Wednesday, 20 January 2021

How to Be Kind and Clever

I’ve played Taylor Swift’s most recent album Evermore a lot since it came out in December. Four lines in particular caught my attention, from the song “Marjorie.”

Never be so kind
You forget to be clever
Never be so clever
You forget to be kind

Let’s take a look at what it means to be kind and clever; clever and kind.

Never Be So Kind You Forget to Be Clever

I mentioned my idea for an article inspired by these lyrics to my friend and fellow blogger Aimee Wilson of I’m NOT Disordered. She immediately understood what I meant.

“Maybe something like the importance of looking after yourself whilst supporting someone else?”

“Yes! That’s exactly the sort of thing I was thinking about. Being there / being helpful / being kind on the one hand, but also being “clever” about boundaries.

There can be an uneasy balance between wanting to be kind on the one hand and being clever (or wise) about it on the other. It might appear a good thing to be relentlessly and selflessly kind, but in my experience selflessness is profoundly unhealthy. Unchecked, it can lead to emotional and physical burnout, frustration, and codependency. In my mother’s case, a lifetime of supporting others exacerbated a deeply rooted self-doubt and led ultimately to anxiety, depression, and despair.

I think it helps to see boundaries as being kind to yourself as well as to others, rather than as erecting walls that keep you apart from other people. Self-kindness can take many forms. I explored a few that are meaningful to me in an article I wrote last year. The first of these was boundary work:

Kindness isn’t always easy, whether it’s showing kindness to others, accepting it from others, or being kind to yourself. Kindness isn’t fluffy, soppy, or superficial. At its heart, kindness is about honesty, respect, and maintaining healthy boundaries. I’ve done a lot of work this week on my boundaries, to see which are truly important and protect me from harm, and which are walls my ego has erected to defend an inflated sense of self-worth. It’s tough work but I feel I’m making progress, with the help of friends I trust to be honest with me. That’s kindness in action, right there.

Being wisely kind also means respecting the boundaries of others. Sometimes, the wisest and kindest thing is to recognise that the other person doesn’t want or need our help right now.

Never Be So Clever You Forget to Be Kind

Boundaries are not an excuse or apology for failing to help people when help is wanted and you’re able to provide it. On the contrary, maintaining healthy boundaries means we’re better prepared to be kind when the opportunity arises. In the words of the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”

It’s worth remembering that kindness benefits you as much as the person on the receiving end. Done right, it’s an exchange which leaves both parties enriched. In the words of singer/songwriter Ruth Bebermeyer,

When you give to me,
I give you my receiving.
When you take from me, I feel so
given to.

And it’s never been more important — more clever — to practice kindness. As the coronavirus pandemic took hold around the world, the Mental Health Foundation chose kindness as the theme for Mental Health Awareness Week 2020 “because of its singular ability to unlock our shared humanity. Kindness strengthens relationships, develops community and deepens solidarity.” Or, as Fran put it in her essay Kindness is the Key for Maine-based mental health non-profit Family Hope, “Social interactions can be lifesaving or death provoking. When people are aware and understanding they can be the tipping point between life and death.”

Being too clever, or overthinking, can get in the way of kindness. It’s too easy to find ourselves meting out our coins of kindness as though others need to deserve our consideration. I touched on this in 16 Ways to Be Kind for last year’s Mental Health Awareness Week.

Did you ever see someone asking for help, on the street or online, and pass them by because maybe they’re not genuinely in need or you wonder what they might do with the money? Put your suspicions, judgements and counter-arguments on hold for a day and take the next person you meet at face value.

In similar vein. Aimee Wilson suggested doing one random act of kindness each day in a guest post for us at the start of lockdown last year:

I’ve seen a lot of people on Twitter recently purchasing an item from someone’s Amazon wishlist and I thought that was a brilliant idea! You could also send a nice email or even just a thoughtful gif or quote!

Kindness doesn’t always mean doing something specific for someone else. It can be as simple as living genuinely and honestly, as this unattributed quotation attests:

There are people in your life whom you unknowingly inspire simply by being you.

I was blessed the other day to receive two random acts of kindness and appreciation. One thanked me for the posts I share on social media, saying, “They really help.” The second thanked me for my support, compassion, and friendship. I had little idea my life impacted on theirs so positively. Their kindness meant a great deal to me.

