Wednesday, 25 November 2020

How To Understand People and Be Understood

One of the most beautiful qualities of true friendship is to understand and to be understood.

Someone once told me we have no right to expect others to understand us. She was adamant about that. Angry, almost, that anyone could imagine otherwise. The most we can expect, she said, was to be heard. I was reminded of this recently when a close friend said it felt like I didn't know her at all. I got to thinking about what it means to know someone or be known by them.

To Know or to Understand?

What exactly do we mean by knowing or understanding one another? Is there a difference between knowing someone and understanding them? Ephrat Livni drew a distinction in his article It’s better to understand something than to know it:

“Knowing” and “understanding” are related concepts, but they’re not the same. Each is a distinct mental state involving cognitive grasp: Knowing is static, referring to discrete facts, while understanding is active, describing the ability to analyze and place those facts in context to form a big picture.

Livni was discussing these concepts in a business and scientific context, but I think the distinction is useful when we’re thinking about our awareness of ourselves and others. Our friendships and relationships are not static things we can ever fully grasp or know. They are dynamic. They wax and wane over time. They deepen as we learn more about each other. Sometimes they fracture or end. They may pause or stall for a time but their nature is to change. The same applies to us as individuals.

We might seek to know each other at any point in time, but for me, the fundamental need is to be understood at a deeper level. Our lives are incredibly complex and interlinked, and our understanding can only ever be partial, Nevertheless, it is this yearning that underpins our need to understand and to be understood, and our pain when that need is unmet.

Is It a Healthy Need?

I disagree with the person who said we’ve no right to expect understanding from others, but am I right? Is it a healthy need? The Center for Nonviolent Communication (CNVC) includes the need to understand others and be understood in its needs inventory. I’m no means an expert but NVC’s approach to communication makes a lot of sense to me. Fran and I have used it when we’re exploring issues that arise between us or with others. Ralph Nichols, “Father of Listening” and author of Are You Listening, went further. He claimed “The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.”

What Do We Want People to Understand about Us?

A few months ago a friend asked me twenty questions she’d found in an online “How Well Do You Know Me” quiz. It was fun and we had a good laugh at some of the questions — and my answers! I surprised myself actually, in getting more right than I’d imagined. Understanding is more than a game of twenty questions, though. What do we want others to understand about us? It will be different for everyone but here’s what I’d like people to understand about me.

  • My likes and dislikes
  • My values and red lines
  • My plans, hopes, and dreams
  • My issues and triggers
  • What scares and delights me, what makes me smile and cry
  • What I need when I’m sad or struggling

It may be a tall order to expect someone to understand me on so many levels, although Fran comes close. On the other hand, I believe it is possible to have people who understand certain aspects of me really well. What counts is whether someone is willing to engage, to learn, and understand — and allow me to do the same. Taylor Swift captures this commitment in her song Stay Stay Stay:

You took the time to memorize me
My fears, my hopes and dreams

It’s worth remembering that no matter how close the relationship there will always be things we choose not to share; aspects of ourselves and our lives we wish to hold secret from most, if not all, others.

What Does It Take to Be Understood?

We can’t hope to understand or be understood if we’re not prepared to truly communicate; in NVC terms, to listen with empathy and express ourselves honestly. We all like to imagine we’re open and honest with everyone, but this is perilous work and not to be undertaken lightly. Allowing people in close requires trust and courage, and the more we engage the more vulnerable we make ourselves. Psychoanalyst Thomas Moore describes this well in his book Care of the Soul:

We need people in our lives with whom we can be as open as possible. To have real conversations with people may seem like such a simple, obvious suggestion, but it involves courage and risk.

It’s very important who we choose to open up to, as Brené Brown makes clear in her book Daring Greatly:

You cannot be vulnerable with everyone. It is important to build trust and boundaries before being vulnerable. Otherwise, more times than ever, you will end up getting betrayed and hurt.

This is especially true where experience has taught us not to let people in too close as a defence against betrayal, abandonment, and loss. Psychic and life coach Jamila White expresses this powerfully in her piece Ultra-independence is a trust issue:

You learned along the way that you just couldn’t really trust people. Or that you could trust people, but only up to a certain point.

Even without such issues, connecting clearly and cleanly is not as straightforward as we sometimes imagine it to be, as Fran and I discuss in our book High Tide, Low Tide.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to communicating effectively is the belief it should be easy. When you think about it, it is amazing anyone manages to communicate anything meaningful at all. Each of us has our unique mix of thoughts and feelings, hopes, fears, joys, pains, plans, worries, and views about how the world works. We scarcely understand them ourselves, yet we hope to share them with someone who has their own mix to contend with. And the only tools we have are the sounds we can utter, and the marks we can make on paper or a computer screen. It is no wonder we struggle at times!

