out of service

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It all started by a waterfall with cliff divers.  Okay and there was also a mariachi band and a large orange monkey. There was also magicians, an old drunk couple with guitars and the gloppy enchiladas that should probably be considered a hate crime against Mexico. Little red flags popped up and me and a bevy of other teenagers would magically appear with chips and salsa and sopapillas (this puffy, fired dough pillow creation best eaten at mouth scorching temperatures and drizzled with honey.) Later, they’d tear me away from all of this glamorous action and sequester me to a hot steamy kitchen where my loud thin Vietnamese manager Hong would yell at me, “Do something!” Suffice to say, I didn’t last very long.

Yep, it all started nearly 30 years ago when I was 15 and working at a ridiculous Mexican restaurant/theme park/Denver anomaly called Casa Bonita. The “it” in question is my almost 30 year on and off again career of waiting tables, working behind retail registers and dealing with the general public. These restaurant/retail gigs have always made for good money makers while I’ve persued drugs or writing or getting sober. Now at age 44, my time behind the counter and I’m sad to report by fake waterfalls with cliff divers has come to an end.

While I won’t say, “I’ll never go back!” to working in cafes, shops or restaurants, I will say for the time being it looks like that chapter of my life is officially done. On Saturday, I said goodbye to the part-time gig I’ve had since I moved to Portland at a culinary shop/cooking class hub. While aspects of it were fun, I did feel a little like the daytime stripper way past her prime. Bitter, slow and armed with one liners ripe for any possible thing that could come up, it became clear that my time in this arena had run its course. The fact that no one got stabbed and my sobriety remained in tact means my time there was success. My new adventure, working as a peer counselor for the State of Oregon will put in me in an entirely different realm of the word service but will certainly take me out of this weird wonderful, fucked up world that I have known since my teen years.

It’s an over-simplification of the highest order and a snap judgement anyone can and has made probably any time they’ve left their house, I can confirm that people are the worst. Entitled, rude, awkward, racist, homophobic, cheap, dishonest, mean-spirited and generally awful, people put it all out there when their shopping and eating out. I also happen to be people too so I know this is true for myself as well. We like to think “everyone’s doing the best they can” but I’d argue that when we’re shopping or eating out that we are often on autopilot and the first things to evaporate are our common sense, manners and general non-shittiness. Like we don’t go places with the intentions of being awful but we don’t exactly set out into the world with the opposite intention either. However, I will say after you’ve worked with the public long enough, you no longer flinch when cray-cray shit flies out of their mouths. Somewhere around Year 500 of me working with the public, I developed a protective shield, one that kept me free from reaction while also making everything and everyone seem funny, human and really not that bad. Naturally curious and nosey, I do actually like talking to people, the big weirdos. So as I took on these gigs in sobriety I was able to have fun with them and promptly forget them when I went home.

Back when I was waiting tables, a friend once optimistically chirped, “But as a writer waiting tables must be a great insight into people, right?”  I’m sure I agreed and muddled sure, sure, sure then followed it up by some insightful, funny story about customers. Yet now I’m not so sure. After all, it’s a micro-glimpse into their lives and not really who they are. Yet I will say as a person who loves to write dialogue, working with the public has been invaluable. Plus, people are really vulnerable(read: insane) when they’re eating and shopping so you get to see them in a heightened state which is great for dramatic purposes. Yet for all the drama and all the years waiting tables only a few good stories remain and they are simplistic at best. Here are a few of the most memorable:

That time I waited on Isabella Rossellini. For obvious reasons– duh!

That time I watched a sleazy guy cut his girlfriend’s steak for her. Despite watching people vomit or get in fights, this sticks in my brain as one of the grossest and oddest things I ever saw waiting tables. I don’t know why but it’s forever lodged in my conscience.

That time I got to escort Harrison Ford backstage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion. Harrison. Goddamn. Ford.

That time a customer posted a negative Yelp review of the place I worked at and singled out my shitty, snotty attitude. She wasn’t wrong.

That time I got to send clothes to Cher’s house for her to try on and she in turn sent me a signed cd.

That time I helped Roseanne pick out body glitter and punk rock records.

That time a couple had sex in the changing room at a boutique I worked at.

That time Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks sang Happy Birthday to her friend at the restaurant I worked at.

That time Rene Russo ate in our restaurant while her kids ate Domino’s in her car.

That time I got hit on by a customer at lunch and later hooked up with him in between shifts.

That time a D-List actor rudely yapped on his cell phone and ignored his 4 year-old kid while dining at my work. He even left the kid(!!) alone while he went to the ATM and he didn’t tip.

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That time, despite being really high/drunk I actually made a lot of money. Okay. That was most of the time.

