Content Warning: Substance Abuse & Suicidal Thoughts
When I turned sixteen and was applying for my first job, a friend offered to get me in at a nice restaurant in the district. The hours were late, but the money was good. My mom refused to let me apply.
As a lifetime restaurant worker herself, she knew the kind of stress that came with it. She knew that you had to deal with disgruntled, rude guests and a workplace environment that was flooded with issues of sexual harassment and substance abuse. She wanted a better life for me.
Looking back, I’m glad she was so adamant about me finding other work. Trying to balance schoolwork, a tumultuous family situation, and undiagnosed depression and ADHD on top of a restaurant job would have been too much.
I got a job working in a retirement village where employees had to pass a drug test and the shift ended at 8:30. The issue was, I was working as a server in the village’s restaurant. While the business around me was atypical, the only type of work I’d ever known, by the time I got to college, was waiting tables.
In college, in lieu of getting an on-campus job for minimum wage, I got a job as a busser at a high-end steakhouse (sounds like ‘Moose Piss’). I was eighteen and starting to become independent; the relationship between my mom and I changed. We started talking more openly about things, almost like we were friends. It was nice, but it also meant she was done making decisions for me.
I very quickly realized why my mom didn’t want me in the industry.
Gordon Ramsay once described cocaine as “the hospitality industry’s dirty little secret,” but his examples involved customers doing coke in the bathroom or asking for it on their soufflé.
What he doesn’t mention is how prevalent it is among restaurant employees. It wasn’t something I’d ever realized until I walked into the employee bathroom and watched a server do cocaine off a pocket knife before offering me a bump. For what it’s worth, I declined.
There’s that joke in an episode of How I Met Your Mother about glass shattering when you realize someone’s fault, and that was exactly how this moment felt. The glass shattered, and suddenly I started noticing other habits all around me.
When I worked in fine-dining, most people I worked with did cocaine.
I’ve never touched it, and I don’t plan to. My dad went “skiing” a lot when I was a kid, which is why I never saw him. He struggled his whole life with substance abuse, and eventually, it killed him.
I did fall into my own bad habits, though.
I only worked part-time, and a lot of the guys I worked with had been friends for years, but I was a hard worker. After some time, some of the servers — guys who, at the time, were the same age I am now — took a liking to me and would invite me to hang out after work.
Because they were so well-known in the bars around the area, nobody questioned it when I ordered a beer. I never got carded.
I wasn’t a popular kid, but I had started to come into my own. For the first time, I felt like I was one of the cool kids. The cool, older guys want to hang out with me, I thought. I must be pretty all right.
The money was good where we worked — especially if you were serving or bartending — so the guys would usually pay for the beer or two that I drank, too. I had no excuse not to go out (except schoolwork, of course, but I was one of those procrastinators who still managed to get good grades) after work.
In time, it became ritualistic. Nothing helps you unwind after a long, stressful shift quite like a cold beer and hot fries.
I got familiar with the bartenders and became a regular. They knew me by name. Soon enough, I could go into one of the bars on my own and get a beer or a six-pack to go. Being underage in college and being able to get alcohol for people is like a special kind of superpower.
In my mind, the only reason people wanted to be around me was because I could get them booze. I was crippled in any social situation where I wasn’t drinking. If being able to get booze was a superpower, then sobriety was my kryptonite.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say I was an alcoholic, but I absolutely used it as a crutch. Then, later, as a coping mechanism.
“We’re like one big family”
Every restaurant in America wants you to believe this. That every one of your coworkers is like a brother or a sister to you, that your managers are like your quirky aunts and uncles. Everyone’s like a big family, except the owner. The owner is your only real boss.
It’s a nice sentiment, sure, until you realize that this big family is incestuous. Everyone is sleeping together, and there’s going to be drama.
There’s a famous saying that goes, “don’t shit where you eat.” It’s good advice.
But beyond workplace hookups and drama, this “one big family” idea serves as a way to manipulate employees who are overworked and can’t afford to take days off.
When the pandemic started, my manager summed it up best. “My employees,” he said, “aren’t living paycheck-to-paycheck, they’re living day-to-day.”
