Wednesday, 12 August 2020

Painting, Photography and Positive Mental Health

By Peter McDonnell

As on most weekends, today I was out and about visiting nearby open gardens run by The National Garden Scheme. My mum and I park the car after the usual drive through villages of thatched cottages, village halls, churches and well-kept lawns. During lockdown the large properties that host the gardens are not busy and we are often treated to a personal tour by the owners. You can see how happy they are sharing stories old and new about how their gardens came to be. You can pick out the differences of the owners’ individual spots of fondness, occasionally accompanied by a comment of slight aversion to their spouse’s decision to place some quirky item amongst the otherwise perfect design!

We walk around for about an hour, my mum teaching me the names and attributes of flowers. This is where I get my photography done. Most of the roses are past their best now that it is August, but I’ve taken many photographs of my favourite flower over the last two months.

I think they look especially good climbing up or falling over the top of a stone wall, so much so that I did an oil painting of a photo I took of roses on the wall of a thatched cottage that we saw on one of our recent summer afternoons out.

Rosy Cottage on Abbey Road

Painting and photography has made a real difference to my mental health

I started painting in March, inspired by the coronavirus lockdown. I bought some acrylic paints when I was eighteen in 2000, and they sat in the loft unused for twenty years. Occasionally I’d think about them but it always seemed like a chore to fetch them down and use them.

Recently, though, I watched a few TV programmes about how to paint, including ‘The Joy of Painting’ by the wonderful Bob Ross, the American guy with the afro hairstyle who in the 80’s presented clips painting quick but skilled scenes where he talked us through how it was done.

Inspired, I got the paints out and set myself up in my garden. By the end of the day I had completed something that wasn’t half bad! Of course, it wasn’t skilled but it was imaginative and colourful. I remember thinking about David Hockney and how his works are rarely based on accuracy and he gets on okay… he sells his paintings for millions, £94 million is his record.

Not having the burden of accuracy increased the enjoyment I felt. I remembered a few of Bob Ross’ tips (paint the background first, distant objects need less detail etc.) and away I went. A few days later I bought some canvasses, oil paints etc., and started my second painting. For that one I had a few really interesting ideas about provoking some thought, and the big tree that was the centre of focus looked fantastic. After a couple of days I couldn’t have been happier with the result. Then on to the next one … I have now painted about twenty canvasses. I can’t stop! My boss at one of my part-time jobs liked my online gallery and asked me to paint a series of murals in his large shop. I’m halfway through and it’s a pleasure.

If you are wondering about the connection with mental health, I’m so happy while I’m painting my murals. Mixing up the colours, being adventurous and bold and feeling it actually work into something alluring is a feeling that stays with me for the rest of the day. I step back and feel a sense of achievement. People come and go in the shop and often ask about it. They compliment me too if I’m lucky. I feel a little boost every time someone says they are impressed. When I go to my evening part-time job, colleagues ask how I am and I always say ‘I’m fantastic’ because I am, because I’ve been painting. Some people have spoken about being a little slowed down in activity during the pandemic, but I’ve surprised myself. I’ve never been so productive.

My favourite artists and inspirations are Van Gogh, Monet, Manet and Hockney. I knew who these artists were before lockdown but that was all. Since getting into painting I’ve also started looking at art. I’ve ‘caught the bug’ and I found a wonderful app, the Google Arts and Culture app, which has told me all about these guys. This new passion will be by my side until I’m old. I know much of their work intimately now. A real joy.

Mental Health

I was diagnosed with ‘cannabis-induced psychosis with delusions of a grandiose nature’ and serious anxiety in 2002 and 2005. It has mostly fallen away now. I consider myself ninety percent recovered due to good luck, support and hard work. I have had a long, serious and interesting journey. I am still on anti-psychotic and anti-anxiety medication. The antipsychotic worked wonders for me. I think of it with actual fondness. But it dulls the brain slightly, for some more than others, as do many medications. It slows me down in my cognitive abilities etc, and I feel the difference most profoundly in my memory. Before medication it worked smoothly and quite effortlessly, but these days if I don’t write things down or use mnemonic tips, information and everything else is subject to something of a disappearing act.

