Anxiety seems to be an increasing issue in the beer world. Hell, never mind that – in life generally. If you’re hurting, please tell someone…
After giving this a lot of thought, I’ve decided I’d like to tell you about Andy.
I just said goodbye to Andy. I’ll probably never see him again. This is a bit of a wrench: for the past seven years, he has been my counsellor, my therapist. As I slowly grew to trust him, he also became my friend, and in many ways, my surrogate father.
Seven and a half years ago, my world caved in. I learned things about my family, and about myself, that rocked my very sense of who I was. Feelings of grief, betrayal, shock, guilt, panic, anger and loss queued up to take turns on me. I felt like I was drowning. My wife, Liz, was my lifejacket. She saved me. But I needed pulling out of the water, and Andy did that.
Once a week, I went to talk to him for an hour at a time. He pushed me hard. For a while, it was twice a week. The rest of my diary was structured around the fixed points of these sessions. For the first few years I dreaded them, and came out feeling like like I’d had the mental equivalent of an hour in a boxing ring.
I realised pretty soon that the things that had driven me to see Andy were part of a wider pattern, that for my entire adult life, I’d developed an elaborate coping mechanism to deal with feelings of stress, anxiety, panic and paranoia. This system had worked extremely well for a long time, but was now damaging me. I was a stressed out, unhappy, dysfunctional workaholic who soothed himself by eating and drinking too much. In your forties, this shit starts to catch up with you. I began to develop health problems that would become significantly more serious unless I changed direction.
My relationship with Andy was unequal: I told him absolutely everything about myself, and he gave away very little in return. That’s how it works. I knew we shared things in common around our upbringings, but I never discovered the details. I was scared of mumbo jumbo and psychological claptrap. I felt uncomfortable with how much he wanted me to open up to him.
And boy, it was fucking frustrating. We talked things through and worked things out. I’m a bright bloke, and I could see the workings, see where he was trying to go. I got things intellectually, understood the point, but it made absolutely no difference to how I felt. We had the same conversations over and over again. For fucking years.
And then, gradually, it started to change. I grew to trust Andy. I started to look forward to the sessions. And inside me, very slowly, things started to shift. Every now and again I’d take a step backwards, and we’d have to go through something yet again. But gradually, I came to know myself more, to understand myself. I started to forgive myself, to cut myself some slack.
Andy retires next month: we just had our final session. I was thinking that it was probably time to raise the subject of ending my therapy, and when he announced his retirement, that settled it. In our last few sessions he opened upon a bit more, made it more equal. We even had a few laughs.
The feelings never go away. Therapy can’t ‘cure’ you or ‘fix’ you. Andy doesn’t talk in terms of mental illness or mental health – in his words, I wasn’t ill, but I was disturbed, and now I’m less disturbed. Now, I can spot when feelings or behaviours are emerging and go, “Oh, I’m doing that again,” and I can shut it down – no, that’s not right – I can allow it to be, allow it to express itself, give it space and be comfortable with it, and move on without it becoming a disturbance. I can cope with things that used to get the better of me, and now no longer do.
I’m sharing this with a certain degree of trepidation. But I’m sharing it because I know I’m not alone. Anxiety, self-doubt and depression can be killers. Some people in the beer scene have started to talk more openly about mental health on social media and there have been one or two powerful and moving longer pieces written. Despite its progressiveness (in places) the beer scene is still incredibly macho. We might often feel like we have to put a mask on and go out with our bros and buddies and smash some awesome beers and have a frikkin awesome time, when inside we might be hurting or drowning or feel ourselves disappearing. Having been there, I can tell when people are suffering – sometimes they even admit to it – and it’s becoming increasingly widespread.
So I’m sharing this for two reasons.
Firstly, I simply want to say to people who may be hurting that I’ve been there too. Many of us have.
Secondly, I want to say that if you’re drowning or falling or disappearing (like I was) or if you’re throwing up with nerves before heading out to a beer event, if you’re getting wankered to try and shut down nervousness or anxiety (like others I’ve spoken to) or if you’re worried that everyone else is having an awesome time and you’re alone in pinning on a mask and dreading being found out – please, talk about it. Tell someone. Go see someone. I’ve been paying Andy a good chunk of my income for the past seven years, but it was worth every penny. I saw him privately, but you can get referred to a therapist via the NHS. There’s no need to suffer in silence. And with enough talking, it really does get better.
I imagine I might get a bit of shit for posting this, but if it helps just one person, it’s worth it. And thanks to Andy, I’m much better at dealing with the shit than I used to be.