Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Not to Punish but to Understand

Sometimes it happens that you read or hear or experience something so sharp, so surprising, so out of left field, so TRUE that it stops you in your tracks. That’s what happened the other day when I came across this quote on social media.

Imagine meeting someone who wanted to learn your past not to punish you, but to understand how you needed to be loved. (Author unknown)

There is personal relevance in the words, for me and others in my life right now. But that’s not what I want to write about. What I want to explore — and I am writing as much for me as for you, dear reader — is why it would ever be otherwise. Why are those lines so shocking? Ought not every person we meet — certainly every person we allow in close — approach us in such a way?

Perhaps. Well, yes, in fact. But for a whole heap of reasons silence and stigma and shame remain powerful forces in society at large and in the smaller, more immediate communities in which we live out our lives. Wherever we meet — in our families, schools, colleges, places of work and of worship — the response to us, to our stories and histories, so often falls short of the caring curiosity for which we yearn.

Sadder still, we punish ourselves for what we have done or said, or failed to do or failed to say; the times we believe we have let ourselves or others down. How rarely do we approach ourselves with compassion?

What would it feel like if we did? How would it feel to explore our own stories wanting not to punish but to understand how we need to be loved?


Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Even the Good Things: A Lesson in Letting Go

There are moments when everything stops.

I felt it yesterday after a week or more filled with activity and people and work and possibilities and doubts and anxieties and joys and new friends and old friends and smiles and conversations and sharing and a movie that touched me deeply.

After all of that there came a pause. Not an ending but a natural hiatus, like the moment between breathing in and breathing out that we fail to notice most of the time because we are too busy doing or saying or thinking about other things.

And I didn’t know what to do with it. The gap. The space. I told Fran I felt flat. And she said:

Embrace the flatness

That was it. Three words. She knew I didn’t need a lecture or a diagram or a two hour conversation. And she was right. And what came to me in that moment of being reminded (re-mind-ed) was something we have been working with over the years we have been friends.


It can be challenging to handle powerful emotions, especially when they seem to come out of nowhere. Rather than allowing our emotions free rein, or trying to deny them, we find it helps to accept what we feel, take whatever meaning we can from the experience, and then release our attachment to it so we can move on.

High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder

And so that’s what I did. (In this context, “Embrace” can stand for the first three parts: Feel, Claim, Love.) I felt what I had labelled as “flatness.” And found that it was not empty or still at all. At its “flat” surface emotions rose and fell back, shifting in and out of existence even as I became aware of them. It was a dynamic emotional silence like the kind of acoustic silence that is alive with ambient sound. I smiled.

I claimed it as mine. No one else was responsible or to blame. No one else in the history of the universe past, present or future had known, or knew, or would know this moment as I had the capacity to know it. This was mine. This was me.

And I loved it. Or rather I was aware of a rush of love that began with me and expanded out to all my friends, family, all the people in my life, all the events and connections between them and me and within them and between us all. A moment of acceptance. The kind that makes you sigh out loud.

And letting go? I recalled a poem I’d read aloud to Fran a few days before. It wasn’t new to us but some things are worth revisiting.

She Let Go, by Safire Rose

Like a leaf falling from a tree, she just let go.
There was no effort.
There was no struggle.
It wasn’t good and it wasn’t bad.
It was what it was, and it is just that.

And I let go. I let go of my expectations of what flatness ought to be. I let go of any judgment about what I was feeling or not feeling or doing or not doing. I let go of my attachment to even this moment of bliss. And I smiled again, hearing a friend’s words clearly in my mind:

Vikki: Even the good things I’ve got to let go?

Martin: Not the things, but the feels, yes. How else can the next feelings arrive if you’re holding on too tightly to the old ones? You don’t have to let go of them immediately, just don’t hold on too long. It’s mostly the bad things we hold on to too long.


Wednesday, 1 August 2018

What a Week That Was!

I’m writing this at AMT Coffee in Newcastle’s Central Station. I am meeting a friend in an hour or so but right now it’s Marty time.

Just over a week ago I attended Newcastle Recovery College Collective’s leaving party at Broadacre House. The college is moving to new accommodation in the autumn and there was a distinct “end of an era” feel about the event which amply demonstrated how important ReCoCo is to those who use it. I had a fabulous time listening to the karaoke (Vikki you were awesome!) and even got up to dance at one point. Thanks to everyone for making me feel so welcome.

