“I recently became so overwhelmed that I could not stop crying. I looked around in a sea of people, realized that no help was coming”
Tristan’s Miller’s story
Hello, my name is Tristan Miller. I’ll be your server this evening. I am going to take your order, go over to that machine, panic that I forgot something for what feels to me like five minutes but is actually ten seconds, then double check what I wrote down, put that in, triple check it, then go into the bathroom stall in the men’s room and cry for two minutes. Would you like to hear our specials?
This, or a version of this, happens more frequently at my job than I would like. Sometimes it’s just the nagging feeling that I’ve forgotten something. Sometimes it feels like someone is trying to talk to me while I’m putting an order in when really it’s just my brain trying to make sure I know what the stakes (and steaks) are. The most common is the fear that I’m not doing the job correctly. I’ve worked at my current restaurant for two years and every day I clock in I worry that I’m going to screw it up. For six to eight hours I worry. I cannot help but be on edge with the number of people who are in the venue around me. There are too many sights, sounds, conversations, and thoughts going on for me to be able to truly focus my mind. Even when one table is ordering with me, 65% of my brain is devoted to the other six tables I have. I am never fully present but always full of fear.
I recently became so overwhelmed that I could not stop crying. I looked around in a sea of people, realized that no help was coming, briefly asked someone to cover me, went into the back hall and began to weep. Deep, snotty sobs, while my co-workers continued to do their jobs. I felt like the emotions had been purged from me, then a co-worker, we’ll call him, my co-worker asked how I was. Then the tears of embarrassment, of shame, of helplessness came. I felt as though as I was not in control, had never been in control of my emotions. That I was an idiot child who shouldn’t even have a right to work. This idea is something that has followed me since I first joined the workforce. Whenever I screw up or lose control of my emotions, I feel as though I don’t deserve the job that I have. Something that capitalism breeds into us from an early age is the idea that work is a privilege, not a right, and there is some truth in that. But whether you agree or disagree with that idea, we all can agree that work is a requisite. John Hodgman says in his book Vacationland, “The vast degree to which my mental health improved once I had the smallest measure of economic security immediately unmasked this shameful fiction to me…Money cannot buy happiness, but it buys the conditions for happiness: time, occasional freedom from constant worry, a moment of breath to plan for the future, and the ability to be generous.” This is because, along with a litany of other things, I have a generalized anxiety disorder. And so do most people who serve you food.
This brings me to the main point, which is that nearly every server is mentally ill. According to a 2015 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration report, people who work in the service industry are third most likely to abuse alcohol and most likely overall to abuse drugs. It is also reported that 84.8% of both front and back of house staff have depression, and 72.9% report having anxiety. (Here’s an article where a few people share their stories with these experiences.) People who are, (in general) in lower paying jobs are mentally ill, either chronically or situationally. We as a society need to change our standards, both for the care of those living with mental illness and income. The federal minimum wage has not been raised since 2009, whereas inflation has gone up 1.65% per year since then. Effectively making prices go up by 14%. This has been detrimental to how people of a certain tax bracket live. I have seen this first hand. I have watched friends and family members’ mental and physical health slowly deteriorate due to their workplace. I have seen friends yell, cry, and break things because of the stress of getting someone a mojito. My co-workers’ feelings of discontentment come from the sense that they aren’t doing what they’re skilled at, that they’re just a cog in a machine, and that they’ll never get out the place that makes them the most miserable.
I, like John Hodgman, have experienced peace of mind when I’m financially secure. I know that when I’m worried about money, that stress causes me to worry about dozens of things. It makes matters worse to work in a high stress jobs such as the service industry, on top of not being paid a livable wage. It hurts the health of your workforce, and If your workforce is diseased or maladjusted it is going to cause problems. From a purely logistical standpoint ensuring the health of your employees will create better products or services.
Now, I’ve suggested we need change. How do we make that happen?
The first thing you can do, yes you, the person reading this, treat your server nicely. Know that you’re not their only priority, besides all the other tables they have in the restaurant, they also have bills, relationships, and their health to manage, all of which is more important than whether or not you get you filet mignon on time.
The second thing you can do is vote for candidates who are fighting for wage and health care reform. Here’s a list of people running this year.
The third thing is that you can do if you are someone who works in the service industry with mental health issues is to take care of yourself. Let your boss know, let your co-workers know, only take shifts when you need them, be kind to yourself, and take the steps you need to be healthy, even if that means getting a new job, which is possible, even though you feel trapped. I do, too. But you can do it. You can make positive changes in your life. I believe you can.
So, can I get you anything else? No? Okay. Here’s you check I’ll be right back for you after I go into the back hall and question why I went into the arts. It was a pleasure serving you.