Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Time to Talk, Time to Listen, Time to Care

Thursday February 2 2017 is #TimeToTalk Day, an annual event organised by Time to Change to focus attention on mental health. (Time to Change was formed in 2009 by MIND and Rethink Mental Illness, with the aim of reducing mental health-related stigma and discrimination.)

Some feel that awareness campaigns trivialise the lived experience of people with serious mental illness, giving the impression that talking to someone or going for a walk can fix things, or take the place of professional treatment and support. I wholeheartedly agree that a chat with a friend or a breath of fresh air is never going to cure anyone. But I do believe—as the following quotation from the #TimeToTalk webpage makes clear—there is much we can do to lessen the burden of isolation and misunderstanding.

Conversations about mental health change lives.
At the moment, too many people with mental health problems are made to feel isolated, ashamed and worthless by other people’s reactions. But talking about mental health doesn’t need to be difficult. It can be as simple as making time to have a cup of tea or go for a walk, and listening to someone talk about how they feel. Being open about mental health and ready to listen can make a positive difference to someone’s life.
This is what Time to Talk Day is all about—giving us all the chance to talk and listen about mental health.

What Does “Having a Conversation about Mental Health” Look Like?

Having “a conversation about mental health” might sound daunting, but it simply means allowing someone to talk openly about what’s going on for them. It might be a face-to-face conversation, a phone or video call, or a conversation by e-mail, text (SMS), or instant messaging. Whatever works for you and the other person.

Whatever the channel, there are a few things that distinguish a supportive conversation from the normal everyday kind. I find the following reminders helpful.

Don’t interrupt. This is self-explanatory, but can be one of the hardest to remember. Let the other person share what they want to share, without giving in to the urge to interrupt with your own ideas, suggestions, and questions. I certainly need reminding of this one!

It’s their story, not yours. Don’t monopolise the conversation by recalling times you have been through what they are talking about. “I know just what you mean” is particularly unhelpful. No matter how similar your experiences might seem, their situation is uniquely theirs, and what worked—or didn’t work—for you might not be relevant to them at all. If you are asked for suggestions or advice, fair enough, but wait until you are asked.

Save your judgments for later. It’s hard to listen to someone without analysing and mentally judging what you are hearing. This isn’t wrong in itself—you might need to assess whether the person is in immediate danger, or in need of professional help—but beyond that, your internal dialogue only serves to distance you from what they are sharing with you.

You don’t have to fix everything. Depending on your relationship (partner, child, parent, family member, close friend, colleague, acquaintance, or stranger) you may be in a position to offer help, advice, or support. But it is not your responsibility to fix everything, so hold back with your suggestions unless they are asked for. On the other hand, don’t feel paralysed or useless if you can’t think of anything that could possibly help. If you are present and engaged, you are helping. Often, that is precisely—and all—that is needed. You’d be surprised how rare a gift holding space for someone can be. As it says on the #TimeToTalk webpage:

“It’s #TimeToTalk because if you say something, you realise how many people around you haven’t, and needed to”

But I’m Busy

We are all so busy these days. School, college, work, commuting, chores, children, our own issues and problems, fill our days—and often our nights too. When are we supposed to find time for all these conversations?

#TimeToTalk isn’t about blocking out chunks of “Mental Health Conversation Time” in your calendar—although it might involve committing to meet up for lunch with that friend you haven’t seen in a while, calling on a relative on your way home from work, or turning off the TV after dinner to talk with your partner or child. It’s about being open to what the other person wants to talk about, and not being scared if that includes their mental health, or that of someone they care about.

Think of the people you talk to already. The colleague who gives you a ride home. The person you speak to every Saturday in your favourite café. Social media and the internet mean you can connect with almost anyone, almost anywhere, at almost any time.

It’s Not All about Mental Health

You won’t always be “talking about mental health,” of course. Open conversations span the full gamut of topics: deep and trivial, funny and sad. But if they are genuine, they encompass whatever is going on for you and the other person, and often that does include some aspect of mental health. That said, if you are open to such conversations, you might find yourself having more and more of them. I consider it a privilege that people feel at ease talking with me about topics which so often are kept hidden, because they attract judgemental attitudes, stigma, and discrimination.

