Wednesday, 24 November 2021

I'm Having a Good Day: Connection and Conversation Inspired by International Men's Day 2021

How goes it?

I’m having a good day. Was on an excellent call this morning about men’s mental health and support groups. Got my MHFA Network call this afternoon too.

Great!!

That little exchange is from a chat conversation with my friend Brynn last Thursday lunchtime. I’d been pretty low for a few days, which she knew, but when I sent those words I was feeling much better. Being able to say that to my friend was important in itself, because it reminded me there are good days as well as rubbish ones. So what had made the difference? In a word, connection.

The morning session I mentioned was organised through the Men’s Network at work, ahead of International Men’s Day (November 19). The call was led by Gary MacDonald, who founded the Mind the Men peer support group in Glasgow, Scotland, in memory of his cousin Grant Macdonald who was lost to suicide in 2018. The group provides men “a safe place to talk about their challenges be listened to and feel supported.”

The presentation began with some statistics about men’s mental health, including the fact that 75% of people who die by suicide are men, and that suicide is the largest cause of death in men under fifty years old. I’m not a huge fan of stats; I find them hard to hold in my head or relate to directly, but I agreed with a colleague who messaged me privately while Gary was speaking: these numbers are shocking, scary, and unacceptably high.

Gary talked about founding Mind the Men, and how the weekly group sessions provide an opportunity for men to come together and share as much or as little as they feel comfortable doing. The six questions he and his fellow facilitators use to structure the support sessions reminded me of Andy’s Man Club, which operates similar groups across the UK. He spoke movingly of the positive changes he’s seen in some of the men attending the groups, but it’s not only the men who benefit. Their families, friends, and co-workers do too. Gary made a point of acknowledging the support and encouragement of the women — girlfriends, wives, partners, mothers, sisters, aunts, grandmother’s — in the lives of the men who attend.

I came away from the call moved and feeling that maybe — maybe — I might check out Andy’s Man Club or a similar men’s support group if I can find any local to me. As a man who has never felt fully at ease in male company, and rarely felt part of the wider “man clan,” that feels significant. It was at this point in my day that I took my lunchtime walk, and messaged Brynn. We had a video call, and I shared more about Gary’s talk and how positively it had impacted me.

After returning home, I prepared for the fortnightly call I facilitate with fellow Mental Health First Aiders at work. Due to holidays and various work commitments, it was six weeks since we’d last got together. I had very little news to relate, and wondered how we’d fill the hour if the others didn’t have much to share. Five regular attendees had sent apologies, which didn’t reassure me at all! As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. It was one of the best calls we’ve ever had.

I dialled in a few minutes early and found one of my fellow male Mental Health First Aiders eager and ready to go. We exchanged pleasantries and waited for others to join. Five minutes past the official start time there were three of us on the call — all men — so I made a start. We were joined shortly afterwards by another male colleague. I smiled to myself: it’s rare for me to find myself talking to a group of only men. It felt appropriate, though, as I mentioned International Men’s Day and described a few of the wellbeing and mental health calls I’ve attended in recent weeks, I was talking about Gary’s presentation on men’s peer support when a fifth — female — colleague joined us. I mentioned a statistic from Gary’s talk which (if I recalled it correctly) suggested less than a quarter (23%) of men have close networks of friends. This led to a brilliant discussion about how easy or otherwise people – men especially – find it to open up to others (family, friends, colleagues etc) about what’s troubling them. The rest of this post is based on notes I took during the call, with names changed.

We started off talking about who we feel most comfortable sharing with, whether that’s friends, partners, other family members, or professionals such as doctors, therapists, or counsellors. Some said they tend only to share when things get especially bad. I could relate to this, because it’s only in the past ten years or so that I’ve started talking about what’s going on for me (and even more recently that I’ve started blogging about it). Prior to that I tended to keep things to myself. Instead of talking to others, I’d process whatever was going on for me in the pages of my diary. I still journal on a daily basis, but nowadays that’s in addition to talking to people I trust and feel safe with.

Jane said she finds it easier to listen to and help others, than talk about her own situation, which I could also relate to. We talked about how helping other people is valuable and important, but that it can lead to an unhealthy codependency where we need to have people around us — family, friends, co-workers — who need our support in order to feel good about ourselves. This is something I’ve struggled with at times, as I’ve written previously. We agreed everyone is different and no one should feel they have to share with others if they don’t want to, as long as they have other coping strategies that work for them. The important thing is to have people we can call on if and when we want or need to. Our support networks can be of different kinds, as I discussed in a recent blog post.

Malcolm mentioned some of the cultural influences he’s experienced, regarding how acceptable it is — or rather isn’t — for men to admit we need help, for fear of being perceived weak or inadequate. John mentioned the tv drama The Sopranos, which I have to admit I’ve never seen. I hadn’t realised there was a strong mental health thread running through the series until John shared how the character of Tony Soprano battles anxiety and depression, and goes for therapy, but is unable to be honest about his struggles because of the macho male culture he inhabits.