Since I started painting though, the creative side of my brain has returned in an enjoyable and controlled way. It’s also affected my memory in a very positive way. A few days after my new hobby began I found that I was remembering things – the best-before dates on refrigerated items coolly awaiting dinnertime consumption, numbers on paperwork at work, my mum’s varying weekly schedule. I must say it’s a welcome change after so many years of being on the forgetful side. It’s connected to the painting and the creativity in the same way that it’s easier to remember a colourful scene than a black and white one. So as well as all the joy of painting it’s improving my memory and cognitive skills too in a real way.

So having that working away, it helps me to build on it, which is where the photography comes in amongst other things. When I’m taking pics of flowers and nature and sharing them, it’s another piece of my mind that is awakened and happy indulging in a hobby. During my recovery my supportive team encouraged distraction techniques, activities that got me out and about, and spending time on an activity that I could enjoy.

One thing I have found for myself is that maintaining good mental health requires small but consistent efforts and doing things every day to keep me happy. This is part of why painting and photography have been so helpful. It seems like a cliché sometimes that art is good for mental health but knowing how it has helped me I’d really recommend it. I hope the positivity continues!

Thanks for reading. I have more to see on my mental health blog including my online art gallery and posts about how my medication turned my life around, a post about visiting Monet’s garden in France last year, and more about art and mental health.

About the Author

Pete is thirty-eight and lives in Hampshire, England. He is very open about mental health and discussing his journey. He has lived through serious psychosis, suicide attempts, hospitalisations, and panic attacks, then had a slow but steady recovery helped by writing and blogging, and more recently art and photography. He is now enjoying life and working on his memoirs. He is always keen for new visitors to his mental health website and blog


Wednesday, 5 August 2020

Julie A. Fast on Kanye West, Bipolar Disorder, and Relationships

Kanye West’s recent public struggles with bipolar disorder have brought considerable attention to a condition which affects millions around the world.

One of our regular contributors Julie A. Fast wrote an article for Psychology Today called Is Kanye West Just a Grandiose, Attention-Seeking Rapper? in which she discussed the difference between bragging and grandiose mania/psychosis.

She was subsequently interviewed for US television on the topic of Kanye West and bipolar disorder. It’s worth reading the article before watching the video (below) as Julie mentions it regularly in her interview.

In the interview, Julie talks about herself, bipolar disorder and why it’s so hard for people like Kanye to get help, even with his wealth and resources. She also talks about the message that his wife Kim Kardashian posted on Instagram, from which the following is excerpted:

“Living with bi-polar disorder does not diminish or invalidate his dreams and his creative ideas, no matter how big or unobtainable they may feel to some. That is part of his genius and as we have all witnessed, many of his dreams have come true. We as a society talk about giving grace to the issue of mental health as a whole, however we should also give it to the individuals who are living with it in times when they need it the most. I kindly ask that the media and public give us the compassion and empathy that is needed so that we can get through this. Thank you for those who have expressed concern for Kanye's well-being and for your understanding.” (Kim Kardashian)

Author of Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder, Take Charge of Bipolar Disorder, and Get it Done When You’re Depressed, Julie is well-placed to offer her perspective on the subject of romantic relationships and bipolar disorder:

  • She has bipolar disorder and a psychotic disorder. She was originally diagnosed with bipolar disorder; later changed to schizoaffective disorder. When a person has bipolar disorder and a separate psychotic disorder, the diagnosis is more complex.
  • Julie was in a relationship for ten years with a man who has bipolar I (bipolar 1 disorder).
  • She wrote the first book ever for the partner of a person with a mental health disorder. Her book Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder: Understanding and Helping Your Partner has sold over 400,000 copies and remains the #1 book for partners in the world.
  • As you can tell from her Psychology Today article, she has been a fan of rap music since the 1980s!

Julie has guested on our blog several times and is a huge champion of our work. She was an original reviewer for our book High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder which opens with her words:

Friendship soothes the soul and provides hope for people with bipolar disorder and yet the illness creates unique challenges to the friendships we so desperately want and need. Marty and Fran specifically address these challenges in this bright, uplifting and brutally honest book. Filled with stories and practical tips, there is more laughter than sorrow as the reader learns to cultivate a loving, kind and caring friendship that transcends the illness and creates a lasting bond.

