Brewery Owner Speaks Out About Mental Health, Goes Public with Bipolar Disorder
Scott Sullivan was misdiagnosed, became suicidal, and nearly lost the brewery that he dedicated five years of his life building. The owner of Greenbush Brewing Co. in Sawyer, Michigan hit a raw nerve with much of the craft beer industry last year when beer blog SommBeer published an interview with Sullivan. In it, he went public with his struggle with mental illness.
Simply by acknowledging his own fight, he, in effect, yet without malice, called out an entire industry. He poked a bear that needed it—a bear that’s kind of always buzzed and refuses to confront a major problem. For the beer industry at large, a world in which Sullivan has lived and breathed, the glamorization of over-consumption is normal, expected, and tolerated. And, the taboo surrounding mental health, which is commonly correlated to problem-drinking, puts those with skin in the game on edge just talking about it.
We reached out to Sullivan in solidarity, and sat down with him to dive a little deeper into his story. The conversation below originally took place in June 2018, but we felt it was too important to not revisit. So, we caught up with Sullivan recently to find out how he’s been since we last spoke. You can get his status update, which has been amended at the end of the interview, below.
He took a chance, did the right thing, and now he’s better, nay, healthier for it.
Better Drinking Culture: What are the variables driving mental health issues? What are the core problems? Scott Sullivan: This is an interesting industry because there’s so many creative people driving what we do. There seems to be a correlation between mental health issues and unhealthy consumption by those whose creativity is so heavily relied on. Speaking for the industry as a whole, you see so many of us go through the same thing. Greenbush has been in the game for seven years—you go through this rapid growth rate, things are going great, business gets busier and busier, and the stress creates anxiety and depressive cycles.
When Greenbush started, how much of the workload were you carrying?
We had two people kind of on staff and another owner who, at the time, was silent, but the majority was on me. I was the one brewing, washing kegs, I literally built the bar, did most of the renovation in the taproom—the hardwood, finishing, lighting—everything you could think of.
Particularly for owners or anyone responsible for managing multiple facets of a business and its operations—the sheer volume of work, especially during those first few years just to put everything together and then to actually make it keep running is unforgiving. To meet customer demand and expectations you become part of this machine that doesn’t stop. It’s not surprising to see people struggling with mental health.
It’s like any small business, but the extremely expensive aspects of running a brewery certainly add a layer to that startup pressure.
How long did you endure that initial daily grind?
That lasted… [pauses] It still would be going if we didn’t reorientate what we were doing and I didn’t start delegating or allowed people to help take some of that weight. It stopped for me when I had a fall and collapse, but not a day before. That was November 2016. So, for five-and-a-half years straight everything intensified day after day. And then finally I just snapped.
What does it look like for stress to manifest to the point of someone “snapping?”
My case was a little different. At that time, I didn’t know that I also had bipolar disorder. It’s pretty common though for people to find out that they have it after they have a major episode of some kind. In my case, that’s what it took. In the case of someone who is just dealing with a high level of stress, they might just start experiencing massive burnout. They might struggle to get up and come to work every day. In my case, it was a full-on breakdown.
Then what happens?
I started self-medicating—drinking just to be able to get through.
What happened to your drinking habits during all of this?
After the snap, I stopped completely. I took a leave of absence for four months. A lot was happening back then. I originally got misdiagnosed, and what I thought was voluntary ended up turning into me getting locked up in a mental facility for three days near Detroit. I had to have people intervene to help me get out.
What led up to it was that I had been diagnosed with anxiety and depression, and was put on a medication that made me suicidal. I wasn’t drinking, I wasn’t eating, I wasn’t doing anything. It took about five or six months after that for me to even start to feel comfortable having a beer again.
Your hindsight now sounds very clear, but how self-aware were you back then about what you were going through?
It’s weird to say that it’s fortunate that I broke, but I’m very fortunate that I did because I wouldn’t have known what I had. After going through months of feeling suicidal, nothing was working. I ended up driving out to a clinic in Seattle where I stayed for two months. Just being there and having to talk about yourself all day helped. Even though I still wasn’t correctly diagnosed, I did come back from Seattle better than I went in and with much more realistic self-awareness.
Things still felt wonky though, so I started seeing a psychologist who told me I might be “borderline”—as in borderline personality disorder. I was like, oh shit—that’s serious. That was my second misdiagnosis. Through a recommendation, I then saw a psychiatrist who, after 10 minutes of talking to me, said, “It shouldn’t have taken this long for someone to identify you as having bipolar.” He then asked if what they put me on was making me feel suicidal, and since I told him it was he told me to stop taking it immediately. He warned that detoxing off of it was going to suck. After I got that out of my system, he put me on another medication and I finally felt good, then better. Fast forward to the end of 2017 and I would’ve told you I felt really, really good. And now here I am and I feel the best I have in a while.
