Wednesday, 13 October 2021

The Constant Gardener: How to Be Someone Your Friends Can Rely On

You truly are someone I can rely on in an emergency and at all other times.

In this post I want to explore what it means to be someone your friends can rely on. That might not seem all that special or unusual. Isn’t that what friendship is about? To an extent, yes. Friendship, certainly the mutually supportive kind I value most, implies a degree of commitment and trust that you’ll be there for each other. On the other hand, I think most of us would agree they have one or two friends they’d unthinkingly turn to in moments of need or crisis. It’s not that those friends are better or more important than the rest. Dependability is one role in the repertoire of caring, but it’s not the only one and it has consequences. What’s it like to be that kind of friend? Maybe you are already. Maybe you wish you were. Maybe you wish you had one. Let’s take a look.

The Steadfast Friend

Two words came to me when I began writing this piece: constancy (in the sense of being unchangingly faithful and dependable), and steadfastness (being resolutely or dutifully firm and unwavering). I’ll discuss constancy later but I find this description of steadfastness by Barry Walsh very relevant, albeit couched in the language of business leadership:

Steadfast implies a sureness and continuousness that may be depended upon. The steadfast [person] is dependable, reliable, constant and unwavering. S/he stays the course, follows through, develops good habits and keeps them.

In other words, we’re talking about someone who is able to offer a stable and reliable point of reference for others. This is captured nicely in the following quotes from our book High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder. Here, Fran and I are discussing my role in our friendship, specifically that of being a safe haven.

The most important role you can fill is that of someone your friend can rely on, feel safe with, and trust to be always there. Fran has friends “who are designated to be the string of my balloon.” We keep her grounded in times of mania and prevent her from sinking too deeply when she is in depression. It is a cornerstone of our friendship that I am available for Fran no matter what is happening. We have spent many hours together when she has felt depressed, manic, anxious, afraid, or suicidal. There is little I can do to help on a practical level, but I can listen and talk with her. Above all, I can simply be there so that she knows she is not alone.

It’s especially valuable when Fran is in mania:

I once asked Fran what I contributed most to our friendship. She gave me the image of an oak tree, standing strong and tall. On other occasions, she has likened me to a rock or anchor, a still point of reference amid the uncertain tides of illness. I act as a buffer between her and the world and balance her thinking, which [when in mania] tends to be mercurial, dogmatic, and strongly polarised.

This degree of commitment is generally reserved for relationships with partners, siblings, parents or children. Thinking of me and Fran one friend asked, “Realistically, who’s got the time and energy to unfalteringly provide that level of care and dedication to someone outside your immediate family?” It’s a valid question but for me, it misses the point. Not everyone, whether living with mental illness or not, wants or needs the kind of connection that works for me and Fran. But pretty much everyone wants and needs people in their lives they can depend on.

What does steadfastness mean in practice? It means saying, as many times as your friend needs to hear it, I’m here for you. I’m not going anywhere. How can I help? – and not only meaning it at the time but following through. It means picking up when your friend calls or messages you, no matter what time it is, how your friendship stands at that moment, or how recently you were last in touch, even if it’s six months after the friendship broke down, because you promised you’d always be there and they believed you. I’m not necessarily talking about picking up a broken relationship. Things sometimes end for valid reasons. I’m talking about a commitment to be a steadying hand in a crisis, a gentle voice on the end of the phone, a safe space in which to talk, vent, or cry things out.

It’s not always easy, because the role is a function of the other person’s needs. There may be times you’re called on to take a step back and give your friend space because they have other things going on for them, because they’re doing better and don’t need you as much, or they’re having a really rough time and you’re not who they need right now. On the other hand, you may feel you need to hide or buffer changes in your life and circumstances so as to be the person your friend’s grown used to depending on. If you present as other than stable, solid, and reliable, maybe you’ll risk losing your role as the steadfast friend who’s always there for others.

This is something I’m working with at the moment, as I begin to explore my mental health more openly in conversations with friends and in my blogging. One friend said she felt less confident turning to me for support because she didn’t want to upset me or make my situation worse. I told her that’s not how things work for me. Being there for others, including hearing whatever they wish to share with me, never brings my mood down, depresses, or overloads me. Quite the opposite. Hopefully, my friend understood and was reassured.

Codependency and Over-Reliance

All this might sound as though I’m talking about an unhealthy degree of codependency, or putting yourself at someone else’s beck and call. It’s certainly something to keep an eye out for, and challenge if it begins to affect your relationship or wellbeing. Left unchecked, the consequences of putting other people’s needs before your own can be devastating, as they were for my mother. Her mental health deteriorated to the point where she was barely able to function. Ironically, she spent her final years depressed, anxious, and wracked with guilt for not having done more. Fran and I have found openness to be the best antidote to codependency:

Begin by speaking honestly with your friend about what is going on for you. Talk about the things you are able to do, but also discuss setting healthy boundaries.

