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Food

I’m A Drunk Who Runs A Bar

Within the industry, we tell ourselves that we're above that. 'I'm not an alcoholic—I'm a bartender.'

The first time I drank alcohol, I was 13 years old. I overdid it and got way too sick. When I was 18, I started drinking on a regular basis.

Drinking immediately helped with a lot of my personal insecurities. It made me feel better about myself, more confident, more attractive. I'm a career bartender and I'm not naturally as social as the job requires. I had to have a few drinks in me to be that way. The drinks acted as an icebreaker, infusing me with a kind of mellowness that allowed me to be the person that I needed to be. I enjoyed that and it really worked for me.

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And then, about two years ago, it stopped working.

We were at an awards ceremony where my bar, Vera Pizzeria in Buffalo, New York, won for best new bar in the city. We were all drinking heavy, celebrating our win. My wife at the time decided she was drunk enough and went home, but I continued to party. When I finally made it home, I realized I didn't have a key. She had locked the door and completely passed out. I kicked the door in a rage. It was a steel door and I kicked it hard enough that I broke my leg, but the door still didn't open. I was lying outside in crazy pain, screaming for help, totally hammered.

I had to have surgery a week later, and I was off my leg for three months. That should have been a big warning sign. Why didn't I go home with my wife? I had to stay out, I had to keep drinking, I had to keep the party going.

Within the industry, we tell ourselves that we're above that. 'I'm not an alcoholic—I'm a bartender.'

Another time, I was overdoing it at my own bar. I ran downstairs to grab some towels. I don't remember what happened—I must have tripped on something—but I woke up two hours later, lying in my basement with a broken collarbone and bleeding from a head wound. I stumbled upstairs, where one of my bartenders was finishing cleaning up. It was 5 or 6 in the morning. He was like, "Oh, I thought you went home."

Boom, another hospital visit.

I didn't equate any of this to my drinking. We think of some dirty bum on the corner, guzzling rotgut—that's what an alcoholic is. Within the industry, we tell ourselves that we're above that, that it can't affect us because we do this for a living. And everybody around us is drinking every night, so it's normal. "I'm not an alcoholic—I'm a bartender."

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Cameron Rector. Photo by Shawna Stanley.

I drank every single night for probably 12 years. Even if I was at home by myself, there would be a six-pack or at least a few bottles of wine. I would tell myself that I needed it to go to sleep.

And then my marriage ended. But never did I stop drinking. Never did I even entertain that thought.

I had put my entire life into this restaurant-bar that I was running, thinking that this would be it, this bar would complete me. I got all these awards and all this praise, but it just became this weight on me, because deep inside, it didn't complete me. It didn't do what it was supposed to do.

One Sunday morning, I went into the bar. I'd been on quite a bender for a long time. I sat at the bar, knowing I needed to figure this out. I'd been doing this for a few months, just kind of sitting there by myself with a bottle, trying to figure out my life's problems.

After a few minutes, two of my employees and my new girlfriend Shawna came into the bar. "We're looking for you," they said. "We want to talk to you."

I wasn't waking up with a bottle next to my bed and chugging it, so I must not be an alcoholic.

I'm thinking, How weird is that? I go to sit there on a day off and figure out my life's problems and people show up to talk to me about what's wrong with me. So I said, "Well, I think I need to calm down on the drinking."

They said, "We think you need to do a little bit more than that. We think you need to go to a detox center."

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And I'm like, "Whoa, wait, it's not that bad." I wasn't waking up with a bottle next to my bed and chugging it, so I must not be an alcoholic.

But who's to say what your definition of rock bottom is? I had a very successful restaurant, money, friends, a beautiful girlfriend. I had all those things that are supposed to show you that you're doing well in life, and I was miserable. That was my rock bottom: absolute misery.

I looked at them and said, "You know what? I'll do whatever you say because I can't figure out what's wrong."

I'd done a couple shots before heading to detox, just to give me the courage to go through with it.

So I called a doctor friend and told him I was thinking of quitting. He told me, "Well, with the way you drink, cold turkey is not going to work for you. You need to be medically supervised while you detox." I didn't realize it was that bad.

When I checked into the medical detox center in Erie County, I was shaking like a leaf. I had gone out drinking the night before, of course, and I'd done a couple shots before heading to detox, just to give me the courage to go through with it. I was shaking because I needed more alcohol. Yet, there I was, with a blood alcohol content of .08, at the legal limit.

I was in detox for four or five days. They gave me narcotics to take the place of the alcohol that my body was dependent on. There I was, in a white paper robe with little slippers on, housed on the same floor with meth addicts, crackheads, and full-blown heroin addicts. I told myself, I'm just here for alcohol, nowhere near as bad as crack or meth.

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When I checked out of there, I set a goal for myself to stay sober for 30 days. I was fucking miserable the whole time, but I wouldn't admit it to anyone. I was back at the bar, working every night. I convinced myself that I wasn't an alcoholic because an alcoholic couldn't do this. I even went an extra 15 days to put a kind of nail in the coffin. I'm good, I'm in control, I can do this. I have control over this and I can drink again. I'll be a moderate drinker.

I guess I can be convincing, because Shawna, my friends, and the staff all thought I was fine. But after two or three weeks, I was right back at it.

My brother works at a recovery center down in Austin, so Shawna called him for advice. She started going to Al-Anon and learning about stuff for herself. I'd come home and there'd be an Al-Anon book on the table, and I'd kind of laugh and put my wine glass on it. I'd proven to myself that I wasn't an alcoholic because I quit for 45 days.

But after the holidays that year, it all hit me again—the depression and misery.

One Sunday morning, I woke up hungover. When I went into my living room, I saw my brother from Austin, my parents, most of my employees, and my sisters. OK, I guess this is intervention time. I sat down, and my brother told me that everything was set up for me, that I'd get on a plane with him and go to a treatment center in Austin.

I can look at it and smell it and it doesn't bother me. I don't crave it.

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"OK, well, I can't do it today, you know," I said. "I'm not trying to get out of this. I will go. I just need to make sure that the bar is—"

I didn't even finish my sentence before Shawna, my father, and my bar manager laid out an itemized plan showing how they would run the bar without me. They said, "We just need some passwords. We got it. Trust us. You need help. Go do what you need to do."

When I got to rehab, I started worrying about how I was going to make a living. I asked the counsellors, "Are you guys going to tell me I have to get rid of my bar?" But they said no, that it was my business and my livelihood. I didn't even know if I could run it, though, and I didn't know what I was going to be like when I left rehab.

Now that I'm out and sober, I find that I'm completely neutral when it comes to booze. I don't have to hide from it. I don't have to avoid certain places because people are drinking. I can look at it and smell it and it doesn't bother me. I don't crave it.

I can work behind the bar, too. The only thing I don't like about working behind the bar is that we like to taste our drinks for balance. I'm not able to do that, so I feel like a chef who can't taste his food. But other than that, life is good.


Rector's family paid $30,000 for him to go into rehab for three months. After extensive group and one-on-one therapy, as well as a journey through AA's 12 steps, Rector returned home. He's been sober since May 2015. He is now 35 years old, and he and Shawna are expecting a baby boy this spring. In September, they'll celebrate Vera Pizzeria's five-year anniversary.