It was really good to have Jane on the call, especially in the context of this year’s International Men’s Day theme of “Better relations between men and women.” I think she found it interesting too, as it gave her the opportunity to ask how things are for us as men. It felt odd to be asked to give my thoughts on behalf of men as a whole, but I think the others felt similarly about it.

Jane asked if there’d been a particular turning point that lead to us overcoming the “man up,” “big boys don’t cry,” “grow a pair” narrative which sadly is still prevalent in society. For Colin, it was something that “just happened” during a chat conversation with a family member. We talked about how important it was that his family member had picked up on what he said, rather than dismissing it or moving the conversation on. That’s something I’ve learned with Fran and other friends. It’s important to pay attention to what someone is saying, and not ignore something that might be a sign they’re struggling or simply want to share what’s going on for them.

I don’t always get it right and there have been times when I’ve failed to pick up on the clues, but I believe I’m learning. I’m still not very confident letting people know I’m low or struggling, and I know how it feels if the person I’ve chosen fails to pick up on my tentative attempts to share. The onus is on me to be clearer about asking for help, but that’s not always easy, especially if I can’t identity — or express — what’s happening. Sometimes I just want to let someone know I’m feeling low, stressed, anxious, or whatever.

In answer to Jane’s question I said there hadn’t been a single turning point for me, but I’d learned the benefits of opening up from being a supportive friend to Fran and other friends over the past ten years or so. I saw how it helped them to have a safe space in which to talk, vent, or otherwise share what’s happening, and realised could it help me too. Talking gives me a different, outside, perspective, and the opportunity for people to suggest approaches I might never have thought of myself.

Jane also asked if we found it easier to share with people face-to-face, as opposed to in other ways. Colin said he follows a number of sports-related accounts on Twitter, and he’s seen plenty of examples where someone has tweeted that they’re not doing too well, and there’s been a really positive supportive response. That’s something I see a lot on Twitter and other social media, although I mostly follow mental health and creative journaling accounts and hashtags.

I said I have some friends where we can share openly and honestly on chat or social media, and others which rely on voice and video calls, or face-to-face meetings now those are possible again. In my experience, it depends more on the personal preferences of the people concerned, rather than whether they’re male or female. Having said that, the vast majority of people I talk to, online and offline, are women, so my experience may not be universal.

Overall, we agreed that while there may be gender differences in how readily men and women share with others, and with whom, cultural factors and personal preference can be just as important. Our conversation was a perfect example of how important, challenging, and rewarding it can be to talk about how we’re feeling, and explore the difference and the similarities between us. We were having such a great time that that when the hour was up we agreed to reconvene next week to continue our discussion!

I’m grateful not only to my fellow Mental Health First Aiders who took part on our MHFA Network call, but also to Gary MacDonald and everyone involved in organising the programme of events and discussions this week for International Men’s Day. I’ll close by sharing four articles I’ve written in the past about men’s mental health in general and my own in particular.

Men and Mental Health: Resources & Heroes

Dear Marty: An Open Letter to Myself

THIS BOY GETS SAD TOO

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

 

Photo by Kaleidico on Unsplash.

 

Wednesday, 17 November 2021

Spokesfriends and Insular Groups: What Kind of Support Network Do You Have?

Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one. – Jane Howard

It’s no secret that I take friendship seriously. Just about everything I write, including this blog and the book I co-authored with my best friend Fran, concerns the nature of supportive friendships. In High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder we describe the part I play in Fran’s wider support network, and how it’s important for me to have a network of my own. Until now, though, I’ve scarcely written about supportive networks themselves.

At different times, Fran’s network has included close friends, her psychiatrist and doctor, therapists, a care coordinator, and an Independent Support Services worker (homemaker). Mine consists exclusively of trusted friends. Yours might be a combination of family, friends, colleagues, or professionals. I’m focusing on friends in this article, but it’s the connections between the people in your network that count, rather than their role or relationship to you. Put simply, do they know each other or not?

Spokesfriends

If I drew my network out on paper there’d be a dot in the middle representing me, with lines radiating out to each of my supportive friends, like the spokes of a wheel. I’m reminded of a joke I saw on social media: “A friend of mine works for a company that makes bicycles. He’s their spokesman.”

This kind of network is more likely if your friends live far apart, as mine do, although that’s not necessarily the case. A few of my “spokesfriends” have met, in person or online, but none of them know each other well or socialise.

Insular Groups

In contrast, Fran has several small groups of friends, most of whom live locally to her. Within each group, people know one another and call or meet up more or less regularly. Fran’s support network could be drawn as a number of overlapping circles, plus me and a couple of others who aren’t in any of her groups of mutual friends.

A friend described these groups as insular, in the sense of “relating to or from an island.” It’s particularly appropriate for Fran, who lived for years in the kind of small island community where everyone knows everyone else. Insular groups, then, are groups of friends who know each other and keep in touch.

If family members are part of your support network, they likely form an insular group, as may local friends, workplace colleagues, or people you met at school, college, or other organisations.

Pros and Cons

Neither kind of network is necessarily better than the other. There are differences, though, in how they operate when you are supporting someone or needing support yourself. Understanding these differences can help you figure out what’s happening if problems arise. Let’s take a look at them in turn.