Balance and Boundaries

You can’t be there at all times for everyone, however. You are not a 24/7/365 crisis line. Aside from the dangers of burning yourself out, doing too much can lead to codependency, which is unhealthy for both you and the other person. Don’t take on too much, and pay attention to your own health—physical and mental. Remember that #TimeToTalk includes sharing your issues and concerns, as well as listening to those of others.

What Difference Can I Make, Really?

Fran and I believe passionately that all of us—you, me, everyone—can make a difference. Fran knows this first-hand, and I can do no better than close by sharing her words from the Epilogue to our book.

There are many like me who live in invisible institutions of stigma, shame, and silence, the walls built by others from without, or by ourselves from within. Dismantling these walls invites connection. Be the gum on someone’s shoe who has one foot inside and one foot outside. Stick around. It may not be easy but you can help someone make a life worth living. Maybe even save a life. One little bit by one little bit. A smile, a wink, a hello, a listening ear, a helping hand, a friendship all work together to interrupt the grasp of illness.
Be open and honest, with your friend and others you meet. Judge not, for misunderstandings abound. Acceptance, understanding, and kindness can pave another way. Let’s.

 

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

It's Not Just for Kids: Reading Together for Fun and Friendship

The most important sounds we can ever share with another person are our own voices.

The above quotation is from the chapter in our book where we discuss how we make our 3,000 mile, transatlantic, friendship work. We believe there are many kinds of distance that can separate people, and not all are measured in miles or time zones. What keeps our relationship fresh and alive is our willingness to keep the channels of communication open between us, no matter what.

Reading together is one way we honour that commitment, and amongst the most rewarding.

Young children—and parents of young children—know this instinctively. And yet as adults we rarely read to one another. When was the last time you read to your adult child, to your partner, or to a friend?

Geography need not be an obstacle. Fran and I live on opposite sides of the world, yet read together regularly on our video calls. We do this both for simple pleasure, and because Fran finds it helpful. She has difficulty maintaining focus, and finds lengthy works easier to digest if they are read to her.

Borrowing the phrase which introduced each story on Listen with Mother (a BBC children’s radio programme which ran between 1950 and 1982), I begin each reading with the words: “Are you sitting [or lying] comfortably? Then I’ll begin.” This simple formula marks the occasion as something special, and helps us focus on the words we are about to share.

Since we met online in 2011, we have enjoyed a wide range of fiction and non-fiction books, including thrillers by suspense novelist James Hayman. As Fran says:

There is nothing better than a well-written thriller.. and nothing better than it being set in your hometown.. and actually knowing the author.. but when you have an Englishman reading it to you.. that takes the cake...

In addition to James Hayman’s thrillers The Girl in the Glass, Darkness First, The Chill of Night, and The Cutting, we’ve read The Stone Trilogy (The Distant Shore, Under the Same Sun, Song of the Storm) by Mariam Kobras, and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch.

Nonfiction titles include:

  • Daring Greatly and Rising Strong, by Brené Brown
  • Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life, by Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr. Lilian Cheung
  • An Unquiet Mind, by Kay Redfield Jamison
  • Say Goodnight to Insomnia, by Gregg D. Jacobs

A full length novel or nonfiction book can take weeks to read, and represents a significant commitment in time and energy. Shorter works, collections, and poetry—including my own Collected Poems—can be dipped into at any time. Those we've enjoyed include some perennial favourites:

  • The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
  • The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams
  • The Happy Prince and Other Tales, by Oscar Wilde
  • The Prophet, by Khalil Gibran
  • Winnie-the-Pooh, by A. A. Milne

We keep a list of web pages, newspaper articles, and blog posts to read when we get chance. For the past three years we’ve subscribed to the Compassion Course Online offered by the New York Center for Nonviolent Communication. Each week we read the latest lesson together and discuss its relevance to our lives.

Although I do most of the reading, it’s not all one way. Fran reads me pieces she finds; she also reads back to me the letters I write her. We read aloud to each other a good deal throughout the process of writing our book, especially the editing and proofreading phases.

Reading together has given us confidence to read in public. I’ve read excerpts from High Tide, Low Tide at the Newcastle Literary Salon, and we’ve read at public events including a panel discussion on mental health and social media, and a fundraiser for nonprofit Family Hope.

Whether they are your words or another’s, whether the person you’re sharing them with is in the same room as you or on the other side of the world, reading to someone can be a powerful, beautiful, and empowering act. It is also an antidote to personal separation.

