In This Episode
The creator of Sans Bar, the bar without booze, Chris Marshall joins us for a conversation on recovery, community and how to make the perfect mocktail.
Ana Marie Cox: Hi, I’m Marie Cox, and welcome to With Friends Like These. This week our guest is Chris Marshall, the creator of Sans Bar, the bar without booze, which is why I wanted to talk to him today. Chris has been sober for over a decade and wanted to create a space where people could connect without alcohol, whether that’s because they don’t drink or just don’t drink that night. Stay tuned for our conversation about recovery, the key to making a tasty mocktail, and exactly what makes a bar a bar. Here’s my interview with Chris Marshall.
Ana Marie Cox: Chris, welcome to the show.
Chris Marshall: Thanks for having me on. Glad to be here.
Ana Marie Cox: So I know about Sans, not just because I live in Austin, but it made a huge splash when you debuted because this idea of a nonalcoholic bar, I think, captured a lot of people’s imagination. And you come to a nonalcoholic bar, I guess I had assumed that you might have been a bartender in another life but no, that’s, that’s not it. You open Sans Bar after a career in substance abuse counseling.
Chris Marshall: Yeah. A lot of people think that that’s how I found this concept of an alcohol-free bar. And no, it’s the opposite way. I, through my own experience growing up just needed connection and found that part of my recovery journey was having community. And then I became a counselor, did that for eight years here in Austin, and discovered that other people were looking for a way to connect to people without alcohol. And that’s where the idea for Sans Bar was born.
Ana Marie Cox: I understand it was sort of a particular kind of set of experiences and a little bit of disillusionment in your experience as a substance abuse counselor that kind of gave you the light bulb moment about Sans Bar. Could you take us through that story?
Chris Marshall: Yeah. The industry, the treatment industry is something that I don’t think a lot of people understand unless you’re in it. I think a lot of people watch, you know, TV shows about substance use or alcoholism, and you hear that the character goes to rehab, and that’s really the end of that kind of plot, it kind of dead ends there. And what happens when someone decides to go to treatment is this adventure in insurance and mental health and how we treat folks with mental health. It is an industry that is staffed primarily by people who are wounded healers, who themselves had substance issues and are in recovery themselves. And there’s a, you know, that in itself is kind of a weird dynamic. I mean, there’s just a lot of layers there but one thing that I learned inside the machine, seeing how the sausage is made, I realized that—
Ana Marie Cox: Seeing how the sausage is taken apart, maybe, that’s like the the thing about the treatment industry.
Chris Marshall: The deconstruction of sausage meat. Just watching it, being in that system, was really disheartening because I would see people go through this system with the greatest of hopes that their life would be better, that they would be able to find abstinence and remain abstinent after treatment, and what I saw was a lot of people did not survive. Not only did they not stay alcohol free, they also struggled to even live. And there was just a complacency within the industry. Very, you know, this is what happens. When people don’t make it, it’s their fault. It’s the patient’s fault that they don’t make it. And I just, I stayed in that industry for as long as I could because I believed we were doing good, but then I thought to myself we could do so much better. And as I talked to hundreds of people I worked with, I recognized the problem really was the lack of options when it came to connection to other people. And then towards the end of my counseling career, I lost three clients in rapid succession, just one after the other. And yes, you’re going to lose people when you’re working with people who are struggling with substance use, but the way that these three patients died was just seemed unnecessary. And the last person to pass away was a patient who expressed this frustration with being a 30-something-year old in Austin, who was college educated, professional, and was certain that they didn’t want to drink but had nowhere to go on a Friday or Saturday night. And that person’s passing just, it just devastated me, because it was, it seemed preventable. I never want someone’s cause of death to be loneliness or isolation. And so with that, I was like, OK, this is enough. I’m never going to change the system from inside of it. I have to leave the system and offer an option for everyone who wants to not drink for the night.
Ana Marie Cox: I have so many thoughts on this idea about dying of loneliness. One thought is that as a fellow person in recovery, I think you shared something like this in an interview, which is that I was just so happy not to be doomed to die, that I was kind of OK with not having fun. Like, I was I, when I came into recovery, I was very clearly going to die if I didn’t get sober. I’d been close to death a couple of times. And so I knew that that was the thing that would happen to me if I drank or used. So I was kind of like, All right, I guess I’ll live and not have fun. Oh, well. I had tons of fun for many years. I had more fun than most people have. I used my allotment of fun, right? And then also, I discovered that I wasn’t much, as much of a socialite as I thought I was. I think a lot of people who sober up realize maybe I don’t like hanging out with people as much as I thought I did. You know? I just really enjoyed being at places where you could drink, right? But that doesn’t mean you don’t need to be around people, right? I think there’s a difference between being around people and community, you know? And so sometimes when I think about when people say I don’t know what to do on a Friday or Saturday night, well, they could go somewhere, right? But without the lubrication of alcohol, you’re going to feel lonely. So how do you make that different, how do you do the, how do you make the, how do you make it community and not just a place where people aren’t drinking? I guess that’s my question.
Chris Marshall: Yeah, I mean, I think that. I’ve sat in spaces before and felt surrounded by people, but absolutely lonely. I remember that, you know, very vividly towards the end of my drinking. I would be in a bar full of people and feel absolutely alone. Like, I could vanish from that scene and no one would know. And so, yeah, it’s not about just having people around you. I really am after creating community, which says that no matter if you’re there tonight or you just don’t feel like being there, it’s always there for you, right? Like, there’s always going to be people who want to deeply know and understand you. And that’s not something you find in any other kind of bar or third space, you know? You know, I grew up watching Cheers. That was one of my favorite shows. That should have said something about my trajectory as a kid, that Cheers was my favorite show. But I loved the idea that you can go somewhere and you can be deeply known, that people can understand you. And that’s what I wanted to create, because that’s what I felt was the missing piece for a lot of these people who are struggling. They really could not find that space where they could be deeply known and deeply understood, that felt safe for them, right? They didn’t have to be on. And I feel like a lot of the social situations we find ourselves in, we have to be on. We end up going places we don’t want to go and hanging out with people we don’t really even like because we have this need to be on. And Sans Bar is a place where you don’t need to be on. You don’t even have to show up, just know that it’s always there.
