I want to share my experience
Obviously my experience is unique to me, and I can’t speak for anyone else or the effect of the beer community on their mental health. My opinions, as always, are nothing more or less than that. And please don’t yell at me – despite all the good work of the beer community I am still rather fragile.
There will undoubtedly be some people who say that having a hobby that’s focussed on drinking alcohol automatically discounts the possibility of it having a positive effect on one’s mental health. I have to disagree. That’s not to say that alcohol, and even the beer community, can’t have severely negative effects on mental health. Of course it can, we all know this. But the picture, from my point of view, is significantly more complex and nuanced and ultimately positive.
Loneliness is hell. It’s also a dangerously self-perpetuating cycle – the lonelier you are, the harder it is to make friends. On top of being plagued by periodically crippling anxiety and depression, loneliness has been a major feature of my life for as long as I can remember. But when you’re already depressed, anxious and lacking in confidence, how do you find the courage, the strength of will to combat the loneliness that’s upping the ante across the whole smogesboard of your mental health? Yes, for me that has been beer. The drinking, yes, but it’s what goes with the drinking that has made the biggest difference. The beer community is real, and although it isn’t perfect by any means, it works.
In so many social groups, whether they’re based on work, shared interests or historic relationships, the levels of snarking, snobbery, in-fighting and exclusive cliques I’ve experienced make the beer world seem positively halcyon. I acknowledge I am at an advantage as a lay-person whose livelihood does not depend on the relationships I make in the industry, and affords me the luxury of stepping back at the merest sniff of aggression, but even so if the stink was that bad I’d most certainly have run screaming.
For those of us who aren’t digital natives, who grew up writing notes and making phone calls to people we actually knew (or to a pen friend – remember those?!) the idea of jumping online to befriend strangers is more than a little daunting, especially if your mental health isn’t exactly standing up on its own all the time. The beer community, both online and in real life, has, in my experience, been a safe and welcoming place to dip the tiniest brave little socialised toe into. And when one toe isn’t bitched at or shut down, the other toes can begin to follow, and there’s a path out of that loneliness, a way to break the crippling cycle of loneliness, anxiety and depression.
Inclusiveness and diversity
My beerfriends come in all shapes and sizes. Inclusion is not governed by age, gender, race or religion. Unlike the exclusive, repetitive social bubbles that govern the rest of my life, beer is a world open and without judgement. There is no uniform standard by which one is judged and to which one has to conform. We come from different backgrounds, have different other interests, and are comfortable drinking different amounts. We’re not bound together by the weight of shared pasts either, which gives us the freedom to be ourselves without responses to our actions and opinions being based on predetermined ideas of who we are, what we think or how we behave. When I spend time with my beerfriends, I never have live up to unreasonable expectations, fit into a predetermined role or to be belittled or berated for things that aren’t my fault. It’s an easy place to belong.
The beer community is also, in my experience, a safe space to discuss diversity, inclusion and mental health. Yes, there is some nasty, bigoted trolling out there which is awful, upsetting and wrong, but it wouldn’t even be happening if we weren’t actually having progressive, forward-thinking conversations that wind up these reactionary blowhards. While there’s no denying that beery bro-culture is alive and well and irritatingly vocal, one good thing about it is those folks want nothing to do with someone like me, and the feeling is mutual. Aside from the odd sarcastic tweet, we move in effortless parallel universes, drinking the same beers but passing like ships in the night. Long may it so remain.
This is a place where I don’t need to feel ashamed for speaking out as a woman, a person of colour and a person with mental health problems. I don’t have to pretend to be something I’m not, I don’t have to suck in my opinions and make nice for fear of exclusion and I don’t have to downplay my differences to make other people more comfortable. Just being able to exist as I am without the weight of these crippling pressures is hugely beneficial to my mental health. I can have a day out or a chat online and not come away from it filled with frustration, self-loathing and exclusion. We are a community that isn’t afraid to question itself with a strong and vocal element fighting for equality and diversity – being a part of this gives me so much strength in my own fight against all the awful prejudices I’ve internalised that tell me I can never be worth anything. For me, this is huge.
One of the major misconceptions people seem to have about the world of beer is that we’re all out getting hammered all the time, which in itself highlights the huge amount of judgement there is around drinking among certain demographics. In fact, one of the most healthy, inclusive and positive elements of the beer industry is that you can drink as much or as little as you like and still be included. There’s none of the work-drinks pressure to keep up and none of the down-the-nose snobbery of ‘haven’t you had enough?’.
How much is too much? We all know what the doctor says, and far be it for me to encourage anyone else to go against medical advice and I’m afraid I’m one of those people who is rather elastic with the truth when questioned by medical professionals. Everyone has a different understanding of what constitutes too much and everyone has different physical and psychological limitations they choose to adhere to. We need to look out for each other, of course we do, and I do feel that there is a strong sense of care and responsibility towards our fellow beerfriends. However, for me, not judging each other over differing levels of enjoyment offers a welcome escape from the usual judgemental gaze. Yes, alcohol is addictive and can be extremely destructive to both mental and physical health. These are facts, and everything else I’m saying must be contextualised with the absolute understanding that alcohol consumption itself does not solve mental health issues or in fact any other problem at all. But being judged and berated for how much you drink or don’t drink doesn’t help anyone’s mental health either, and being part of a community where we can all do our own thing is such a breath of fresh air. I know I drink a lot, and I’m neither proud nor ashamed of that. I’m responsible for making my own choices, and I have the right to do that judgement-free. I have many beerfriends who drink very modest amounts and enjoy their beer just as much as I do, and we can all have a great pressure-free night out together. If only people outside the beerworld were as gracious and accepting, my mental health might not suffer as many nasty setbacks.
The kindness of strangers
I’m going to finish this with a heartfelt thank you to everyone in the beer community who has reached out to me when I’ve been in distress. Anyone who has had mental health problems knows that talking about them isn’t easy. We’ve been raised in a culture of silence, of put-up-and-shut up, of shame and inadequacy, and just the act of posting a tweet to say I’m struggling is something I couldn’t have imagined having the strength to do just a few years ago. The reason I can do it now is because of the support, warmth and kindness I’ve received from this community, the way that so many people I’ve never met have told me about their own experiences, shared their own pain and grief and suffering and simply told me that they’re there if I need to talk. This is a community where online friends have become real-life friends, where real-life friends stay in touch online and where I can share my setbacks and my small triumphs without feeling stupid, shallow weird or insignificant. I don’t think this is an accident. For whatever reason, the beerworld, or at least the part of it I have moved in, seems to have attracted people who care, who are open, honest, interested and unpretentious. While there’s no denying that it’s easier to be caring online and from a distance than when burdened with the day-to-day reality of someone else’s mental health problems, reaching out is still a choice, and it’s one that plenty of people choose not to make. How we behave as a community, what is and is not acceptable to say, comes from our collective voice, and for me that collective voice has been one of support, one that says it’s okay to talk about this stuff, that you won’t get ignored or shut down or belittled. For me, this space is somewhere that has been profoundly good for my mental health, and whether you agree with this or not, thanks to all of you for that.