Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Complex Simplicity: The Art of Being Honest

This article was originally published as a guest post on Peter McDonnell’s blog.

I am grateful to Peter for inviting me to guest on his blog. He didn’t set a specific topic so as I sit here in one of my favourite coffee shops on a Saturday morning I’m wondering what to write about. What to share.

On the table beside me is the book I have been re-reading for the first time in decades: John Powell’s Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am? It’s not a book about mental health as such. It is a book about communication; about sharing our truths, doubts, fears, delights, and hang-ups with one another; and in so doing, allowing understanding and compassion to grow. (It is Powell’s contention that only by being honest and open with others can we come to know ourselves.) And that is of relevance to all of us, whether we live with a mental health diagnosis or not.

This kind of honest communication is fundamental to the close, caring, mutually supportive relationship I have with my best friend Fran Houston. It is also the central message of our book, High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder. When it works – when you allow it to work – the rewards can be immense, as I said to Fran just yesterday:

Martin: Things are so much simpler when we can be honest with each other.

Fran: It is because we feel safe and we trust.

Note that I said “simpler” there, not “simple”! Emotional honesty isn’t something that comes easy to me. There have been very few people in my life I’ve trusted enough to be vulnerable with. And doing so doesn’t guarantee an easy ride! It’s not about easy, it’s about real. It requires courage on both sides; not only to share your truth honestly but to face the consequences of your honesty, and the other person’s.

The exchange I quoted earlier between me and Fran was in response to a less-than-easy exchange yesterday on one of our twice daily video calls. (We live three thousand miles apart on opposite sides of the Atlantic. Our relationship is lived online using chat, emails, and voice and video calls.) We caught up on our news since we’d last met online, including our respective weights (we have been weight loss buddies for the past six years or so). I then moved on to talk about a friend of mine who has been having a rough time. Fran listened patiently, then drew me back to centre. It was clear that from her perspective things were far from okay.

I knew Fran’s weight has been increasing lately, and that she was disappointed and annoyed at her apparent inability to get on top of what was happening. But I hadn’t recognised just how desperate she was feeling about it, or that she felt alone in dealing with the complex and conflicting issues it brought up for her. She didn’t feel I was on board with it – and her – at all.

Fran’s honesty brought me up short. There was a flicker of defensive ego response – “I’ve had a lot going on for me recently, Fran, you know that.” – but that lasted no more than a moment or two. It was true, I have been working through some personal issues of my own for a while now. Fran has been there for me, which I have greatly appreciated, but I probably took my eye off the ball in terms of what was going on for her and what support she herself needed.

We stayed present with each other. We stayed calm. We stayed online. We talked, and listened. I asked Fran what I could do to help her. She suggested some practical things I could do but most of all what she needed was for me to hear her, and be there for and with her. We agreed I would be more vigilant, and that Fran would let me know if she again felt I was not fully on board in the ways she needed me to be.

I am proud of how we handled what might have been an awkward or contentious situation. We each got to share who we were and what was going on for us at that moment. We accepted without judgment what we were hearing. We acknowledged what was missing, what was needful. We recommitted to each other. And we moved on as friends, together.

 

Saturday, 12 January 2019

The Things That I Want A New Friend To Know

By Charlotte Underwood

Creating and maintaining new relationships is incredibly hard for me. I am so used to people leaving me or even taking advantage. It seems that it can prove a real task to find someone who is willing to take the time to listen, to understand and to develop something more than having you as the person they only talk to when they are bored or need advice. I do not think I am an amazing friend, I don’t see myself as a special person but I am someone who can see the way people respond to me. This is what I want them to know, if a friendship is to grow:

1. I Am Introverted

I am a born introvert, and while I certainly had better years with more confidence, I have always thrived in my own space. I like the quiet and emptiness of my own home sometimes. I get overwhelmed with social events, they exhaust me so please understand I need to recover. I don’t like phone calls and even messaging a person can stress me out. I know I am bad at replying but it’s not personal. My energy levels go up and down and some days I am more willing to go out than others. If I cancel, it’s likely not your fault, I just need to prevent a relapse. I am not a people person, I never will be, but my friends mean so much to me, even when I don’t show it.