There may be others with claims on your time and energy: young children, elderly relatives, other friends, or a partner. You may be ill yourself, or have problems and issues which require your attention. There are also limits to your skills, knowledge, and competence. No one can tell you where the boundaries ought to lie, and they may shift from time to time. That is something you, your friend, and the others in your life must work out for yourselves.

Actively encourage others to play their role in your friend’s care, rather than trying to do everything yourself. Keep an eye on your health and well-being too. It can be exhausting to support someone with illness, and you may need your own support team from time to time.

For more on this, check out How to Be Kind and Clever, Four Things It’s Hard for a Mental Health Ally to Hear (And Why It’s Important to Listen), and What My Mantra Means to Me: Healthy Boundaries.

The Constant Gardener

I’m fortunate to have had several healthy examples of steadfastness in my life. The first was the husband of one of my older cousins. I didn’t know him well but I remember the devotion he showed to his wife and stepdaughters. Nothing appeared too much trouble and I’ve held him as something of a role model ever since.

The second is a current friend of mine. Like me, she cares for a best friend who lives with mental health issues. She also supports a number of other friends. We relate well because we understand the particular demands – and rewards – of this kind of steadfast care. With characteristic insight, she once said to me, “Maybe we’re just these weird people whose forte in life is to be needed.”

My third example is the character of Marnie played by Susan Sarandon in the 2015 movie The Meddler. One moment captures Marnie’s generosity of spirit perfectly. The lines are delivered by her friend Jillian, played by Cecily Strong, at her (Jillian’s) wedding, which Marnie funded and helped arrange.

“Marnie, words cannot even begin to express my gratitude to you. After my mother died I couldn’t imagine being loved so unconditionally by someone who wasn’t my family.”

Staying with fictional characters, my fourth example is Samwise (Sam) Gamgee, in J. R. R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy novel The Lord of the Rings. Played by Sean Astin in the movie adaptation, Sam was Frodo Baggins’ gardener, but also “[his] steadfast companion and servant, portrayed as both physically strong for his size and emotionally strong, often pushing Frodo through difficult parts of the journey and at times carrying Frodo when he was too weak to go on.” According to the Open-Source Psychometrics Project, Sam’s top three personality characteristics are loyalty, kindness, and heroism. He’s also been called “a quintessential ISFJ” on the Myers-Briggs personality scale:

The ISFJ is known as the defender or protector, which is exactly what Sam does for Frodo. ISFJs are also known for their loyalty and quiet determination. Sam is willing to sacrifice everything to stand by Frodo’s side and save Middle-earth.

I used to be a devoted fan of Tolkien’s work, and ran a fan group called Middle-earth Reunion between 1996 and 2005. In one of my favourite stories for our quarterly magazine, I explored Sam’s steadfast service through my main character, William (Bill) Stokes. In the following excerpt, Bill finally comes to understand the nature of his role supporting his wife through her battle with cancer, and finds healing for the pain and guilt he’s carried since she died.

And it came to him, hard and sudden. If the second acorn — this tiny oak tree in the plastic carrier at his feet — was the gift of the Lady then he was Samwise Gamgee. Not warrior but steadfast companion, whose hands were not those of a healer but gardener of a line of gardeners.

In that moment he saw himself through Joan’s eyes. She didn’t see — hadn’t seen — him as a failure, hadn’t hated him for failing to make the disease go away. They had been married twenty-seven years and he had been what she needed him to be. Faithful friend, truest companion on the longest road. He was her Sam.

Not Aragorn, damn his eyes. Sam. The hands of a gardener.

Bill Stokes, grower of things. He knew at last what the last tree was for.

My final gardening reference is the character of Justin Quayle in the 2001 novel The Constant Gardener by British author John le Carré. According to one reviewer, the book’s title “refers to Justin’s determination to grow things, literally and figuratively. We see Justin gardening as a hobby, offering gentle but diligent attention to his plants. On a broader thematic level, gardeners never stop digging, and after [his wife] Tessa’s murder, Justin digs endlessly for the truth.”

This finds an echo in a talk I attended in September for World Suicide Prevention Day. Asked about this year’s theme, “Creating Hope Through Action,” mental health advocate and author Jake Tyler said the most important action he’d taken during the long months of lockdown was to nurture the relationships that meant most to him. He reminded us that connections require ongoing, dutiful, care in order to blossom and remain healthy. They also need room to grow. Fran and I discuss this throughout our book, most specifically in the following passage in which we describe one of our guiding maxims.

Open Hands. Open Arms. Open Heart.

This important principle reminds us not to hold too tightly to people, relationships, and situations. Healthy things grow, and to grow is to change. In the time we have known each other Fran has moved from mania to depression and out again. She has grown in self-awareness, and developed tools for looking after herself. I have learned a great deal about what it is like for someone living with illness, and how to respond to Fran’s needs and the needs of others. At times Fran needs me close beside her, at other times she needs space to grow independently.

