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What It's Like to Run an Alcohol-Free Bar as an Autistic Professional

When you first make the decision to quit drinking alcohol, it can be difficult to know how to be a human again. As General Manager of @lacunakavabar, I make sure to train my staff frequently on the importance of "teaching people how to be people." Here's the story of how this idea came to be:

I stopped drinking alcohol (and smoking cigarettes) on October 8th, 2019 when I was living in Las Vegas working as a Showgirl, because I was getting stuck in the dangerous cycle of drinking before, during, and after all my shows. I realized I could never reach my goals if I was stuck in harmful, toxic cycles that sucked my energy instead of adding to it. Why did I get stuck in these cycles in the first place? (Why does anyone? lol) When we are actively dealing with a trauma, and feel like it is more powerful than we are, we as humans tend to dissociate, numb, run away, and try to dispose of the energy that came from the trauma without giving it the respect it deserves. Because we are in this nervous state, we end up taking that energy out on those we surround ourselves with, not realizing it is just a manifestation of our own unhealed fear. And while I certainly have a colorful back story, being autistic sure didn't help me cope with any of it.

Video below recorded and posted on my now retired showgirl account @marinamarsxoxo in April 2021.

When the pandemic shut everything down in March 2020, it became so much easier to complete my break from the toxic cycle of alcohol because I was forced out of the environment I would drink most in - nightclubs. By Spring 2021, I was ready to re-enter the social sphere, but I made a vow to myself that I would do it differently this time around.

When I started working at @lacunakavabar in April 2021, it was like my purpose had been reborn. Finding this 18+ alcohol-free establishment meant I could continue to interact with and help people in the ways I knew best without being tempted (or annoyed lol) by the shortcomings of alcohol. Additionally, it meant I no longer needed to pursue other less-than-helpful forms of mental health treatment to relieve my anxieties caused by a variety of factors, including my autism.

Finding kava meant I no longer needed to be tempted by the pharmaceutical companies trying to convince me that Xanax was going to be the "best way" to ease the anxieties. Finally, I could focus on healing the root cause of it all.

After working at the kava bar for a year as a kavatender, I stepped into the General Manager position NOT because I wanted to but because I had to. With the help of my fiancé Tyler as Assistant Manager, we've made many process and workplace culture improvements that have the intention to nurture, educate, and support those of you who are just like me, those who need help figuring out how to be a person (again).

Do you remember the first school dance you went to as a kid? Do you remember feeling nervous? Most people on autopilot, when they turn of age, don't grow out of this nervousness but instead begin drinking alcohol to ease the social pain. This only prolongs the inevitable... Eventually, you will need to learn how to get along without alcohol or else the alcohol will consume until there's nothing left of you - that's a fact whether you're autistic or not.

This brings me to my core experience as an autistic professional in the alcohol-free bar space: Masking (or camouflaging) is often used to describe the artificial performance of social behaviors that are seen as more socially acceptable in a neurotypical society. As an autistic person who also had a thriving, award-winning career in live entertainment, I am an expert in the space of acting. I can tell when people are acting out of joy, out of harmless anxiety, or when they're acting out of otherwise nefarious behavior.

There is a common misconception about people who are autistic that says we're ALL impaired when it comes to initiating interactions, responding to the initiations of others, maintaining eye contact, sharing enjoyment, reading the non-verbal cues of others, and taking another person's perspective. The reality is that we've all got varying degrees of social skills, but we also have varying tools that help us cover the gaps. There's another, much more sinister and damaging misconception of autistic people, and that's the idea that autistic people do not have empathy or the ability to understand when they're "being weird" - Trust me, we know when we've made things weird... If we do something that makes a neurotypical person react as if we're aliens, we feel BADLY about it and think about it for hours, days, weeks, sometimes years. We try and try again, often having people get disappointed in us for being too straight forward or too literal, but that never stops us from trying to be and do better. Meanwhile, Antisocial Personality Disorder, sometimes called sociopathy, is a mental disorder in which a person consistently shows no regard for right and wrong and ignores the rights and feelings of others. Autism and Antisocial Personality Disorder are two DIFFERENT things. These misconceptions have taught me a lot about reading a room, and seeing people for what they really are.

For example: Two people can say the same thing, but if they have different intention behind what they're saying, it will have an entirely different meaning. It is important to be aware of that differentiation.

In a society that claims we should accept everyone, but is also in deep need of healing from the layers of trauma brought on by allowing everything in, sometimes, the hard thing needs to be done. In plain terms, that means rejecting people and behaviors that do not create a healthy, aligned work environment for staff and lounge environment for guests. It is extremely important that all managers of non-alcoholic bars hold down the fort for those who wish to use the space to heal respectfully. If people are coming to a kava bar, or a non-alcohol bar, with the hopes of escaping the trauma that comes along with alcohol, then the traumatic behavior associated with alcohol also needs to go out with it.