2. I Have A Past

When we meet, you may recognize my name, you may remember my face. Maybe we have mutual friends or I was mentioned in your past. Please know that I do have a past, just like you do. I am not entirely proud of my actions but they happened and all I can do now is learn from them. I’ve not had an easy start to life, I still am trying to find settled seas, so when I act in a way that bothers you, or I offend you, talk to me and let me know. I have a lot of trauma to adjust to and recover from. It has shaped me and I fight back on it every day, but I don’t want to hurt anyone. I don’t want to hurt you. Please don’t judge me for my past and who it made me to be. I mean well and if you let me, I can show that you that I am more than what happened years or a decade ago.

3. I Am Still Human

I can be difficult sometimes because of my depression and anxiety. I may do or say things that you do not understand. I can be compulsive and erratic and need you more than you need me. But as much as I may have to fight the shackles of my mental illness, know that I am still human. I am still me. I am more than my bad choices, I am more than my relapses and I am more than the label that is attached to me. The only label that really matters, is that I am your friend and I intend to be a good one. Just know that real friends can see more than just the person on the outside.

I think the most important thing of all, is that I am loyal, I am empathic and I will give my friends everything they give to me and more; but it’s a two-way street and no relationship is worth harming either person’s mental health.

 

About the Author

Charlotte Underwood is a twenty-three year old from Norfolk, UK. She is a growing mental health advocate and writer who aims to inform and education on mental health. The goal is to be a friend to those in need. She believes no one should feel alone. Charlotte blogs at charlotteunderwoodauthor.com. You can also find her on Twitter and on Facebook.

 

Thursday, 10 January 2019

Bloggers About Town: A Day out with Aimee Wilson

Number 3 in my list of six things I would quite like to do in 2019 is the hope for some joyful moments that would take me out of myself. On that score my year is off to a great start after meeting up with mental health blogger Aimee Wilson last weekend.

We first met three years ago at an event organised for Newcastle Mental Health Day 2016. I was volunteering for Time to Change and Aimee was running the social media side of things. We’ve met several times since then, mostly at mental health events or volunteering. This was the first time we’d arranged to meet up as friends and we were both really looking forward to it.

One key thing we have in common is that we each blog on mental health topics, and this was very much a “Bloggers Day Out.” We both started blogging in 2013. Aimee began I’m NOT disordered in January of that year and we were also meeting to celebrate her blog’s success and sixth anniversary. With close to half a million readers, it is a success worth celebrating!

I started my day with coffee at Costa in Kingston Park then caught the train into Newcastle. I had a couple of hours before we were due to meet and called into the Central Library to visit the book Fran and I wrote, High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder. It’s still a thrill to see it on the shelves; even more if it’s not on the shelves, because that means someone has taken it out to read!

Aimee was on her way by this time, and Tweeted a short vlog as she was waiting for her bus. Shortly afterwards she realised she’d forgotten the USB cable to recharge her iPhone. I was happy to pay a quick visit to the Tiger store in Eldon Square to pick her up a new one. There followed a fun exchange as we sorted out which length and colour cable would be best. (Note to self: it was never going to be the green one, really, was it?!)

I met Aimee from her bus (“It’s like being famous!”) and we headed off for the Life Science Centre. The walk gave us time to catch up on what we have been doing of late, and to talk about our plans for the day. We found we have several things in common, not least the fact that we are never off our mobile phones! For some people that would be an issue but we are both bloggers passionate about social media and it felt completely natural to be taking photos and videos, tweeting and posting as we went about our day.

I’d not visited the Life Science Centre for years but it had the same hands-on, interactive and exploratory feel I remembered so well. We didn’t get to see and do everything in the time we were there but we had a lot of fun and learned some stuff too. The first thing we encountered was a performance of water magic, showing the sticky properties of water and surface tension. The demonstrator Josh had the young audience (and those like me who are perhaps not quite so young) enthralled. All the staff we met at Life were brilliant, engaged, and friendly, which makes a huge difference to the experience for visitors.

The Making Space area is appropriate for ages 5+ which we figured included us! Demonstrator Lily showed us the choice of card models available to make. Aimee chose to make a robot; in fact she made two in the end. I was going to sit it out and watch, but before long I’d joined in too. It was a lot of fun, and far trickier than it looked! Fortunately Lily and Danny were around to give us a hand where needed. Aimee borrowed my phone stand and recorded a time-lapse video while she made her robots. It’s a technique I’m keen to try once I figure out how to do it on my phone.