Insular Groups In Practice

This post was inspired by a recent conversation with a friend. My friend — I’ll call her Sarah — described a time when she’d been concerned about someone she suspected was struggling. Sarah wanted to help, but her friend wouldn’t speak to her about it or ask for support. Instead, her friend told others in their circle of friends, who then shared their concerns with Sarah. “They were warning me something needed to be done,” she said. “But at the same time telling me not to let [her] know they’d told me.”

It was very isolating for Sarah to have learned something about her friend’s situation, yet have to pretend she didn’t. As she told me, “It was particularly hard when she’d told them some things and they assumed I knew, because I didn’t want them to know how difficult she was making it for me by shutting me out.”

Sarah’s story illustrates the advantages and disadvantages of insular networks. If you need help, you have people you can turn to, who know you and each other. If it’s another member of the group who needs assistance, you don’t have to do it all on your own. You can share the caring responsibility, discuss the best way to help, and support each other though what might be a difficult situation. Sarah said her circle was very helpful in discussing and arranging support for the person who was struggling.

On the other hand, it can be hard to maintain boundaries of trust, respect, and confidentiality. Things can become awkward if some people in the group know more of the story than others, or have been told different or conflicting versions. There’s also the potential for miscommunication and differences of opinion as things are passed on or discussed back and forth. As another friend expressed it, “If your friendship group is insular, you can get caught up in the arguments, regardless of who they are between. If your friends are not insular, you don’t have that issue.” Sarah found it helped to discuss things with me. “It’s good to have friends like you who are out of the circle,” she said. “I’d never have got through that situation without your support.”

The person needing help can also run into issues. Fran likes to talk things over with friends if she’s struggling over something, but on occasion she’s had to handle the fallout from telling several people who know each other and have gone on to discuss it amongst themselves.

Spokesfriend Networks In Practice

In a post titled Belonging (Longing to Be) I shared that I’ve never truly felt I belonged to any group or tribe. A spokesfriend network works for me. I feel supported by people who care about me but are essentially independent of one another.

I’m blessed with friends who I love fiercely and who love me fiercely in return. Several know each other but these are individual one-to-one connections rather than a group of mutual friends.

My friends know me in different ways and to different degrees. If I’m struggling, unsure, or simply need to talk things over, I’m free to choose the person most likely to help or understand. I can even discuss the same thing with two or more people to get their different perspectives, confident that the conversations will remain separate.

It’s not that I don’t trust my friends to keep things private. I trust each of them implicitly — although if they were sufficiently concerned about me I’d expect them to reach out or escalate. Likewise, it wouldn’t be a problem if they needed to turn to their support networks after helping me. The important point is, I can choose to share with one or more of them individually without the rest knowing what’s going on for me.

The downside is that my network lacks social richness. Each of my friendships is strong and mutually supportive but there’s little scope for my friends to share the responsibility of being there for me, or help and support each other. Each friendship has its ups and downs, its great times and difficult times, but there’s no opportunity to develop and grow together as a group.

Do What Works For You

If it works for you, there’s no right or wrong way to do this. Neither network type is inherently better than the other; nor are they mutually exclusive. As Sarah found, it can help to have people outside of your insular groups, whilst groups offer the potential for shared support that’s hard to achieve if you only have separate spokesfriend connections.

Bear in mind that these things can shift and change. Over time, you may lose people from your support network, and gain others. The kind of network you have may also change. Many years ago, my main source of support was a close group of mutual friends I first met at university. Over the years, I fell out of meaningful contact with most of them. I felt adrift and alone for a long time, but I gradually built a new network of friends I care about and trust to be there for me. It works well for me, although I’m open to the possibility of further change in the future.

Over to You

In this article I’ve described two types of supportive networks, which I call spokesfriends and insular groups. I’ve looked at some of the differences between them and how they work in practice.

What kind of support network do you have? Does it fall into one of my two types? Perhaps, like Fran and Sarah, you have one or more groups of mutual friends, plus people who aren’t part of those groups. Maybe you’ve a different kind of network I’ve not covered here. How does it work for you? Do you run into problems at all? If so, how do you resolve them?

I’d love to hear from you.

 

Photo by Seth Doyle on Unsplash.

 

Wednesday, 10 November 2021

Supportive Disengagement: How to Be There for Your Friend When They Need Space

I’ve written in the past about some of the roles I play in the mutually supportive friendship I share with Fran. It’s a topic we describe in detail in our book. I’ve written less about how friendships sometimes move through distinct phases. In this post, I want to discuss one such phase, which I call supportive disengagement.

What do I mean by that? Essentially, it means stepping back from the usual give-and-take dynamic you share with your friend, but being there if and when you’re invited in. It means providing encouragement and support when asked but otherwise getting out of your friend’s way so they can navigate whatever’s happening in their lives the best way they can.

I’ve written this from the perspective of the supportive friend, but it’s equally relevant if you’re the person needing space. Like any other phase of a friendship, supportive disengagement works best if you’re both aware of what’s happening.