No matter the nature of distance in your friendship, keep in touch. Keep talking. Keep the channels open and the communication flowing. Share your time, your thoughts, and your worlds. Do that, and closeness will never be far away.

 

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

How to Write the Best Acknowledgement Page for Your Book

Whether you have recently started writing your book or are close to publishing it, there is no wrong time to start thinking about your acknowledgement page.

We have brought together a few ideas and lessons based on our own experience writing High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder.

Make a (Contact) List and Check It (At Least) Twice!

You will meet many people in the course of writing your book. Not all will warrant a mention in the acknowledgements, but you don’t want to forget someone who contributed early in the process simply because they weren’t actively engaged at the end. Don’t rely on memory. Make—and maintain—a list. If it’s good enough for Santa...

It doesn’t matter how you keep track—on paper, on index cards, or in a Word document—but start recording everyone you encounter. You never know when you might need to contact that guy you met at the library, or the lady at the coffee shop who said she’d introduce you to her nephew at the radio station when you’d secured a publishing contract. Fran and I used a spreadsheet for our list. By the time our book was finished we’d collected close to two hundred names.

Record the person’s name, how and when you met, contact details (phone number, e-mail, social media links, mailing address). Add a few words about who they are and what role they have played—or might play—in your book’s development, promotion, or marketing.

How Do Other Authors Do It?

You can find sample acknowledgment pages online, but there’s no substitute for seeing how your favourite authors approach the task. Start with books you already own, especially those most relevant to your work. You can research other authors and titles at your local library, or online. Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature lets you browse without having to purchase the book, and the random sample often includes the acknowledgements. Make notes, so you can refer back later.

Front or Back? Where are the acknowledgements located? Most authors and publishers place them toward the front of the book, after the foreword and preface (if any), and before the introduction. Others place acknowledgements at the back, especially if they are rather long.

Length. There’s no need to count words, but does the author constrain the acknowledgements to one page? Two? More?

Categories. Authors generally group people together depending on the contribution they have made. The following categories are common, but are not always presented in the same order. What categories and order does the author use? Think about which are most relevant to you.

  • Children, partner, parents, siblings, other family members.
  • Beta readers, street team, researchers, editors, agent, publisher, illustrator.
  • Friends, colleagues, teachers, tutors.
  • Others.

Names. Does the author use first names only, first name and surname, or a mixture of both? Are names listed alphabetically, and if so by first name or surname?

How We Wrote Our Acknowledgement Page

Fran and I began by setting some ground rules. An acknowledgement page is not a list of everyone you know, like, or are scared of offending by leaving them out. We agreed to only include people who had played a specific and significant role in our book’s journey, or in our lives whilst the book was being developed and written. We gave ourselves permission to make exceptions, and did so in a couple of cases, but having the rules helped keep us focused.

We reviewed every name in our contacts spreadsheet, flagging people yes/no/maybe for inclusion. We revised and refined our selection until we were happy with it. Our final acknowledgement page thanks eighty people individually by name.

We checked close to a dozen books in detail. We made notes on the length of the acknowledgements, the categories they author used, and how the author introduced each category. Having done that, we played around with categories which made most sense to us and the people we wanted to thank. We settled on three main categories: contributors to the book itself, our support team, and the wider community.

Contributors. People who contributed content; people who provided advance endorsements; readers, editors, publishers

Our Support Team. Fran’s professional support team, family, friends

The Wider Community. Our social media connections and supporters, mental health organisations and individuals

We added a fourth category for people who had inspired us, whether or not they had contributed directly.

We took our time allocating the people we wanted to thank to the various categories. This was mostly straightforward, but several people fit two or more groups: we placed these in the category which best represented their contribution. Within each group, we arranged people alphabetically by first name, to remove any hint of favouritism.

We introduced each category simply, with a variation on “We thank ...”

  • We are grateful to ...
  • We thank ...
  • Special thanks are due to ...
  • We acknowledge and thank ...
  • We thank ...

After editing, our acknowledgements ran to one and a half pages. A little on the long side but we are happy that we recognised and thanked everyone we wanted to. As I wrote to Fran:

So many people have been with us on this journey—some since the beginning, others not so long. But so many believe in what we are about! Yesterday, you and I were going through the acknowledgement page.

