Thursday, 24 December 2015

friends fierce with their friendship

My deep gratitude for all those who never gave up on me during all my holiday-hating years. You all deserve jingles and bells and snowflakes and carols and pressies and happiness. When one has mental illness it’s nearly impossible to feel anything but gloom or death or anger. Fortunately I have friends who are fierce with their friendship. They see the tiny glow inside me and gently fan it. Because of them today I feel alive and strangely jolly and hopeful. May everyone have friends who let us stand on their feet without flinching, and let us chance a look through their eyes to taste joy..

Fran

 

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

I often forget..

I often forget..
Years ago
Months ago
Weeks ago
Days ago
Hours ago
Even minutes..

So many times I can’t access the pathways in my brain to take me to memories I’ve lived. I can’t access names or even faces. Photos help, Facebook helps, writing helps. My best friend logs a calendar for me and reminds me of things forgotten. He often reminds me who I am..

Fran

 

Small potatoes

Success with my test run of garlic mashed potatoes! It is amazing even that I am in the kitchen. I feel completely incompetent. I am petrified of cutting myself, which I did. I struggle to focus. I have to keep reminding myself of what I am doing and what’s next. Besides my neurons misfiring I am full of fatigue and everything hurts. None of this needs to be a problem. I just gently go in slow motion not pushing myself beyond the turtle speed I am at. The accomplishment feels monumental and need not be compared with those who are gifted. Npr helps. It offers a feel of intelligence and company.

Fran

 

Thursday, 10 December 2015

The Secret to Closeness

“Two may talk together under the same roof for many years, yet never really meet; and two others at first speech are old friends.” (Mary Hartwell Catherwood)

American writer Mary Catherwood clearly knew a thing or two about friendship. Her words echo something Fran and I talk about in our book.

It is possible to feel utterly alone in the same room as people you have known for years. It is possible to sit beside someone you counted as a close friend, and feel utterly estranged. Those are the distances that get in the way. The good news is that distances can be bridged. Make the most of each opportunity, and every means at your disposal, to communicate honestly and often with your friend. Whether online or in person, find whatever ways work for you. That is the secret to closeness, and there is nothing virtual about it.

Gum on My Shoe, chapter 4, “Making Connections”

 

Don't Worry about Me. Care about Me.

“My friend didn’t feel sorry for me. She believed that I had the strength within me to recover and to grow. That was the kindest thing she could have done. That was her great gift.” (Helen Thomson)

These words from Helen Thomson epitomise the gift of care, rather than worry. As Fran and I explore in our book, the phrases “I worry about you” and “I care about you” are often used interchangeably, but there are three important differences.

When we care about a friend we are expressing our trust in their abilities, strengths, and resilience. We trust ourselves to support them as best we can, and others to contribute as they are able. We don’t feel we have to do it on our own, fix everything, or find all the answers. When we worry about a friend we express fear that they lack the resources to meet whatever challenges they are facing. We fear we don’t know what we are doing, that we will be found lacking, or not up to the task. We fear others won’t be around to contribute, and we will be left doing everything ourselves.

When we care we are focused on our friend’s needs and how best we can help them meet those needs. Worry is focused primarily on our own needs: our need to be perceived as loving and giving, or our need for the problem to go away as quickly as possible so we can get back to normal.

Worry dwells in the past (what has happened before in similar circumstances to us, to our friend, or to others) or the future (what might happen). Care attends to our friend’s needs in the present moment.

 

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Raging on

Sometimes I am filled with fury igniting a storm of tornado, hurricane, or wild fire. The recurring themes are my many lives lost and my limited present life, not that there need be a reason. The storm razes all the tender shoots I’ve carefully cultivated. Only the closest of friends stand by as I am slinging shots and snots. They are not afraid. They know me. They trust.

Funny how my inner landscape clashes with my outer. Wishing escape from my hated self I stumble out the door to clothe myself in city. Art music and familiar faces let me access a different part of myself while the storm rages on inside. I had good health and good fortune, and then not.

I am well aware of my fundamental nonacceptance of what is but right now I shall pretend to be as others are. There will be pain from this. There will be fatigue. And there will be tenderness, embracing, and unquenching rest yet again.

Fran

 

Friday, 4 December 2015

Spaceship Fran

I liken my body and mind to a spaceship. Not one all sleek and shiny and new and well-engineered. My spaceship looks like the hillbillies. Rusty and dented and old and engineered with duct tape. I need plenty of space to take off and land and navigate everything in between. My spaceship is rickety and noisy and overheats regularly.

It’s a Herculean task even to hold onto the madly vibrating controls, let alone steer the thing. The windshield is foggy and pebbled. Sometimes friends help guide my ship when I am unable. They also help with maintenance, which also is often too big for me. Eternal thanks is my contribution.

The controls consist of lots of buttons and dials. When I push a button I hope the something I want to happen does, but that’s not always so. Sometimes things go on when I want them off and vice versa. Sometimes the dials get stuck, the screens freeze and crash, and I’m left relying on my instinct, which hopefully is not also defective.

It would be tempting to leave me in the corner of the junkyard, but even without all the strength and frills others easily enjoy, I still believe I am valuable. At least that part’s not broken.

Fran

 

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Forever at the Heart, by Rachel Kelly

We are proud and delighted to introduce Rachel Kelly, author of Black Rainbow: How Words Healed Me, My Journey Through Depression and Walking on Sunshine: 52 Small Steps to Happiness.


Forever at the Heart

By Rachel Kelly

When I began to keep a diary of my year, noting down the strategies that were helping keep me steady, I began each new season with a poem.

Here’s my entry from the beginning of Spring:

We are just back from a family trip to the Lake District, where lambing was in full flow. Printed below is John Clare’s ‘Young Lambs’, his celebration of spring as a time of renewal, when all sorts of things seem possible. This poem slows me down and makes me appreciate and be more attentive to my surroundings, which I tend to ignore when I’m busy and overwhelmed.

The spring is coming by a many signs;

 The trays are up, the hedges broken down,

That fenced the haystack, and the remnant shines
Like some old antique fragment weathered brown.
And where suns peep, in every sheltered place,

The little early buttercups unfold

A glittering star or two – till many trace

 The edges of the blackthorn clumps in gold.

And then a little lamb bolts up behind

The hill and wags his tail to meet the yoe,

And then another, sheltered from the wind,

Lies all his length as dead – and lets me go

Close bye and never stirs but baking lies,

With legs stretched out as though he could not rise.

Clare describes the first signs of the unfolding season in loving detail. He sees ‘little early buttercups unfold’ into ‘a glittering star or two’. The haystacks from the last harvest have been dismantled ready for a new crop, leaving only a shining ‘remnant’ of hay behind. These winter leftovers are so out of place they seem like ‘some old antique fragment’ in a scene where everything else is renewed and brimming with possibility.

A lamb bounds out to meet the poet and ‘wags his tail’. Another, basking in the sun, allows him to walk right up to it ‘with legs stretched out as though it couldn’t rise’. Spring, to Clare, is best represented by a newborn animal, so carefree that it remains flat on its back, enjoying the sunshine even when the poet approaches. Stopping for a moment to imagine Clare’s sunbathing lamb always makes me smile.

Whatever the season, poetry has proved a lifesaver for me. Poetry first provided solace when I was first struck down with severe depression nearly twenty years ago. It was then that my mother – my constant nurse and companion – would sit by my bedside and repeat a line from Corinthians (the Bible being naturally rich with poetry): ‘My grace is sufficient for thee: my strength is made perfect in weakness.’

These words were at the heart of my recovery as they helped temper my feelings of despair. I learnt to believe I would become stronger as a result of the ordeal. I often think of depression as being like a trapdoor opening inside me, and so I would repeat the phrase endlessly, mantra-like, when I felt in danger of falling through.