Julie often tells people that High Tide, Low Tide is one of the best books for siblings of people with bipolar disorder, as they don’t get the attention they need due to their sibling’s illness. We love working with her and are proud to know her as a friend as well as a valued contributor to Gum on My Shoe.


Wednesday, 29 July 2020

The Roles of a Friend

This article is excerpted from chapter 1, “The Caring Friendship: Key Skills and Attitudes,” of our book High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder. Photo by nonresident on Unsplash.

No matter who we are, we all assume various roles in our relationships with others. At different times, Fran and I have used a variety of labels to clarify our respective roles. These include friend, best friend, listener, confidant, teacher, balancer, haven, gate-keeper, and advocate. The three most fundamental are listener, balancer, and haven.

Being a Good Listener

Being a good listener is a very specific skill; knowing a person well and caring about them does not necessarily make the role easier. Four key points help me focus on what is important.

  • Don’t interrupt.
  • Remember it’s their story, not yours.
  • Save your judgments for later.
  • Don’t try to fix everything.

Don’t Interrupt

It is hard to listen to someone in distress—especially a friend or loved one—without offering comments, questions, suggestions, or potential fixes. Nevertheless, your friend needs to feel able to share without being interrupted or pressured to find a solution. This doesn’t mean you must listen in complete silence, but resist the temptation to interject or influence the story. Small supportive comments will help things along, and occasionally echoing back what your friend has been saying will reassure both of you that the message is getting across. Ask for clarification if you do not understand, but do not pester for details. Allow your friend to share what they are ready to share.

Fran’s thoughts sometimes flow so rapidly that she struggles to express them coherently. She hates me interrupting because it breaks her concentration; she finds it almost impossible to pick up the thread afterwards. This was hard for me in our early days. I found the frequent admonitions to “Just let me finish!” frustrating. I was interested in what she had to say, but often felt I was missing the opportunity to contribute ideas of my own or explore hers. If I pushed her, she would lose track and become irritated. Our tempers sometimes got the better of us, but gradually we learned to work together. These days, Fran lets me know if she is having trouble marshalling her thoughts, and I allow her to finish what she is saying before taking my turn. I still catch myself talking when I should be listening, but I am better at it than I used to be.

It’s Their Story, Not Yours

If we have had similar experiences it is tempting to share. (“Oh, I know just how you feel. That happened to me.”) We want to show we understand what our friend is going through, but the ways in which we were affected, how we responded, and the lessons we learned––or failed to learn––are part of our life story not theirs. No matter how well-meant, our recollections and advice are likely to be neither relevant nor helpful. We are also shifting the focus away from our friend, who might imagine we value their story less than we do our own.

On the other hand, you may feel at a disadvantage if you have no similar experiences to draw on. I am fortunate to have known no major traumas in my life, and used to imagine this prevented me from connecting with people whose life stories were complex or traumatic. My friendship with Fran has taught me that whilst shared experiences can be useful, they are less important than a willingness to hold oneself open and honest. I no longer feel the need to apologise for the lack of trauma in my life.

Save Your Judgments for Later

Most of us like to believe we can listen to our friends without judging them, but there is a difference between forming an opinion (judgment) and imposing it on someone else. The former is healthy and necessary; the latter is, generally, unhelpful. Our opinions are based on our personal scales of goodness, rightness, or usefulness; if your friend trusts you then these scales are part of the person they trust. What counts is how you handle your opinions.

You have a responsibility to voice your concerns if you believe your friend’s situation or behaviour places them in danger. If the risk is serious or imminent it may be necessary to tell others; perhaps your friend’s doctor, psychiatrist, hospital, or the police. We describe just such a situation in chapter 9. Otherwise, save your opinions for later, rather than interrupting what your friend is telling you. Note the beliefs that underlie your judgments. They tend to say more about you than they do your friend.