But when the higher-ups find any excuse not to pay you more, they’re happy to remind you of the family atmosphere in place. You wouldn’t ask your family for more money, right? In fact, you’d probably help them out for free! Anyway, look forward to a pair of company-branded socks at Christmas as thanks.
I blamed myself a lot for my last breakup, and it took nearly two years, and starting therapy and Effexor, to let go of that notion. After it ended, I worked 50+ hour weeks waiting tables just to fill up my time, and I’d usually have a couple drinks after my shift.
When you’re sad, drunk, and lonely, you’re bound to make some bad choices. Yes, I’ve hooked up with coworkers. No, it didn’t end well. I woke up with a hangover, empty cans of Truly all over the floor, and a naked girl I desperately wanted gone in my bed.
We don’t talk anymore, but she is dating my district manager.
These things are inevitable when you spend long days with a group of people, especially when you spend slow days with them and have nothing better to do than talk. Then you have a few drinks after work to decompress and… hey, you’re kinda cute when we’re drunk, my roommate’s out of town. How’s the breakup going?
It invites you in and locks the door behind you
The prospect of restaurant work is enticing at first. You can make pretty good money in a fast-paced environment and, if you like your coworkers, it can be fun.
But you don’t have set hours or steady pay. You never know when you’re going home or if, when you do, you’ll make enough to pay your bills. The upside is you can always pick up an extra shift if you need more money.
That’s exactly what management is banking on.
The restaurant industry thrives on keeping its employees just below the line of comfortability. Hell, sometimes they even steal wages from their workers. It’s hard to walk away from a job when you need the money so badly. And it’s hard to pursue your passions when you’re so tired all the time.
Before the pandemic, I was so tired of working so much and still barely scraping by that I told a coworker, “If I’m still doing this two years from now, I’m just going to kill myself. This isn’t a life worth living.”
It took a global pandemic and a decent unemployment stimulus to let me dig myself out of a financial hole and reassess what was important to me in my life. Frankly, if the pandemic hadn’t happened, I don’t know where I’d be. It’s likely I’d be worse off. That’s… upsetting to think about.
I never liked the work I did, but it made me money. After enough time, though, I started to think fondly of it. I became friends with a lot of my coworkers — some of those friendships have endured, and I’m thankful for those people — and I even got excited about my promotion to bartending. I liked having new responsibilities and challenges to overcome.
I also started to think that I could never amount to anything else. At the end of the day, All I’d ever be was a bartender. I thought that, because of my job, I was unlovable and offered nothing to anyone. The only relationship I had that would last was my love affair with waiting tables.
These are genuine thoughts that I’ve talked to my therapist about. Even now, as I’m writing, I feel intense imposter syndrome when I act as if I’ll ever do anything else.
I lost myself to the restaurant industry. To alcohol. To drunk hookups. To twelve-hour shifts. To shots behind the bar. To staying out till 3 in the morning. To faking a smile as someone shouts “FUCK YOU” across a crowded room because you charged him $.75 for a side of sauce.
It fundamentally changed the way I viewed the world, but more importantly, it changed how I viewed myself.
How to make it better
I have a renewed outlook on life now. Medication and therapy have helped. Entering a new relationship has helped, too. But even still, I don’t want to rely on other people or drugs to make me happy.
There are things, I’ve realized, that we can do to make us feel like ourselves again:
- Make time to pursue things you’re passionate about
- If you’re going to drink, only do it when you’re in a good mood
- Exercise, even if your job involves standing on your feet all day
- Spend time in nature, fresh air is good for you
- Make a plan for the future, but allow room for spontaneity
- Focus on the important people (AKA, don’t get caught up in the drama)
- Take time for yourself
- Remember: a job is just the way you make money — it doesn’t define your worth
I’m thankful for the people who have entered into my life along the way for all of the lessons they’ve taught me. I’m not the person I expected to be at 24. I don’t think any of us are ever the people we expect to be.
The most I can ever be is the best version of who I’ve become.
If you believe you or another individual is suffering from substance abuse, or mental issues, seek professional help immediately.