This is the first in a series of articles which tell the inspiring stories of regular hospitality workers like you and I. First up is Courtney Tonge, a talented career bartender from Florida who walked out of her job and into a whole new state of mind.
I’m walking down the street. I feel a burn in my legs and my muscles strain to move forward. Everything feels just a little heavier than the day before. It’s only 6 pm but I am sufficiently exhausted, mentally and physically. It’s an all too familiar feeling, except these days it’s different. It’s welcomed and appreciated. I feel a breeze, I take in the sun instead of resenting it, I’m sweating but it’s anticipated and I feel my skin cool in response. It’s not that I have changed much, I have only redirected. It’s then I realize this new start is parallel and not completely perpendicular.
I’ll take myself back to two months ago. If I’m being honest in how I count days now, Seventy-three to be exact. Seventy-three days seems short in comparison to how long I’ve spent behind the bar. My affair with this industry has been going 10 years strong. Within those 10 years so much has happened. I’ll save the story of what those years entail, as I’m sure it’s already understood. The long hours, the missed holidays, the great jobs, the not so great jobs. Going from being absolutely sure you’re doing what you’re meant for and wondering how you got there. Wondering if all of this time spent is just a blip on the radar of what’s really important.
For a while, I took the ups and the downs in stride. I convinced myself if I could just work a little harder, wait a little longer, my personal life would catch up, that everything would even out. I was certain that as long as I was achieving everything I wanted behind the bar that everything else would fall into place. At the time the excitement masked the reality. I got to travel and meet a lot of really amazing people. I was handed experiences I never thought I would be a part of. I grew as a bartender, bar manager and back again. I participated in competitions with bartenders I always envied. I knew my community and I kept up with the trends. My actions were always validated. Time at the bars after hours was “networking”, taking shots was “sociable.” Off time was spent at liquor events, fulfilling promises of appearances to brand ambassadors thereby growing the brand for not only yourself but the bar you represented. Being busy was a bragging right, being tired was par for the course. I said yes to everything but myself and eventually I broke.
Seventy-four days ago I felt the weight of those years crash down all at once. That night I did the hardest thing I’ve had to do to date. I was a manager at a high volume bar at the time. I called my boss and I resigned, for the first time in my life, without notice and without a plan. I called a detox and went in the next day. I made the decision that my life had to come before the bar and that I never wanted to feel so empty again. That it wasn’t OK to feel like I needed to hide the fact that I needed help and that being a human being with physical and mental necessities was normal. I had to rewire everything I had known the past 10 years.
I felt then everything I feel now, but instead of my muscles aching from lifting weights, they ached from dehydration. Instead of straining to walk from the fatigue of a good workout I strained to find any energy left in the skeleton I was living in. Now I tire at 6 pm from waking up early, from exerting myself in exercise. From having intellectual conversations all day, from applying myself to work tasks without the fog of substances. I swear now to cool my body down and not because the pain of withdrawal is literally causing my system to go into overdrive. Seventy-four days ago I let go of something I had worked so hard for because I forgot about the body that made all of that possible, and when I realized that I left myself behind it was already too late. I was a walking ball of stress. I replaced meals with whiskey. Emotions negative and positive, whiskey. Exhaustion, whiskey. Social anxiety, whiskey. I looked in the mirror one day and I had suddenly gained 50 pounds. My eyes were bloodshot, my body stopped me when I couldn’t.
It was hard and still is hard some days. I had to make decisions based on what I needed and not what I wanted. When I came out on the other side, I had to take a job apart from booze until I can know that I will never neglect myself in that way again. I had to knock my ego down through the floor. I had to take less pay, and I had to accept the fact that I may very well never be able to be a bartender ever again, and that’s OK.
I’m still in the industry but my approach is so much different. I say yes only to what I can handle. I participate in events that mean the most to me now. When I can, I offer help and insight to other bartenders so they can focus on themselves to stay healthy. I’ve learned I don’t have to let go completely but I do need to take a step back. I fill my spare time with exercise, with conversation and a solid sleep schedule, no matter what hours I’m working. I recognize in myself the need to always improve and change, but now I do so in the gym. Instead of masking my anxiety with alcohol I go lift some weights until that feeling gets even a little lighter. I traded out my drinking buddies for gym buddies. I’ve also found that I have an actual conversation with people I used to bar hop with. Instead of getting drunk and forgetting what we even talked about, I’ve come to really develop relationships with those people.
I’m now on a path to a healthier lifestyle. The free time I have less responsibility behind the bar I fill with other things I love. I will always be a life student, so I’ve taken up things that challenge me mentally and physically. I box twice a week, I strength train weekly with someone who I used to tend bar with. I use my workouts to center myself and build myself up mentally and physically. I hope to one day be strong enough to land myself back in the industry I still very much long for. Now, however, I know to do it on my own time and with the well being of myself and others in mind, and that is the greatest thing I’ve learned in front of or behind a bar to date.