The following day I volunteered for Time to Change at Newcastle Pride. This was the third time I’d done so and as usual I had a great time catching up with old friends (hi Carol, Angela, Aimee, and Amanda) and making new ones (hi Nicki!)

We were there to engage with folk visiting the event, to share information and answer questions about Time to Change, and to help encourage a more open approach to mental health. I lost count of the conversations I had but one or two in particular left an impression on me. As I told a friend later:

For me, what makes it so worthwhile is when I am talking to someone who might not be used to sharing about their mental health and I comment or ask a question and they are like “yes!” In that moment there is this really genuine human connection. That happened a few times today.

Monday was a big day for me. It was my debut appearance on the Executive Team call at work. I was there to present the mental health initiatives I’ve been helping develop with the rest of our fledgling mental health team. I’d got myself all stressy about the technology side of attending the call, but thanks to several colleagues especially my fab boss Judith, and Cheryl who let me impersonate her for the occasion, it all went smoothly.

My main objective was to gain approval for the company to sign up to Time to Change’s Employer Pledge Scheme. It says a lot about our leadership team that my recommendation was approved unanimously. I’m looking forward to taking the initiative forward in the weeks to come.

Outside of work my week has been rich and full with phone calls and chats and face-to-face conversations with friends near and far. After a couple of weeks’ break I’ve also got back to my writing, with a new article on bipolar anger for bp Magazine. In something of a departure for me I have been able to draw on a wide range of experiences generously shared by others. It has broadened my knowledge and awareness and the final article will be far richer for it. Anger is a fascinating topic and I’m already considering a possible follow-up article (thanks Barry for that idea!)

So yes, it has been a busy week! I wonder what the next one will bring?!


Wednesday, 25 July 2018

How I Identify with Brain on Fire

Film review by Aimee Wilson

“Have you ever been trapped? Lost in your own body? Lost in your own mind? Lost in time? So desperate to escape. To just… get out.” — Susannah Cahalan

Firstly, thank you to Marty and Fran for asking me to write this piece on the brand-new Netflix movie Brain on Fire starring the incredible Chloe Grace Mortez. Secondly, apologies in advance — I haven’t written many film reviews, so this may not turn out how you’d assume.

I first saw the film in the ‘spotlight on’ section of the Netflix homepage and after I recognised Chloe Grace Mortez from the Kickass films and on seeing that mental health comes into it, I was determined to watch it. So, when one of my best-friends came over and said she hadn’t seen it; we knew what we’d be doing for the next hour and a half!

I guess that besides typing up the Netflix description of the film, the best way to explain it is by telling you my answer to those who have asked me ‘what’s it about?’ I say that it’s based on a true story and is about a young girl who gets all these strange symptoms and they try to say it’s mental health. Mortez’s portrayal of the main character Susannah Cahalan is incredible; the way she shows the crippling symptoms that the real Susannah Cahalan experienced speaks massively of her talent. I think that a huge reason for my enjoyment of the film is that I can identify with some of the biggest aspects of the story.

Psychologically, feeling trapped was one of the first emotions I experienced when I was abused; It felt like I couldn’t ever distance myself from myself; like my mind was trapped in my body. I think it came from dissociating during the abuse. I experienced my abuse as though I were floating from the ceiling watching it happen to another girl. Although that might seem better than experiencing it like it was actually happening to myself, I also had the conflicting feeling that it was worse because it was as though I were just standing back and watching this terrible thing happen to a poor, innocent girl; and I wasn’t doing anything to stop it. The worst bit was that I felt like I could. I was convinced that I could stop it; even from my position of floating on the ceiling.

Another symptom that is portrayed in the movie which I identify with is — obviously — when Susannah begins hearing voices. When I first experienced auditory hallucinations, it was like I was stuck in my body; I had no escape and was forced to listen to these strangers who consumed every inch of my head. Just like in the movie, not everything the voices said affected me in the same way; sometimes it was just like white noise and I’d only be able to pick out them saying my name every so often, and sometimes… yes, like in the movie… sometimes they wished me dead. I think that sometimes it didn’t actually matter to me what they were even saying; more about the fact that they were there and able to say something. Like Susannah Kahalan, the Doctors didn’t know what was wrong with me after I began hearing voices and a million different diagnoses were thrown at me before they decided on Borderline Personality Disorder.

I think that identifying with a character is always a great sign of a talented Actress and an incredible film and that’s why I’d definitely recommend you watch Brain on Fire on Netflix.

