Indigo Road Hospitality Group founder and managing partner Steve Palmer released his debut memoir Say Grace: How the Restaurant Business Saved My Life on Tues. Nov. 19. Palmer is also the co-founder of Ben’s Friends, a non-profit support group created to help end the stigma of substance abuse in the hospitality industry and offer a new pathway of “hope, fellowship, and sobriety.” Say Grace is available now.
THE LAST STRAW
September 30, 2001
The sun was just threatening the horizon as I staggered up to our apartment in the little blue house at 33 Society Street in downtown Charleston. The hint of orange low in the sky told me it was about five or six o’clock in the morning, which meant that I had broken my promise not to stay out all night. After closing down the Peninsula Grill, where I was the general manager, I had called my wife to let her know that some of us were going out to the bar.
“Don’t stay out all night.”
“I won’t,” I promised.
I worked the doorknob carefully with my keys, cradling them to avoid the jingle, and crept through the apartment. My wife looked asleep in bed. I climbed into the other side of the bed and pulled the covers over me, careful not to wake her. I didn’t want her seeing my state. I was strung out on cocaine but also drunk enough to pass out as soon as my head hit the pillow.
It was almost afternoon when I woke. My wife was already up. I had been out so hard from the alcohol that I hadn’t heard her pack up her things and load them into the car. This I would find out only later.
She was waiting for me in the living room. I could tell we were about to have a serious talk. It turned out to be a short one.
“I’m leaving,” she said. “As long as I stay here, you’re going to stay sick.”
There wasn’t much else to say. We both knew the truth. It wasn’t just about having stayed out all night. It wasn’t just about the liquor and the drugs. It was that I had made and broken the same promises every single night, every single day, for years. The promises to come home. The promises not to drink till drunk. The promises not to call the coke dealer. Broken promise upon broken promise — all of them compounding. Every single time, the promise was broken.
Every time, she had looked the other way. Every time, she’d cleaned up my messes for me. She had come to see herself as an enabler. She realized she was doing me no favors. She was only making matters worse, and she could see that now. So she had to leave, for her own sake, and also for mine.
And so she left. I was 32 years old. We had been married for about a year and a half and had been dating much longer. We met working in the service industry. She was waiting tables. I was working the bar. We actually used to go out drinking together more. I had always envied the way she could go out drinking after work and close out her tab after a pint or two. She could drink like a normal person. When it became clearer and clearer that I could not do the same, spending time together in that way became harder, which was part of why I stayed out so late. Being around each other was harder and harder.
So the separation came as no surprise. In fact, as sad as it sounds, it came as a relief. I felt sad that she was going. I also felt guilty, knowing that this was all my fault. But the overriding emotion was just a sense of relief that no one was going to be around to hold me responsible. I could now stay out drinking without offering excuses. Hell, I could stay in and drink without having to make excuses. There would be no more worrying about the optics of the bottles piling up in the bin. I wouldn’t need to sneak shots while she was in the bathroom. Without my wife there to watch my fall, I wouldn’t have to face criticism.
The person with whom I had walked down the aisle and exchanged eternal vows was leaving forever, and I was actually relieved. That was how addiction had twisted my mind. I was celebrating my own divorce — not because I wanted a divorce but because divorce would make it easier to feed my addiction.
LEFT TO MY OWN DEVICES…
With my wife gone, there was no one at home to hold me accountable, and my drinking did escalate even further. I was already reaching for the bottle as her car pulled away. I took a few slugs to get my head straight and got ready for work. I kept drinking at work and got totally hammered afterward. The next day the same: rinse and repeat forever.
This wasn’t categorically different from before. I had been drinking all day, every day, for years. I could put away a half gallon to a gallon of vodka a day. At the restaurant, I would sneak shots of Grand Marnier (“bartenders’ heroin,” as we called it in the industry) from inventory. I could drink a whole bottle by myself over the course of a night and then go out for cocktails and still buy a bottle of liquor for the road. The only big change was that there was now reason to go even harder.
I was self-isolating more than before my wife left. With the apartment to myself, I spent less time at the bar. After closing down the restaurant, I would usually give the coke dealer a call and pick up an eight ball or so and a handle of vodka. I spent most nights drinking alone. This wasn’t normal for me. I have always been a social person, but drinking at home was cheaper and easier.
Without my wife at the apartment, I started leaving a bottle of vodka out on the nightstand so I could take a slug first thing in the morning. I carried the bottle with me to the shower and sipped at it to get straight. My hands would shake in the mornings. Without a couple of eye-openers, my whole body would start to shake. I needed drinks first thing just to do simple things like brushing my teeth. I didn’t have the coordination without the alcohol. There were times I would shave two handed, one hand holding the razor and the second hand steadying the first, just to keep from cutting myself.