What Supportive Disengagement Isn’t

It’s natural for friendships to ebb and flow. Sometimes you’re closer and more actively engaged; at other times, things get in the way, you connect less regularly or in different ways. Sometimes friends break up altogether. For someone like me whose sense of wellbeing is closely related to the state of their relationships, any lessening in a friendship — real or perceived — can be hard to handle. It’s taken time and a lot of inner work to learn how to respect a friend’s need for space without responding as though I’ve been rejected or abandoned.

Disagreements between even very close friends are not uncommon. Fran and I describe several in our book, and I’ve had plenty of disagreements with other friends. Issues are best dealt with at the time rather than ignoring them or putting them off until later. Supportive disengagement is not a substitute for working problems through with your friend. On the other hand, if a friendship has broken down altogether, there’s wisdom in accepting the reality of the situation. Fran has taught me it’s possible for a connection to end, and where necessary to be mourned, without resentment or bitterness. I’ve found this a healthy way to process endings. It’s helped me more than once to hold space for someone to re-enter my life if they want to, without expecting or needing that to happen. There is grace in this kind of acceptance, but it’s not supportive disengagement.

Supportive disengagement is for situations when your friendship is taking a break rather than broken, when disengagement is less than total, and — crucially — where the lines of communication remain open.

When Is the Right Time?

So, when is supportive disengagement appropriate? In short, it’s any time where the usual level of contact, support, or help is no longer possible, needed, or wanted, but neither of you wants the friendship itself to end.

For me and Fran, that’s included times when Fran has been travelling, most notably her three month trip around Europe in 2013. This severely limited how often we were in touch, the nature of our connection, and the support we could provide each other. We describe the challenges we faced and how we handled them in part three of High Tide, Low Tide. With other friends, it’s happened under a variety of circumstances. Perhaps they’ve been unwell; had other commitments which required their focus, time, and energy; or needed space to consider what they want from our connection. Whatever the reason, it’s been okay.

You might know or be able to guess why your friend needs space, but if they don’t offer an explanation don’t push for one. Your friend has a right to expect their need for space to be respected without having to explain or justify it to you.

Ground Rules and Expectations

It helps if you can talk things through in advance. One friend told me there might be times when she’d need space, and we discussed how we’d handle things if and when that happened. Fran and I spent a considerable amount of time discussing how we’d handle her travelling around Europe when we knew we’d struggle to stay in touch.

Be honest about what each of you needs and expects. The aim is to make things as easy as possible in what may be difficult circumstances. Reassure each other that you still care and that this is a stage in your journey as friends, not the end. Here are a few suggestions based on my experience with various friends.

  • Agree how often you’ll check in, for example, once a day, or once a week.
  • Decide how you’ll stay in touch, for example by phone, chat, or email. Is it okay for you to instigate contact, or will you wait for your friend to contact you?
  • Discuss what support might be useful, and anything that’s unlikely to help.

You may want to discuss how long the period of disengagement might last. Does your friend need space for a few days, a few weeks, or longer? How will you know when it’s over? Bear in mind that your friend might not know, or may be unable to give timescales.

What Does It Look Like?

Your role during a period of supportive disengagement can be summed up as follows:

  • Stay out of your friend’s way.
  • Don’t make things harder for them.
  • Let your friend lead.
  • Enable them to move forward, but don’t try to direct their path.
  • Do what you can, but don’t offer more than you’re asked.
  • Hold space when they need it. Give space when they need it.
  • Keep the connection open.
  • Be the friend they need you to be.

What this means in practice will depend on the nature of your friendship and what, if anything, you arranged in advance. If you agreed to check in once a week, don’t message or phone in between. If you agreed not to pester for updates, don’t pester for updates. If your friend asks for help or support, provide it without fuss and don’t push for more engagement than necessary.

It’s harder without ground rules because you may have little idea why things have changed, what’s being asked of you, or how long it will last. Nevertheless, respect your friend’s need for space and accept things are going to be different for a while.

What Does It Feel Like?

Even if you understand your friend’s reasons, it’s natural to feel some degree of hurt or loss. This is especially true if you were previously in touch a lot, as I tend to be with my close friends. It may seem as though you’re being ignored or cast aside, but in my experience, that’s not what’s going on. You’re being asked to be a friend under circumstances many would struggle to accommodate.

If you’re used to your friend being there for you, it can feel scary to lose their support. Remind yourself that it’s not because they’ve stopped caring. They need all their time, energy, and focus for themselves at this time. This is something I learned with Fran. It’s captured in our motto “Care but Don’t Crowd. Share but Don’t Pollute.”

“Care but don’t crowd” reminds me to be there for Fran when she needs me, but not to nag her to tell me how she is doing, or pester her for attention. She deserves and needs her own space. “Share but don’t pollute” is no less important. We are friends and I value her insight and support [...] but it is important not to share simply for the sake of it, or where doing so would drain her of energy she needs to keep herself well.

Ultimately, it’s unhealthy to rely on only one person or relationship for support, so use the time to expand your network. I’ve written about this previously in a post titled Team Marty (Because No One Can Be Everything for Everyone). Above all, focus on what you can gain from this experience.

It’s a Gift!

One of my all-time favourite short stories, J. R. R. Tolkien’s Leaf by Niggle, ends with the words, “It’s a gift!” Although it may not feel like it, supportive disengagement can be both a gift and a blessing.