About the Author

Aimee Wilson is a 27-year-old mental health blogger who has used her personal experiences to develop a popular online profile. Aimee was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder in 2009, and after over 60 attempts on her life was admitted to a long-term, specialist psychiatric hospital almost 200 miles from home. It was during her two-and-a-half-year stay in hospital that Aimee began her blog: I’m NOT Disordered.

Originally it was meant as an outlet for pent-up frustrations from inpatient life, and a means to document her journey through the trauma therapy that eventually led her into recovery in 2014. The blog has developed into a platform for others to tell their stories and to give their own message to the world — whatever it may be.

Aimee’s blog has grown over the past three years, and now has over a quarter of a million readers. Its popularity has resulted in three newspaper (in print) appearances, two online newspapers, BBC1 national news, ITV local news, interviews on BBC Radio 5 Live and Metro Radio; as well as a TV appearance on MADE.

Aimee has had the opportunity to work with such organisations as North Tyneside and Wear NHS Foundation Trust, Northumbria Police, Time to Change, Cygnet Healthcare; and with individuals who range from friends, family and colleagues, to well-known people in the mental health industry.

You can follow Aimee’s blog and read more about her at


Monday, 16 July 2018

Bipolar and Saying No: Why I Can’t Always Do Fun Things with You

An open letter to a friend by Julie A. Fast

Dear Friend,

It really upsets me that I have to say no all of the time. I see that you are going to the coast and staying in a cabin while having a barbecue. That really sounds fun. A few of you went to New York last week for a vacation. That sounds amazing. Another friend often has a TV night with her friends and sleeps on the couch if she has too much wine. That sounds like fun!

Some of my friends work a seventy hour week and it sounds exciting.

Others go to sporting events and sit way up in the stands and tell me it was amazing!

I want you to know how much I appreciate it that you ask me to do these things and then explain why I can’t join you.

It’s the bipolar. I don’t ever use bipolar as an excuse for bad behavior. That is why we are such good friends. You trust me and I trust you. But I know that my inability to be as social as you might like can cause us some problems.

If there is a party, I might say no or I might have to leave early. I will never hang out all night for New Year’s Eve and that block party that everyone says is so much fun is just a lot of noise in my bipolar brain.

You are not the reason I say no. In fact, I want you to continue to ask me to do things. You might have noticed that I sometimes do say yes to the evening or day long plans!

But for now, I want you to know how much I appreciate it when we meet for breakfast. Tea or an early happy hour is really great. I love going to karaoke by the hour because we can get there early and leave early. We still get to sing!

I LOVE it that you have so many friends and that you invite me to your parties. I know it is frustrating when you hear me say I am lonely, as I am the one who often says no to your events.

I’m writing this so that we can keep our friendship strong. Here is how you can help me and here is why I appreciate your friendship SO much.

  1. Bipolar is a sleep disorder. If you think of it that way, it will help you see why I have to say no to anything that disrupts sleep. You know how you can do a hood to coast run, stay up all night manning a booth for your other runner friends, meet for pancakes the next morning and then sleep it off the next day? That is not possible for me. That situation could put me in the hospital. I know. It’s crazy, but sleep is that important.
  2. Bipolar is predictably unpredictable. I never know for sure when I will be triggered but I know my basic triggers. Crowds — so sporting events and concerts will always be hard on me. Meeting new people. I CRAVE new experiences, but my bipolar brain interprets them as stress. So anything new is a challenge.
  3. I’m easily tired out by life. Work and seeing you for coffee might be all that I can do in one day. I hate this. I really do! But I have not been in the hospital for years and my friendships are stable because I am so careful.

These are just a few of the reasons I have to say no to things you find enjoyable and easy. And here is how you can help me.

  1. Encourage me to try new things and let me know that I can leave if it gets too rough. I am NOT saying I should say no to everything. That is unreasonable. I want to say yes, but let me have an outlet. For example, if I make it 90 minutes at a party, that is a success! If I have to leave a concert early, I probably enjoyed the first part a lot!
  2. Remind me that I am in control of my life and taking care of my bipolar is what makes our friendship strong.
  3. Remind me to think of YOUR needs. I can’t say no to everything you like and expect you to only do what I like. I truly want to find middle ground. You are my guide with this. Be honest with me. I can learn!

Thank you for being such a great friend. It has been fifteen years and counting. You are the best!



