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LIVING WITH BEER AND MENTAL HEALTH part two: Where Everybody Knows Your Name...

Saved by the Pub

I’ve struggled for many years as a beer enthusiast and a sufferer of Depression to try and correlate the two. Whilst I’ve written about the two in different ways, I’ve never really considered how the worlds collide on a consistently balanced knife-edge. Either one could take control at any moment and kill me but both are defining characteristics of Mark Johnson.

I want to finally explore how it is to be a Beer Enthusiast and a Mental Health sufferer; to explore how the two can live together. I want to look at the ways they’ve destroyed people but also at the way they’ve saved lives, the way it saved mine. The media perception of the two removes the humanity from the stories that I want to return. There are unhappy stories but there are many happy ones to coincide.

The Passion of St. Raphael's 

In July 2011, the church my mother went to mass in every Sunday said its final mass and closed its doors. It was a sad day for us all, as it was connected to my primary school and was where I was baptised. There were plenty of other events for our family at the church before finally being the altar I became a Godfather at 12 months before it shut. 

Once she moved after leaving her home, my mother found a new local church to start frequenting and became part of a parish again. Far from just being a spiritual comfort for her, my mother found happiness in being part of a community again, at the time of her life that she was at her lowest. An early-60’s retired divorcee needs friends and soon she had many in this new group. It isn’t just about mass on a Sunday; it’s the coffee mornings, occasional lunches and theatre trips that other parishioners and her attend. It gave my mother a place to go and be social.

Now her new church is threatened with closure too by an increasingly shrinking and selfish diocese. The congregation will be advised to attend the next nearest church but, as my mother keeps pointing out, a lot of the congregation are older non-driving widowed ladies. They won’t be able to make a church further away and will subsequently lose a very important part of their lives.

Credit: Gwyn Jones. Buffet Bar regular, good friend and local hero

This parallels to me greatly with the talk of pub closures being very detrimental for the overall community and its member's mental health. Places of social gathering that encourage people to interact away from their home are vital community hubs. Whether it be a church or a pub, a place to escape and call your own is important - you only need ask any of their attendees. 

Following on from my first article that looked at the more detrimental aspects of beer and mental health in my personal life, there are happier tales to tell of how the two opposing forces can exist in my life harmoniously. The story begins with my depression and when that was at its worse that is detailed in greater words in this post from last year. 

"Have you tried - you know - not having the flu?"

For a long time I struggled in silence because, to people looking in, I had nothing to be down about. People read all the articles or brilliant cartoons about mental health illness but still find it hard to sympathise with. I have friends - I've always had more than I deserve. There are always partners - sometimes too many than there should have been. I have a great social life - finding empty space in my diary has always been tough. I'm rarely alone but I often feel lonely. The sense of loneliness and worthlessness that depression creates is the toughest factor to combat. Fighting those feelings and trying to find somewhere to belong is what nearly took me away.

Friends will always say “you can come round to mine whenever you’re feeling down” but the problem with depression is that belief that they don’t really mean it. I needed somewhere I knew I could go when I needed to be somewhere. When the walls of my house seemed too close for comfort or panic attacks set in, there had to be a release to save me.     

There is a famous pub on Stalybridge train station called Stalybridge Buffet Bar. You may have read or heard me mention it before. It's a delightful four-roomed pub on platform 4 (with the famous clock outside, pictured) revered by beer drinkers and train enthusiasts alike. For a long time I only went in on match days whilst waiting for the train to Huddersfield. Even then, it was a fleeting pint on a busy day before the train. 

For nearly 12 months of my depression I'd been sporadically having a pint after work in the Buffet Bar. It was never more than twice a week and never for more than one. It was usually just something to do whilst waiting for the train or a necessary end to a particularly stressful work day. I had other pubs I considered "My Local" where I was more familiar. 

Slowly though the routine changed and I found myself staying for an extra one or two. I was becoming a firm regular. I was familiar to the staff; friends with a couple. 

The week I thought I would be leaving, I sat in the beer garden on a bright summer's teatime and stared sadly at the sign above the conservatory of the pub. Saying goodbye to many people was hard but here I was genuinely sad to be saying farewell to a Goddamn pub. I can't pinpoint when it happened but this drinking establishment had become a part of me. 

I didn't say goodbye because I stayed. But I still struggled every single day and, as I fought to hold it together, found myself in Stalybridge Buffet Bar more regularly 

"And they're always glad you came..."

I fed off the atmosphere of the pub and in turn it ate away at that depression. I needed that NOOORRRMM style greeting as I entered (Disclaimer: they don't actually shout my name.) I needed that feeling of superiority when I was asked opinions on breweries the staff hadn't heard of. I needed that feeling of power when staff would be asked a question about a beer and they'd look at me pleadingly to answer it for them. I needed those jokes friends made about me always being in the buffet bar to wear like a badge of honour. I needed that association with strangers on Twitter who'd ask me questions about the pub out of the blue because they linked it with me I needed a place quite apart from the rest of my world that made me smile again.