Ana Marie Cox: And I love that. I guess I’m just sort of drilling into this because I think in some ways the thought that I’m coming to is that bars are overrated, right? Like, totally, as community spaces. Because there is an element of fiction to them. You have this artificial lubricant of alcohol. Alcohol establishes intimacy pretty quickly, right? And that’s why people love it. Normal people, that’s like, that’s a plus for them, right? Because they can also stop. They can be like and now I have let down my guard enough and I will stop doing that. People like us can’t. But, so if you take the alcohol out of a bar, how do you encourage the kind of intimacy that makes people like bars as community spaces?
Chris Marshall: Yeah, I mean, I think to your point, the whole idea of alcohol creating intimacy is true and false. Like as you were talking just now, I thought about a confessional of all places. Weird. But it’s a one way street of intimacy, right? Like someone, you pour your heart out to someone, they don’t really hear you and most importantly, you don’t get to know them. And I think that’s the difference between the intimacy that we feel when we consume alcohol, and intimacy to be found when we don’t consume alcohol. When we can really not just share what’s on our heart or not share what’s in our head or the stressors of the day, but to really listen to someone else, you know, and deeply connect to someone else through listening.
Ana Marie Cox: So just tell me more about the Sans Bar then, because that’s what I keep circling around. I haven’t been because I’ve been here, only been here in the pandemic. I understand you recently opened back up, so I’m going to have to go. But what about Sans Bar creates that kind of intimacy, again, that doesn’t happen necessarily in a regular bar, or that’s sometimes created by alcohol? I know that you have delicious drinks, so, and that’s probably part of it, for people to enjoy delicious things is one way of actually being communal, right? Like, that’s a pretty basic thing that we have in restaurants, even restaurants that don’t serve alcohol. If people are sharing delicious things, that establishes a level intimacy. So there’s that. Tell me more.
Chris Marshall: Yeah. So I think the goal is the intimacy that we were just talking about. You know, the question is, how do you get there? And I think you get there by designing the environment in a way that is connective and feels like a space of community. So what do we do? So we do everything a bar doesn’t do, a traditional bar doesn’t do. So instead of having music blaring where you can’t serve anyone, all the music is that a nice conversational level. We really believe in that. You know, music is great. We live in Austin, the live music capital of the world, but music is a side character to the main character of conversation and connection. So we, you know, keep the lights kind of up so you can see people. We make sure that the music feels right. It feels kind of good and upbeat. And then we also offer experiences which people can connect around. So our biggest night, hands down, is karaoke night. People love sober karaoke.
Ana Marie Cox: I have a story, but shall I jump in?
Chris Marshall: Yes! Yes.
Ana Marie Cox: OK, so my marriage is ending but it started in a really great, our wedding was amazing. And we were both sober at the time and we were thinking about what we’re going to do for a rehearsal dinner. Like, how are we going to have like a really cool, intimate rehearsal dinner with no booze? We had sober karaoke. And here’s my theory, and you tell me if—you have much more experience with this than I do—doing karaoke in front of people, it creates that level of slight embarrassment like drinking does. You’ve all let down your guard a little bit and done something a little dangerous. And so it’s the same feeling as having gotten a little bit drunk in front of someone. Do you know what I mean?
Chris Marshall: Yes! I mean, that’s exactly it. There’s a implied shared risk, like we are always going to be a little vulnerable in this moment. Now, of course, you know, there’s always someone, there’s always someone who’s like a great singer and they, you know, they pretend like, oh, I don’t know, and they belt it out. There’s always that. But a majority of people, such as myself, cannot sing at all, and they’ve never done this experience without alcohol. Alcohol’s always given them that cover to do this big public thing. And again, it’s yes, it’s important to get on that stage, to see those lights, to see the lyrics, to hear the music and to go. That is part of the experience. But I think the real magic is being in the audience and cheering someone on and knowing that they are just as nervous as you were, and they need your support and applause and woops and whistles. The audience is what is the magic part of that, I think, more so than the performance it’s see, it’s witnessing someone grow in that way.
Ana Marie Cox: It really flows both ways because the other part of the audience being there is that when you go up to do that and you take this, not, you know, it’s not that big a leap of faith, but it is one depending on your level of anxiety, right? The audience fuckin catches you.
Chris Marshall: Yeah.
Ana Marie Cox: Right there! They want you to succeed. You know? And I guess it’s a combination of someone realizing that the audience wants them to succeed and then what you’re talking about, which is that realizing that I want the performer to succeed. That I have that generosity in me that maybe I didn’t even know that I had.
Chris Marshall: Right. To deeply root for someone else just because you know that they need that. I think showing up for someone like that is just super rare. And again, something you don’t really see in other venues. I mean, we do comedy night, and it’s amazing to see people who have never done comedy, who have always wanted to do comedy, or who were, you know, comics and have never performed on stage without alcohol in most comedy—
Ana Marie Cox: Talk about risks, man. Talk about like—
Chris Marshall: That’s a high wire, right? Like, you were literally on the high wire. And to watch people, the joke, not land, and then the crowd to like, acknowledge the joke didn’t land but still say, like, keep going. Like, you know, just the the positivity behind it, it’s just incredible. I love watching people find that net where their held and they’re seen and they’re understood. Like, nope, it was a bad joke, like that, that was horrible but we still love you, we still think you’re great, and just keep doing your thing. Like to see that happen on a consistent basis night after night a Sans Bar. No matter if it’s stand up, if it’s karaoke, if we’re just doing like a game night, if it’s just a regular night at the bar where we’re just all saw hanging out, like to watch people support and cheer other people on, I think is the secret sauce. That is what makes it feel like something really, really special.
