I had no real skills at the time, and, prior to that, had been too drunk to show up to class, thereby throwing away my opportunity to finish college -- so I had no degree (two spotty years and then a series of lies to my parents about deferred classes and summer sessions and sick time etc., etc.) -- but still, the job was beneath me.
The job was waiting tables at a '40's style diner.
Oh, it gets better.
There was a uniform:
Paper soda jerk hat. Short sleeved white button down shirt. Little black bow tie. Those weird industrial material Dickies brand pants, in beige. (They sat across my waist like an abortive attempt at male maternity wear.) It was a '40's diner themed restaurant, so we were supposed to look like the guys (and gals) who worked the ice cream counter in those days (never mind I think the look was a bit more 1950's -- they weren't asking my opinion).
I looked like the illegitimate offspring of a drunken coupling between Pee Wee Herman and Flo, the officially "sassy" waitress on the 1970's sitcom, "Alice."
"I can't do it!" I wailed to my sponsor.
"Yes, you can." he said.
"My friends will see me." I whined.
"Yes, they will." he said.
"I look fat and foolish and everyone will laugh." I cried.
"You need a job." he said, doing nothing to assuage my fears, as he had said nothing to address my wounded vanity.
While I didn't believe the world owed me a living, I did believe that (just like in the movies) I would sort of fall into some glamorous and highly paid career -- kind of like being discovered, but by God, more than Hollywood. (And in the very, very back of my mind, I suspect I equated my newfound sobriety with being "good" and thus the universe was bound to reward me. Which, as I have pointed out here before, is not spirituality so much as superstition.)
I explained this idea to my sponsor, though I was too smart to put it quite so baldly, and sited examples of numerous famous people who had that very thing happen to them.
"That may be, but you're not them, and you need a job. And you're not going to be discovered sitting in your living room or sitting in a meeting, anyway." he responded.
So there I was, in between AA meetings, slinging cheeseburgers and mixing malts.
Let me just say, in case the picture I've painted thus far has not made it clear, the uniform did not flatter the figure. If you were a 16 year old kid, trim and suffused with the blush of youth, then in that outfit you looked like an extra from a Disney musical. ("Newsies 2! Sophomore Year! Back to the Burger Joint!" The Happy Meal tie-in alone would have been a marketing executives ... er ... dream) but sober a year or so I was only slowly coming back to life -- my previous almost ten year diet of vodka and ... well, more vodka ... had not exactly put the glow of health in my cheeks or muscle on my frame. I had all the right numbers, but I had them in all the wrong places. And it hadn't helped that in getting sober I had severe physical cravings for many months, and had taken the "eat something sweet to address the craving for liquor" advice to heart. And stomach and butt. (And given the kind of drunk I was -- at that time that was the right thing for me to do). The restaurant was near the beach, so families would roll in to feed the kids, the lot of them fresh and glowing from sand and surf and clean living and good health. I would approach the table looking, in comparison to them, like Uncle Fester on a work release program -- so I thought. It didn't help.
I was scared and overwhelmed and miserable.
I faked being happy and comfortable and confident. I am a great faker.
I think in survival situations alcoholics in general are marvelous frauds -- this is why "fake it till you make it" is such great advice for us. "Act as if" -- act as if you're a person who is not afraid to go through the door, and you find a way to walk through the door. "Act as if" you're the kind of person who is able to walk up to strangers and do your job, and you find a way to walk up to strangers and do your job.
To look at me on the floor of that restaurant you'd have though I was fine.
But every fifteen minute break I had, I would stand behind the restaurant, literally shaking, and chant to myself "I won't quit they have to fire me. I won't quit they have to fire me..." over and over again. Every moment I was there every circuit of my brain was on overload. Before going to work sometimes I threw up from fear. It was waiting tables in a nice-but-not-fine-dining-restaurant and at the time it was almost more than I could handle.
I had put a brave face on it to my sponsor at first, but finally broke down and told him how I felt and all my fears every time I went to work. (Why I felt I needed to put a brave face on it for my sponsor is complicated, but has to do in part with people pleasing and confusion about what a sponsor is and a lifetime habit of covering things up by reflex -- and worth a whole other post some day, I'm sure.)
He told me something that changed my work life, and not only transformed that job, but every single work experience I've had since (and they have been many and varied, my path has never been what one would call "traditional.")
My sponsor explained to me that one facet of the 12th Step's suggestion to "... practice these principles in all our affairs" was to approach every situation as an opportunity to be of service. So when I was at the restaurant, rather than be afraid of how I looked or what people thought of me, I should try to view every element of the job, every exchange with customers and co-workers, as a chance to be of service. Look at the food as nourishment I was bringing to hungry people. Look at the families, some of them stressed or grouchy, and see if I could make their time with me relaxing or even enjoyable. See how I could make my co-workers jobs easier, grab trays, bus tables, offer to assist ... just in general take the focus off of myself and my paycheck and my tips and put it onto being of service.
I tried it, and the change in how I felt and how my day went was nothing short of amazing. Approaching the job like that absolutely transformed the entire experience for me.
Now, to the cynical among you, I'm not saying this meant that little animated birds flew in the window and helped me put on my soda jerk outfit every day. I still had difficult customers and some days my feet were tired and other days the physical labor was hard indeed. But by looking at the job as a chance to be of service, my fear fell away, my obsessive self-loathing about how I looked was muted to almost nothing, and this in turn changed my interactions, which improved the job, which made it easier to view as a way to be of service, which changed my interactions ... in a healthy ongoing cycle of positive reinforcement.
It got to the point that on my fifteen minute breaks I would stand behind the restaurant and say the 3rd Step prayer and the Serenity Prayer and feel a real sense of purpose and usefulness when I went back to my station.
I grew to love that job, and when I left, I was sorry to go.
They didn't fire me -- and I didn't quit. I left that job as a sober man leaves a job, not a frightened or petulant drunk. I resigned with two weeks notice, moving on to another job that suited me better -- and challenged me in new ways.
I left the job better for having had it -- and when I started there I would never have imagined all I got from that place and those people -- and yes, even from the humility of wearing that damned outfit. (What a gift, to move through the world and see the person, not the uniform, every time I'm the customer.)
Over and over that's been my experience from working AA's principles in every area of my life -- things that scared and overwhelmed me are transformed into wonderful opportunities I've been grateful to have and was sad to leave.
And in a box somewhere, as a bit of a reminder of both that lesson and that sponsor, I still have that stupid hat.