Wednesday 12 June 2024

Navigating Mental Health Miles Apart: An Interview with the Co-Founder of Gum on My Shoe

Welcome to Gum on My Shoe, a platform dedicated to fostering understanding, support, and advocacy for mental health, particularly in relation to bipolar disorder. Today, we have the privilege of delving into the story behind this impactful blog and its companion book, High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder. Join us as we chat with Martin Baker, one of the blog’s co-founders, about the power of friendship, resilience, and breaking down barriers in mental health advocacy.

1. Can you share the inspiration behind starting Gum on My Shoe and writing High Tide, Low Tide?

The idea for our book High Tide, Low Tide came when I mentioned to Fran that I felt inspired to do something creative. I wasn’t thinking about mental health as such, more like maybe some short stories, or focusing on my photography. Fran had other ideas! “I know what you could do,” she said. “You could write a book about being friends with someone who lives with mental illness!” I realised straight away what a great idea it was, but it took a while to figure out the best way to approach it. Ultimately, it was a conversation Fran had a couple of months later with a mutual friend of ours, Laurel, which provided the insight I needed. It took us four years, from the original idea to publication, but we’re both proud of what we achieved.

Our blog, Gum on My Shoe, initially arose from wanting to develop a platform to showcase the book we were working on, and other content on the theme of mental health and mutually supportive friendships. In time, it took on a life of its own. We posted rather haphazardly in the beginning as and when we had something to share. After a while, we settled on publishing something new every week. That might seem a challenging schedule, but it works for us and we’ve only once missed a deadline!

2. How has the distance between you and Fran influenced your friendship and your collaborative efforts in mental health advocacy?

Great question! Fran lives on the east coast of the US. I live on the other side of the Atlantic, on the east coast of England. You might imagine that being three thousand miles and three hundred minutes (five timezones) apart would be a problem, but it’s not hard to stay connected if you want to be. We’re in touch every day, usually several times a day, on chat or video calls.

There are some negatives, of course. The most obvious is we can’t hang out in person. We’ve met once, in Southampton, when Fran called in there briefly en route to Germany for a three month trip around Europe with her parents. Those months were a massive challenge to Fran’s health, to our friendship, and to my ability to support her effectively, because technical issues meant we couldn’t keep in touch as much or as easily as we normally would. We share a lot of what we learned during those months in our book, which is filled with excerpts from our phone calls and chat conversations as we did our best to hold things together.

The five hour difference in timezones actually works well for us. This was especially true in the first months of our friendship. Fran was in an acute manic phase at that time. The time difference meant I could be available to chat or talk with her at times when it was inconvenient for her friends over in the US, such as through the night over there.

In other ways, the physical distance is irrelevant. I can chat and talk as easily with Fran on the other side of the world as I can with other friends much closer to home. Cloud apps such as Onedrive and Google Drive mean we can share documents and collaborate easily. That’s how we wrote and edited our book together. We’ve been interviewed about our book and other mental health work for podcasts and review articles. On one occasion, I attended a live forum in the US to discuss mental health and social media. The other panelists were there in person, while I was present via video call, on a big screen off to one side of the stage. To mark the launch of our book, Fran and I had an online party with friends and followers from all over the world. We also organised a live event at a music venue to raise funds for a local mental health non-profit. Again, I attended via a big screen placed next to Fran on the stage!

Ultimately, distance, whether measured in miles or minutes, needn’t prevent people connecting and supporting each other. It can even be beneficial. As we like to say, “no one is too far away to be cared for or to care.”

3. What has been the most rewarding aspect of running Gum on My Shoe for the past ten years?

As I mentioned, our initial aim with the blog was to provide a platform for us to share and publicise our book and our wider interests in the mental health arena. It remains focused on mental health and supportive friendships, drawing extensively on our experience as friends. It’s not about awards or recognition as such but I was very proud to be included in a 2020 article at Health Central that showcased seven people who have changed how we view bipolar disorder.

Initially my contributions were mainly written from the perspective of the “well one” — the supportive friend of Fran and others who live with mental health issues. That’s still very much our focus, but over the ten years we’ve been running the blog, other themes have developed. These include my own mental and physical health, friendship and relationships in general, and blogging itself. Writing for the blog each week has shifted from being something I do, to being an important part of who I am. Writing has always been important to me. I’ve kept a daily journal since I was fourteen, and at different periods in my life have written poetry, short stories, and creative non-fiction. I still write my journal each day, but my weekly blog posts give me an additional opportunity to explore ideas and topics that are important to me.

I must mention guest posts here. I love showcasing the work of other writers, whether that’s someone already established in their own right, or someone who’s maybe never shared their thoughts, ideas, and experience publically before. If you’re reading this and would like to contribute, check out the contact page of our blog. I’d love to hear from you!

Blogging also contributes a great deal to my friendships. Many of my posts are inspired by conversations I’ve had with friends, and they help me develop my ideas around whatever I’m currently working on. That’s especially true of one of my closest friends Aimee Wilson who has her own immensely successful blog, I’m NOT Disordered. The fact that we’re both so committed to blogging is something we both value immensely because not everyone understands how much goes on behind the scenes. There have been a few times when I’ve wondered why I continue to blog and considered either stopping or reducing the frequency of the posts we publish. Having Aimee there as a support and encouragement is a major reason that Gum on My Shoe is still up and running.

