This is a slight departure from the usual blog content. Normal service will resume shortly.
On a Friday afternoon in June 2017, I sat alone in the makeshift taproom at Brasserie de la Senne. I had time to kill before the school run and in eight years living in Brussels, I had yet to visit. The reason I had so much time on my hands? An all-encompassing anxiety condition that has plagued me for three decades. In the weeks before I visited de la Senne, anxiety had slowly and then all of a sudden crippled me, forcing me on convalescent leave and freeing up my Friday lunchtimes.
That I was sitting there at all, glass of Zinnebir in hand, my chest muscles warped by stress, was an act of will. A first small push back against a dread that was threatening in those weeks to overcome me, having already bleached all colour from my life. Every day since that beer has been a step forwards, sometimes backwards, in my struggle to keep this dread at bay. Beer has often been a hindrance to this, putting me in situations that heighten my anxiety. Increasingly, though, it’s a passion – my passion – that has served as a way through the fug of panic and a means by which to confront this angst head-on.
In the early summer of 2017, I forgot how to breathe.
A slow-burn anxiety attack over several weeks rendered me capable only of short, shallow breaths, and frequently had me bent over in bed trying desperately, ridiculously, to pull a satisfying yawn from deep within my lungs just so I could get some sleep. It felt as if a large weight had settled upon my chest all day long, contorting the muscles I used to breathe. A fit of hypochondriac panic eventually landed me in front of a doctor. “Superficial breathing”, she said, sending me on my way with a sick note and the task of relearning how to breathe.
The source of my anxiety problem (if I could identify only one) is mundane, an acrimonious childhood family breakdown and subsequent fallout. It’s something that I’ve lived with and managed more or less effectively – depending on who you ask – for my entire life. As I’ve gotten older, the daily challenges of being a “grown up” (kids, a mortgagae, a career – life, really) have stress tested my coping mechanisms sometimes to breaking point. I feel more and more the limits that this pernicious inheritance – which I didn’t ask for and struggle to escape from – places on me. It seeps into everyday situations, which can be freighted with irrational dread. Rumination about, and hypersensitivity to, every minor social contact – inconsequential calls, conversations, emails – leaves me deadened by fear and panic. My relationship with beer and the beer community is no exception.
At beer festivals, in bars, and bottleshops, I would frequently let that dread consume me. A feeling, the strange quickening of my heartbeat, that starts off as a vague sense of unease, gathers pace as something like butterflies in my stomach, then a cold sweat, and soon a feeling of bile creeping up my throat, heart pounding, eyes darting as a fear builds inside me that everyone is watching, judging me, with every nerve fibre in my body telling you to run. Sometimes I run. Sometimes I stick it out, because I won’t be able to live with myself if I succumb again. Knowing that none of this makes any sense doesn’t help; when you’re in that situation, you only beat yourself up even more.
Blogging - a specialist in failure
Enter Brussels Beer City. I’d had two failed blogging attempts behind me when I decided to launch this blog. I had bought the domains several months before, and I had already made a personal breakthrough by enrolling in a beer tasting course. But in June 2017 I sat down to write the first articles, and there was no going back. I’m convinced that it was this decision that tipped me into a spiral of panic and anxiety. It didn’t come from a fear of failure. I am, as someone once said, a specialist in failure. Failure I could deal with.
Success, on the other hand, was an altogether different proposition. Success creates expectations. It creates pressure. Both of which could lead me to feel like I was losing control. And control has always been important for me in managing my anxiety. It pushes me towards a destructive and paralysing perfectionism to the point where, whatever I do, it can always be better.
When I committed to launching the blog in 2017, all these feelings bubbled up and over, rendering me incapable of something as instinctive as breathing. 18 months later, am I any better, or do I feel the same? It’s hard to say; with anxiety, the most recent attack always feels like the worst. Of course, it wasn’t long after to visit to de la Senne that the cogs started to whir, and that familiar feeling crept up on me once more. I often wake up with a deadening lump settled in the pit of my stomach. I still regularly find myself in the early hours of morning frozen by fear, self-doubt and procrastination, hunched over a keyboard willing something to happen. Pushing up against the boundaries of your personality is frequently exhausting.
A feeble fuck you
But if beer sent me spinning off my axis it has also been a way back, a passion through which I’ve forced myself to deal with and push through some of the more malign consequences of my anxiety. I’ve found myself doing things I never thought likely in those dark June days. Writing regularly. Organising workshops and speaking in front of complete strangers. Emailing people who I’ve never met and talking to them on the phone. Fantastic people, who’ve enriched my life in the last two years, and opened doors to new opportunities. Being, essentially, a normally functioning human being. I’ve even managed to strike up a conversation with the local bottleshop owner, four long years after my first visit.
That Zinnebir was the first step. A feeble “fuck you” to the creeping dread that at one point threatened to overwhelm me. I can't say I really enjoyed the experience. But it happened. I made it happen.
It never goes away. But it does get a little easier.