Given the potential for misunderstanding and hurt, why do we risk it? Why do we want to be understood at all? This can only be a personal thing but for me there is a deep joy in feeling known in the moment, and understood at a more fundamental level. It’s expressed beautifully in an anonymous quotation which inspired a previous blog post of mine.

Imagine meeting someone who wanted to learn your past not to punish you, but to understand how you needed to be loved.

The fact that this understanding can only ever be partial and temporary doesn’t lessen the reward. On the contrary, it deepens it. The gap between what I understand of myself and what my friend understands of me is fertile ground. Any difficulties that come up are part of the journey towards understanding, rather than problems to be avoided or shunned.

It’s worth saying that being understood can be uncomfortable. My friend and fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson shared this with me recently:

I feel like you know me through and through, Marty. Sometimes that’s annoying and I don’t like it, but ultimately I think it helps our friendship.

In what way is it annoying?

It’s like if I say something and you’ll be like “I thought so.” I’m in no way saying I don’t want you to do that anymore, just that in a funny way I’m like “fs he knows me so well.”

I find it disconcerting when someone can tell how I’m feeling before I’ve told them, sometimes before I’m fully aware of it myself. Fran does this a lot and it’s not always what I need, especially if I’m faking fine — pretending I’m doing better than I actually am.

Getting it Wrong

Understanding someone doesn’t mean never getting it wrong. In fact, we’re more likely to get it wrong with people we feel we understand because we tend to act on the basis of what we know, or believe we know. That’s what happened with me and my friend who said it felt like I didn’t know her at all. We’ve moved forward since then, but it was a valuable reminder not to become complacent or assume I understand people better than I actually do.

Another friend contacted me the other day. She wanted to talk but I was working from home and couldn’t pay her the full attention she needed. I told her so and we agreed to see how we got on, but it didn’t work and we soon ran aground. She messaged me later:

Understanding is hard and requires patience, which is in short order these days. To understand and be understood takes time. It’s [about] understanding when your friend has a lot to do, and also understanding when your friend is three days without sleep. It’s picking up on cues that can be silent, and not missing much when you’re with your friends …

Although unpleasant, mistakes like these can be valuable because they offer the opportunity to grow in understanding. I’ve written in the past about other occasions when I’ve worked through disagreements and issues honestly with friends. Aimee and I have had our share of misunderstandings, but we’ve been honest about them and emerged stronger:

I’m not sure if you agree, Aimee, but I’d say we understand there are times we will get it wrong, and that’s OK. It might not feel OK at the time but it will be when we are able to step back a little.

Definitely! And I think more and more we’re learning not to feel like total failures if we do get it wrong, and not blame one another for it.

I’ll close with another short passage from High Tide, Low Tide. Fran and I believe profoundly that the secret to understanding is honest and ongoing communication.

Approach your friend on the basis that you are each doing the best you can. Be gentle with yourself and with each other when things are not flowing well, and celebrate when they are. Good or bad, keep the channels open.

Do you feel understood by your friends and loved ones? Do you have a good understanding of those you’re close to? If not, you wish you did? Fran and I would love to hear from you.



Writing this article has made me realise how fortunate I am to have friends who understand me — not perfectly, perhaps, but well. They understand what makes me who I am; the things that are important to me, my hang-ups, frailties, and strengths. They get it wrong with me sometimes, of course, just as I get it wrong with them. But they get me, and that’s a really good feeling. Oh, and the person who told me we’ve no right to expect others to understand us? Ironically, she believed she had a really good handle on who I was. She was invariably wrong.


Photo by Diego Sanchez on Unsplash

Wednesday, 11 November 2020

I'm Proud of You: Four Words That Mean So Much

This article was inspired by a conversation with fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson. We discussed how valuable it is to feel proud of our achievements and each other’s, and how sometimes we hesitate to say we are proud of someone in case it comes across as insincere or patronising.

For me, telling someone you’re proud of them implies a degree of closeness and connection. An expression of pride means far more to me if the person has been there through my struggles, doubts and uncertainties. Their expression of pride acknowledges their role in what led to this moment without in any way claiming it for themselves. Aimee expressed this perfectly in a social media post which I quoted when discussing how to celebrate success.

After almost every blog post, Martin is there telling me how much they meant to him. After every achievement, he is there telling me how proud he is. Well, now it’s my turn! I’m a very proud bestie after all of his recent achievements at work!