Getting the Balance Right

I’ve included several quotations in this post, because other people’s wisdom and experience can shine a light into our lives. But it’s an act of self-kindness to acknowledge our own wisdom. As I was writing this article I came across something I posted on social media a couple of years ago. It was a photo of clasped hands with the words “Always help someone. You might be the only one that does.” With the image I’d shared a few words of my own. Rereading them, I smiled. They are relevant not only to this article but also to my life at this moment. I share them here for you.

Yes, healthy boundaries are important. Sometimes we need to take care of ourselves before we are in a place to help others. And sometimes we are not the person they need. But that doesn’t negate the simple message that we can all make a difference. YOU can make a difference. Be the person, perhaps the only person, who doesn’t turn away. Who picks up. Who dares to care.

 


Main image: Balcony Concerts, by Catherine Cordasco. “I would like through this illustration to show solidarity, generosity, creativity between people even with social distancing. We are all together and we all support and take care of everyone!” Submitted for the United Nations Global Call Out To Creatives. United Nations COVID-19 Response on Unsplash.

 

Wednesday, 13 January 2021

Announcing Our New Creative Partnership with Kingston Park Publishing

Fran and I are excited to announce a new creative venture that we've been planning for some time.

Kingston Park Publishing will publish a new revised edition of our first book High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder. It will be available in print and for Kindle. Watch this space for further details.

We encourage you to follow KPP on their website, Facebook, Linkedin, and Twitter.

The first edition of High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder is still available for a limited period from Amazon and other booksellers.

 

Wednesday, 6 January 2021

LOST: A Short Film on Drug Addiction

By Sachit Grover

My motivation to make this series of films with the dance group STTM (Stories Told Through Movement) was the fact that there isn’t much talk about mental health within the South Asian community. Recently, Bollywood films like Dear Zindagi and Chhichhore have started talking about mental health, but it hasn’t been talked about in a mainstream fashion. I wanted to team up with STTM dance to have this talked about more publicly. We felt this collaboration would be beneficial given that we would be able to maximize our reach. A lot of people like dance videos while others prefer watching short films. We thought a combination of both would garner a larger audience.

In the first episode of LOST, Lea and Shruti are introduced. In this series, Lea is the daughter of Shruti and Vijay. The first episode focuses on a dance segment between Lea and Shruti to the song Aashiqui (The Love Theme). In this first episode, Shruti is a figment of Lea’s imagination. That’s why there are numerous cuts throughout the song (with and without Shruti).

In the second episode of LOST, Vijay is introduced and the family troubles are showcased. Vijay and Shruti fighting about Vijay’s drinking takes a toll on Lea and she feels like she is unable to live a normal life. Vijay also ruins the family dynamic since he turns to alcohol in every situation. The family has the chance to go to a family gathering, but Vijay ruins it by being drunk and ruining the food Shruti prepared for the event. Lea tries to tell her mom that she should stand up for herself against Vijay, but Shruti refuses. Shruti states that due to cultural norms, she can’t just leave Vijay. This is very commonplace in South Asian culture. Frustrated, Lea leaves the room while Shruti follows.

In the third episode of LOST, Lea and Shruti have another dance segment to the song Judaai. This song is used to show the growing tension in the family. After the song, Lea is shown struggling to keep up with the pressures of her chaotic family dynamic. Lea is shown going down the route of utilizing drugs to overcome her pain. Drug abuse is highlighted in this episode.

In the fourth and final episode of LOST, the family dynamic is further tainted. Lea then gets high and imagines what her life would be if their family was “normal.” After everything, all Lea can ask is “what if?” Basically, Lea is never given closure after going through this traumatic experience.

You can find the full series here.

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

You can find STTM Dance on YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram.

 

Wednesday, 30 December 2020

2020: My Unpredicted Year

I don’t do New Year Resolutions, but in recent years I’ve shared “things I’d quite like to do” in the twelve months ahead. (If you’d like to see what they were you can do so here: 2017 | 2018 | 2019. You can read how I got on here: 2017 | 2018 | 2019.)

I decided to try something different for 2020. Instead of sharing a list of things I’d like to do at the start of the year, I drew up a personal shortlist of predictions. Needless to say, I didn’t see the pandemic coming!

Rather than explore my wayward predictions, I’d like to share my personal experience of a year that defied foretelling. For each month I’ve chosen one photo, and one article Fran and I shared that month on our blog. I hope you’ll enjoy them as much as I did bringing them together.