Don’t Try to Fix Everything

This is the one I find hardest to put into practice! I have a tendency to suggest fixes for whatever seems to be wrong or broken. Fran will often ask for assistance, and I am happy to help if I can, but I need to remind myself that it is not my responsibility to resolve everything for her. To think otherwise would be unhealthy and disempowering for Fran. To focus only on what seems broken also robs her of the opportunity to simply talk through what is on her mind. Unless your friend specifically asks for assistance, assume that what they need right now is someone to listen. Better still, ask what your friend needs.

Being a Balancer

When Fran is in mania everything appears black or white to her. People are either angels or devils. Everyone loves her or everyone hates her. If things are going well, the universe is on her side and she is heedless of normal checks, precautions, and concerns. If something goes wrong, the whole world is against her. Depression skews her thinking heavily towards the dark. She loses track of even small successes and forgets that someone said something kind or was helpful. Things have always been as bleak and hopeless as they seem to be in that moment, and always will be.

It is part of my balancing role to notice such unhealthy patterns, bring them to Fran’s attention, and gently counter them. I first acknowledge that her thoughts and feelings are real to her. If I am unsure how factually accurate they are (did so–and–so really say or do what Fran is telling me they did?) I might try and draw out further details, or check Fran’s story against other evidence. I then offer Fran my own interpretation—not necessarily as the truth, but as an alternative which might not have occurred to her. I am not always successful, but over time, this approach has helped shift Fran towards a more balanced way of thinking.

Being a 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. Fran has written of this aspect of our friendship.

[Marty] didn’t try to change me. He didn’t try to fix me. He was simply there, listening, being a friend. He believed in me when I couldn’t believe in myself. One thing he said was that he wouldn’t go away no matter what I said or did. That enabled me to share freely with him. Without that safe container it’s much harder to share with people because boundaries are unclear.


Wednesday, 22 July 2020

The Languages of Love and Bipolar Disorder

By Janet Coburn

In 1995, Dr. Gary Chapman published his popular relationship book, The Five Love Languages. In it he proposed that there are different ways – or “languages” – that people use to communicate their love. Problems happen when one partner doesn’t speak the same language as the other; for example, when one gives the other literal gifts while the other yearns for time together.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about love and bipolar disorder lately and it occurred to me that the five love languages could be a helpful lens for looking at relationships. In particular, they might help a person realize what the other one needs when experiencing symptoms of the disorder.

Here are the five love languages and how they might be helpful if you are in a relationship with someone who has bipolar disorder.

Words of affirmation. I’m not talking here about the kinds of affirmation we are supposed to look in the mirror and give ourselves. I mean words of affirmation that come from outside, from another person, and are gifts of love. Everyone needs affirmations at times, but for people whose love language is words of affirmation, they can be positively soul-feeding.

For the bipolar person, these affirmations can be as simple as, “Thank you for coming out with me,” or “Congratulations on getting the bills paid,” or even, “I know you can do it,” or “I knew you could do it!” And for the bipolar person who struggles with self-esteem, imposter syndrome, or lack of motivation, these can be the words that keep us going.

Quality time. Quality time doesn’t have to mean an elaborate outing or a two-week vacation. It can be as simple as sitting on the sofa with your partner watching a movie, or cooking together. Especially when there’s something else you could be doing. Giving up that other activity to spend time with your loved one is another kind of love-gift.

Quality time – extended periods of togetherness – can be extra special to someone with bipolar who feels lonely, isolated, or unlovable. Just the idea that someone wants to spend time with you, even though you can barely stand to be with yourself, sends a powerful message.

Receiving gifts. There are people who value physical gifts and see in them the care and attention that another person spends selecting just the right thing. Diamond rings are unnecessary. In this language of love, a simple houseplant can even be preferable.

You probably shouldn’t expect a physical gift to “cheer up” a person with bipolar depression. As with any gift, the important thing is knowing what the person values and providing it to them. Comfort objects such as plush animals, mp3s of calming or favorite music, or a weighted blanket to ward off panic may be just the thing. Even a silly coffee mug with an appropriate saying can become a treasured item.

Acts of service. If the person you love values acts of service, then your way of speaking that love is accomplished when you do something for her or him. Doing the dishes or some other chore that usually falls to the loved one is one example.