There are far more people than we can ever list by name, but those we are able to include represent a wide spectrum of experience, knowledge and expertise—and they have all believed in us. That is awesome—and humbling.

We hope our ideas helps you craft the best acknowledgement page for your book: one which reflects your preferences and character, and honours those you most wish to recognise. Do you have suggestions and experiences of your own to share? We’d love to hear them!

If you haven’t bought our book yet, you can read our acknowledgements using Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature.

Marty

 

Saturday, 14 January 2017

When I Am Happy I Make Soup

 

 

 

When I am happy I make soup

When I am down I make soup

When there’s drama I make soup

When there’s peace I make soup

Then, I have to give.

 

Fran

 

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

How Our Book Came to Be: The Title

This is the first in an occasional series—originally suggested by Aimee Wilson who blogs at I’m NOT Disordered—looking at how our book, High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder, came into being. We start by looking at how we arrived at our book’s title.


From the beginning, it was important to me and Fran to have a strong working title for our book. In January 2013, the month we started on it in earnest, we worked through the exercises in a book called Writing Successful Self-help and How-to Books, by Jean Marie Stine. Here are a few of the many brainstormed ideas we came up with:

Dancing on the Ragged Edge: A Bipolar Relationship
Dancing the Ragged Edge: My Bipolar Friend and Me
Gum on My Shoe: Life, Learning and Laughter with My Bipolar Friend
Gum on My Shoe: My Bipolar Bestfriend and Me
My Best Friend Is Bipolar and I'm Not Afraid!
Growing Together with My Bipolar Friend
Be Who You Are, Do What You Can
Along the Ragged Edge: Journeying Joyfully with My Bipolar Friend
Waves of Joy: Life, Laughter and Learning with My Bipolar Friend

As this conversation shows, at the time we were still developing the concept for the book, as well as looking for a title.

“The emphasis of our book, Fran, needs to be that people living with bipolar disorder are capable of relationships that are deeply rewarding for both people involved. That message was always there but the piece I posted on Facebook last night really brought that home to me. The one about the guy who said his girlfriend has bipolar and broke up with him because her therapist told her she would never be able to have a real relationship. Today I added a comment to my post:
‘My bestfriend is bipolar and I have never known anyone with as great a capacity for deep, heart wide open, honest, caring and mutually supportive friendship. Our relationship is far from being one way, lean-on-me, dependency and I am blessed to have her in my life. It breaks my heart that such ignorant advice is given out. I can scarcely imagine what it must be like to be on the receiving end.’
“It was then that I realised our book is about JUST that message, and it is a message that needs to be heard. What do you think about ‘Waves of Joy: Life, Laughter and Learning with My Bipolar Friend’ as a title? It came to me from thinking about the sine waves of your illnesses, how they ebb and flow.”
“It’s good to have a title, Marty, but be flexible about it changing.. Remember bipolar is a life threatening illness..”
“I am flexible to it changing, but the working title sets or reflects the whole nature of the book. Are you thinking the new title sounds too lightweight? That it does not reflect how serious bipolar disorder can be?”
“Yes. I’m thinking who would pick the book up if it’s just joy and laughter.”
“But it needs to counter the idea that ‘your life will be shit if you are friends/partner with someone with bipolar’ because that is NOT how I experience it.”
“Not only does it need to capture the concept, it needs to capture the audience.”

After a good deal more brainstorming and discussion we settled on “Gum on My Shoe: One Step at a Time with My Bipolar Best Friend.” This remained our working title for the next three years. The title has its origins in a conversation from early in our friendship.

“You’re stuck with me now, Frannie. I hope you realise that.”
“Like gum on my shoe.”

We liked the title, because it captured several important aspects of our friendship. First, that Fran is “stuck with me.” I am not going anywhere. I am here for her no matter what; through good times (there are many) and not so good (there are many). I am the “gum on her shoe” that keeps her grounded, and helps hold her here in this life even—especially—when she wants to leave. It also turns on its head the notion that ill ones are a burden to those around them. I am not locked into a relationship of servitude: we are equals in a mutually supportive friendship.

