Brewing and Mental Health: One Brewer's Story
Brewing and mental health
Hi, how are you doing?
I'm fine, I guess.
Depending on my mood, I hear that question as either loaded or completely innocuous. There are days when someone asks me that, and I feel attacked. Falsely, I hear, "I can tell you're not okay, and I have to know why." There are days when I hear someone ask me, 'how are you doing?' and I hear a simple variation on any greeting to a conversation—assuming they'd prefer I did not explain my current state. Either way, I'm likely misrepresenting their intention in asking, and in doing so, I miss an opportunity to be honest.
Mental illness can be viewed as any other illness: Your brain is sick. Your heart, skin, and stomach can be unhealthy, and so can your brain. The Surgeon General reported, "our society no longer can afford to view mental health as separate and unequal to general health." Those are clear words, not condemning any specific organization or outfit but calling our nation to a higher standard. Surprisingly, those words were written 23 years ago, in 1999.
In the spring of this year, I caught a nasty cold. I felt substantially sick for the better part of two weeks—runny nose, headache, cough—then, as it has my whole life, it cleared up, and I was back to normal. A typical cycle. On the days when I was sick, I didn't feel great—in fact, I told my wife it was the worst cold I'd ever had; she rolled her eyes and replied, "you've said that before." However, I was aware of the normal progression of things. No one questioned my character because I'd caught a cold. Most of the time, people said, 'oh yeah, that's going around. It's cold season.'
"A standard solution is to face your fear with courage while accepting the uncertainty of the outcome. However, everyone's threshold is unique; likewise, so is their learning style."
Mental illness is an illness. While it's hard to draw a strict parallel to physical illness, i.e., there's not a knowable virus that spreads from body to body. Though, there can be instances that can be catalysts for symptoms. For example, there can be times when you dwell on a conversation or incident, and after a few days, it clears up, and you let it go. Although, no one says, 'oh yeah, that's going around. It's anxiety season.'
Likewise, a high-pressure situation can stand out in your calendar like a do-or-die challenge in a video game. Jump over the fire, or the GAME OVER sign will flash. That proverbial pit of fire could be moving to another city or welcoming or saying goodbye to a family member. It would be best if you had time to process your complex emotions because you can't seem to grasp them all at once.
Despite the difficulty, you can still perform your day-to-day routine, and your symptoms seemingly clear up. Throughout our lives, we've consciously and subconsciously learned how to deal with different types of anxiety and certain stress levels. A standard solution is to face your fear with courage while accepting the uncertainty of the outcome. However, everyone's threshold is unique; likewise, so is their learning style.
When I was 12, I contracted pneumonia. As a rambunctious middle schooler, I did not take it seriously. Sickness meant a day home from school. It was the middle of winter, and while I was home from school and my parents were at work, I'd go outside and try to shoot baskets with a flat ball on a cold Minnesota driveway.
Consequently—and to no one's surprise—I developed scar tissue in my lungs. I stayed home from school for an additional week to rest, and I needed to do therapy with a nebulizer every day for a month. To this day, I still have mild asthma exacerbated by physical activity and cold weather.
"Just as someone could be born with a physical abnormality, so too can someone be born with a mental abnormality."
Mental illness can also develop destructive symptoms and linger for years. Even with proper care, similar symptoms can flare up occasionally, seemingly without warning. The term de jour is trauma. Trauma is one of many recognized causes of mental illness. It can be seen as one of the primary umbrellas of mental illness. Grief, neglect, and a prolonged social disadvantage can all be seen as a form of trauma but are treated differently because their circumstances differ.
Likewise, as my psychologist used to say as I was desperately looking for a traumatic event in my past: "Mike, your brain can be wired differently." Our brain holds an estimated 100 trillion neural connections, and those pathways are formed and reinforced constantly. Just as someone could be born with a physical abnormality, so too can someone be born with a mental abnormality.
My mental health journey began at 19 while living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. I believed I'd contracted the Hantavirus, a respiratory illness contracted from mice droppings. Hantavirus is ostensibly a death sentence, and the fear of death drove me into obsession. My symptoms ebbed and flowed for two years until I was on the Navajo Reservation and once again feared I'd contracted Hantavirus. The second time around, my obsession took over my life. I lived in a constant state of anxiety. Hantavirus begins with a fever; my goal was to detect it and hopefully make it to a hospital in time to start a rigorous treatment plan to keep me alive. To avoid my fever, I checked my temperature a few times a day, then a few times an hour; eventually, I checked my temperature upwards of 300 times a day. Every few minutes. Depression followed suit. I couldn't do things I loved most, and I couldn't enjoy spending time with anyone. I was desperate for even a glimpse of the person I'd been because I'd become a ghost of myself.
With a heavy heart, I quit my job; for me, not simply a job. But, a job for which I'd spent two years training and moved home. I was diagnosed with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder. The following year, I was hospitalized and began therapy. I've been in treatment as needed for the last seven years battling new phobias centered around my character and mortality. I've been taking a steady regiment of Prozac since my first hospitalization. I owe my incremental success now to my therapy, medication, and friends and family who supported me during my challenging times.
There are no quick guides, checklists, or one-and-done medications to alleviate these profound feelings. But there are methods clinically proven to be effective. Researchers, doctors, therapists, counselors, nurses, and many other medical professionals are in this fight with you. They are trained and prepared for your worst and strive to see you at your best. Through my own experience battling Pure OCD and Major Depressive Disorder, I've been entirely helpless. Still, with the help and guidance of mental health professionals, I learned how to take ownership of my own mental health and create positive change.
"A community can allow you space and time to regain your bearings and find your place."
