I didn’t have any plans for after finishing university; I kinda figured at the end of my degree I’d have some clue what to do. Fresh out of student loans and in need of money, I took the quickest route to cash; I went back to work at the pub I’d worked at the previous summer.
“Really, a pub?” I hear you ask, “Don’t you have social anxiety?!” I hear you holler. And yes, yes I do. Looking back, I can honestly say for the first month I enjoyed myself. There were different people working there, some familiar regulars, and this was my first postgraduate job so it felt kinda special! Over the next 5 months however, things just got worse; getting home at 12:30am every morning and sleeping irregular hours was starting to take its toll, I wasn’t seeing my friends or even my flatmates very much, I had hardly any time to myself, my diet was 80% fatty pub dinners, I slipped into the drinking culture, lots of the customers were generally bigoted, my boss was unpredictable in their mood (which translated into varying levels stress for me), and to top it off my anxiety could quite easily be triggered on any given day.
When did I realise that maybe things weren’t working out? The thing that first comes to mind is the day my partner and flatmate had to convince me to stay home because I was throwing up all morning because my boss made me to stay back after work and drink with them. I could have refused (as I did on future occasions), but I felt obliged to as a person in a position of lower power. I could have drunk a lot less, but I was new to alcohol and had no idea what my limits were or even what effects different types of alcohol had on me. The first time I was ever drunk was the year before when I worked there over the summer and I got kept back for drinks. When I was ill the next day, I didn’t feel like I had the option to call in sick because my anxiety told me that there would be ‘consequences’ if I couldn’t make it to work. In my mind, if I had to take time off work then it would be a personal failure and I would be letting everyone down. In reality, my manager would probably be annoyed, as would the boss, and everyone working that day would be under a bit more pressure, and life would go on (which is exactly what did happen)
My naivety to alcohol and my social anxiety were a tragic combination that made it far too easy for me to slip into the drinking culture. I had to learn the difficult way to say no to alcohol. After most shifts I just wanted to go home and sleep, but a lot of the time I’d get offers from several different people to go out for a drink. With customers it was easy enough to say no; there’s nothing more horrifying than thinking about prolonged social interaction with a stranger. But when the offer came from one of my colleagues, it was a lot harder to say no. When this happened my anxiety would tell me “They won’t like you anymore if you say no” and “You’re a bad friend for not wanting to join them”, and I believed it. So I ended up going out a lot more often than I wanted to, through no fault of theirs, and I drank a lot more than I normally would. One thing I learned working at the bar is that people buy rounds of drinks for each other, and, depending on who you’re with, saying ‘no’ to another drink doesn’t mean you won’t necessarily not get one. So, depending on who would join me after work, sometimes I would inevitably get stuck with a bottomless glass of alcohol that anchored me to the spot. Eventually I learned my limits and how to stand my ground (after several unfortunate hangovers), and that it was up to other people if they wanted to waste money on me after I declined an offer for another drink. Even though I knew I had the right to say no, the pressure I felt from those around me to drink was crushing. The social anxiety I felt when I was out with people was huge, and made me desperately want to fit in. I felt embarrassed to say no to drinking because I thought I would be labelled as prude and no fun. I was terrified of what others thought of me. I felt like a pinball in a pinball machine, trapped in my decisions by anxiety and flicked around by the suggestions around me. I did eventually cotton on to the fact that I shouldn’t be doing things I didn’t want to do, and with a lot of effort worked on saying no. Saying no isn’t easy when there is a lot of peer pressure and you just want to fit in, and social anxiety definitely amplifies the experience, but it’s important to respect your own personal boundaries. I went along with something I didn’t want to do, and I won’t be making the same mistake again any time soon. At least from this whole ordeal I’ve now got plenty of experience saying no.
It’s no wonder this job contributed to my gradually worsening depression, and it’s funny that at the time I didn’t even think I was becoming that depressed. When you’re in the middle of experiencing something it can be hard to put into perspective, especially if it gradually changes. And for me personally, when I’m mentally in a bad place I can find it hard to remember what being happy is like, making it easy to make a nice little nest and get comfortable in a bad place. As I got settled into my bartending role, my current reality and new norm was redefined; and I accepted it without question. My anxiety likes to tell me a lot of the time that I’m the one that needs to change or is at fault, and not my surroundings. This meant that I was accepting working at a job that drained me both physically and emotionally.
Four months into the job, I realised that at some point I’d started internalising the views of those around me. Most of the time when the topic of gender or sexuality came up in a conversation between customers, it would end up being ridiculed or mentioned just to be the butt of a joke. And this happened a lot. It wasn’t the same people each time, either. Honestly, it still astounds me that so many people joke about gender and sexuality. And every time they laughed about it, I felt like they were laughing at me. I also clearly remember the time when I listened to my boss talk about, and consistently misgender, a “transsexual” employee to one of the customers. I desperately wanted to raise this issue with them, but I felt like I couldn’t challenge someone with power over me. I couldn’t get away from these issues; they were so wide-spread that I felt like I couldn’t even begin to tackle them (although I did educate some of my colleagues and some friendlier customers) For months I’d slowly started criticising myself in a gender- and hetero-normative way, because that’s what everyone around me was doing. Without realising it had come from an external source, I started believing that I was lesser for being queer. That I was lesser for being gender non-conformative. That the ways in which I’d come to know myself were somehow invalid. This carved a big chunk out of my self-confidence that I’d built up over the previous year. Even after discovering these thoughts were coming from external sources, I became painfully self-conscious of acting or looking different. Luckily, this hadn’t been going on for long enough to have a lasting impact, and on the day I finally quit my job I decided to fuck that shit and wear my fancy shirt and be Mr. Dapper Bartender.
Having social anxiety, a job working at a busy pub in central London might not sound like the most intuitive thing in the world, but I was able to do it because I viewed talking to people as part of the job. In most interactions I’d have a limited set of words and sentences to pull out; it was a bit like a video game really! As soon as I went off script, however, I’d stumble over my words and my life would flash before my eyes. The longer I spent working at the pub, the more I had to go off script because the regulars would expect increasingly diverse and personal interactions with me. This might have been fine if the crowd of customers were people I’d want to mix with, but they weren’t. So to get through these interactions, I resorted to using my best coping mechanism:
… Which I would not recommend to anyone, it’s not fun. But it was better than constantly feeling like I needed to jump out the window. This went hand in hand with the depression, and it left me feeling out of touch and empty. And as my depression got worse, so did my anxiety. At this point I could see I was stuck in a cycle, and if I didn’t leave the pub soon then I would be stuck there for much longer than I wanted to be. Fortunately, I was in a position where I could quit, so I handed in my notice a month in advance and left two weeks before Christmas (to my boss’s horror) I’m proud of myself for having quit when I needed to, and ignoring the voices that told me to stay
Although I had a pretty terrible time, I’ve grown as a person for experiencing what I did; I know my limits with alcohol, I feel secure in saying no, I eventually accessed the local mental health service, I understand what internalised prejudice look like, I know to avoid people who push you when you say no, and I can make a pretty mean bloody mary. Once I’d moved away from the pub, I was able to focus on myself and the people in my life that support me and push me to be my best self. It’s important to put your own wellbeing first and ask yourself what you need to be doing in order to take care of yourself. It’s also important to build yourself a supportive and nurturing environment to exist in, and to cut out what makes you feel bad. It can be hard to figure out what helps, and it can take a lot of trial and error to get it right, but in the meantime keep trying your best and don’t be afraid to stand your ground, be your authentic self, and reach out for help when you need it. The hardest times are what help us grow the most.