Newsletter Steven Ferry

The Modern Butlers’ Journal, July 2019, The Butlers Speak

Steven FerryThe Butlers Speak

by Steven Ferry


This whole topic was suggested by a colleague, who had this to say:

“I suspect many Butlers work in situations involving drug and/or alcohol abuse by employers, but there are limited resources for us because our non-disclosure contracts demand we take a vow of silence. We do not receive much, or any, formal training regarding substance abuse. Yet much information and ample resources exist that might help us help and support a member of the household who is experiencing substance-abuse issues.”

We asked around amongst those in the profession (see below) and found that the wrong thing to do is nothing because, by nature, we in domestic service care about others: Being discreet, and making judicious decisions about whom to approach, when, and how to put it, using your communication skills to achieve the first step: Knowing there is a situation, acknowledging its existence, and deciding to do something about it. Then point them in the right direction to resolve the matter.

And that includes researching solutions to find which actually work in most cases—which have high levels of success in taking people off drugs (or alcohol abuse) because they get to the root cause of why the person started taking drugs or alcohol in the first place. There could be issues of self-esteem, hostile environments they are fleeing from, etc. If these are not resolved, the person will be subject to the same stresses after they complete any program and can potentially slide back in to abuse.

Two programs we recommend are Narconon and Point of Return, neither of which use drugs to wean people off drugs. Point of Return focuses on benzodiazapine, sleeping pill, and anti-depressant withdrawal.

Q: Has a member of the household staff ever had an issue with substance abuse? If so, what was the problem and how severe was it? How/how much did it cut across service or the team?

“Many years ago, I hired a bar tender whom I knew socially and who had fallen on hard times, needing money. My boss was having a dinner party and I needed extra help. Towards the end of cocktail hour, the guy was drunk—talk about ‘one for you and one for me.’ Fortunately, the boss never found out.”

Another butler had more examples to share: “The chef at one job had a cocaine addiction and left after his short-term contract was up. It really isn’t great for morale when the chef is in the staff bathroom snorting coke. Another chef had a drinking problem. As long as they are not drinking on the job but performing well, even if hung over, and not injuring themselves or others, this issue is not addressed—most of my clients with private chefs think this is part of the expected temperament. One property manager had a drinking problem and lost his job due to unethical use of finances. He smelled sour from all the drinking, wouldn’t shave for days on end and was unkempt—his basic personal hygiene wasn’t being met. The hard drinking happened when he knew the principal was traveling to her other properties. The team was affected by his unpredictable behavior and thought they would be fired if they said anything.”

Q) How did you/are you handling the staff substance-abuse problem?

“Sadly not that well when I look back: I was young and felt embarrassed that I had brought this person in. Needless to say, I never called on him again.”

The individual who had to endure a drunk property manager resolved it in this way: “I finally spoke up, when I thought I had enough information to go to the home owner. No one lost their jobs, except the property manager.” Now that she is in a position to lead the team, she does not have problems. “I don’t have to handle these problems. Most of the housekeeping team has had a thorough background check and drug testing before they start working for us. We have periodic drug tests, randomly chosen. I live in a state that has recreational marijuana, now, so we don’t test for that. Most of the housekeepers are females with children, so they are really responsible individuals who do not want to jeopardize their jobs.”

Q) Has a principle or a member of the principal’s family had an issue with substance abuse? If so, what was the problem and how severe was it? How/how much did it impact providing service?

“My bosses’ eldest son had a drinking problem—a weekend drinker for the most part when the rest of the family were at their country home. It was my responsibility to manage the bar stock. I noticed the vodka was missing and there was only one person it could be.”

“My tenure began shortly after many terrible drug-related events had occurred with the family, including the only son burning the family home to the ground as a result of a drug-induced event. A few years later he died in an overdose. These events created a very dark shadow which lay over the family until the death of the patriarch.”

“There have been a couple family members with drug problems. One was a 30-year old son of a client who struggled with cocaine for the five years I was there. He was in and out of private rehabilitation centers but was never quite able to kick the habit. He also threw lots of parties when his dad was out of town. Once he left marijuana in the kitchen cupboard and the principal targeted me. I told him that I live five miles away and would not bring anything to work and jeopardize my employment.”