Since that first depressive episode I have continued to battle with the illness, but thanks to drugs, therapy and above all poetry, I have learnt to keep my ‘Black Dog’ (as Winston Churchill famously referred to depression) on a tight leash. When I was very unwell, I could only absorb the odd line of poetry, which I would focus all my attention on, stilling the anxious chatter in my head. Favourites include the last lines of Arthur Hugh Clough’s ‘Say Not the Struggle Naught Availeth’.

‘In front the sun climbs slow; how slowly,
But westward, look, the land is bright’.

Another favourite is almost any line from Emily Dickinson’s ‘“Hope” is the Thing with Feathers’ in which the poet compares hope to a bird. Hope is ever-present, even if it’s small and in your peripheral vision.

‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

As I recovered I began to discover that I was not alone in finding poetry helpful in dark times. The healing power of words has a long history, dating back to primitive societies who made use of chants. By the first century AD, the Greek theologian Longinus wrote about the power of language to transform reality, to affect readers in deep and permanent ways, and to help them cope with the vagaries of their existence. Spool forward to the twentieth century and by 1969 the Association of Poetry Therapy was established in the USA.

I began to put my own own belief that poetry can help those facing adversity into practice, initially as a cottage industry. I swapped poems with friends and became a volunteer at our local prison’s education department where I ran poetry workshops. For me, one of the ways poetry helps most is by recharging the spent batteries of my own language. Take Herbert, for example. His poem ‘Love’ begins:

‘Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back.
Guilty of dust and sin’.

The line ‘Guilty of dust and sin’ describes exactly how I feel when I’m depressed: worthless, hopeless – guilty. What a perfect capturing! Herbert also offers a compassionate voice: that of Love, who ‘bids us welcome’. He knew how to perfectly balance the darkness of his descriptions with consolation.

A powerful poetic line can diminish ones sense of being alone. This was particularly striking to me when I came across poems written hundreds of years ago which describe a similar blackness to that which I was experiencing. Poetry also brings one’s mind into the present moment and back into ‘the flow’ of life. Mental illnesses such as depression tend to cripple ones sense of time – involvement in the present is overwhelmed by worries about the future or regrets about the past – but the complexity and subtlety of poetry requires you to concentrate on the here and now.

Robert Frost put it best when he said that a poem can offer a ‘momentary stay against confusion’, which is what happened to me all those years ago when my mother sat at my bedside and recited those words to me. Now I know those lines by heart and many more besides: a golden store to be used as and when. I find learning a poem especially helpful when I’m awake in the small hours. There’s something hugely comforting in the mind’s secure possession of a literary work.

The diary I spoke of earlier has now been turned into a book, Walking on Sunshine: 52 Small Steps to Happiness. In it I record the week-by-week strategies that have helped to keep me calm and happy: from the philosophies I try to practise, to spring cleaning, to new ways of communicating, breathing exercises and more. These strategies have all proved invaluable to me, but one of my favourite things about the book is still the poetry at the beginning of each season. I think poetry will forever be at the heart of each new chapter.

Walking on Sunshine: 52 Small Steps to Happiness is published by Short Books and is available for purchase on Amazon. For more information please follow Rachel on Twitter @RachelKellyNet or visit www.rachel-kelly.net.

 

Friday, 27 November 2015

Awakenings

A night of awakenings not in a good way left me grumpy and ragged. Meditation didn’t want to happen. Instead I wrote a friend who is struggling. My words struggled too. Still unsatisfied I sent it off. I stormed groggily out of bed for not a little coffee.

I found an old picture of myself who I barely recognized. She looked back at me with a sparkle. I was surprised she showed cleavage. That’s not like me at all yet I felt less shame somehow. In fact I decided to make her my profile picture as if in doing so I would reconcile a piece of me long forgotten.

I slowly dragged myself into the kitchen, another batch of cookies to make. My feet were like mud, my mind too. I slowed everything down so as not to hurt myself. I thought it was funny I was making my favorite to give to others. That felt really good.

I left the kitchen to trim my Frankenstein toenails and draw my bath. The water was close to scalding yet I inched my way in. I felt enveloped in a hot and tight spandex suit, Spider-Man style. Bubbles made me happy like my beta Jewells in his tank.

Call me clothing incompetent. I have few skills with shopping, choosing, wearing clothes. I second guess everything. It’s another of my relationship problems. Thankfully a friend assisted with my wardrobe the night before, but I still have to grapple with looking and feeling presentable today. That’s only the clothes part. There is still the relating part, the crossing of fingers insuring no faux pas, and social terror hopefully well hidden.

Each step through yet another holiday is difficult, from scars past, yet I fiercely give and open my heart wider. That’s really all I know. We give thanks. We grow. We love.

Fran

 

Monday, 2 November 2015

One moment please..

Have you ever spent time thinking about all the things that support you? Or do you imagine yourself completely independent? I lay on my couch and began to wonder. I have a couch to lie on, rather than concrete. A window lets in light and beauty. Bookshelves hold books and lovely things. Walls are ever ready to be punctured for art and photographs. Plants offer me their oxygen freely. My fish gives joy.

Chairs invite sitting. Tables, dishes, glasses, silverware, napkins all cooperate to serve a meal. The fridge and freezer and cupboards endlessly receive and give food for nourishment. And let’s not forget the pots and pans, the stove, sink, and dishwasher. Spices jockey for position, eager to delight our tongue. Smells tickle our nose. They all patiently await our attention. Do we listen? Candles wait to be lit. Lamps wait to be switched off. My bed beckons me into her womb.

Heat and cooling envelop me with no more effort on my part than the light press of a button. And the toilet flushes down my waste without a thought. Clothes hang in my closet, waiting to be worn. Shoes are ready to go walking. My shower gets the stink off and when I allow it, provides a spa experience. Towels gather me in their arms and as they gather the droplets, poof I am dry.

Everything in your world serves you and teaches you to serve. Gratitude seems such a small word, when there is so very much to be thankful for.

So the next time you struggle being thankful, take a moment to look around..

Fran

 

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Facebook and my wellness toolbox

I took a break from Facebook recently, partly because a handful of people told me I was posting too much.. and partly because their judgments affected my health..

What I learned from the experience was that Facebook has value for me.. It feeds me.. When I am flat on my back in pain and fatigue my ability to get out and about is severely restricted, Facebook brings the world to me..

Why is that a bad thing?.. Why are people offended that I post too much and have too many friends and too much fun?.. Or maybe they are fed up with me posting about mental illness?..

Others enthusiastically encourage me to post both my words and photos because it interests and helps them.. Who would you have me listen to?..

What you probably don’t realize is that Facebook is part of my wellness toolbox.. Many times I have little or no energy to be out in the world.. Facebook keeps me connected, and connection helps me stay away from the edge..

Suicidal thinking is a daily presence in my world.. Social media might just be the thread that keeps someone hanging on. I positively know that is true for me..

So before you tell someone they post too much or the wrong things you might stop and think.. Maybe find other caring things to say.. or caring questions to ask..

If I never had a like or comment my posting patterns would be different, but I am regularly swamped with responses that indicate that what I have to say is relevant.. I don’t mind people telling me to shut up, just have your reasons ready. If they are stigma and fear based, perhaps challenge yourself to look deeper..

We all have important things to say.. We all are valuable..

Fran

This piece was originally posted on Fran’s Facebook page, where it generated more than 120 Likes and almost 100 comments within 24 hours.

 

Embracing the Future, by Michael Baker

Hey everyone! It’s been a while since my last blog post. A lot has happened in the meantime, not all of it good, but this time I definitely have some good, and hopefully inspiring, news to report!

I’ve been working on a fantasy novel for nearly three years now (check out my author page). I had been making steady but slow progress, mainly because living with CFS, depression and IBS takes up a lot of my energy.

My fortunes changed this past June, when I was contacted by a representative of Nordland Publishing, a great little publishing company based in Norway. After a lot of Skype calls I was invited to join a group of writers who pool ideas and help each other.