“Open hands” recognises that change is natural, healthy, and necessary. It gives us permission to grow without feeling guilty or restricted. Imagine holding a small bird in the palm of your hand. It feels safe, protected, and cared for, but it is free to move, to grow, and even to fly away. “Open arms” reminds us that, no matter what happens, we will always welcome each other back as friends. “Open heart” connects our friendship to our wider network of relationships with other friends, family, and the people we encounter in our lives.

On that note, I’ll bring this discussion to a close. I’ve examined some aspects of being a reliable, steadfast, and constant friend. It’s not without its challenges but I believe they’re far outweighed by the rewards. The quotation at the start of this post is one of the most genuine, heart-felt, and meaningful acknowledgements I’ve ever received.

“You truly are someone I can rely on in an emergency and at all other times.”

Do you have someone in your life you trust always to be there for you? Do you fulfil the role of constant gardener for your friends and loved ones? How does it feel? I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.

 

Photo by Avelino Calvar Martinez on Burst.

 

Wednesday, 6 October 2021

Do One Thing (A Day, a Week, a Month, a Year, Now, for You) for World Mental Health Day

Do you believe we should live in a society where everyone has access to proper mental health support? So do we. (Mind)

Organised by the World Foundation for Mental Health and observed each year on October 10, World Mental Health Day (WMHD) is an opportunity to raise awareness of mental health issues and to mobilize efforts in support of mental health. This year’s theme is Mental Health in an Unequal World.

This theme was chosen [...] because the world is increasingly polarized, with the very wealthy becoming wealthier, and the number of people living in poverty still far too high. 2020 highlighted inequalities due to race and ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity, and the lack of respect for human rights in many countries, including for people living with mental health conditions. Such inequalities have an impact on people’s mental health.

Here in the UK, mental health charity Mind’s Do One Thing campaign for WMHD invites us to add our voice to those championing change, “Because if we all do one thing, we can change everything.”

This post is my invitation to you — and a reminder to myself — to do one thing to counter stigma, discrimination, and unfairness. Not just on WMHD, though. Not just occasionally, when we think about it or are reminded by some awareness campaign. But regularly, repeatedly, reliably, relentlessly; until anyone and everyone in need has access to the support and care they need.

I’ve included suggestions for daily, weekly, monthly, and annual engagement, something you can do right now, and a reminder not to forget about yourself. Most focus on exploring outside our personal experience, so as to expand our knowledge of lives other than our own. It’s important, though, not to lose sight of our own needs. Whoever you are and whatever your situation, you matter too. Your health and wellbeing matter. You are as entitled to your share of respect, care, and support, as everyone else. If you experience any of the inequalities touched on in this article, you might choose to focus your time and energy advocating for yourself and others in similar situations.

Do One Thing a Day

To the extent you feel comfortable, keep up-to-date on current affairs, especially issues relating to mental health and inequality. Consider setting a limit on your engagement — for example fifteen minutes a day, or every couple of days — if you feel overwhelmed by all that’s going on in the world.

The theme of this year’s WMHD rightly draws our attention to the discrimination and lack of opportunities experienced by many people around the world. That’s not the whole story, however. There’s a lot to celebrate and be thankful too, if you keep an eye out for it. One good place to start is Positive News: “The magazine for good journalism about good things [...] dedicated to quality, independent reporting about what’s going right.” Another great source of meaningful content is Humans of New York.

Check in with friends and loved ones, especially anyone you feel may be struggling or isolated.

If you’re on social media, follow key organisations and influencers in areas you’re interested in. Check their content regularly, and engage by commenting and sharing their posts on.

Do One Thing a Week

Follow a podcast or blog that resonates for you and commit to catching up on their latest content once a week. Feedspot is a curated database of bloggers and podcasts covering a wide range of topics. We are currently #73 in their list of mental health blogs. My friend Aimee Wilson’s blog I’m NOT Disordered is #2 for borderline personality disorder.

Once a week can be a convenient frequency to check in with friends or family you’re not in touch with on a day-to-day basis, whether it’s a hand-written letter (remember those?!), chat, or a video, or voice call.

If you keep a diary or journal, consider writing a brief weekly summary of things you’ve done, learned, or achieved.

Do One Thing a Month

Each month, choose a topic you know little or nothing about. Set aside a few hours, or a day or two, and learn as much about it as you can. Research online, take a course, or read a book on the subject. If possible, talk with someone for whom your chosen topic is part of their lived experience. It won’t make you an expert by any means, but it will broaden your knowledge of experiences other than your own. Here are a few suggested topics to explore:

  • A physical or mental health condition
  • Diversity and inclusion
  • Homelessness
  • Human rights
  • Intersectionality
  • Any of the protected characteristics (age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation), especially as they relate to discrimination or unequal access to services and support
  • Suicide and suicidal thinking
  • Unconscious bias

MIND’s campaign page has information on a range of topics including children and young people’s mental health, support for our emergency services, benefits, and housing. They also link to partnership campaigns with the English Football League, Heads Together, and the Scouts A Million Hands initiative.