Fran and I share several similar moments in our book High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder.

Bear in mind that the other person may not know how to respond. They might feel shy or embarrassed, or doubt they deserve the spotlight you’ve put on them. On the other hand, it’s not uncommon for the other person to respond by telling you they’re proud of themselves.

“I’m so proud of you.”

“I’m proud of me too!”

My ego used to get a little bruised when this happened, as though my “gift” was being dismissed as unnecessary or inappropriate. I see things differently now. The gift is not me saying I’m proud of my friend, it is our mutual recognition that something pride-worthy has occurred. These moments can be profound. They reinforce the importance of taking responsibility for ourselves and our successes, and the part we can play in supporting others.

It’s no less special when someone spontaneously shares that they’re proud of themselves. A friend talked to me recently about her experiences at work. I was happy to hear she’s doing well but what moved me most was when she said “I’m really proud of myself!” because she recognised her achievement and the contribution she’s making in the workplace. Another friend and I were discussing the inner work she’s doing in certain areas of her life.

“I’m just so proud of me!”

“I’m so glad to hear that.”

“It’s nice to feel proud and in control and working on a major issue.”

As we describe in our book, the summer of 2013 was one of the most stressful and perilous periods in Fran’s life. There were times when we both feared for her health and wellbeing, but there were rare moments of relief when things came together:

Yesterday was so soul filling for me, Marty.. The best day yet.. Makes it all worth it.. This is what I came for.. I am proud of myself and the work I’ve done on myself..

It’s easy to say “I’m proud of you” but the words can come across as patronising or insincere if you don’t have a meaningful connection with the person you say them to. Worse, they might give the impression you’re claiming a part of the other person’s success, or a role in their life you do not possess. It helps to be specific. “I’m proud of you for how you handled that tricky situation,” or “I’m proud of you for making time for self-care in the middle of everything you’re going through” are more meaningful than a vague “I’m proud of you” which suggests you want to say the right thing without engaging too closely. I sent a generic “I’m so proud of you” when a friend told me they’d signed up for a training course. She thanked me but considered it premature. She was concerned whether or not she’d be able to complete the training.

“Don’t be proud yet. I appreciate what you are saying but I haven’t done it yet.”

It was a useful reminder to pay attention to what’s important in someone’s life before leaping in to praise them.

When we get it right, expressing pride in ourselves and others can be a beautiful and powerful thing. Aimee and I both blog in the mental health arena, albeit from very different perspectives. This gives us a good understanding of each other’s challenges and goals. We were chatting the other day when Aimee mentioned a new blogging collaboration she’d landed.

I’m so proud of you, Aimee! Which is appropriate, because right now I’m blogging about how to tell people you’re proud of them!

Oooooo, that’s such a good topic! It means so much to me how often you say it to me.

It can take time — sometimes a long time — to reap the benefits, but it can be worth the wait, as Fran shared with me when we were writing our book:

Over the years one lady repeatedly told me she was proud of me. I didn’t understand at first. I never asked her why she did this. Then it began dawning on me. Each tiny painful baby step I took she saw. She saw the work I was doing. The struggles and successes. Who I was becoming. And the answers of why she was proud of me became clearer as I looked deeply and began seeing myself. I began to become proud of myself. I no longer needed her to tell me. In all my life I never had anyone say those words to me and now I realize how very important they are.

Do you have a story about a time someone was proud of you, or when you’ve been proud of someone else? Do you find it easy to say the words or hear them said to you? We’d love to hear from you.


Wednesday, 4 November 2020

VRITRA: A Short Film on Mental Health

By Sachit Grover

VRITRA is a short film on mental health. The film stars Sachit Grover, Ankit Prasad, Maya Patel, Bhumika Jain, Arushi Pahuja, and Snuggles. It is directed by Nipa Shah.

In Hindu mythology, Vritra was a dragon who blocked the rivers and caused a drought. Lord Shiva killed him with a bolt and released the waters. In the context of our lives, Vritra represents the mental dragons that grip us — self-doubt, anxiety, sadness, etc. and our friends and family collectively represent Lord Shiva to enable us to be released from our dragons.

This was my first ever short film and I was extremely nervous while filming this. I wanted to have a powerful performance, but I also wanted the performance to be very realistic. Finding this balance was a little difficult. To prepare filming, I had to talk to close friends and family who were dealing with mental health issues. After chatting with a few people, it became easier to get in character. I really wanted to do justice to this role and have this film help bring awareness on mental health.

