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What It's Like to Be a Bartender With Borderline Personality Disorder

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Often, when you walk into a bar, the noise and show of the place can overwhelm. The chatter of guests, the crack of shakers and clink of glasses can build a soundscape that really takes you somewhere. But people very rarely look underneath that – and even rarer, do they look underneath the faces their bartenders put on.

I’ve been bartending for seven years now, ever since I graduated from university and realized laboratory work wasn’t for me. I begged for creativity, but also analytical and scientific work. Thus, my love of bartending was born. But in the past few years, my diagnosis of borderline personality disorder (BPD) (with a twist of avoidant personality disorder, or AvPD) has become more and more evident in my work — and, as is so often the case, it was overlooked by both myself, my colleagues and my peers.

See, mental health isn’t really considered in hospitality. You grin, you bear it. You grit your teeth and answer that thousandth question on whether or not the vodka is gluten free, desperately holding back a split from making you scream “But you aren’t coeliac!” You try to remember that your boss isn’t the horrific demon your mind is making him; he’s just doing his job. You try to remind yourself that it was “just a tiny critique, it wasn’t anything big — the wrong bitters, or syrup, or spirit, easily remedied and no harm done,” rather than the horror of failure my BPD projects.

The anger, especially, can get too much to bear. When you see your bartender acting aggressively, crashing shakers around and being short with guests, it doesn’t look good. I’ve been reprimanded hundreds of times of the years for my attitudes and anger towards those I’m serving at the time, my short temper and exasperation making me appear snobbish and uncouth. “But I’m not,” I beg of my bosses and colleagues, “I promise! I don’t know why I get this way!” It’s just the howling in your head that there’s some tiny thing off about everyone and everything, and it just makes you want to scream, without cause, rhyme or reason. It makes customers shy away from you, makes you lose focus on your work, and suddenly you’re dropping shakers and overpouring that really, really expensive whiskey.

That was how I used to explain my actions behind the bar when a split had hold of my brain and was making me howl internally. Now, I make sure to tell my bosses, calmly and maturely, why I am how I am sometimes and how that will be reflected. Often they understand — giving quick breaks on busy nights for mental recharges, keeping me busy when they know I’m not doing OK and suchlike. Often, however, they don’t get it. They don’t understand how my moods can ebb and flow with no warning, and how that makes me short or overly extroverted. They don’t get why I beg of them for “just a couple minutes break, mate, that’s all I need, I’ll be right back to it.” I’ve even been tempted to take up smoking, just for the mental break a quick 5-minute smoke break can offer on nights where the bar is five people deep, cocktails are flying out, I’m remembering recipe after recipe with numbers flying through my head and my hands ache from shaking, snapping and stirring.

It’s a conversation that should be had far more often in hospitality. Many see this career as one of “just getting by” — some extra cash on weekends, here and there. But for a few, it’s a true career; of those few, many will live with a mental disorder. And it’s overlooked so often due to the self-harming nature of the industry. It’s an industry that requires hard work and sweat just to survive, and even more to get recognized and obtain success.

But, there is hope. Have the conversation. Make your colleagues aware that sometimes, you’re just not going to be OK, and you’re giving your best, no matter what it looks like. Spread awareness in your hospitality communities, and look after your brothers and sisters behind the stick and on the other side of the tray. After all, it’s them you’ll have to rely on, and you they need to rely on too. Be brave, and tell your boss about your diagnosis, about its symptoms, and teach them how to recognize it. You may well save someone a lot of mental anguish one day, if not yourself.

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Getty Images photo via santypan

Originally published: March 16, 2018
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