January

To get things rolling, I’ve chosen this photo of The Commissioner’s Quay Inn in Blyth. I was there at the start of the year with fellow blogger Aimee Wilson. We met twice more in January; once to mark her blog’s seventh anniversary, and once for a meal at Frankie and Benny’s restaurant in Newcastle. Sad to say, that branch of Frankie and Benny’s has now closed permanently, a victim of covid-19.

As my featured post for January, I’ve selected Every Day Essentials for the Successful Blogger, in which I share the tools I have with me wherever I go, to support my blogging and other writing.


February

My fondest memory from February is meeting one of my best friends at The Five Swans in Newcastle to celebrate her birthday. The pub was packed and noisy, but we had a table, good food, and a lot of fun. We planned to meet again in March for my birthday but those plans were dashed by the pandemic. That evening in the Five Swans was the last time I’d be in a busy social setting this year. I miss the noise and bustle of it.

I’ve chosen to feature Please Invite Me Out With You by Amy Cullis because it highlights the importance of human contact, inclusion, and presence. The imposition of covid restrictions here in the UK and world-wise has meant that collectively we’ve been much less able to meet in person with those we know and love.


March

The photo recalls one Saturday in March. I’d travelled into town to meet a friend for coffee. After we parted, I took myself to Stack, one of my favourite venues. It was still early and I had the place more or less to myself. I ordered a beer, and a veggie curry pie and chips. I didn't realise it at the time but that would be the last time I’d visit Stack — or see my friend in person — for many months. Covid restrictions, including the closing of hospitality venues, were announced in the UK on March 20.

The full impact of the pandemic may not be known for years, but in those first weeks we all struggled to make sense of what was happening. I was aware from the start how relatively privileged my situation was, not least because my job was safe and I was able to work from home. The guest article I’ve chosen to share — Coronavirus: Why “Stay Home” Is Not a Safe Option for Everyone — serves as a stark reminder that following the “Stay Home, Stay Safe” message was not equally feasible for all.


April

The photo shows a spread in my Passport Traveler’s Notebook at the start of lockdown. The holiday I’d booked in the English Lake District was cancelled because of covid. Instead, I spent two weeks at home, only going outside for groceries and permitted local walks for exercise. I missed the opportunity to meet with friends and visit the places I otherwise would have done, but as the days passed I settled into the new routine. It helped immensely that I could use technology to connect with friends near and far. My warmest memories are of sharing my walks and time in the garden with friends via video calls.

In A Postcard from My Lockdown Vacation I shared what was to be the first of three such staycations this year.


May

Socially distanced queuing outside the supermarket was one aspect of life under covid that fortunately didn't last too long. Queues are rare these days and much shorter than the one shown in this photo. Empty shelves and toilet paper shortages are also, hopefully, a thing of the past.

The theme for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week (MHAW) was kindness and in 10 Ways I Was Kind to Myself This Week I shared some of the ways I was kind to myself at that time.


June

My daily walks for exercise gave me the opportunity to explore my neighbourhood, including the narrow strip of wilderness between a new housing development and the Ouseburn stream. It soon became a favourite haunt. As always, I took my beloved Passport Traveler’s Notebook along.

Inspired by these walks, I compiled a list of all the official Traveler’s Company notebooks, inserts and accessories I could find online.


July

Apart from being unable to see my friends, what I missed most during lockdown was visiting my favourite local coffee shop, Costa Coffee in Kingston Park. It reopened in July during my second two week staycation and I visited as often as I could until it was forced to close its doors again to sit-in customers later in the year.

My featured post for July is Beauty Everywhere: Engaging with the Natural World. I’m a city boy but one thing I have enjoyed this year is discovering the natural world of my garden and local area.


August

By August, shops and hospitality venues were open and we were being encouraged to use them, providing appropriate covid measures were followed. I went into Newcastle for the first time since March to meet a friend at our favourite coffee shop, Caffè Nero in St Mary’s Place. It was great to see her but it felt very strange to be walking the streets of my city again when so much had changed since I’d last been there.

During August, Fran and I were delighted to share a great guest post by fellow mental health blogger Peter McDonnell, Painting, Photography and Positive Mental Health.


September

Music has been really important to me this year. The tracks and artists I’ve listened to whilst working in the garden and on my walks have more than kept me entertained. They have kept me company, and become part of my covid experience.