I can’t overemphasise how good it has been for me; since meeting them I’ve finished the first draft of Book 1, transformed my plans into a trilogy and made it a lot more streamlined. The group I’m with are all great people and it’s been a huge boon for me.

I have saved the best news for last. I recently submitted a short story Profound Fiction’s Halloween anthology The Corpse Candle and other Nightmares. I was sceptical, as the piece I submitted was pretty dark. I’m proud to say, though, it was accepted!

The anthology is available now for Kindle, so please take a look if horror is your thing! (My story, “Sade,” begins at location 1522 in the book.)

This is my first ever published work, and I’m over the moon with it.

I’ll be back soon with another blog!

Mike

 

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Lady Zen: Quicksand

We are proud to showcase an original piece by lyric fusion poet Alzenira Quezada, a.k.a. Lady Zen.

Some time ago, Fran was moved deeply by Lady Zen’s performance of “Quicksand” at a bar in Portland, Maine. She recently approached the artist to request a written version.

“I remember so well the three dimensional inloveness I felt when you performed it at MJ’s. Inside myself I correlated the quicksand to mental illness and the wiggling to the struggle for life.”

What Lady Zen wrote for Fran is more than a transcript of her live performance. In Fran’s words, “Your offering in a more documentary vein expanded my thinking. Thank you.”

“How to Get Yourself Out of Quicksand” is presented with the author’s permission.


How to Get Yourself Out of Quicksand

by Alzenira Quezada

It was one of those nights when I wanted to turn off my mind and watch mindless television when I surfed upon a documentary about what to do if you find you’ve fallen into quicksand.

As I watched I couldn’t help but think how this valuable survival information was applicable to our everyday lives. How we humans are affected by mental illness, depression, and grief—pools of emotional quicksand. Those unforeseeable circumstances that mix with our vulnerabilities and create a soupy mess of slow sinking feelings that paralyze us.

But did you know that quicksand is only a slightly dangerous situation?

Yes, it’s true being stuck in quicksand could ultimately be fatal but as it turns out, it’s not too difficult to free yourself from it. It’s like anything in life you just gotta know how to work with it. What actually causes people to sink and die in quicksand is panic. When we find we have stumbled into quicksand, our nervous systems give us every indication to panic but that only makes things worse. Before long we’ve taken the leap from a sticky situation to deadly one.

Thrashing about in quicksand stirs up sediment and water causing a suctioning effect—much in same way memories can trigger a flood of dormant sentiments in our thought patterns.

These attitudes, thoughts, and opinions stir up anxieties which often lead to us feeling hopelessly stuck. When the individual sinks lower and lower or becomes too afraid to do anything at all—or waits for some miraculous event to lift them out of the muck, all the while continuing to sink—this is where real danger lies.

If you do nothing at all or wait too long you will be exposed to the elements or worse—the devises of imagination and most “pools” are only a few feet deep.

Completely sinking in quicksand is virtually impossible. I mean it can happen but because of physics—the whole volume vs. mass thing—it turns out we are very buoyant in quicksand. Generally, the most one will sink is waist deep. Who would have thought?

If you find you’ve stepped in quicksand, take immediate steps back. Depending on how far you’ve gotten yourself in, I can assure you it may take several hours to get yourself out.

The obstacle becomes our minds—the more we struggle the harder it is to believe we can free ourselves from these kinds of situations, but we can—easily enough.

For the bystander seeing someone fall into quicksand can be particularly traumatizing. Especially since the general consensus about quicksand is that it’s deadly and will swallow everything whole within seconds—but that’s not true.

It’s imperative that everyone stay calm. Don’t grab someone who is falling into quicksand. Remember the more you try to pull someone out, chances are you will only cause tremendous physical pain.

If you pull too hard it can feel as though the body will be torn in two as the suctioning effect keeps pulling equally as hard as those on solid ground.

Let’s assume for a moment that you have no resources to get yourself out of quicksand. You’re alone and don’t have a walking stick or a rope; there’s no solid bank within reach—it’s just you and the quicksand.

One of first things you gotta do is throw off any heavy attachments, anything that is weighing you down. Unstrap any negative self-talk or belief that you can’t get yourself out of this situation. Toss all that aside and take a deep breath.

Be aware of what’s on your feet. If possible, get out of your shoes. Often the shoes we wear are too flat or inflexible and can increase the suctioning effect when they tread into quicksand.

If aware you’re headed into territory where there is a high likelihood of quicksand—change your shoes. Better yet, go barefoot so you can be more in tune with sensitive shifts in the stability of the ground.

If you find you’re stuck from feet to ankles, as slowly as you can, wiggle your toes. When things begin to loosen a bit, rock back and forth as if you are tapping your toes in slow motion. This is really important: slow everything way down.

If you get tired—rest. Extracting yourself from quicksand is physically exhausting but eventually you will be able to move your foot and can take that all important first step.

In order to move forward, you must patiently loose the other foot and accept that the one you just freed is going to sink yet again. I know, it’s hard and at some points disappointing to not make more progress but again, this is not a quick process—be patient and gentle.

If in quicksand up to your thighs, repeat the above instructions—wiggling your feet in small slow circular movements. The water and sediment will begin to separate making it easier to remove yourself from the situation. If it is more serious—say that you find yourself sinking deeper as a result of your actions—stop and move on to the next step.

Quicksand can be tricky and unpredictable but if you are moving slow enough you can stop adverse reactions—like firm ground turning into more quicksand or getting yourself in deeper—just slow everything way down. Remember, quicksand is much more dense and complicated than water and makes you more buoyant.

If in quicksand waist deep, lean back and relax a bit—which I assure you is much scarier than it actually is. Pretend you are floating on a still tranquil lake.

Once you are on your back the pressure actually reduces the suctioning effect and provides a small window of opportunity to free your feet. When this happens, gently raise your arms as if in surrender and use your hands as paddles.

Don’t submerge your hands, don’t paddle with your whole arms in big sweeping movements, just gently brush along the surface. All the time in the world is yours, breathe deep and float. Gently paddling yourself back to solid ground.

I hope this helps, after all you never know when you’ll find yourself smack dab in the middle of a couple of feet of quicksand or god forbid one of those particularly deep pools.

Just to recap: keep as much air in your lungs as possible—don’t yell and scream or resist by thrashing about. Keep air in your lungs. You can’t sink if there’s air in your lungs. Not only will it help to relax you it makes you more buoyant and peaceful and you need to stay as calm as you can.

Take lots of breaks, work judiciously, don’t get too tired and every once in while test the ground you’re walking on. It could mean the difference between a quiet hike through life and a wrestling match with a big, messy pool of quicksand.


For an introduction to Lady Zen’s performances check out Poem for Baltimore and Faith, Hope and Love (The Fogcutters feat. Lady Zen).

You can also follow her website, Soundcloud, LinkedIn, YouTube, and Facebook.

 

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

got tears..

Many years ago when my life completely fell apart I cried like no one. I lost everything, outside and inside. The betrayal of my body took the cake. Every day for 2-3 hours for 2 years I wept. It was Niagra Falls weeping. And wailing. I played Melissa Etheridge while I was lain in my exquisite tub and let it all rip. I thought I would get to the end of it. That somehow if I cried enough my life would resume and get better somehow. Well no. I cried until there was not one more tear left. I gingerly picked up the broken pieces of my world and simply crawled baby steps. The only other option was death. I was close. I went to the woods of Maine. Where my eyes were like dried raisins. No matter if I was sad I could get no relief from tears no more. No relief at all. Today I have tears. Again. They squeak out like mice. And they are welcome.

Fran

 

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Maine Voices

Reach out and show you care. Friendship is good medicine and being present is the greatest gift of all. (Fran Houston)

Fran’s op-ed article Maine Voices: Time for mental health awareness was published in the Maine Sunday Telegram on October 4, 2015, marking the start of Mental Health Awareness Week.