Once you were feeling better mentally, how did you transition back into running Greenbush?
Although we were a really well-known brewery throughout Michigan and in neighboring states, when I came back the brewery was about to fail. Fortunately, what I learned about managing workload and expectations while in Seattle helped me wrap my head around what I was going to do with Greenbush. The first thing we did was reorganize how the management structure was going to work because there was no way I was going to be able to handle all of it. But, I was the owner, and I needed to be here. I wanted to be here. Now, we have a normal balance. But, not a lot of breweries are fortunate enough to have that balance—breweries start by someone making beer in their garage, it takes off, then before you know it you’re in over your head.
The brewery obviously didn’t close, but was there other collateral damage?
Being on medication and being healthy eliminated the predilection of feeling like I had to self-medicate because my stress level wasn’t elevated. I especially know that because in the midst of all of it, the family turmoil that I was going through because of all of this… [pauses] I got divorced, basically lost my kids… [pauses] That would’ve been enough to make any normal person crack on a regular day, but I was doing alright—considering. I was getting better. All of that has helped me in how I approach my life now.
I know you were drinking more than you should’ve. Has that always played a part in your life?
I’ve been bipolar since I was a kid, I just didn’t know it. The real heavy stressors started to hit me when I got to college, but I didn’t drink until I was almost done with college.
Why’d you wait to drink?
A few reasons. I grew up in a pretty conservative church. There had been bad experiences with alcohol in generations before me in my family, and back then the emphasis was based on alcohol’s hereditary influence. The messaging we got was all fear-factor based, but when I was around 21 I thought I could handle it. For a number of years I could. I didn’t start using it as a coping mechanism when I opened the brewery. I used it as a coping mechanism during all general stressful situations in my life, and then when I opened the brewery it just intensified.
The correlation was high stress. Taking on a brewery was unlike anything I had ever done—it was a very, very different animal that resulted heightened manic episodes.
Whether someone’s opening their own brewery or pursuing any other high-pressure endeavor, what are some of the warning signs that what you’re going through is more serious than just a temporary season of normal stress or being depressed?
This is a really tough question. That scenario happens for a lot of people, and there’s still such a stigma about mental health that makes it exponentially difficult to start getting the right help. Not having a support network… [Sullivan transitions…]
The day that my interview with SommBeer came out just so happened to be the day the news broke that Kate Spade committed suicide. And then three days after that the news hit that Anthony Bourdain committed suicide. So, suddenly, everyone wants to talk about suicide, yet no one is talking about root cause.
This is my big issue: the conversation needs to be about root cause. To your question, that’s what you’re really asking about. Because there’s a stigma, nobody wants to talk about it. You may be surrounded by a support network, but there’s just some stuff people are guarded talking about—sexuality, etc. The biggest one is what’s going on in your head. People just lock up.
You might have the inclination that something’s off in your head, but if you don’t have open dialogue with people who care about you… We need to ask, “Hey, man—how are you, you doing okay?” It’s not impossible, but it’s also not easy identifying this while in your own vacuum.
Did anyone in your network ever voice concern about your well-being?
My ex-wife said for a long time that she thought something was not okay, but I couldn’t listen to what she was saying because I couldn’t wrap my head around what it was. I don’t mean to blame everything on stigma, but it does play a big role in this. You don’t ever want to think you’re not okay. People need to start being okay with not being okay—in the sense that it’s okay to identify that and get help. It’s an acknowledgment of the fact that you’re not always going to be okay, but you don’t have to suck all the time either. It’s okay to have problems. It’s okay to need help.
Why do you go to the dentist twice a year? Why do you get an annual physical? Because you should. But no one ever checks in on their own head.
The service and hospitality industry is staffed people who would consider themselves all part of a giant, universal family. Generally speaking, that family is known to be dysfunctional, and to be fair—endearing. But, I’ve worked with many of them over the years, and it was common to laugh about how f’ed up we all were, and how it was normal to abuse substances to cope. How do they break the cycle of feeding that stigma, and learn to check in on each other?
That’s even harder than talking through it with your close friends because your colleagues are also your social circle, and no one wants to be the first person to tell a friend and co-worker, “A, you seem off. And, B, you’re drinking (or whatever) too much.” You don’t want to be the guy who calls somebody out, and you don’t want to be the guy who gets called out. It’s not cool, it’s not gonna happen.
