A Mental-Health Crisis Behind the Bar
One of the world’s best bartenders opens up about his own struggles with addiction and the need for more mental health resources for people working in the liquor industry.
We’ve all heard it. We all want to do it. But for some of us working in the liquor business, we simply cannot. Our industry is made up of a bunch of misfits: actors, actresses, musicians, creatives, computer programmers or, in my case, a would-be geography teacher. (So glad that never worked out.)
We are attracted to the camaraderie between colleagues and the conviviality of the bar. Both, of course, aided by the social lubrication of alcohol.
I was born an addict on January 1, 1989. I was the second baby born in Ireland that year and I was pissed I wasn’t the first. The obsessiveness was there from the beginning, but it went supernova when I was in school. I sort of floated through life until the third period of school, in my fourth year, when I was 15. I failed a chemistry exam miserably. The teacher read the list of marks from top to bottom, with my score coming in dead last. That day I swore no one would ever say that about me again. I promised myself that whatever I did, I would not only succeed, but also be the very best in the world. My grades went from Cs and Ds to As and Bs.
It wasn’t long after this incident that I got my first bar job cleaning ashtrays and pint glasses at the local boozer. The bar manager said the previous guy was the best there ever was. Well, I may as well have been a bull and he the matador waving a red flag. It became my quest to be the best damn ashtray cleaner in the universe.
One thing lead to another and I learned of Sean Muldoon’s work at The Merchant Hotel in Belfast. He wanted The Merchant to be the best cocktail bar in the world. A bar in Belfast? I thought it was crazy, but I liked crazy. I loved that he wanted to be the best. This became my own personal and unrelenting mission.
This may seem unrelated to my story of addiction, but it’s important because this was the first time an all-consuming passion dominated my life. This obsessive and addictive force enabled me to own two bars, sell books and travel the world. However, it’s the fuel that also led me very close to not being here at all. Back then, I never drank for enjoyment. I drank to escape. My addiction is both my biggest strength and my biggest weakness.
My sober date is March 26, 2016. That’s 2.44 years. 29.23 months. 892 days. 21,938 hours. But who’s counting? The day before that was my bottom. I’d been out of work for close to year at that point having taken a leave of absence. I felt worthless. A burden to my friends and family. I remember one of our regulars telling Sean that my story resembled that of Icarus. That I had flown too close to the sun. Fuck him, I thought. But he was right.
I had always felt like I had something to prove but, surely, once I got some formal recognition I would feel adequate. On July 20, 2013, in New Orleans, my dream become a reality. At the Tales of the Cocktail conference, I was named the best bartender in the world at the ripe old age of 23. I remember waking up the following morning with the world’s worst hangover. However, it wasn’t the hangover that bothered me. (I was used to those.) It was the emptiness inside me that proved I still wasn’t good enough. My bar wasn’t good enough. Nothing was good enough.
Things began to spin off the rails at that point. The warning signs were there in the months and years ahead, but I didn’t listen. I always pointed the finger at someone else until I ran out of people to point fingers at.
I went out on March 25 to get destroyed. To end it all. Fortunately, I made a call to 911 before that happened and I began my long road to recovery. My partners rallied around me, as did my family, friends and colleagues.
My one thought when I was in hospital was that when I was better, I would share my story to make it easier for others in our industry to come forward and address their issues. We need to destigmatize mental health problems.
The first step to recovery is talking, but talking isn’t enough. I wouldn’t have gotten better without outpatient rehabilitation, therapists, meetings, sober friends and my sober network. All of my work has been geared toward building coping mechanisms to deal with life on life’s terms and to not run away to the instant gratification of alcohol, drugs, sex, social media or whatever else.
The nonprofit Restaurant Recovery recently approached me to join their board. I immediately thought this was the next step to talking. It’s about providing relief to those in the industry that don’t have health insurance and therefore don’t have the resources to get the help they need to recover.
The goal of the organization is to help set up support meetings in as many areas as possible, to offer assessments by addiction professionals and to pay for industry specialized treatments. We’re still in the infancy period in terms of getting our board of directors together and developing programs and initiatives to enable us to turn this idea into a reality.
Our goal is to help people heal responsibly by offering assistance they otherwise wouldn’t have. It will remain a goal unless we can get the industry to support this mission. We can be better.
Help us heal responsibly.
Jack McGarry is the vice president of Restaurant Recovery and a co-founder and managing partner of New York’s award-winning Dead Rabbit Grocery & Grog. He was the youngest bartender to be named International Bartender of the Year by Tales of the Cocktail.