Ana Marie Cox: Getting back to that idea that, you know, alcohol, any kind of chemical, you know, a substance that works on the brain and its emotions can create this false sense of intimacy—I almost want to call it false, it is just a sense of intimacy. Let’s just say that. It can be real. But I think, you know, that’s sort of traditionally why we often think of bartenders as confessors is that of course, you’re going to tell your bartender all your troubles, you’re drunk. Or at least had a few and like, you’re feeling confessional, that’s what booze does for a lot of people. You know? Do sober people open up to bartenders in the same way that drunk people do?
Chris Marshall: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I think the cool thing is is I give back to that person. Like, I believe in reciprocity in that regard, where if someone’s going to tell me about their hard days and about the hard life, about their hard moment, I’m going to be an ear to listen to. I mean, I was a counselor for eight years, right, like, it’s second nature like, I’m going to listen to you. But I also always ask, like, can you share something with you? Because I want that person to know, like struggle is part of the human condition. And we all have hard days. We can all get through hard things and you’re not alone. Like, I try to as much, when it feels right and when it feels appropriate, you know? If it’s a busy night, I’m not going to like, hey, here’s what’s happened in my, you know, you know, hard, this the hard thing is happening in my life. But I will just let people know like, this is a safe space. But I see people opening up time and time again, I see people sharing the sensitive and soft parts of themselves because they feel the need to. Like we, we need that we need to be able to sit down and say, like, I’m not OK. I’m struggling. You know, we need, we need spaces to do that. And there’s just so few of them left in the world.
Ana Marie Cox: So you’re a trained counselor. Are all the bartenders at Sans Bar trained counselors?
Chris Marshall: They they probably should be, and they’d be making more money if they were counselors.
Ana Marie Cox: They are just lay counselors, like most bartenders.
Chris Marshall: Lay counselors with a lot of bartending experience. So what I did was I had the counseling experience, but I wanted to make sure that the drinks were good and that we have great drinks because I knew that that was going to be a huge hurdle to climb to make sure that people understood that, no, we’re still serious about the drinks. We want the drinks to shine and that to be something people come back to. But the drinks are not the most important thing a Sans Bar. It really is about the connection. It’s really about offering a third space that feels that feels like home.
Ana Marie Cox: I want to at least end our interview with some, maybe some recipes, but let’s talk about drinks for a second because as a long time, at this point, none drinker, if I had to list my top three disappointments with sobriety—not disappointments, but let me just think of how to frame this. I won’t say what the other ones were, they’re a little intimate. But not being able to find good nonalcoholic drinks is a huge frustration for me and sobriety. Like we were joking before we started recording, that I was going to go get a Diet Coke because Diet Coke is the official drink of like sober Gen-Xers. Like, that’s, if you go to like a sober Gen-X light gathering that’s—well, maybe coffee, but probably Diet Coke. And you get tired of ordering Diet Coke in a restaurant. You know, like in a special occasion, too. And then everything else is really sweet. Like if if you’re not going to drink Diet Coke, three reason I think Diet Coke is popular is because it has a flavor that’s not sugar. You know? And I was talking to someone about making good no alcoholic drinks, and he said, Yeah, people lean on sugar. You know, so, and it’s hard to get complexity in a nonalcoholic drink. So what do y’all do? Because those are, this person was a bartender. He said it’s actually a huge challenge to make a complex nonalcoholic drink.
Chris Marshall: You know, maybe two years ago, that was the truth. Like it was really hard to find a way to build a interesting, complex adult-tasting beverage. But now I would challenge anyone to say, like, it’s hard to find, you know, the ingredients to make a great drink. There are so many spirits out there today that are just brilliant. I mean, absolutely just mind-blowingly award-winning spirits that are like rum alternatives. At the bar we have, I think, four tequila alternatives. So like, you know, it’s not just lime in club soda, there’s a lot of things that we can do now. My favorite is an Old Fashioned. And now I got sober at 23, so I wasn’t drinking many Old Fashions. So I never, I’ve never had a real Old Fashioned. I don’t know—
Ana Marie Cox: You have nothing to compare it to. So you can’t say if it’s like the original, but you can say, you like it.
Chris Marshall: I can say I like it and can say people who do drink come into the bar with that, you know, that skeptical eye and they are surprised at how much it approximates any other cocktail. We can get nice, smoky peaty beautiful like botanical gins that are Juniper forward. I mean, it’s possible to make a great cocktail that doesn’t include alcohol these days. And I always tell everyone like, that’s all about safety and where you feel you’re comfortable. Some people don’t feel comfortable with the spirits.
Ana Marie Cox: I was going to ask you about that. There is a controversy in traditional recovery circles about whether or not it’s, I don’t even have to say it, because it’s kind of pisses me off. But the catchphrase one might hear is non-alcoholic drinks are for non-alcoholics and if something tastes like the real thing, eventually going to want a real thing. So . . .
Chris Marshall: Yeah. Yah, I hear that.
Ana Marie Cox: And your response to that is?
Chris Marshall: I hear that. I recognize that. But non-meat or plant-based burgers are for everyone.
Ana Marie Cox: Good response.
Chris Marshall: I mean, and I really think it’s the same thing, like people who enjoy plant based-products, enjoy them for a multitude of reasons. Some people enjoy them because they don’t eat meat. I, born and raised in Texas, eat a ton of meat, but I still order plant-based products because I like the idea of a plant-based burger. Sometimes I just want that. And so whatever you feel comfortable with is ultimately the right answer. I can’t, and nor do I want to, be the arbiter of someone’s drinking life, but I do believe in ritual, and I do believe that sometimes it is nice to have something that is replacement for something you had previously. So people come home and they open up a bottle of alcohol-free wine and that to them feels right. It feels safe. We come from, myself included, we got sober before these things were even an option. So for us, it doesn’t make sense. But for a lot of people, this makes all the sense in the world. And for a lot of people, this is how they’re getting better is that they’re using these drinks as a replacement to keep the ritual but take out the alcohol.