They say you only appreciate something when it’s gone, but supportive disengagement offers the opportunity to appreciate your friendship without having to lose it first. It can also serve as an antidote to codependency, which is a situation where two people become dependent on each other to an unhealthy degree. It’s a particular risk if one person tends to provide support and care for the other. Spending time apart helps you see what’s been going on, and if necessary reset things when you reconnect.

Your friend has trusted you to deal with the changes to the connection you share and handle your needs while they attend to theirs. Take the opportunity to focus on your other friendships and relationships, to learn about yourself, and to explore your need for connection.

How to Re-engage

It’s one thing to successfully navigate a period of supportive disengagement, but what about when it comes to an end? There’s no guarantee things will be the same as they used to be. You may pick up again with calls and meetings, but you’ve lived through this period apart. You may feel closer for the experience, or it may seem there’s ground to make up. Whatever the circumstances, approach things gently, rather than leaping in and expecting things to be exactly as they were before.

Fran’s Europe trip is a good example. She returned physically and mentally exhausted, but couldn’t rest because she had to immediately start looking for a new place to live. It was an extremely traumatic time for us both but in a way that helped us to re-engage. There was no time to ponder if we were okay because we were thrown back into things straight away.

We knew in advance when Fran would get back from her trip but what if there’s no specific date you can point to on the calendar? How do you know when to start reconnecting again? Take your lead from your friend. If they start picking up with you again, go with it. Take the call. Agree to a meet-up. Talk about whatever your friend wants to talk about, and go from there. If it feels like things are returning to normal, that’s probably what your friend intends, but don’t take that for granted or assume their need for space is over. If in doubt, ask.

It’s reasonable to ask what happened while you were apart and share how things were for you, but accept that your friend is under no obligation to meet your need for understanding. Invite them to share but respect the fact that they may not want to talk about it yet, or at all.

It can feel as though you’re starting again from scratch, but that needn’t be a problem. Approach it as a new chapter in your friendship. Enjoy exploring what works for you now, built on all you’ve shared in the past. As one friend said as we reconnected, “I will always treasure the memories we shared. And so will you.” We’ve gone on to build many more.

I’ll close with something I wrote in my journal during a period of supportive disengagement. I’d been struggling to handle the changes in our friendship, which felt very much like being pushed away, but realised I didn’t have to look at it that way.

I can choose to celebrate the positives in all this and let go of all the rest. I can be the person who hears what my friend wants and needs, and works with her to enable things without fuss or complaint. I can be here while she’s going through what she’s going through. THAT is what I am being offered. THAT is the friend she needs me to be.

In that moment I understood that accepting a friend’s need for disengagement and supporting them through it is one of the most profoundly caring acts we will ever perform.

Over to You

In this article, I’ve explored supportive disengagement, which is where a friend or loved one needs to disconnect from you for a time but doesn’t want the relationship itself to end.

Have you found yourself in that situation? Have you ever needed to pull back from someone or ask them to give you space? How successful was it for you? How did it feel? Did you re-engage afterwards? We’d love to hear from you.

 

Photo by Ansgar Scheffold on Unsplash.

 

Wednesday, 27 October 2021

The Song Remains the Same: Thoughts on Change and Unchange

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
The more things change, the more they remain the same.
— Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr

In this article I’m going to explore some thoughts concerning change and unchange that I’ve wanted to write about for some time.

The Words Remain the Same

Although I’ve kept a diary since I was fourteen years old, I rarely look back over what I’ve written. I might flick through my current journal to remind myself how I felt a week or so ago, but once a volume’s filled and put away, it tends to stay closed. The exception was when Fran and I were writing High Tide, Low Tide. I read every diary entry I’d written from our first meeting in May 2011, sourcing material to use in our book.

A few weeks ago, though, I decided to read one of my old journals, and chose the A4 day-to-a-page diary for 1984. It was a year of significant change: my first full year in London after graduating from university, a role as best man at the wedding of my two closest friends, a new place of work at the Parkinson’s Disease Society Research Centre, new colleagues, and new friends. Flicking through the entries, there were events, people, and moments I’d not thought about in years. There were others I couldn’t remember at all, such that I’d deny they happened if not for the evidence of my own handwriting. Did I really go to that party, have that conversation, entertain those thoughts?

Most striking of all, though, was how little I seem to have changed. Time and again I read passages from 1984 I could easily have written last year, or last week. The same doubts, fears, and insecurities. The same search for meaning and engagement. The same sense of looking for something just out of reach.

Stuckness and Drama

I recently met up with a friend I’d not seen since December 2019. Over a drink in one of my favourite coffee shops we caught up on what those two years have meant for us. Covid, of course, but there were other significant events and changes in each of our lives; some welcome, some not so much. Sharing with her gave me a fresh perspective on things. You don’t always notice slow or incremental change when you’re talking with the same people all the time. Back in March, I shared my profound sense of foreboding and loss at what the pandemic has wrought. More recently, I described how my underlying mood seems to have fallen from positive to low. Other aspects of my life have remained more or less unaltered. These include my key friendships and relationships, but also my sense of stuckness at work, and lack of clarity about career and personal goals.

