During these transitional times, how many of us have turned to self-improvement and discovery?

Carolyn Hilliard, co-founder of the sober pop-up bar concept Empath, embarked on her unlikely journey of self-care five years ago. At that time, she began her recovery from alcohol.

“At first, I thought, ‘I got this,’” says Hilliard. “Shortly after, I realized what I actually signed up for — a lifelong road of healing, patience, gentleness and acceptance.”

As one of the creators of Empath, a pop-up sober bar, one of Hilliard’s self-care routines was as social as it was personal.

As reported in NEXTPittsurgh, since its first gathering in April 2018, Empath has hosted dance nights, happy hours, yoga and sound bath events. Hilliard had noted the social challenges facing people in recovery and the many connections Empath was able to build in the community. Her hope? That Empath was helping to revolutionize Pittsburgh’s social scene. Invigorated by music and dancing or a wellness event followed by healthy mixed drinks, people at Empath events bond, laugh and develop new relationships, she says.

“When I began my recovery, I immersed myself in physical self-care — like taking long baths, going for nature walks, meditation, yoga, dancing, etc. All these activities are a form of self-care and so beautiful, but I was doing to bring my life into balance. I wasn’t living my life how I wanted and being truthful with myself,” says Hilliard.

“Self-care for me is learning to trust and have the courage to follow my intuition — and that’s what led me to start Empath. Finding a new way to connect can be a difficult challenge for people in recovery, especially those who are just starting out. Socializing is a form of self-care that is overlooked.”

“All of us — whether we are in recovery or not — need options to be social without alcohol or drugs,” says Jessica Williams, organizer of the Pittsburgh Recovery Walk. “Empath is so revolutionary because it addresses the idea that sober events can not only be fun, but empowering and essential.”

In the age of social distancing and quarantines, where does that leave Empath? “Empath started off as a physical connection space and we were very much focused on the in-person experience, so this has been an interesting time trying to figure out how to move forward. Since we do not have a physical location, it has been challenging. We still have the future goal of opening up a permanent space.” says Hilliard.

In the meantime, Hilliard has embraced what she calls one of the gifts of her recovery, and that’s living fully and being totally present from moment to moment. For her, that takes many shapes, including exploring Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods and eateries, taking walks and biking on the riverfront trails, and continuing to make an effort to connect with people — including her participation in this Saturday’s Pittsburgh Recovery Walk.

Carolyn Hilliard, co-founder of Empath, shares her story of recovery.

“The walk is semi-virtual this year so participants can choose their own adventure,” says Williams. “It’s a great way for people who want to get a feel for what recovery means. It’s different for different people — everyone’s experience with recovery is unique.”

“I got involved in the Pittsburgh Recovery Walk because healing and recovery have been a big focus in my life since deciding to become sober,” says Hilliard. “I realize the importance of social support and building a community that celebrates all journeys.”

Hilliard found out about the Recovery Walk through meeting Jessica at one of the Empath events.

“Empath was created to provide nightlife and social sober options to bring folks together from all walks of life who were choosing to refrain from alcohol. So it only made sense for us to be involved in some way.”

Hilliard has created a special Empath drink just for the occasion that walkers can make at home as they tune in to the walk’s evening livestream event on September 19 (see recipe below).

She is still creating opportunities to celebrate and connect even if it’s just through a virtual toast.

“I have so much hope for this world that is currently in so much chaos, confusion and conflict. It’s hard to see where this is all leading, but I do believe it’s to a better, more sustainable life full of community, unity and joy. Empath Sober Bar is a life-changing project that has been a result of my sober journey. Even in these uncertain times, the goal for Empath is still very much the same: creating a safe, non-alcoholic gathering space for all to enjoy and together, to embrace life. Holding on to this vision keeps me hopeful and very much looking forward to the future.”

Recipe for Spirit Spice Tonic (makes 4 drinks)

 1/2 cup fresh-squeezed orange juice, plus a small piece of the rind

1/2 cup fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice, plus a small piece of the rind

juice from 1/4 of a lemon

1 sprig fresh rosemary

3 cardamom pods, crushed

4 juniper berries

1 oz Seedlip Spice 94 (optional)

6 oz Q Tonic tonic water or tonic water of choice

rosemary sprig and grapefruit slice for garnish

Combine first 6 ingredients in a glass jar and allow to infuse in the fridge overnight for at least 12 hours. The longer the better! Strain. Add 2 oz. of the infused juice over ice and 1 oz. of Seedlip Spice. Top with 6 oz. of tonic water or to taste. Give it a stir and garnish it with a rosemary sprig and a grapefruit slice.

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