Another good resource is the Awareness Days website. This is a searchable calendar of awareness days, weeks, and months throughout the year.

If you are looking for training courses, check out Centre of Excellence, Free Courses in England, Future Learn, and Open Learn (free courses from the Open University). We’ve previously published a list of online suicide awareness and suicide prevention courses and podcasts. The No Stigmas network offers an ally program which includes free online training.

Do One Thing a Year

Choose one area of mental health, inequality, or change as your focus for the year, and devote yourself to learning more about it, and engaging with and supporting those whose lives are most affected.

Take out or renew your membership to a mental health organisation, charity (non-profit), or other body whose vision and mission you support.

Volunteer your time, energy, or expertise to a cause that is meaningful to you.

Sign up for a fundraising event or challenge.

Do One Thing Right Now

Right here, right now, as you’re reading this article, take a moment to consider how you might make a positive difference in the world.

Do One Thing for You

Remind yourself of the good things in your life, your successes and achievements. It’s important and healthy to celebrate your wins, no matter how great or small they might seem to be.

Take a break when you need to. That includes stepping away from social media and the news if you feel stressed, anxious, or overwhelmed.

If you, or someone you care about, are in need of support we have a list of crisis and support lines on our resources page.

One Last Thing

In the words of UK mental heath charity Mind, “[t]his World Mental Health Day is your chance to learn about mental health inequality. It’s also an opportunity to speak out, spread the word and make change happen.” We’ve shared a number of ways to approach this challenge, but we’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas. What does Do One Thing mean to you, and how do you feel we can best challenge mental health inequality?

 

Wednesday, 29 September 2021

Return to Down: How My Baseline Mood Has Slipped from Positive to Low

I’ve felt below par mentally for a while now. It’s possible I’ve been depressed, although I’m wary of self-diagnosis and haven’t sought a clinical opinion. I can trace some of it back several years but I’ve only lately felt up to talking about it publically. It’s not that I’ve ignored my mental health altogether. I’m aware of many of my triggers; the situations and events that tend to pull the rug out from under me. I captured the main ones in my Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) back in 2019, and review it periodically. My triggers include:

  • Changes in relationships (which I tend to perceive as lessening, loss, or abandonment)
  • Uncertainty or lack of clarity in communications
  • Getting overwhelmed by competing demands for my time and attention

My triggered responses include feeling anxious and panicky, a strong sense of loss or abandonment, and becoming either pushy or clingy. My WRAP includes recovery strategies which help me return to my baseline, such as talking things over with Fran and other trusted friends, pulling back to assess what’s happening, and focusing on my writing. These strategies have served me well, until now.

In last week’s blog post, I mentioned feeling flat, low, and empty, but being unable to identify any of my usual triggers. My key friendships and relationships have been solid for a while now, communications are clear and unambiguous, and although there’s been a lot going on, I’ve not felt consciously overstretched. Nevertheless, my mood has often dropped suddenly — at times precipitously — with little or no warning. Something is different but it’s taken me a while to figure out what it might be.

I’ve always believed my emotional and mental health baseline to be essentially positive and healthy. Things might happen at times to upset my equilibrium, but after a shorter or longer period I return to my place of stability and wholeness. Lately, though, this model has been turned on its head. Instead of events and situations disturbing me from an essentially healthy baseline, it feels as though my baseline itself has shifted downwards. Positive events and situations such as meeting up with a friend, or feedback on one of my blog posts — essentially any of the things I was grateful for last week — can lift me up, lighten my mood, or provide an alternative focus for a while. But, once the distraction has passed, I’m pulled back to this low mood baseline. I’m reminded of the rubber band effect Fran uses to describe the “rebound crash of pain and fatigue” she gets with her fibromyalgia if she exercises or exerts herself too much.

No model can be completely accurate, but the best can help us — and others — appreciate what’s happening in our lives. Fran and I have used a variety of models to explore how illness plays out in her life. We describe several in our book, including this layers model:

In terms of responsibility, Fran finds it helpful to acknowledge there is an underlying layer of biological illness. It may respond to clinical intervention, including medication, but she is unable to influence it directly. Above this, there is another layer which Fran can affect, through meditation and mindfulness, exercise, and making healthy choices about her food, drink, and sleeping regimes. Thinking about illness in this way eases the burden of guilt, and allows her to focus her energy where it can be most effective.

I only began explicitly tracking my mood in February 2020, but three times a day for six months I rated my mood on a six-point scale that ran from zero (“struggling”) through “low,” “flat,” “OK,” “baseline/positive,” up to a maximum value of five (“really good”). My healthy-baseline-with-occasional-low-periods model remained valid throughout. Outside events and changes (either real or imagined) in my relationships evoked sudden and occasionally dramatic drops in mood, but I returned to my positive baseline without much trouble or delay. As I noted at the time, “My mood is closely tied in with what’s happening in my life, especially in my key relationships. This isn’t news to me (or my close friends) but the tracker has brought it into clearer focus.”