Ana Marie Cox: Oh, I’m all, I’m all for trying. I actually scandalously, I will have an, a beer every once in a while. There’s craft NA beers out there.
Chris Marshall: Oh, yeah.
Ana Marie Cox: It’s amazing. I actually I’ve been looking into the botanical spirits and stuff. It is fascinating. There’s a lot out there and I was going to bring that up as far as like, it’s wasn’t a top disappointment for me getting sober, but that ritual of like ending the day was a really, I didn’t realize how much a drink mattered to me. You know? I shouldn’t say that. I knew how much alcohol mattered to me. That’s what I knew. What I didn’t realize was that idea of like, OK, I’m done, I’m done for the day, and how I know I’m done for the day, at least when my drinking was under control is I had a first drink. And yeah, the alone ritual, the not community part of it, I mean, what do you think about that? Is it just like a signal, a sensory expression of turning off, like one part of your brain and turning on another?
Chris Marshall: Absolutely. I think we mark time with food and drink. I mean, you can have no watch around, not have your phone around and just by what’s cooking in your kitchen, I can pretty much tell what time of day it is, right? Same thing with what we drink. You know, most people drink milk or orange juice in the morning, and for lunch, they we have soda or tea. We use food and drink to mark time. And I think that the same thing is true for people who don’t drink. And during the pandemic, I started a ritual of drinking a whiskey alternative meat. And that was like my 5:00 p.m., my day is over, kids are, you know, upstairs, I’m getting dinner started. Wife, you know, she was doing Zoom on, she’s a teacher, she’s doing school on Zoom. But it was my like, OK, this is how I’m marking time because there was no commute. There was no, there was none of that, that usually indicates like where we are at in the day. So for me, that drink was a way to like, close out my day. And the best part was I could wake up tomorrow, and I feel great. I feel refreshed.
Ana Marie Cox: And the other thing for me is like having had, you know, delved into this area of like botanical spirits and whatnot, which are zero proof I should tell every—this is not about alcoholics tasting alcohol and then going nuts. It’s something that tastes a little bit like alcohol. I’ve talked to some people for whom it lights up that section of their brain that’s dangerous. you know? And they realize it. I think a lot of those people realize it right away, like they have a sip and they’re like, Nope, this is not going to work for me, you know? But I do think of it as more like it’s just a transitional thing. And also, for me, at least the times that I’ve had them every once a while, I’m just, I just have to ask myself and be honest, like, do I want another, like real quick? Or am I just like, Oh, no, that was good. Am I treating this like a, like I treat booze, or my treating it like I treat a really good dessert?
Chris Marshall: Absolutely. That is a great analogy. And I personally, when I do go out and I find these beers on the menu, I order it just for the sake of ordering it. Like, I’m still amazed that you can go to a restaurant and get a non-alcoholic beer. That just blows my mind.
Ana Marie Cox: One that doesn’t taste like dirty water.
Chris Marshall: Yes, absolutely. I mean, it’s awesome. So I always, just—
Ana Marie Cox: I kind of want a name drop if people are interested. Like, I don’t know about you, but like Athletic Brewing makes really good stuff. Wellbeing brewing.
Chris Marshall: Wellbeing. I’m even a fan of the Heineken 0.0. I mean, people, some people don’t like Heineken. I love the Heineken 0.0. I’m also a fan of the Hops Water.
Ana Marie Cox: And that is truly non-alcoholic non-alcoholic. Because some people will argue with you that the non-alcoholic beers have like this tiny bit of alcohol in it. I’ve had this discussion a thousand times.
Chris Marshall: But there are 0.0 and I’m a 0.0, I’m one of those people that treat alcohol like vegan’s treat meat, so I don’t have any. I do serve products in my bar that you have that trace amount just because I believe in giving people that option. But no, I’m a 0.0 person, so I drink Heineken. I drink the Budweiser 0.0 and the Hops Water is great because it’s literally hop-brewed water and it’s—
Ana Marie Cox: Alcohol doesn’t even get near that. It doesn’t even like kiss it. It’s like out. I would point out that the NA that have the trace, you’re right. I mean, it’s just different for everybody. If you want to be totally, totally, if you feel like you have the allergy that’s like a peanut allergy, then you probably should avoid it. But it’s about the same amount of alcohol is, it’s less than you would get in a Kumbacha.
Chris Marshall: Absolutely! Way less. You find the same amount in a banana. I mean, it really is negligible.
Ana Marie Cox: I don’t want to scare people. Like, again. It’s up to it’s up to you. And if you’re in a program, you might want to talk to some people about it.
Chris Marshall: Absolutely, absolutely.
Ana Marie Cox: But also, you don’t have to do what other people say and you can decide for yourself. I just brought up programs and you were a counselor. And I know another part of your journey that sort of branched away from traditional recovery—and we’re going, like I said, I want to end with some recipes or other recommendations—but let’s get back on the recovery thing. Was, you’ve embraced this idea of a sobriety spectrum.
Chris Marshall: Right. Yeah.
Ana Marie Cox: Which in traditional 12-step programs does not exist.
Chris Marshall: This is true. Yes, I again, from my own experience, my own clinical experience, just saw that it was so limiting to have this binary option. Either you were in a 12-step program and you were or something like it and you were doing everything right and you were sober, or you were not. And just that made no sense to me. And what makes me sad about that binary existence is that a lot of people who didn’t fit either one just didn’t know where to go, and they didn’t make it. I just, I just don’t think that that’s what we really want to do, ultimately, I think we, we’re looking for a solution. I think that to make a solution viable for everyone, it has to be inclusive. And so I started looking at the spectrum and start thinking about you have on one end, you have sober serious, which like you and I would probably identify as sober serious. The other end is sober curious. And then in the middle, you have all these different plot points: sober sometimes, you know, sober, you know, during the months of January, July and September—you know, whatever, however you define yourself, you belong somewhere on that plot. Because even if you drink all the time, right, like you draw a sober breath, you know, sometimes, even if it’s in your sleep.
