In conversation with Marcus Barnes: Men, alcohol, and mental health
This month in Club Soda, we’ve been exploring a lot about men, masculinity and drinking, exploring some of the barriers that men experience when they’re changing their drinking. Issues such as social pressure and traditional attitudes can might keep men stuck in drinking behaviours that aren’t really working for them. Men can struggle to voice concerns over physical and mental health, and use alcohol to mask these worries. We’re really thrilled that we invited journalist Marcus Barnes to write three pieces for us this month about men and drinking. Below is an edited transcript from our podcast episode with Marcus.
I’ve been a journalist for 17 years now. All of the different areas of journalism that I’ve worked in have allowed me access to parties, social events, events that have free drink etc. I started off in men’s interests, lads mags. Then I went into tabloid journalism, and now I cover music, mostly club music, raves, festivals and clubs. I’ve been doing that for the last 10 years and one of the things that I started to realise a few years ago was that alcohol had become quite a bit of a social crutch for me.
I started stepping into a more of a mindful, perhaps slightly spiritual way of being, my lifestyle choices started to change. I became more aware of my habits and decided to take a real hard look at what I was doing in terms of drinking. I decided to go sober two years ago. I had already done it once for 18 months. Prior to that, I was doing annual sober months in November, that gave me a little bit of a taster. But in December 2018 I went sober. I haven’t looked back since.
Was there any kind of particular moment or something that motivated you to say ‘right now, this is the moment I’m going to stop drinking completely’
I was taking steps into being a bit healthier and conscious of my mental and physical health. I started to have this nagging feeling sort of deep inside me. I’d never really enjoyed drinking that much anyway and I’d always get sick. I was notorious for vomiting the next day. When you take a step back from it, it probably was a bit of a problem, but it just it’s so normalised that nobody ever pulled me up on it.
This nagging feeling was always there and the more I focused on it, the more I just couldn’t get away from it. I ended up really not enjoying drinking at all, and hangovers of course! I don’t think I really hit a rock bottom, but over a period of maybe a few months, even up to a year, whatever joy I was getting from drinking just started to fade away. It was a heavy internalised feeling that just wouldn’t go away. I just had like a lot of self-loathing and a lot of like negative feelings around drinking.
In the end what gave me the push to go sober was going with my partner to a wellness retreat in Thailand. We took part in a spiritual ceremony there. In order to prepare for it, you had to abstain from pretty much everything, any vice that you had. So drinking went in the bin and it stayed in the bin. That was the first time I went sober for 18 months. I thought once I’d given up for two weeks, I’d just carry on and see how I got on. The second time around I took myself off the wagon for a crazy summer and autumn. Having done 18 months previously and feeling the benefits to my physical and mental health, I thought ‘I’m going to do it again. And this time I think it will be for keeps.’ So far so good.
What do you think some of the big issues are for men who are thinking about changing their drinking or finding themselves in difficulty with alcohol? Is mental health a big issue?
I think that the main standout is the fact that men are generally conditioned from a very early age to suppress so-called negative emotions and some positive emotions too. We grow up not really being robust in terms of dealing with emotion and expressing emotion. We’re emotionally immature in a lot of ways.
I’ve learned through research that alcohol really helps us to express ourselves and our emotions, it lowers our inhibitions. So it’s become a go-to for a lot of men, it ‘helps’ with bonding and dealing with difficult emotions. Maybe you’ve broken up with a partner and you need to just drown your sorrows, or your child has been born, there are so many different scenarios that involve the use of alcohol to supplement or amplify what’s going on, or just to get you into that place. A lot of us don’t even know how to get there because we got shut down so much by society in general.
We get bombarded with these images of strong men, tall dark and handsome, in-the-bar-guys. The idea of the sensitive man is becoming more of a thing nowadays. It’s great to see the way society is progressing, but it wasn’t like that for me. I’m 39 and when I was a kid, it really wasn’t like that. Hopefully younger people nowadays will have grown up with better role models. Images of men that are allowed to be sensitive and allowed to express their emotions more. I had loads of messages after you posted my piece about becoming a parent. Men were saying ‘I’m so glad you wrote that, you know, I had loads of trouble when my baby first came along’.
I’m in a WhatsApp group with dads that I went to a neonatal class with. I went through a really bad depression after my child came along. I never felt that I could really share that with the other dads. But I shared my piece in the group with those dads. One of the dads messaged me privately saying ” I felt very much the same as you”, but he had to do it privately. He couldn’t even do it in the group. That’s just the perfect case in point, even when I was open he still had to come to me privately to say he had the same thing going on.
Have you got any thoughts about the social aspects of drinking for men?
You’ve got to be kind to yourself. You need to remind yourself that what you’re doing is for your benefit. You’ve almost got to put yourself in a bit of a selfish mind state. This is about you and it’s about your health. You have to tell yourself that whatever anybody else thinks it doesn’t matter. This is a gift to yourself – to try and improve your physical and mental health. It takes a hell of a lot of work and it is really difficult. You just have to make a promise to yourself.
If a friend said to you “I’m going to try to give up drinking”, you’d probably be there for them because you want to be there for them and you want to support them – give that to yourself. And request that of your friends. They might put on a bit of bravado in the beginning because that’s what a lot of guys do – maybe they’ll make jokes about it or try to shoot you down. But deep down, they are friends and they’ll be there for you. Just level and just say, look, guys, I’m really serious about this.
Has the impact on your mental health been worth the effort it has taken to change your drinking habits?
Friends work together and friends support each other. I’m not going to pretend that it’s easy, but it’s worth it. I think it’s really worth it, particularly for your mental health. And your friends will be there for you. You just want to make sure that you’re open and honest with them.
And on top of that, once you get past the initial discomfort and difficulty of not drinking, you actually get used to it. Everyone just forgets that you’re not drinking and you just get on with it. Everyone has a good time. I always forget the alcohol-free thing. I don’t drink alcohol-free drinks, but that’s another thing that I see so many people post about on Instagram. It makes such a world of difference because you feel you’re still involved. You’re not sipping on what you might consider being a boring drink, like an orange juice or lemonade. You’ve got a drink that looks like a drink. In terms of like the perception, it makes it look like you’re still drinking and you don’t feel so different from everybody else.