Drinking like this was not fun. No one wakes up in the morning and slugs some vodka to get the party started. You wake up and start drinking just to get through the day. Without drinking in the morning and throughout the day, I couldn’t make it through work.
I had to sneak shots of Grand Marnier from the liquor cabinet and walk down the block for a few beers during break just to get through the workday.
People were starting to take notice. The chef at the restaurant pulled me aside to say he was concerned. This was one of my drinking buddies. We used to stay out all night together, knocking back shots. If he was concerned, I really had a problem.
“Your wife left you, and you’re hurting. I get it,” he said. He encouraged me to refocus and pour my energy into the restaurant, as it could be my salvation. “This is your home now. You don’t have to worry about your marriage anymore. It’s over. Reset your priorities. Don’t let this destroy you. It’s an opportunity.”
The owner of the restaurant, Hank Holiday, also confronted me but with more of a tough love approach. He issued a warning. My behavior was reflecting poorly on the restaurant. The Peninsula Grill was an upscale establishment with a reputation to protect. Charleston wasn’t that large of a town, and the restaurant scene wasn’t very big. People knew each other, and it didn’t look good when the GM of the restaurant was out all night at the bars, getting trashed and strung out.
“You’re the ambassador of this restaurant,” he said. “People can see what’s going on. You need to get your act together.”
He was right. I had always taken a misguided pride in being able to “handle” my liquor. I was six foot five and weighed in at 250 pounds, most of it muscle and bone. I could toss back obscene amounts of alcohol without passing out, but that tough-guy veneer was starting to crack. Earlier that month, I passed out in a bar for the first time. It was the local food-and-bev hangout spot, which meant that the story made its way around the industry. I couldn’t walk. Several friends had to load me into a cab and send me home.
I don’t remember getting into bed, though I do remember waking up with a pounding headache and calling the coke dealer first thing. I didn’t want to buy drugs. I didn’t want to keep drinking. What I wanted was to get sober. But the inconvenient truth was that I just couldn’t. Sobriety wasn’t in my power. I was lost and alone — so lost and alone that I couldn’t get my life together, much less get sober. I wasn’t capable of sober living.
For a long time, I pretended that sobriety wasn’t necessary. I had convinced myself that it was possible to run a restaurant doing $5 million annually while taking shots and snorting lines in my office every day. But people were noticing. Even one of the wine reps commented on my condition. As the GM, I was also the wine buyer for the restaurant. I would see her only a few times a month, sometimes a few times a year, and even she could see the changes in me.
She came to my house one night to tell me she was worried.The knock at the door startled me. I was even more startled to see this person I barely knew standing in the doorway. She asked to come in. I said yes. We talked for a little while about my drinking and my separation. She didn’t shame me. She wasn’t there to yell. She was just really worried for me and wanted to be there to listen. It was a kind gesture that didn’t feel earned. I was being a total screwup. I didn’t deserve empathy. But here was this person I hardly knew, offering her ear and telling me she was worried about me.
When she left, I sat down alone at the kitchen table and started to cry. I knew that if even a casual work acquaintance could tell that things weren’t right, they must have been getting really bad. I didn’t know how much longer I could hold things together. My life felt wholly out of my control. I was living week to week despite a decent salary. Making rent and bills was harder on my own, especially since so much of my money went into buying cocaine and alcohol. More money wasn’t going to solve the problem either — it would only have made things worse. Every extra dime was spent feeding my addictions. I was helpless. My despair and loneliness were so all-consuming that making changes seemed impossible. Being better wasn’t in my wheelhouse.
The only thing that kept me going was the alcohol and drugs, the very same things that were creating all of my problems. I was drinking from the moment I rolled out of bed until I passed out at the end of the night. More money meant more alcohol and drugs. And more alcohol and drugs meant a deeper addiction. This is all obvious to someone who isn’t an addict, but when you are locked deep into an addiction, you can’t see a mile down the road. You can barely see what’s right in front of your face.
THREE DAYS OF SOBRIETY
Things went on this way for about a month before it all became too unmanageable. I woke up one day and decided enough was enough — I wasn’t going to drink that day.
My morning shakes got worse as the day progressed. They started in my hands and moved throughout my whole body. I could hear my teeth chattering. By the next day, things were so bad that I had to lie down in the middle of my living room floor to keep from falling over. My head felt electrified. I was sweating like crazy. I was starting to hallucinate. Shimmering green turtles emerged from the drywall and flew around the room in circles before disappearing into nothing. They looked like holograms, but they were convincingly real.