In the south Asian community, mental health is often overlooked or ignored. I am confident that this short film will be a good step in raising conversation around the topic of mental health within south Asian communities.

Through my acting work, I constantly post videos that touch upon various social issues. On my YouTube channel, I have posted about suicide awareness and domestic abuse, among other topics. I believe it’s important to raise awareness on different societal issues.

To check out my work, subscribe to me on YouTube. You can also follow me on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.


Wednesday, 28 October 2020

Coffee and Scribbles: My Ten Favourite Writing Cafes

Two of my greatest passions are coffee and writing. I thought it would be fun to share a selection of cafés and coffee shops with particular links to my work. Over the years, my writing has moved through several phases. For ten years (1996 through 2005) I ran Middle-earth Reunion (“The alternative Tolkien Society”). I designed and maintained the group’s website, and published our quarterly journal and newsletter. I wrote articles and short stories which explored the consequences of asserting Tolkien’s role as translator of authentic Middle-earth texts. You can find many of these writings on the Middle-earth Reunion website.

My next major focus was High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder co-written with Fran Houston between 2012 and 2016. My blogging career began with the launch of Gum on My Shoe in 2013. I’ve written for many other blogs and organisations, including bp Magazine (Bipolar Hope), Mental Health First Aid England, I’m NOT Disordered, Bipolar Happens, and The Good Men Project.

I’ve listed my top ten writing venues in chronological order based on when I started writing there. All but one are in my home city of Newcastle upon Tyne. I’ve included website links and full addresses in case you’d like to visit. (Thanks to my friend and fellow blogger Aimee Wilson for that suggestion!) If you’re interested in what I take on my coffee shop adventures, check out my Every Day Essentials for the Successful Blogger.

1. Blackfriars Restaurant and Banquet Hall

Friars Street, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 4XN

I started going to Blackfriars during a period of unemployment. At the time I was running Middle-earth Reunion and worked extensively there on my personal project The Tresco Manuscript and the Lore of Life, Leaf and Stone.

The ‘Tresco manuscript’ is named for Tresco in the Isles of Scilly, where it was reputedly discovered in the 19th century. It comprises the only documented link between Tolkien’s tales of Middle-earth and our own, modern world.

Blackfriars provided a haven of calm at a time when my personal life and future were far from certain.

2. Boskoops

1 Eldon Square, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 7JG

Situated on the second floor of the magnificent east terrace surrounding Old Eldon Square, and with commanding views of the square below, known locally as Hippy Green, Boskoops was a favourite of mine for a year or two.

My novella Playing at Darkness was inspired by the goths and other clans who gathered each Saturday in Hippy Green. There is more than a little of the author in the story’s socially awkward hero Malcolm.

Long before he knew her name he had watched Stitch with her people in the town square beneath the window of his favourite café; had gone back each week to watch them gather while he lingered over his breakfast and endless top-up coffees.

The title — Playing at Darkness — was inspired by a conversation overheard in another café, at Newcastle’s old central library.

For all the black leather and heavy makeup, for all that several professed allegiance to the Enemy in their attire [...] the Gothrim were children. Children playing at darkness. At least he had thought so at the time and it had almost turned him away from them. That wasn’t what he was looking for.

I’ve reworked Playing at Darkness several times, and retain a hope of publishing it one day.

3. Elula

13 Ridley Pl, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 8JQ
Facebook page

The downstairs café at Elula’s was a hidden gem. It was the setting for my short story gamma in the wrong place.

3pm, Saturday afternoon

Sat in the downstairs café in the Otherworldly crystal and incence shop. Less a café than a space for coffee. Small. Cosy. Spiral staircase from the shop above. Friendly. Pan pipe music.

Four six form students at a table across the room. Two adult women to my right. Mother and daughter? Maybe not. Students happy together but a bit loud. Women commenting on them (“product of the education system”). Two more women enter. [...]

Why did I come here? To sit. To scribble (having just bought this exercise book for that very purpose ...) To capture some thoughts. Looking for the muse. Is this the kind of place a muse would frequent? Maybe. Ellen might come here. (Ellen might work here).

Wandering today in the sunshine, I thought of the Green Fair. It is the kind of day to meet them.

Mention of Ellen and the Green Fair connects gamma to another tale from this period. Home Eleven describes my first contact with Ellen and Kai of the Ylfe (modern day Elves) at Newcastle’s Green Festival.

More or less directly across the clearing a kitchen stall boasted a fiercely vegetarian cuisine. Strung between branches overhead a broad shimmering silk banner proclaimed the legend “Home Eleven.” I wondered if it was the name of the kitchen or of the site itself. A strange name, in either case. The stall seemed to be manned by a tall good-looking guy in blond dreadlocks and a girl with long red-gold hair, a great figure and a loose purple dress.

