Talk to Me
Sother Teague on the therapeutic power of podcasts, the life-changing nature of Facebook posts, and the struggle to speak up.
August 21, 2018 ● 10 min read
By Lauren Friel | Photo by Kyle Ford, art by Cassandra Landry
Let’s just list Sother Teague’s accomplishments here, in the interest of both efficiency and effect:
Wine Enthusiast “Mixologist of the Year,” 2017. Longtime owner/resident barman of New York institution and shrine to all things bitter, Amor y Amargo. Owner of newcomer cocktail haunts Blue Quarter and Windmill (see also: building a small, boozy empire east of Bowery). Author of I’m Just Here for the Drinks: A Guide to Spirits, Drinking, and More Than 100 Extraordinary Cocktails, which enjoyed some hang time at number one in the Amazon Beverage & Wine category. Co-host of “The Speakeasy,” a Heritage Radio Network podcast devoted to all things imbibe-worthy.
But: Teague doesn’t want to talk about it, because he struggles with serious imposter syndrome. So instead, we talked to him about that, plus the dangers of being a workaholic, and what happens when you decide to be open about your mental health. Teague is among dozens of brave chefs, bartenders, servers, and general managers who volunteered to discuss their mental health journeys with us, in an effort to normalize discussion and foster self-care in our industry.
Lauren Friel: Why did you volunteer to talk to me today?
Sother Teague: Because history is a great predictor, and my personal history with opening up about this stuff is that it’s good for other people as well as myself. It’s therapeutic. It’s freeing, in some way.
Can you talk a little about what your experience has been coming to terms with your mental health? Was there a moment you realized it was something that needed to be addressed?
So, I was hit by a car on my bicycle on April 25 of last year. That put me out of work for six months.
I have always, always used my work as my first line of coping and defense of my demons: depression and ridiculous, sometimes-crippling anxiety. To keep those two things at bay, I keep myself very, very busy. I lay too much on myself, I say yes to too many projects, I’m just a hamster on a wheel, all the time. It’s a terrible way to cope with things.
But suddenly, I had a six-month break that I couldn’t avoid. I broke my arm, and I’m a bartender, so: No work.
During those first five weeks especially, I was in some pain. I don’t like to take medication, because it’s an anxiety trigger, so I had a constant, throbbing pain for a while. That kept me awake, so I wasn’t getting any sleep. I wasn’t super lucid; my brain was just addled. I wasn’t moving around and doing things. I wasn’t getting out of my apartment. So, my two cohorts, depression and anxiety, came calling, and I got really deep into it.
I did something I don’t normally do: I wrote a post on Facebook about it. It got a tremendous response. That was the first step in realizing how helpful being open about it could be. It made me feel less alone, and it stripped away a little bit of the stigma for me. I was asked by Kat Kinsman, who wrote a book called “Hi, Anxiety,” which is amazing, to expand on my thoughts and write an essay for Chefs With Issues, a website she started that deals with these issues in hospitality. [Kat] gave me a warning, which was very helpful. She said, “When I do post it—because you’re a sympathetic and empathetic person—it will get a lot of response, and those responses will be people telling you their stories, and this could make your depression worse.” And it did. Tons of people came calling to tell me their stories, and I started getting sort of bogged down in them, you know?
That [essay] then got me an interview on CBS Radio regarding my depression and my position in hospitality, and that led to an interview in Imbibe about my situation, and now we’re talking. Each time I get to talk about this, I feel less anxiety and less fear about talking about it, and I feel like I’m helping other people. Being a person who has literally spent his entire life in the hospitality industry, I like to help people.
So, it’s another way that I’m being hospitable—just in a very abstract way.
Do you think it’s harder to be a person who’s successful and struggling? Is the expectation that you have your shit together just added pressure?
Oh my god, absolutely. I feel like that all the time. I wrote a book on my phone because I don’t have a computer, because I don’t have my shit together. I’m 11 years in arrears on my taxes because I don’t have my shit together. My passport expires this month, and I’m supposed to be going on a book tour that includes stops in Berlin and London. So, I’m freaking out. I don’t have my shit together. I ignore those big issues.
What do depression and anxiety look like for you?