The price of a new world is often the old one.

A MASSIVE component of stepping into that reality means that we have to create some pretty strong boundaries, and then teach our staff how to do the same. When I first started at Lacuna two years ago, it wouldn't be abnormal for people to be talking about getting fucked up on illegal drugs. We had a handful of regulars who would make people feel extremely uncomfortable and unsafe. We had undercover cops catching people selling substances. During this time, I had also heard that one of our former regulars had committed suicide due to a relapse. Before his death, I remember hearing people discussing drugs in the bar with him around and not thinking much of it, but now it haunts me. That day, I didn't protect the space and say "knock that awful conversation off right now."

I don't make that mistake anymore.

General Manager Autistic Superpower #1: Every conversation requires a lot of effort for me, whether I'm ordering a coffee or talking about death, so there is no topic too shallow or deep for me.

How do these ideas and philosophies transfer over

to staff and workplace culture?

I tell my staff I will never fire them out of the blue, unless they breach the only TWO unforgiveable offences:

  1. Choosing not to talk to me

  2. Disrespecting money flow (stealing, forgetting to drop your deposit in the safe)

I genuinely believe that if a staff member didn't do part of their job, we can figure out what the issue is together and solve it. I don't believe in throwing away great people because of a bad day, but I do believe in helping them grow and holding them responsible for their work environment.

General Manager Autistic Superpower #2: Parents are often understandably annoyed by the emphasis on savant skills in autistic people in the media: “When neighbors ask me what my autistic son's special talent is, I tell them it's having a meltdown in the store because the fluorescent lights flicker!” This means that if we can conquer the fluorescent light flicker, we can conquer anything. Imagine if your entire life felt like a boot camp - we're tested EVERY DAY in ways that neurotypicals simply aren't. It makes us battle ready. It forces a different type of awareness that makes it so much easier to detect a problem and move towards a solution.

I trust my staff to communicate. I rely on that trust, more than most managers ever would. I don't hover on shifts, I don't show up to the bar every single day to nit pick what has and hasn't been done (though of course we do spot checks and provide feedback lol), I don't spy on staff or make them feel like they're always being watched and judged.

Instead, we chat. About anything that comes up. We start with small, simple examples like a garnish. When you're done eating your little pineapple slice, and it doesn't look appealing to throw the rind into your drink, where do you put it?? If your drink was served with a napkin underneath the glass, then you'd likely put the rind on that napkin, right? But what if a kavatender forgot to put the napkin down... where does it go???

General Manager Autistic Superpower #3: My hypersensitivity to my environment causes me to be hyper aware of small inconveniences. This means that when my workload is balanced, I can detect issues before they even arise.

It seems small, but when you first stop drinking, you realize "I've never thought about where my garnish goes... I've usually been drunk before I even thought about what to do with it." When you're drunk, you don't realize how that one small action will impact a space or the staff who run it. Recently sober neurotypicals have way more in common with autistic people than they could possibly realize!

General Manager Autistic Superpower #4: We tend to be really good at cutting through societal bullshit. A lot of that has to do with our unflinching literality and rationality. And we don’t like being dishonest, because that complicates this entire process way too much.

When Tyler and I assumed the roles of Guardians of Lacuna, we knew we'd make a lot of people unhappy because we were ready to prune. Luckily, we aren't motivated by popularity, but instead, are motivated by love and the respect we have for the members of our community who ARE putting in the work to become better people and raise the general vibe. If a member of my staff informs me that someone has made them feel extremely uncomfortable and unsafe, I will not hesitate to take action. If I am informed that someone is on illegal substances in the bar, I will not hesitate to take action. To this day, we have banned more people from the bar than any of the other General Managers combined, and due to this, we've been able to protect the precious energy that helps people heal while fostering growth in the business. We've also been able to involve the community in more decision making processes than ever before! We've got a receptive staff who bring the ideas of the community to reality. They foster the connection, because they are lead by connection, and choose connection as the focal point in their lives.

General Manager Autistic Superpower #5: I take my job incredibly seriously, and the word "petty" doesn't exist in my vocabulary. No matter how big or small a topic may be, I understand that every action is an echo of the action before it. It is quite literally my job to look out for these echoes.

When you've got a team of people who are 1) motivated by the desire to heal disconnect and 2) have the heart to be in conversation with you along the way, you naturally create a space filled with hope and faith for those seeking recovery and revitalization because you've got the staff to support it.

I wouldn't say this is the perfect job for all working autistic people, but it is for me, and if you're a fellow neurodivergent hanging out in the Lacuna-sphere, know that I see you and I am here for you - so long as you respect my staff and everyone else that occupies the space.


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