4. The Grand (formerly Campus Coffee)

141 Percy Street, Grand Hotel Buildings, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 7RU

Situated opposite Newcastle City Hall, Campus Coffee was my regular Saturday morning haunt for years until dwindling custom forced it to close at weekends. I wrote my diary there each Saturday, also letters and cards to friends. One of the staff was passionate about archery, which inspired my short story Kindling.

A sudden spark of light caught his attention. He walked across and knelt in the dirt to examine it more closely. By chance, the morning sun had struck upon what seemed to be a shard of silver buried deep in the heart of the wood and exposed only because of the ancient, time-wrought fracturing. What the thing was and how it had got there he could only guess. Heart racing now, he fetched the chain-hoist and canvas sling.

5. Rendezvous café, Whitley Bay

Dukes Walk, Northern Promenade, Whitley Bay NE26 1TP
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This iconic Art Deco café was built in 1930 and was originally called Garden Restaurant. Its name was changed to the Rendezvous Café in 1957. It has been described as a “perfect example of a traditional seaside ice cream parlour.”

I used to stop there on “me days” at the coast. I’d catch the Metro to West Monkseaton Metro station, walk to the sea front at Whitley Bay, then head north along the beach and promenade as far as St Mary’s lighthouse. The café was roughly midway and provided a welcome stopping point for coffee, a sandwich, and maybe a slice of cake or tray bake. One of my clearest memories is of sitting at the window one day in September 2005 writing a letter to my friend PJ who I’d known since university. She was very ill with multiple sclerosis and I had written every day for two years. I addressed and sealed the envelope but for some reason, I didn’t post it. A mutual friend phoned me the following evening to tell me PJ had died overnight.

6. Pret a Manger, Northumberland Street

142-145 Northumberland St, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 7AG

Pret was my regular Saturday morning place for a while, although I’m struggling to recall exactly when or what I would have been writing at the time, aside from letters and my journal. It got busy sometimes and I never had a table I considered “mine” but the food was excellent, the coffee was good (and cheap), and the staff friendly.

7. Starbucks, Northumberland Street

137 Northumberland Street, Newcastle, ENG NE1 7AG

For several months in 2009 I got into the habit of catching an early train into Newcastle each weekday morning. I’d spend an hour or so in Starbucks with my diary and notebook exploring what was going for me at the time, then catch my train into work.

One Saturday in May 2008 is captured in one of my notebooks. Five years had passed since my friend PJ’s death, and the network of friends I’d relied on since university days had dissolved. Beyond my immediate family I felt adrift and almost completely alone. I was also struggling to find any sort of creative focus.

Right now, I have perhaps the fewest number of people ever. Is this a delayed reaction to losing PJ? There is no one and nothing for me to identify with. When did I have a creative focus?

Tolkien / Middle-earth Reunion (website, people, writing, artwork).
Poetry — “Aye! I am a poet” (School, University, London).

When did I last make a difference?

What do I need? A creative friend. Someone to teach me. A muse. Someone I can help.

“... only she was tired and sad and human.”

Those notes (the quote is from William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer) are eerily prophetic of Fran, who I met exactly three years later in May 2011, and the close, mutually supportive, and creative relationship we enjoy to this day.

The line “Aye! I am a poet” is from And Thus In Nineveh by Ezra Pound. The poem affected me a great deal when I encountered it in high school. The title of my short story And Men Myrtles — which includes a café scene — is taken from the same poem.

He lowered the book and his fork and poured himself a cup of tea from the brown earthenware pot. As he did so he found himself staring at a small almost perfectly heart-shaped mark at the edge of the spout.

It was nothing: Maisie had chipped the thing putting it into or out of the dishwasher — or maybe it was a fault in the glaze. The mark could have no significance whatsoever. Nevertheless its shape — or William’s interpretation of it — felt as though it might be important. He had been noticing little things like this a lot recently. Ever since ... Ever since when?

He knew the answer well enough. Ever since that Sunday last September in Wolvercote cemetery. One year and a week ago. Something had happened that morning and though he had never met their like before or since he owed it all — his reawakening as he had come to think of it — to the motley group of visitors at Professor Tolkien’s grave.

8. Church Gallery, Kirkby Stephen

3-7 Market Street, Kirkby Stephen, Kirkby Stephen, CA17 4QW

This is the only café on the list outside my local area, but it’s been a regular of mine for years when holidaying in Cumbria. Strictly speaking, it’s less a café than a self-serve area upstairs in the wonderful Church Gallery shop, but it is one of the cosiest places I know.