“One principal’s wife, who was four decades his junior, used sleeping pills, Ambien, pain killers, anti-anxiety medicine, and mixed them all with wine. If we disposed of all the wine, she would drink NyQuil cold medicine. She could consume three extra-large bottles in a week. She too was in and out of rehab. She’d collapse while talking to me. Obviously, I would try and catch her but, sometimes she was in another room and I would find her on the floor. She often had extra medication hidden away, I could tell when she was high. It was so sad, she would urinate in the bed, so it needed changing constantly. They even tried a therapy dog, but that too just created more work, since she didn’t do anything with the dog. The final straw for me was when the husband told me daily for two weeks that his wife had a gun and had been threatening to shoot him. He begged me to find the gun, so I searched and searched for days. I found bags and bags of pills in closets, in between clothes, in the toes of shoes, purses—everywhere! I did eventually find the pistol and ammunition in one of the three guest rooms in the cabinets above the bed.”

“I am rather ashamed to admit that I faithfully served an employer for several years who was both a drug addict and an alcoholic. Of course, I did not have that information when I accepted the offer to serve as his Butler, but within my first few months of employment there was a rather vicious newspaper article about him, followed by a lawsuit involving his former wife. Both the article and the lawsuit were related to his drug and alcohol dependencies. I was grateful he was able to admit to me (in private) that he struggled with drugs and alcohol, but he also assured me that the situation was “under control. His situation, however, was not under control at all. During my tenure, I saw him destroy people when at his worst and I saw him demonstrate incredible kindness when at his best.”

Q) How was it/is it being resolved?

For the butler with the son who was filching his father’s alcohol, “Not so well. As delicately as possible, I told my boss that I thought his son was drinking the vodka, which was met initially with denial, but then I was told to lock up the alcohol. The son then picked the lock! When the employer checked back with me on it, I had to say that his son was still drinking the vodka. The son accused me of being a brown nose for reporting him to his father. My reply was ‘I work for your father, he pays my wages, you don’t. If he asks me if you are drinking and I know you are, it’s my obligation to tell him the truth.’ Later, I told the employer that I felt it unfair for him to ask me to spy on his son and then tell him were the information came from.”

The butler whose employers’ only son burned down the house did not seem to have a solution: “All the time, I walked on the proverbial egg shells, a very uncomfortable position indeed, always having to be very aware of what I said.”

For the butler servicing the addicted wife with a gun, “I called the principal’s son who came and picked it up. I removed the extra drugs from the house. She then went to a facility for three months in Palm Springs. When she came back, I made up some flim-flam excuse and resigned (after two years of service). It was super crazy! But the 30-year old cocaine addict was an ongoing situation.”

For the butler of the drug and alcohol addicted employer, the approach was a bit different:

“I discreetly served drinks to him and his friends as they did lines of cocaine behind closed doors. I packed his bags when his wife forced him to go to rehabilitation centers, but I kept his wine cellar stocked as he requested. I opened the door to his dealer (who was known as his “fishing buddy”) and kept the staff from gossiping about his drug and alcohol abuse. I discreetly disposed of the empty pill bottles next to his bed when I delivered his breakfast tray. I made sure he never climbed behind the wheel of a car by keeping all the car keys in a safe at night. And I made sure that he was never left alone with his children when he was using.

“It was incredibly stressful, but he treated me consistently with respect and he never asked me to lie for him. I somehow managed to remain calm. I did not ask questions. I did not judge. I did not interfere. I protected him as best I could and I tried to protect others from him. I ran his home like a Swiss clock, maintaining order in the midst of his unpredictable mood swings and erratic behavior. I navigated him through elegant dinner parties so he would not embarrass himself or his wife. I kept the house quiet when he was “sleeping it off” and I did not hesitate to send staff home (with pay) when I felt he was becoming dangerous. I listened to staff members when they expressed concerns about the situation, and I encouraged them to follow my example of staying focused on performing their duties to the best of their abilities despite his mood or behavior.

“My employer, his wife, his professional acquaintances and most of the household staff acknowledged my hard work and thanked me repeatedly for maintaining a professional demeanor even in the most challenging moments. But I was deeply ashamed that I was enabling someone to use and abuse drugs and alcohol. I often felt like an accomplice who had compromised his personal integrity for professional pride. And it was agony to watch someone ruin his life and to cause his wife and children so much pain.

“Not surprisingly, it ended tragically. He was eventually arrested for drug possession and sent to jail. Out on bail, he was arrested for assault while under the influence of narcotics. The staff was dismissed, one by one. His wife divorced him. He lost everything (including contact with his children) and was shunned by the jet set he had thought of as his friends. All my hard work and painstaking efforts were in vain. I once described the experience as polishing handrails on the Titanic as it moved closer to the iceberg. The experience taught me many valuable lessons, but it also haunted me for a long time.