Ana Marie Cox: I don’t know. You didn’t know me when I was like, some of us towards the end there like—
Chris Marshall: Yeah, yeah, I did sleep. I did sleep. I will say they were—
Ana Marie Cox: OK, you’re right. You’re right. Sleeping? Sure. Although I’m pretty sure the bourbon was like wafting off me.
Chris Marshall: Still, still, yes, still going through the system. So I mean, I like to just position it that way, like we all have—
Ana Marie Cox: But yes, you’re right. You are at some point having to deal with withdrawal if nothing else. Right? And you have to make the decision, how am I going to deal with that? And that is a sober decision, whether you like it or not.
Chris Marshall: So sobriety is part of the question, you know, no matter where you’re at with your relationship with alcohol. Yeah, but I just personally felt like the 12 steps were very limiting. I felt like, you know, I say this as someone who still believes in the validity of the 12 steps. Absolutely. I just saw enough people not get it and not succeed in that system, where again, I’m like, OK, we have to do something different because loneliness and isolation should never be the cause of death for anyone, especially people who are struggling and say that they have a problem. So if the terms and labels assigned in those 12-Step programs aren’t good for that, for a person, don’t use them. Find find labels and terms at work, and stand on that and live in that. And that’s what I found Sans Bar to be as a place where everyone can go. Although most people who come to Sans Bar do not identify as being sober serious, they identify as being sober sometimes and sober curious.
Ana Marie Cox: I find it ironic that 12-Step programs have become somewhat rigid because as someone who still loves 12 steps, I’m just, I’m huge fan, and it’s worked for me, and I know it doesn’t work for everybody, but I absolutely fangirl, you know, of them. I do believe that the longevity of those programs is in their flexibility and in their embrace of anarchism, right? Which is that if you’re familiar with the AA traditions, a lot of them are like each group gets to make its own decisions, there are no rules. It’s the longest lasting, ongoing anarchist organization in the world, as far as I know, right? And you’re not supposed to tell people what to do. Right? Also, one of the traditions is we are not the only path. Right? So I feel like it’s funny that like within AA, there’s all this acknowledge, like the text of it, there’s all this acknowledgment of like flexibility and letting people do what they need to do. Take what you need and leave the rest is something you hear. And yet in practice, sometimes that message does not get communicated.
Chris Marshall: It does not. And I think, you know, in my own journey. I was one of those fundamentalist kind of 12-step people and—
Ana Marie Cox: A big book thumper.
Chris Marshall: Yeah, I will, I will let you call me that no one else, but I will let you call me.
Ana Marie Cox: I’m a huge, I mean, let’s make a distinction, I’m a fan. I wouldn’t say I’m a thumper, because thumper, for those who don’t know, people, it has a negative connotation is the word thump might tell people. Means you’re you’re really, let’s see, a traditionalist, I guess, is the way to put it?
Chris Marshall: That’s one way. That’s one way. You know, fanatic, extremist, you know, those are also words.
Ana Marie Cox: Yeah, sure.
Chris Marshall: I realized that a lot of my fundamentalism came from, I think, which is with all belief, came from this idea that I had to hold on to it because it saved my life. And if I let anyone question it or any one like talk badly about it or anyone to change it in any way, it would change the thing that saved my life. I was one of those people who could not be sober curious. I have to be sober serious if I want to survive. And so for someone to rattle the thing that saved me, that was my compass, I just, I fought really hard against that. And that’s why I really struggle to embrace other pathways because I was so afraid that if I were to acknowledge the existence of other pathways, it may invalidate my own. And it wasn’t until I became a counselor and started seeing like, Wait a second, whatever works for this person is the right way. Oh. We then maybe it’s OK and it didn’t disrupt my recovery journey? Well, then maybe we need to be more of a big tent. And just start to see that other people are getting better in other ways and have added to my recovery programs. And you know, I do attend meetings, but very seldomly now. It really is about these alternative programs that I find myself in that acknowledge my blackness.
Ana Marie Cox: I was going to, I was going to talk about some other issues that people have with the program, the main program. Although I wanted to say something about again, the irony of the ideas embedded in AA are incredibly flexible and giving and generous. Also I’ll point that just, I think it’s connected, it was integrated right from the beginning. AA has always had people of color in it, in the ‘30s, which unusual at the time. Although it was founded by mostly rich white guys, and that legacy lingers. But like in spirituality in AA, we totally are like, Yeah, whatever path you want, dude, you know, whatever you want to call it. And yet it also literally in the traditions, says the only requirement is a desire to stop drinking. It’s not even that you have to be sober. Right? So there’s all this flexibility and all this invitation in the in the text, but I guess humans aren’t, you know, especially those of us who are Black and white thinkers. I guess it makes total sense that a bunch of alcoholics would not be able to keep that flexibility in their head.
Chris Marshall: Imagine that! Imagine that. In a world of freedom, we choose rigidity. Imagine, imagine that. Creatures of habit, people who like to have a sense of control in their lives, all getting together. Imagine that culture not being as open and inclusive as you know they’d hope to be.
Ana Marie Cox: Although I’ll point out one of the most like greatest spiritual warriors I know, a woman who’s been sober for like 30-something-years, one of the biggest fights she and I ever had was over me being rigid about sobriety. And her being like, I don’t know, Ana, like anything that gets anybody interested in the 12 steps, like, why would you be against that? Like why would you shut them out? And I’m like, chemicals bad.
Chris Marshall: Oh, I know the feeling.
Ana Marie Cox: But you’re right. It was because I, my life was saved and I felt this, not just like fear that it would be invalidated, but like, what would happen to me? Like if there are other pathways, does, I mean, I guess I was scared almost that I would fall off the beam that worked for me if I knew there were other pathways.
