• The Vindicator

Sober Bartending

Written by Michelle Fiorta // Illustrated by Devin Benko


My journey with addiction in the service industry


Being sober in the industry that once fueled my addiction is pretty ironic when you really think about it. The service industry is a charismatic, energetic, influential, potent and aggressive world. It is a world full of craft cocktails, hospitality, life and of course – booze. It is also a world full of anxiety, depression and addiction. My story with addiction has been a long road, one that has thankfully led me to the sober life I have today.


What started as a job, turned into a passion and a career. At the age of 16, I got my first taste of the hospitality industry by working part time in the back of the house at a pizza shop. By the age of 19, I was the assistant manager of another pizza shop and had just moved out on my own. It was during this time that I started showing signs of addiction, but I chalked them up to just being young. There was rampant drinking, cocaine and pill use all around me. From the front of the house to the back of the house, everyone I worked with participated in some form of alcohol or drug use. Living on my own opened a whole new world. I was able to drink and use the way I wanted, not thinking how my actions would affect anyone around me. From the ages 19 to 21, I lived a very party-forward life that had consequences. I was evicted from my apartment, living out of my car, fired from my job for stealing and on the outs with my family. I was completely miserable, something needed to give. I put myself into a 90-day treatment program at a half-way house. I started attending AA meetings and I found recovery. I was 21 the first time I got sober. I am turning 34 this month and, as you’ll read, my story wasn’t all peaches and cream.


After getting sober, I went back into the service industry -- first a small diner, then moving on to TGI Fridays. It was during my time at Friday’s I first experienced being a sober bartender. I started off serving, moved up to server trainer and eventually landed a bartending position. Honestly, at the time I wasn’t even thinking about becoming a bartender. Sober bartending? I laughed at the idea back then. Eventually, I felt like I found my calling. I fell in love with the industry. Everything from the noise the ice makes as you shake the tin, the science in crafting a cocktail, to creating relationships with guests beyond the bar – the whole experience. I was learning a lot about the industry and had wanted to expand my job experience, so I started applying at bars in Downtown Cleveland. I landed my first job at a sports bar and I stayed sober for my first few months on the job, being almost 5 years sober at this point. But something was always holding me back. I never truly identified with being an alcoholic. I was never afforded the opportunity to drink in the bars legally, since I had gotten sober only about a month after my 21st birthday. Working in the bar industry downtown, sober, just wasn’t doing it for me anymore. I thought I had been removed from alcohol for so long that maybe I wasn’t really an alcoholic. I decided at the age of 26, I was going to try drinking alcohol again.


The moment I took my first drink again, until my last sip of booze, I drank alcoholically almost every day. I can’t recall a time from 2012 to 2018 where I went a day without drinking. I wasn’t your average drinker and being in the bar scene did not help my cause. Shots during the shift, late-night after-hours hangouts, sleeping all day. This pattern became a regular routine of mine. It’s easy in the service industry to adapt to this unhealthily lifestyle. At the time, almost everyone I worked with partied and drank the same way I did. It was not uncommon to have a “team meeting” during any shift, and by that, I mean group shots. It was a form of comradery, almost like a rite of passage in the bartending world.


I had moved on to a new restaurant and it was here where my drinking really progressed. There wasn’t a real manager around to watch over us, we pretty much managed ourselves, which really meant we could drink all shift long. I can’t tell you how many times I blacked out while bartending, I honestly don’t have the slightest clue. I stayed at this job for a little over a year and decided maybe it wasn’t the best fit for me. I found a new job at a restaurant called Butcher & the Brewer. At the time it was just opening, and I thought a new job and a new management company would be the best thing for me. Things were great for a while, but the bartending world can be a world full of repetition. Once again, the same old patterns crept back up.


I eventually started falling down a dark hole ridden with depression and anxiety. I wasn’t eating, going days without showering, waking up in the morning throwing up, not able to hold food or my booze down. I was constantly late to work, a whirlwind of emotions, isolating from the people that loved me the most. I felt like killing myself was the only way I was going to get out of this terrible, dark place. My depression had engulfed me, and I was sleeping all day, drinking all day, trying to hide it from those closest to me. Always living a double life. Pretending like I had my life together.


Alcohol was keeping me from being able to live the life I truly wanted and deserved. It was getting in the way of my dreams, of my goals, of my happiness. It kept me from being the person I was meant to be, it kept me from having the life I was meant to have. I was no longer willing to settle for that life. I finally had enough. Enough of the hangovers, enough of the blackouts, enough of trying to piece together my night or where all my money went. I was done, I gave up.


I was no longer willing to settle for that life. I finally had enough. Enough of the hangovers, enough of the blackouts, enough of trying to piece together my night or where all my money went. I was done, I gave up.


It’s shocking sometimes when I think about my tumultuous relationship with alcohol. The very substance that has given me a life, friendships and a career is the same substance that almost killed me.

The thing I get asked the most is “well, what do you do for fun?” when I tell people I don’t drink. My answer is always the same, everything you do but without booze.

People have this perceived notion that us folks in the service industry live a debaucherous, drunken existence, but I am here to break that notion. Bartending sober has been the absolute best thing I could have ever done for my career. I am clear minded, attentive to my guests needs, a faster and more efficient bartender than I have ever been in the past. I recently won Downtown Cleveland Alliance 2020 Service Superstar award. This award to me is just another reminder of the growth and progress I have made not only personally, but professionally.


Trying to live a sober life in a world full of alcohol can be challenging and it is not easy. I am surrounded by booze, people consuming booze from guests to coworkers, but I have chosen bartending to be an occupational choice, not a lifestyle.


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