I’m a Sober Bartender: How I Defeated Substance Abuse
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I’m a Sober Bartender: How I Defeated Substance Abuse
After going through intensive rehab, I learned to control my vices and still pursue a career in the hospitality industry.
It’s March of 2018. The sun breaks through my blackout curtains to hit me in the face. The light hurts my eyes as I lay in my sheetless bed, sitting directly above a floor covered in spoiled food, dirty clothes, empty bottles of booze, full bottles of urine and empty bags, which once contained drugs or chips. My stomach lurches. My bowels are fucked. There’s another mess I need to ignore for later. Who cares? It’s not like it's the first time I’ve slept in a bed covered in shit.
I stumble to the bathroom down the hall. I lay down on the dirty linoleum floor. It’s a cold morning here in Pittsburgh, and the floor is just perfect to cool my body down and ease the delirium tremens. I decided last night that today would be day one of sobriety—take 450. As I shower, my hands shake uncontrollably, so much that the shampoo bottle falls out of my hand onto the floor. I go to pick it up and slip. Nothing out of the ordinary. I don’t hit my head; I just land flat on my ass.
As I get ready for my shift behind the bar at a fancy downtown hotel, I decide that today isn’t the right day to start my recovery. I head into the other room and make myself a triple Negroni—no ice, no orange, just booze. As I get ready, my hands shake less, my mind begins to clear, my stomach feels loads better. I’ve known I had a problem for a while. I look through the clothes on the floor, trying to find a pair of pants that aren’t soaked in—or smell like—piss. Easier said than done. Once I find a clean pair, I reach in to put my cigarettes in the left front pocket and find a half an eight ball of coke that I thought I lost the night before. Today isn’t the day I quit that either. How the fuck would I survive my shift without it?
My Saturday Night Starts With Too Many Shots
Months later, I have a new job. I walk into the dive cocktail bar in New York City’s Lower East Side for my shift, and the first thing I smell is stale beer. We didn't clean the bar well last night. It’s still early, about 7:30 p.m.; the sun is still out. I pop a piece of gum in my mouth to hopefully cover up the smell of the two classic daiquiris and three shots of Fernet that I took with the bartender around the corner.
It’s the start of any other Saturday night. I set up the bar downstairs, go on break, maybe eat, definitely have more drinks and run to the bathroom every 20 minutes to do another line. As I walk back down the block to officially start my shift, I realize that I may have had a shot or two too many. Another bump does the trick. Hours later, my manager comes downstairs to inform me that I can go home early from my shift, that I’m clearly “too tired” to work. I think to myself, “Shit…five potential firings in a row…fuck it.”
The 6 a.m. sunrise hits me dead in the face, the normal depressed and anxiety-ridden feeling of dread lays on top of me like a weighted blanket. I’m sweating, shaking uncontrollably on the deflated air mattress that’s laying on my best friend’s living room floor in Jersey City. “Thank god he’s in California; I can’t let him see me like this again,” I think. The remnant, foggy thoughts of the previous night hit me like a Peterbilt. “Fuck! Did I get fired?! How can I show up today?! Wait, he didn't fire me…he just sent me home. I have to be at the bar at 3 p.m., and there’s no way I'm going to get there on time; there’s no way that I’ll able to work today feeling like this. I'll drink a little now to stop the shaking, but then…God forbid John is there. I smell like a distillery. Fuck. FUCK.”
All My Vices Failed, and I Became Desperate
I grab a bottle of WhistlePig 12 and start drinking, then start crying. My life is falling apart all around me. I call out of work, despite the pleas from my GM to come in. I continue to spiral. I’m going in and out of a blackout. I snorted all my coke, smoked all of my weed and I’m halfway through the freshly opened bottle of whiskey—to Grindr I go. I blackout and come back to being naked with this handsome man. I’m crying again. To this day, I have zero recollection of what I said. He’s reluctant to leave. He sees how bad off I am. He sees how scared I am. With much convincing that I’m going to be OK, that I’m just having a day, he leaves.
