Category: Mental Health

| Mental Health, Uncategorised, Writing

A Personal Update

If you’re a fan of my writing, you may be wondering where I’ve been for most of 2023. Here’s what’s been happening and what I have planned for the future.

I wrote 12 books at this desk. Over the course of 23 years. I won’t be writing any more here.

Rooms always look so defeated when you’ve cleared them. The very act of taking stuff out spreads dirt and dust. The denuding of shelves and corners reveals a lot of dust and dirt you never knew were there, all the better to spread around. You lay down the marks of your presence, your habits, your rituals, and your leaving reveals them, shamefully.

As of now, this room belongs to someone else. This week we completed on the sale of the house we’ve lived in since 2001. I am very, very lucky that I was part of the last generation to be able to just about to afford to buy property in London without having rich parents.

Although it didn’t feel like it at the time, we were lucky again when my wife Liz was made redundant under dodgy circumstances, because the payout gave us a deposit. We were lucky yet again four years later, when the rundown, dodgy neighbourhood we could afford to buy in was named the site for the 2012 London Olympics, and received billions of pounds of investment, sending house prices soaring to a level we could never have afforded.

You don’t make much money as a writer. I had a house that is worth an awful lot of money, but apart from that, I had only debt. No savings, no investments, no pending inheritances, not even a regular income I could rely on. The Covid lockdown ruined me financially – for two years I earned less than my mortgage payments. 

We have no children to pass on our very expensive house to. So we’re cashing in – paying off the mortgage and all our debts, buying a house for less than half the price we’re selling ours for, and from now on, splitting our time between a small flat in London and a house in Norwich. 

When I tell people we’re moving to Norwich, people who haven’t been there often repeat “NORWICH? Why Norwich?” with a facial expression like this:

I am eternally grateful to Steve Coogan, and his creation, Alan Partridge, for the image they have created for Norwich and North Norfolk. Partridge, in all his ridiculous pomposity, is the kind of person you think you’re going to meet if you go there. I reckon that’s kept a couple of hundred grand off the price of the beautiful Georgian townhouse we’re buying.   

That house is twenty minutes walk from the centre of town, along (I swear on my life I didn’t know this when we first looked at the house) the NR3 Beer Mile, a stretch of eight or nine of the most delightful pubs I’ve ever seen. Beer costs 2/3 of what it does in London. The coast (all the North Norfolk coast, in different directions) is half an hour’s drive away. There are seals on the beach just now. People often ask “Why Norwich?!” That’s some reasons why. There are more. Here’s another:

This isn’t Ghent or Bruges. This is a pub 15 minutes walk from my new house. It specialises in cask ale and has 8-10 taps on at any given time, mostly from small local brewers. It has a deck that runs the length of the pub along the river.

What does this mean for my writing and your reading pleasure?

This has been the most difficult year of my life. In March my little brother died, alone, depressed and in anguish, due to illnesses related to chronic alcoholism. I didn’t want to write much about beer after that. I had to do a lot of soul searching, and a bit of therapy. I go stuck in the “anger” stage of grief for about five months, and my written output consisted mainly of me swearing at right-wing politicians on Twitter. If you wondered what was happening to me (some people did contact me, worried about my mental health) this was it. If you were offended or frustrated by anything I wrote, I apologise (unless you’re Rishi Sunak or Suella fucking Braverman.)

Anyway, I’m through that now. (You don’t get over grief; you just figure out how it live with it.) And the process of sorting out Stuart’s flat and estate gave us the impetus to move.

Now, without having to service thousands of pounds of debt every month, I have more time to write. And I can be choosier about what I do. In the New Year, I’ll be relaunching my writing career across varikous platforms.

A trade press article about trends in the fruited “cider” category which will take three days to research and pay £150? No thank you.

Reviews of afternoons spent in coastal pubs, musing life, just for the pleasure of it? Yes please. 

Norwich is famous for its excellent pubs – it used to boast one for every day of the year. And everywhere else from the North Norfolk coast to the Norfolk Broads to breweries such as the excellent Duration, Ampersand and Little Earth Project are, at most, a 45-minute drive away.

Apart from the local attractions, I have two new book ideas I’m working on, and the time to do them – after Clubland, I simply could not afford to write another book, and have had to spend most of the working time I’ve had this year on consultancy projects instead. I probably don’t have another 12 books left in me (sorry, new writing room) but I hope my best ones are still ahead of me.

I hope you’ll stick with me for the ride.

| Mental Health

The power of talking

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.