Wednesday, 16 June 2021

THIS BOY GETS SAD TOO

And I might be okay but I’m not fine at all.

(Elisabeth Wagner Rose / Taylor Alison Swift. “All Too Well.”)

I wrote recently that I’ve never felt part of any group or collective, even those to which I’ve felt the strongest of attractions. As painful as that’s been, does it really matter? So what if I don’t belong to the tribe of writers and poets I’ve met in the past few years? There’s no lasting harm in discovering I’m not a performance artist! Some exclusions, however, are more perilous. Being excluded from my local recovery college for having no lived experience of mental illness was completely justified, but it left me feeling permanently estranged. If I began displaying symptoms of mental ill-health I’d almost certainly play it down. Not from shame, but because I’d be afraid people would think I was faking it, or exaggerating things in order to “join the club.” The irony is, even with a diagnosis I’d probably still feel I had no legitimate right to be there.

I feel a fraud, even admitting this. What right do I have to talk about mental health issues when I’m fine — certainly compared to many of my friends. Except I’m not fine, not all the time. The following lines are from my diary, written a few weeks ago. I’d ventured out to one of my favourite coffee shops for the first time since covid restrictions were lifted.

If I’m honest I’m not feeling much in the mood to be “out and about,” but I’ve made an effort. A decent pair of black trousers, my sage green t-shirt, and my tweed jacket. In my lapel is the BOYS GET SAD TOO pin I bought recently. 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.

Founded by Kyle Stanger, Boys Get Sad Too (BGST) is a fashion brand working for positive change. (“Sometimes it feels like you’re alone. Boys Get Sad Too is here to show you that you’re not.”) I bought the pin to support their endeavours. I didn’t expect its message to resonate as strongly as it does right now.

In my role as a Mental Health First Aider I’ve attended several calls at work recently where the impact of society’s reopening on our mental health was high on the agenda. I heard many first-hand stories of stress, anxiety and other symptoms exacerbated by the drive to get back into the workplace after months of working from home, furlough, or unemployment.

I learned of a survey by the Mental Health Foundation which reported that three-quarters of UK adults have felt so stressed in the past year they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. Almost one third said they’d had suicidal feelings as a result of stress, and 16% had self-harmed. The only positive I can take from these numbers is that so many felt able to admit being overwhelmed or otherwise struggling. Is that what I’ve been feeling, I wondered. Not suicidal or at risk of self-harm, but stressed to the point of being overwhelmed?

As well as the article on belonging, in the past month I’ve written about gratitude and ingratitude, and reviewed a new novel that touches on mental illness, stigma, obsession, and identity. I love writing and it’s important to me, but it’s been intense. That’s in addition to my day job in the IT services industry and navigating everything that’s been going on for me and those I’m closest to. And of course, all this has been set against the backdrop of coronavirus, as society takes the next tentative steps towards post-covid normalcy. News and social media channels are full of strident, often contradictory, messages: vaccinations and variants, hope and warnings, “Let’s go!” and “No not yet!” All this takes its toll.

Another of last week’s calls discussed Wellness Recovery Action Plans. I’ve written about these before, and have a WRAP of my own. Writing is a key item in my WRAP toolbox. My journal and the articles I’ve been writing have helped me explore what’s been going on, but there’s more work to be done. This post is part of that journey. I messaged my friend and fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson of I’m NOT Disordered about it.

“I feel this article is going to be an important one for me, Aimee. Not necessarily a ‘great blog post’ in its own right, but important for me writing it.”

“They’re the best ones, and your thoughts on the importance of the piece will likely show in your writing.”

I hope so, because I owe it to myself to be as honest about my mental health as Aimee, Fran, and so many others I know are about theirs.

Talking with people I trust is another item in my wellness toolbox. I shared my analogy of a dry, arid landscape with Fran on one of our evening calls. I’m going to expand on it here because it captures how I’ve been feeling.

Imagine you’re standing on a hill looking out across the landscape. No matter how your life is going you can see features dotted here and there. Other hills. Mountains. Lakes. Cities. Rivers. The ocean. These are the events in our futures. Holidays. Birthdays. Vacations. Trips. Appointments. They won’t all be things we’re looking forward to but they’re the landmarks we use to measure our progress through life.