“Looking back, I wish that I could have done more to help him. And because it did end tragically, I sometimes believe that I failed him as his butler. So again, thank you for bringing this topic to The Modern Butlers’ Journal.”

Q) What resources do you know about, if any, which are actually effective in moving people off drugs/alcohol and giving them back their life?

“We never reached the intervention stage: The son died in the family pool after falling off a ladder, banging his head and then experiencing delayed concussion.”

“I encourage ongoing support: My brother died of a multi-drug overdose. It was very expensive trying to help him in his 15-year fight, with many long-term rehabilitation centers. In the end, he could not follow a program of abstinence, even with the help of Methadone or Suboxone. My advice for anyone on opioids is to get a script for Narcan, which is a drug-reversal antidote, and someone has to decide who administers it. It is so complicated and lots of scary situations can occur. Bring it to someone’s attention and then it is the principal’s decision. It really is a personal issue and it is hard to force someone to clean themselves up. There are multiple in- or out-patient facilities covered under various health care plans differing by state and country; Austin Riggs Treatment Center is a high-class facility.”

Q) With regard to temporary bouts of drunkenness or drugging exhibited by short-term visitors, anything you can offer about the circumstances, causes, outcomes, and actions taken that proved effective in returning equanimity to the environs?

“My bosses are strong advocates for having staff drive these types of guests home when unable to do so safely themselves. My responsibility is to my boss first and foremost. If our guest had an accident after leaving our home, we would be liable because we sent him on the road knowing he was impaired. It’s a sticky wicket, trying to cut off someone’s intake, so I consult with the boss and make it his call—and put a plan “B” in place if need be!”

“There have been so many experiences with drunk or drugged out visitors. I try to avoid confrontation or individuals trying to touch or kiss me. I excuse myself, make up excuses and train my staff to do the same. I have canned responses for why one cannot kiss and hug [the staff or other guests]. One lady visitor told me she was being felt up by the man next to her; so we rearranged the seating.

Unfortunately, you cannot monitor everyone’s behavior and you must be thick skinned. Staff witness lots of odd behavior that unfortunately cannot be unseen. Nudity, bad language, and indecent conversations seem to be par for the course. So I keep the three monkeys in mind: Hear no evil, see no evil, and speak no evil.”

Q) Have you had the support of the principal(s) in dealing with long-term or temporary drunkenness or drug-induced behavior? If so, what was offered? If not, how did you deal with it?

“Sadly, even in 2019, this is still a very difficult and touchy subject. As we all know, half the battle is admitting there is a problem. Without that, in my eyes, you really have nothing.”

“For issues with staff, most of the people I have worked with prefer not to be involved, so they ignore the behavior. The principal usually isn’t affected if there isn’t a lot of one-on-one interaction. Because part of my job is to protect my principal, once I have enough concrete evidence, I broach the subject. We usually check the state laws regarding time-off for rehab—obviously, with the promise of having a job when they complete.”

Q) Anything else you would like to offer that might be of use to your colleagues?

“My advice is to tread very carefully! If you have a manager, tell him or her. If you feel it’s a subject that wouldn’t go down very well with the boss [especially if the boss is the addict], seek guidance from another family member or close friend of the family whom you know is aware of the situation. Denial is/can be very strong on this subject. Try not to give advice unless asked for, and even then, be careful. Let them vent and use you as a sounding board, just nod and say as little as possible, being so close and in the middle is like being in a mine field. Of course, reassure the boss that what goes on here stays here. Most are terrified that this type of situation will find its way to the outside world, and the press will/would/could have a field day. Keeping this type of information to oneself is not the solution. Someone in authority needs to know, you never want it to come back and haunt you when asked ‘If you knew, why didn’t you tell us?” It’s a catch 22: Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. Bad news of any sort is never an easy task for us but in this area it’s one of the toughest. But it can be life threatening to the person involved and to others if you do not speak up. (is the sister company of Planet Domestics), which is a fantastic way to get help inside the home. Though I never personally used the service, I have had interaction with the one of the owners, Robert Hanselman, the agency owner of Planet Domestics. Research the different facilities. Hospitals usually have a temporary solution, since they are the first to get someone who overdosed., There are hundreds of options for treatment. Finding the one that works for the individual is the key to success.”

The Institute is dedicated to raising service standards by broadly disseminating the mindset and superior service expertise of that time-honored, quintessential service provider, the British Butler, updated with modern people skills, and adapted to the needs of modern employers and guests in staffed homes, luxury hotels, resorts, spas, retirement communities, jets, yachts & cruise ships around the world.