[Sean Brock] he has a new mission. Forget cooking shrimp and grits, he said, using a much stronger verb. “Anybody can do that,” he said. “I have this opportunity in front of me. If I can inspire people to take better care of themselves in this industry, that will be my greatest contribution.”
It’s not just about alcohol, he said. It’s about teaching people in the restaurant business how to ask for help.
“Suffering is suffering,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you are addicted to porn on the internet or you’re codependent or you’re addicted to gambling or if you’re addicted to ‘The Real Housewives of Atlanta.’ You’re suffering, and that’s what gets us into trouble.”—Kim Severson
Sother Teague is the beverage director and head of the bartending team at Amor y Amargo, co-host of The Speakeasy on Heritage Radio, President of USBGNY and partner at Coup. He’s sharing his story in the hope that it will help other people in the industry know they are not alone.
I was recently in an accident. Typical New York City story, hit by a car while commuting on my bicycle. It really is a jungle out there. Luckily, the only injury I sustained was a broken humerus which isn’t as funny as it sounds.
This poses a significant obstacle in my daily life. I’m not saying it wouldn’t be an inconvenience for just about everyone but, as a bartender, I can’t perform the basic functions of my job without the use of both arms. Not only does this mean I’m lifting and pouring from bottles, scooping ice and, shaking drinks, I’m entertaining people. And I’m doing all of it in my favorite hiding place: plain sight. I’m practically on stage with the audience a mere two feet away and yet I’m keeping something from them.
In addition to the current physical injury, I also carry a mental affliction: depression. It’s been a part of my personal vernacular since childhood. Back then, I’d avoid social situations and spend a great deal of time alone. Then, as I got older I realized it was pretty easy to mask my symptoms by being extra-social, a clown or a cut-up. It helped me feel like I fit in. At the time I had no way of knowing that I was beginning to build a lifelong strategy for how to cope with my issues.
As time progressed, I became a good storyteller and conversationalist. These skills helped me get employment and generate a facade of normalcy. But inside I was typically in pain and struggling with anxiety. So, I generated my most effective coping mechanism, the one I rely on most today: overworking. It’d be unfair if I didn’t mention that among other mechanisms overindulgence has played a major part in the form of alcohol, sex, exercise, food, television and, lately social media. But, overworking is the undisputed king. Plus, I figured out a way to do it right in front of people and still hide.
Bartending puts me back on that stage every night and I put on the show. This doesn’t mean that I’m insincere, it does however mean that a great deal of it is sort of out-of-body for me. When I’m at work, I’m ON and afterward comes the big crash. So to maintain the high, I keep taking on projects. I almost never say no to an offer and this keeps me going. The dial is always turned up to 11 and I am coated in a veneer of confidence. The reward for hard work is more work.
Now with this broken arm I’m stopped cold. I’m having trouble getting out of bed and facing the world. I can’t be ON. The depression and anxiety are always at the forefront of my thoughts. I’m struggling again as I have so many times before. Suddenly I feel as if the best of times are behind me and that the dark clouds will plague whatever time I have left. I’m trying to understand what joy is and if I’ll ever achieve it again or if I ever actually have before. Food is as tasteless as it is when I have a cold, the skies seem endlessly grey and, a general sense of numbness is beginning to take me over.
I’ve been in and out of therapy for over 20 years. Sometimes it helps, other times not so much. I’ve also talked to friends and loved ones individually about my issues with similar outcomes.
But this time, I did something different, for the first time, I spoke out about my depression through the loudspeaker that is social media. I didn’t go into great detail but I made it clear that I was not doing well. I thought long and hard about it, wrote several drafts and held on to them for weeks prior to finally posting. I’m not entirely sure what compelled me but I can make the educated guess that it’s because so very many of my friends have slowly been revealing similar issues of their own on this platform. It seems that depression, anxiety and addiction are all prevalent in the hospitality sector and so, it felt reasonably safe to expose myself. I was nervous but, it felt good, somewhat cathartic.
Today, I awoke to dozens of responses from people telling me to “hang in there.” All were sincere but understandably a bit trite. It’s difficult for people to sit idly by while another is in pain. However, and most interestingly, I also received a great many accounts from people I know who are dealing with similar issues. Many publicly and an equal or greater number reached out to me privately. I’m not going to say that knowing other people are in a similar pain or fight as mine makes my pain diminish but, at least knowing that I’m not alone makes me want to overcome it more. As well as help others overcome it.
I hope that this message reaches people who are seeking to break free from depression and emphasizes to them that they are neither broken beyond repair nor alone. There are resources all around us and there is support in unlikely places just when you need it most.
Hi, good people. A lot of the Chefs With Issues work that I do isn’t super public. It’s one-on-one conversations with people who just want to talk about what they’re going through and hear that they’re not alone, get resources for loved ones, or who can offer me advice and insight about what’s needed.
Through the course of this, a few themes emerged, one of which is that food festivals can be incredibly difficult environments for people struggling with sobriety. Alcohol flows plentifully, parties abound, and it’s part of the culture. Front and back of house folks are away from their restaurants and it’s a chance to party with friends they don’t see very often—and pretty often, the drinks are sponsored, free, and inevitably boozy. Not only is it hard to find a non-alcoholic drink sometime—it’s hard to find a place where it’s not aggressively in your face.
So I’ve brought up the notion of sober or chill-out spaces, and relaxation workshops or group discussions with the organizers of a few festivals and I’m pleased to say they’re listening. I’ll share any details as things firm up, but what I’d really like is to hear from you.
What would be the right way to do this? What do you need? I’m getting more and more comfortable hosting group discussions about anxiety, depression, panic, etc., but I’m not a member of the sober community and I want to be very respectful of people’s needs and protocols, and ask for all the help I can to shape it.
My main questions:
What would this space look like to you?
What resources would you like in it? (Massages, privacy areas, counselor, non-alcohol beverages, etc.?)
Would an onsite AA/NA meeting be of use?
What would the vibe be? (Chill spa, quiet, upbeat, etc.?)
How should the word be spread and how private should its existence be? (Obviously no press allowed.)
Should there be any rules? (Like no photos, no tweeting, etc.?)
Anything else you would care to share, I am open and deeply grateful. Send me a note via the contact form, Twitter or Facebook DMs or kat at chefswithissues dot com, and I’ll apprise folks as this takes shape. Thank you.
“For those working behind the bar, alcoholism is an on-the-job hazard. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, they are 2.3 times likelier to die from alcoholism than the rest of the general population is. Many of New York City’s top bartenders have given up drinking the very libations they serve.”—Michael Kaplan
Read “Why the best bartenders don’t drink” at the New York Post
“The Indigo Road Restaurant Group’s Steve Palmer, an Atlanta native, owns fifteen bars and restaurants in North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia—including Atlanta’s Oak Steakhouse, Colletta, and O-Ku. Palmer says his most important work, though, is for Ben’s Friends.
The 501(c)(3) is named for chef Ben Murray, Palmer’s friend and colleague who battled addiction and depression. Murray ultimately committed suicide last year, and Palmer founded Ben’s Friends soon after.
‘At its core, it’s a group of people who have a common goal of trying to stay sober,’ says Palmer, who has himself been in recovery for 15 years. The group meets every Sunday at an old cigar warehouse in Charleston. “It’s a safe space to talk.'”—Julia Bainbridge
Read “Indigo Road’s Steve Palmer wants to help Atlanta restaurant workers battle substance abuse” in Atlanta Magazine