Mention of stuckness reminds me of English artist Tracey Emin, whose memoir Strangeland I read years ago. Emin once told her then boyfriend Billy Childish he was “stuck! stuck! stuck!” with his art, poetry, and music. The insult was adopted by Childish and fellow artist Charles Thomson, who coined the term “Stuckism” for their art, claiming it “a quest for authenticity.” I’m probably not using it the way the artists intended, but what stuck (pun intended) in my mind was how the word could be simultaneously viewed as an insult and a label of pride and acclaim.

Much of my adult life was lived in a state of stuckness akin to being asleep. Not the restful sleep that refreshes and renews; more like being in a coma. I woke, or was woken, maybe fifteen years ago, since when my life has been anything but static. It’s been intense, dramatic, and changeable, and much of the intensity has involved other people. Not for nothing are CONNECTION and CHALLENGE my key values. It occurred to me that I may value intensity so much that I seek it out or create it if it’s not already present in my life. As I asked in my journal a few weeks ago, “Do I crave emotional drama to distract and disturb me from baseline depression and numbness?”

The Constancy of Change

The epigram with which I opened this article — Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose — was coined by French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr in 1849. It translates into English as “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” I take this as suggesting there’s a deeper order beneath the ups-and-downs we perceive as drama or change. It’s something I’ve glimpsed on occasion, most recently in relation to one of my best friends.

Ours has been amongst the most changeable and intense friendships I’ve ever known. There were times we weren’t friends at all. What I realised the other day, however, is that I feel incredibly safe and secure in our friendship. The insight is this: if I focus on the ups and downs, the things that have happened in the past and may happen again, our friendship feels dramatic and uncertain. But once I accept that change is an integral part of the connection we share, I can appreciate the underlying constancy of our commitment as friends.

This insight doesn’t mean there’ll be no further drama, in this friendship or my life in general. I’m sure there will be. I hope there is. But I see now that it doesn’t have to be one or the other. Stability and challenge can coexist.

A Need for Problems?

Karr’s words led me to an article titled The More Things Change, The More They Remain The Same. It’s well worth reading, but it was an excerpt from one reader’s comments that caught my attention: “Why is it that people need to have problems? I think we get bored, life is all about making things better we almost want to break something [in order] to fix it.” This is similar to what I said about my decades asleep at the wheel and my craving for emotional drama. Author Maya Mendoza claimed that “[n]o amount of security is worth the suffering of a mediocre life chained to a routine that has killed your dreams.”

But not everyone is looking for this kind of challenge. One friend told me she’s had enough trauma and drama, and craves nothing more than the stability of “a normal life.” In her situation I’d feel the same. The decades I look back on as insufficiently challenging were largely the product of privilege and good fortune. I could afford to be bored because I was lucky enough not to have experienced trauma, serious illness, abuse, or any of the other “dramas” so many have known. There are many who would exchange the circumstances of my life for theirs in a heart-beat.

The Nature of Change

I’ve been talking as though we can choose a life of stability or one of change. We can certainly invite change into our lives. I once made a conscious decision to dissolve the inner circle of friends model I’d lived with for years. It wasn’t easy but it profoundly improved the quantity and quality of my relationships. One friend told me she hates feeling powerless when change is imposed on her; the covid pandemic being the most recent major example. On the other hand, she holds herself open to opportunities. “Chosen challenge and change,” she said. “Are things I embrace willingly.”

But the opposite isn’t true. We can’t decide to have no change in our lives at all, no matter how much we might wish it. Change happens, irregularly, and often not how we’d want it to, but it happens. No aspect of our lives is immune. The people we care about and rely on, our role in those relationships, the places we inhabit, the society in which we live, and the world at large. Everything is subject to change. Some changes creep up on us so gradually we’re scarcely aware what’s happening. Others arrive suddenly and unannounced. The latter are often the most significant and impactful, whether we deem the impact good or bad. (And our perception may shift over time as we review past changes in the light of what came afterwards.)

Every new friendship brings change into our lives. Fran and I met by chance one day in May 2011 on the social media page of a mutual friend. Within minutes, we were friends, and have never looked back. It was different with another of my best friends. Aimee and I met through the mental health charity Time to Change but our connection deepened gently over time and it’s hard to pinpoint the moment we became friends. However it begins, no relationship remains the same for long. Fran and I discuss the principal drivers of change in our friendship in our book High Tide, Low Tide.

It would be wrong to give the impression we are in a stable, fixed pattern in which we always know what to do and nothing ever goes wrong. There is little stable or fixed about living with mental illness or caring for someone who does. Our friendship grows as we face the challenges of our long-distance, mutually supportive relationship. Fran’s health is inherently variable. Depression, mania, fatigue, and pain fluctuate — sometimes together, sometimes independently — and affect us in different ways. Her love of travel is a further challenge. It limits our ability to keep in touch, and can threaten Fran’s health directly as she moves beyond her established routines and supports.