Covid descended like a blanket of fog. We lost sight of many of the things that were out there, but had hope they’d still be there when the fog lifted. The fog has been rolling back for some time now. Lockdown has ended, at least here in the UK. Restrictions are being eased. But as I stand on my hill, I’m searching in vain for things to focus on or move towards. For me right now, the landscape is flat, arid, and featureless. Life on the hill feels very small and lonely, but I’m scared to leave it in case what’s out there is worse.

Fran listened without interrupting. Eventually, I stopped talking.

“Are you depressed?”

I thought for a moment.

“Maybe.”

There was no judgment in Fran’s question. She asked the way she might if I’d described having a sore stomach or a headache. It reminded me of a conversation with Aimee a few weeks ago. On that occasion, I was feeling physically unwell, but Aimee asked something I’d not thought about before.

“Which do you struggle to cope with most? When you are poorly mentally or physically?”

It’s not an easy question to answer. I’m fortunate in having had pretty good mental and physical health all my life. I discussed my experience of illness in our book High Tide, Low Tide:

Looking back, I see I squandered many opportunities to develop a compassionate understanding of illness and its impact. My stoic attitude helped me deal with my own [occasional] ill health, but left me incapable of responding with compassion to the needs of others. I mistakenly believed that caring for someone meant making their pain and hurt go away. It would be many years before I learned to open my heart and simply be there for those I care about. I am still learning.

I believe I have learned to be there for people who are struggling or in need. My friend Jen gave me a great compliment recently when she said “You’re different, Marty. Not many people understand people with mental illness.” Right now, though, I’m being invited me to extend the same compassion and understanding to myself. This wasn’t the first time Fran has suggested I might be going through a period of depression. Others have suggested similarly in the past. I trust my friends. I’m aware I have strong emotional responses to events which can affect me for long periods, and I’ve been anxious several times in the past year. Even so, admitting I’m struggling mentally is new for me and it’s scary.

Returning to Aimee’s question, I’m much more likely to tell someone if I’m unwell physically, than if I’m feeling low, stressed, or anxious. In my article Faking Fine: Why We Fib About How We Are, I described how even Fran was surprised to learn there are things I choose not to share with her.

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

It’s valid — even healthy — to not share everything with everyone all the time, but keeping health issues to myself is definitely unhealthy. I’m getting better at being open and honest about it, but there’s still a long way to go. So, what am I going to do about all this? I mentioned my Wellness Recovery Action Plan. Most of the tools and strategies in there are geared towards navigating emotional difficulties. They are arguably less relevant for mental health concerns. So one thing I intend to do is review my WRAP and update it where necessary.

Something my friend Jen said is relevant here. We were talking about how she handles her health issues and she said, “The thing is, I help people when I need help. I’m going to call this one of my superpowers.” I realised I’m that way too. I’m more comfortable being there for other people than dealing with my own issues. That might partly be an avoidance strategy on my part, but being there for people is definitely good for my wellbeing. I gain a lot from the kind of genuine exchanges that underpin any mutually supportive relationship.

That’s important because it goes right back to where I started this discussion — my sense of separation and non-belonging. I’ve considered myself a mental health ally since meeting Fran ten years ago. My left wrist is adorned with nine silicone bands, almost all of which are from mental health organisations or events. I have a collection of mental health t-shirts and wear them proudly, even though I know 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.

Maybe accepting and owning the reality of my mental health story — past, present, and future — will help me find the connection that’s eluded me for so long. Not specifically with or within the mental health community. After all, the most fundamental commonality we share is our humanity. My friend Jen summed it up perfectly: “You’re a human, Marty. We struggle. And it sucks but it’s ok.”

 


Boys Get Sad Too

The following information is from the BGST website.

Boys Get Sad Too aim to raise awareness for the huge percentage of people that struggle with Mental Health issues with conversation provoking designs. The more people talking about the issue the better chance we have of making sure more people are able to see that things can get better with the right support and mindset.

