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From mid-2014 to late-2015 the idea of life as a long-term project had been lost to me. I was fighting against the internal cries to end everything and those months became about existing from one day to another. Whilst various prescribed drugs and therapies were trialled, it was the more cliché self-medicating that I fell back on to survive through the intrusive thoughts. I was drunk nearly every single night.


Covering this fact was simple. I love beer. People know me for my love of beer. It has become a personality trait that people from outside the bubble attach to me and have done since my late teens. From the outside, I’m the friend or acquaintance whose always in the pub and considers himself "something of a connoisseur." Nobody questioned it because nobody saw a change in my behaviour. This blog continued. Beer festival and event attendances were regular. I could experience days out with my friends as normal. The routine enjoyment still existed. It was at home on my own though that the nightcaps were too regular and too many. 


Things improved towards the end of 2015 and by early 2016 I had returned to a more positive and healthier relationship with beer. It was enjoyable again in a more balanced format, where I was always in control and it was never a necessity. But I had experienced the side of alcohol that I’d only ever witnessed previously from the other side of the living room or as a hospital-patient visitor.


With this, I’d experienced the way that people talk and discuss alcohol in such a frivolous way; the little remarks and repartees that are surprisingly common amongst a community whose shared love is for drink. I thought it strange then but didn’t raise it. The reason I didn't is because I was struggling to admit that I was succumbing to the problems that had tortured my family for so long. To raise the issues would be to face those problems.


As I wrote in the post when my dad passed, we handled his addiction badly. We handled it with anger and frustration. I won’t allow anybody in my family to feel at fault or to blame but in the dizzying realisation of hindsight we made a potentially manageable situation irretrievable. I know it now because I experienced it in 2014 and I see it played out repeatedly in real life now.


 Words matter.


The progress made in recent years in understanding depression, anxiety and other mental health issues often centres around the language we use. Phases such as the eternally toxic “man up” or “just get over it” have been outed as the fraudulent, damaging lexicon that they are. The language we use and the approach to that sort of illness is changing. I’d now like to see that attributed to how we discuss alcohol; how the language that we use can be potentially a comment too far, especially within our own alcohol fuelled bubbles and community.


Whilst much of the way humans use words without thinking is not a surprise, it is when people within the beer bubble speak so callously. Discussions about nearly any beer related topic can lead to the worst turn-of-phrase around: “If you have to do that then you have serious problems.”


General topics such as non-alcoholic beers; “If you require your soft drinks to taste like beer, you have more serious problems.” Or controlled drinking – “If you can’t have 4 dry days a week then you have serious problems.” Or even recently a facetious discussion of shower beers – “If you need a beer in the shower, then you have serious problems.”


It is one thing to talk so superficially about deadly addictions and to use that as a weapon to judge others. That in itself is an issue. But the attitude aggravates me further when we look back at the way we talk about mental health. We should always be using one of the key components of empathy - just because you have your shit together does not mean that everybody else does.


For all that you know, you are throwing these statements around at somebody who is struggling, who is on the border of addiction or is fighting the concept that they are drinking too much. To then stand over them, physically or metaphorically, and judge them is crushing. As somebody who felt that depreciation from family and friends when my depression was at its worse, the realisation that I was doing the same to my father about his addiction is a bruising thought.


 Beer as a Reward System 


Some people temper their beer intake by way of a personal reward system. If you do enough exercise or enough tasks from a to-do list then you earn the right to beer. You put beer in a place where it has the same value as your payslip or fixing a leak in the bath. Again, that is fine if you are whole but it puts pressure on the more vulnerable.


It is tough to suffer through the days when you want everything to end and are suffering silently as you feel yourself slip into the void. Sometimes the only thing that you are clinging to is that one special beer that you have stashed away, that you are going to open during Bake Off later that evening. That is all you are clinging to; that last sense of enjoyment.


Instead, you open up social media to a wave of posts indirectly telling you that you don’t deserve the beer. You haven’t earned the right to a beer. You have done nothing. Your day has been worthless. The guilt is overwhelming. You feel lower than you did. Suddenly the potential enjoyment of that beer later on has been replaced with shame. You'll probably still have it but you'll have another 4 or 5 on top of it to mask the guilt.


If a reward scheme is what you need to do to approach beer correctly then that is fine. But that is your choice. Do not enforce that rule upon others. Do not ask others to live by the same rules. Celebrate your own achievements but remember the environment that you are occupying and the potential audience that you are reaching. 