I haven’t tracked my mood since last August but on that same scale I’d say my baseline has dropped from “positive” to somewhere between “flat” and “low.” That’s a significant shift but how and when did it occur? I found it hard adjusting to working from home and not meeting up with friends during the first covid lockdown, but my baseline held up, as my mood tracker attests. I can think of events towards the end of 2020 that upset my equilibrium and might be significant, but the first clear sign of change is an article I wrote in March this year. In What If I Never Do All the Things I Used to Do? it’s clear I was struggling to remain positive.

At some point, though, it dawned on me that things will never return to how they used to be. The impact of covid, of lockdown, of all the changes we lived through last year and are still living through, is simply too great for us to pick up where we left off. Vaccinations will allow us to move forward but right now, as England begins gradually to open up again, I can only see that many things I valued (and some I took for granted) have already gone beyond any hope of retrieval. Others may resume, but they won’t be the same. I’m not the same. We aren’t the same. How could we be, with all we have gone through?

Contrast that with the robust optimism of “Remember When?” — Building Shared Experience in Unprecedented Times, written one year earlier, a month or so into the pandemic.

It occurred to me that we’re doing more than checking to see people are okay. We’re supporting each other, yes. But even more than that, we’re sharing our experiences in what truly are unprecedented times. [...] There will be tears and pain when we look back on the pandemic of 2020. But there will also be joy and laughter, and the comfort that comes from surviving dark times in good company.

I may revisit these blog posts now things have largely opened up again. I’ve been able to meet up with local friends. I’ve reclaimed a couple of things I feared lost forever and found some new ones. Nevertheless, this lower baseline appears here for good — or bad. However I got here, I need to figure out what that means. In another recent post I shared a little of the changes I’ve noticed in my daily diary:

Looking through my journal, there are things I’m used to hearing from others but have rarely felt — and even more rarely expressed. Have I just been feeling low or is it something more serious? I tend to assume my experiences, dark moods included, scarcely register compared with what others go through. But what if I’ve reached somewhere they would recognise. How would I know?

Feeling low is scarcely unique or unexpected given all we’ve lived through these past eighteen months. It’s unusual and unexpected for me, though. I’ve become much less positive, optimistic, and hopeful than I can remember being in a very long time. In unguarded moments, I’m overwhelmed by a deep, aching emptiness. I can shift my mood, but sooner or later the rubber band takes hold and I find myself back on my new baseline. Is this (to use a term I’ve come to loathe) my “new normal”?

I’m unsure what to do about it. Maybe there’s nothing to be done about it, other than to keep moving and see it through to the other side. Being open about how I’m feeling is part of that. I was chatting with my friend and fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson last week:

Hi Marty. What are you up to?

Doing a bit of blogging. The one about my mood shifts.

Are you finding it OK to write about that kind of thing?

It’s not flowing all that well at the moment, but yeah. It feels kinda important and real, yunno?

That’s so good!

Thanks. I’ve learned from the best!

A few days later, we had the opportunity to talk face-to-face. I shared my insight about my baseline shifting downwards, and how I was tryng to figure out what it means. We discussed how people often set their needs aside — sometimes for years — in order to support others who may be in more immediate need. Eventually, though, things may catch up with them to the extent they can no longer be ignored. That was very much the case with my mother. She supported my father for decades as he became increasingly disabled with arthritis. After he died and I left home for university, she devoted herself to supporting other people. Her mental health deteriorated to the point where she was barely able to cope. She spent her final years depressed, anxious, and wracked with guilt for not having done more. At her funeral, the minister praised her as a living saint, but to me, that degree of self-neglect is far from laudable.

Something that feels very relevant is the convenient but problematic labelling of people as either “ill ones” or “well ones” (as Fran and I express it in our book). The distinction has value but it can lead people like me who are relatively well and stable to ignore or downplay signs we’re not doing so well. Aimee and I agreed that health, especially mental health, is not a competition. No one should be shamed or ignored because they imagine they’re struggling less — or more — than someone else.

Things change. Situations and relationships change. Our health changes, sometimes for the better, sometimes not. We all need to pay attention, me included.

This is me paying attention.

 

Photo by Adrian Dascal on Unsplash

 

Wednesday, 22 September 2021

Seven Things I'm Grateful for This Week (And One Extra Special One at the End)

I was inspired to write this post when the topic of gratitude came up twice for me in as many days. The first was when I was discussing journaling and gifting with my friend Brynn. It reminded me of the gratitude journal I was gifted a couple of years ago. I used to carry it with me everywhere and wrote in it regularly, but it’s sat on my desk for a while now, unused and rarely opened.