Alone, scared, hopeless, full of self-pity and desperation, I think to myself that today is the day. All of my vices failed. Drugs, booze, sex—none of them worked. As I’m smoking a cigarette out the living room window, I overlook the entire West Side skyline. I can see everything from the George Washington Bridge to the Statue of Liberty. I look down five stories to a flat, hard, concrete landing and I think, “This is how I'm gonna do it.” I’m overcome by pain, sadness and just debilitating everything. But that light at the end of the tunnel is within view; it’s five stories directly under me. Relief, peace, nothing.
I position myself, legs out the window, cigarette lit and almost empty bottle in hand. I inch closer, slowly making my way to the end of the window sill. I come out of a blackout, on his living room floor, sobbing. Crying like I’ve never cried before. Confused on how I'm on the floor, frustrated that this was failed attempt number three and absolutely hopeless. I allegedly made several phone calls—I’ll find out about those in a couple of months. One of them was to my mom; a few hours after, I get a text saying, “What’s going on? Have you found somewhere that you can go? Call me.”
Everyone Says a Relapse Is Inevitable
It’s February of 2019, and it’s my final day in my intensive outpatient program. I’ve graduated. I haven’t graduated anything since high school, and even that was a stretch. I did this. I put my mind to it; I took it a day at a time. I found solace in the rooms of AA, and I have a really good foundation for sobriety. Three months of a live-in rehab, just over three and a half months in IOP and I'm moving on to start my journey in sobriety. All around, I have people telling me that going back to working in a restaurant, especially being a bartender, is playing with fire. I hear people telling me that if I go back to restaurant work, a relapse is inevitable.
I think back to a conversation I had a few weeks prior with this gentleman I met at an AA meeting in my old neck of the woods, in Essex County, New Jersey. This detail is important. He looks and sounds like Tony Soprano, dressed in a suit and built like a brick shithouse. Intimidating, to say the least. He shares something about working in hospitality during the meeting and I think, “This is the guy to talk to.” For the sake of anonymity, we’ll call him Tony. I introduce and explain myself to Tony. I’ve worked in restaurants since I was 14. I went to culinary school. I need to move out of my parents’ house! I’m 27 years old for fuck’s sake!
Tony gives me this piece of information that I still quote to this day. “You got bleach in your house, right? But you don't drink it, right?” I respond with a snotty, “No, no, I don't drink the bleach.” Hearing my irritated tone, he continues, “Well why? Why don’t you drink the bleach?!”
In unison, we say, “Cuz it’ll fucking kill ya.”
“BAM! Because it’ll kill us! But it still has a purpose. You clean with it; you wash your clothes with it.”
“What are you getting at man?” I said, defeated.
“Alcohol is the same fucking thing. You use it; it has a purpose. It’ll get you out of your parents' house, pay your rent, put food on the table. But I ask you, do you drink it? No! Why?”
In unison, “Because it’ll fucking kill me!”
I’ve Survived Disasters and Still Bartend
Something so simple changed my life. Now, three-plus years later, I’m still bartending. I survived cancer, a pandemic, got engaged, broke the engagement, had countless other medical issues, watched friends die from the addiction we share, watched family pass on, went through times of financial stability and being broke as fuck. I’ve competed in a handful of cocktail competitions. I’ve won a couple of them. I’ve excelled at work, created drinks, been accountable and honest in all of my actions and generally have become as positive as I can be. I like it better here. Thanks to my 12-step family, proper medication and straight-up hard work, I’ve been able to process a lot of my past traumas—physical, sexual, emotional, medical. I’m at peace. For the most part.
I live a normal life. I still go to punk shows, still go to restaurants, still sit at bars. I’ve accepted a head bartender position at a speakeasy in Midtown. I have a dog. I'm happy. I’m almost $8,000 in debt to my landlord, and I'm OK. Every day, I wake up, do the best I can and things seem to work out just like they’re supposed to. I’m grateful.