The thing is—it starts with the individual. If you want to break down stigma, you have to be willing to be self-reflective and go out on a limb—for yourself.
In the same regard, I’m going out on a limb right now. For myself, and for talking about the stigma. I could take a lot of heat for what I’m saying. I can be judged for what’s going on with me, my drinking, whatever. There’s a million and ten ways people can dissect what you say, but I think it’s important first and foremost to be honest with yourself.
I know that might not have answered your question, but that’s because there’s no easy answer. People aren’t going to be willing to do that with one another until it starts being okay.
Where you aware that you were drinking to self-medicate?
Oh, yeah. I did not like the way I felt. I didn’t like knowing that I was in a vicious cycle. I didn’t like thinking to myself, “You shouldn’t do that,” and then going ahead and doing it anyway. It’s an impulse-control thing. When I see people talking about alcoholism, I see it as impulse-control, which is difficult for people who don’t have their shit together.
You know, your job educating people about Better Drinking Culture would be a lot easier if the industry and professionals started talking about root cause.
What’s your definition of “root cause”?
The thing or circumstance in your life that drives you to do things you ought not do.
What’s your recommendation for what other alcohol establishment owners and industry leaders can do to create healthier working environments?
You know, so many companies offer medical and dental, and some embrace wellness programs, but what they mean is go running during lunch or bike to work. We rarely to never include mental health as a component in that package, and we need to.
The other thing is that back in the early days of the brewery—and I know we’re not alone in this because it happens every day across our industry—everyone drinks everywhere all the time. C’mon, how many workplaces can you just walk around and drink wherever you want on the job?! It’s so dumb. And here I am, over seven years later, going, “Why were we doing that?!”
Sure, as the owner, I could easily sit at my desk and drink a beer. And then all of a sudden you’ve been drinking all day. Even though I don’t have those driving forces anymore that make me want to drink all the time, I still have to be mindful every time I do drink. The easy access to alcohol in our industry makes it uniquely different than if you worked in an insurance office, for example.
Can you talk about the myth that says creative people, like those in the beer industry, need to be on something in order to fuel their creativity?
This is very American—romanticizing alcohol abuse, but we don’t want to talk about the celebrity who died from choking on their own vomit from alcohol poisoning, right? It’s total bullshit.
My psychiatrist says, “Everybody thinks that when they go on medication that it will dull them and they’ll be less creative because it will tone down all their nonsense, but statistically the opposite is overwhelmingly true.”
People think the Keith Richards thing is great [that you can consume an unimaginable amount of drugs and alcohol throughout your life and still be a legend], but I think it’s sad. Yeah, I marvel at the fact that the guy is still alive, but it’s kind of pathetic.
Is there an approach we can take that doesn’t make people believe they have to hit rock bottom in order to come out of whatever they’re struggling with?
I think it comes down to your condition, and personality type. In my scenario, collapsing is pretty common. The biggest approach, I think, is helping encourage people to be self-reflective and open. You don’t have to open every single aspect of your entire life, but there should be somebody you could do that with.
You know, sometimes I feel like I’m dancing around saying that everyone should see a psychologist. Now, I’m not going to make a blanket statement and say that everyone should, but I don’t think it would hurt. Why wouldn’t you want to find out something about yourself that you could get help with? You don’t want to wait until you realize you have a tumor the size of a baseball to find out you have cancer.
Can you talk about the day you broke?
I was at the brewery during a typical day, drank I don’t know how much, somehow found my way back to my house, and had a full-on meltdown. Woke up the next day and drove to my brother’s in New York. That was the beginning of the end for me. Fortunately, my family intervened. They were massively supportive.
My sister, who’s a social worker, flew out to New York to get me. As soon as she got there, I asked, “Is there something wrong with me?” I already knew the answer. She replied, “Yeah, Scott, there is, but you can deal with it by getting help.” I’ve been very blessed to have a lot of people around me to help me, and I understand that’s a luxury for some.
Now that you’ve gotten the proper help and your head’s clear, what do you think the beer/alcohol industry is getting wrong about addressing problem drinking and mental health?
Regarding mental health, this industry probably isn’t getting anything more wrong than any other industry, it just happens to probably be a bigger problem than most because of the predisposition of the nature of our industry. Everything is just exacerbated because of the medium [i.e., alcohol] we deal in.
As far as drinking too much, I’m starting to pay much more attention to it than I did in the past. As far as breweries behave, culturally speaking, it’s always been an endless party. I think when breweries slap “Drink responsibly” on products and ads it’s because their lawyers told them it was a good idea—not because they actually cared about the root cause.