In I’m on My Way: Thoughts Inspired by Ed Sheeran's “Castle on the Hill” I shared what this one song evoked for me. As I wrote, “This blog post has stirred a lot of memories and emotions. This is a deep dive, not just into my past but into the person I am now. It reminds me of what one of my friends told me the other day about therapy. How it’s not about fixing you, it’s about making connections between the gaps inside you.”


October

October brought the third of my covid staycations. I didn’t get to meet up with friends but I decided to treat myself to one day in Newcastle on my own. I got dressed up and visited Stack for the first time since March. It was especially meaningful as the seasonal Tipi bar was back again. I took my journal with me to record the moment. “I was at the door at 10am as they opened Stack and I’m the only person here in the Tipi. I have my pint of Maltsmiths, and some great music playing. [...] This place is VERY special to me, and it means the world to be here today — especially when new lockdown restrictions may mean no pubs etc open for some time.”

My featured post for October is Coffee and Scribbles: My Ten Favourite Writing Cafes, in which I shared some of the coffee shops and cafes that have played a role in my writing over the years.


November

November brought challenges at work and in my personal life, but also some successes and unlooked for rewards. The photo was taken on my evening walk on November 5, which is Bonfire Night (or Guy Fawkes Night) here in the UK. I didn’t see any bonfires but there were plenty of fireworks going off all around.

I’ve chosen to feature VRITRA: A Short Film on Mental Health, by Sachit Grover. Sachit contacted me on Twitter and I invited him to guest on our blog to introduce his film. Now available on Amazon Prime, Vritra is a moving tale with a message for us all.


December

The photo shows the biodiversity garden where I work. The area was fenced off through most of the year but the barriers came down at the start of December. I was on a video call with one of my best friends one day as I walked into work. As we approached the garden I got a sudden urge to have a go on the swing seats — so we did! It was a care-free moment in a year that has sometimes seemed short of such opportunities, and I treasure the memory.

Christmas under covid restrictions was never going to be the same, but it prompted me to look back over the years and explore What Christmas Means to Me. I concluded, “it’s fine if Christmas doesn’t all happen on December 25, or even in December at all. Christmas for me is less an event and more of a celebration of closeness and connection. In the same way that Fran celebrates her birthday month rather than just the day of her birth, we can celebrate Christmas 2020 during December and into the new year.”


Post of the Year

More than any other I’ve taken in 2020, this photo captures for me the essence of a year lived under covid restrictions. It shows the garden fence of a house not far from where I live. I passed it almost every day for months, when a local walk for exercise was the only permitted reason I had to leave the house, apart from trips to the store for groceries. I have photos of the mural taken at different times, as the family expanded on their orginal design. I spoke briefly with them twice, to commend their work and thank them for sharing such a positive and hope-full message.

For my final featured post I’ve chosen “Remember When?” — Building Shared Experience in Unprecedented Times. I wrote it in April when the immediate impact of covid was starting to sink in, but the full implications could scarcely be guessed. As Fran said at the time, “We are going through the pandemic together.” It closes with one prediction which holds strong as we come to the end of the year and look forward to whatever comes next:

There will be tears and pain when we look back on the pandemic of 2020. But there will also be joy and laughter, and the comfort that comes from surviving dark times in good company.


 

Wednesday, 23 December 2020

Help When You Can: Notes for a Happy Life

Help when you can.
Be there when you can.
Encourage when you can.
A truly happy life comes
from giving more than you take
.

That anonymous quotation came up in my social media feed the other day. On the surface, it’s a straightforward encouragement to help people because it’s good for us to do so. There are three separate elements to it, though, each of which deserves exploring.

  • Offer what people need
  • Offer when you can
  • Enjoy the rewards

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

Offer What People Need

The quotation doesn’t simply say help people, it suggests offering practical help, offering our presence, and offering encouragement. The point is there are different ways to support people, and it’s important to match what we offer with what will help them best. I’m reminded of a maxim of Fran’s that I find really helpful:

Give people what they need. Not what you need to give them.

It’s easy to skip the first part and leap in with whatever assistance we think is best for them or feel most comfortable giving. Unless you’ve been asked specifically, don’t assume you know what the person needs, even if you know each other well and you’ve helped them before. Listen more than talk, and if you’re unsure, ask. “How can I help you best right now?” is good. Be prepared for “I don’t know” or “Nothing, thanks” in reply.

