Josh Gandee wants to hear more than disaster stories

Andy Downing
Josh Gandee

In the process of becoming sober three years ago, bartender Josh Gandee started researching stories that other people shared about their journeys, struck by the fact that nearly all cases that he encountered involved hitting rock bottom in some form.

“Whereas I felt like I came to sobriety on a far more gentle path,” Gandee said recently by phone. “So because I didn’t have that on-the-news-cycle story of sobriety, I felt like I didn’t have a story, and it wasn’t something I felt the need to tell people.”

For Gandee, sobriety started with a decision to stop drinking for a month, beginning as an internal mantra (“Just don’t drink”) and transforming gradually with time into an external expression (“I don’t drink”).

“I was 29 at the time, so it was partially a gift to me before turning 30, almost like a reset where it was like, ‘We’re going to look better. We’re going to feel better. We’re going to be better,’” Gandee said. “And the more days I spent as a sober individual, the more things became illuminated. … For me, it’s become a journey, a pathway, where the more conversations I have about it the more I learn about myself.”

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While Gandee initially thought this journey unremarkable, through conversations with Alex Jump and Lauren Paylor of Focus on Health, he started to accept that his story could be one worth sharing. This realization serves as the basis for a new podcast, No Proof, created in collaboration with Focus on Health, which provides wellness tools for hospitality workers nationwide. The podcast, now two episodes in, features Gandee discussing issues of sobriety with a fellow industry professional. New installments are posted online every other Wednesday with the third installment due out today (Wednesday, Dec. 2).

“I was thinking about the me three years ago looking at these stories on the internet and how I really wished there had been a story saying, ‘It’s OK to arrive to sobriety however you arrive to it. It doesn’t have to be that wrecked car,’” Gandee said. “All of that to say that I didn’t know I had a story until I started to tell it. … [The podcast] is creating this space for conversation where it doesn’t need to revolve around wild antics. You’re able to say, ‘This is what I’m going through, and it might be similar to what you’re going through. Would you like to listen?’”

Gandee said he views the podcast as a continuation of a needed conversation around sobriety that has started to take place more openly in the service industry in recent years, surfacing in relatively newborn organizations such asBen’s Friends, a support group for bar and restaurant workers struggling with issues of substance abuse.

“Working in the restaurant industry, because of the hours, the only places you can really go [after work] are to someone’s house for an afterparty or to a bar, so by association you are around [alcohol]. It’s the way you meet new people. It’s the way you interact with friends. It’s the way you kill time,” Gandee said. “And it’s easy to get on autopilot unless you pull yourself away from it. When you make the decision [to get sober], you make it more difficult on yourself. You think, ‘Am I about to throw away my entire friends list? Am I throwing away my entire social life because I don’t want to drink?’ … And I think that intrinsically makes it more difficult to take that first step, because you kind of view your life crashing down around you, questioning just what exactly you’re giving up by just saying the word ‘no.’”

Gandee said parts of this transition were painful, particularly the realization that some friends were just drinking buddies and nothing more, but over time he learned that he didn’t need alcohol as a social crutch. “It’s almost like you’re relearning how to do everything,” he said. “You think about the things that you put onto alcohol, which may or may not even be true, like: ‘OK, I do this so I can be more social'; ‘I do this so I can be funnier’; ‘I do this so I can dance at the wedding’; ‘I just do this to break down these walls.’

“And when you stop drinking, and you’re left in that room with only those walls that you built up for alcohol, you start to worry about, like, how do I tear these down? How do I start telling jokes when I thought I couldn’t tell a joke without a drink? If I am at a wedding, how do I get out on the dance floor and have a good time without that liquid courage? And it can take those moments passing when you’re not holding a drink to realize that you were the obstacle. I was the thing I had to overcome.”

Expect coming episodes of No Proof to be filled with similarly everyday realizations, with Gandee adopting a less sensationalist approach to the subject.

“I think the idea, in the beginning, is to create a space where I can talk with likeminded people and hear their stories,” he said. “I don’t want a lot of shock value, or to have people on to relive who they were before they made a decision to live this different lifestyle. It’s not a time to share ugly thoughts and memories. It’s more about, what did those moments before day one feel like? And what was that pathway and breakthrough that led you to this new identity? … That’s what I want from people. I want them to feel like they can talk safely about those moments that helped them become a sober person.”