Did I mention Isabella Rossellini already? The point is the fodder isn’t nearly as juicy as you might think. And without the celebrity sightings the cache of my illustrious customer service career completely bombs. I’ve mainly learned that people want to be heard, people want to be noticed and people shouldn’t be fucked with if they’re hungry. Also, this makeshift career of helping other people has oddly opened the door for me to want to help them even more, beyond bringing dessert menus or helping them pick out body glitter.

Service, as fate would have it, is a necessary part of my recovery. At nearly 9 years into this jam, I am constantly on the hunt for new ways to be of service. They say helping others keeps people like me out of our heads and I am all for that. Thus my new career and even writing have pushed me into a life less about Sean. Or at least that’s my hope. Plus, if all else fails I can return to this old wacky world. That’s the thing. Once you’ve conquered it you can do it anywhere and at anytime.

Meet me by the waterfall and I’ll bring you some menus.

 

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a hot mess, now at room temperature

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You really need to get your shit together, they told me.

“They” were friends and family. “They” were coworkers. But “they” didn’t exactly say it in so many words as so much gently imply that perhaps maybe there were better ways to conduct my life that didn’t make me feel like a walking, smoking human dumpster. No, I was the one who said it to myself over and over again. “You really need to get your shit together” is pretty much the through line of mental thought I had for the last 5 years of my drinking and using. Let me tell you, that’s a bummer of a message to play on repeat.  Thankfully, drugs and alcohol make it go away very quickly. “You really need to get your shit together.” Oh yeah? Lemme pour tequila and cocaine on you until you shut up.

See, nobody ever wants to hear that their shit isn’t together. Nobody wants to be told, even by themselves, that they are a disaster. We all live a delusion on some level that we are absolutely nailing this whole life thing. Besides, compared to, like, a serial killer or somebody living with kittens under a bridge, my shit was together. So I couldn’t pay my bills and was hung over 7 days a week. At least, I wasn’t wanted by the law or trying to hide a body. These are admittedly low bars to set for the whole “getting your shit together” thing. Alas, with that message playing for so long and things getting progressively worse, I had to “get my shit together.” 8 and a half years later, my shit is together. But is it really?

By telling my story and writing about being an addict and alcoholic, I’ve landed in a magical yet bizarre place. I am incredibly lucky to get to write about my past and my recovery. Each time I do, I feel the burden of my old life loosen and it all gets more progressively ridiculous and more funny as time goes on. It is indisputably a gift and I cherish being connected online to so many other writers in recovery who day after day share their story of getting better. For me, writing about this stuff is therapeutic and if somebody else happens to get something out of it, fantastic. I think of it as a way of being of service so I try not to get fucked up about comments and page views and collective digital approval, which is a drug in its own right. We who write about this sort of stuff are part of a community online which is truly amazing. This community has spilled into my real life and lifted me up in the most unexpected ways.

Yet it ain’t perfect. I don’t share many of the popular recovery stories out there. I’m not a high bottom drunk. I don’t hate calling myself an addict (please do not get me started on that). I don’t do inspirational memes or go on yoga retreats. All of those things are fine but that’s not my sobriety. I’m also not straight (spoiler alert lol) so I’m kind of the lone gay, pink wolf in this pack which is actually fantastic as lord knows miss thing likes being unique. The other thing? I’m not a sobriety expert or sober coach or life coach or life fixer. God no. I’d be terrible at that. I am simply an experience sharer which all brings me back to the top of the post. Sometimes, most of the time, the experience is that I’m still a mess and far from being some sort of mental health icon.8 years in, I really wish I could tell you I never acted like an addict ever again and all of my character defects disappeared in a poof of lavender glitter. Likewise, I wish I could tell you my self-esteem is rock solid and I’m just insanely in love with myself. Sadly, I cannot.

Two days ago, after shopping for new clothes, eating a delicious meal and having time with friends, I still felt empty. That old hole in myself that needs to be filled but given its endless nature can never be, popped back up.  I wanted something, anything to fix me. But today I know the truth about that hole. No amount of Netflix or chocolate or dick or drugs or alcohol can fill it. I should have laid down or reached out or went to a meeting but instead I just drove myself nuts for while until I got tired and went to bed. Yesterday, when I woke up I had an emotional hangover. I prayed. I meditated. I ate a great breakfast and I vowed to be nicer to myself. Lo and behold, I was nicer to myself and I felt better. I woke up today happy and well rested. Yet I realize that this is all a moment-by-moment proposition all contingent on how I take care of myself.

