Moving away from ‘things we don’t say’
Jen Hain is tapping her experience with depression and the brewery she owns with her husband to bring mental health awareness and acceptance into the conversational mainstream.
Listen to Jen’s Story
Jen Hain and her husband, Dan, own Fetch Brewing Company, a craft microbrewery located in the neighboring cities of Montague and Whitehall on the shores of White Lake, not far from Lake Michigan. Dan is the brewmeister, Jen manages the books. Together they juggle parenting their three boys, the oldest, 13, and 10-year-old twins.
Jen is 45, with a heart-shaped face, an engaging laugh and a way of speaking that is warmly genuine and disarmingly frank. She’s never tried to hide the fact that she’s lived with clinical depression since her early teens. Her husband knew about it long before they married and even her kids know what it means when Dad says “Mom’s off the clock today.”
So earlier this year, when she and Dan heard about an effort by the nonprofit Hope for the Day encouraging craft breweries to create a special “Things We Don’t Say” IPA to raise funds for mental health awareness and acceptance, they knew “this was in our wheelhouse.”
“We have a lot of opportunities to do fundraising beers and we haven’t done a lot of them,” says Hain, speaking on Zoom from a sun-filled room of her Michigan home, where at one point a dog bounds past the video camera. “But this one, for obvious reasons, hit home.”
When it was time for the IPA’s release, Jen decided to go one step further, penning a Facebook post that openly shared her diagnosis and asked others to “help shift how we approach mental health by encouraging people to talk about their experiences and feelings, both good and bad, and to demonstrate the importance of asking for help when we need it.”
Beneath a photo of her in a burgundy Fetch hoodie, one hand wrapped around the handle of a mug of freshly drawn brew, she wrote these words:
“I, Jen Hain, co-owner of Fetch and wife to Dan, have and will always have clinical depression. I say this without shame and full of intention. I am not shy or quiet about my journey with depression (with a side of anxiety) because my struggles don’t define me. In fact, it’s my depression that gives me some of the qualities about myself that I truly like: my ability to listen, my understanding of others and my endless depths of empathy.
“In talking about my reality, I have made it OK for others to tell me about theirs – many of whom never felt heard before. To all you over-thinking, self-loathing, hyper-critical, anxiety-riddled people who struggle with depression on all of these levels or more, you are not alone. There are so many other good people like you out there and you will be OK.”
Though she warned her family and her staff members that she planned to write “a vulnerable post,” Hain says there wasn’t much deliberation behind her decision to share her situation publicly. Nor did she consider it particularly “brave.”
“I’ve always been so open about it – basically because I have no poker face, so there’s no other option – so I could just expose this side of me and then turn off my computer, get up and go about my day,” she says. “Because I have such a support system and I’m so OK with where I’m at in my journey, I don’t think brave is the word to use for what I did. It would be the word to use for someone who was afraid to come out.”
Those were the kind of people she heard from after posting her message. It was liked and shared and “hearted” hundreds of times and dozens of people commented or confessed to their own struggles in private messages. In subsequent days, Hain – who is well-known and liked in her small community – was shocked at the number of people she hears from and the conversations she had with others who had never before revealed their mental health challenges to anyone.
“Messages like, ‘I had no idea…I am also in the same boat…I’ve struggled with this for years…I have PTSD,” she says. “These were from people I’ve known so long and I had no idea either. They’re the brave ones. Because it’s the first time they’ve said it outside of their comfort zone. That’s huge and that’s where the change needs to happen.”
Her own depression started during her high school years, when “society deems you’re supposed to be having the time of your life,” but when she found it hard to do much more than go through the motions.
“I came home from school, slept, maybe woke up to eat a nibble of something and do my homework and then went back to sleep,” she recalls. “All I really wanted to do was retreat and not engage.”
Among her peers at that time – the late ‘80s – adopting an attitude of darkness and negativity was appropriated by the grunge movement, so that depression became considered “more of a lifestyle choice” than a mental illness. (“But it wasn’t my lifestyle choice,” she adds.) Her family was aware she was struggling — her mother understood that something wasn’t right, but her father was more a “snap out of it kind of person” — but the subject was never openly discussed. Consequently “I just kind of slipped through the cracks for a very long time,” she says.
Hain started college “because that’s what you do in our family,” but even after getting some counseling and trying several medications, she was not successful and chose to drop out to work full time. That didn’t help much with her depression, “but it did allow me to gain some control over my life, which set me on a better path.”
For several years she pushed her mental health to the side, caught up in “just taking care of myself, paying bills and having fun when I could.” Then, at 28, she got married to her first husband, a close friend who also suffered from a depression he “wore on his sleeve.” (“Misery loves company,” she says, grimacing.)
“Of the two of us, I came across as the stronger one, so that was kind of my crutch,” she admits. “Because if your depression can be not as bad as the person standing next to you, they you must be doing OK, right?”
When the relationship ended – precipitously and without forewarning – Hain went into a spiral so deep that, this time, her parents “pretty much did an intervention.” She ended up in an intense one-week program in Tennessee aimed at healing trauma and enhancing emotional health by building empathy, self-awareness, resiliency and compassion.
It “changed everything” because it “allowed me to be more authentic to who I am,” says Hain, who divorced soon thereafter. She changed careers (she’d been in banking, which had never been something she loved) and met her current husband, with whom she was immediately up front about her depression.
“I know he appreciated that it wasn’t a taboo topic,” she said. “I even told him, ‘When it starts rearing its head, this is what it will look like.’ So for him, there was no unknown, nothing scary, just ‘this is what you get.’ I was at that point in my life where I was going to put all my cards on the table – the good, the bad and the ugly.”
Hain says even now, more than a decade later, she continues to search for the right medication that will reduce her symptoms without “numbing” her emotions. Though she has tried many and they all work initially, eventually she hits a plateau where she begins having trouble feeling anything at all.
“I have a difficult time feeling sadness when it’s appropriate or joy when it’s appropriate and that’s so hard because I like those parts of me, I like those emotions,” she says. “And I’m still struggling with that and it’s a hard place to be. It’s a cycle because you think, ‘I’ll just rely on my tools to manage without medication so I stop taking them and then all of a sudden I’m having irrational responses to things. So I’m still looking for that better balance.”
Meanwhile, her children are perhaps her best medicine, Hain says, because they “remind me that my parenting is bigger than my depression, that I am bigger than this.” Her own difficulties have made her particularly watchful of her children’s mental well being. When the twins recently showed signs of struggling with the isolation imposed by the Covid pandemic, she wasted no time in getting the family to a counselor.
“I want them to be part of this coming generation that doesn’t make mental health taboo to talk about,” she says. “That makes it OK and realistic and approachable.”
And Hain believes that cultural shift is not far off. Many of her employees at the brewery are milennials, a generation that has been unjustly maligned, negatively stereotyped and “gotten a bad rap.” She, on the other hand, sees in them a in a different light and believes their healthier and more inclusive attitude and approach could be the answer to eliminating the taboo against discussing mental illness once and for all.
“The one thing that generation has down 100 percent is the ability to talk about mental health,” she says. “We refer to it as the ability to be vulnerable, but for their generation, it’s just being honest. They almost celebrate difference; their desire to be unique, rather than to try to “fit in” is part of their identity.
“I have a lot of hope that they will take the torch on this issue and run with it. They’re on the right path, if only the older generations get over their egos and out of their way and clear the path for them.”