The second was when I opened Spotify to play some music on one of my evening walks and noticed a podcast on radical gratitude by my friend and fellow blogger Liz Kay. I’d added it to my Spotify library a few weeks ago but hadn’t got round to listening to it. I played it on my walk, captivated by Liz’s gentle passion for the subject, and have listened to it several times since. If you’re at all unsure about the benefits of gratitude, I recommend giving it a listen. There is a blog version here, if you prefer to read rather than listen.

To be honest, I wasn’t feeling much in the mood for gratitude at the time. I’ve been flat, low, and empty for a while now and had considered exploring that in a blog post. It seemed churlish, however, to reject the invitation to think more positively. So here, in no particular order, are seven things I’m grateful for this week.

Sexy Rexxy

I enjoy computer programming, but my day job as Associate IT Services Manager offers little opportunity to put my skills to use. It wasn’t that way in the past but things change. Chances to do fun stuff like that are few and far between. Nevertheless, this week I created one. I’d been pondering how best to validate a particularly complex file I’ll be receiving from another team in the near future. I’ve done it manually before and it’s tedious in the extreme. It occurred to me I might write a program to generate an equivalent file of my own, against which the new one could be easily — and automatically — compared.

No one had asked me to do so and I wasn’t certain the idea would work, but I figured it was worth the couple of hours it would take to find out. I spent a happy afternoon coding it in Rexx and can honestly say I had a great time doing so. It worked, too, and led me to investigate some anomalies with format of the files I’d not noticed before. The exercise lifted my mood and left me feeling more engaged than I’ve been in a while. I’m grateful to work for an employer where that kind of exploratory, ad hoc, enquiry is encouraged.

Positive Response to My Masking Article

I’m grateful for any response to my weekly blog posts, but last week’s article High Masking or Faking Fine? The Masks We Wear and Why We Wear Them received a far more positive reaction than anything I’ve written in recent months. I’m particularly grateful to Dr Carla Groom, whose talk on neurodiversity in the workplace inspired the article in the first place. She told me she was touched I’d been moved to write the post, and generously suggested some changes to align it more closely with what she’d said in her talk.

My article attracted very positive responses on LinkedIn, with one reader calling it “[a] fantastic read — inspiring, thought-provoking and poignant.” Another said it was “[a] powerful read from a perspective you don’t hear about very often.” I logged into work that day to find one reader had been moved to share it with colleagues across the organisation. Other recent blog posts have also been well received and shared at work within our Mental Health First Aider community, including my piece on men and mental health, and an article for World Suicide Prevention Day.

At times, I doubt the value of my writing. Positive feedback like this reassures me that, sometimes at least, I get it right.

Good Food and Good Company

Last month, I wrote a blog post on safety, responsibility, and trust inspired by a drive I took with a friend. We met again last weekend and took another drive out to a lovely pub for lunch and a catch-up. We’ve been friends for a number of years and it’s fair to say things haven’t always gone smoothly, but we are in a good place now. I’m immensely grateful for our friendship, and look forward to our next trip out together.

Friends Who Notice How I’m Doing

I’m fortunate in having friends who notice when I seem a bit off, and ask if I’m OK. Aimee did so the other day:

“Are you ok, Marty?”

“Kinda flat/low.”

“I did wonder …”

She asked if I could pinpoint any reason for how I was feeling. I couldn’t, but it helped to be asked, and in a way that didn’t put pressure on me to explain or share more than I felt comfortable doing.

I had a similar conversation the same day with my friend Brynn, which brought a little levity to the situation. She asked how I was and I said I was feeling flat, low, and empty. This led to me coining the word flempty, which I’m sure I will use again! I’m grateful for Brynn’s friendship and the fact we can talk about serious things one moment, and crack ourselves up laughing the next.

It’s the Little Things

Sometimes it’s the little things that mean the most. I’ve written about this before, and Liz mentions it in her gratitude blog and podcast:

DON’T DOWNPLAY THE SMALL THINGS! As they come up, just try to consciously think to yourself “hey, that was actually kind of cool!” By making a habit to acknowledge the small things as they arise, you are working to engrain thoughtfully thoughtless gratitude into your daily life and practices.

There have been a few “actually kind of cool” things this week. Aimee has been sharing photos and video clips of how her new bunny Luna and her cat Emmy are getting along. I don’t think I’ve ever typed “awwwwwww, cute!!!” as many times as I have to Aimee in recent days! I’m grateful for these behind-the-scenes glimpses which bring a touch of warmth and delight, no matter how I’m feeling or what might be going on for me.

In a similar way, Brynn shares photos and videos with me of her beloved dog Beckett. We also exchange YouTube music videos. She’s far more musically knowledgeable than I am — as she says, “I’m a music person, Marty!” — and loves to introduce me to artists and tracks I’ve never encountered before. It’s fun for me, too, trying to find songs Brynn may not know.

