of people who struggle to not drink, but there was nowhere for them to go. And so that’s why I created a space that was dedicated to people not drinking and having a good time. My Happy Place is on Friday nights when I stand in the middle of Sans Bar and I can close my eyes, and it sounds like any other bar in America. There’s people, you know,laughing, people talking, there’s music playing, you can hear people toasting with drinks, the glass clinking, bartenders throwing an empty bottle into the trash can. All those, all that, all that, that vitality, all that energy is still present. But people are living in that moment, unfiltered.
Nyge: Well, I can only imagine it means so much more when somebody is opening up to you or when you’re even meeting a new person and you guys are in, y’all are like feeling a spark between the two of you or anything like that when you know each of us are completely sober and we are still having these intimate moments with each other. And I know you’re gonna to fully recall this conversation tomorrow. I know you mean exactly what you’re saying to me, because there’s no reason why he wouldn’t mean it. And yeah, I, I imagine that it’s, it’s just so much, so much more authentic and it feels..
Chris: Oh yeah.
Nyge: It probably sticks with you a lot longer because it’s like oh no they felt that, they felt what they said to me.
Chris: Oh, that’s, that’s the best part for me is that I get to remember everything that happened the night before I wake up and I feel fresh. I feel excited about the possibility of new friendships, like when people say, call me, they actually mean it. So, you know, like, it’s, it’s incredible to have this experience, and I’m always amazed at how many people just stay, how many people just linger, how many people just. Just wait till last call before they have to like end their conversation, and then they continue the conversation outside the bar when we’re close. And then we do lots of fun things, you know, drag brunches, we do game nights, we do karaoke. We have a lot of fun. And I think that people often are concerned that if they’re not drinking, they’re not going to have fun. And my reality is that all I do is have fun without alcohol. And so when people come in the Sans bar, they’re just blown away, like how much fun they’re really having because they’re not having any of the negative consequences of drinking.
Nyge: I’m also kind of curious too, just from like seeing your Instagram and everything like that. Can you explain the difference between a zero proof cocktail and a mocktail? And if there, if there is one? Can you kind of break down some of the drinks that you serve?
Chris: Yeah. So first of all, the word mocktail is not a bad word. I mean, people, people say like mocktail as it’s like it’s mock something it doesn’t like. I think that any drink that is fun, interesting and elevated is worth calling a mocktail or is your proof cocktail. And it’s like the fun you can have with these drinks is just, It’s limitless. People have an amazing time at our bar because they realize, like I really do like the taste of some of these drinks and I can live without the alcohol. And when they realize that, wait, I’m having fun, I’m dancing, I’m dancing without alcohol, and I’m having fun with these drinks. People really forget about the fact that there’s no alcohol present, and that’s really the ultimate goal for me is to not center alcohol.
Nyge: What advice would you have for young people who are in recovery but don’t have an alcohol free space to hang out in their area like they don’t have a Sans bar? What could what could they do?
Chris: Well, first of all, I would say create one and create the community that, that you’re seeking.
Chris: There are undoubtedly, there are hundreds of people nearby you who are in the same situation. Who are looking for fun. Who are looking for a great way to connect with people and who don’t want to drink alcohol. And it always takes someone that first person to say, “You know what? I’m going to do it.” So, yeah, my, my advice is just to start. Start asking people to hang out, start going out with other people who are alcohol free and fFind friendships that support and affirm your decision to not drink alcohol.
Chris: I think that’s the, that’s the biggest one. It’s like you don’t have to find new friends, but the friends that you did have must be supportive of your decision to not drink alcohol. And what I found was that once I was very firm in that decision, like, “OK, I’m not going to drink anymore,” the friends that did come back into my life were fierce advocates of my recovery. They really wanted me to stay sober. I had my friends, my fraternity brothers, In fact, we went out downtown Austin early in my sobriety and they were fighting to make sure I had enough club soda and lime. You know, they were like, Do you have enough? Can we get you another? They were like tipping the bartender extra to make sure that it was always like a drink in my hand.
Chris: I found that my friends were so supportive, and to me, that was the, I think that’s what really made it possible for me to stay sober. I don’t think I would have stayed alcohol free if it wasn’t for the people in my life who I knew before, who cared enough to say, like, we’re allies here, we care about your life, we care about your decision and we support you in any way that we can.
Nyge: Chris is going on a national tour next year with Sans Bar, which you can follow on instagram at sans underscore bar.
Chris: Just send me a DM if you have any, any questions at all. I’m all about connections, so I’d love to connect.
Nyge: After talking with the guests from today’s show, I think one of my biggest takeaways is that it’s important to check in with yourself on how alcohol serves you and what role drinking is playing in your life. Also on a more personal note, I want to be mindful about checking in with my friends’ comfort levels with drinking, and make sure that we’re taking our time to go beyond the default of just grabbing drinks and find new ways to connect that don’t always revolve around alcohol. I think If you genuinely care about someone you owe it to each other to find ways to connect that serve you both equally. It’s possible, and even more importantly than that, it’s worth it.
Before we head into the credits, one more thing – we actually talked to one other person about this letter, Young Adult author Mary H.K. Choi. And she had so much to say about the topic of sobriety.
Mary: There’s a lot going on and I’m really glad I’m awake for it. I mean, I think that’s what sobriety is to me. Like, I’m so glad I’m not kicking this can down the road and being drunk and fucked up this whole time and then retrieving my body like months after my dad dies and feeling horrible about it. Like, I’m so glad. I’m really grateful for the types of future mistakes that I am not making now as a sober person and as an awake person.
Nyge: Mary had SO many amazing things to say to us, and they were about more than just alcohol – they were also about grief, family, disordered eating, and other big topics. We didn’t want to squish the conversation into this episode, so we’re actually gonna air the whole thing next week for you. It was a really special conversation so please tune in.
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs immediate help you can call the Suicide prevention lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. For non urgent information about mental health and substance abuse you can also call, 1-800-662-HELP.
Now, onto the credits:
Adult ISH is produced by YR Media, a national network of young artists and journalists creating content for this generation.
Mariah Dennis read the letter at the top of the show, and also contributed invaluable research, ideas, and planning to help this episode come to life. Thank you, Mariah! Please go check out her work at www.mariahdennis.com.
Our show is also produced by Georgia Wright, Dominique French, and me, ya boy, Nyge Turner. Thank you to our Executive Producer Rebecca Martin, the young people at YR who contributed art for this episode, and our intern Tamara Sanchez.
We’re also proud to be members of Radiotopia by PRX. An independent listener-supported collective of some of the most hard-working shows in all of podcasting. Find them at radiotopia.fm.
If you haven’t reviewed our show on Apple Podcasts yet, please make sure you do. Five stars is MUCH appreciated! All that other stuff, yeah I mean you can take that — nah I’m just kidding! You can follow us on all the socials @YRadultISH.
See ya next week, for part two!