I think they look pretty similar, but they have different repercussions. With depression, I’ll hide behind work. When I have downtime, which is rare, I will literally sit in my living room, on my couch, in the dark, for days on end. Nothing’s motivating me. I just go into my mind. I’ll latch onto an idea and roll it around in my mind, and just keep rolling it, and rolling it, for hours or days on end. That’s why I need to keep my schedule full; it’s my coping mechanism.
Anxiety is different. I do a lot of things, you know? I was the former president of the USBG New York City chapter, I have a radio show every week where I get to talk to some of my colleagues and heros, I’m inches away from opening my third location [Note: Windmill has opened since the time of this interview], I just wrote a book—and I have tremendous imposter syndrome. I don’t think I’m good enough to do any of these things, even though they’re there. They exist. I won Mixologist of the Year from Wine Enthusiast—I made jokes about it. Like, what does Wine Enthusiast know about mixology?
That trophy, by the way, is at the bar. But it’s hidden—I hang my rolls of masking tape on it.
I don’t know. They gave it to me. A good friend of mine said, “Yeah, they gave it to you, but you’ve never given it to yourself.” And that’s true.
Do you have any idea why that is?
I only really heard that term, imposter syndrome, for the first time about a year ago. I’m not sure that I truly understand it yet, but it resonates with me. I think about it. That I don’t deserve all this stuff that people keep giving me. Sometimes I agonize over it. I diminish it in every possible way. I don’t know how to get over that hurdle.
Have you ever felt like you deserve what you have?
No, not really. I definitely was a pretty depressed kid. Undiagnosed. I didn’t know it, I didn’t know what to call it. I was a loner. I stayed in my room a lot.
As an adult, when I started seeking therapy, one of my therapists said it was her clinical opinion that I was extremely depressed and probably had been all my life. We tried to work on those things. I’ve been in and out of therapy all my life. I left my last therapist about four years ago because I came to an impasse with her [and] realized it wasn’t changing anything anymore. One of my last sessions with her, I asked, “What if this is just the way it is?” She said, “Well, frankly, it could be.”
In a weird way, that sounds terrible, but it also helped me. Because if this is the way it is, I just have to deal with the cards I’ve been dealt. If I was missing my right leg, that would just be the way it is, you know? So, I just need to continue to press forward. As everyone does.
You have to eventually get out of bed. You have to eventually leave your room. I build in systems that help me do that: I don’t really keep food at my house, so I’m forced to go out and get food. It creates a reason. My best friend in life isn’t in this business, so he has more free time than my industry friends. We try to have dinner together every Monday. We were roommates for several years, so he’s seen me at all stages of dealing with [mental health], sunrise to sunset.
It sounds like you and this guy have support systems in each other. I’ve found that it’s been harder to get men to talk to me for this series than women; do you have any thoughts about why that might be?
It’s sadly just the obvious answer: Men have a societal pressure laid upon them to never appear weak. Society at large seems to view these issues as a weakness. So, men are less likely to be open about their mental health for fear of looking weak in front of their audience, friends, coworkers, superiors. Everyone. Meanwhile, the truth [is] it takes a considerable amount of strength to open up about this stuff. Irony.
Do you think things would be different for you had felt like you could share your struggles earlier in life?
Of course. Like, if I had an understanding of what was going on when I was younger, or I felt like I had someone to talk to about it, that would have been a tremendous shift in my entire life. I’m not shy about it, but I’m not the one who’s going to bring it up. If you don’t know to ask, “Hey, how’s your mental health?” you’re never going to get me to talk about it.
I think—generally, societally—if we were more open to talking about mental health, we’d all be a little better off. I listen to a great podcast called, “The Hilarious World of Depression.” The host’s guests are all comedians who suffer from depression. So, you get to listen to these people who make you laugh talk about how they don’t always laugh.
Do you feel like there are similarities in hospitality because it’s supposed to be a party all the time?
Oh my gosh, yes. Unbelievably so. I’ve been quoted saying the same sentence twice, with the only difference being the emotive nature: “I get to throw a party every night!” or, “I get to throw a party. Every. Night.” It’s exciting, and daunting. It can wear on you physically, mentally, emotionally. You’re in fight-or-flight mode in your job, and so you end up doing that in your life, too. You’re always thinking about the next step, and economizing emotion, and dealing with multiple challenges at a time. It’s insane. I see it all the time in my day-to-day routine, and I wish I didn’t do it, but it’s just so ingrained in me.
