(Potential Trigger Warning for those prone to depression or alcohol addiction.)
(Many) years ago, I was a cocktail waitress.
I worked in several local taverns/bars, of many different types. Some catered to elderly military veterans, while others attracted younger, trendier sports fanatics.
I saw it all.
Sure, it can be fun when you’re 19 years old and the legal drinking age is 21. You feel grown up. You feel slightly conspiratorial–almost rebellious, for being in a place that you otherwise couldn’t legally enter.
But what started out as “wow, I’m working in a bar!” gradually transformed into an empty, soulless hole, filled with empty, soulless people. People who spent all afternoon and evening, well into the deep night, pickling their livers and wrinkling their skin. People in their 40s, 50s, and 60s, This was what they did. This was all they had ever done, and it was all they’d ever do. Their bodies had long given up, given out, protesting against the nightly toxic onslaught that overwhelmed their biological limits and capabilities. They ignored the daily morning headaches and “blah, icky” feelings of nausea and inertia. There was no respect for those limits or recovery abilities.
I don’t judge them. I think that for a brief time, early on in my serving “career”, I did. But I don’t remember much about it, because any feeling of judgment I might have harbored toward them had quickly passed and become a moot point, transforming instead into (non-condescending, non-patronizing) pity. It was like witnessing a gradually-unfolding tragedy, horror in slow-motion. They weren’t happy people. They had long since locked themselves into a self-made prison, constructed through family histories, genetic tendencies, previous and present pain, and a lack of other, more constructive tools and options.
In an environment like that, it’s tough to smile. Even when your tips (the bulk of your livelihood) depend on your ability to do so.
In an environment like that, it’s tough to function. The sensory onslaught took its toll. The clouds of smoke from which there was no escape. The sharp, glaring neon lights emanating from the peripheral walls and piercing through the dimness of the rest of the room. The endless din of nonspecific pointless chatter, disturbed at unpredictable intervals by a jolting hoot, holler, or belly laugh (the latter of which wasn’t real, but rather, it was empty and done for show, allowed only by the ethanol bath that numbed their hopelessness).
In an environment like that, it’s tough to think. You don’t really want to anyway.
But internal thought, which occurred in my stereotypically-Aspergian mind, provided an escape of my own. I was both overwhelmingly busy and agonizingly bored at the same time. Internal thought, whatever I could conjure up, was my solace, my secret, my focus, and my entertainment. And of course, from what I’ve read and experienced, when Aspie/autistic people descend deep into thought, our minds forcefully engage and focus intensely, and without realizing it, our facial muscles relax almost completely.
Apparently, this is not “normal”. A relaxed face is somehow “wrong”. People (half-buzzed) would ask me, “what’s wrong?” (without really wanting an answer, of course), or (by the time they were drunker) they would (too-loudly) say, “smile!” And of course, when your tips depend on doing so, you “snap out of it”, completely disintegrating your train of thought. It doesn’t matter that snapping-to is absolutely essential to your ability to pay your bills next week; it’s still semi-traumatizing to the brain. I think that after doing this a few times, my brain began to hold a grudge against me.
In an environment like that, it’s tough to act. But one has to. Acting is imperative; there is no choice. After all, we can’t have intelligent independently-thinking introverts roaming the calm, quiet countryside now, can we? (End sarcasm.) Thus, acting skills are essential.
A bar/club/tavern is the epitome of extroversion, neurological stimuli, and caveman-like behavior. It’s one of the main socially-acceptable places to act obnoxious. And the patrons often take full advantage of that.
It’s all an extreme assault to Aspergian/autistic senses.
In an environment like that, it’s tough to sustain sufficient energy levels. I would sip on caffeinated soda throughout the evening, creating a “buzz” of my own–a caffeine buzz. It was necessary just to be able to interact with people at their own alcohol-induced, amped-up level. Caffeine made it easier to force extroversion; it gave me just enough energy to keep acting.
But only for a while.
After a certain amount of time, everything I could muster, even with the help of caffeine, wasn’t enough. The headache would set in. Followed soon by joint pain, muscle strain, and fatigue.
My brain and body begged and pleaded it all to be over, long before I was able to clock out. The good news is, by the time I was spent, having given everything I had, the customers were too intoxicated to notice.
And finally, I could relax my face a little. It hurt from the hours-long forced smile anyway.
As my work shift wound down and began to come to a close, I felt every ache, every pain, and I was grateful to be able to move more slowly, without being under constant scrutiny from dozens of pairs of eyes (belonging to those who measured human behavior with a yardstick much different than mine).
And finally, my shift was done, at least for that day. I would climb into my truck, head pounding, less and less able to move. Finally, safely inside my vehicle, with the rest of the world blocked out, you would think that would be an immense relief, almost a paradise.
But it wasn’t. After hours of endless neurological assault that had droned on and on, relentlessly and without reprieve, the silence itself (and the temporary noise-induced ringing in my ears) was almost too much of a shock. The fact that I could finally just simply STOP almost, in itself, overwhelmed my system.
I couldn’t win.
I would turn the radio on, at a low volume, to drown out the deafening silence, and drive home. Even then, I couldn’t relax. Must remain vigilant; after all, the only other people on the road besides you at that time of night are more than likely intoxicated (and/or extremely tired) and thus, a threat to survival. After being bathed in neon light all night, every pair of oncoming headlights was yet another barrage to my nervous system.
Even driving home was hell.
One would think that finally being able to climb into bed, that long-lost and much-craved haven of softness and rest, would be the ultimate immediate end-goal, a welcome paradise, an immense relief…
…but no. Climbing into bed allowed me to stop, and to rest, both of which I desperately craved. But allowing myself to finally come to a Full Stop simultaneously allowed all of my body’s signals to break through the previous Neurological News Feed of distractions. And it was at that time that the pain, the soreness, the stiffness of being on one’s feet for ten to twelve hours straight, carrying a heavy tray with one arm, and everything else, to surface and become the sole focus.
It would take me roughly a half an hour of laying there in order the pain to subside enough for me to be able to fall asleep.
This line of work only lasted a little longer than six years. Of course, I had burnt out long before I actually left the field. My brain had checked out a long time ago. It hadn’t taken long for it to stop being fun, which pretty much occurred immediately after the newness and excitement had worn off. It became a way for a high school graduate with no other credentials (yet) to put oneself through college, one of the job positions open to people like me that paid the “best”. The income was like a yo-yo; a lot of times, it was crap, while at other times, it was decent, and occasionally, I was pleasantly surprised.
But I couldn’t do it today. I know too much. I know what that kind of environment does to my system; we don’t mesh well. I crave a regular day-night rhythm (whether or not my sleep cooperates with me lol). I crave a relatively “normal” life, with my evenings, weekends, and holidays to myself. I crave fresh air and healthier people (on the rare occasions that I don’t mind contact with people in the first place). I know that if I were subjected to an environment like that, especially if repeatedly and prolonged, I would experience a shutdown.
I don’t want to live like that.
They say that “what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” I would say that’s generally true. But in this particular case, I’m not so sure about that.