4. In your experience, what are some common misconceptions about bipolar disorder, and how does your blog work to dispel them?

A while ago I was stuck for something to blog about and asked Fran if she had any ideas. She replied, “Write about how you help me with my relationships. Bipolar is a relationship disease.” It reminded me of something I came across when we were researching our book. It was an account online of a man whose girlfriend had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She broke up with him because her therapist told her she could never have a deep relationship with anyone. She was twenty-eight years old.

That kind of misconception — especially from a professional who ought to know better — is so damaging. It’s one of the key messages we hope to share through our book and blog. Because while Fran has experienced difficulties with relationships in the past, and to some degree still does, many of these can be attributed to ignorance and stigma around what it means to live with mental health issues in general, and bipolar in particular. Mania can be particularly difficult, because its very intensity tends to push people away. We have a highly successful, close, long-term friendship, and we want people to know it’s possible for people living with mental health issues to have and maintain good relationships, and to have — and be — great friends.

It’s worth saying that it’s not all one way. I’ve learned as much about friendship and relationships from and with Fran as she has. In particular, I’ve learned not to slam the door shut on relationships if they appear to have run into difficulties, but hold open the possibility of them resuming in the future.

Another misconception is that a mental health diagnosis is a life-time sentence with no hope of change, recovery, or remission. There’s no cure for bipolar disorder, and it can be very difficult to manage. That’s true for the person living with bipolar and their friends and loved ones. But it’s categorically not true that a diagnosis condemns you to a life that is in any way hopeless, less than, or devoid of potential. Fran and I both hope that our book and blog contribute to countering those unhelpful stereotypes around bipolar disorder in particular, and mental illness in general.

5. Could you describe a particularly memorable moment or story that has come from your interactions with readers of Gum on My Shoe?

If it‘s okay, I’ll widen the question to include readers of our book and our followers on social media, because it’s not always clear how someone first came across us online. I’ve met a great many wonderful people through over the years, including several that have gone on to become good friends. It’s no exaggeration to say that all my closest friends over the past decade or so have happened through my friendship with Fran and our online presence, in one way or another. Several friends have written guest posts for our blog, and a few times I’ve written joint pieces with friends, which is especially meaningful. I’ve already mentioned my friend Aimee. We met through the former mental health anti-stigma campaign Time to Change rather than online, but I’d never have thought of volunteering with TTC if it wasn’t for my friendship with Fran and our other mental health work.

It’s not only friends, though. There have been many occasions when someone I don’t know has come across our blog or book and contacted me to share something they’re going through or to ask for advice. That kind of direct personal connection is the most rewarding aspect of what Fran and I do. It reminds me why I began on this journey, and why I continue to write and share as I do.

6. What advice would you give to someone who wants to support a friend or loved one living with bipolar disorder?

In our book, Fran and I are explicit about not providing specific advice that will be applicable to everyone in a similar situation. Fran actually describes High Tide, Low Tide as a kind of menu, like in a restaurant, where you might choose this idea, or that approach, whatever feels right to you. Being there for a friend or loved one who lives with a mental health condition doesn’t mean you have to be an expert in that condition, to have special skills, or always know the right thing to say. Educating yourself about their diagnosis and what it means for them to live with it is certainly valuable, and I recommend taking advantage of the many resources you can find online to do that. But the most important things aren’t actually related to mental health at all, they are true of any supportive friendship or relationship. My friendship with Fran works because we trust and respect each other, because we’re open and honest, and because we’re committed to keeping the channels of communication open between us, no matter what’s going on in our lives.

7. How do you balance the personal nature of your experiences with mental health with the need to maintain boundaries and privacy?

For me, the key thing is to sharing honestly but appropriately. Not everything is to be shared with everyone, and even close friends may not always be available or able to handle what we want to share. That’s where having a support network is so valuable, whether that’s friends, professionals, or a mix of both. Fran and I are each blessed in that regard. If one person isn’t around for any reason, there will be someone else who is.

When it comes to blogging and social media, I’m reminded of something our friend, bipolar expert and bestselling author Julie A Fast once said. That is, never share publically about mental illness or other personal issues while in the middle of that situation. I think it’s wise advice. I keep it in mind when inspired to write about my friendship with Fran, my personal situation, or that of other friends. Waiting until we’ve passed through whatever was going on provides valuable distance and perspective. On top of that, they are some topics I’d never discuss publically, for reasons of privacy.

8. What role do you think technology and online communities play in promoting mental health awareness and support?

This is something Fran and I talk about a lot in our book, because it’s central to our own long-distance, mutually supportive friendship. You asked earlier about how distance affects us. It’s certain that we couldn’t have grown and maintained our friendship without the technology that means we can stay in more or less constant touch. Over those years we’ve used just about every channel open to us, including e-mail, text (SMS), instant messaging (chat), social media, and voice and video calls. It’s equally true for my connection with other friends, whether they live on the other side of the world, as Fran does, or more locally. Being able to reach out to someone easily, no matter the time of day, provides that baseline of support that says, “If you need me, I’m here.”