It’s also why I can’t be a sobriety or mental health guru. I’m just some idiot who was fortunate to get help from other addicts and alcoholics and managed to stay sober, one muthafucking day at a time. I no longer drink when life gets hard or annoying (and it does frequently). I have tools I can use and will begrudgingly do so when I’m in enough pain. That being said, there’s a recipe to a happier, more Sean that even if I follow to the letter doesn’t ensure total daily bliss. Even with money in my bank account, a roof over my head and years of sobriety under my belt, my shit isn’t necessarily together. I am still a hot mess but now I’m served at room temperature.

Carrie On

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“Sometimes you can only find Heaven by slowly backing away from Hell.”  

-Carrie Fisher, Wishful Drinking

In a Barnes & Noble in Glendale, CA, there she was. Carrie Fisher. No, not in person but in book form. It was her memoir Wishful Drinking. I was just a month or so sober, shopping with my mom and utterly miserable/confounded/fucked up. In times of crisis my mom and I often go to bookstores and libraries and getting sober and leaving a ten plus year relationship certainly qualified as a crisis. Like every newly sober person ever, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. But I knew I needed her book. And I needed it badly.  I devoured her first novel Postcards from the Edge at age 15 and she instantly became a source of storytelling inspiration. Here was this actress, this princess I always wanted to be, writing her soul out; utterly truthful, hilarious and talking about really dark shit. It blew my mind as a teenager from an alcoholic home who still had problems even acknowledging the truth, much less telling the truth about anything. So in 2009 with my head up my ass, I knew I needed that book. I knew this because she had been there for me before and I knew I could count on her again.

The usual snickering and laughing like a crazy person by yourself that happens with a Carrie Fisher book ensued once I got my hands on Wishful Drinking. It came at the precise right time in my life, as books usually do. Dishy, sad, profound and really funny, it was the tonic required to deal with my life. But what didn’t I know then or even as a fifteen year old is that Carrie Fisher wasn’t just entertaining me. She was actually helping me figure how I could someday talk about my own really dark shit too.

But in that moment with a life in turmoil what Carrie Fisher was giving me was a good laugh. Wishful Drinking is so jam-packed with Carrie Fisherisms that it’s sort of like hanging out with an old friend who maybe overshares a little too much which could be exhausting in real life but makes for one hell of an entertaining read. There are literally hundreds of gems and nuggets of wisdom in that book especially for addicts and alcoholics but here’s a few of my favorites:

“I feel I’m very sane about how crazy I am.”

“Happy is one of the many things I’m likely to be over the course of a day and certainly over the course of a lifetime. But I think if you have the expectation that you’re going to be happy throughout your life–more to the point, if you have a need to be comfortable all the time–well, among other things, you have the makings of a classic drug addict or alcoholic.”

“Anyway, at a certain point in my early twenties, my mother started to become worried about my obviously ever-increasing drug ingestion. So she ended up doing what any concerned parent would do. She called Cary Grant.”

“And not that it matters, but my mother is not a lesbian! She’s just a really, really bad heterosexual.”

“Having waited my entire life to get an award for something, anything…I now get awards all the time for being mentally ill. It’s better than being bad at being insane, right? How tragic would it be to be runner-up for Bipolar Woman of the Year?”

This gift, this memoir, this book picked up in a bookstore on a Sunday with my mom was the beginning of the long process of what I like to call “the light turning on.” For me it was never a simple flick of a switch but a billion positive messages, a million tears and thousands of laughs that eventually lead to the light being turned on. Wishful Drinking and Carrie Fisher were a part of that. I’m incredibly grateful that Carrie Fisher was the one to show me that the truth could be funny, fierce and freeing. And more than that it could help other people too.

When news of her death took over the internet yesterday, I realized instantly that I wasn’t the only one to have the light turned on by Carrie Fisher. My amazing editor Anna David wrote about it in Time. Sober friends tweeted about her impact all day long. And friends and relatives who knew how much she meant to me texted to offer their condolences. See, the thing is that even though Carrie Fisher and I never met, she was important. By following her example of learning how to laugh at the shitshow of my life, I’ve been able to recover. I’ve been able to get better and I’ve learned how to laugh at the other curve balls life has thrown my way in sobriety.

But now that Carrie is gone, it’s up to us. It’s up to us make one another laugh about really dark shit. It’s up to us to keep writing our truth, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us and the people around us. It’s up to us to speak out for people with addiction, alcoholism and mental illness. We get to carry this torch for one another and laugh together and what an incredible gift. I don’t treat it lightly and plan on doing my damnedest to continue her work.

I was given the writing note this fall that a piece of mine needed to be “funnier and sassier and Sean-like.” While I rose to that challenge and fired on all smart ass cyllanders, what this person was actually saying was, “Be more like Carrie Fisher.” And from here on out I will keep trying to do just that.

“If my life wasn’t funny it would just be true, and that is unacceptable.”
― Carrie Fisher, Wishful Drinking