We moved on to the Experiment Zone where I got to wear a lab coat for the first time in decades. We chose the fake snow experiment and did really well following the on screen instructions. We even cleaned up afterwards! From there we made our way round a few of the other areas to the gift shop, and then headed off. We’re intending to return another time to check out the Science Theatre and 4D Motion Ride, and any other bits we didn’t get to see.

We had a quick look in Primark for wellies (don’t ask) and Card Factory where Aimee picked a huge number 6 helium balloon to celebrate her blog’s birthday the following day. Then it was off to Frankie and Benny’s for pink gin and pizza (Brewdog Punk IPA for Marty). It was good to sit and reflect on our day and what we have in store for the coming months with our blogging and other projects.

I mentioned earlier that I learned some stuff as well as having fun. What did I learn?

Be bold. I am much better at starting conversations than I used to be (volunteering at public events with Time to Change has been brilliant for that) but Aimee is bolder than I am and I was fascinated to see how she engaged with people I might simply have nodded to in passing.

Keep my contact cards handy! Several times I found myself hunting for one of my cards as Aimee introduced me as an author and fellow blogger. Next time I will keep them closer to hand!

Get permission and names. Aimee reminded me to ask for permission to use any photos which included any of the staff (I was careful not to include other visitors to the centre).

Be interested. Seeing how Aimee engaged with people reminded me that you can never tell who you might meet or where a chance encounter might lead. Being passionate about your own work and interested in other people opens doors and possibilities.

Acknowledge good service and nice people. It is good to acknowledge when people have gone that little bit further or been especially helpful. Aimee gave shout outs on Twitter to the staff at Life who made such a difference to our visit, and to our charming waitress at Frankie and Benny’s.

All in all it was a brilliant day and hopefully it won’t be long before we meet up again for another Bloggers About Town jaunt.

 


Links and Guest Posts

Aimee Wilson blogs at I’m NOT disordered. You can also find her on Twitter (@aimes_wilson) and Instagram (aimes_wilson).

Fran and I have hosted two guest posts by Aimee to date: a review of the Netflix movie Brain on Fire, and an account of her interview in a cupboard for BBC Radio 5 Live.

Aimee has hosted several guest articles of ours including an author Q&A one year after High Tide, Low Tide was published, a 24 hours with piece by me and Fran, an account of my key relationships for Mental Health Awareness Week 2016, and an article for Time to Talk Day 2017.

 

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

My Mental Health 2018: Aligning It All

By Peter McDonnell

I realise that some people reading this article might not be enjoying their mental health at the moment. I would like you to know that it is possible for things to improve.

January 2018 – “Let’s just keep all the good stuff and lose all the bad stuff.”

As a result, at the end of 2018 I find myself more confident and outgoing. I was already doing very well in those areas twelve months ago but now my brain is serving up witty stories and points of general interest in a familiar, effortless, appropriate fashion, sometimes in a magical way. I’m not arrogant or egotistical so I like to control myself in social situations when I feel like my confidence is getting away from me. I have been reminding myself that other people are simply not as interested in many of the things that delight me, and so I pass the conversation on to other people too and just listen for a bit, becoming interested in them and their lives.

I have two mental illnesses, psychosis and anxiety. Both are fading away – something that lifts me every time I remember how far I have come since being housebound by that stuff. For years my mental acuity and happiness was gone, beaten into submission by psychosis and anxiety. Now that the problems are fading, my mental acuity and happiness is coming back with quite a passionate drive and it’s very nice to be back. I am able to apply myself to my work more effectively too. In more recent years I had to grow thick skin in preparation for mental health problems bothering me while I was at work and I’d learned how to self soothe by taking breaks. This this year such problem moments have hardly even been there.

I started a new job in the summer at the same time as England doing themselves proud in the World Cup. I am now nearly six months in as a part time peer support worker on the local ‘P.I.C.U.’ (Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit) ward, the very same ward I was a patient at many times when my mental health was particularly bad. I have two other part time jobs. I work as a cleaner at the nearby Sports Centre, a job I do three hours a day at because it’s more interesting than you’d think and pays well. I also do a shorter amount of hours in a carpentry/joinery workshop making bespoke pieces from upcycled materials to sell in a shop. It’s therapeutic in several ways and very rewarding when my projects sell, and they sell quickly too! (I make coffee tables, wine racks, small cabinets, etc.)