For the bipolar person, acts of service that speak of love may be as simple as handling phone calls and visitors, or doing the shopping when he or she just can’t face the grocery store. “I’ll do it for you” is a powerful message that says, “I care about you and want to help ease your burdens.”

Physical touch. Strange as it may seem, some people never think of physical touch as a language of love unless they’re talking about sex. Of course, the physical and emotional intimacy of sex can speak love, but other kinds of touch do just as well for some people.

Bipolar people in the manic phase can have a high sex drive and appreciate some sexual attention even if you wouldn’t ordinarily want it at that time of day, for example. But the bipolar person can crave touch without sex as well. Hugging and cuddling, sitting close with an arm around the shoulders, and even a touch on the shoulder as you leave a room can speak volumes.

The important part of this is to learn and know what your partner values – what language of love she or he speaks – and to give it to them. Mixed signals, speaking the language that you would want instead of the one that your partner does, will not be processed as love. Physical gifts to one who hears love in affirmations will miss the mark.

Obviously, the best thing to do is to ask your partner which “language” they speak. But she or he may not even realize that there are different languages or which one is theirs. Observation, attention, and even trial and error may be necessary to get the communication going. But if you want to speak love to a person with bipolar disorder, these are communication skills that can be vital.

Originally published in February 2019 at Bipolar Me.


About the Author

Janet Coburn is a freelance writer/editor with bipolar disorder, type 2. She is the author of two books: Bipolar Me and Bipolar Us.

Janet writes about mental health issues including talk therapy, medication, books, bullying, social aspects, and public policy, but mostly her own experiences with bipolar 2. As she says, “I am not an expert and YMMV – Your Mileage May Vary.”


Wednesday, 15 July 2020

Beauty Everywhere: Engaging with the Natural World

“If you truly love nature, you will find beauty everywhere.” (Laura Ingalls Wilder)

Covid-19 has curtailed many of the activities that brought meaning to our lives. However, for many of us it has provided an opportunity to engage more with our immediate surroundings. Wherever we live and no matter our personal circumstances we can all invite the natural world into our lives.

Garden Visitors

Working from home has given me the chance to observe the wildlife in our garden more than ever before. Several times a day I step away from my laptop and take a stroll around the estate — aka our small overgrown garden.

We keep a variety of feeders stocked with sunflower seeds, peanuts, fat treats, and mealworms and have been blessed by visits from a wide range of species including blue tit, great tit, goldfinch, greenfinch, chaffinch, bullfinch, blackbird, robin, wood pigeon, starling, house sparrow, wren, lesser spotted woodpecker, and magpie. The feeders have also attracted a grey squirrel, a rat, several mice, and a black cat that goes by the name of Milo. Our garden has been visited by a young hedgehog in the past few days.

Out and About

I’ve not been more than a couple of miles from home since the start of lockdown but I walk for exercise every day and have discovered treasures I never knew were on my doorstep. These include a sheltered spot beside the Ouseburn stream which is almost completely hidden from view despite being no more than a few hundred yards from the main road. It’s the perfect place to sit and relax. I often take my notebook and journal or do some creative writing. I’ve found a woodland path through a narrow stand of trees on the edge of the ever-expanding housing development, surprised heron along the stream, and watched swallows harvesting midges on the wing. From time to time I’ve set myself a specific challenge while on my walks. One day I photographed as many “small things” as possible; the tiny plants, insects and details that are so easily overlooked. Another time, I challenged myself to photograph as many different colours, patterns, and textures as I could find.

Garden Free Wildlife

If you don’t have a garden you might think there’s little scope for encountering nature, but window feeders will attract birds and you can grow plants, herbs, and vegetables in a window box or in pots on your window sill.

Wild London has factsheets and instructions for a wide range of indoor activities including planting window boxes, buying a window bird feeder, helping birds avoid window accidents, making your own binoculars, and wildlife yoga.

The BBC has ideas for engaging with and helping wildlife from the comfort of your home and Friends of the Earth offers tips on how to help wildlife when you don’t have a garden, focusing on neighbourhood and community projects. These may not all be possible at the present time but there is nothing to stop you planning ahead for when restrictions are lifted.