Here’s the conundrum the beer and alcohol industry live in: businesses think that if their customers want to drink responsibly that they’re going to drink less. And, ultimately, what are alcohol companies beholden to at the end of the day? Selling more alcohol or getting people to be responsible adults? I can’t answer that for any other brewery, I cannot indict any other brewery, and I won’t compare us to any other brewery, but I would say that as a whole, across the board, I don’t believe the alcohol industry has handled this in any honorable way.
What I can say is what Greenbush’s attitude has been about it. Even when I was going through my stuff, our cut-off limits have always been pretty low. We’ve made a few high-ABV, big beers in our day, and it’s crazy how many people get seriously pissed off when they’re cut off. I almost wear that as a badge of honor—I know what the laws are and I don’t want to put my brewery, my staff, or myself on the line to not address it when people have consumed beyond their limit. That’s not to say we’ve always been a poster child for how we should be handling these issues, but I’m trying to approach it from a very simple ethical perspective. Too much is too much.
I don’t think our industry has reckoned with this at all.
Looking the other way on consumer over-consumption is reckless, but those in the industry with influence capable of making better decisions—whether it’s breweries themselves or policy makers—are in a position to do something. So why haven’t they?
They have. Session beers. [Sullivan laughs.] The implication is that instead of drinking two big beers, it’s less harmful to drink more session beers. I’m not the drinking police, but how many “crushable” beers are we talking about here? Let’s be clear, we know “a couple” means more than two.
The term “session” is even irritating. It makes it sound like you’re committing an undetermined length of time just to drink. There’s more to the experience than drinking more sessionable beers.
Based on what you’ve built in Sawyer, it appears as though you’re pushing past the idea of just running a typical, status-quo brewery.
Which is precisely why I’m perfectly okay telling you all of this. At this point, yes—we’re still a brewery. And we’ll likely continue to show up at the next drunkfest[ival]... I know that’s not what beer guilds intend for them to be, but we know that’s what they all turn into. We’re a part of that beer community because we happen to make beer, but we want to be known for more than a place people only want to go to get drunk.
We’re in Sawyer, Michigan, which has a population of about 800 people. Our mug club has 4,800. We make barbecue that people drive from all over for. We have a charcuterie case that’s pretty impressive. We have about 100 people working here who I care a lot about. The idea is for these 100 people to make this little town I grew up next to into this awesome, community thing. I’ll be happy when we transcend from “Greenbush Brewing Company” to just being known as “Greenbush”—a full encompassing experience that is its own vibrant community as well as part of the one we’re in in Sawyer, and one that contributes to a healthier industry as a whole.
So, what’s your challenge to someone who claims they want their brewery to be one for their community or an industry that thinks they’ve nailed what it means to “drink responsibly,” yet may not be as vocal or public as you in calling out the critical importance of mental health?
The support I’ve gotten—as well as the known absence of it—is validation that this stuff needs to be addressed. If you go back to that interview with SommBeer, read the comments by Ashley V Routson. She’s proof of everything that no one wants to talk about. It’s amazing that she put herself out there on a limb, too.
Now as a voice of advocacy for the health of people’s heads, do you hope others in positions similar to yours will speak up?
Absolutely. It’s as important as taking care of your body. It’s awesome if you can run a marathon or bike cross-country, but are we doing enough to ensure that we’re mentally healthy in the process?
The other thing I’d encourage breweries to do is look around your taproom. Be honest about what’s going on in there. Be fair about assessing whether your customers are being over-served or are drinking too much for their own good.
Let’s just be honest about the situation, take it for what it is, and then make a choice. If you choose to not do anything about, so be it, but don’t pretend like this stuff isn’t happening.
In terms of the workforce or those in the position of influence in the beer world, let’s stop engendering the excessiveness of this culture which is if not encouraged, well tolerated.
Update, as of May 30, 2019...
Scott! Since we last spoke almost a year ago, my first question is one you encouraged everyone to ask. So, brother, how are you? How’s your mental health?
Thanks for asking. Overall I’m doing pretty well. My business is continuing to do better. Continuing to honor that transition to teamwork support with a handful of us responsible for day-to-day operations, a lot of that general stress has been alleviated. I also got remarried in October, which is by far the biggest plus that’s happened to me in the past year.
On the flip side, the positives of my new personal situation had a lot of shitty side effects. Throughout the winter I had to contend with a few, and they contributed to a lot of stress/depression outside of work. However, unlike a few years ago, I have a lot of people around me who I’m open with and know how to read me. Medication is a good thing, and being extremely self-aware is really important. I can’t stress it enough—we need people around us because everyone has their breaking point. Even with how far I’ve come, I’ve still had a few times where someone has seen me getting totally overwhelmed by a crowd or starting to collapse emotionally. They’ve helped extract me from those situations before going into a full-on manic breakdown.