It hurts when we see our friends or loved ones struggling and we’re unable to offer what they need, or they don’t want our help. Remind yourself that it’s not about you. The impulse to help is noble, but our need to do so is not the most important consideration. Sometimes, the most caring thing we can do is respect our loved one’s request for space.

Offer When You Can

When we are invited to help, the dilemma — in so far as there is one — is to balance supporting our friend or loved one with our own needs, boundaries, and responsibilities. That’s what the “when you can” part of the quotation means. Actually, it means two things: don’t over-commit yourself or do more than you're able, but also don’t do less. It’s easy to find excuses or be talked out of helping when it’s perfectly possible for you to do so.

“When you can” also reminds us there’s often a timeliness aspect to helping others. Sometimes the time simply isn’t right, and we serve ourselves and our friends best by respecting that. A friend of mine wanted to help someone she’s close to, but they declined the offer. My friend knew not to keep pushing and trusted her friend would come round when she was able to. That might never have happened, but it did. My friend’s help was all the more effective because she’d waited until the time was right.

Enjoy the Rewards

There’s no denying that it feels good to help someone, especially when it’s someone we know and care about. One of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received was when a friend told me I was someone they could rely on in an emergency, or at any other time.

It’s particularly comforting when you can offer and receive help without ego getting in the way. Fran and I are like that with each other, but it’s like that with other friends too. It means a lot that my friend Aimee can accept my presence and support simply, without either of us needing to make a fuss about it. She knows she can ask me if she needs help, and I'll be there if I can. Likewise, I know I can offer to help, and Aimee will accept it if she feels it is appropriate and meets her needs.

All that said, there are some potentially unhealthy things to watch out for. It’s easy to slip into feeling guilty if we’re unable to meet our friends’ needs for support. If we are always setting our own needs and boundaries aside in order to respond to other people’s requests, we can end up feeling burnt out, resentful, or overwhelmed. Codependency is another risk. This is where two people become dependent on the support they are able to offer each other (usually this is primarily from one person in the relationship to the other).

Doing too much, too often, or inappropriately invites the other person to become dependent on us. This is disempowering, and if left unchecked can develop into an unhealthy codependency. No matter how selfless we imagine ourselves to be — and selflessness is neither healthy nor sustainable — being a supportive friend or caregiver can play to our needs as much as to the other person’s. It can feel wonderful to be needed, and if our friend’s illness is chronic we have set ourselves up with a supporting role for the long term.

The best antidote to codependency is talking honestly with your friend or loved one about what is going on for you, including the need for each of you to maintain healthy boundaries.

I must disagree with the author’s claim that “a truly happy life comes from giving more than you take.” It sounds noble, but in my experience the rewards are greatest when support and caring are mutual, rather than one-sided. The balance needn’t always be 50:50, of course, and it will shift from time to time, but recognising that each of you can be there for the other is important. Aimee has been there for me many times when I’ve struggled or needed someone to talk to, but she still sometimes worries I might feel our friendship is a bit one-sided. I reminded her the other day that, as with me and Fran, the friendship we enjoy is definitely mutual. Another close friend thanked me recently for helping her. I replied with the certainty of previous experience, “You’d do the same for me.”

I’ll close with another excerpt from High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder:

Someone wrote to us recently, “Your journey as friends reminds us that mental illness doesn’t change what friendship is all about: being there for those we love.” That meant a lot because the reciprocal nature of our relationship is not always recognised. Fran is there for me as much as I am there for her.

Fundamentally, that’s what it’s all about. Or, as a friend of mine put it, “The more you give the more you receive in unexpected ways.”

 

Photo by TK Hammonds on Unsplash

 

Wednesday, 16 December 2020

What Christmas Means to Me

I was searching for a blog topic recently and my son Mike suggested writing about my ideal Christmas. It was a good idea and I love this time of year, but I wasn’t sure how to approach it. My ideal Christmas has always been the last one I spent or the next one to come. In the end I decided to explore what I’ve enjoyed about Christmas in the past and how I’m feeling about this one, which is so different because of covid-19. I hope you enjoy sharing the journey with me.

Childhood Memories

My childhood memories of Christmas come to me as a series of disconnected snapshots or vignettes.

Hunting for the presents my parents had hidden away. Finding them in the suitcases stored underneath their bed.

Denshi board electronics set and Spirograph.

The wooden gifts my father made for me over the years: the castle my son inherited, the music box, and the fishing tackle box I wrote about decades later.