As a title, “Gum on My Shoe” was understood and liked by many, but it confused others. More significantly, it was dismissed by people in the publishing world whose experience and judgement we respected. We resumed the search for a title early in 2015. By April, we had settled on “High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder.” As we describe in chapter 6:

The title of this book—High Tide, Low Tide—is an apt one. Fran lived on an island for many years, including the first eighteen months of our friendship. The stretch of water that separated her from the mainland, and the rhythm of the tides and ferry crossings, influenced almost every aspect of her life and our relationship. The title also suggests the Atlantic Ocean, which lies between us. Most significantly, it conveys the periodic nature of Fran’s illnesses.

The new title felt right, and lent itself to a wider range of treatments for the cover art. Of which, more next time.

 


High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder is available at: Amazon.ca | Amazon.com | Amazon.co.jp | Amazon.co.uk | Amazon.de | Amazon.es | Amazon.fr | Amazon.it | Barnes & Noble

 

Saturday, 7 January 2017

6 Things I'd Quite Like to Do in 2017

I’m not big on New Year Resolutions, but here are six things I’d quite like to do in the year ahead.

1. Volunteer with Time to Change

I had a great time last year volunteering for mental health charity Time to Change at Newcastle Mental Health Day (#NCLMHday) in February, and Newcastle Pride in July. At these events, and December’s Festive Networking Event (see this report by Aimee Wilson), I’ve met some amazing people, and can’t wait to continue my connection in 2017.

If you’d like to get involved with Time to Change in any capacity, check out their Champions page.

2. Visit a Pub

Specifically, Wylam Brewery at the Palace of Arts in Newcastle upon Tyne. I first visited the brewery’s new venue last August, on the day of Newcastle’s Fiesta Festival on the Town Moor. The place was heaving and I didn’t stay, but I can’t wait to pay a return visit. The Palace of Arts has a long and interesting history.

3. Fundraise for a Mental Health Charity

I’ve done a few fundraisers, including two zipwire slides for Crisis; the Alzheimer’s Society Memory Walk along Newcastle Quayside; and walking here to support Fran who was doing the NAMI Walk in Maine. I only managed the NAMI Walk last year, but I’m keen to find other mental health fundraising events in 2017. If you know of any, please let me know.

4. See HTLT on a College or University Reading List

Fran and I are very keen to get our book High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder into libraries and onto the reading lists for relevant school, college, or university courses. If you are involved with such courses or programs, or know someone who is, we’d love to hear from you!

5. Bring My Weight Back under 180 Pounds

Since I began taking my weight seriously in July 2012, I’ve seen it fall from 200 lbs to around 175. It remained stable for a while, then began to drift upwards again. Somewhere along the way I stopped caring, and last year my weight rose dramatically to well over 190 lbs. I’ve recently recommitted to caring about my body, and fully intend to return my weight to within healthy limits. Let’s see how it goes!

6. Complete a Mental Health Course

I’ve done several online and classroom courses over the past few years, including Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) and Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST). This year I’d like to develop my experience and skills further. I don’t have anything lined up yet but I’m looking at learning opportunities offered by Recovery College Collective, Time to Change and the NoStigmas advocate training program.

Well that’s it for now. Have you set yourself any goals or resolutions for the new year? I’d love to hear them!

Marty

 

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

What My Mantra Means to Me: Healthy Boundaries

In a recent post I mentioned the mantra I’ve employed for the past couple of years, and chosen to carry forward into the coming year.

Well boundaried. Well focused. Well challenged. Well loved.

But what does it mean? The resonances have changed over the past two years, and will likely continue to change. But what does my mantra mean to me right now? Of the four statements, “well boundaried” is perhaps the least obvious, and I will devote this post to exploring its relevance.

I don’t think I had ever heard of the word “boundary” in a psychological context before meeting Fran in May 2011. I can’t recall precisely when or how it came up: most likely from us discussing the various therapies Fran had undergone or was undergoing. Or perhaps one of the online meditation classes we took together.

However it entered my vocabulary, it took a long time for me to see the concept of boundaries as healthy. To me, it implied an unhealthy erecting of barriers between me and the world, at a time in my life when I was learning to open up. It suggested precisely the restrictive concepts and practices I had been dismantling over the previous couple of years: in particular, the “Inner Circle vs. Rest of the World” model I’d employed most of my adult life.

My Inner Circle model had kept those closest to me within a high wall of my own devising. Inside, I felt safe, but it kept me from apprehending the World Outside, or acknowledging those who dwelt there as more than part of the scenery. Policing the walls was exhausting, and one day I realised almost none of my Inner Circle still resided there. My Walled City had become a ghost town.

