I work as a server at a popular chain restaurant. Working as a server is good for me. Everything about it works well for myself and my family. I thrive off of the positive environment. Servers are paid to be positive. That benefits me because even when things are a little stressful, my coworkers still have to slap on a smile and be upbeat. There are, of course, those few customers that seem to think that treating people crappy is an ok thing. I just look at it as they are having a bad day and ignore it.
Last week a customer did something that triggered me. For me, a trigger is something that happens…
or someone’s action that causes a physical fight or flight response in my body. I know myself very well and typically can get my body to calm down on my own. I have worked at this for years. Usually, my body’s physical response is these terrible tremors from head to toe, a rush of adrenaline, sometimes my torso, arms, face, and neck turn red or the color might drain from my face and lips. Many times I get tears in my eyes, a lump in my throat and pain in my chest, stomach, arms and hands. Sometimes I am unable to speak and there have been times I have had to reorient myself because I forgot what is going on or what I was doing.
I know that all of that sounds really bad. I guess it is but in my world it is considered normal. I have learned to control it most of the time so that my reaction doesn’t spiral out of control to where I need help. When I do need help, I have learned to ask for it.
Last week I had a guest who was very upset with me for not serving her alcohol when she forgot her ID at home. I can get into some really hot water for that type of thing so I had to refuse. It is company policy. I hate confrontation. I try my best to avoid it. When I saw the woman sipping off of her friend’s drink, I reported it to the manager. He took care of it for me. The woman and her friend were obviously very angry and were letting everyone know it.
While I was with guests at another table the woman who had forgotten her ID raised her voice, told me to bring the check since I wasn’t doing anything around there and made this big motion out into the middle of the aisle with her hand…and I was done.
I had just written down the drink order for the table I was with. I turned, walked to my manager and told him I was unable to take care of the problem table anymore. He said he would take care of everything. I asked a coworker to take the other table for me. I handed her the paper I had their drink order on, I could not remember what they had ordered. I walked to the back and leaned up against the counter. I could feel it starting and I was trying to stop what was coming.
Coworkers buzzed around me asking what had happened and saying things like, ‘Don’t let them get to you, they are just being crappy.’ I remember thinking it isn’t that easy. I had tears in my eyes, pain in my throat chest and arms and I was starting to tremor. I kept reminding myself that I was completely safe, they would leave before I had to return to the front of the restaurant. I was breathing in and out, slowing my breath and breathing deeply. I wanted to go home. I was embarrassed. The tremors moved up my arms, into my shoulders and were starting to work their way down my torso.
Luckily I had shared about my PTSD (in confidence) with two of my coworkers that I had gotten to know and really liked. They had been very supportive, but it was just between us. One of them has high anxiety and is even on medication for it. Both of them were always very encouraging. They both were working that night.
I walked farther towards the back of the building because I knew people could see me shaking and that was really uncomfortable. Both coworkers that knew I had PTSD followed me. I had shared how my husband helps me sometimes with these really tight bear hugs. One of them stepped in front of me, I think it was to nonverbally get the ok to proceed. I crossed my arms over my chest and tucked my fists under my chin. He put his arms around me and squeezed tightly in this massive bear hug. He said, “Ok, we are breathing in and we are breathing out”. He even did the breathing exercise with me. I could see the cooks and some of the other staff peaking around the corner. It was very distracting so I closed my eyes.
I started to feel my muscles relax. After a couple of minutes, all of the tremors had stopped. I felt a little light headed but so much better. He released me from the hug and asked if that was what he was supposed to do. I nodded yes and told him thank you. Then those two coworkers went about their business. They acted as if nothing had happened. This was good for me. It helped me feel normal.
Other coworkers kept asking if I was ok. They were trying to say encouraging things, like not to let people get to me. This meant a lot but I was embarrassed to be getting so much attention. And of course, there was that one coworker who blurted out that she can’t stand people who cry. Well, sorry sister. I didn’t mean to intrude on your resting b***h face world. I found her remark a little annoying but soon realized, she just thought I was crying. She had no idea what was going on. So her comment was made in complete ignorance.
As the night went on I slowly came back out of my shell and was able to enjoy the evening. My coworkers and I laughed and joked like normal. Although, every once in awhile I would catch someone staring at me. I just tried to pretend I did not see. The looks on their faces were either curious or concerned.
At the end of the night, I went to the office to do my check out and turn in my money and credit slips. My manager told me I handled the situation really well. He said that he was glad that my two co-workers knew what to do to help me through the situation. Then he told me that I should have told management about my PTSD. I apologized and said I was afraid they would not have hired me. He said that I was protected by law and that there is actually another coworker who has PTSD. He mentioned that it is important for them to know how to help me if there is ever another situation that arises and that I should not feel embarrassed. He really was great. He didn’t look like he pitied me but instead like he genuinely cared.
I drive thirty minutes to and from work. I left work that night and was glad to have the thirty minutes on the way home to just decompress and process. I was exhausted and slightly worried. What would the general manager say? Would she be angry with me? Would she find a way to fire me? Then I thought about everything that I had posted on social media about talking more about mental illness. Here I was preaching that people need to talk about it and not feel shame, but I had kept it a secret from the company I worked for.
I felt guilty.
I felt like I was adding to the stigma of mental illness.
I am sorry.
I am sorry for preaching one thing and doing another.
Now that everyone knows, I hope to get the chance to help end the stigma. To show my coworkers that people with mental illness can lead fulfilling and normal lives.
Maybe someone will see my story or meet me in person and if I am open and honest, they will have the courage to get help.
At least, that is what I am hoping for. Just one person would make all of this worth it. If you are that one person, there is no shame in getting help. Please reach out to someone.