Is there anything positive about maintaining your mental health in the industry?
I have to interact with people, all the time. Being in the industry has made me a good conversationalist. I think I have a broader viewpoint on life in general, because I speak to so many people from different walks of life. There are plenty of benefits to being in an environment that’s convivial and fun. There are lessons to be learned every day behind the bar. Serving people drugs. Don’t forget that part.
Do you ever feel conflicted about that? Do you have guests who you know are self-medicating?
One hundred percent. I do feel guilty about it. But, it’s their choice. I’m a provider. I cut people off, but I know I’m not the only faucet. It’s hard to have regulars who you know are beating themselves up with misuse.
How do you navigate mental health with your partner?
She sees it coming. It’s like a storm. There are telltale signs, and I can look out for them and let her know what’s going on. The key is just to be honest about it being there. To not try to hide it, because when it hits, it’s visible. You can see it. My posture changes, my demeanor obviously changes. There are varying degrees, and I don’t think I’ve had a really crushingly bad day since I was injured. Those were some really heavy days.
She stays very busy as well. She’s a lettering artist, and she did the cover and a lot of the art for my book. She also spends half the week in New Jersey, where she works. She’s pretty fiercely independent, and I’m totally ok being alone, so it’s a great relationship. We don’t really see each other a ton, which works for both of us.
Do you feel hopeful about the future?
I don’t know. I get really nervous about things. I’m hopeful that the new bars will do well. Amor y Amargo is doing well. I’m gonna plan this crazy book tour. I’m just gonna be busy. I used to say that New York City is long periods of nothing at all, followed by short periods of everything all at once. Now I just say it’s a long period of everything all at once. The dial’s been turned up to 11 for three years now. It just doesn’t go down.
Do you find that working in the hospitality industry has allowed some of your issues to flourish?
I have to assume that if I had a job as an accountant—working nine to five, with weekends off, and a steady paycheck, and a bonus at the end of the year, and holidays, and all those things—that I’d be able to deal better. But, the chaotic nature of the job I’ve had my entire life means that none of those things are true. My last vacation was over two years ago. I don’t have weekends. I don’t have paid time off—that’s a joke. Every minute that I’m not behind the bar, I’m not making money.
I’ve become very skilled at leaving it at the door. I leave it at the door even when I’m not at work. It’s just habitual.
Do you think you’ll go back to therapy?
I don’t know. Right now, I don’t think so. I think that’s an interesting question because as I’m answering it, I’m thinking, there’s every chance that this conversation is therapy for me. Does that make sense?
Absolutely. My follow-up question was going to be, “Is continuing to talk about mental health openly maybe the answer?”
I think it might be. I’ve been listening to that [podcast] for over a year now, and maybe that’s what helped me write my Facebook post. Maybe that’s what helped me write that essay for Chefs With Issues. Maybe I got lucky with those first experiences. My community could have been like, “That’s a bunch of bullshit! Shut up, you dumbass!” But they didn’t. They showed up in a big way, and they responded positively. So, I was willing to do it again, and again, and now here we are.
I’m willing to be that person. Again, not entirely altruistically. I’m certainly happy if I’m helping other people, and I think I am. I know one hundred percent that it helps me.
It’s interesting to me that you don’t feel like you deserve professional accolades, but something about talking about your mental health shows that you do feel like you deserve to feel good, on some level.
Deserve’s a tough word for me, I think. I don’t know if I deserve it, but I deserve a chance at it. I deserve to have a choice.
I’d like to add that therapy is more than just going to sit on a couch and talk to someone. It’s exercising. It’s writing. It’s reading poetry. It’s having a good time with your friends. It’s a lot of things. It can be all of them, or none of them. There’s no one-size-fits-all therapy. And I am doing something. I’m not exactly clear on what it is that I’m doing, but I’m doing something. I’m not being afraid or timid about it. I’m not out there leading the band, but I’m not saying no to an interview like this.