Technology plays a wider role than that, though. I’ve mentioned the courses and other information available online on all kinds of mental health topics, including suicide awareness and prevention. Most of this information is available free or at very low cost. That includes blogs and podcasts such as Gum on My Shoe, and others by people I know and respect enormously, including my friend Aimee Wilson, Julie A Fast, and another friend of ours, Gabe Howard. You’re also never more than a few clicks away from the information, resources, and support offered by official organisations, crisis lines, and respected peer support communities.

That’s not to say there aren’t risks associated with social media and online communities. The dangers and pitfalls are real and need to be taken seriously. But on balance I feel technology is massively beneficial in enabling people to keep in touch with one another and access the information, help, and support they need, as and when they need it.

9. Have you faced any challenges or pushback in your advocacy work, and if so, how have you navigated them?

Another really good question! My first thought was, no, not really. Family, other friends, and colleagues have all been immensely supportive of my friendship with Fran, our book and blog, and everything else we do in the mental health space. My interest in mental health was very much encouraged where I work. For a time I was part of a small team working to improve mental health awareness throughout the organisation. I later joined the community of workplace Mental Health First Aiders.

All that said, there have been a few obstacles along the way. One time, a friend invited me to attend the local recovery college, where she was both a student and a tutor. I loved the supportive atmosphere and went along several times, attending very helpful classes on self-harm and WRAP (Wellness Recovery Action Plans). Later, however, I learned that some of the other students didn’t understand why I was there when I didn’t have a mental health diagnosis and had no experience of being a service user. It’s was a totally valid concern on their part. The recovery college is run for, and by, people with that kind of experience, and I ought to have realised that or at least checked that it was okay for me to be there. It nevertheless hit me hard at the time. It took a while to get past those feelings of not being “mental enough” to be helpful or effective in the mental health arena. It’s all part of the learning process, though, and I’m grateful for the lesson. It’s something I’d definitely take into consideration in future.

10. Looking ahead, what are your hopes and aspirations for the future of Gum on My Shoe and the broader conversation around mental health?

Fran and I fully intend to continue with our blog on its current weekly publishing schedule. We’ve held true to our original themes of mental health and supportive friendships, inspired by and based on our respective roles as “well one” (me) and “ill one” (Fran). Those are as important to us today as they were when we started out, not least because we feel the role of supportive friends isn’t something that’s discussed widely. That’s really why we wrote our book High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder.

As I mentioned earlier, we’ve broadened the scope of our blog quite a bit over the years. We’ve been keen to invite guest bloggers on a wide range of topics, and that’s something I’m eager to continue, perhaps with one or two regular guest contributors. I’ve also written more about my own health and mental health, rather than focusing solely on my role as a supportive friend to Fran and others. I’ve explored my experience of anxiety, imposter syndrome, my lack of a sense of belonging, and alexithymia. I’ve also written about aspects of my physical health, men’s health and mental health in general. These are all things I’m keen to develop further, as is the role of philosophy in helping us deal with whatever’s going on in our lives. Albert Camus’ ideas of absurdism have been very helpful to me personally.

I’m also interested in exploring ageing, death and bereavement, and personal legacy. Those topics might sound somewhat morbid but they are things that affect us all. I’m also keen to learn more about psychosis. I have no personal experience of it, but it’s something that affects several of my friends and I’d like to understand how I might support them better. I’m thinking about revamping the blog’s look and feel, so that’s something our readers can look forward to. Finally — you didn’t ask but I thought you might so I came prepared with an answer — Fran and I don’t have any plans for another book. Then again, never say never!

 

Thank you, Martin, for sharing your insights and experiences with us today. Your dedication to fostering understanding, empathy, and support in the realm of mental health advocacy is inspiring. We wish you and Fran continued success with your book and blog and look forward to seeing the positive impact of your work in the years to come.

You can find Martin and Fran’s blog at www.gumonmyshoe.com. Their book High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder is available on Amazon (print and Kindle) and in print via all good booksellers.

 

Disclaimer

This interview was generated by the artificial intelligence app ChatGPT in response to the following prompt.

With my best friend Fran who lives with bipolar disorder, I run a blog called “Gum on My Shoe” which is focused on mental health and mutually supportive friendships. We started the blog ten years ago, and also published a book in 2016 called “High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder” based on our experience as friends. Fran lives in the US. I live 3000 miles away in the UK. We met online in 2011. Write a ten question interview that I can answer, as though you are interested in these topics. Give the interview a title and include short opening and closing paragraphs.

I edited the opening and closing paragraphs a little for clarity and added book contact details. The questions are unedited. I hope it's obvious that the answers are all mine.

— Marty

 

Photo by Michal Czyz at Unsplash.

 

Wednesday 5 June 2024

All the Things I Need to Hear You Say: An Exercise in Letting Go

What you want to hear from others is what you need to tell yourself.

— Pia Savannah

This post was inspired by a recent conversation with Fran. She told me about some issues she was having with a friend. She kept running things over in her mind and was finding it hard to find resolution or let things go. We’re similar in that way. We both need time to process things internally, especially if it involves connections with friends and loved ones. Fran said she was thinking of writing a letter to her friend; not to send, but to get things out of her head and onto paper. It reminded me of a situation I’d been in, years ago. I was having some difficulties at the time with a friend. The friendship was fundamentally sound, but I was frustrated about what was going on between us. Like Fran was doing, I found myself churning the same thoughts and feelings over and over without getting any clarity or being able to move past it.

