#wearenot9to5 Aaron Male

#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.

Aaron Male @the_alcoholemist

OK, so if you’re reading this you probably work in the hospitality industry. Chef, cook, waiter/waitress, bartender etc. It doesn’t really matter your role. Odds are you’ve read or heard about late Chef Anthony Bourdain’s book “Kitchen Confidential” where he tears open the seedy underbelly of the industry. In there he makes a comment and it’s one I’ve made several dozens of times before. To live in this industry long term, to make this your career, you need to be a certain kind of crazy. Or broken. Use whatever term you see fit.

However, sometimes those terms hit closer to home than some may think. After Anthony’s suicide, which was tragic, the light was once again shone on mental illness in our industry. Sadly, even since then, I’ve heard of others losing their fight with their inner demons. I have mine. Yes. I suffer from mental illness.

Everyone feels a little depressed now and then, sure but there are those who live with mental illness every day of their lives. For most of the world, both in and outside the industry, no one ever knows it. You’ve worked alongside a server, or a cook, or a bartender who has serious mental health issues that you don’t know. Why? Because they love what they do, and they know they can’t let the team down, so they put a smile on and push through service. In fact, putting that smile on can not only terrify them, but exhaust them to a point that they either make unnecessary mistakes or on their days off they don’t seem to exist.

That colleague that doesn’t seem themselves one day but just says they’re tired. Or the one who always seems to go that little bit more overboard in partying. Those might be symptoms of a bigger problem. But I’m not going to sit and point fingers at them. I did just say they might be symptoms of a bigger problem. I’m going to talk about my issues. Maybe you’ll see in what I say some of the same words/deeds in your friends and peers.

I was diagnosed with clinical depression several years ago, about the time of the demise of my first marriage. No, that’s not what killed my marriage. It was already dying, and in fact leaving that toxic situation saved me but it also revealed something. My mind was broken. I jumped too quickly into another relationship which also proved toxic and in fact increased some of my mental health issues. I left that and spent some time on my own. Then I found a saviour. I found a little puppy for sale whom I bought. And so, Monty saved me. Or so I thought. I felt so much better and felt I had made leaps and bounds in finding happiness and stability. Yes, I was still writing some pretty dark poetry, but I thought it was cathartic.

Then I met the person who would become not only my best friend, but she (for some crazy reason) agreed to be my wife. For those of you who know me, yes, I’m talking about Iris. And if you know her, you know how fucking awesome she is. I’m so lucky to have her there to support me. So you’d think that between her and the awesomely cute dog that is Monty I’d be in mental Nirvana, right? Guess again.

I’ve in fact learned more about myself. I’ve learned that there’s a very good chance I may have been incorrectly diagnosed with just “depression." I could be Bi-polar. When I’m up, I’m almost manic. When I’m down, I’m near suicidal. If you’ve come to know me over the last few years, how many times have I said I’m coming to an event and not shown? And to those of you who arrange those, I offer you a very sincere and humble apology. I know those aren’t easy to set up and the amount of work that goes into it. So to you, I’m very sorry. Or if I’ve said I would be somewhere or do something for you and not followed through soon enough? Again, to all of you… I’m so very sorry. But there are many many days that I cannot bring myself to leave our apartment, save to walk Monty and he’s the only thing that gets me out the door. So when I DO show up, when I DO follow through on what I said, realize that it may have taken much more effort than you may know.

It’s not that I don’t want to. Believe me, I do. I want to be there for everything, support everyone. I know that’s not always possible, but I try. There are days when I get up, and I’m full of piss and vinegar, and I make it a great day. Or It starts off that way and something lets the air out of the balloon and I end up eating too many cookies with my tea and binging on Netflix while cuddling Monty on the couch in a shirt and tie. I was ready to go, and I keep saying, after this episode. After this episode. And so on. You know the feeling.

I love this industry. I’ve devoted more than half of my working life to it. The people I’ve been privileged to meet, former idols have become not just mentors but peers and, well, I’d like to think friends. Maybe I’m wrong? I don’t know. I love the guests who I’ve made smile and the friendships I’ve built from them. I love, for the most part the ownership and management teams I’ve worked for. Forgive me, but I must digress here to give you an example of not just my previous statement, but how some in the industry don’t recognize, or even acknowledge mental illness/health issues.

After a conflict with a fellow staff member, the GM of an establishment I worked at and I had a sit-down chat to discuss what happened and how to move forward. I had spoken previously with this manager about my depression, as I then knew it. During the sit-down my GM repeatedly corrected my statement of depression being a possible symptom of what caused the blow up with the phrase “hyper-sensitivity”. Nowhere near accurate, or appropriate. My health issues, while not an excuse was symptomatic and could have influenced my judgement. But how I felt and what I was dealing with was totally dismissed. This is just one instance of the sort of thing I’ve gone through. I know I’m not alone. I’m sure you know of friends, colleagues and coworkers who have complained about negative treatment from management based on how they felt. Again, I’m not saying this should be an excuse for poor behaviour, but I’m saying it so that hopefully managers and owners might stop and think before passing judgement on a person or situation. Maybe they’ll actually talk to their staff.

What has that done to me as a person? What about my career? My professional reputation? That’s a can of worms I’m afraid to open. But as a person? I’m learning balance. Every day is a struggle. I’m writing this on the eve of the first day of the first Toronto Cocktail Conference. I’m super-stoked about going. But I also know that in that crowd, I’ll feel very alone. Which will deter me from wanting to go back, or to stay and do what I should by normal standards, want to do.

So what do I do? Like I said, every day is a struggle. So I try to break down what I want to do vs. what I need to do and I take it one day at a time. One step at a time. I know it’s a fight. Will there be an end? I don’t know. But I do have my weapons. Tools that help me. If you’d like to know more, sit me down and talk to me. I feel the more we share issues like this, the better this industry can be, because we’ll be able to help those of our team who are struggling.

Do you suffer? Let’s talk.