In it she described her history of mental illness, and her experiences working with psychiatrist George McNeil.

Dr. McNeil gave me what I needed most — the sense of being heard.

Somehow, I learned to be human again. Somehow I began to create habits for myself and grew a life I wanted. As my self-worth got woven together, I began to care.

With Dr. McNeil’s help, I got better. I am not cured. My moods still swing. My symptoms still flare. But I now know how to surround myself with good souls who hold my hand while I try to balance on the seesaw of bipolar disorder. And I have tools in my wellness toolbox.

Fran’s heartfelt account resonated with many who read it. One wrote to her:

This is a powerful description of what you have gone through and manage all the time. If it helps one person who reads this, you have achieved what you want, and if it enlightens one person about mental illness, that is equally important. This is a piece that should be shared to reach many more people. To have shared your experience is powerful in itself. Your testimony about your doctors should also help to encourage others to seek out medical care. We all need to be open to discuss this. (Liz Wagner.)

The article was shared widely. We would like to thank the following in particular:

Maine Behavioral Healthcare (“Great article!”); Family Hope (“Fantastic article by Family Hope friend, Fran Houston. We are always amazed and appreciative of her openness to share her total self with the world.”); Catching Health, with Diane Atwood (“Beautifully expressed by Fran Houston, a woman with many gifts to share.”); Bob Keyes, journalist (“Courageous column about mental health awareness by my friend Fran Houston.”); NAMI Maine (“Well said!”).


Note: “An op-ed (originally short for ‘opposite the editorial page’) is a piece typically published by newspapers, magazines, and the like which expresses the opinions of a named author usually not affiliated with the publication’s editorial board.” (Wikipedia.)

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Raise your head, raise your heart.

What an amazing week this has been. A week of awareness. A week of passionate and compassionate people making a difference.

I had an opinion piece in the Maine Sunday Telegram and attended two local events; an It Takes A Community public forum for Maine Behavioral Healthcare, and a fundraiser evening for mental health non-profit Family Hope featuring humorist Tim Sample of the Maine Humor Company.

It was hard for me. I don’t do events well. I get social anxiety. I get exhausted. My pain flares. My thoughts race. I can’t hear well. I can’t see well. It costs me. But the reward was gold. Attending these Mental Health Awareness Week events gave me the best gift ever. The reminder that there are people who care.

One soul there had undergone ECT every 2 weeks for 17 years. Forced. We all were riveted. Speechless. Breathless. I met someone who helps those in extreme situations and shared how this affected me. How amazing it is that there are many reaching out to those who can’t. We are all so different, as different as all the mental illnesses there are. Like a diamond. All the facets are needed and beautiful. And a rainbow shines.

Each of us has something unique to offer. Each of us has a part to play that no one else can.

Today is World Mental Health Day! Please take action, raise your head, raise your heart and raise awareness in your community.

Fran

 

Monday, 28 September 2015

NAMI Maine Walk 2015

I walk for.. No more stigma..
Understanding for all!..

On Sunday September 27, Fran joined hundreds of others at Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse, South Portland, Maine, for the 13th annual NAMI Maine Walk.

All were there to support the National Alliance on Mental Illness and to participate in Maine’s largest mental health celebration.

It was a moving occasion for Fran, who walked with friends as Team Gum on My Shoe. As she wrote afterwards:

My heart swells with appreciation and affection for all those who walked today.. Tears staining my face and giggles spilling over.. The joy of exhaustion for energy very well spent.. Continue walking in life only to love..

The event was covered for WCSH6 television. Watch the report and see if you can spot Fran!

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, Marty set off for an equivalent walk through Rickerby Park, Carlisle, in the north-west of England.

We invite you to visit our Team Gum on My Shoe page to leave a message of support, and if possible a donation. Every little helps. Thank you.

You can see more photos from both our walks on our Facebook page.

 

Sunday, 20 September 2015

QPR Gatekeeper Training

Following on from my blogs on the excellent Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) and Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) workshops, I’d like to share my experience of the QPR Gatekeeper course, which I successfully completed online last week.

What is QPR?

QPR Gatekeeper training (the acronym stands for Question, Persuade, Refer) is one of several suicide prevention training programs developed by the QPR Institute.

There is a good summary of the program on their website. The course covers:

  • How to Question, Persuade and Refer someone who may be suicidal
  • How to get help for yourself or learn more about preventing suicide
  • The common causes of suicidal behavior
  • The warning signs of suicide
  • How to get help for someone in crisis

The course costs $29.95 (approx £12.85) on the QPR website but it is offered for free by some organisations including Hope for Life.

Who is it for?

A Gatekeeper is someone in a position to recognize a crisis and the warning signs that someone may be contemplating suicide. According to the website, Gatekeepers include parents, friends, neighbors, teachers, ministers, doctors, nurses, office supervisors ... pretty much any of us, in fact.

Our mission is to save lives and reduce suicidal behaviors by providing innovative, practical and proven suicide prevention training. We believe that quality education empowers all people, regardless of their background, to make a positive difference in the life of someone they know.

What is it like?

This is a self-paced online course which will take around an hour to complete (you can stop the course and come back to it later). There is a multi-choice test at the end (pass mark 80%). You can review the course modules and retake the exam as many times as necessary.

There is a printable certificate on successful completion, downloadable resources and a free downloadable book, Suicide: The Forever Decision by Paul G. Quinnett (this book also can be downloaded for free from the QPR store page).

Having previously taken the two day Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) and Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) workshops, I found QPR a valuable refresher and it would be a useful introduction to the subject.

Like ASIST, QPR focuses on recognising that someone may be experiencing suicidal thoughts, and engaging positively with them. Both ASIST and QPR place significant emphasis on confirming whether, in fact, the person is thinking of taking their life, if necessary by asking the question plainly. QPR is clear that it teaches how to recognise and confirm the presence of suicidal thinking, but not how to assess the severity of that risk. Once suicidal thinking has been confirmed (the Question part) the emphasis is on persuading the person to seek help, and referring them on for professional support.

It is hard to put a price on information that could potentially save lives, but I do feel the cost of the course on the QPR website ($29.95, approx £12.85) is high for a short online course and could dissuade people from taking it. For me, the esuicideTALK course by LivingWorks ($20, approx £12.88) offers more for less (but note that some organisations offer the QPR Gatekeeper course for free, including Hope for Life).

Marty

Related programs

The Institue offers a range of specialised courses including:

  • Suicide Triage Training
  • Suicide Risk Assessment and Management Training
  • QPR Training Targeting Alcohol, Drugs, and Suicide
  • Online Counseling and Suicide Intervention Specialist
  • Counseling Suicidal People: A Therapy of Hope
  • Suicide Risk Assessment Competency Certification Exam
  • Ethics and Suicide

Useful links

  • QPR Institute website: www.qprinstitute.com
  • Background information: available as a PDF download, QPR Gatekeeper Training for Suicide Prevention: The Model, Theory and Research by Paul Quinnett offers background information on the QPR program, and suicide prevention in general.

 

Sunday, 13 September 2015

For Ever Amber: Pictures at an Exhibition

Those who live their lives to the full have no need of immortality.
Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen

Yesterday I visited the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle upon Tyne, and discovered For Ever Amber, an exhibition of documentary photography, mostly black and white and primarily of the North East in the 70s and 80s.

“Opening up an extraordinary documentary narrative, this exhibition is the first major account of the AmberSide Collection started by a group of like-minded students at Regent Street Polytechnic in London in 1968. With a resolve to collect documents of working class culture, Amber Collective moved to the North East of England the following year in 1969 and in 1977 opened Side Gallery where it remains today.”

The collection of photographs and videos affected me deeply. The following is excerpted from my chat conversation with Fran afterwards.