About the Author

Julie A. Fast is the author of Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder, Take Charge of Bipolar Disorder, Get it Done When You’re Depressed and The Health Cards Treatment System for Bipolar Disorder. Julie is a board member of The International Bipolar Foundation, a columnist and blogger for BP Magazine, and won the Mental Health America journalism award for the best mental health column in the US. Julie was the recipient of the Eli Lily Reintegration award for her work in bipolar disorder advocacy. She is a bipolar disorder expert for the Dr.Oz and Oprah created site ShareCare.

Julie is CEU certified and regularly trains health care professionals including psychiatric residents, social workers, therapists and general practitioners on bipolar disorder management skills. She was the original consultant for Claire Danes for the show Homeland and is on the mental health expert registry for People Magazine.

She works as a coach for parents and partners of people with bipolar disorder. Julie is currently writing a book for children called Hortensia and the Magical Brain: Poems for Kids with Bipolar, Anxiety, Psychosis and Depression. She struggles a lot due to bipolar disorder. Friendships keep her going.

You can find more about her work at and


Thursday, 12 July 2018

No Promises Asked For, Offered, or Needed. A Vacation Postcard to My Best Friend.

Monday July 9, 2018

Dear Fran

It is 7:10 p.m. here in the UK. 2:10 p.m. with you in Maine. This hour is our hour. Usually we would be on Skype, catching up on our news and our plans. Just hanging out together, as friends do the world over no matter where they live or how far apart in miles those places might be.

This isn’t a normal week, though, is it? I am on vacation here at Ambleside in the English Lake District. Travel – on either my part or yours – inevitably means some disruption to our routine. One Skype call per day instead of two, for example. Or shorter calls. Occasionally none. That used to hurt. These days not. Or not so much. We have learned to trust.

We are doing okay so far this week! We had video calls on Saturday and Sunday evenings, down by the jetty opposite the fish and chip shop. It is always fun to be on with you when I am “out and about,” able to not merely tell you what’s going on for me but show you.

The lake here at Ambleside (technically, where we are staying is called Waterhead, but it is part of the town of Ambleside). The roar of motorbikes leaving the car park next to where we were sitting yesterday. (Sadly, Skype doesn’t yet permit the sharing of smells: I would so have liked to share with you the tangy aroma of exhaust fumes as one biker revved her Harley in my face!) I showed you inside the Wateredge Inn, your first English pub. Maybe next time we will stay for a drink.

We touched a couple of times on chat earlier today to share our respective good mornings, and our weights. (At 185.2 lbs mine was close to the lowest it has been in many months which is especially rewarding given I’m on vacation when good practice is harder to maintain.)

No call today, though. Whilst I am enjoying the peace and tranquility of Borrans Park at the very northernmost point of Windermere (note I say tranquility, not silence: I can hear the lapping of waves at the shoreline, the call of birds in the air and on the water, voices from the pub, traffic, and a troupe of teenagers making their way in a very orderly fashion through the park) – whilst I am enjoying all this and taking photos and writing these words to share it with you later – you are out with friends having adventures of your own!

All being well – no promises asked for, offered, or needed – we will have our call tomorrow evening. And then you are off on a mini vacation of your own to Monhegan island! Four days. Three nights. No promises asked for, offered, or needed – but we will do our best to connect. To share words, the sounds of our voices, video, photos – the essence of who and where we are in the moment.

Because the moment is what we have to share. It is all any of us have. Seven plus years of moments have brought us to here as best friends. A heap more will carry us wherever we are set to go. Calls or not, Fran, I will be with you when you are away. As you are with me here today.

Hah! You just messaged me:

Milkshake AND ice cream. On boat.

– I figure you’re having fun! It’s not just that we are best friends, of course, is it? There is more to it than that. There is trust. And honesty. And vigilance. You messaged me earlier today:

Should I bring risperdal? I wonder if I am bordering on mania.

You mean today? Or for your trip? Definitely on the trip (it is on your packing list already). Worth bringing with you today if you are asking the question.

And so, at the mention of “milkshake AND ice cream,” I remind you to keep an eye out for that edge of mania. And that is how we are. We can switch seamlessly from whatever it might be that we are doing or talking about, into a deep and yet simple caring awareness that works both ways. (Not everyone gets that – that you are here as much for me as I am for you. In different ways, perhaps, but no less.) Thank you.

See you soon.