Boys Get Sad Too is not just a clothing brand. It is a community of like-minded people who want to see a positive change in the world. We are official supporters of CALM (The Campaign Against Living Miserably) charity who we donate 10% of our profits to, and we actively work to try and raise awareness for the struggles that men face.

Sometimes it feels like you’re alone. Boys Get Sad Too is here to show you that you’re not.

 

Wednesday, 9 June 2021

Belonging (Longing to Be)

It’s never about belonging to someone, it’s about belonging together.
— Renée Ahdieh

Searching for a blog topic the other day, I chanced on some notes from an exchange with Fran in March 2019. It was a time of considerable uncertainty for me, and the snippet arose in a conversation about my options and needs.

“I think, Fran, underneath much of this, I have an unmet need to feel I belong.”

“The reality is you do belong, everybody does. You just don’t feel it yet.”

A great deal has changed since then, but I never addressed this lack of belonging. There are hints scattered here and there in notes, blog posts, and journal entries, but nothing approaching an epiphany. Until now. Reading those old lines again, it came to me that belonging is a longing to be. No more, no less than that. A. Longing. To. Be. But be what? That will be different for everyone. A longing to be successful, perhaps. To be secure. Safe. Loved. Wealthy. What am I longing to be? The first things that spring to mind are to be genuine, to be real, and to be a part of something.

The first two could be summarised as authenticity. Being true to myself. I can’t imagine anybody not wanting to be true to who they are, but what does it mean? Let’s put that to one side for now. The third — my longing to be part of something — is easier to explore.

Looking back over my life, I’ve never truly felt part of things. More often than not I’ve been an outsider looking in through the window. At best (and mixing metaphors), I’ve hovered on the side-lines, never confident enough to join the field of play.

Our gender group is arguably the most fundamental belonging, but it’s eluded me. I’ve had very few adult male friends, and little of “what men are supposed to like” resonates for me. I tried to foster an interest in “boyish things” from an early age. Growing up as I did in Liverpool in the 60s and 70s, that meant following and playing football (soccer). My father took me to see the Liverpool squad return in triumph after some major win, but the crowd’s cheers as the team bus went by were alien to me. I didn’t get it, and never have. I did try. There’s a photo of me in Liverpool football strip in the garden of my parents’ house. I was good at rubbing dubbin into my boots, but hopeless at playing in them.

My school years were happy, but I had no interest in teams or groups. No place on the school team. No Cubs or Scouts like my friend Phil. No Air Training Corps like Gary. I joined the youth group for a while but I didn’t fit in. In Sixth Form my closest friends were from very different backgrounds. Peter was born in the UK to Chinese parents. Amjad’s parents were from Pakistan. SS (Saranjit Singh) joined the school when his family moved here from India. In our different ways, each of us was outside the norm as far as the rest of the school went. We were known, affectionately enough, as the United Nations.

I was born and raised in Liverpool, but have never considered myself a Liverpudlian or Scouser. I’m English and British by birth, but have little sense of national identity and no loyalty to local or national sports teams. I can rationalise this by saying it feels weird to identify with and take pride in things I had no part in achieving or creating, although it’s not really a rational thing. The connection simply isn’t there. I envy those who have these connections, because it’s so outside my experience. That said, I’m aware that my lack of group identity is a sign of my relative privilege.

Given that I’m writing about “a longing to be” it’s notable that one group of friends I made at university referred to itself as the BE-in crowd. I imagine the name was chosen to echo the love-ins of an earlier generation. (“Love-in. NOUN: A gathering at which people express feelings of love, friendship, or physical attraction towards each other.”) Some of the deepest relationships I’ve known date back to those days and people, but I never felt part of the group. I found a peripheral role as unofficial observer and poet-chronicler. This is not a criticism of the others, but it’s how it was. It’s how I was. I’ve always been better at one-on-one or three-way relationships. I struggle to find — and hold — my place in larger groups, no matter how welcoming.

Jump forward thirty years. Three years in London. A move to Newcastle. Marriage. A family. A change in career. A new best friend across the Atlantic. A new book underway. The three components of my search — to be genuine, real, and a part of something — came together in an article written in 2016 in which I recalled my first visit to Newcastle’s Literary Salon.

