How My Journey Through Addiction Ended At Ben & Jerry's

Photo: Saul Loeb/Getty Images.
I sat on the brightly painted windowsill of a basement level Ben & Jerry’s, staring at the peeling paint. It was the first day of training for my new job as a “scooper.” I was 27, with a master’s degree, applying for a minimum wage job at an ice cream shop in downtown Boston.

I glanced at the girl sitting next to me. We were filling out our new hire forms, and her birthdate was printed neatly in the top right corner. The year jumped out at me — 1995. She was 17, a senior in high school — and we had just gotten the same job.

All the air left my body, and I thought I was going to vomit.

Humility has never been my strong suit. I didn’t necessarily think I was better than anyone else per se — but I certainly thought I was different. A special snowflake, if you will. I was pretty sure that I was the exception to everything, and that I’d rise above any and all consequences simply because I was me.

I sailed through high school, doing the bare minimum to get by. And because I was smart, I could. I didn’t have to study much — or at all — in order to get an A on a test. College was a little harder, but with a quickly growing Adderall habit, I managed to make it happen. Grad school soon followed, not because I had lofty goals for myself, but because going to school felt like a good way to hide from the real world. I knew I wasn’t ready to show up to work every day, but telling people I was getting a master’s degree — in mental health counseling, at that — made it seem like I was doing something with my life.

But what I was really doing — and only partially hiding from anyone close to me — was dealing with a crippling alcohol and stimulant addiction. Because of my inherent belief that I was exceptional, I thought I could handle things. So when I found myself sitting in rehab as a client — and not a counselor, which had been my job until just three months earlier — it was one of the most humbling experiences of my life.

When I left treatment four months later, I moved into a sober house and realized that I’d have to get a minimum wage job. The truth was that, despite my education, I was barely employable. I didn’t have a single reference who wasn’t a friend pretending to be a former boss. And because my new, sober way of living required being honest, I couldn’t ask someone to lie for me in order to get a job. I had to get this job on my own, based on what I was qualified to do.

My work history was, at best, spotty. I had once worked at an adult toy store, where I considered my employee discount inadequate, so I started stealing merchandise. When I got caught, I got fired. At my most recent job as a substance abuse counselor at a treatment center, I was fired for excessive absences; my drinking and drug use meant that I was calling in sick at least once a week. That’s the kind of employee I was — not qualified to do much of anything.

So when Ben & Jerry’s offered me job on the spot, I said the only thing I could say — yes. And I felt something unexpected: A sense of gratitude welling up inside of me. I would have to pay my rent at the sober house, and without a job, I wouldn’t be able to. I needed this job, and I realized I was lucky to have it.

Training began the following week, with a manager who was so chipper he could have been a parody of himself. I’d come to learn over time that he was genuinely like that, and really, really loved his job. I learned to ask “cup or cone,” and that sprinkles were free. I learned to keep the scoop wet so the ice cream wouldn’t stick to it. I learned to make the perfect milkshake.

But it was the less obvious skills that really gave me the opportunity to grow. I learned that, in order to be employable, you have to show up when you’re scheduled to work — on time. I’d never really figured that out: If I wasn’t calling out completely, I was always at least 10 minutes late. Now, I learned to be five minutes early.

I learned that, when you’re given a job to do that you think sucks, it’s not okay to just pretend you did it. Whether it’s taking inventory of the jam-packed freezer, mopping even the darkest corners of the storage room, or cleaning behind the boxes that no one ever moves, every job has to get done, and sometimes the person that does it is you. I didn’t get to decide which parts of the job I was above, or which parts I just didn’t feel like doing. If my boss asked me to do it, I did it. Even when my boss was a 19-year-old college sophomore.

I learned that if you show up every day, do the job you’re asked to do, and you don’t complain about it, even bad days aren’t terrible. I could get through anything, because my shift always ended eventually. And no matter how many times customers asked me to tell them what was in the Milk & Cookies ice cream — vanilla ice cream with a chocolate cookie swirl, chocolate chip and chocolate chocolate chip cookies — or asked me to scoop a quart of the always-rock-hard New York Super Fudge Chunk, I would be able to handle it. I was strong. I didn't need to hide from the real world.

Maybe these things seem obvious to most people. But for me, they went against everything I had ever known. Show up on time, do your job, don’t steal from the cash register. Simple, but not for me. And an amazing thing happened when I followed the rules that I’d always regarded as having been written for somebody else: I found that I excelled and that people liked me. Eventually, I was promoted to shift leader, which meant I was responsible for opening and closing the shop, and counting the money at the end of the night. People trusted me.

Six months after taking the job at Ben & Jerry’s, I applied for a job on a domestic violence hotline a couple days per week, which was my first step back into the field I was trained to work in. Thanks to an amends I’d made to a former supervisor as part of my 12 Step work — which meant she no longer hated me — and the work I was doing at my scooping job, I was able to include real references on my application. Plus, my boss at Ben & Jerry’s gave me a glowing reference. He’d called me “reliable and hardworking,” which are two things I’m positive I’d never been called before in my life.

I got that hotline job, and have continued to work for the domestic violence agency in various capacities for the last four years. I have the life I have today because I lost everything and was forced to start all over again. I’m hugely privileged to have been able to move on quickly from my “get well" job — the job a newly sober person takes that will provide a low level of stress and allow them to pursue recovery at a stable place. I did get well working at Ben & Jerry’s, in more ways than I could have imagined. I will forever be grateful to the people I met there. They taught me about hard work, honesty, about being a good person, and the importance of being humble. Plus, I learned to make a pretty mean milkshake.
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