Marty:
Wonderful exhibition of photography. Local documentary photos. Gritty, real. Real life.. Real people.. Hopelessness.. Poverty.. Unemployment.. Dirt.. It’s depressing.. But also there is hope there.. That life goes on no matter what.. Not an easy exhibition for me. There is nowhere to hide. It is human. Humanity doing what it does.

Fran:
What do you feel? Mad glad sad afraid?

Marty:
Ignorant. Naive. Inadequate. Privileged. But also that I am these days a little less of those things. That it’s up to me if I want to change. It is in my power to do so.

Fran:
Your experience of this might make a good blog.

Transform yourself and you transform others.. ~fjh
Awareness is already a change.. ~fjh
When one awakens one can’t go back.. ~fjh
Transform yourself and others transform.. ~fjh
Perception is reality.. ~fjh

Marty:
Hey you’re pretty good at this! Yes, a blog could be a good idea. What I did get was a strong sense of how these many photographers were each telling their own small story. Together they were showing a much greater truth than any of them could have done alone. Echoes of what we are doing with Gum on My Shoe and the many many others telling their stories. Every one is a pebble tossed in the stream.

Fran:
Yep

Marty:
I was also thinking back to what we were talking about the other day. How some people build walls (physical and figurative) to keep them and their family safe, keep the big bad world at bay. I did it differently. I spent most of my life turning a blind eye to the big bad world. Both eyes. The challenge for me is to open my eyes, and not to build walls.

Fran:
With compassion for all..

Marty:
Yes. It’s natural to want to protect those closest to us. That’s not a bad impulse. But it can lead to “us/them” thinking. Demonisation. Fear. Walls. Asylums. Stigma. The photos mostly showed the working class, the dispossessed. Those who the establishment would demonise.

Fran:
People are afraid of losing stuff and family and health and life.. They sadly think they are in control.. However the universe is, not them. Love like that is not a free true love.. It’s grabby and possessive..

Marty:
They are not the enemy though. To imagine they are is just erecting more walls.

Fran:
Maybe not.. Maybe they are living the lives they were meant to.. Maybe they are put here to be teachers so we can grow..

Marty:
I’m ill at ease with the idea that things happen to us with a purpose, eg to teach us lessons. Seems to me “shit happens”, and we can choose to see and use it in different ways. We are free to see it as something to learn from. We are equally free to not learn.

Fran:
It is not our job to open other people’s eyes.. Only our own..

Marty:
Exactly..


For Ever Amber is on at the Laing Gallery until Saturday 19 September 2015.

 

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Be the Best Yourself You Can Be

Thoughts on World Suicide Prevention Day 2015.

I feel it is important to say that being there for someone who lives with suicidal thoughts and feelings isn’t all about talking them down from a bridge or asking how many pills they took, what they were and how long ago.

In a crisis, intervention, situation, yes. But for many people suicidal thoughts and feelings are an occasional or an ongoing reality and if we care for them we can support with the hope and intention of helping them keep from ever getting to the bridge parapet or downing the pills.

If you don't know how to approach your friend or colleague or family member, give it a go anyway. If you don’t know what to say, say something, from a place of care and heart, not from a place of judgement or anger. Ask how you can help. Or just be quiet and be there.

Most of all, be yourself. The best yourself you can be. Because in that moment, your needs are not the issue. Your friend, your colleague, your family member, the person you just met, deserves nothing less.

Marty

If you are interested in learning how to be there for someone living with mental health issues or feeling suicidal, check my experiences of the excellent Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) and Applied Suicide Intervention Skills (ASIST) workshops.

 

Thursday, 10 September 2015

A day of kittens

What a day. A day of kittens. Of kitten therapy. And I got to take a part. I have a fish. I love my fish. He even lets me pet him. But he is not a kitten. I hiked down to Congress Square Park. They had five kittens in a playroom. Five people at a time. Five minutes. Kittens bring you into the moment. They let you wake up to who you are. One who wants to play. And you get lost. Or found. This was my day.

You can watch my interview and find out more about kitty therapy on the Portland Press Herald page.

Fran

 

Monday, 7 September 2015

An Interview with Diane Atwood

We recently had the pleasure to meet freelance health writer Diane Atwood when she interviewed us for her award-winning blog Catching Health.

The interview itself was a delight, and a perfect example of how Fran and I make our transatlantic friendship work. As Diane writes:

When they first started communicating, they chatted on Facebook or sent each other emails and, after deciding that phone calls were too expensive, they started Skyping.

That’s how I interviewed Marty. Fran and I sat in her living room and talked to Marty in his living room via Skype.

You can read the full interview — which includes details of the sponsored walk we are doing in support of the National Alliance on Mental Illness — on Diane’s own Catching Health blog, as well as her column for Bangor Daily News and on WCSH6. We have received some fantastic feedback already, including this from Cheryl Ramsay, Walk Coordinator for NAMI Maine:

Marty and Fran are making big waves. And they are huge supporters of the NAMI Maine Walk. I have never met either one of them — Marty lives in the UK and Fran lives in Portland — but we are all Facebook friends. They are best buds who have an unbelievable story of friendship, resiliency and what it means to have someone in your life who says “I hear you and I am here for you”. So great that Diane Atwood of “Catching Health” is bringing local attention to this dynamic duo.

Thank you Cheryl, and everyone who has liked, retweeted, commented and messaged us. Your support and encouragement are what keeps us going. And a special thank you to you, Diane, for wanting to share our story.

You can find Diane on her website, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and LinkedIn. Her blog is carried by Bangor Daily News, one of Maine’s leading newspapers, and she also has a column in Maine Women and My Generation magazines. Diane appears regularly on the WCSH6 Morning Report.

UPDATE: October 27, 2015

Our interview also appears in the November/December 2015 issue of My Generation magazine (Current Publications LLC, Maine).

 

Saturday, 29 August 2015

michigan, by Mickey Solis

Fran and I are proud to be partners with the fantastic team behind michigan, and invited screenwriter Mickey Solis to talk about the film. For more information check out the michigan website, blog, twitter and instagram.


My name is Mickey Solis. I’m an actor and screenwriter. I’ve been invited to write a guest blog in support of my forthcoming film titled michigan. The film is about (among other things) suicide, depression, addiction, and the difficult path toward self-realization. This film was inspired by the small town in Michigan where I grew up, by tragic events that took place there, and by some of the thoughts and feelings I became obsessed with later in life about that time and place. Around age 30 I began addressing parts of my emotional life in more creative and healthy ways. That is when I started to conceive this film. It is meant to be a curative journey through the traumatized psyche of a fictional character.

As a graduate student at the drama institute at Harvard University, I met and became close friends with the Hungarian film and theater director János Szász. We have since collaborated on many theatrical productions dealing with “dark” subjects. He is also the author of several acclaimed hard-hitting foreign films. He was the one who encouraged me to write my first screenplay and has guided me throughout the process.

I try to avoid describing my film. Writing in black and white about a film is difficult. I wrote what I imagined would become sounds and images inside a frame that others would watch and hear. Films can also be highly subjective experiences; individual people can have wildly different views and attitudes when watching the same film. For example, I don’t experience most modern “comedy” as being funny. In fact, I find a lot of humor in theater, film, and television frightening. I also tend to laugh my way through most genre “horror” movies. Thus, I’m different from the average audience member.

This is not to say that my film will only be for weirdos like me, or is impossible to comprehend. I’m just saying up front that I’ve never thought that the general audience would have an easy time digesting a film about teenage suicide in the way I’m presenting it, or that any perceived “message” of the film would be universal. The topics and events depicted in my script are polarizing and so the margin for misinterpretation is wide. However, if a spectator sees my film and walks away with a feeling of wonder, or a sense that this story touches him or her, that they feel known somehow by the filmmakers, or that they relate to the spiritual, emotional, or psychological circumstances of the story in a way that helps them feel less alone — these would all be terrifically ideal. Nonetheless, my suspicion is that reactions to the film will vary substantially.