Some pieces were more to my taste than others but what struck me more than anything else was how everyone was introduced, welcomed, and received with equal warmth and respect: as writers and performers, but most of all as people. And it struck me this is another aspect of being real: the awareness and acceptance of our common humanity, no matter how different our individual situations and life experiences might be.

It was an ache to belong I’d not felt in years. I did my best. I dared my fears at the open mic and performed selections of my poetry and excerpts from the book Fran and I were writing. You can watch several of my performances on our YouTube channel. I returned every month to partake of this vibrant community of poets and writers. I was always made welcome but baulked at their intensity and conviction. Notes scribbled during salon performances show how outside it all I felt.

Jan 2017: I have no life experience equivalent to these people. No sense of place, lineage, family, social awareness, heritage, locale. I am rootless / adrift / scared. My poetry is boring, lifeless. Dare I find a way to be honest? What am I afraid of?

Apr 2018: I decided not to read my piece tonight (Schrödinger’s Fishing Tackle Box). Why? Not good enough. The piece, or me? Both, probably.

Being on the outside didn’t stop me enjoying and benefiting from the experience. On the contrary, I valued the challenge:

I’m not a part of the spoken word circuit but I know these people. [...] Good people. Good atmosphere. Good conversation. I am never wholly at my ease. I am challenged by words that take me way beyond my experience. My comfort zones. But that’s why I keep coming back. To be challenged in a safe environment.

Around this time I began volunteering with Time to Change and other mental health groups and organisations, including Newcastle’s Recovery College (ReCoCo). I’ve written elsewhere how excited I was to join the ReCoCo family, and how that fell apart when I realised I never should have been there. Once again, I was on the outside looking in, this time from the other side of a line separating those with lived experience of mental ill health and those without. It hurt deeply, although I understood. Services need to be developed and delivered with, and where possible by, people with appropriate lived experience. As I wrote at the time, “impostor syndrome undoubtedly plays a part [in this self-doubt], as does a need in me to feel I belong. A never-quite-satisfied desire for home.”

What was it about these groups that left me so desperate to belong? In the case of the BE-in crowd it was their breathtakingly authenticity. I'd never met people like that before, and it was intoxicating. It has taken me forty years to approach that level of self-knowledge and honesty. At the Literary Salon, I responded to the performers' passion of expression and shared identity as performance artists, writers, and poets. It’s something I’d yearned for since chancing on Ezra Pound’s “And Thus In Nineveh” in my teens.

Aye! I am a poet and upon my tomb
Shall maidens scatter rose leaves
And men myrtles, ere the night
Slays day with her dark sword

With the Recovery College and other mental health organisations, it was the consolation of shared experience. As a friend of mine expressed it, “The best way to describe the feeling of the Recovery College is that it’s like a family. A family without judgment.”

Fran said, “The reality is you do belong, everybody does. You just don’t feel it yet.” In the course of writing this article I’ve realised it doesn’t have to be within a group. Maybe that’s where I’ve been going wrong all these years, yearning for a group to belong to instead of acknowledging that I feel most genuinely myself, most at home, within my core relationships. These qualities and resonances I’ve been drawn to – authenticity, creative drive and passion, community of experience – are present in my closest friendships and connections.

I’m blessed with friends who I love fiercely and who love me fiercely in return. Several know each other but these are individual one-to-one connections rather than a group of mutual friends. In their different ways, these people get me. The ones who really get me understand why a sense of commitment and belonging is so important to me. I love people who claim their place in my life and offer me a place in theirs. That might sound cloying or constraining but it’s not. It’s commitment, to each other and to the relationship. I can express it no better than American author Renée Ahdieh who wrote, “It’s never about belonging to someone, it’s about belonging together.”

Maybe one day I’ll find a group that works for me. In the meantime, the yearning to belong helps me explore who I am and what belongs in my life. Not everything and everyone does. And that’s OK.

Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

 

Wednesday, 2 June 2021

Thank You Anyway: The Gift of Ingratitude

This article was inspired by something I saw posted to a mental health social media page:

Have you ever gone out of your way to help someone and found out how ungrateful they are?