Chris Marshall: Absolutely. I mean, I think that’s why it took me a decade of sobriety before I even tried it an NA dream. Because I didn’t, I was told that nonalcoholic beers are for nonalcoholics. So I was so afraid that if I were to deviate from what I was being told, that something may happen. And yeah, I think that’s just true of a lot of us. We just, it’s not that we intellectually can’t understand that there’s other pathways and this is a a broad road of recovery and that many people find their—
Ana Marie Cox: Literally a term you hear in AA is broad road. Ok, come on.
Chris Marshall: Right? Yeah. You know, like, we—
Ana Marie Cox: We’re supposed to think of it as a broad road. OK.
Chris Marshall: We get these things intellectually, but I think in our hearts, we struggle with that piece. Like we are holding on to this thing that has literally saved our lives. And another thing that I, I’m learning to understand about myself is that it’s OK to outgrow that system. I mean, we outgrow almost everything in this world. We our grow relationships, we outgrow systems and institutions. And I think that it’s OK to grow beyond the thing that saved your life, and it doesn’t invalidate that, again. It just says that that I’ve grown beyond that. And that’s where I found truth for myself. My root, note of life, the harmony that makes my life beautiful will always be 12 Steps. That will always be home for me. But I feel like I’ve grown beyond, like in my needs. I need to be seen as a full person, a person with mental health challenges, a person with substance use history, a person of color, an entrepreneur, like, the point of the 12 Steps is literally to solve your alcohol problem. That’s it. That’s the point, that’s what it says. The point of this book is to . . . right? And it did that, but it’s also supposed to, it’s not supposed to give you my social skills, it’s not supposed to teach me those things. It just, it’s not. I don’t, in my opinion, not designed to do those thing.
Ana Marie Cox: I have say like, I’ve I some quibbles.
Chris Marshall: OK, OK, OK.
Ana Marie Cox: I guess one is, I don’t disagree. Let’s put I’ll say that. And like I said, I’ve had to work really hard to get to a place where I’m like, you can, whatever you want to do doesn’t affect my sobriety, like do what you need to do to feel good about yourself, to feel safe, you know, whatever. So I do feel like I’m there, right? The first quibble I have is—this is small—but the use of the word outgrow. I would say like you become mature in your sobriety, you make other choices. It’s not necessarily about growing beyond something, it’s just, because to me, that makes it sound like, Oh, that was what I did, like, I heard you refer to 12-Step as like training, or labels as training wheels. I don’t know if that’s quite how I would think of it. Because I’m still choosing to stay pretty embedded in that life. I just feel more like it’s a choice for me now.
Chris Marshall: Absolutely.
Ana Marie Cox: Like, does that make sense?
Chris Marshall: Oh, absolutely. I mean, for sure.
Ana Marie Cox: And the other thing I would say, and this is going to have to be a longer conversation, I might have to have some other time—
Chris Marshall: At the bar.
Ana Marie Cox: —is I find that the 12 Steps are a program for living. And I use them in all aspects of my life. And I sometimes feel sorry for normal people that they don’t have this, like incredibly rich structure for thinking about their place in the world. You know.
Chris Marshall: Absolutely.
Ana Marie Cox: Because like the 12-Steps teach me, I’m powerless. Not just over alcohol, but over every everything, that’s not me, right? Someone cuts me off in traffic, I’m powerless. What am I going to do about it? You know? The 12-Steps teach me that when, I’m going to start quoting, this is, I’m a big book thumper, you know, anger, “resentment is the number one offender.” Right? The 12-Steps teach me when I’m resentful, I’m in danger. Like, well, as an alcoholic I’m in danger of drinking, but also when I’m resentful, there’s a problem. And also, the problem is probably with me and not with another person. And to the extent it’s with another person—this is another semi-quote of the book—that person is also a sick man or a sick person and I need to consider what that person has been through and what their illness or trauma is, right? So I don’t know, I’m just saying like, I think like the 12 Steps, I’m down with, like using him for the rest of my life.
Chris Marshall: I am too, and I and I will continue to my entire life. But what, you know what I never hear and never seen in that book once is the word injustice.
Ana Marie Cox: Oh! You, you are correct, sir. Let’s get to that. Yes, you are correct.
Chris Marshall: That’s like, that’s the one thing and so I guess personally, that’s why this is such a personal, intimate thing, like no one can tell anyone, you know, how, you know, they get better. But for me, I just had enough experiences from the—again. I got sober at 23—and I had enough experience of just being told to leave my blackness at the door.
Ana Marie Cox: Yeah.
Chris Marshall: And I’m just like, and then 2020 happened, and I was just like, oh, no, like, we’re not going to pretend like none of this is an issue. And I felt for so long I have subjugated that part of myself, which frankly needed healing because there was trauma there and I was never able to really fully acknowledge or address that trauma, I needed to find a system that spoke to that and worked with that. So I, totally, it is a design for living that really works. That is a quote.
Ana Marie Cox: Yeah, yeah.
Chris Marshall: I forgot—
Ana Marie Cox: And I think that I find it to be a way of thinking through injustices as well. Like, you’re right, doesn’t use the word. But I find if I follow the program, I’m going to come down on the side of, you know, social justice. I believe that that’s where the program takes me every time. You know? I may have some bias, but, I was also going to say I’ve talked to other people of color that had the same experience in 2020. And I’ll also add that I was going to meetings in Minneapolis in 2020 and.
Chris Marshall: Wow.
Ana Marie Cox: A lot of groups had their consciousness raised by the Black people that were also tired of leaving their color at the door. And that’s where the idea that we have no leaders and we have no real rules got challenged. I’m proud to say the group that, my home group survived.
Chris Marshall: I know a lot didn’t. So that’s awesome
Ana Marie Cox: Yeah. Yeah, but for people who, we’re sort of taking in code. I don’t know if you this is what you’re referring to, but what happened in my group was we had a discussion about whether—this is going to sound hilarious to people who don’t understand AA—but if race is a quote unquote “outside issue.” Is that? [laughs] And people who don’t know are like, What do you mean? Like, how could? But yeah, that’s what people get told, right?