Stability and Change in Dynamic Tension

Earlier, I said how little I seem to have changed since the 1980s. I was genuinely dismayed to realise I’m still dealing with issues, frustrations, and hang-ups I wrote about in my diary thirty-seven years ago. How much of our nature and behaviour falls within our power to change? Have I not been trying hard enough?

It’s a topic that comes up a lot in conversations with Fran and other friends. It won’t surprise you to learn I have no clear answers, although I believe meaningful change and growth are possible. I see it time and again in others, and in myself too. At some fundamental level I may be the person I’ve always been, and some of the doubts and insecurities I struggled with years ago undoubtedly remain part of my make-up. But in other respects I have grown.

I believe there’s a dynamic tension between the urge to improve (which is to say change) our situation and challenge ourselves in ways that are meaningful to us, and the comforting reassurance of whatever is whole, known, and stable in our lives. Whether stability means family, friends, home, work, or some inner resilience, it provides the grounding from which we can move forward. One friend of mine is working on making healthy changes in her life, despite feeling overwhelmed at the enormity of the task. She sometimes feels she’s making no progress, but as I wrote to her, “You keep moving. It might be baby steps sometimes but you never stay stuck for long. You are always looking for ways to move forward.”

This urge to grow, to push out and on from where we are, is echoed in the following lines from the Led Zeppelin classic, “The Song Remains the Same.”

You don’t know what you’re missing, now
Any little song that you know
Everything that’s small has to grow
And it’s gonna grow, push push, yeah.

Over to You

I’ve shared some of my thoughts concerning change and stability or stasis. These affect us all in different ways and I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you welcome change or find it difficult to navigate? Do you yearn for stability or does it terrify you? In what ways do you feel you’ve changed over the years? In what ways are you the same?

Over to you. Comment below or get in touch. Our contact details remain the same!

 

Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash.

 

Wednesday, 20 October 2021

Examine Your Shoulds: Why It's a Word You Shouldn't Use

So again, it’s time to examine your “shoulds.” “Shoulds” are so often the assimilated wants of other people and of your culture.

— Philippa Perry, The Guardian, October 17, 2021

This article was inspired by a short exchange on social media. I said I’d completed one blog post and was pondering what to write next. A friend replied: “Write about pondering what to write!” It brought a smile, reminding me of the time I was struggling to write, and ended up writing about exactly that. I smiled too, because I’d had to consciously avoid saying “I’m pondering what I should write about next.” That word — should — slips so readily into our sentences, even when we know we should avoid it. Ooops. See what I mean?

Perhaps you’re wondering what all the fuss is about. What’s wrong with should? It’s a word. It is, indeed. It can be used in a variety of ways but they tend to fall into one of two categories.

  • Implying a sense of duty or imperative. (I should have phoned my mother yesterday.)
  • Implying a sense of what will probably happen. (I think it should rain this afternoon.)

I’m going to focus on the first of those. It’s easy to tell when we’re using the word this way because there are implied rules or standards, consequences, and judgments. 

Statement: I should have phoned my mother yesterday.

Rule: family members are expected to be there for each other.

Consequence: disappointment, guilt, censure.

Judgment: I’m a bad person.

Let’s take a look at this in a little more detail.

Rules and Standards

If we were clear about the rules and standards were invoking, I’d have less of an issue with the word should. The problem is, they mostly go unspoken because we assume they’re obvious, absolute, and universal. More often than not, this is not the case. The rules I’m thinking about come in three main flavours: legal, moral and religious, and societal or cultural.

Legal rules

These are the most straightforward. You shouldn’t steal because it’s illegal and if you get caught you could face penalty or jail. You shouldn’t kill, injure, or assault people, for the same reason. Legal rules are more or less obvious, in that we tend to know and understand the laws that govern us. They are absolute and not open to individual interpretation. In principle at least, they apply universally within the relevant jurisdiction. We may be ignorant of the law, or choose to disobey the rules, but we cannot exempt ourselves from them.

Moral and religious rules

Expressed simply, these rules cover how “good people” and “bad people” behave. More generally, they define what we mean by good and bad. Excluding any which may be enshrined in law, they are matters of personal choice, acceptance, and adherence. Whatever your upbringing, beliefs, and opinions, it’s unwise — and frankly disrespectful — to assume other people adhere to exactly the same rules you do.

Cultural and societal rules

These include the often unspoken rules of acceptable (or civilised) behaviour. There may be an overlap with those in the moral/religious sphere, but these tend to be more local or even personal in nature. Organisations, social groups, and communities often have their own standards of behaviour. Some may be written down, such as workplace policies on time-keeping, absence, dress code, bullying, and harassment. Others are generally undocumented but no less important, such as water-cooler etiquette, the taking of coffee or smoking breaks, or any of a hundred unspoken rules that will be familiar to anyone working in that environment. Within the group, they’re accepted as “how things are.”

Why Does This Matter?

We absorb and adapt the rules we’re presented with. We may reject, ignore, or adapt some, justifying this to ourselves as being pragmatic or sensible. These modified rules become part of our personal rule book, governing how we believe it’s acceptable to behave.

Every should (or shouldn’t) is a judgment on our behaviour or the behaviour of others. It’s valid to hold people to account, but we cannot assume someone acknowledges, accepts, or adheres to the same rules and standards. What is obviously the right thing to me may be irrelevant or invalid to you, and vice versa.

