#wearenot9to5 is a series of mental health experiences from people in the F&B industry to fight the stigma & shame. Mental health affects us all.
"Working in the service industry is my controlled socialization. I can hear the General Manager part of my brain saying to FOH staff, “ You’re not paid to socialize.” That isn’t what I mean. I do very much enjoy the social aspects of the hospitality world, but it’s because restaurants are easier to navigate then my anxiety.
My longest, most committed relationships have been with depression and anxiety. It has been over half of my life consisting of a cocktail of the ever changing balance of medication, therapy, exercise, diet manipulation and often wanting to give up. I now view these mental health issues as independent relationships with varying parts of myself. Once I worked in a restaurant that didn’t have server stations to regroup at when you are on the floor. We used iPads to take orders at the tables. That felt like chaos to my brain. I can’t explain why. Different medications can also affect your memory, which has also made work really challenging at times.
It has been a constant journey of learning about myself and the things that trigger me. Things that make no logical sense can trigger severe panic attacks and crippling moments of anxiety. Knowing that I feel comfortable with a bar in front of me, or that I have a reason to walk away from a table when I am done the menu explanation makes me like I am socializing in a controlled environment.
While I was living in Montreal I was bartending, cooking and dishwashing at the same shitty sports bar because they didn’t have full time bar shifts for me. I didn’t have the mental capacity to handle a change of environment and needed to pay for school and rent so I hopped in the dish pit. It taught me the ins and outs of FOH and BOH pretty quickly and bought me some time to get my brain under control.
That was when I had a doctor really explain the long term relationship that I would have with mental health issues in a way that made sense. I was asked and reassured, “Would you call someone weak that has diabetes and takes insulin? If you have a chemical imbalance and you need medication to balance it out, you are not weak. You can’t help it and sometimes, we all need a little help with balance.”
When I wasn’t feeling mentally well enough to deal with the general public, I was lucky enough to find a wonderful chef (after answering a TON of garbage Craigslist ads) that took me under her wing. It was, to this day, one of the most nourishing experiences I have had working in a restaurant. I still keep in touch with her and a lot of the people I worked with at that time. I also deal with anger management issues which doesn’t always make for a patient bartender. When I felt like I wasn't going to jump over the bar and punch the first person that asked for an absurd modification to a drink in the face, I went back to FOH.
Medication helped get my world back to a manageable place. Therapy is how I maintain it, for the time being. That could also change, as my anxiety is situational. The depression doesn’t help it; it feeds it. When it feels unmanageable, the depression kicks in and there are days I am not sure I will make it out of me bed. I realize I really can’t exist without having one foot in hospitality world at all times because it grounds me. When I stopped pursuing journalism full-time and started working in restaurants 60+ hours a week, I knew it was right because it barely felt like work. But my anxiety wasn’t gone; it was just momentarily at bay.
It’s misleading. Throw me into a social situation, say, a bartender competition. Whether I am competing or not, I am the same level of anxious. I constantly feel embarrassed, though I haven’t even opened my mouth. I don’t know what to do with my hands. I don’t know how to make small talk, small talk that comes with ease when I am at work. I second guess every sentence immediately after it comes out of my mouth. I get tunnel vision because I am overwhelmed and am often mistaken for ignoring someone or not saying hi (read:being a “bitch”). What’s actually happening: I am fighting the urge to run, lock myself in a bathroom, close my eyes and plug my ears until the event has ended and some poor employee finds me because they are trying to get into the washroom to change the toilet paper and finish their shift. Can you imagine their surprise, at the end of a 12 hour shift?
I don’t have the answers on how to handle these situations, but I take them one at a time, head on. I try to challenge myself and take deep breaths and breaks from crowds. I have also learned to forgive myself when I can’t live up to the social expectations through lots of hard work, therapy and self exploration. When people turn up on the other side of my bar, I try my hardest to show a better side of myself.
A year and 3 months ago, I left the restaurant world and started working for a brewery which allowed me to rekindle my love for bartending at a part-time capacity. (Remember when I said I always have one foot in?) My experience in Montreal has taught me how to listen to myself. I have recently moved on from craft beer world, into spirits. It wasn’t for me and that is not a bad thing. It just pushed my trigger with anxiety in a way I know I am no longer comfortable with or willing to compromise around.
There is nothing weak about asking for help, however you need to. There is also nothing wrong with walking away from something that doesn’t feel right. I have prolonged many unhealthy relationships, personal and work related, because I was always second guessing myself. Medication, therapy and taking a step back from the unhealthy habits that plague our industry are never a bad thing. I try the four minute rule - try it for four minutes and if you still don’t want to do it, then I stop, knowing I tried. Chances are, you will at least finish the task at hand or are better off than not doing it at all. It's an ongoing battle and when I am down, I still feel like I want to give up. I am still trying to find my voice around a sexual assault that happened a few years ago with someone very close to our bar community. I write and bring my ideas into therapy, where I feel safe. I find comfort in seeing others share their strong words around their experiences and hope that one day I will find a voice for mine.
Mental health has made bartending challenging at times. But I love the hospitality world and I can't imagine not being a part of it. If I could talk to my younger self, I would tell her get her butt to therapy far sooner than I did. And never, ever stop writing about it."