My response was to dismantle the city; take down the walls; dissolve the Circle. (I have described this previously.) Like Titus Groan in Peake’s fantasy series, I left Gormenghast and set out into the Wide World. It was scary, yet intoxicating. I was open to every new experience; each new encounter. I forged new connections; found new friends—including, in time, Fran. I had found my new world view, unfettered by artificial boundaries and boxes. I had swapped the Walled City for the Wilderness.

Three books which I read or re-read around this time echo the transition. Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance—which I first read at university—with its road trip Chautauquas and its blend of scientific and philosophic/metaphysical world views. A gift from a friend, The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen expressed most clearly and cleanly for me the shedding of modern boundaries, as the author leaves behind his city existence to trek in the Himalayas. Henry David Thoreau’s The Maine Woods also spoke to me of Nature and Wilderness: a particular American Wilderness, immersing me in the geography and history of Maine, and giving me insight into Fran’s own wilderness experience.

I finally went to the backwoods of Maine for a year and lived in a camp on 189 acres with no running water and no electricity—an attempt to find my baseline, fight my demons and find the night, or die.
Fran Houston, Lessons of the Night

I began to see things were not so simple, and that a completely unboundaried existence was not merely unhealthy but dangerous. This was something I was learning first-hand with Fran. It had always been—and remains—a fundamental of our friendship that I will never ignore a call from her; be that by email, instant message, text, or phone call. Day or night. 24/7/365. With very few exceptions—and always by prior arrangement—if her call comes through I will pick up.

However, I learned it’s ok—indeed it’s healthy—for my response sometimes to be “Can’t chat right now. I’ll get back to you.” At times, I am busy and cannot be disturbed—in a meeting at work, for example; with someone else; or simply meeting my own need for space. Recognising our boundaries means Fran need never worry she is going to upset or disturb me: if she wants or needs me she can reach out knowing I will not ignore her. But she also knows I will take responsibility for managing my end of things. Fran handles her end on the same basis. It is simple, it is healthy, and it works.

For me, boundaries relate most often to how, where, and with whom I spend my time and energy. This was very much the case when Fran and I were writing our book. It took four years to bring High Tide, Low Tide to publication, but it would have taken a lot longer had I not defined and protected my “writing time.” This mostly fell between 8 and 10 p.m., after my Skype call with Fran and before I settled to write my diary for the day.

The boundaries were not rigid: many times I chose to set them aside in order to spend time with friends, or because of other commitments. But it was important for me to have defined the boundaries and to feel justified in enforcing them when necessary. This did not—and does not—come easy to me. It is very much a work in progress, which is why I place it first in my personal mantra.

“Well boundaried” also applies to my personal relationships. For many years, I held tightly to each and every close personal relationship (or, rather, to what they represented for me), in many cases long after the relationship itself had changed beyond recognition, or faded altogether. In the same way I kept my “Special People” safe in the Walled City, I kept my relationships frozen; preserved; mummified. That is no way to honour anyone.

When I left the City and set out on my grand wilderness adventure, I left the effigies of dead relationships behind me. (An echo here of Lady Cora and Lady Clarice, abandoned to die in their chamber within Gormenghast Castle.) Relics were no longer any use to me. I wanted living exchanges. I wanted dynamic relationships.

This meant setting aside lists and categories. It meant not labelling people (“Special People,” “Friends,” “Colleagues,” “Neighbours” etc), and opening my heart to experiencing people for who they are, and my relationships for whatever they might be in the moment. It meant letting go of prior expectations of what a “friendship” (for example) should or needed to be.

Not all relationships are healthy, however. I have had to acknowledge the concept of toxic relationships: not as a label of judgement/blame, but as a valuable descriptor. This has been hard, not least because I have far more examples of me being toxic to others than of others being toxic to me.

I find I have dismantled the rigidly boundaried Walled City only to discover—over there, in the distance—a region labelled “Do Not Enter” on the map. Beyond its borders dwell all those I must never again attempt to contact, because I am toxic to their wellbeing. There are more of these than you might imagine. I have always found it easier to permanently end relationships than deal with the realities of their changing.