In two and a half months the post has been liked and shared more than three and a half thousand times. It’s attracted over 800 comments, of which these are typical:

Unfortunately yes.
Yes! People suck!
All the time.
Too many times but I try not to [help] cuz when I need help there ain’t no one there.
Absolutely. It’s left me not wanting to be that kind of good any more.

The comments left me feeling sad and disillusioned. I decided to explore why that was.

Gratitude Feels Good

Let’s start with the obvious. It feels good to have our help acknowledged. At some level, it’s an ego thing, but that’s not necessarily unhealthy. Gratitude is encouraging and guides us to be better people. If someone thanks me I know I’m on the right track. If there’s no feedback, how do I know I’m offering what they need?

What Does Ungrateful Look Like?

The post talked about “[finding] out how ungrateful the other person is,” but why assume we know what’s going on for them? What does ingratitude look like, anyway? We can think of extreme examples. They might be verbally abusive or otherwise make it clear our help is neither appreciated nor wanted. Mostly, though, when we call someone ungrateful we mean they’ve failed to show us the gratitude we believe we’re owed. It feels like we’re getting closer, but what do we mean by gratitude? Does it look the same to everyone?

What Does Gratitude Look Like?

In How Cultural Differences Shape Your Gratitude, Kira M. Newman describes three ways of expressing gratitude.

  • Verbal gratitude: Saying thank you in some way.
  • Concrete gratitude: Reciprocating with something the [other person] likes or wants.
  • Connective gratitude: Reciprocating with something the wish-granter would like, such as friendship or help.

Writing has always been a big part of my life. I’ve kept a diary for over forty years. I’ve written short stories, a book of poetry, two mental health books, and kept a weekly blog for the past seven years. I tend to show my gratitude in words, with a spoken “thank you,” or a letter or card.

If I help someone I’m rarely looking for more than a simple “thank you” in return, although I do appreciate a little detail to help me understand how I’ve helped meet their needs. In that case, verbal gratitude crosses into concrete and connective territory: in addition to the words I’m getting something I value (honesty and context) and deepening friendship. Here are a few thankyous that meant a lot to me. The last one still makes me smile!

Thank you. You truly are someone I can rely on in an emergency, and at all other times.

Being your friend has made me a better person.

I always appreciate you telling me when you aren’t feeling ok.

Thank you, Marty. You’re good at supporting without being a prat.

But what if I don’t receive a thank you?

How Does Ingratitude Feel?

If we don’t get the gratitude we expect, we’re likely to feel sad, hurt, disappointed, disrespected, resentful, or taken for granted. None of these is pleasant, and it’s natural (if unfair) to blame the other person for making us feel that way. That’s why the social media post left me feeling so sad. I don’t see things that way at all. Leaving aside the extreme cases I mentioned earlier, I believe our responses to “ingratitude” say far more about us than they do the other person.

What Does Ingratitude Say about Us?

Few of us would admit to only helping others to get something in return, but our emotional response to ingratitude suggests differently. It’s worth asking ourselves why we helped them in the first place. Was it really for their benefit, or ours?

The quotation talks about “[going] out of your way to help someone.” It’s a common phrase but there’s more than a touch of the martyr about it. It implies we’ve done more than we were comfortable doing and expect a reward. We want our sacrifice acknowledged, as elaborately as possible. We want to be lauded as special, generous, kind, or saintly. It’s not always just about voicing our righteous indignation. If we’re honest we can admit to using it as an excuse not to help any more. We can do better than this.

I called this article the Gift of Ingratitude, because not receiving the gratitude we want shines a light on our needs and how we go about getting those needs met. I’m using “need” in an NVC context. Developed by clinical psychologist Marshall Rosenberg, NVC (nonviolent communication) is a model for relating to people that emphasises non-judgment and empathy. These needs (you can download a list of them) help us focus on what drives us and how best to have them met, or minimise the pain of them being unmet. There’s an equivalent feelings inventory to help us explore how we’re feeling.

Let’s look at an example. I’ve rarely experienced what I’d call ingratitude from people I’ve helped, but I can think of times when I’ve wanted more than the simple “thank you” I received. When that happens, I tend to feel discouraged, disconnected, frustrated, and insecure. I can take things a stage further by considering what needs of mine are going unmet. Looking at the NVC list, I can see the main needs that are going unmet relate to my connection with the other person.

