A few years ago I wrote an article called “I’m Tired of Watching You Die”. It was one of the better things I’ve written about the bartending lifestyle. In it I focused on the insidiousness of alcohol and how it can affect professionals within the industry. As I wrote it had you told me I was going to have to take my own advice just a few years later I probably would have laughed ruefully or agreed in that deflective way where I was actually telling you to go fuck yourself. If you’d said it to me two falls ago I would have been more curt. My deflections might have held more water if by that second time I weren’t punctuating my evenings with three very full tumblers of high proof bourbon, four beers and the undeniable fact that I was anesthetizing myself after working eighty to one hundred hours a week for the worst company I have ever had the misfortune of signing on with. I wasn’t happy, I was cropping up with new repetitive stress injuries every other week, and I was neglecting my girlfriend, my family, my friends, my home and pretty much everything else that you usually put under the category of “things that make life worth living”. It wasn’t that drinking made the stress of the job better, it just made it tolerable which was a kind of better. And liquor doesn’t call you for help, it doesn’t ask you to clean up your apartment, it doesn’t wonder why you aren’t home yet, it won’t ask you to come to a family function or to respond to an email. It just gives you a fire in your belly and a pat on your liver and sends you off to bed. In that way and in times like that, it’s kind of your best buddy.
Admitting these things is embarrassing and terrifying. I think that’s maybe the last thing I had expected about the process, beyond even thinking it was a road I would ever find myself walking down, I hadn’t expected the fear that admitting out loud what was probably obvious might limit my future professional opportunities out of stigma. Neither did I expect the shame of knowing that it wasn’t alcohol but myself that got the better of me. And that is truly how it is. Alcohol doesn’t trick you into filling the holes in your life as you make them, you choose it for the job. Some people run, some hike, some knit, others go fishing. Most of those took time, money and a reliable schedule or at least some measure of consistency. I didn’t have those or wasn’t able to define them for myself and for someone in my field the booze pretty much came free so I went with what worked and didn’t need a schedule. In truth, I tried the alternatives for a long time. I used to be a relatively active martial artist, so I did that for a bit. I used to lift weights all the time, so I did that. I used to write incessantly to the point where I think most of my close friends were waiting for me to give up on this whole drink making career and just go write a goddamned novel already. I used to, I used to, I used to… the chorus just kept gaining lines but there were parties to plan, people who needed help, appearances to make and Joneses to keep up with. In Hollywood I learned that you should never say no to an opportunity because you never know when the next will come. Even after I had done the math and realized that constant accessibility just makes you a sucker, I couldn’t let go of the impulse.
There were a lot of moments and decisions that led up to the morning I opened my eyes and realized this had to stop. Years of them, in fact but it came down to a few things in the end and the breaking of the dam by one well timed album release. The night before I made the decision, a large portion of my family had been in town and as we finished up our last dinner together punctuated by cocktails and delicious wine that moved five miles up the Loire Valley with every bottle I realized that somewhere in the mix, the magic was fully gone. With these brilliant people I was surrounded by, I very well could have been eating frozen pizza and drinking Franzia. The cocktails were superb, my steak stunningly prepared by a kitchen I have admired for years, the wine, again, the wine, and the dessert… my god. But seriously, a Babe Ruth Bar and a Budweiser would have been fine, too.
I’m going to interrupt myself for a moment to try to convey to the uninitiated what it’s like to work in an industry and at a level where eating bone marrow and spreading foie gras on four kinds of bread can become tedious. It’s just that it’s there. Why wouldn’t you eat or drink it? Teres major prepared three ways? Absolutely, I’ll have some but let me start with a three-to-one Martini, London Dry with a twist. Heirloom greens and a whole fried trout? Sure, sounds fine, and why don’t we begin with some champagne and oysters before we move to the cocktails and wine? A double thick pork chop with blackberry gastrique? Yes, chef, it was excellent, but you know what I’d really like? Three bags of pizza rolls, a case of Gatorade, a packet of tums and for everyone else to fuck right off for the next week. Or maybe some Magic cards and some old high school friends, but leave the pizza rolls. Can’t make those happen? No problem, why don’t I just go for an eighteen year old single malt and then maybe I’ll finish it off with a sherry flight. And later on when everyone else has gone home why don’t we make it three shitty beers, two tequilas and the weirdest, bitterest bottle you have hiding in the recesses of your liquor room because my body is so oversaturated with alcohol that Fernet tastes like a mint lollipop. And let’s get another round for whoever is still here because what’s money for anyway?