The result of a successful drama, in Aristotle’s definition, is catharsis; the feeling that the weight of existence has been lifted and emotional burdens released. It is a charitable goal aimed at relieving the audience of ignorance and therefore of pain. Catharsis necessitates a journey through hardship, and I don’t believe a film must have by definition a “happy” ending to be cathartic, which is maybe the biggest disparity in tastes between the majority and myself. Tragedy actually makes comedy possible; there is no light without darkness.

Catharsis, for me, may also come in the form of a rewarding mystification. It occurs when a filmmaker acknowledges human depth and complexity, observes the most unspeakable aspects of the human character, and as a result I experience a profound relationship to the film on frighteningly intimate levels. Stanley Kubrick and Ingmar Bergman were masters of this. Their films confront me with psychological paradoxes and confound me with existential challenges. The result of which is that I experience greater awareness, awe, and a relief from unconscious and self-imposed limitations.

This is a completely different approach from that of sentimentalizing the subject, or, worse, denying tragedy altogether. Denial in extreme is neurosis, and most popular media is in deep denial. Hence, the popular culture itself is suffering from a form of collective mental illness. As a result, contemporary art in this country has become frustratingly passive, repressive, and mournfully insignificant.

Not merely entertainment, film can also inspire huge emotional and personal growth. In its most sophisticated forms, film art promotes and expands consciousness — that is the goal of the advanced artist. The quality that links the greatest and most sublime films is intelligent compassion.

The story in the michigan film is motivated by heavy topics, and its imagery is quite lush and sometimes violent. These aspects of the film are necessary to communicate truth, verify passions, and validate the main character’s triumph over suffering. I cannot imagine a war film that does not strive to depict a valid threat to human life. Likewise, a film about mental illness must attempt to illustrate a legitimate threat to sanity.

One of the transcendentalists, Emerson or Thoreau (I don’t remember which), wrote “A man doesn't fully appreciate the beauty of the moon until it is needed to light his path in the darkness” (or something like that). But the sentiment is clear: beautiful things are more beautiful when our need for them is increased. Films that articulate disorder with intricacy and elegance are attractive to me because I need them to guide me through the dark, not around it.

Films can be therapeutic, but what moves people can be very esoteric. Artists and filmmakers should always question their relationship to formulas and dogma of any kind and be skeptical of anything that promises a specific result — that is how we advance. Every major movement in film history stood for this philosophy.

I’m not advocating rebellion so much as I am saying that, in the realm of the soul, it behooves us all to maintain a genuine dedication to open-mindedness. When filmmakers attempt a novel approach to making personal dramas about taboo subjects, their greatest opponent will be the lack of open-mindedness. The strongest impulse of public opinion will be to suppress the thing it finds unpleasant rather than confront it. There are stigmas attached to dramas about depression, addiction, and suicide in the film industry, mainly that they are not appealing (commercial) enough to be supported.

The michigan film has been very lucky. We have a committed team of producers, artists, and administrators who recognize the value of tackling difficult material and the importance of art with deeper-than-average goals. In particular, producer Jordan Levine has been instrumental in taking the issues of the film out into the public as part of our mission, and I admire his dedication.

Several large organizations have also voiced their support. We hope the partnerships will be mutually beneficial in raising awareness for our causes. The production and publicity team is composed of young people and adults who have personal experiences with suicide, or have friends and loved ones dealing with depression and mental illness.

Witnessing something you created having a positive effect on people feels good. Knowing that others resonate with your work in a way they find valuable and encouraging is a gift. The most rewarding part of this project so far has been the worldwide support we’ve received and the encouragement to continue on a journey full of challenges.

 

Monday, 17 August 2015

Proving There’s Hope For Us All, by Stewart Bint

My Father died when I was 11, and my relationship with my Mother was strained.

I worked successfully as a broadcaster, and then moved into Public Relations. As I moved up the corporate ladder each role brought more stress and pressure. My work ethos had always been to not only succeed in everything I did, but to do it perfectly. I would always beat myself up even if I succeeded with a project even beyond everyone’s expectations if just one aspect of it didn’t work out perfectly. I realised I was a driven perfectionist, but to me, at that time, that was just normal.

In the run-up to my illness I had an extremely high-powered, high-pressured job with an unsympathetic boss in a corporate culture that heaped a massive workload on everyone and expected long hours to achieve it. For around a year I had no idea what was happening to me, why I felt depressed, why panic attacks were a regular occurrence, why I wasn’t sleeping. I regarded my wife’s parents very much as my main family, especially her Father, and it was during this stressful time at work that my Grandmother died, and my Mother-in-Law died after a long and unpleasant battle with cancer. Within weeks my Father-in-Law was also diagnosed with cancer. Then, on Friday June 13th 1997, while I was away on a business trip, my mind reached overload point, and alone in my hotel room I was on the verge of suicide. I rang the Samaritans, and without being dramatic, I can safely say that phone call saved my life that night.

I was diagnosed with severe depression and placed on long-term sick leave. There followed the inevitable counselling, but nothing seemed to do the trick. If anything my depression deepened, as I couldn’t really believe the diagnosis. Even though nothing made sense I suppose I fought against the diagnosis, feeling that I needed to be stronger, and that I should simply be able to snap out of it.

My wife is particularly strong and loving, and was extremely supportive, even though she couldn’t understand what was happening to me, or why my work and her Mother’s death were affecting me this way. My children were too young to understand what was going on. My friends appeared sympathetic and were quick to offer advice about taking a less stressful job, if I couldn’t cope.

As it turned out, that decision was taken out of my hands. My company decided that as I had a mental health issue they were no longer prepared to employ me. At my next counselling session a few days later, Wednesday September 10th, the experts decided I needed to be admitted to hospital, and I became a voluntary patient at a private psychiatric clinic. I felt ashamed that I wasn’t able to cope with the situation, and that I was “going crazy.” And the stigma heaped on me by the company I had served loyally upset me considerably. It made me feel that everyone was staring at me and talking about me behind my back, pointing at the “crazy guy.”

Settling into the routine of meals, medication, gentle activities, and consultation with psychiatrists, I appeared to be progressing. I made new friends, and we swapped stories of how we came to be there, and I felt a great sense of camaraderie with fellow patients. If anything, the support we gave to each other was equally as effective, but in different ways, as the professional medical support we were getting. The empathy we had with each other was like an unbreakable bond, and is something I had never experienced before, but can recognise instantly when I’m talking mental health issues with sufferers today.

My wife helped me through those days, and brought my children to see once a week. We all thought I was progressing, but my time in hospital then took a very dark turn.

By now my wife’s father was seriously ill, so she not only had to contend with me being in hospital, looking after our children who were then aged 6 and 4, but she was travelling a round trip of 240 miles each weekend to be with her Dad. Having seen my wife’s Mother suffer so much with cancer I was hoping he would not suffer the same way. He suddenly took a turn for the worse and died. This knocked my already broken mind further into the abyss as I blamed myself for his death. I explained to my doctors that I had killed him, as I had wished for him not to suffer. Voices were telling me that the only way to atone for my sin were to cut my throat and kill someone else so their spirit could accompany me to hell. It was at this point that I was diagnosed as being psychotic, and sectioned for 28 days.

My life was at rock bottom. I never thought I’d work again. In fact at one point I never thought I’d leave hospital. Being sectioned under the UK Mental Health Act meant I no longer had a choice about being in hospital. I was detained there against my will. I have no memory of the first two weeks of being sectioned -- according to the psychiatrists it was my mind’s way of blocking out the demons that had sent me over the edge, and apparently I managed to run away from the hospital twice in that first fortnight. I appealed against the section order, but lost the case. During the whole time I was sectioned, and for a couple of weeks afterwards, I was “specialed,” meaning a nurse was assigned to never be more than six feet away from me. I was heavily medicated all the time, one of the drugs being lithium.