I don’t remember all the details, but I do recall, precisely, what I did and how much it helped me. I was out walking near my home, frustrations running though my head as they had been doing for some time. I found myself thinking about Nonviolent Communication (NVC) and how almost all our issues and difficulties can be traced to our unmet needs. What needs of mine were not being met in this friendship at that time? What would it take to meet those needs? NVC is based on a few key principles. First, we are motivated by our feelings and needs. Second, it’s not the responsibility of other people to meet our needs. And third, our needs can be met in different ways. The last one is especially relevant because we tend to assume that this person or that, this relationship or that, “should” be meeting our needs. (I put should in quotes because it’s a very judgment-loaded word. You can read more about my aversion to the word here.)

I realised that two key needs that were unmet in this friendship were my need for attention and my need for recognition. It wasn’t that I felt unappreciated. I knew I was. Nevertheless, these needs were going unmet because my friend wouldn’t or couldn’t acknowledge me in the way I needed them to. It wasn’t their fault. It wasn’t really about them at all. It was about me and, in particular, my expectations of what our friendship should be delivering.

In that moment, I knew what to do. I turned my phone’s voice recorder on and, as I continued walking, I recorded the words I needed to hear my friend say to me. It took five minutes, maybe ten. I played the recording back several times over the next few days. I may have copied the words into my journal, I can’t remember now. But I do remember that the exercise helped me. That might seem odd. How could telling myself the words I wanted to hear from my friend make a difference? It helped because although my friend would never have used those exact words, I don’t believe they would have disowned or contradicted them. I wasn’t making it up or fantasising. I was expressing what was there, in the terms I needed to hear. And this went further than just this one moment with this one friend. These were words I needed to hear, period. It didn’t matter who spoke them. Pia Savannah expressed it perfectly in the title of an article subtitled How to unlink your confidence from external validation. What you want to hear from others is what you need to tell yourself.

Getting back to my conversation with Fran, I described my “words I needed to hear from you” experience. She loved the idea, although she said she’d prefer to write it out as a letter to herself from her friend, rather than record it as I had. I suggested there are three letters she might write, representing different aspects of her relationship with her friend.

What I would like to say to my friend.

What I would like to hear from my friend.

What I think my friend would say to me.

Whether we write these letters or not, thinking about things in this way can help filter the turmoil of ideas, issues, and frustrations. Which of them are things we want to say to the other person but haven’t been able to? What needs of ours are going unmet in this relationship? How important is it that this person meets those needs? How might we have our needs met in other ways? What are my friend’s needs? Am I meeting those needs for them?

What about actually talking to the person, you might be thinking. Surely it would be better to tell them what you’re feeling, frustrations and unmet needs and all? How else is anything going to change if you don’t tell them? Don’t you and Fran talk about how important it is to be honest and open with each other? It’s true that NVC focuses on talking things over with the other person. The standard NVC conversation goes something like: “When you do or say [that], I feel [this], because my need for [such and such] isn’t being met.” This approach is legitimate where our boundaries aren’t being respected, or the other person is behaving — deliberately or otherwise — in ways that are hurtful or toxic. Telling them how you feel, and why, can be important for you, the other person, and the connection you share. I’m grateful to Fran and to other friends who’ve called me out when my behaviour has been disrespectful, unhelpful, or just plain inappropriate.

That’s not always what’s happening, though. Are they actually disrespecting us? Could it be that they’re doing their best, whilst also getting on with their own lives? It’s unhelpful — and unkind — to insist on our needs being met by someone when they’re too proccupied, exhausted, or poorly to take our issues on board. As my friend said to me on more than one occasion, “It’s not my job to make you feel good about yourself.” My frustration didn’t really have anything to do with them at all. I was projecting my expectations onto them, allowing myself to feel disregarded as a result when they didn’t provide what I wanted in the way I wanted it. It was a valuable experience in acceptance and letting go. I didn’t need my friend to say the words I needed to hear. Saying them to myself was enough. If anything, it was more valuable, because it allowed me to recognise my own worth, my own value. That was what I really needed.

Examining our expectations and needs, and looking for other ways to meet those needs, can go a long way to relieving the frustrations that can arise in any relationship. It allows us to celebrate the people in our lives and our connections with them for what they are, rather than stressing because they’re not something else.

 

Photo by Anastasiya Badun on Unsplash.

 

Wednesday 29 May 2024

THIS BOY BLOGS TOO: Three Blog Posts I'm Proud of and Why

May you be proud of the work you do, the person you are, and the difference you make. (Unknown)

I’m a great believer in celebrating success, no matter how great or small it might seem in the grand scale of things. It’s healthy to take pride in our achievements, and to acknowledge those of our friends and loved ones. Those four little wordsI’m proud of you — can mean so much. With that in mind, I’d like to share three blog posts I’m especially proud of writing.

An Open Letter to My Bipolar Best Friend

Read the full post here.

This is the first piece that came to mind when I started thinking about which posts I’m most proud of. I love the open letter format, and have written several, including one to Fran to mark ten years of friendship, and letters to my late mother and father. This first one to Fran, though, is special. Written in May 2016, it captures the essence of what we’re about, our journey as friends, and my personal journey in the mental health arema. It’s one of the top five most viewed posts on our blog, but more important than the number of views are the comments people have left on the blog post itself.