Turning the Page

Back in 2017, I wrote about how Fran and I read together; more specifically, how I read aloud to her. Over the years, we’ve read a wide variety of books: fiction, nonfiction, long, short. At some point, for no particular reason, we stopped doing so, and I’ve missed it.

A friend of ours, award-winning arts writer and journalist Bob Keyes, who interviewed us in 2019 for the Maine Sunday Telegram, has a new book out about American artist Robert Indiana. Fran and I watched a couple of Bob’s interviews when the book came out, and it felt natural to read it together. So that’s what we are doing! I’m grateful for the opportunity to read to Fran again, and to learn about an artist I knew nothing about.

First Leaves of Autumn

I went for a lunch time walk last Thursday and for the first time this year found a drift of dry fallen leaves to walk through. There’s nothing like that first crunch of autumn! It was a moment of simple delight and joy, which I shared with Fran in a photo. (In retrospect, I should have recorded a video so she could hear it too!)

Last But By No Means Least

I’ve listed seven things I’m grateful for from the past week, but I’d like to close with a special mention for Liz Kay whose podcast on radical gratitude inspired me to do so.

Liz — we don’t know each other very well I guess, but please know that you mean a great deal to me. I remember us first connecting early this year when I was on one of my local walks, and the voice messages you sent me. (I’ve just gone back through my messages and replayed some of those — which brought warm smiles of remembrance.) Whether it’s through the medium of your blog, or your podcasts, in personal messages, or in your Facebook groups, you share so genuinely and honestly, and always from the heart. I’m grateful, happy, and proud to call you my friend. Bless you.

Check out Liz’s social media links here.

 

Photo by Gabrielle Henderson on Unsplash

 

Wednesday, 15 September 2021

High Masking or Faking Fine? The Masks We Wear and Why We Wear Them

This article was inspired by two online sessions I attended last week. The first, on neurodiversity in the workplace, was presented by Dr Carla Groom, Deputy Director of Behavioural Science at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). Dr Groom described what neurodiversity means (and doesn’t mean) and shared from her lived experience as someone diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum.

Discussing labels, she said she prefers the term autistic spectrum condition (ASC) to autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), which is the medical term for what was previously called autism. But what resonated most for me was what she said about the label "high-functioning." On one level, she conceded, the term describes her well (her LinkedIn profile describes her as a “[s]enior leader and behavioural science pioneer”). She nevertheless hates it when applied to her autism, because it denies or dismisses the work and effort that goes on behind the scenes for her to present this way and achieve the success she has:

[S]omeone like me might be called high-functioning. And fair enough, I am high-functioning by most reasonable definitions. But if you then say I have “the high-functioning kind of autism” or that my autism is “mild”, then I might get a little bit cross and say that I work extremely hard to make it mild for you. It affects everything about my experience of the world, for good and bad. To deal with a world designed for a completely different kind of human, I am constantly planning, risk assessing, coming up with mitigation strategies and suppressing my anxiety when those don’t work. They are invisible struggles.

These coping strategies are called “masking” and it’s exhausting. I’m working to mask less and embrace my difference. That means, ironically, that I will seem more “autistic”, but I’m hoping that gives permission for other people to step outside narrow ideas of desirable behaviour, and see that there are many different ways to achieve good outcomes.

Summarising it for me later, Dr Groom said, “I don’t mind being called ‘high-functioning,’ although I do think ‘high masking’ is more helpful.”

I’m in no way qualified to talk about masking (also called camouflaging) in relation to autistic spectrum condition, but I found this description helpful:

Hiding who you are is an uncomfortable and exhausting experience. For many autistic people, that experience is a daily reality. In places where the full spectrum of neurodiversity is not understood or welcomed, autistic people often feel the need to present or perform social behaviors that are considered neurotypical. Some people may also feel they have to hide neurodiverse behaviors in order to be accepted.

I’ve included a list of resources at the end of this article if you’re interested in learning more.

Dr Groom’s account reminded me of something I learned early in my friendship with Fran. Whilst she doesn’t use the terms masking or camouflaging, Fran has often spoken in similar terms about how hard she works to present well in public, so as to fit in and not attract unwanted or hostile reactions. By that, she means hiding or minimising the impact of her mental and physical health conditions. Fran’s symptoms vary in frequency and severity but include mania, depression, suicidality, pain, and debilitating fatigue.

Fran hides these away because being open about her conditions can lead — and has led in the past — to varying degrees of stigma, rejection, and disrespect. I’m one of the relatively few people she trusts enough to be honest with, but even with me, there are things she tends to keep to herself. She’s not alone in this, of course. We all do it, to some extent. I do it, albeit for different reasons. We call it faking fine.

