addiction depression

Thunderbird recently hosted an open and honest discussion about addiction and depression in the service industry. 

Wake up at 2 p.m. after getting home at 6 a.m. and winding down with a few beers and some Netflix before dozing off. 

Shower — or not — throw on work clothes, chug the first Red Bull of the day. 

Drive. Ride. Walk. However you get to work, you walk in with shades on, prep your bar or section, or if you’re back of the house, you set up your mise en place. You smoke. Have a cup or two of coffee and finish your prep. 

Then it’s 3:45 p.m. and time for staff drink. Everyone shoots some Fernet. Says, “Good luck.” Puts on their best customer-service-ready smile. Goes to work.

By 3 a.m. you’ve had five more staff drinks. Five more cups of coffee. Half a pack of cigarettes. Your buddies came in, so you had a shot with them. Someone who’s new to town and wants to be a regular bought you a shot and a beer. You oblige, even if you don’t want to. Then your boss came in and bought a round for everyone to spread some cheer. Once again, you do it.

You clean up. Share stories. Drink another beer or two because at this point, who cares. If you’re lucky you’re done in time to head to the industry bar around the corner to share a few rounds with your coworkers to celebrate making killer money tonight. You stumble home. Tomorrow is your day off. 

And then you wake up. Feel like shit. Drink a Red Bull and decide to go out for a greasy breakfast and a Bloody Mary. A little hair of the dog never hurt anyone. By 3 p.m. you’re already drunk, because you ran into a bartender you know and she had a shot and beer waiting for you when you sat down. 

And so on. And so forth. You wake up the next day, it’s already 2 p.m. and you’ve gotta head to work. And once again, you feel like shit. 

Josh Gonzales is behind his bar at Thunderbird staring at a small group of about 15 to 20 service industry professionals as he shares a scenario similar to this. Nods are coming all around from each person, because they’ve been there. Some of them were probably there yesterday. 

I know I’ve been there, and it was hell.

There’s a reason Gonzales picked a Monday to host Addiction & Depression in the Service Industry: An Open Discussion. It’s one of the few nights of the week service industry professionals often have off.

Now 14-months sober, Gonzales says he realizes how hard it is to have a discussion like this, especially for people whose job it is to act like everything’s all right all the time. (“How’s business?” “Business is great!”)

Gonzales opened the event by pointing out the fact that the food and beverage industry has been seen as a career path lower on the professional totem pole for a long time. But in the last several years, culinary gigs emerged as a proud profession — something to base an entire cable television channel on — and something people can excel at and have good, productive lives in. 

But while service industry professionals take great care of their guests, they often don’t take great care of themselves. And Gonzales, at 40, decided he needed to change that for himself and now he’s trying to spark a change in the food and drink industry in this city. 

Here’s some stats on drug and alcohol abuse in the service industry from the Department of Health and Human Services I learned on Monday night. Seventeen percent of people in the food and drink industry use drugs. (Gonzales clarified that 17 percent “admitted” to using drugs, before adding that, in his perspective, the number is more likely closer to 100 percent.)

According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, service industry professionals have a 2.3 times greater chance of dying from alcoholism than the national average. That jumps to three times more likely if you are a woman. 71 percent of bartenders admit to drinking on the job, 33 percent admit that they drink even when they don’t want to. 

The numbers go on, and all are upsetting, but not surprising for anyone who has spent much time working in a restaurant or bar. 

There are some particular industry-specific problems: The bartender’s handshake, where bartenders will automatically dole out a drink to fellow industry people when they sit down at the bar, even if that person may not need or want a drink. There’s the staff drinks shared to build camaraderie, but that may be more detrimental than they seem, especially as the night wears on. And there’s having an option on the menu to buy a round for the kitchen. All of these traditions can be problematic for someone who struggles with substances, even if they’re intended in the best possible way. 

After Gonzales openly shared his personal story of his decision to become sober — thoughts of his own mortality were creeping around in his head; he wondered if he was becoming a detriment to his own business; a coworker had to pull him aside to call him on his issues, which opened the door to sobriety — he opens the floor.

The tension is palpable. It feels like watching a thriller, where the killer is waiting just around the corner, and everyone knows it. Here we are, a group of strangers, all dealing or having dealt with the same issues, and everyone is too scared to talk, to open up and share — even though that’s what we’re here for. 

And then, one brave soul, a woman who came in from out of town just to be at this event, opens up with a question about the idea of not allowing drinking behind the bar at all. Gonzales and her have a little back and forth, and it cuts that tension ever so slightly, like a dull knife to a tightrope.

“Anything else?” Gonzales asks, prompting that deafening silence to pounce back into the room. 

5 seconds. 10 seconds. 20 seconds. 

Finally, another woman who works at a local brewery asks about winding down once you’re home, not even worrying about drinking on the job, just drinking at home and feeling depressed after a long, hard 12-hour day of running around, being yelled at by patrons, dealing with sexually aggressive patrons, going, going, going, and then trying to find normalcy.

A few other voices join in, and soon that tightrope snaps. It has been an hour, and we finally reach “open discussion.” 

And that is where this event has been going all along. That’s the goal, to get people in the service industry to feel all right talking about an issue that has burdened the industry forever. It is to start a dialogue. And it’s time to start a dialogue.

That way two things can happen:

First off, people who have been in the industry for years can start living healthier, happier lives and can help one another on that journey. And secondly, to change the industry for the young people — 21-year-olds looking for an occupation that will make them good money, give them life skills, make them a group of solid friends and be fun all along the way — so that they can make this a sustainable, professional lifestyle. 

I’m at this event because I lived it on and off at times in my life. It’s something I’m deeply interested in and I’m happy to see the discussion beginning. I’m lucky: I had people to talk to. And I had different goals for my life — I knew I’d be happier writing about food and drink than serving food and drink and I had family and friends to help me get there.

But, you shouldn’t have to leave an industry just to be sober, happy and healthy and so it’s time to make a change. It’s time to talk.

Now I’m doing my part to continue that dialogue. I’m planning on doing a much more in-depth story next year, diving deeper into the world of alcohol and drug abuse and the depression that comes with it in the service industry. If you’re in the industry and want to share your story, let’s talk. Email me at cmcginsie@nuvo.net  

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I travel. I eat. I drink. I meet. I record. I'm the Food & Drink Editor for NUVO and the co-creator and director of Indy's Table. I also host a weekly comedy podcast, Film Forecast and occasionally write about movies and television for NUVO.

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