My need for appreciation
My need for communication
My need to understand and be understood
My need for trust

Looking at things in this way I can see that what I’m feeling isn’t about the other person at all. It’s about my unmet need to understand what’s going on, and to feel appreciated. Thinking compassionately about my needs helps shift my focus to what might be going on for the other person.

We’re all different, of course. You might feel things differently to me, have different needs, and come to different conclusions. The point is we can use the situation to learn a bit more about ourselves, and consider the possibility that the other person isn’t necessarily “ungrateful” just because they’re not meeting our needs.

Reasons for Being Ungrateful

We can start by assuming the other person is grateful, even if they’re not expressing it how we want them to. Maybe they don’t know what we’re looking for. When did you last tell someone, or demonstrate, the kind of gratitude that works for you? We might go further and ask ourselves if it’s the other person’s role to satisfy our needs in this way. We might believe we deserve something in return for our helping, but we don’t. We certainly don’t have a right to expect other people to respond in a particular way just to make us feel good about ourselves.

Bear in mind it’s hard to be grateful for something you didn’t ask for, want, or need. Sometimes we’re so keen to help that we forget to check that what we’re offering is appropriate or necessary. It’s also hard to express gratitude if you feel undeserving, are embarrassed at receiving help, or resentful that you need to ask.

One of my friends feels her words don’t go far enough to express how grateful she is for the support I’ve provided over the years. I’ve never felt taken for granted, but I understand where she’s coming from because I’ve felt the same way at times. Another friend, mental health blogger Aimee Wilson, put it this way: “You can be too grateful... and the flip side is being unable to express the extent of your gratitude adequately; not being able to find the words.”

I find it helps to assume people are expressing gratitude the best way they can, remembering there may be cultural, generational, or personal reasons for how we respond to gifts of all kinds, help included.

Learning to Be Grateful

We’re taught to be grateful — or rather, to express gratitude — at an early age, whether we want to or not. I remember writing grudging thank you letters to grandparents, aunts, and uncles every Boxing Day. It’s polite, I was told. It’s expected. But is a forced, ritualistic, thank you really a good thing? If I help someone and for some reason they’re not grateful, wouldn’t it be better if they felt able to say why, without worrying they’ll upset me or push me away?

I’m reminded of a story I saw on social media. It’s Christmas and a mother is talking to her young daughter who hates having to be grateful for gifts she doesn’t like. “If Grandma gives you something you don’t like or have already,” the mother says. “Just smile and say thank you anyway.” The gift is duly handed over and unwrapped. The girl turns to her grandmother with a smile. “Thank you anyway, Grandma.”

Can You Be Too Grateful?

If I help a friend, I might reasonably hope for a thank you of some kind. But what if I’m helping them twice a week, or every day, or more or less continuously? Fran and I have been in a close, mutually supportive friendship for ten years. How often are we supposed to thank each other? How much gratitude is enough? How much is too much?

I’ve been prone to over-thanking Fran and other friends in the past, and it can become cloying and tedious. Like “I love you,” it is nice to hear (and to offer) a “Thank you” or “I’m grateful for you” every now and again, but it’s unhealthy to need, or need to give, continual reassurance.

So, What Can You Do about It?

We’ve looked at gratitude and ingratitude, but what can you do if someone you want to help appears incapable of returning the gratitude you feel you deserve?

Do the inner work first. Acknowledge your feelings and explore what they mean for you. Does the situation trigger memories of times you’ve been treated poorly in the past? What could you do now, to feel differently? What could the other person do or say so you feel appreciated? Do you need to do anything at all? Can you accept it all, and let go of your frustrations?

If it’s still a serious issue for you, consider letting the other person know how you are feeling, but ask yourself first if it’s really their job to make you feel good. This is especially true if they’re in crisis or otherwise going through a rough time. The last thing someone in such a situation needs is to have to reassure you or massage your ego.

Ultimately, it’s your decision whether to walk away. Maybe you need to do that, in which case let them know so they can find alternative sources of support. Whatever you decide, do it from a place of compassion and caring.