The first appearance of such a Perilous Realm, in my literary life at least, is a poem of mine dating from 1984:

And through my lands you softly came; exploring scenes
you’d once conceived as if amazed at what a little time
had wrought: found shadows cast about my heart by
trees formidable. I wished you would by some
judicial felling let the summer in, but I lay
impotent as mountains and could only watch you turn
dismayed, a little disillusioned,
to some fresher view.
From: “What Happened to the Lovetrees?”

In different guise, the realm appears in a short story of mine titled Poser V1.0. The Tolkien references are deliberate.

One part of her realm she had not revisited, though she could not fully purge it from her mind. It was a region like none other in her demesne: a region mazed in enchantments. Protected from invasion and escape by a forest of thorns, their savage spears sheathed in clouds of crimson flowers. Within the bounds of that little realm a man languished endlessly, lost in the bitterness of unsatiated lust.

This is not healthy boundarying, it is wall building born out of fear. A recent conversation with Fran touched on this. We were talking about how she manages to release her hold on difficult, even toxic, relationships without forever banishing the other person to the Forbidden Zone. I have seen this in practice several times over the course of our friendship.

Fran: This is why I don’t give up on people.
Martin: I have learned to let go.
Fran: Giving up is different than letting go.
Martin: I was just pondering that. I’m not sure. Maybe.
Fran: Giving up implies hopeless. Letting go implies openness. Open handedness.
Martin: Closing the door, vs leaving it open?
Fran: Yes.
Martin: It’s not always healthy to leave the door open (that’s what I'm thinking, anyway, about me and my relationships.)
Fran: It’s ok to close the door but not the heart.

I still have work to do in this area. It is the primary relationship challenge for me for the year ahead.

There are many other aspects of being “Well boundaried,” including its relevance to codependency and self-care. I may return to the topic another time. If you are interested in the subject, I recommend the work of Brené Brown, including this video in which she discusses boundaries, empathy, and compassion.

Marty

 

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Connection and Challenge: A Look Back at 2016

I don’t really do New Year Resolutions. Instead, I began 2016 by reaffirming the mantra which had served me well throughout the previous year:

Well boundaried. Well focused. Well challenged. Well loved.

In January, Fran signed up for Brené Brown’s online LIVING BRAVE semester, and for the next few months we worked through the lessons together. I read the books that accompanied the courses (Daring Greatly and Rising Strong) to Fran, and we shared our answers and responses to the weekly lessons. It was an intensely challenging experience for me. Early on, we were invited to explore our core life values (in my case, Connection and Challenge) and choose two or three areas in which to work (Brené Brown calls these “arenas”). I chose three, and will share one with you here. (The others I choose to keep private, as there is still work for me there.) The first arena I chose was: “To engage fully with local mental health groups.”

Within days, I was presented with the opportunity to volunteer for mental health charity Time to Change at Newcastle’s Mental Health Day. It was one of the scariest things I’d done in ages, but I stepped into the arena—and never looked back! You can read about my experiences here. I also volunteered with Time to Change at Newcastle’s Pride event in July, and was privileged to attend their Festive Networking event in December.

A chance encounter in my favourite coffee shop, Caffè Nero in Saint Mary’s Place, led me to the Newcastle Literary Salon. I wrote about the meeting in an open letter to Fran.

I got talking here at the cafe earlier with a guy who told me about a local writers’ group—Newcastle Literary Salon—which meets once a month. I looked them up and the next two meetings are on mental and physical illness. I will go along, and see if I can get a slot to read from our book. It’s scary to put myself out there in person, but that is part of what I’ve learned: to dare, to challenge myself—whether it’s doing a zip-wire slide from the Tyne Bridge to raise funds for Crisis, addressing the Mental Health First Aid team at Virgin Money, volunteering at the Time to Change Mental Health Day event, or appearing live on radio! I would never have done any of this if it were not for our friendship. Connection and challenge have become my watchwords.

The first Salon event I attended left a lasting impression on me, which I wrote about for the hastywords #BeReal blog series.

Courage and vulnerability were out in force last night at the Salon. I heard—really heard—people sharing words from the heart, from the guts of their personal experience. I connected with people I’d never met before, who knew nothing about me and about whom I knew nothing. I had fun. I felt my heart open. I made a new friend. I dared to be real amongst people who get what that means. I can’t wait until next time!