The FRIENDS Theory 


There has been a movement recently towards our treatment of people who don't drink or don't want a drink on a particular occasion. Similarly, yet opposing, to my thoughts here, it is about the language around alcohol and the way we approach conversations about it. It involves not questioning why people aren't drinking and accepting no as a final answer if somebody refuses a drink. 


But on the opposite side of the spectrum is the pressure that comes from people - often friends or family members - questioning why you ARE drinking. People, for whom drinking is reserved for special events or weekends, can be overbearing in their derision of those who have a more casual approach to drink. 


If you don't indulge in beer as much as others, there is inquisition over the simple idea of a pint after work on a Tuesday, a bottle of beer whilst cooking a Sunday roast, a celebratory can at the top of a hill after a steep climb. The questioning as to why you are having a beer – often phrased as why you need to have it - can have the same guilt-like effect as the previous mentioned beer reward system. 


I've seen the severity of this in my family. The impact on some members to the alcohol abuse we witnessed was to become cautious around drink in general. The scolding looks when you have so much as a glass of wine on Christmas Day leads to embarrassment and resentment. 


The potential conclusion on those that are close to the edge is that drinking will be hidden to avoid the questions. The easiest way to miss the discussion and the inquest is to never give the opportunity for it to happen. But secret drinking can be severely impactful on the vulnerable who do not have everything under control. It should never have to be an option because people shouldn’t be asking the questions in the first place.  


I try to promote the "FRIENDS theory," something I've considered writing about before. As a fan of the 90s American sitcom Friends, I can't help but notice the casual attitude to beer drinking in it. Whilst the situations are unrealistic - and I am not suggesting otherwise - the nonchalant approach to alcohol is actually healthy. People walk into rooms and grab a beer from the fridge, as if they are putting the kettle on for a brew. Beer isn't an event. Beer isn't a binge. Beer isn't something that only exists on social media. 


What Beer is in this universe is a casual drink that you can grab if you fancy one, assuming that you don't need to drive later in the day. Nobody frowns upon it. Nobody questions the time of day or situation. Therefore nobody is a problematic binge drinker or hiding their desire for a beer. If we could remove the guilt surrounding drink then our relationship with it would be much healthier. 


People will not understand unless they have been to *that* place, but if people were allowed to drink whenever they wanted then they would drink a lot less.


There will be some who will question my encouragement for this but nothing is more dangerous for people who are struggling than the questioning of your daily choices. I've seen people who have clearly been treading that line, via social media, change their attitude towards alcohol and start drinking much less of it. But rather than talk about changing habits for positive results, they choose to use their platform to sneer at people that haven't cut their drinking. I can't understand this. It is no different than bragging to a person with depression that you are perfectly happy in your own life.


That is the side of this hobby that nobody wants to talk about. But one day we will wake up to Twitter to find that somebody we all interact with has died due to alcoholism. We will say we had no idea. We will say that it is a shock. But we will find that we were all culpable in pushing that person a little further down. 


Unless we change. 


It's all a right laugh isn't it, this weekly injection of mild poison into our bodies? It is such great craic. "I'll need a new liver after this weekend's beer festival." And we laughed into our phone screens. Because we've got our life together and that other side could never be us. It's for a type of person beneath us. It's for the sort of person who must have problems. It could never happen to a good old beer enthusiast such as ourselves.


Just because you have it  together... 



Much of this is the written version of a discussion I had on the Rhythm and Brews podcast in July. you can listen to that here or wherever you listen to podcasts.




Unknown said…
Hi Mark, thanks for your post and sharing the personal aspects that make your blog so engaging to read.
For my two cents, I don't know any medical professional who advocates the use of alcohol to manage mental illness, and so I guess this is where the social judgement for regular/small quantity drinking comes from. That, and a side order of northern European Calvinism cultural legacy. Those clumsy phrases about 'then you have serious problems' are probably often intended to warn...they suspect that for many if not most that use alcohol as a crutch, that amount or quantity is only ever going to go one way.
Though fortunately i haven't suffered severe mental illness myself, i know that in some cases an extended period of abstinence from alcohol can allow for a reset or a chance to deal with any stuff you're going through. For me, that month or so proves to myself - not to anyone else - that i am not reliant on alcohol, and then the judgement of the pint on Tuesday or the whisky on the cornflakes can do one. I'm half joking about the whisky, but I would also note that if that's the only thing you drink all day, why is that worse than 10 pints on a Saturday night?

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