Chris Marshall: Yeah. And you just, I mean, it’s just all kind of things arise when you start to treat AA like the rest of society, right, like you take these real-world problems and you bring them into the rooms. You realize like, yeah, we still haven’t reckoned with a lot of stuff. Like, just because we’re all in here, we’re all like anonymous does not mean that I want my gender or my sexual identity or my race or my socioeconomic status to be anonymous as well. Like, I want to be known and fully seen. And I think that is part of the, to go back to our talk about vulnerability, right, is part of it to see and know someone fully for who they are. And I just saw that a lot of groups were just like, We’re just not going to talk about it. We’re going to pretend there’s never an issue of, you know, with race and that we’ve always been opening and welcoming but were not.
Ana Marie Cox: Yeah, I mean, I’m, like I said, I think some groups survived, I’m really proud of the home group that I have that managed, we had a meeting the morning of the verdict in the Chauvin trial and I was fortunate to find, I mean, it’s just hard to find an AA meeting with people of color in it a lot of the time, period. But I lived in northeast Minneapolis, which is where sometimes you find people who aren’t white, and they’re represented, and indigenous people also were in my group. And you know what? Like, I’m really glad that we had had the discussion like a few weeks before about whether or not race was an outside issue. And we decided it wasn’t, by the way. That was like, in part because there are AA meetings for LGBTQ people, there are AA meetings for just women, there are AA meetings for teens, like if you can acknowledge that being a woman is a part of your identity that gets respected and affects your sobriety, then your racial identity, gender identity—why not, right? Like, in women’s meetings, we talk a lot about trauma, you know, like and trauma from sexual violence. And that’s a societal issue.
Chris Marshall: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Ana Marie Cox: So how could you, we’re not, we can’t leave our gender at the door. We can’t leave like our, you know, how we present in society at the door. But I want to say something about that meeting, which I have to say—I don’t have to say anything besides, multiple people shared that they were worried they were going to drink that day,
Chris Marshall: Wow
Ana Marie Cox: Depending on what the verdict was . . .and I cannot think of a better illustration of how we should be able to talk about who we are in every way in the rooms.
Chris Marshall: Absolutely.
Ana Marie Cox: Right? Like, the idea that someone would be told, like, Oh, I’m sorry. Like, you can talk about whether or not getting a job would make you drink, but you can’t talk about, you know, whether or not this mass social injustice will make, you know, make you drink, whether you drink over it. So I’m also saying this way, like if you out there are curious about AA, you can still find a good meeting.
Chris Marshall: Oh, absolutely. I mean, and, again—
Ana Marie Cox: It is, like, I think we’re going to we’re acknowledging there are some shitty people and shitty meetings. And you’re going to get told also not to bring up anything besides alcohol, which I think is bullshit in the big book. Again, I keep having going back like: in the big book, there are people who use drugs.
Chris Marshall: Yeah, like the second person at AA.
Ana Marie Cox: Yes! The doctor.
Chris Marshall: Like, come on.
Ana Marie Cox: There’s an IV drug user and one of the very first stories, right, who like ties up in his car, like, and times his drug use. It’s actually a fascinating story for people—
Chris Marshall: It is. I mean, there’s brilliant, really brilliant writing in the big book. But I, yeah, but there’s another example of like where I think 12-Step groups are a product of the country that they were developed in. And I think that we have these great ambitions as a country, and we have these great ambitions as a society, and the great ambitions of, you know, of the 12-Step groups. But the reality is they’re filled with people who are fallible and imperfect and, you know, still healing and still growing.
Ana Marie Cox: And embedded in systems of oppression.
Chris Marshall: Absolutely. I mean—
Ana Marie Cox: I mean, like it’s easy for the old white guy in the meeting to be like race is an outside issue, doesn’t affect my life, right? You know, like gender is an outside issue, doesn’t affect my life. That guy, nothing affects his life.
Chris Marshall: Yeah.
Ana Marie Cox: Really? Right? Or rather, he is only the beneficiary of those structures of injustice, so he doesn’t see them as affecting his life. In fact, his life has been quite affected by them in that, you know, he was an alcoholic who never lost a job. He’s an alcoholic or drug user that never went to jail like. Yeah, sorry. Just, I’m with you. Like I said, I’m with you. Like, I think in terms of what, I see, obviously I see what you’re saying. And I, my hope is that those people who didn’t have 10 solid years of sobriety are able to find the place that they can go. You know, that’s the fear, and that’s why I was so happy that the groups that I was, at least two of the groups that I was a part of managed to like—and you know what really funny also, is like once we kind of had the big discussion about it, it just stopped being an issue like. And by that, I mean, people talked about whatever. Like, you know, and, yes and people just so quickly adopted, so quickly adapted to the idea that you could talk about like your trans surgery in a group and that, yeah, that has to do with your sobriety.
Chris Marshall: Yeah. Absolutely.
Ana Marie Cox: Right? Like, you could talk about racial injustice and that definitely affects your sobriety. These are not fucking outside issues, you know? So, whatever. AA people out there, just deal with it and let people be themselves. But anyway—
Chris Marshall: I will say, well I just, I do want to say one thing. I do think that, because I just heard myself talk about like, how like it’s like the country it was developing in. To that point, if you want a see change, you have to be in that system to create change, right? Like you have to like, you do have a responsibility to say, like, no, this is not OK. No, we will do this or that. Show me where in the book it says that we’re going to pretend like these aren’t issues. All of that, I think you have a responsibility as a citizen within recovery to to say the hard thing, to do the hard thing. So that’s why I will always advocate for the 12-Steps and believe that they have a role in my recovery journey and, you know, everyone else should give them a shot. I just do want to say, like for some people, it just does not fit. It just will not ,and it will never fit. It will never fit. I will never feel right. They will never outgrow it because it will never feel like it fits. And so for those people, there are a multitude of other pathways, and I definitely encourage everyone to find that pathway that works for them.