It’s a Gift!

I’ve had several excellent conversations in the course of writing this article. It’s a topic that resonates for a lot of people, I think because we’ve all felt unappreciated at some point in our lives, or struggled to show we’re grateful to someone who’s helped us.

There’s nothing wrong with these difficult emotions, but as I hope I’ve shown, we can turn things around. We can be grateful for what we perceive as other people’s ingratitude, because it grants us the opportunity to look at ourselves and explore what’s going on for us when we reach out to help someone.

We can also model good gratitude in how we treat others. When done properly, with grace, gratitude is more than reimbursement for a gift or service. It acknowledges our connection with the other person, and the care their help and support represents for us. Remember that it doesn’t have to be expressed in words alone. Trust, openness, and honesty are expressions of gratitude too.

I’ll close with a snippet from a conversation with my friend Aimee. We were talking about my ideas for this article.

It’s good to discuss ideas like this, Marty. You get a different perspective.

Yes! Only I’m going to have to credit you in the blog post now! And express my gratitude!

Thank you, Aimee, and everyone else I’ve discussed this with. One way or another you’ve contributed to this article and I’m grateful to you for that. I’m also grateful to friends past and present, for your gratitude and occasional ingratitude! In the words of J. R. R. Tolkien’s character Niggle, “It’s a gift!”

 

Wednesday, 26 May 2021

Warehousing Society's Estranged: A Review of Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, by Anne Goodwin

This book review is written as an open letter to my friend and fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson at I’m NOT Disordered.


In the dying days of the old asylums, three paths intersect. A brother and sister separated for fifty years and the idealistic young social worker who tries to reunite them. Will truth prevail over bigotry, or will the buried secret keep family apart? (Anne Goodwin)

Dear Aimee,

You asked what I thought of the book I’ve been reading this week. I’m glad you asked because I think Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home by Anne Goodwin is a book you’d enjoy.

A little about the author before I get going. I first met Anne a few years ago when Fran and I approached her as a potential reviewer for our book High Tide, Low Tide. (You can read her review here.) I met her in person in 2015 at a book launch for her first novel, Sugar and Snails. It was the first author event I’d attended and I loved hearing Anne talk about and read from her book. The cupcakes were fabulous, too! She got in touch recently and invited me to review her latest novel. She was kind enough to send me a free Kindle copy.

I should say up front that the book carries a trigger warning for mentions of rape and themes of mental trauma.

The story opens in Cumbria in October 1989, but also switches back to earlier periods in the lives of the three main characters, Henry, Matilda, and Janice. Many people in the book are referred to by different names (including titles such as the prince, the circus girl, and the shrimp-woman). This confused me a little, but when you think about it most of us are known by different names to different people at different times in our lives, and some people change their names altogether. You know me as Marty, but that name only goes back ten years or so. I’m Martin to anyone who knew me before 2011. Once I’d figured some of the different names out (I kept a notepad close to hand) I could see how they added to the story. For example, the lead character is variously known as Matilda, Matty, or Tilly. This gave me more insight into her situation and relationships than if she’d gone by one name through the whole book.

Anne grew up in Cumbria and worked there as a clinical psychologist in the NHS. This local knowledge shows in her use of dialect and real world references. I smiled at the mention of Keswick’s gift shops and Jennings bitter. I have fond pre-covid memories of holiday trips to Keswick, in particular the Pack Horse Inn which is tucked away just off the main street.

Origins, home, and family (especially mother-daughter relationships) are important themes. Most of the story takes place in and around Henry’s childhood home where he still lives, and the mental health unit where Tilly is living when the story opens. It’s hard to say much about the plot without giving things away, but there’s a strong whodunnit element (perhaps that should be whoisit / whereisshe). I found myself jotting down clues as I tried to figure out what was happening or would happen next. The threads of the story are very well interwoven and there are a number of twists along the way. Several times I had to scribble out what I thought I knew as the story unfolded!