The downside is that the people Fran is “presenting well” to never learn the truth. Whether on social media or in person, they see the places she goes, the people she knows, and the things she achieves, and assume she’s okay. The reality is rarely so simple. They don’t see the courage and sheer hard work it takes for Fran to manage her conditions and make the best life she’s able to. This makes me sad, but I understand why she does what she does. It’s not Fran’s job to educate society to accept the realities of her life. She does what she needs to do, which includes presenting in ways calculated to evoke fewer unhelpful, ignorant, or hurtful reactions.

Fran is not alone in this, nor is it limited to mental illness and neurodiversity. One friend told me she experienced something similar following surgery on her hand. People saw the functionality she’d regained but didn’t necessarily appreciate the hard and painful work it took to achieve and maintain mobility, or the prescription pain medication she still needed.

Whilst useful, masking or “faking fine” can be extraordinarily frustrating and exhausting, given the effort involved in presenting as “fine” or “high functioning.” It’s an effort and burden that, almost by definition, goes unrecognised. It can have more serious consequences if it deepens a sense of disconnect and lack of awareness between the person wearing the mask and those around them.

The second talk I attended was organised by UK suicide prevention charity Grassroots, for World Suicide Prevention Day. Mental health advocate, broadcaster, and author of A Walk from the Wild Edge, Jake Tyler described his experiences during lockdown in 2020.

Asked about the theme of this year’s World Suicide Awareness Day, “Creating Hope Through Action,” he said the most important action he’d taken during lockdown was to nurture the relationships that meant most to him. Connecting online, rather than face-to-face, had opened him up to people and friendships that might not have developed or grown as they did had it not been for lockdown. Those connections had been powerfully protective in the context of suicidality and self-harm.

I brought this up the next day on a work call with fellow Mental Health First Aiders. We agreed that working and socialising virtually had changed our relationships with friends and co-workers, in many cases for the better. Connecting virtually on video calls as we worked from home allowed us to let down our usual masks to some degree, and interact more genuinely. In the words of one colleague, “The biggest positive from the past eighteen months or so is the way people have connected more deeply with each other.” I’ve noticed this in my own connections with friends and colleagues, although it’s not necessarily so for everyone. Setting our masks aside, whether virtually or in person, requires a depth of trust that’s not always present, and cannot be assumed.

Is mask-wearing healthy or not? I don’t think there’s a definitive answer to that question. I prefer to think of it as useful; necessary, even, in some circumstances. It can be a strategy for navigating a society unsympathetic of — and impatient with — anyone unable or unwilling to meet its behavioural norms. It’s neither kind nor helpful to coerce people into setting their masks aside, especially if that involves shaming them into doing so or suggesting mask-wearing is in some way dishonest or deceitful. We wear our masks for a reason and no one has the right to deny or invalidate those reasons.

Our aim, as individuals and as communities, must be to build and maintain spaces in which we feel safe to set our masks aside when we choose to, but also feel safe to use whatever masks and strategies we need to, without risk of censure.

That can only happen when we are aware of the masks we choose to wear, and the reasons for doing so. We can start by challenging the stigma associated with mental illness, invisible illness, disabilities of all kinds, and ways of apprehending the world that are other than neurotypical. What matters most is how we relate to and treat one another, however we present, recognising that without a doubt there’s more going on for each of us than we see or choose to share.

 

Further Reading

What is autism? (NHS)

What is autism? (National Autistic Society)

Blending Into the Crowd: What is Autism Masking? (Autism Parenting Magazine)

Autism Masking: To Blend or Not to Blend (Healthline)

 

Photo by Izzy Park on Unsplash.

 

Friday, 10 September 2021

Free Books for World Suicide Prevention Day

To mark World Suicide Prevention Day 2021 Fran and I are offering our book HIGH TIDE LOW TIDE for FREE on Kindle for five days between Friday September 10 and Tuesday September 14, inclusive.

Once the free offer is over the prices will go back to normal.

In High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder we share what we’ve learned about growing a supportive, mutually rewarding friendship between a “well one” and an “ill one.” With no-nonsense advice from the caring friend’s point of view, original approaches, and practical tips, our book is illustrated with real-life conversations and examples.

Buy it here.

World Suicide Prevention Day (WSPD) was established in 2003 by the International Association for Suicide Prevention in conjunction with the World Health Organisation. This year’s theme is Creating Hope Through Action:

Creating Hope Through Action is a reminder that there is an alternative to suicide and aims to inspire confidence and light in all of us; that our actions, no matter how big or small, may provide hope to those who are struggling. Preventing suicide is often possible and you are a key player in its prevention.

Through action, you can make a difference to someone in their darkest moments — as a member of society, as a child, as a parent, as a friend, as a colleague or as a neighbour. We can all play a role in supporting those experiencing a suicidal crisis or those bereaved by suicide.

This is a topic very close to our hearts and never far from our thoughts. Suicidal thinking has been part of my friendship with Fran since we met ten years ago, and we devote one chapter of our book to dealing with how to support a friend who is feeling suicidal.

For more information check out the following links.