Your writing is able to connect, resonate and help change lives... because you write from the heart... with compassion.

I read a wonderful post like yours and feel invigorated and I find the will to try again.

I think you and Fran are extraordinary. Your writing and insights are open and honest and making an impact on the lives of others, in both big and small ways.

Comments such as these remind me that what Fran and I are doing in sharing our ideas, insights, and experiences, makes a difference. We may not reach hundreds of thousands of people but we touch those we do reach.

Reading the letter now, I’m transported back to where and when I wrote it. I remember the cafĂ©, one of my all-time favourite writing places, where I spent almost every Saturday morning. I remember the day itself, because I got talking to someone who told me about the Newcastle Literary Salon. I’m proud of the fact I followed up on the suggestion, booking myself a slot at the next event before I had the chance to change my mind. The Salon became a regular haunt of mine for a while. I read from our book High Tide Low Tide several times, and it inspired blog posts including #BeReal and Like a Rootless Tree. Shoutouts to Fred for that initial heads-up, and to Juli who introduced me on my first ever live book reading at the Salon. I owe you both a great deal. Signing up to read at the Literary Salon was only the latest in a number of things I’d dared myself to do, inspired and encouraged by Fran.

It’s scary to put myself out there in person, but that is part of what I’ve learned: to dare, to challenge myself — whether it’s doing a zip-wire slide from the Tyne Bridge to raise funds for Crisis, addressing the Mental Health First Aid team at Virgin Money, volunteering at the Time to Change Mental Health Day event, or appearing live on radio! I would never have done any of this if it were not for our friendship.

It wasn’t all fun and games, though. There were times when I felt frustrated and disillusioned about my writing. Fran never dismissed my concerns, but she also invited me to recognise my achievements and move forward. I recall the following exchange vividly and with great affection.

You messaged me overnight, “Wish you were feeling less flat.. You wrote a book.. A whole fucking book.. Don’t you give yourself credit for that?” That jolted me out of my self-pity (thank you!) And you’re right! I (we) have indeed written a whole fucking book! Our book, our story. A guide to inspire and inform others who — like me — support and care for a friend with mental illness.

At the time, High Tide Low Tide was pretty much written, but we’d yet to secure a publisher. That would come a few months later. The open letter reminded me at the time, and reminds me still, of all we’ve achieved both personally and on the wider stage, and the importance of what we’re doing.

What to Do When Your Loved One with Bipolar Is Doing OK

Read the full post here.

As well as writing for our blog, I’ve contributed to many other blogs and organisations. I shared a list of these guest posts last year. The article I’ve chosen to highlight here was the first of several I contributed to bp Magazine. I’ll always be grateful for the opportunity to write for such an esteemed publication, and to writer and author Julie A. Fast for the initial introduction. This first piece has been read more then 24,000 times and has attracted some great comments from readers. I’m proud of this one in particular because it touches on something that’s given little attention. Specifically, the challenges — and opportunities — that can arise when your friend or loved one is doing well.

I’m often asked how I handle things when Fran is in mania, depressed, or suicidal. Very few people ask what it’s like when she’s doing okay — but that’s not always easy either.

It’s clear from the comments that others appreciated my suggestions and the message of hope they offered. My other articles at bp Magazine include 5 Must-Read Rules to Help Your Friend with Anxiety & Bipolar Disorder, How to Spot Bipolar Red Flags, The Enchantment of Euphoric Mania, and How to Support Your Friend from Afar.

THIS BOY GETS SAD TOO

Read the full post here.

The third post I’ve selected was written in June 2021. I’m proud of it because it was the first time I’d admitted publically that I too experience mental ill health at times. Speaking of the BOYS GET SAD TOO lapel pin I’d recently bought, I wrote:

It doesn’t mean the healthy kind of sadness that arises in response to events. I feel that kind sometimes, of course. It means depression, anxiety, stress, mental ill-health of all kinds. Boys — and men — get that way too. I get that way too. The deeper, pervasive malaise I’ve felt for a while is of that kind. It’s becoming endemic. Part of my emotional landscape. Flat, arid, featureless.

In the post, I explored what this realisation meant for me, and how I might navigate my way forward. It was an important moment, not least because for once I’d focused on my own needs. It was about time.

I have a collection of mental health t-shirts and wear them proudly, even though I know that wearing t-shirts is not enough. My BGST badge is the first mental health item I’ve bought that feels like it’s for me.

I’m also proud that I didn’t post this one article about my mental health and then set the topic aside. I’ve explored the subject further in such posts as Return to Down and Anxiety and Me. I’ve also discussed aspects of my physical health, including my prostate cancer check-up and visits to my optician. Most recently, I’ve shared my experiences of alexithymia, a condition characterised by the inability to express one’s emotions in words. I’ve written about how that affects me in two blog posts: How Do I Feel? and How Do I Feel Now?. The Boys Get Sad Too brand continues to inspire me. I wear my two BGST hoodies with pride, and have written on men’s mental health and heroes, toxic masculinity, and gender identity. These are themes I’d like to explore further in the future.