How has it been managing your drinking? Any pro tips for those still struggling with their own?
For the most part pretty good. That said, like anyone else, I have to contend with stuff life throws at you. Every once in a while I get overwhelmed, and my natural reaction is to want to cope somehow. Stresses still show themselves. Usually they can be dealt with by doing something proactive and healthy like going running, but there have still been a few times when I’ve been irritated with myself after the fact. Instead of listening to the voice that tells me to do something positive, I have teetered into checking out mentally and drinking instead. So, I keep coming back over and over to self-awareness. When I was in the clinic in Seattle, they used to preach that people are not supposed to be all good or all bad, but good enough. I’m not going to beat myself when I make a mistake, but I’m also going to look at what went wrong that allowed me to get into that position.
Dude. Good on you for holding yourself accountable without punishing yourself. I’m proud of you. In other news, have you seen any progress regarding mental health advocacy in the industry?
Not in the slightest. I see it as a combination of things. First, people still can’t seem to make the cognitive leap to disassociate symptomatic behavior from its root cause. If people ever talk about anything, it’s overconsumption and that’s pretty infrequently addressed at best. The mental health component that predicates people’s behavior is rarely addressed.
My personal opinion is that it’s a combination of denial and fear. People by nature don’t want to admit their problems, and if they do admit them they are often loathed into dealing with them. Taking the next step and having the courage to be public about them in order to help those around them is pretty much non-existent.
As far as the industry itself, here’s a fun exercise: Search the internet for information about breweries, brewery owners, guilds, beer periodicals, national associations, or whatever and look for initiatives that they are engaged in that shine a spotlight on mental health. Try the same search specifically on Michigan. The results are really depressing.
When SommBeer did that interview with me a year ago regarding these issues I was heartened by how many brewery folk reached out in support of my efforts to try to make the issue public and known. There are definitely people who care. I was in fact rather shocked that only one internet media outlet got on me for “grandstanding on a valid issue” or something like that, but considering their relationship to the person I was calling out, I disregarded it.
A year later, the only thing I’m aware of is a panel discussion that happened at [the Brewers Association] Craft Brewers Conference. Everything else is radio silent. Nobody wants to get on the wrong side of anyone else because of how they think it might affect their business. We’ve always take the opposite approach here so I suppose for now we’ll just keep doing what we’re doing until someone wants to join in.
We’re in. Curious, did you ever connect with Ashley V Routson?
I didn’t. I read her comments on that SommBeer interview, and was really impressed. I’ve paid attention to most everything she posts over the past few years and I think it’s great that she speaks up. I’m on that side of the state constantly so hopefully I run into her sometime because she has a strong voice.
I’ve got a feeling this will land on her radar. Is there anything we didn’t get to during our last conversation that you think still needs to be said?
Yeah, I wish alcohol would cease to be viewed as a romanticized pedestal in American culture, and instead gradually become one of many components that make up our daily living. Americans have this tendency to do everything in excess because we don’t value balance the same way.
We push things like big box stores where everything is in bulk, 40 oz sodas, triple-scoop waffle cones and 6,000 square foot homes. When we drink, we do the same. They’re all a drug of choice, we all get our fix from something, usually in excess, and then we keep needing to feed that craving. Moderation is a wonderful in theory, but do we apply it?
We are a very tribal people. We give allegiance to sports teams and car brands. In turn, beer has become a tribe. We are the “craft beer movement.” Our beer is better than their beer. With tribalism comes group think and with group think comes group rules. In relation to your questions, the group rules of the beer “community,” whatever that is, are poignant in that we’re not having meaningful discussions about mental health or alcohol abuse. Hopefully this will help motivate other to set themselves apart as individuals and new leaders who aren’t afraid to force these issues into the spotlight.
[Reaching for a new lightbulb…] So, what’s up next for Greenbush?
A few things we’re pretty excited about. We’ve been adding reps to our tri-state distribution footprint (Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois), which means we’ve been able to get our beer in front of new fans. While we’re busy building out our central/southern Indiana market, we’re expanding distribution into Kentucky and Ohio. We’re also adding a taproom in Indiana that will include a pilot brewing system. And, of course, back here at homebase in Sawyer, we’re ramping up for summer by enhancing our current food menus, putting out new experimental and small-batch beers, and enjoying every minute watching the crush of cars driving into town just to see us. It’s been good, man. Thanks.
Follow Greenbush’s success and send fist bumps and high-fives to Scott at greenbushbrewing.com.