There’s this thing that people tell you when you start your own business. They tell you to say goodbye to your social life. That you’ll always be working, and you can’t switch off or you’ll watch everything you’ve worked so hard for go up in smoke.
But that wasn’t going to be me.
I’d worked for plenty of people who worked hard and played hard. A good chunk of my social circle were, in fact, people who owned hospo businesses. And they found the time, most nights of the week in fact, to join me at the local brewery, followed by a well-established tour of a fair few of the local bars, only to wake up the next morning to a surviving (and very much flourishing) business. Then we’d rinse and repeat until it all blurred into one debaucherous moment, but more on that later.
And so it was that on the eve of my grand opening, following a week of fitting out, deep-cleaning, last-minute purchases, and avoiding death by electrocution, me and my friends decided to celebrate by drinking until about 3 hours before we opened the doors.
I could do this, I thought to myself as the adrenaline carried me through my first day.
The reality was, I could not.
You see, when you own a business, you’re never really off the clock. This goes double for a business as small as mine.
There’s the day-to-day work in the cafe; making coffee, serving customers, making food etc. Then there’s the stocktake at the end of the shift, where I inevitably need something that can’t be delivered the next day, or wouldn’t make it in time. So then I have to go to the shops, and maybe even prep it at home, so there goes my afternoon.
There’s the unexpected repairs, which all seem to come during the most baron spell of trade known to small business, meaning I can’t afford to properly fix anything, I can only afford to patch things up for a while, or at least until trade picks up again, and then I promise myself that I’ll buy a new one (whatever it may be), but never do.
As for that day off I gave myself by closing every Monday? It quickly becomes the default admin day. Nothing saps the joy out of owning a business like spending most of your day off performing a task that literally shows all of your hard-earned takings being taken away from you one invoice at a time.
Believe me when I tell you, I wasn’t merely driven to drink, I was practically chauffeured.
I thought I’d have turned a corner when I became an employer. That somehow I would wake up one day, instantly more mature, and I’d declare myself done with my previous partying days, and ready to be a serious man of business.
But I liked it too much.
After all of the hard work detailed above, I’d finish each day with a lovely 6-hour session in most of the bars along King Street, or Enmore Road (and quite often, both). It didn’t matter what day of the week it was, every day was Friday night to me.
I felt like I had some sort of reputation to uphold, like I was some notorious boozehound, both loveable and cautionary at the same time. I had this unhealthy feeling that if I missed one night with my friends at the bar, then we’d drift apart and become nothing more than footnotes in each other’s stories. On more than one occasion, I rocked up to work straight from the previous night, working an entire shift as I felt the hangover take hold. I saw them as tales of battle, and had a grotesque pride in them. If insecurity ever took physical form, it’d look like a balding, overweight cafe owner, taking off his Hawaiian shirt to a confused Wednesday night crowd at Earl’s.
And it was these insecurities that meant that my burnout was quick and spectacular.
Networking advantages aside, I wish I could go back and grip my stupid self by his freshly-bared shoulders, and tell him that those same people behind the bar that he was annoying every night of the week would still talk to him if he cut it back to just the weekends. And I’d tell him that his friends would still be his friends, even if he stayed home once in a while, and spent some time with his patient wife.
And she was very patient.
It can’t be easy to see the guy you married descend into alcoholism, and have your 100% valid concerns fall on deaf ears. Indeed, if I ever did get my hands on my former self, I’d administer a famous beating for what he’d put her through.
You see, I’d given up on everything apart from working, and drinking. I figured I didn’t have the time for much else. I quit playing sports, and exercise in general. A terrible choice when your diet consists of craft beer, cheese toasties, and Mary’s burgers. Turns out there’s also some mental health issues that arise when your therapist is an ice cold schooner. Who knew?
All I knew was that the candle was well and truly burned to the nub at both ends, and something had to change.
The first thing I did was quit drinking. It was an obvious starting point which shocked not only my system, but I think the entire Inner West. And I started exercising again. The time that opened up once I didn’t head straight to the bar meant that I could now join a gym, and even sign up for my old football team.
To my surprise, my friends still wanted to be my friends. I was still invited to all of the parties, and I could still go out with them at night, if I wanted to, and my sobriety was never an issue. The kickback I was waiting for never happened, only acceptance. And sure, the temptation to have a tipple or two never goes away, but I felt I was in control for the first time in a long time.
There was however, one step remaining if I was going to truly regain control of my life: I had to take myself out of harm’s way.
You see, it’s hard to mature, and settle down if everything around you reminds you of your halcyon days. A walk down King Street after work for most people is an opportunity to get some shopping in, maybe grab a bite to eat, before heading home in time to get to bed at a normal hour. But for me it was the echoes of a previous life, and they were constantly calling me to join them.
And so we decided it was time to move. We signed the lease on a place in the suburbs, and headed South. No longer would I have to live with the distraction of Sydney’s most vibrant neighbourhood on my doorstep.
And with the move came a shift in perspective. I could see with even more clarity what an idiot I’d been. My new 45-minute commute was punishment for my sins (in my eyes anyway), and it gave me enough time to reflect on what I’d almost lost, namely a family, and a (somehow still operating) business.
And whilst it wasn’t quite what my early naysayers had in mind, they turned out to be right. I’d finally said goodbye to my social life, and I couldn’t be happier.