Over the years I’ve written many postcards and letters there. I worked on the book proposal for “High Tide, Low Tide,” scoured my diaries for content for the chapters covering Fran’s time in Europe in 2013, and agonised over who to include in our acknowledgements page.

9. Caffè Nero, Saint Mary’s Place

4–5 Saint Mary’s Place, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 7AA

My premier writing venue in recent years, Caffè Nero is located in a former post office building, as I describe in a blog post from 2017.

It’s hard to visualise, but this used to be the City Post Office. I’ve stood in line many times — where these tables are now — for postage stamps, or to send packages off all over the world. It looks so different now! And yet, there is a sense of continuity. I may have to go elsewhere these days for my postal services (as I did this morning, to buy stamps and to mail out a copy of our book) but it is here, a large black coffee to hand (“Would you like the extra shot?” “Yes please!”), that I write my letters, cards, and postcards.

It soon became my favourite place to meet up with friends, and played its own role in the development of High Tide, Low Tide.

Caffè Nero is my social hub these days. The staff have changed over the years but have always been warm, personable, and supportive of my mental health work and our book. If I am meeting someone in town, here is my first choice of venue, and I have made several new friends from amongst the other regulars here.

I had many fascinating conversations with staff and other customers as I worked away at our book week after week. When High Tide, Low Tide was published they graciously allowed me to display my contact cards and leaflets. That degree of support and encouragement meant a lot.

One Saturday I got talking with local poet, writer, and publisher Fred Lewis. Fred told me about Newcastle Literary Salon which met each month at Bar Loco. I performed my first ever book readings there and met a number of exceptional poets and writers. I wrote about my first visit to the Salon for the #BeReal series at HastyWords.

There was poetry, a great short story with a twist, the opening to a new novel which completely blew me away. Some pieces were more to my taste than others but what struck me more than anything else was how everyone was introduced, welcomed, and received with equal warmth and respect: as writers and performers, but most of all as people.

And it struck me this is another aspect of being real: the awareness and acceptance of our common humanity, no matter how different our individual situations and life experiences might be. Two pieces in particular summed this up for me: Angela J. Kennedy’s powerful poem “Women’s Work,” and Jenni Pascoe’s “One Day I Will Die.” I spoke with Jenni at the end of the event. We discovered a mutual love of hats and she told me she’d noticed her poems seemed to resonate with me. She was right. We connected.

You can watch me perform my book readings on our YouTube channel.

10. Costa Coffee, Kingston Park

Belvedere Retail Park, Unit 5, Belvedere Parkway, Newcastle upon Tyne NE3 2PA
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I’ve saved the best until last! I started going to Costa Coffee a couple of years ago. It is a ten minute walk from my home, and it soon became my favourite place to sit and write. Before covid struck here in March 2020 I was visiting Costa seven days a week: on my way into work, for a couple of hours on a Saturday morning as prelude to whatever else I had planned for the day, and on Sunday afternoons before doing my supermarket grocery shop.

The staff are wonderful and several have become good friends. I was genuinely devastated when Costa had to close at the start of lockdown, and was one of the very first customers to return when it reopened.

My daily journal, letters and cards to friends, social media posts and blog articles — all have been written at these tables. Appropriately enough, the idea for “Coffee and Scribbles” came to me at Costa, and I’m sitting here now at my favourite table by the window as I draw the article to a close.


Wednesday, 21 October 2020

Ever Wonder Why Our Blog Is Called Gum on My Shoe?

As our website and Facebook page declare, “Gum on My Shoe is a creative partnership between best friends Martin Baker and Fran Houston.” That’s clear enough — and true — but you might wonder why we chose such an unusual name and what it means. It dates back to a conversation Fran and I had not long after we met in 2011.

“You’re stuck with me now, Fran. I hope you realise that.”

“Like gum on my shoe...”

The phrase stuck (pun intended!) and when we began planning our book late in 2012 it was an obvious working title for the project, and for our new online platform. You can read the concept statement for our book here. We announced our Facebook page in April 2013. Our blog launched later that year.

Welcome to Gum On My Shoe! I have created this page as a sort of travel diary as I journey along the long and winding (and glorious) road towards publication of the book I am writing in collaboration with Fran Houston. The book’s working title is “Gum On My Shoe: My Bipolar Bestfriend and Me.”

The image shows one of a series of concept cover designs we developed in the early stages of our project.