Honourable Mentions

It was difficult selecting just three blog posts from the hundreds I’ve written since we launched Gum on My Shoe in 2013. Articles I’m proud of which didn’t quite make the cut include:

Fran and I would love to hear which of our blog posts you’ve most enjoyed reading, especially any you find yourself coming back to, or which left a strong impression. Drop your thoughts in the comments below or via our contact page.

 

Photo by Madalyn Cox at Unsplash.

 

Wednesday 22 May 2024

The Art of Friendship: Exploring the Portland Museum of Art and the Laing Art Gallery With My Best Friend

Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, England

Fran and I enjoy sharing our lives as much and as richly as possible. That’s not always easy, given that we live three thousand miles apart, but few things are out of scope if you approach them with a little creativity! We often meet on video calls while we’re out and about, either locally or when we’re on vacation. The sounds of traffic and bird song. The trees and flowers, houses and gardens. Public transport and passers-by. All these and more take on a fresh vitality when shared with a friend, especially one who lives on the other side of the world. In this post I‘d like to share visits we‘ve made to the keynote art galleries in our respective cities: Portland‘s Museum of Art, and the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle upon Tyne.


Robert Indiana's Seven outside Portland Museum of Art, Portland, Maine

The Portland Museum of Art

Earlier this year, Fran took me to visit the Portland Museum of Art. It wasn’t the first time we’ve visited an art gallery together, but it was my first time at the PMA. Fran showed me most of the exhibits. I enjoyed the wide range of paintings, including land and seascapes such as Georges Island, Penobscot Bay, Maine by Newell Convers Wyeth, and the drama of Winslow Homer’s Weatherbeaten. No less interesting were more modern pieces, such as Cheryle St Onge’s Untitled from the series Calling the Birds Home in which she documented her mother’s descent into dementia. Bernard Langlais’ collection of bird and fish sculptures brought our visit to a delightfully quirky close.

Bernard Langlais, Untitled

Outside, we paused to appreciate Robert Indiana’s impressive steel sculpture Seven. I was interested to see it because a few years ago Fran and I read The Isolation Artist, an account of Indiana’s final years at Vinalhaven in Maine, written by arts writer and storyteller Bob Keyes. Bob interviewed us in 2019 for the Maine Sunday Telegram to discuss our book and our experiences as long-distance friends.


Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, England

Laing Art Gallery

I was able to return the favour a few weeks later when I visited a new exhibition of work by English artist J. M. W. Turner at the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle. It was my first trip into the city in more than two years, apart from my covid jab late in 2022 and two opticians appointments last year. I made the most of the adventure, treating myself to breakfast at my favourite city coffee shop, and a drink down by the Quayside before heading home. The exhibition was the main focus of the day, though. I’ve been fascinated by Turner since watching Timothy Spall’s mesmerising performance in the title role of Mike Leith’s 2014 drama Mr Turner.

Because of the five hour time difference between Newcastle and Portland, I had chance to explore on my own before connecting with Fran. It’s fair to say that I was initially frustrated because it was difficult to get close to the keynote work The Fighting Temeraire due to gallery staff being filmed talking about the exhibition. I do think that could have been done before opening to the public! That said, there were plenty of other works to look at, and filming had completed by the time I went back with Fran. Note to self: maybe don’t go to a new exhibition on the first day, within an hour of the doors opening!

J. M. W. Turner, The Fighting Temeraire

The fact that I’d looked around first helped me describe some of the highlights and background to Fran. HMS Temeraire played a key role in the Battle of Trafalgar. Turner’s painting shows her at the end of her life, being towed up the Thames by a steam tug to be broken for scrap. The exhibition includes models of the ship made by prisoners of war.

Many of the paintings and sketches in the exhibition are on maritime themes, which connects Turner’s masterpiece with the north-east’s proud history of shipbuilding and seafaring. The Temeraire was built in Chatham, but the tugs which towed the ship to its final resting place were from this region. Her fame reflects the fact that she was the only ship mentioned by name in Vice Admiral Lord Collingwood’s despatch from Trafalgar after the battle. Collingwood was Nelson’s second-in-command. He was born in Newcastle and is commemorated by a striking monument at Tynemouth which overlooks the mouth of the river. The Laing houses Chris Killip’s photography exhibit The Last Ships which documents the decline of shipbuilding in the region in the 1970s and is well worth a visit.

John Martin, The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah

I enjoyed taking Fran round the rest of the gallery too, pointing out pieces I knew from when I used to visit far more regularly. We sat to experience John Martin’s epic painting The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. At the touch of a button, we were immersed in crashing sounds and flashing lights that echoed the thunder, lighting, and chaos depicted in the painting. Fran was fascinated by a large, intricately carved piece by Gerrard Robinson depicting a boar hunt. Nearby, I pointed out her silver Best Friend Award which, sadly, must remain in its display case as it’s too large for me to mail to her. (It’s possible the piece has a different provenance, but to me it will always be Fran’s Best Friend Award!)

Two powerful modern works engaged our attention. Shot Boy by Ken Currie is a tragic yet hauntingly beautiful painting which depicts the body and spirit of a teenaged boy killed in a firearms incident. Beside it hangs Dysphoria by local artist Lizzie Rowe. I’ve long been fascinated by this work. The large (8ft by 8ft) canvas is hung somewhat claustrophobically in a corner near one of the doors, which makes it difficult to study for any length of time without having to step aside to let people past. The vague frustration and unease this evokes is in keeping with the painting’s theme.