While the treatment initially involved breaking down my conviction that I was responsible for my Father-in-Law’s death and that I needed to kill myself to atone for it, the psychiatrists discovered I had suppressed memories from my childhood which became repressed (or was it the other way round...I can’t remember now?) It had all begun when my Dad died just days before we heard I had passed the 11+ examination to go to Grammar School. Also, it had been decided at that time that I was too young to go to his funeral, so I never had the chance to say goodbye to him.

With everything in the open I was on my way to recovery, both from the psychosis and depression.

As mentioned above, my boss and my company were totally unsympathetic. It was through them that I experienced the worst stigma. When I was first admitted to hospital, my company’s medical insurance paid their bills, which were £2,000 a week, but my boss and Human Resources Director insisted those payments would stop a month after I was dismissed for my illness. However, when the Group MD learned of the severity of my illness, he arranged for the company’s private medical insurance to take care of the private clinic’s bill for the entire duration of my stay.

When I was discharged, the community care was terrific – I had round-the-clock access to mental health professionals, and a weekly visit from a mental health social worker. As a result of my experience I have supported this cause for 18 years...indeed, I am currently working with my local branch of the Mind charity on creating a new fund-raising event with them. And I have recently started to promote mental health awareness on the internet, in particular on Twitter, which is a terrific way of raising awareness.

Recognising the signs of a developing mental illness is vital. So is doing something about them. Accepting that you need help is the first step towards fighting the battle. In my case I struggled on with depression without telling anyone, for far too long. And by then it was too late for a simple recovery. My mind wasn’t simply damaged before I accepted something was wrong and rang the Samaritans, it was broken. Support is equally vital, both from health professionals and family.

Awareness and education is an ongoing process, and must focus on the fact that mental health is no different to physical health. Both have symptoms, both can be treated. Mental health charities, local government and national government should work together to end the stigma. It’s not going to be accomplished overnight. In the dim and distant past, people with mental illness were locked away in asylums, out of sight of “normal” people. This is where stigma surrounding mental illness began. The way to eradicate that stigma is for everyone at every level of both mental illness suffering and treatment to be more open and honest. Psychiatric hospitals need to open their doors to the media, in the same way that those suffering from mental illnesses are now becoming more open by sharing our stories.

Social media is proving to be an absolute godsend for this. It’s giving us all a platform to share our story and offer support to others. It is a positive, empowering tool, connecting us with others who can support us through the difficult times, by our first hand knowledge and experience. Yes, social media also has a darker side with people posting unhelpful comments. I used to care what people thought about me and what they said. But no longer. Simply ignoring negative comments works for me. And I believe that’s the secret, not only of handling how stigma is perpetrated by the darker side of social media, but coping with the stigma in the “real” world, too. You can’t make everyone see the truth. You can’t make everyone be kind. You can’t turn everyone into a decent human being. So don’t try too hard. Enjoy the successes you have, and your family, friends and online supporters. And ignore the ignorant.

In my opinion, once diagnosed with a mental illness, the best way to progress along the road to recovery, is through coping strategies. A good coping strategy means we can all better manage our day-to-day struggles without constant input from mental health professionals who play a major role at the beginning of our illness.

Once I was discharged from hospital my coping strategy became all about casting off the things I no longer needed in my life, including corporate success and the stress that comes with it. I returned to my first love of writing, and now work as a novelist and Public Relations writer, and I have my own fortnightly magazine column.

To me, coping strategies are highly personal, and you need one for every situation that can cause difficulty. For example, I realised that if I were to continue seeking perfection in my work and myself, I was destined to fail, and would likely face an even longer spell as a hospital in-patient. So my coping strategy for that was to accept compromise, both from myself and other people.

Whenever a deadline approaches I ask myself what is the worst that can happen if I don’t meet it? Occasionally I need to burn the midnight oil, but in the olden days it was a daily occurrence. For several years I have got on with my life and not consciously employed coping strategies, because they have become second nature to me. I’m actually using them all the time...it’s just that I’m no longer aware of them.

I hope my story will inspire and give confidence that there is hope. I’m one of the lucky ones. I’ve managed to build a successful new life from the ruins of my old one.

Stewart Bint MCIPR
twitter.com/AuthorSJB

 

Proud partners with michigan the movie

Fran and I are excited and proud to join the fantastic group of partners for the film michigan.

Directed by János Szász with screenplay by Mickey Solis and set for production in 2016 by Yale Productions, michigan is a new independent drama addressing teenage suicide, depression, and addiction in an isolated and desperate town of the American Midwest.

As the team state on the film’s website:

By bringing michigan to life we hope to not only promote awareness of teenage suicide, but also encourage suicide prevention, and explore its various causes.

For more information on the film and the great folks behind it, check out their website, blog, twitter and instagram.

 

Thursday, 13 August 2015

On invisible vulnerabilities and writing about self-harm, by Anne Goodwin

Fran and I are delighted to host the final stop in Anne Goodwin’s five week blog tour for her debut novel Sugar and Snails (Inspired Quill, 2015).

When I first met Anne at her book launch in Newcastle’s Jesmond library she was icing cupcakes. We’d connected only a few weeks previously, on Twitter, but I was greeted with a huge smile, a hug and a “Thank you for coming!”

It was Anne’s second launch event for her novel, and the first I’d ever attended. The little library soon filled with locals, friends and family, some of whom had travelled considerable distances to be there and celebrate Anne’s achievement.

As I listened to Anne read from her novel and talk about the years she lived and worked in the area (much of Sugar and Snails is set in and around Jesmond), I found myself thinking ahead to the day when Fran and I (one of us likely present via webcam!) will host a launch event for our book. If it’s half as warm, welcoming and successful as Anne’s I will count it a success. Note to self: don’t forget the cupcakes.

Marty


On invisible vulnerabilities and writing about self-harm, by Anne Goodwin

Seven years ago, I read a newspaper report about a distinguished academic, a professor with a PhD in psychology, who had died of anorexia. Two things were shocking about the case: firstly, the stark contrast between the confidence and competence she showed to the outside world and the depth of vulnerability hidden inside her; secondly, that she had managed to keep it secret for so long from colleagues, friends and family. And yet, on another level, although saddened, I wasn’t shocked by the story at all. I knew lots of people who were highly successful professionals on the outside and a morass of neuroses underneath. Let’s face it, I was a bit like that myself.

A few years before, a complicated bereavement had led to me taking a few weeks off work. But not before I endured a couple of weeks of dragging myself out of bed in the mornings and pushing my sadness down to my toes so that I could answer the call of duty. It was striking that, at the point when I was most desperately struggling to hold it together, I received feedback on separate occasions from two unconnected individuals commending me on my positive outlook. I knew from my work and my studies that people don’t always show their true selves to the world. Yet I hadn’t realised how easy it can be to hide the truth.

These experiences fed into the creation of my character, Diana Dodsworth, the narrator of my debut novel, Sugar and Snails. Diana is also a psychology lecturer – although less eminent than the woman in a newspaper report that had bugged me – whose academic understanding is of little help to her in managing her own life. The source of her vulnerability is a secret that is gradually revealed in the course of the novel, but its effects are apparent from chapter 1. Diana has self-harmed since childhood and, when in middle age a relationship crisis threatens her fragile sense of self, she slices through the scars in her forearm.

I found this one of the most difficult scenes to write, not because I couldn’t imagine myself in that situation, but because I could. While I’m fortunate in never having taken it as far as Diana does, I can identify with the emotions that might evoke such a self-destructive act. I have a very vivid memory of sitting with a Stanley knife, massaging my inner forearm to make the veins stand out. As I imagined myself into my character’s experience, I really wondered how far I’d take it (and used this as the springboard for a piece of flash fiction on my blog about how fiction can invade one’s life).