As for what gum on my shoe actually means, I can do no better than to quote from this article:

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

It was well-received by many who knew us. One friend said, “I love the title. It makes me feel comforted. What a blessing to have someone that determined to stick with you!” Others were less convinced, and it became clear that our book deserved a new title more descriptive of its content, audience, and purpose.

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

The new title fit perfectly:

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

Our original working title remained — and remains — important to us and the brand for our online presence. In the epilogue to “High Tide, Low Tide” Fran challenges our readers to step up and “be the gum on someone’s shoe.”

There are many like me who live in invisible institutions of stigma, shame, and silence, the walls built by others from without, or by ourselves from within. Dismantling these walls invites connection. Be the gum on someone’s shoe who has one foot inside and one foot outside. Stick around. It may not be easy but you can help someone make a life worth living. Maybe even save a life.

You’ve read what “gum on my shoe” means to us. What does it mean to you? We’d love to hear from you so please leave a comment or get in touch!


Wednesday, 14 October 2020

Faking Fine: Why We Fib about How We Are

Today we’re talking about “faking fine,” that thing we do when we pretend we’re doing better than we actually are. Why do we do this? Is it a good thing? What happened to being honest? Let’s start by looking at a few scenarios.

Fake It Till You Make It

This popular aphorism “suggests that by imitating confidence, competence, and an optimistic mindset, a person can realize those qualities in their real life.”

This is faking fine to ourselves, although its impact may be felt in our interactions with others. It’s an example of positive or affirmative thinking; of facing your fear and doing it anyway. If you are interested in learning more, I recommend Susan Jeffers’ book Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway.

Faking Fine as an Escape Hatch

Faking fine can be a way to escape awkward social situations or explaining yourself. Fran expressed this with characteristic aplomb in her essay “Lessons of the Night.”

“How are you?” Another hated and seemingly innocuous question. The simple answer is F–I–N–E. F**ked up, insecure, neurotic, emotional. Most friends really don’t want the long answer. This way I can simply smile and be honest gracefully.

Faking Fine as a Buffer

We don’t always have to share what’s going on for us. Sometimes we want to keep things to ourselves, either permanently or for a while. This allows us to process fleeting or temporary thoughts, feelings and situations without getting others involved until we are ready to.

Honesty and Vigilance

Let’s step back a little. Surely faking fine is kind of, well, fibbing? What happened to being honest with each other? What happened to trust? How does all this work out in practice?

Trust, honesty, and openness are vital to the friendship Fran and I share, as we describe in chapter 1, “The Caring Friendship: Key Skills and Attitudes,” of our book High Tide, Low Tide:

We believe it is healthier to be open about our thoughts and feelings than to hide, dismiss, or avoid them. We share what is happening with us, discuss things if we need to, and then move on. In doing so we hold a safe space where we can “let it all out.” We sometimes get upset or angry with each other, but we deal with discord promptly if it occurs, recognising there is no need to fear even powerful emotions when they can be explored safely.

We know each other so well it’s difficult to hide things from one another even if we want to. It’s not just a case of trusting each other. There are specific benefits to this kind of honesty.

I’ve written elsewhere about bipolar red flag behaviours. Fran’s physical appearance, her tone of voice, what she wants to talk about, and how engaged she is in the conversation all give me a handle on her mood. Secondary clues include what she’s been doing since we last talked, whether she’s been socialising or has plans to, who she’s been in touch with, and how physically active she’s been.

Fran’s equally well-versed in my moods, and often picks up on what I’m thinking or feeling, sometimes before I’m aware of them myself. The same is true with other close friends who know me well. All that said, we recognise that we are responsible for what, when, and how much we share. And as we've seen already, there can be very valid reasons for not disclosing exactly what's going on.

Fran sometimes pretends she’s less depressed than she is because she doesn’t want to deal with the anticipated response, or fears not being heard if she’s completely honest. It’s not easy for me to accept, but sometimes she needs to do this with me too.

Like you said the other day, Fran, you often do your best to “fake it” when you are with people so they don’t get too worried, or so you can give yourself a break from it all. And yes you do that with me too sometimes, and that’s okay. I think generally you’re more honest with me [than others] because you don’t feel you need to pretend as much. That means we are more real with each other than with pretty much anyone else in our lives. And mostly that feels good and sometimes it feels shitty. But it’s why we are here. It’s what we do.

I believe it’s important to acknowledge that faking fine happens, rather than becoming defensive or accusatory. I’d go so far as to say respecting each other’s need for boundaries — including faking fine when necessary — is the sign of a healthy relationship.