So it became my place. So I found myself on the board (pictured top.) Of course there are staff that treat me a certain way because it's their job, but a lot of the staff are now my friends who I socialise with away from the pub. I became the pub cat, as one member of staff "lovingly" nicknamed me. I'd get fed, watered, asked opinions on everything, given first tasters without asking and generally mollycoddled. And I don't get my beer in a plastic glass. 

It means that I drink more than I used to as one activity becomes the other. As alcohol is a depressant there are inherent risks with this. Yet it never has this affect on me; it is out weighed by the calming effect the pub atmosphere gives me. Though I'm not always cheery and that is to be expected, sometimes I'm better in there than at home. I don’t need to be there all the time, but it’s knowing there’s an escape. Often just knowing it’s there is enough.

I am a firm part of the team - I go on staff do’s and everything. I am rostered into bar work for the beer festivals without consultation. I am asked about beers and breweries the purchasers haven't tried yet. Sometimes I'm allowed to go through stockists lists and give recommendations. Occasionally they'll even get the odd beer in just for me (if they know they can sell it.)   It might sound slightly ridiculous (certainly if any of the staff read this I'll never hear the end of it) but here was the antidote to that feeling of worthlessness, in surroundings I happened to already love.

Being part of the team targeted my depression. Being part of the events targeted my anxiety; none so more than occasionally hosting the pub quiz. Scribbling a few questions down and asking them aloud sounds simple enough but not when every part of your mind is telling you not to do it. “What if they don’t enjoy it? What if your questions are too easy? What if nobody turns up? Why the hell would you want to stand up in a pub full of people and TALK? What if you have a panic attack? Wouldn’t it be easy to sit at home and not speak to anybody?”

It's the same with the beer festivals I work or times I help out behind the bar. To staff and sane people these are all mediocre tasks but to a sufferer like me they are monumental tasks. Without the pub, I may have never had the tools to push those boundaries

The British Institution of Joy

My story is my own but there will be plenty of stories of pub's importances nationally. Pubs are unique social hubs in our community. Much more than the alcohol, food or place of gathering is the well-being they can give their patriots. 

Pubs are important. It is too easy to dismiss the constant closures as only happening to the rubbish ones. Were there regulars? How important was the pub to them? It is no different than the proposed closure of a church to its congregation. To those who don't use it the response will be "they can just go somewhere else." But to those that do use them they can be irreplaceable parts of their lives and fundamental to their health.

There's a stigma with regular pub goers. I used to buy into it. For me part of the association was with my Dad. Since he was an alcoholic I believed every other familiar bar fly was just like him. Yet that is a common misconception and one that needs to end, especially from a "Craft" crowd who tend to only drink bottles at home. 

It’s perhaps an obvious cure to loneliness that one can attribute to any club for a sense of belonging. I would implore anybody who can relate to that feeling of lonely worthlessness to try and find a place of your own to distract from it; whether it be a running club, place of worship, band, yoga class, Italian class, pub or whatever. There's a little salvation in it. 

My pub allows me to combat my mental health problems, whilst at the same time drinking great beer, talking about what I love and being around some excellent people. Of course, that conversation I share and enjoy is all part of my beer enthusiasm, which has also helped massively in my struggle with depression and that is what I will look at in part three of this series.  
Stalybridge Buffet Bar is my home port for further beer adventures. It is unlikely I'll use it as much as I do for the rest of my life. I would hope I won't need it like I do the rest of my life. Yet I hope it is there as long as I do require the escape, just as I hope my mother has her church forever to feel her sense of belonging. 


Anonymous said…
Lovely stuff Mark. I work up the road and often use getting the train as an excuse to nip in on the way home. Your attachment to it is understandable. There is something so comforting about Stalybridge Buffet Bar
Curmudgeon said…
Another excellent piece, especially the comments about the social value of pubs.

A couple of tangential points:

1. Churches are in a similar position to pub operators - declining attendances and limited funds. The actions of the diocese may well appear selfish (and I am in no position to comment) but they do have to perform a difficult balancing act. And, at the end of the day, a church is about people, it's not a historic building preservation society.

2. If you don't want to answer this one, I understand. But are you taking regular medication for the depression and, if so, is there any potential clash with drinking alcohol? Without wishing to get all confessional, I do have some past experience of this.
Mark Johnson said…
Thanks for the comments! Hope I see you in there one day
Mark Johnson said…
I did used to take medication for around 6 months but that was about 18 months ago. I stopped taking it at about the same time I became a pub regular ironically, though I don't think the two are linked. I was warned about potential alcohol clashes but never really experienced any myself.

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