You may well expect me to write a lot about my experiences on the PICU, but I rarely do because the patients have a right to their privacy, but I enjoy it. I feel useful there. I organise bingo games on the PICU and several other wards at Parklands Mental Hospital, which is part of the Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust. I bother local businesses including the big five supermarkets every three months for bingo prize donations. They are all very generous, especially Waitrose and Sainsbury’s. I have been able to gather some impressive prizes. Enthusiasm for bingo is particularly high on the over 65s ward. “Two little ducks, 22,” the room shouts – “quack, quack!” and so on. I am becoming familiar with the call signs.

My Princess nieces, two and a half and four and a half, visited us from America in the summer which was of course the highlight. As well as being rewarding work (I am familiar with and fairly adept at doing the parenting thing, for days at a time sometimes – they used to live close by and I like to think I’ve helped raise them and will continue to do so) they are great fun. Them being born gave me a small prod into reaching a new level of maturity and good mental health. I understand the walking unicorn I got them for Christmas was the favourite present.

I haven’t had a holiday this year, though I had two brilliant trips across Europe in 2017. I haven’t got my book published yet but I have received professional advice on the process, including two manuscript assessment services that provided lengthy appraisals, both saying similar things including “Disneyfy your book Peter!” Disneyfying my book means: Start with an attention grabbing scene, then fill in a bit of the back story, then introduce the dilemma, then bring in hope, then confidence and then work towards the happy conclusion. My mental health memoir was already a bit like that and the reworking is thus feeling easy at times. Lots of work to do though as I am keen to make my story the best it can possibly be.

Disneyfying a book, film etc. is very common. They all do it; Harry Potter, The Lord of The Rings, Star Wars, Peppa Pig, The Cat in The Hat...

In mid-December I received a surprise in the post, a copy of the Taylor and Francis Psychosis Journal 2018. In it they published a 3,500 word article I wrote for them on things that helped or hindered my journey with psychosis. It was another real highlight seeing my article in print in a bona fide psychosis journal. I wasn’t sure how widely published or respected the T and F Psychosis Journal was/is, but my Auntie in California who works as a literary researcher providing material for professionals told us that she has provided articles from this journal to researchers and professors at Stanford University. It was nice to feel such validation.

Christmas has been good for my family and me too; a busy week of seeing them and celebrating. My mum and I had several video calls with my nieces in America and we watched them opening presents. I miss them a lot, but having video calls with them every week does actually fill the hole a bit!

And so for 2018 things are continuing to slot into place – something I feel lucky for but have also worked hard to make happen, and I have been growing as a person in an enjoyable way. After many years feeling like an outsider, feeling normal again is fantastic.

Of course in an ideal world I’d be out partying hard tonight, I’m writing this on New Year’s Eve 2018. One step at a time though. Maybe next year. I had a few big New Year’s Eve celebrations in my teenage years and early twenties so I’ll always have that.

I wish you a happy and prosperous 2019.

About the Author

Peter McDonnell, 36, is an author, woodworker and mental health advocate from Basingstoke, Hampshire, UK.

He often writes articles on his experiences with mental illness and recovery for mental health websites. He is working hard on his memoirs of his experiences with mental illness. He has a website where you can see book extracts and his articles as well as a few other things. He also likes to write about travelling.

His social media links are easy to find on his website: petermcdonnellwriter.com.

 

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

Some Things I’d like to Cultivate and Harvest This Year

By Jen Evans

My friend Marty wrote down some things he’d quite like to do this year and I liked his idea so much that I thought I’d do the same. I’ve never been one for resolutions. They always seemed too resolute and never last because I think I literally expected too much of myself. But cultivating and harvesting ... a slow, gradual harvest over the year, that seems reasonable.

When I think of cultivating, I think of habits that take time to build and maintain, and have to be worked on each day, or a set amount of time each week, in order for them to harvest. Here is what I’d like to cultivate and harvest this season.

1. Three times a week, I would like to write down in a journal all the things I am grateful for during that week.

2. Meditate twice a week and log it or write about the experience.

3. Cultivate a healthier me. To me this looks like a girl who makes healthier choices around food and who likes the way she looks in a mirror. I’d like to get down to 200 lbs. And if I can do that, I may be able to do more. I feel like this is my greatest challenge. I love sugar and I’ve spent a lifetime eating foods that do not nourish my brain, heart and blood, and I’m scared. I want this to be easy. I don’t want to give up my foods. I don’t want to have to work so hard and yet, if I don’t there will be physical repercussions. There already are as I type this. I have never been successful at this, so it’s hard for me to write it here and own that I want the easy road on this front.