Lizzie Rowe, Dysphoria

Seeing the painting for the first time in years was made all the more poignant because the artist died in December 2023. While researching this post I came across a beautiful celebration of Lizzie Rowe’s life and work on Fiona Mcandrew’s Coffee Crafts and Chats YouTube channel. It’s clear that Lizzie was very well-loved. The tribute helped me feel I knew her just a little. It also reminded me of what Fran and I hope to portray in all we do: the importance of friendship, caring support, and connection.

Turner: Art, Industry and Nostalgia is on at the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle until September 7, 2024. Admission charges apply.


Over to You

Being in a mutually supportive friendship isn’t just about being there for each other when times are hard. It’s about sharing the good things too! In this post l‘ve related two recent occasions where Fran and I spent time together despite living thousands of miles apart. We invite you to try it out, if you‘re not already doing so. We‘d love to hear your thoughts and experiences, either in the comments below or via our contact page.

 

Photos and video call screenshots by Martin Baker.

 

Wednesday 15 May 2024

Moving More for Our Mental Health

By Paul Saunders-Priem

Introduction

I first met Paul and his lovely wife Fiona in July 2018 on a bench overlooking Derwentwater in the English Lake District. We hit it off immediately and exchanged details before parting company. I had the pleasure to accompany them on one of their urban rambles around my home city of Newcastle a few years later. I recently shared a link on social media to the Mental Health Foundation’s positive mental health image library. Paul commented that “Walking is a great way to manage your mind wellbeing. Been doing that most of my life!” Not one to let the opportunity of a guest post escape me, I asked if he’d consider sharing his thoughts and experiences for Mental Health Awareness Week. This brilliant piece is the result. Thank you, Paul.

 

Moving More for Our Mental Health

By Paul Saunders-Priem

From birth you are overcoming the urge to be still. Think then move is the most basic human thing to do. This comes with a catch called choice which is where all the good stuff starts and the bad. I was walking in the hills years ago and chose to walk into a bog because it didn’t look like a bog! No matter what the choice though once the decision is made inertia is best overcome by simply taking the first steps. You’ve won! It might not be a big victory but it’s a win!

So now I’m moving. I look around but of course I’m thinking and best of all: feeling. No matter what mental ups and downs I have I’m on a higher plane than when I was not moving. A movement victory can bring negative feelings which are necessary because movement brings risk physical and mental. We always look when crossing a road. It’s obstacles all the way or steps up as I like to call them: opportunities to notice the movement achievement past present and future because no matter whether moving or not my mental state and the world around me is moving! We’re all on the living ride like it or not.

The decision to move is mental preparation for what comes next. No one knows what life puts in front of you big or little but after deciding to move that empowering feeling puts you in a good position to deal with it. I walked my family into a bog in the Pennines but stop and retreat came quickly because decision was forced on me and I was ready. Movement leads to mental awareness which brings more movement!

I’ve been a hiker most of my 67 years. I still urban ramble at least twice a week doing never less than 10 miles in total and 5 days of the week my movement is pacing around my backroom for exercise because you get stiff if you sit for too long, but even this limited activity with none of the outside stimulation of weather and scenery has a positive effect on thinking and feeling. I do this backroom pacing because I’m very engrossed in activities but the urge to move is always there pushed by my mind to take a break and coffee doesn’t move to me... I’ve got to do that myself! Coffee breaks are great movement points!

The move-rest rhythm always pushing us on the journey physical or mental is the natural organisation of life. You may feel good or bad but there it is: a problem, a potential, path or pleasure. Your mind is going to work on it. Moving that rhythm around through choice is the only freedom anyone has and the urge is always to feel better. So looking for better choices is our natural state. No one puts salt into coffee!

Getting on the move is choosing your problem not letting it choose you. Live your own rhythm. I’ve been physically handicapped (an injured arm from an accident) for over 60 years. I’ve never had a mental health problem because my inner life always has this focus on my damaged arm. It’s my permanent daily problem but it can be made better or worse. No choice here but healthy though, because people with mental health problems also have no choice. I’m no different from many other people. From typing to cooking for my family I always have to notice my physical handicap, like it or not. Just like life itself. But within my limitation I can live my own rhythm and if I want a better life: I have to.

So quality of movement is needed here. I can try various ways (movements) to adapt to my injured arm. Walks / exercise / movement is on a worse to better continuum and considering this alone is uplifting. You may feel like not being on the spectrum at all! But like it or lump it we all are so movement starts in the mind and not doing something about it feels like two failures: the one in the mind and the one your body hasn’t done.

The tension of choice always exists between getting going or not. No matter what problem I have it is there. So on top of what needs to be solved is that initial getting going problem. Inertia is a universal working against moving mentally and physically, whether it is a property of mental illness or in my case life itself. Whilst with my physical handicap I know I am different from those that are not, I draw a great strength knowing that I share with everyone the daily battle of deciding whether to get up and get going or not! What I call the universal grief or grin is always there!

Movement by walking is the number-one mood management tool. Any environment physical or mental is lived in up to a point and then it is time to do something else. I may not feel like doing that but walking as a habit is a way of life for me because I have been doing it since being a toddler where I escaped from the army compound I lived in in Hong Kong and wandered the city! It takes me into a new world which relieves the oppressive feeling that I need to make a change by doing something different. Walking does not have to be striding out in the hills or sprinting around the urban landscape it can simply be pacing in my own room.