Standing outside Liverpool’s registry office on Christmas Eve in a blizzard at my cousin’s wedding.

Then there’s the year it was my parents’ turn to host the Boxing Day party for the extended family. It was so foggy no one could get home and aunts, uncles, and cousins had to stay overnight. This was fun for us kids, probably less so for the adults!

University Days

I studied pharmacy for four years at the University of Bradford. In common with many of my fellow students, I travelled home for Christmas, but there were plenty of opportunities to celebrate before we headed off.

I remember the day trip to London with a group of my new friends at the end of my first university term. We seemed to see more of the city on that one day than I would manage after university when I lived in the capital for three years!

I remember getting dressed up for my first year pre-Christmas Halls Ball, immortalised in my poem Contemplation 2:

Today, separated from you
by so many hours and tears
I found a picture of us
laughing.
Do you remember when we laughed as loud
—when a dream was all my desire
and the girl in the red dress danced away
a night of them
as I lay in her smile and the sounds of her singing

In my third year in Bradford, my housemates and I hosted a pre-Christmas meal for a few friends. I remember good food, laughter, and games. Somewhere, there’s a photo of Sally dancing on the table ...

London Town

After graduating from university I spent three years in London, although I still went home at Christmas.

I remember shopping in London for gifts and ideas. All the Christmas trees, lights and street decorations, in Covent Garden and elsewhere. Treating myself to roast chestnuts and mulled wine from street vendors.

I recall going into work at weekends to hand-print batches of Christmas cards.

I remember making cuddly toys and other presents for friends. The cuddly toy rats were particularly popular. I made Pemberton the grizzly bear as a Christmas gift for one of my dearest friends. Pemberton returned to me years later after she died.

Gift wrapping has always been a huge part of Christmas for me. I remember sitting on the floor in my bedsit wrapping presents for friends and family. I took it very seriously and built boxes from scratch for the odd-shaped items that are so difficult to wrap.

Newcastle

Christmasses in the thirty-plus years I’ve lived in Newcastle have been rich and varied. My first memory is a pre-Christmas meal in the house I shared in Sandyford before I moved to Kingston Park the following year.

Family trips to Dobbie’s garden centre in Ponteland for lunch on Christmas Eve. Choosing one new tree decoration each to add to the collection.

The wooden pirate ship and dolls house I made for Mike and Emma.

Cross-country trips to deliver gifts to family in Carlisle. Shopping and lunch at Gretna Green.

The annual trek into town to the post office to mail boxes and packages to friends in the UK and beyond.

The excitement of receiving packages through the mail, and (less fun!) the long queues at the sorting office to collect those which came when there was no one at home.

Dressing the tree in space cleared amongst the customary household clutter. Green and red ribbon bows I made decades ago for our first family Christmas. Precious decorations from friends and loved ones over the years. Mike’s pipe-cleaner beast. The paper crown and plaster tree Emma made at nursery.

Christmas morning phone calls and messages to those far away. Coffee and toast for breakfast in a sea of wrapping paper. Cooking the dinner. Roast chicken, rather than turkey. Roast potatoes and parsnip, Brussels sprouts, carrots, sage and onion stuffing, cranberry sauce, and gravy. Christmas pudding and custard.

Buffet meals for a day or so after. Raiding the fridge for cheeses, cold stuffing, olives; whatever can be found. Chutneys. Pringles. Mince pies, two at a time with cheese.

Marty and Fran

Fran and I met online in May 2011. Of all the Christmases we’ve shared since then, none have meant more than our first, as we described in our book High Tide, Low Tide.

During our first December as friends, Fran was in a deep depression after spending most of the previous year in mania. She felt bereft, isolated, suicidal, and alone. It meant a great deal to her that she could spend time on webcam with me and my family over Christmas and New Year. We opened our presents together, and Fran kept me company in the kitchen on Christmas morning as I cooked dinner, my netbook perched precariously on top of the saucepan stand. Fran told me later it was the best Christmas she had ever spent.

In December 2013 Fran took me on a visit to Swan Hall, which is a large Victorian house which opens its doors to visitors at Christmas in aid of local charities.

Fran: Do you wanna go to Swan Hall with me?

Martin: Is that the Christmas tree house?

Fran: Yes.. It’s $5 but I don’t think they’ll charge for you..

Martin: I’d love to! Christmas starts here!