This isn’t something that has to happen. But it can. And it did to me. Because behind every urge to say no to just the next party or the next week long celebration of intoxication there was a fear that skipping one would indicate to my peers that I wasn’t that serious anymore. Some people manage that fear well, balancing their well-being with the need to be present. I didn’t. Moreover, the more time I stood at the ready, the less I knew why I was doing it. The passion that I had begun my journey with began to erode until I found myself more adept at seeming genuine than being it and the only real emotion I could conjure willfully was anger. Eventually fear and anger became resentment and every weekend I promised I’d take to myself ended up having another party or another bar opening or another event that I just had to be at because it would be so much fun (for someone else) and everybody would be there and if I wasn’t there then who was I really and what had I just spent the last five years sacrificing nearly everything for? Parties and get-togethers began to feel like a cage and the only way to make the cage bigger and less claustrophobic was to down another cocktail. Eventually the drinking followed me home. I learned to say no to the parties but didn’t really think about the drinking because I was just so relieved to not feel compelled to make appearances that it seemed perfectly reasonable to toast myself to a night in. My world shrank. I got single. I will not say that the drinking worsened because of the breakup, at least not initially but I had already made my world so small that it was very easy to not have to be around anyone, which tends to be my preference when I’m feeling vulnerable. And when I wanted to see people I could go down to the bar and drink until I was ready to fall asleep.
I wonder if one of the hardest things about recognizing when it’s time to stop is that culturally we have come to believe that realizing you’re in a bad place is supposed to look like an uncensored outtake of The Hangover. I imagined my eyes opening to a scene of untold devastation, three separate warrants for my arrest and everyone I’ve ever cared for having already blocked my phone number. My clothes in tatters, drugs on the table that I’d never even heard of and no knowledge of what city, much less what hotel I was in all preceding the real kicker: I was alone. There would be no friends or partners in crime to smirk knowingly with and tuck this moment into the wallet of things we might mention a couple more times today and then not again for several years; no hapless best buddy to find angry and sunburnt on the roof. That’s sort of what I figured “I need to stop” would look like. Instead, I left that dinner with my family feeling indescribably alone, bought a new album from an artist with their own demons and cried my eyes out to every single song. And then I got drunk. Not too drunk. Just two or three beers and whiskeys (on top of the cocktail and two or three glasses of wine at dinner). Enough to make me sleepy. And the next day I knew it was time to stop for a while. I didn’t stop forever, not even that long in truth. I knew when I cleaned out that I didn’t want to set myself or anyone else up for disappointment by planting some flag of permanent sobriety and I’m glad that I did not. I enjoy drinking. The break was about resetting my habits and remembering what I did before pouring a drink for myself became reflexive. But then I went off to a cocktail based event full of friends and staying sober felt more like a monastic exercise than a matter of mental health. So I had a drink and was pleased to find that I did not immediately fall back into pattern. Still I took great value from my sobriety and when “Sober September” was suggested I saw it as a great opportunity to give my body more time off and to do it this time with friends.
My first break helped me answer some questions. For months prior to drying out I’d kept having strangers ask me the same question: What do you do for yourself? And the truth was that I didn’t know. I knew what I used to do but I didn’t know how much of that guy still existed. I was older than he was. A little tougher, a little more delicate, a lot less certain. I knew that I started bartending because I liked people and I loved connecting with them and having the opportunity to take their night from bad to good, or good to amazing. I liked helping people fall in love on a date. I liked the feeling of walking into a bar and touching the clean surfaces and then, after pure chaos from open to close, walking out as though nothing had ever happened. I picked bartending as a career because there was a time when the profession carried with it a nobility and I thought I could be a part of returning it to that. I was also good at making drinks and would spend hours combing through new and old ideas but then I’d go swimming in lakes with friends, wake up early enough to work out every day, watch movies and talk about them for hours or play video games because they were fun, not because they gave me an excuse to shut out the world. And I didn’t drink to help me forget I wasn’t doing any of those things anymore.
The first time I stopped I found that guy I used to like. It was easier than I expected and it’s still changing my life every day for the better. I doubt this second time will grant me anything so dramatic but now feeling like a different person than I have for years, I’m curious to see if it leads to any more big changes or if when all is said and done I’ll just be ready to slide up to that bar and watch two fingers of whiskey pour into my glass. Probably a bit of both, but one change is guaranteed: the next time I have a drink, I won’t be doing it alone. Because that’s sort of the point, isn’t it? Or it should be.