All of what I have written is surrounded by time, and organising time within walking occurs whether an interval is set or not because eventually I will feel hungry or thirsty: the desire for coffee always lurks! Alongside walking is setting a time period which adds even more power and control over mood. Such goal setting at times to me seems almost petty and inconsequential but it is massively life enhancing. Goal setting is a form of hope. There are many little wins in daily life and I’ve found these wins built on a foundation of movement just make that daily struggle that bit better!

 

Photo of Paul in Whitby, by Fiona Saunders-Priem.

 

Wednesday 8 May 2024

MOVE YOU YOUR WAY: A Few Thoughts on Movement and Self-Care for Mental Health Awareness Week

We tend to forget that baby steps still move you forward.
— Unknown

On the evening of my birthday back in March I was talking with my friend and fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson. Amongst other things we discussed our ideas for Mental Health Awareness Week and its theme of moving more for our mental health. I found it ironic given that I’d just posted an article – The Joy of Missing Out: Not Doing Things Is a Thing I Do Now – in which I shared how I no longer had much interest in “going out and doing things.” With a few exceptions I prefer to spend my personal time sitting in my favourite coffee shop, writing. Although this wasn’t as beneficial to my physical health as the walking I used to do on a regular basis, it did allow me to think things through and explore whatever was going on for me internally.

The very next day on my way into the office, I was presented with a choice. The second of my two trains was delayed. I could wait half an hour on the platform, take the five-minute train journey, then walk another ten minutes to the office. Or I could opt for a twenty-minute walk. The weather was mild and dry. I had no reason not to take the latter option. As I set off on what, pre-covid, had been a regular and valued part of my daily commute, I thought back to my conversation with Aimee. I smiled. Here I was, choosing to walk. To get a little physical exercise. To move.

I found myself enjoying that weird sense you get when you revisit somewhere you used to know on a regular, even daily, basis. Most things are the same but here and there you notice differences. Changes. In your surroundings, certainly. But in yourself too. I recalled how it was like that after covid. Not only were there changes in the world around me — social distancing, mask-wearing, rules, signage, behaviours — but also changes within me. One of the biggest internal changes was no longer feeling the need to travel far from home, if at all.

Before the pandemic I was in the office five days a week, and almost always walked to and from the train station. I still travel to the office on Wednesdays and Thursdays, but have walked it on no more than a handful of occassions. I have more to carry now, as I need to take my laptop back and forth every day. But that’s not much of a reason. It’s not even much of an excuse.

These thoughts and others were with me as I made my way into the office. I stopped a few times to jot down ideas for this blog post, but mostly I allowed my mind to wander wherever it would. I found myself recalling the people, relationships, and events that had occupied me on my walks in the past. Those twenty minutes had been a useful transition between home and work, as well as affording me a little physical exercise. I’ve not necessarily committed to walking each time I go in to the office, but I enjoyed the experience and may give it a go. I told Aimee later how our conversation had inspired me, not only to take the walk but to explore the theme for MHAW.

A few weeks later while researching an article about mental health non-profit To Write Love On Her Arms I came across one of their t-shirt designs with the following message emblazoned across it in huge letters: LOVE IS THE MOVEMENT. It got me thinking about movement as self-love, self-care. And how self-care isn’t only physical things like going for a walk. It’s taking time and making space for whatever you most need at that moment. The insight helped with one of the problems I’d been having with this year’s theme. The idea that if you’re depressed or anxious or living with some other form of mental health issue, all you need to do is get up and go for a walk. Preferably in nature. In the woods, maybe. Or on the beach. And you’ll be fine. That’s not how the organisers of MHAW intend it, I know, but it’s something I see all too often online.

Physical exercise can be helpful to our mental health, but it’s not the panacea it’s sometimes made out to be. It’s also neither appropriate nor suitable for everyone at all times. Disability, chronic fatigue, insomnia, pain, the utterly debilitating inertia of depression, the lack of safe, affordable access to the outdoors, and any of a hundred other factors can make “get up and go for a walk, you’ll feel better” challenging at best and toxic at worst. Even taking a shower, washing the dishes, or making the bed may be too much on some days.

LOVE IS THE MOVEMENT helped me see that any and all means of self-care are capable of moving us forward. That might include going out for a walk or to the gym, but it also includes meeting a friend for a chat, in person or on the phone. It includes taking that shower or making the bed if you’re up for it. But it equally includes taking your meds, booking an appointment, asking for help, curling up with a book or the TV, or deciding on a day of extreme rest. Anything that takes you from today to tomorrow, from this hour to the next, from this moment to the next moment is meaningful.

So yes, movement is good, but don’t feel pressured to do more than you’re comfortable with, or guilt-tripped into other people’s ideas of what kind of movement is or isn’t valid. Move you, your way.

 

Further Reading

Mental Health Awareness Week 2024 will take place from 13 to 19 May, on the theme of “Movement: Moving more for our mental health.” For more information check out the Mental Health Foundation and Rethink Mental Illness. Also check out our collection of articles we’ve shared for MHAW in previous years, as well as other awareness days and events.

 

Photo by Martin Adams at Unsplash.