This is a problem, because judging people against rules they neither recognise nor accept is the basis of stigma, discrimination, and division. From the opposite perspective, being held accountable to other people’s rules fosters resentment, anger, guilt, worthlessness, and despair.

Shoulds in the Mental Health Arena

This is never more important than when we’re talking about mental health. It’s natural to want to help when someone we know is struggling, but well-meaning comments and suggestions are rendered toxic by the injudicious use of should.

You should call the doctor.

You should take your meds.

You should go for a walk.

You should tidy this place, it’s a mess.

None of these statements makes clear what rule is being broken, but each implies the person is failing to care for themself properly. There’s no attempt to understand what’s going on for them, or find out what help they actually need. We may feel we’re being supportive but all we’ve conveyed is our negative judgment. All we’ve achieved is to convince the other person we’ve no idea how to help.

We can do better than this.

There’s no one right way to support someone (Fran and I wrote a book to share ways we find helpful) but here are a few alternatives that avoid the dreaded “s” word. (For a discussion of other “s” words, including stigma, suicidality, and self-harm, check this article.)

Example 1

Instead of: You should call the doctor.

Try: Things don’t seem to have improved for you in the past couple of days. Do you think it’s worth checking in with your doctor?

You might suggest arranging the appointment or going with them, if you feel that might be helpful.

Example 2

Instead of: You should take your meds.

Try: Sometimes when I have tablets from the doctor I find it hard to remember to take them at the proper times. It’s just a thought but I’m happy to message you a reminder each morning/night, if you’d find it helpful. Just let me know.

This is something I’ve asked several friends at different times. Some have been grateful to receive a reminder, others have politely declined. Be clear that you’re offering a reminder or check-in only; the responsibility for taking the medication remains with them.

Example 3

Instead of: You should go for a walk.

Try: Do you fancy some company? It’s a bit chilly out but it might be nice to go for a walk to the shops if you feel up to it. We could go for a coffee while we’re out, if you like.

It’s often said that exercise is good for our mental health. That may be true, but it’s unhelpful to tell someone they should get out more when they can barely muster the energy to get out of bed, if they are in physical pain, or live with mental or physical conditions which make it hard to be active.

Example 4

Instead of: You should tidy this place, it’s a tip.

Try: Would you like some help with decluttering or putting things away? I could come round for an hour or so tomorrow if that works for you.

Offers of practical help are likely to be far more welcome than expressions of disappointment and disgust. The other person is probably aware of what needs doing, but may feel overwhelmed at the thought of dealing with it, or not know how to start.

At all times, be aware of the implicit judgment behind your words, and the behavioural rules you’re invoking. How relevant are they to the person you’re talking to? What concern for their health, wellbeing, safety, or happiness are you trying to convey? Is there a better way of saying it? Sometimes the simplest way of rephrasing an impending should is to keep your mouth shut!

Remember that you’re sharing your opinion or personal take on things. Invite the other person’s opinion and be open to the possibility they may disagree.

It seems to me that ...

What I’m thinking is ...

From my perspective ... But maybe you see things differently?

When you did that last time, things didn’t seem to work out the way you hoped they would. Is that right?

Express your thoughts and concerns, and explain what you see as potential consequences. But don’t guilt-trip them into complying with your wishes just because you disagree with how they’re living their life. They may have far more going on in their lives than you’re aware of or can understand.

The only exception is where you believe they may be in crisis or at risk of harming themselves or others. That is a judgment call and you won’t always get it right, but if the situation appears critical encourage them to engage with appropriate support. You may need to do so yourself if they’re unable or unwilling. You can find a range of international crisis and support lines on our resources page.

Don’t Should Yourself

I’ve focused on using (or rather, trying not to use) the word should when talking to other people, but the arguments are just as valid when we’re talking to or about ourselves.

It’s easy to tell ourselves we should do this or that, or should have behaved differently in the past, without realising what rules we’re holding ourselves to, or why. There’s a strong possibility they’re rules we grew up with, or accepted along the way, without ever challenging them or checking if they remain valid for us. Behavioural rules are often based on putting other people’s needs before our own. Ask yourself who the rules benefit, especially if you find yourself feeling guilty because you can’t live up to them.

That doesn’t mean rejecting all rules out of hand, of course. Like the stories we tell ourselves, we’ve acquired them for a reason and many will still be relevant, appropriate, or necessary. Whether legal, moral, or cultural, they’re part of the structure or our lives, our societies, and our world.

This article isn’t really about the word should at all. It’s a word. Use it if you must. Just be clear about which rules are important to you, and accept that not everyone’s going to agree with you. And be gentle, with other people and yourself. No one gets it right all the time. We break the rules, for a thousand reasons; some justifiable, some not so much. Being told we should have done differently is never kind, empathetic or helpful.

So, the next time you’re about to should yourself or someone else, stop. Take a breath. Consider what you really want to say, and express it differently.

You really should.

 

Photo by TungCheung, with thanks to Janet Coburn for help sourcing the image.

 

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.