Though my brain felt broken, I was still surprisingly lucid throughout this whole ordeal. I remember thinking that as terrible as this felt, it probably wasn’t going to be enough to keep me sober. This wasn’t my first time trying to quit drinking. I had been through rehab several times. Sometimes I would try to go a day without drinking. I always ended up going back to the bottle. I didn’t see any reason to believe that this time would be any different. This wasn’t just despair, though I was despairing. There was no way to quit drinking unless someone plucked me up and put me somewhere where it was physically impossible to get alcohol.
Despite being raised Methodist and believing in some abstract notion of God, I was not particularly religious. But in that moment, I started bargaining with God, since bargaining with myself hadn’t worked. I was speaking to Him as if he were there in the room, listening to me as I shook on the floor. “God, unless you put me someplace where I can’t get alcohol, I’m going to die,” I said aloud. “You have to put me somewhere else.”
I knew in that moment that the war I had been fighting was lost. Alcohol had won, and there was nothing I could do — not on my own. In the recovery community, people talk about powerlessness over addiction. This was something a little different. I wasn’t quite there yet. The recovery community believes that you have to surrender yourself to a higher power in order to stop drinking. I didn’t believe that anything could stop me from drinking. Nothing short of abandonment on a desert island was going to keep me from drinking.
Until that moment, I had held on to a vague notion of someday getting clean and sober. This was a comforting notion that I used to rationalize taking shots at work or doing blow in the bathroom. But that pretense had lifted. I believed that I was hopeless. I would never overcome my addiction. There was nothing to be done in the long run. Maybe I wouldn’t drink today; maybe I wouldn’t drink tomorrow or the next day. But someday, eventually, I would have a drink, and then another, and another. It felt like there was no getting around this inconvenient truth. I was 32 years old and had spent most of my life intoxicated. Short of being locked up forever, I was going to die.
November 1, 2001
Despite these realities, I managed not to drink a single drop for three days straight. This was the longest I had gone without alcohol in at least a decade. I also went without cocaine, pot, or anything else.
Eventually, the worst of the withdrawal symptoms started to subside. The hallucinations and shaking were as bad as it got. I later realized how lucky this was. I was ignorant to how dangerous alcohol withdrawal can be. Thankfully, I never had a seizure or went into delirium tremens despite quitting cold turkey after more than a decade of continuous heavy drinking. No one should do what I did. I could have died alone in my apartment.
Somehow I managed to go in to work throughout all of this. I had no option. The owner had already put me on notice. So I did what I had to do and went in to work. My hands were shaking. My clothes stayed soaked with sweat no matter how often I swapped out shirts. I probably looked half crazed. The second and third day, I was still seeing and hearing things that weren’t there.
These symptoms didn’t go unnoticed. The owner of the restaurant, Hank Holiday, called me into his office. The chef was there too. The looks on their faces told me that they meant business.
“You have a choice to make, and you’re going to make it right now,” Hank said. “There’s a bed waiting for you in rehab. Either you go home now and pack your bag, or you can start cleaning out your office.”
I tried bargaining. It had been three days since I had a drink. Three days! They weren’t swayed by this fact. Like me, they had doubts that I could stay sober, especially at work, where alcohol was always around. They were right — there was nothing I wanted more in that moment than a drink.
“Can I have a moment to think about it?” I asked, wanting to go down the street for a double pour of vodka.
The chef shook his head no. He knew exactly what I had in mind. He’d been there at the bar the night I passed out. “We care about you,” he said, knowingly.
“But we aren’t going to watch you kill yourself,” Hank said. “So which is it going to be?”
I wanted to run and hide. My lizard brain was screaming at me to tell them to get fucked and then storm out of the room. But my heart wasn’t in it. I was tired. I was sick. As they say in the recovery community, I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. Still believing in my own inevitable doom, I didn’t really think rehab would work. I had already been twice before. But nothing else was working either. Moderation had failed. Making promises to myself had failed. Trying to stick to drinking only on weekends or just smoking pot had failed. I had tried everything, and nothing had worked. Maybe this wouldn’t work either, but what was there to lose? Staying sober seemed impossible, but I just didn’t have it in me to fight. I didn’t even have it in me to run. I was completely broken. I just gave up.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll go. I’ll pack my bags.”
Much later, I would look back on that day and see it as an answered prayer. I had asked to be put somewhere where I couldn’t get alcohol. Less than 72 hours later, I had people offering to check me into just such a place, unwilling to take no for an answer.
I literally could have said no. I could have taken door number two and packed up my office. It wasn’t that I thought rehab would work. I had been there—and here—many times before. I was running out of second chances. I did not have any left. Door number two was going to lead to death.