4. Cultivate some new friendships with people who won’t leave. Hmmmmm ... I’m not so great at making friends, and lately even less great at keeping friends. I have an illness and I have done and said some things I wasn’t forgiven for. This hurt and, like my eating, I’m feeling scared and a little hopeless having this item on my list.

5. Do two selfless things this year without telling anyone what I did specifically. This could be working for charity or giving or helping a friend or someone in need. I actually have done one thing already. But that’s all I can say about it. Two more, I think, to make three altogether.

6. Take a trip. I’m hoping for New York City. This depends on a variety of factors so it may not happen, but it’s definitely something I’ve wanted to do for a long time.

7. Writing. I will be writing a lot for school, so I’m not sure what I can write on the side. It’s something I want to do more of this year, however, so it’s a habit to cultivate.

8. Attend one speaking engagement this year. This one is a biggie for me, and does rely on some outside things. Still, it’s a goal.

9. Join Toastmasters and grow my public speaking skills. (This might be a good thing to do first. I have started this process; I have to pay some dues before I become a toastmaster.)

10. Read one book for fun.

As I read through this list I wonder if it is too much. Well, these are things I do want and I realize that some of them take work and commitment. I suppose anything that’s worth doing or having in this life does.

Gardens are work, but man they yield such whole-hearted, fortifying stuff. Even just a flower. It all takes time to grow beauty.

 

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Six Things I’d Quite Like to Do in 2019

At the start of 2017 and the start of 2018 I listed a number of things I would “quite like to do” during the respective years. I’ve had a lot of fun - and some challenges - with this and I want to continue in the same vein. Here then is my list for 2019. I’ll let you know how I get on!

You can see how I did in previous years here: 2017 | 2018.


1. Take Three Well-being Courses

I took two excellent courses at Newcastle Recovery College Collective (ReCoCo) towards the end of 2018. The first was on self-harm awareness. The second was a Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) Awareness workshop. I have worked on – and used – my WRAP plan since taking the workshop, which is a testament to how useful the classes were.

In the coming year I’d like to take three additional well-being / personal development courses, not necessarily at ReCoCo. The health of any friendship is the responsibility of both parties but I have a history of being either “way too much” or “not enough” in my relationships. It’s time I took responsibility for that. With this in mind I recently completed an online course on unhealthy relationships at DailyOM, which I found very useful. I have enrolled for another, Overcoming Self-Sabotage, which will count as my first of the three I would like to do in 2019.


2. Bring My Weight Back under 176 Pounds

At the time of writing, my weight has been stable between 178 and 180 lbs for a couple of months.

This achieved the interim target I set myself for 2018, but I would like to bring my weight down another few pounds and maintain around 173 – 176 lbs.


3. Happy Happy Joy Joy

The first two items on this list are arguably a little on the “worthy” side. This is fine, of course, but not everything needs to have a purpose beyond itself.

I had some really fun times last year which took me out of myself in ways I’ve not been used to. I’m not going to prejudge how many there might be or what they might look like but I’d quite like some more joyful moments, please!


4. Meet Two Online Friends Face to Face

I don’t have anyone – or anywhere – specifically in mind, but it would be fantastic to meet up with folk I have thus far only known online. Watch this space!


5. Have One Caffeine Free Week

During 2018 I reduced my coffee intake from four or five cups a day to two (very occasionally three). I am not planning to stop altogether, but a week’s detox will give me the opportunity to see how addicted or otherwise I actually am to my daily caffeine.

I intend to warn family, friends, and colleagues in advance: there is a rumour I get very grumpy if I don’t have my morning coffee!


6. Visit Barter Books, Alnwick

Barter Books is a second-hand bookshop in the market town of Alnwick, Northumberland, which is thirty-five miles north of where I live in Newcastle. It is one of the largest second-hand bookstores in Europe, and is is located within the town’s Victorian railway station. I have wanted to visit for many years but somehow have never done so.

At the suggestion of a mate of mine I am adding a visit to Keel Row Books in North Shields to my list. Thanks, Karl!