The resources exist! You need to trust yourself to find them and utilize them. Your access to the resources will be undeniably different than someone else; there's no doubt about it. Some have easy access to cutting-edge treatment, while others will have a more arduous search. The resources provided can be a stepping stone for you to move in the right direction. If you need to tap into resources, do not hesitate to reach out and seek professional help. Trust and allow the professionals to assess and guide you to the appropriate course of action.
Not all fear is bad! Fear, after all, is the ultimate motivator. Fear can serve as a ballast in difficult times, ensuring you don't throw yourself into a situation from which you cannot recover. Fear can remind you not to touch a flame or to drive too fast on an icy road. However, unchecked and unchallenged, anxiety can be controlling and debilitating. Fear knows no limits; nothing is sacred to fear. It can haunt you, drag you away from your career or school, suffocate relationships, and lead you down the path of anger, depression, and denial, or, for some, it can lead to obsession.
Community is vital to emotional and mental health. The reason is quite simple: community establishes and reinforces purpose. In our modern era, the roles required to sustain a community are far more ambiguous and abstract but still recognizable. Finding our position in a community while we're afflicted with a mental health concern only makes our search more challenging. However, a community can allow you space and time to regain your bearings and find your place.
When I turned 21, I began home brewing in my parent's kitchen using my mom's canning pot and some odds and ends my dad had in his garage workshop. Brewing was an escape from the madness inside my own mind. The hobby quickly grew from something fun to do on the weekend to a potential career. Through conversation with the head brewer at a local brewery, I began a journey toward finding my way onto the stand on the pro side. I've found in the brewing community a terrific collaborative effort, not simply in brewing beers together, but in helping establish breweries. A close friend and former sales rep for a Minneapolis-based brewery told me, "when one of us succeeds, we all succeed."
I want to see this approach reach into the mental health of breweries and brewing employees.
Lane Wanous is the Lead Brewer at Bobbing Bobber Brewing Company in Hutchinson, MN, where I am employed as the Assistant Brewer. I am, of course, indebted to him for the knowledge he's shared with me about brewing, fermenting, packaging, serving, and every aspect of brewery operations. More importantly, he's become a close friend and mentor. I've learned a fair bit about brewing by reading, watching videos, and listening to podcasts. Still, I didn't begin to put it all together until I was on the stand.
Similarly, I learned about mental illness by doing the same academic exercises. However, my situation's gravity did not become apparent to me until I opened up to my therapist. At that point, they were able to create for me an effective treatment plan.
"The value of the brewing community being so close-knit is the possibility of a support system organically stemming from the pre-existing relationships."
On my first solo brew day at the brewery, I forgot a bag of grain and didn't turn on the fermenter when I left. The next day we dumped the batch down the drain. It was my nightmare come to life. I owned up to my mistakes, but it was hard. I didn't want to tell my new boss I'd made a mistake with no plausible solution to save the beer. My mind was spiraling. As someone with OCD and Depression, it didn't take long for the spiraling to go far beyond my control. I felt my brewing career was over before it had even begun.
Lane didn't fire me. Instead, he turned my mistake into a conversation and learning experience. There wasn't a sugarcoat applied. I knew I'd made a mistake, and he knew I realized my mistake. We learned from it and grew from it. A weight was lifted off my shoulders simply through understanding. Since then, Lane has grown further as my mentor and friend. I love working at Bobbing Bobber, not because I make fantastic beer, but because I get to spend my time with great people.
The value of the brewing community being so close-knit is the possibility of a support system organically stemming from the pre-existing relationships. The people we brew with, serve with, sell with, and drink with can become the people we look to for appropriate support during challenging times. Lane has become part of the community that supports me, and in turn, if there are ways I can support him, I will. The space has been created for honest conversation. An honest conversation doesn't mean one of us becomes the other primary source of care. Far from it, but it allows the opportunity to break the ice on difficult situations if needed.
The importance of conversation cannot be overstated. The trust needed to conduct a healthy discussion begins with the opening, asking a question you want to hear the answer to, and responding to the questions honestly. 'Hi, how are you?' does not need to remain the innocuous greeting, nor does it need to be heard as disrespectful. Use it as an opportunity to break the stigma regarding mental health. Ask it in earnest and respond in kind.
Honest conversation creates trust, trust creates compassion, and compassion leads to care. As non-mental health professionals, we can establish trust and appropriate support.
The key is appropriate support, which entails proper physical and emotional boundaries and consent in conversation and action. If you're uncomfortable having the conversation, do not force yourself or others to interface inappropriately, nor should you force your way into private and sensitive topics. Always respect people's privacy and boundaries and gently point those in need toward professional care.
Primary care should always be routed through a doctor and trained mental health professionals. Support comes from friends and family. Follow-through comes from within.
Do not hesitate to seek guidance if you or someone you know is struggling with mental health.
So, if you don't mind me asking, how are you?
Mike Lauer is an Assistant Brewer at Bobbing Bobber Brewing Company in Hutchinson, MN. We thank Mike for opening up about his mental health journey and taking the time to write this article.
The Hi, How Are You? Campaign
The brewing industry is built upon a strong and collaborative community of brewers wanting to make the best beer possible for people to enjoy. People come to breweries to enjoy beer and spend quality time with their friends and family. In short, beer brings people together; it crafts community, conversation, and care for one another.
In 2022, Yakima Valley Hops launched the Hi, How Are You? campaign to generate discussion around a topic that is important to us: mental health. We felt that mental health is an under-discussed topic in the brewing industry and wanted to do what we could to promote safe and honest conversations.
At the time of this article's publication, more than 50 craft breweries worldwide have committed to brewing a Hi, How Are You? beer, and many homebrewers have joined as well. Some of their photos are below.
Learn more about our Hi, How Are You? campaign and get involved here.
- Jake Parrish