We All Do It

I have my own reasons for faking fine, although Fran found this hard to believe when I pointed it out to her. She assumed I rarely needed to, or would have anything I needed to fake. I understand why she might think this. I don’t live with illness the way Fran and many of my friends do. There are no serious traumas or crises in my past or present. Fran knows me so well that she can often tell if there’s something up with me, whether I mention it or not. But not always.

Mostly, I want to share things with Fran, to vent and get it out into the open. She’s my best friend. I value her perspective and honesty. Sometimes, though, I need to work things through on my own, or let go of them without engaging too deeply, like the hot coals technique Fran taught me long ago. I might be working with things Fran has little knowledge of, that she might find triggering or that could impact our friendship itself. I may need to process them myself, or with other friends, before I’m ready to bring them to Fran.

At other times what Fran is going through (good or bad) leaves little opportunity for me to share my situation. It’s not that her needs are more important than mine, but I’m mostly content that they take precedence when we are together. Sometimes I simply choose not to bring my troubles into her day. I kept the fact I was feeling low to myself a few weeks ago because it was Fran’s birthday and I didn’t want to spoil her special day.

It’s not solely a question of opportunity. Fran sometimes needs me to take responsibility for handling my issues because she needs every portion of her time, energy, and focus to manage what she’s going through. We discuss an example of this in our book:

About this time, Fran began talking about managing more on her own. (“I need to learn how to be myself and stay healthy, without you.”) Although hard for me to hear, this was a healthy and necessary impulse. Writing my diary one evening, I recalled a favourite saying of ours: “Give people what they need, not what you need to give them.”

Fran has so much going on right now. I need to be here for her, but not push too hard or lay my own stuff on her too heavily. Now really isn’t the time, with only chat and intermittent phone calls. I want to be the friend Fran needs me to be.

I had my own share of concerns, including work, family, and other friends who were struggling in various ways. If I was not to burden Fran with my problems, I needed to take responsibility for my self-care, and involve my wider support team if need be.

That excerpt highlights how valuable it is to have more than one person you can share with. Different people can help in different ways. Depending on what’s going on for me I might choose to share it with someone other than Fran, at least initially. The same goes for Fran and other friends, of course. I know I am a trusted and valued friend but I will not always be the first person they turn to or need.

The Downside

There are downsides to faking fine, of course. The most serious for me and Fran is that it’s harder for me to help her stay well if she’s less than honest about how she’s doing. This came up for us last year. Fran had been depressed for several months. We’d been talking less on our daily calls than usual, and less deeply, but I believed I understood what was going on. I was wrong.

Fran snapped at me a couple of times for not paying attention to what she was saying, or responding the wrong way. I was confused because her frustration and anger seemed out of step with how I thought she was feeling. It took a heated exchange where Fran was blisteringly honest with me for the penny to drop. I messaged her afterwards:

Maybe you could be more explicit about what you mean when you are sharing things with me and want me to understand things in a particular way. [...] Because as much as I love you, I am not psychic and I will hear what you tell me in ways that make sense to me at the time.

Other downsides include the possibility of upsetting or alienating friends and loved ones who expect unwavering honesty at all times. Hiding too much makes it hard for others to understand how things are for us, and can lead to mistaken assumptions and unrealistic expectations.

Let’s Be Honest About It

Faking fine (or not) is a balance of honesty, respect, and responsibility. Being honest about our need to fake fine sometimes is the antidote to misunderstanding and the most straightforward answer to the charge of fibbing, lying, or mistrust.

Do you ever take fine, or hide how you’re really feeling from others? How do you feel about that? How do you feel about loved ones faking fine with you? We’d love to hear from you.


I began writing this article over a year ago. In June 2019 I met up for a day out in Morpeth with my friend and fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson. As we walked through the park, I shared my idea for a blog post about how people sometimes fake how they’re feeling. I asked Aimee if she ever faked being better than she actually was. She said not really, because when she’s happy she’s so genuinely happy she can’t imagine ever being able to fake it. She went on to talk about when she’s feeling low or poorly, but after a minute or two, I realised I wasn’t following what she was saying. I don’t think she was either, because she suddenly stopped walking and looked at me.

“Do you know what I mean?”

I hesitated.

“I thought I did...”

Perhaps you needed to be there but that cracked us up and it’s become a treasured memory we recall from time to time. So much so that when I told Aimee I was (finally) picking up the threads of the article I’d started so long ago she wanted to be sure I included our conversation in the park. I’m happy to do so.

It’s a nice way to end, and the perfect example of a totally unfaked fine.


Photo by Shaurya Sagar on Unsplash.