I’ve attended most of the monthly Salon meetings since then, and read aloud from our book on three occasions: June, July, and September. This fit perfectly with my twin values of Connection and Challenge. I remember especially one lady who approached me in person after my first live reading, to share how much my words had meant to her.

I’d like to take this opportunity to commemorate local poet Mark Potts, a Salon regular who died recently. I didn’t get to know Mark well at all, but he was someone whose performances I enjoyed, and who spoke to me—a newcomer to the literary scene—with warmth, and welcome in his eyes. He will be deeply missed by those who knew and loved him.

This year I have travelled both physically here in the UK—holidaying with my wife Pam in Brough (twice) and in Bowness—and virtually, accompanying Fran on trips in the US including New York City and Samoset.

When Pam and I stayed at Brough in April, Fran and I were eagerly awaiting confirmation of a publishing contract offer. I was floating that whole week. After three and a half years, we had found a home for our book. There would still be a great deal of work to be done, both before and after publication, but—we’d done it! On the final day of the holiday, news broke that the publisher had gone out of business. It was a huge disappointment, but something of a lucky escape. Had we been accepted six months earlier, it might have been hard to extricate ourselves from the mess. As it was, we had the satisfaction of knowing our book had been deemed worthy of publication. It did mean having to continue the search for a publisher or literary agent.

As things turned out, we didn’t have to wait long! Pam and I were on our next holiday, in July, when our son Mike messaged me to say the publisher he was working with on his novel was interested in seeing High Tide, Low Tide. Things moved quickly. Fran and I started working with Michael Kobernus from Nordland Publishing almost immediately. We signed our contract on August 8. One of the year’s highlights was the delighted shriek of excitement from one of my senior work colleagues on hearing the news! (No less noteworthy was pitching our book to the team conducting my bowel cancer screening examination. Connection and Challenge? You couldn’t make this stuff up!)

Our Facebook cover reveal event ran for ten hours straight. The official High Tide, Low Tide launch party was on October 1, which is also Fran’s birthday. We were delighted that so many of our friends were able to attend these events, both virtually and in person.

Later that month, I was proud to appear as a panellist in Maine Behavioral Healthcare’s annual It Takes a Community forum discussing social media and mental health. In November, Fran and I hosted a book party and fundraiser for Maine-based mental health nonprofit Family Hope at Blue.

At the close of the year, our book is “out there.” It is available for sale online at Amazon (Amazon UK) and Barnes & Noble, and in one highstreet bookshop: Longfellow Books in Portland, Maine. It is also available to borrow from the City Library here in Newcastle.

Fran and I have been blown away by the support and encouragement we’ve received, not just since our book was released but throughout the four years it took us to bring our dream to fruition. There are too many to thank individually, but we have recognised as many of you as possible in the Acknowledgements, which you can read using Amazon’s Look Inside feature.

We’ve been interviewed a number of times throughout the year. I’d like to give special thanks to Aimee Wilson, Steven Hesse, Diane Atwood, and Rebecca and Joe Lombardo for making us feel so welcome.

So, what’s next? I certainly achieved my 2016 ambition “to engage fully with local mental health groups” but I want to take it further. Mental health advocate and blogger Aimee Wilson, recently invited her followers to share their highlight from 2016 and their hopes for the year ahead. I responded:

1) Launch party for our book HIGH TIDE LOW TIDE!
2) To get more involved with Time to Change and other mental health folks

Aimee replied “Yay! Well 2 = more time with me!” which suits me just fine! Aimee, you are a great ambassador for Time to Change and a personal inspiration to me. I look forward to working with you in the year to come.

Book marketing will be a huge part of 2017. I’ve learned a lot, especially from book marketing guru Rachel Thompson, but there is a lot more to learn and a lot of work putting it into practice. Rachel’s new book BadRedhead Media 30-Day Book Marketing Challenge is a must-read and is on my Kindle already. A related challenge is to blog more regularly than I have done to date.

Fran and I are particularly keen to connect with trainers, tutors, and organisations interested in adding High Tide, Low Tide to reading and resource lists. If you are able to help in any way, please get in touch!

Whatever happens in 2017, I welcome the Challenges and Connections it brings. As for my mantra: I don’t think I can improve on the one I have:

Well boundaried. Well focused. Well challenged. Well loved.

Peace.

Marty