Ana Marie Cox: And you know what a great first step is? It’s just a try stopping drinking. Like, just give it a shot. And I say that with a little bit of humor as an alcoholic and having had people tell me that, and realizing, oh shit, like I can’t stop. And that’s one thing that might happen. But the other thing that might happen is you might realize some things about yourself. You know, and that’s actually the most important thing. Like, just you kind of know, do you know what I mean? Is like, like I have friends who aren’t alcoholics, but then stopped drinking for whatever reason because they’re curious, you know, because they want to try dry January, medication, whatever. And then maybe realized, you know what, I don’t like going out as much as I thought I did. You know?
Chris Marshall: Absolutely. Or that alcohol is playing a different role in my life than I thought it was, you know? Like maybe I have been using alcohol to deal with like my kids homework or, you know, the stresses at work. And taking that break is such a wonderful way to check in and just see like, how is this substance playing a role in my life? I’m a big fan of dry January, dry July, sober September. I think they’re all helpful in determining that.
Ana Marie Cox: So now maybe we can get to the, to some recommendations and recipes if people want to try, if people are sober curious.
Chris Marshall: Yes! Again, just going to go back to what I said earlier. No matter where you’re at on this journey, no matter what you, you know, how you relate to alcohol, always be mindful that everything is going to taste differently to different people. And people, some people just don’t feel comfortable. I can do nonalcoholic wines, nonalcoholic beers. I tried a nonalcoholic vodka because there’s such a thing. I don’t know why there’s such a thing.
Ana Marie Cox: Like, let’s talk. Let’s get to the actual recommendations.
Chris Marshall: OK. So I would say, and the Sans Bar menu is full of like both. Like there are some straight ahead, like we have a sansgarita, which uses ritual alcohol-free tequila, agave and lime. It’s also nice, like beautiful, like margarita take. We have a bourbon Shandy, which is great, uses spiritless seventy four bourbon. It’s like this beautiful like brilliant bourbon, and uses athletic Upside Dawn beer. So it’s got this kind of bourbon and beer kind of thing going on with it. My favorite, my favorite drink is the first drink I ever created, and it’s really easy to make at home so that’s why I want to tell you about this one. It’s called the I like it, I Lovett. Lovett, as in Lyle Lovett. It was a chance meeting I had with one Lyle Lovett on a flight to New Mexico. So I was like, if you ever come to Sans Bar, I’m going to name a drink after you. He never came to Sans Bar, but it was such an impactful encounter that I decided to create a drink named I like it, I Lovett. It’s got ginger beer, lime in a rosemary simple syrup. So it’s like a Mule. But it just has the nice kind of like woodiness from the rosemary simple syrup. And it’s fantastic, really super easy to make, and again, has one of those cocktail characteristics. So I really try to make sure that we open up our menu and that it’s accessible to every single person, no matter what you’re looking for. If they’re like a serious connoisseur of great whiskeys, we got some drinks for you. But if you’re just like, I want nothing that reminds me of that, we got that Mule. We have a drinks like Longhorn, which is like mango, chili, and seltzer. So it’s like kind of like a mango, a spicy mango drink. We try to make sure that we’re pretty inclusive of all kind of flavors and tastes. I suggest that if you’re interested in spirits or what’s available, that you absolutely go to some of these marketplaces online. There’s a lot of virtual bottle shops that you can just go to. I’m not going to name any by name, but just find, just Google like bottle shop online, and there’s five or six that will pop up. Order stuff. Try it out. Be mindful that they’re not going to taste exactly the same. The whole point of these beverages, and spirits especially, are that they’re adjacent. And just like plant-based products, like I’ve never tasted a plant-based burger that’s going to taste exactly like a burger, but I’ve tasted some really good-plant based products. So just be mindful of that in that way. Yeah, come to Sans Bar and you can try, you can try all the drinks!
Ana Marie Cox: Thank you so much, Chris. I’ve been wanting to talk to you for a while, ever since I read about Sans Bar. I just really appreciate you coming on and I will stop by. I promise.
Chris Marshall: Stop by and then you can try all the, all the gins and all the, like try before you buy. I think that’s the best thing about, you know, space like that.
Ana Marie Cox: Right.
Chris Marshall: Maybe do some karaoke. Who knows?
Ana Marie Cox: You know what? I totally will.
Chris Marshall: Oh my gosh. OK.
Ana Marie Cox: I will come. When’s your next karaoke night?
Chris Marshall: I think it’s the first week in—I’ll get back to you. I gotta—
Ana Marie Cox: All right. All right.
Chris Marshall: But I’m going to hold you to that!
Ana Marie Cox: And we’ll post video. I promise.
Chris Marshall: Oh, absolutely.
Ana Marie Cox Put up on social.
Chris Marshall: What’s your go-to karaoke?
Ana Marie Cox: Total Eclipse of the Heart.
Chris Marshall: Oooh, nice. Nice. Pretty good one. Yeah.
Ana Marie Cox: Oh, and also, I mean, I’m an ’80s girl, I Need a Hero.
Chris Marshall: Oooh. Another one, just classic.
Ana Marie Cox: The Footloose soundtrack basically, you could probably—
Chris Marshall: Belt it out.
Ana Marie Cox: Yeah. So.
Chris Marshall: Brilliant.
Ana Marie Cox: Yeah, I’ll do, I think if we can find I Need a Hero, we’ll do that. How about that?
Chris Marshall: We’ll do it.
Ana Marie Cox: Al right. Thanks again for coming on the show.
Chris Marshall: Thanks so much for having me on.
Ana Marie Cox: It’s a big thanks to Chris Marshall. If you’re ever in Austin, be sure to check out Sans Bar, and follow him on Instagram to find the pop-up events he hosts around the country. He is @Sans_Bar. The show is a product of Crooked Media. Leslie Martin is our producer, and Patrick Antonetti is our audio editor. Please, take care of yourselves.