I think that sometimes we fail to empathise with people’s mental distress for fear of similar vulnerabilities within ourselves. We mask them behind a wall of competence, as if ability and disability can’t coexist. As if achievement in one area cancels out neediness in another. As if an elevated status in the family or the workplace denies us the right to help for ourselves.

One possible reading of my novel is that Diana becomes stronger as she embraces the source of her vulnerability. In fact, once she stops denying it, it ceases to be the threat she once perceived it to be. One of the lessons of psychotherapy is that it’s in using our whole selves, not only the apparently “good” parts, that we are strong.

Through my fiction I’m learning to integrate the vulnerable and capable aspects of my own personality. The themes arise out of my fears, disappointments and despair, but it’s the drive, discipline and doggedness that enables me to work at them to produce a story that people will actually want to read. And I’m finding, on launching my first novel, that for me that’s a pretty good place to be.

About the author

Anne Goodwin writes fiction, short and long, and blogs about reading and writing, with a peppering of psychology. Her debut novel, Sugar and Snails, was published last month by Inspired Quill. Catch up on her website: annethology or on Twitter @Annecdotist.

Sugar and Snails is available at Inspired Quill, the author’s website, Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk.

 

An actress of a different sort..

Most times when I am out in the world I wear my mask. The one that insures the best possibility of relating. What goes on behind the scenes is a different story.

It’s not because I’m lying, it’s because I work very hard at presenting well and being acceptable. Presenting in ways that are unacceptable to others costs me far more.

I am an actress in my own life. Few know the inside scoop. I am fortunate to have friends who not only know me but also love me whether my mask is on or off.

Fran

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Grandma’s Biscuits, by Jen Jenasaurus Wake

Readers of Marty and Fran’s excellent blog will already know about how they negate the geographical distance between them. But how can that be done when one of the people involved experiences anxiety about using the phone? With a little imagination, decent wifi and a mobile phone or tablet anything is possible.

I tweeted the other day that I had all the ingredients to make Grandma’s Biscuits but that my thirteen year old daughter didn’t want to bake. (I have no idea what the biscuits are actually called, but I used to make them with my grandma when I was a little girl and that is what they have always been known as.)

My friend, who blogs as mentalhound, tweeted back that she would love to bake with me — except she lives nearly two hundred miles away. Well, if she wanted to bake with me, I wasn’t about to let distance get in the way!

I tweeted her a picture of all the ingredients, and told her to wash her hands and put a pinny (apron) on. There then followed a series of tweets with me taking a photo of each step and asking her to stir, or mix, or roll the batter into balls before putting them in the oven — she did an excellent, if virtual, job.

Finally, we had finished biscuits. It didn't matter that only I baked, only I washed up and only I could eat them, we had fun doing it.

It isn’t about being in the same physical space — either geographically or via a medium such as Skype or FaceTime — it’s about being in the same place mentally. And, for that hour, we were. It made no difference that it was all done through pictures and tweets: we baked biscuits together. And, if I may say so myself, they were very yummy indeed!

Thanks for reading along. You can find me at: jenasauruswake.wordpress.com.

Jen

 

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Dragon’s Loyalty Award

Here are the rules:

  1. Put the logo on your post
  2. Thank the blogger who nominated you
  3. Write 5 facts about yourself
  4. Nominate 5 to 10 bloggers

Thanks to my friend jenasauruswake for my nomination!

Five facts about me (no one said they had to be interesting):

  1. I once banged my big toe in the shallow end of the swimming pool. I naively anticipated sympathy from my wife Pam: it took her about three days to stop laughing!
  2. Favourite nicknames include Marty, Hairy and Fluffy.
  3. Right now I am drinking a bottle of Guinness West Indies Porter.
  4. I am never more than 12 feet from my mobile phone.
  5. I ran a JRR Tolkien fan club called Middle-earth Reunion for ten years.

Now to nominate five of my fave blogs. In no particular order:

 

Martin Baker, a portrait by Sherry Joiner

I was deeply honoured that Sherry Joiner, renowned painter and author of Sherry Goes Sane: Living a Life with Schizo-Affective Disorder, chose to paint my portrait — and blown away at the result!

I asked Sherry for a few words to accompany her painting. Here’s what she said.

To a fascinating person, Martin Baker, an inspiration to many in the field of mental health. I enjoyed painting a portrait of you.

Thank you for appearing from the UK to sit for me while I painted. Even though you were invisble and we had never met before, a photo brought me closer to you and we connected on my masonite board. More people should meet like this!

Thanks again!
Sherry

Check out Sherry’s website and blog at artsandwritingbysherry.com.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Mind Membership News magazine

Fran and I are delighted to appear in the Summer 2015 Carers edition of mental health charity Mind’s Membership News magazine.

My situation is unusual in that I live 3,000 miles from the person I care for. Fran and I met on Facebook; we like to say that the internet means no one is too far away to be cared for, or to care. Fran has moved through episodes of mania, depression and debilitating fatigue, and while she has local friends and a great team of professionals, I’m the person she is in most direct and constant contact with: the one she relies on to be there day or night.” Martin

 

Friday, 3 July 2015

oh yeah.. here again..

i’m flat.. the result of too much good going on.. this is what always happens.. the hypomania everyone loves me.. the jokey.. the push push push to be a part of life with all my friends.. the being involved in everything that’s going on.. running to catch up.. the overspending of energy that can’t be caught up.. to...the flat.. the no one loves me.. the everyone is doing everything fun and not inviting me.. the i can’t get out of bed.. the i can’t stop eating.. or drinking.. this my friends.. is the joy of bipolar.. and there are so many more words..

Fran

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Skype Ambassadors for Social Good

Some of you will have seen these fun (and scarily accurate!) emoticons of us, popping up here and there on our social media. A friend asked Fran what it was all about:

“As you know, Marty and I are writing a book about how to be friends with one who lives with bipolar disorder, and we are actively bringing awareness to mental illness and to reducing stigma. Skype has invited us to be Moment Maker Ambassadors in the Social Good category. They made these cartoons for us for fun and to celebrate.”

The Skype Moment Maker Ambassador program brings together people from all over the world who use the Skype voice, messaging and video call application in fun, innovative, creative or socially meaningful ways.

Living 3,000 miles apart as we do, technology is vitally important to us. Without the internet and social media we would never have met and I could not support Fran as I do if we were unable to keep in ongoing contact. It is not too much to say that the internet and social media saves lifes. It certainly enriches lives.

Skype is one of many applications we use. There are other voice and webcam products, of course, and we have tried a few (watch this space for an upcoming blog detailing the applications we use most), but Skype is the one we keep coming back to and use every day. We believe it says something about the company’s priorities that Skype invited us to join their Ambassador program.

There are around 200 Ambassadors in twenty categories: Acting, Art & Design, Beauty, Comedy, Education, Family, Fashion, Film, Food, Gaming, Innovation, Music, Pets, Photography, Sci-Fi, Social Good, Sports, Tech, Travel, Yoga.

We are proud to join fellow Social Good Ambassadors Tyson Mayr, Claire Jenkins, Roshell Rosemond, Kimberly Brown, Jennifer Morilla — and mother/daughter duo Marla and Kasha Slavner who also joined this week.

I caught up with Marla and Kasha on their adventures for the Global Sunrise Project, a documentary film and book of short stories on global citizenship in action, told through the eyes of a teenager. I asked what being a Skype Ambassador means to them.

“We travel with purpose to connect community, and use Skype on a daily basis to facilitate many of our conversations around social good. It just made perfect sense to show the world how we can connect in a meaningful way and inspire people to take action on issues they care about.”

You can follow Marla and Kasha’s journey through their website/blog and social media channels: Twitter; Facebook; Instagram; YouTube; Pinterest.

So what happens next for us?

We’re not sure! Skype have a number of ways for people to get involved, and we intend to make the most of these opportunities to engage as widely and fully as possible — not just with Skype itself but more importantly with like-minded and like-hearted people wherever they are. Connections. Ripples. That is what it’s all about really.