Mindful Moments

Indoors or out, sometimes we all need a little peace and quiet. BBC Springwatch has twelve short mindful moments videos (“No music, no commentary – just the beautiful sights and sounds of nature.”) If you fancy something a little longer, you can unwind with twenty minutes of peaceful footage from Springwatch 2020.

For All the Family

Open to children between 6 and 15 years old, Green Blue Peter badges are awarded for sending in “letters, pictures and makes that are about or inspired by the environment, conservation or nature”. There are over 200 attractions in the UK that give you free entry as a Blue Peter badge holder.

Bird Aware Solent has a Lockdown Learning page with links to wildlife-based learning activities for the whole family. Wild London have a fantastic range of fact sheets and ideas for outdoor activities including gardening for wildlife, insect and wildlife spotting, making a hedgehog house, building a garden hide, and taking a stag beetle survey! For rainy days or if you don’t have a garden they have plenty of craft ideas too, such as making leaf tiles, model butterflies, saltdough creatures and butterfly paintings.

Quizzes and Fact Sheets

Test your wildlife knowledge with these three quizzes from the BBC Springwatch team: brilliant birds, incredible insects, and marvellous mammals. Wildlife Watch has a wide range of full-colour identification sheets (PDF) to print or take on your phone or tablet when you are out wildlife spotting.

There’s an App for That!

There are many free apps for the budding naturalist so check out these selections compiled by the NHBS (Natural History Book Service) and BBC Springwatch.


Saturday, 11 July 2020

Bad Sh*t Happens to Good People Too

I don’t believe that if you do good, good things will happen. Everything is completely accidental and random. Sometimes bad things happen to very good people and sometimes good things happen to bad people. But at least if you try to do good things, then you’re spending your time doing something worthwhile.
— Helen Mirren

I recently came across the following two related statements on social media:

“Bad things don’t happen to good people.”

“Nice things happen to nice people.”

They struck me as unhealthy at best; at worst stigmatising and judgemental. It was particularly disturbing because they were posted by someone who claims to be a mental health advocate dedicated to combating stigma.

Their author aside, what’s my issue with these statements? At first glance they seem innocuous enough: comforting platitudes of the sort we’ve probably all uttered at some point in our lives. But that’s the point. Such “innocuous” remarks, masquerading as positivity, seep into our collective subconscious.

“Bad things don’t happen to good people” implies we’re not good people if bad things have happened or are happening to us. Illness? Abuse? Trauma? Unemployment? Homelessness? Bereavement? If we’ve experienced these, the logic goes, we’re not innocent victims or survivors. We are complicit; guilty of attracting these things into our lives because we weren’t good enough in some way. It’s a claim, implicit or otherwise, that I reject utterly.

“Nice things happen to nice people” is more subtle. It doesn’t blame us for the bad stuff in our lives. Instead, it places full responsibility on our shoulders for manifesting the good stuff. Don’t have the things you want yet? Still mired in depression, anxiety, poverty? Addicted? Suicidal? Be a nicer person. Try harder. It’s a short hop from there to the religious equivalent I’ve seen in practice: pray harder, believe more, give yourself to Jesus/God completely.

Both statements play into the false narrative that some people deserve good (or bad) things to happen to them and others don’t. It’s a narrative that can easily lead to envy, resentment, self-recrimination, self-loathing, and despair when we don’t receive what we feel we’re due, whilst others have more than we believe they deserve.

It does matter what kind of people we are and how we go about our lives. I believe we have a responsibility to be the best we know how to be and do all we can to care for ourselves and others. As Helen Mirren says, “if you try to do good things, then you’re spending your time doing something worthwhile.”

Just don’t imagine that doing good will necessarily protect you from bad things or attract good things into your life. It doesn’t work that way. Bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people. Yes it sucks. Do good anyway.

“Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best you have anyway.” (Kent M. Keith)

Don’t throw lines like “Bad things don’t happen to good people” or “Nice things happen to nice people” around as though they don’t affect people. They can and they do, in unhealthy and harmful ways.

And, please, please, please, don’t judge others — or yourself — based on how life appears to have treated them.