We were on a video call as Fran arrived. I imagined she would end our call and take photographs to show me later, but she kept me on the line and even introduced me to the people on the door. “This is Marty, my friend from England. Do we need two tickets?”

Recent Years

Recent Christmases have been blessed by time spent locally with friends.

For the past two years, I’ve taken part in the wonderful Jingle Bell Walk in support of the Chris Lucas Trust. I have warm memories of us gathering with the other walkers outside Newcastle Civic Centre and then walking along Northumberland Street to Monument, down Dean Street, under the Tyne Bridge and along the Quayside to be met at the finish by Santa and his reindeer beside the Millennium Bridge. Dancing and singing along to Disney’s Let it Go!, then a quick drink in the Pitcher and Piano before heading home.

Drinks upstairs at the Charles Grey pub, then standing at the crowded doorway for the countdown to the Newcastle’s Christmas lights being turned on. Singing and dancing in the street to the Pogues’ Fairytale of New York, which will always remind me of that day.

Christmas shopping in Morpeth with Aimee. Calling on her just before Christmas so we could open our presents together.

Opening presents with another dear friend in our favourite coffee shop. The gratitude journal she gifted me last year is still very much in use.

Christmas 2020

Many of the moments and traditions I’ve come to treasure have had to be set aside or postponed under the shadow of covid-19. The UK government plans to allow up to three households to meet indoors between 23 and 27 December (see the official guidelines) but my family and friends have decided it’s safest not to meet until the new year at least. That means no cross country drive to visit family in Carlisle, no Jingle Bell walk (it was cancelled anyway), no trip into town with friends to see the lights, and no opening presents together in person.

I’ve not shopped in Newcastle as I usually would have done. (I have only been into town twice since the start of lockdown in March.) Everything I’ve bought has been sourced online or in my local shops. Fran and I agreed not to ship gifts to each other this year. Instead, we ordered online and had the packages sent directly. We will meet on webcam on Christmas Eve as usual. Aimee and I have exchanged three gifts each by post, which we’ll open together on a video call, and will save the rest for when we can meet safely in person. I’m doing the same with other friends. It will still be special, just different.

My Ideal Christmas

At the start of this post, I said that my ideal Christmas has always been the last one I spent or the next one to come. Having looked back now over the years, I’d say the one I spent last year — Christmas 2019 — was a near-perfect blend of moments spent with family and friends at home, in coffee shops, restaurants, pubs, and bars. This year can’t be like that but it can still be ideal in its own way because we’re all making it work in different ways.

For some people, celebrating Christmas at the proper time will be paramount, but for me, it’s fine if Christmas doesn’t all happen on December 25, or even in December at all. Christmas for me is less an event and more of a celebration of closeness and connection. In the same way that Fran celebrates her birthday month rather than just the day of her birth, we can celebrate Christmas 2020 during December and into the new year.

What Christmas Means to Others

I asked Fran what her ideal Christmas would look like.

My ideal Christmas is where I get to spent time with my friends, and decorate my apartment so I can make my home warm and inviting. And have good things to eat — not too fattening! And get lots of pressies! Oh, and Netflix shows!

I smiled, because despite covid-19 restrictions, she is able to realise her ideal Christmas this year, and that makes me happy.

Over the years, a number of guest writers have written for our blog on seasonal themes. I’ve chosen three to share with you here.

How I Unplugged the Christmas Machine and Created Stable Holidays, by Julie A. Fast

Season’s Greetings, by Roiben

Let It Go: Reducing Holiday Triggers for Your Child, by Tricia

I’d also like to share Carolyn Spring’s Christmas Is Optional.

My friend and fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson told me, “Christmas is important to me because I’ve been a psychiatric inpatient over Christmas before, so I like to fully enjoy it now I’m better and at home.” Aimee ran joint blogmas and vlogmas posts on her blog I’m NOT Disordered last year (a herculean endeavour, to create written and video content for each day from December 1 until Christmas!). I’ve contributed to her Christmas posts in the past, including my Christmas wish list last year and a Christmas Q&A back in 2017. This year, Aimee is running a blog series on the theme of recommendations. You can follow, starting with the introduction in which Aimee talks more about what Christmas means to her.

What does Christmas mean to you? Is it a joyful time, or something you survive rather than enjoy? Does it bring good memories or recollections you’d rather not revisit? What would your ideal Christmas look like? We’d love to hear from you.