I mentioned the trigger warnings. There are a number of accounts of rape and sexual abuse in the book. These are mostly brief, but no less potentially triggering for that, of course. I’d say these scenes are important to the story, although there was one incident which I couldn’t place or make sense of. The other trigger warning is about mental trauma. Mental illness and its treatment (and ill treatment, both in a clinical/professional sense and in terms of society’s attitudes towards mental illness) feature prominently throughout the book.

The main character Matilda spent fifty years as a patient in Ghyllside mental hospital before being moved to the smaller residential unit of Tuke House as the story opens. She’s diagnosed with schizophrenia and treated with antipsychotics but something didn’t ring true for me about her diagnosis. She has a very tenuous hold on reality, but to me (with very limited knowledge of the condition) her symptoms and behaviour suggested dementia more than anything else, especially given her age. “Does Tilly really have schizophrenia?” I wrote in my notebook at one point. Another clue? Maybe. If you read the book, I’d love to know what you think!

Stigma is very prominent. A few examples will give you an idea.

“George Windsor’s daughter would never go barmy.”

“Tilly a raving lunatic?”

“... a horde of nutters.”

“Crazies a stone’s throw from The Willows?”

Ghyllside hospital is referred to as “the loony bin,” and one professional talks of having a “schizophrenic moment” when he really means he’s in two minds over something. Suicide is seen as a shameful reflection on a person’s character, and a “lack of moral fibre.” A man who took his life is accused of abandoning his wife and child. The only explanation offered is that he “[m]ust have been wrong in the head.” You have to remember that the book is set in the 1930s and late 1980s. Our work with Time to Change and the many conversations I’ve had with you and other friends give me hope that society has moved towards a more compassionate understanding of mental illness and suicidality. But I also know there’s a long way to go.

Just about the only progressive voice belongs to the newly qualified social worker Janice. She values connection and has a strong saviour ethic. “This was why she trained as a social worker [...] for the human connection with people who were otherwise hard to reach.” She is my favourite character, not least because I identify with her relentless (or is it naive?) hope and optimism. I’ve been called pathologically positive in the past, and it’s not a compliment! The same could be said of Janice.

She’s not working in a vacuum, though, and there are signs of progress. The old ways of the asylum (summed up in the book’s most powerful phrase as the “business of warehousing society’s estranged”) are changing. The patients in Ghyllside are assessed for relocation to Tuke House (and then on into the community) based on their individual abilities. They are to be “identified not by brand of psychiatric disorder, but by a systematic assessment of their skills.” On the other hand (and without giving the plot away) Janice’s compassion, inexperience, and compulsive desire to set the world to rights are not without consequences. She’s doing her best, but I was left wondering just how helpful that best might be. A sobering thought, seeing how closely I identified with her. If only good intentions were enough!

The stigma and shame surrounding pregnancy outside marriage is another recurring theme, leading in some cases to abortion, adoption, or abandonment of the child. Speaking to her adoptive sister, one woman says, “They [their respective birth mothers] would’ve kept us if it wasn’t for the stigma.” The ache for reconnection between siblings, and between children and their birth or adoptive parents, weaves the individual characters’ stories into patterns which remain frustratingly out of reach. There were times I wanted to scream at the characters — or perhaps the author! — as they come closer and closer to finding one another, but never quite manage to. (Or do they? — no spoilers, remember!)

I’ve rambled on longer than I meant to, but before I finish I want to mention how the book explores the origins or causes of mental illness. Genetics, trauma, and the environment are all suggested as potential factors, but it’s the last of those which receives the most attention. At one point, Janice the social worker seems to think removing someone from their hospital environment into the community will restore their humanity. “Detached from the hospital,” she imagines, “her passengers were transformed from patients to people.” To me, this says more about Janice’s attitudes than the patients. They always were people, whether inside or outside the hospital and regardless of their diagnoses or how long they’ve been there. I think you would agree.

Janice’s naivety is challenged by events. It would give too much away to talk about what led to Matilda’s incarceration, but by the end of the book, “[Janice had] learned a painful lesson about environmental influence: put a woman in a madhouse and she’d behave as a madwoman, but putting her in an ordinary house wouldn’t necessarily reverse the process.” In other words, we are affected, often deeply and irrevocably, by our circumstances and by those around us. We might have expected Janice to have a better handle on this. Earlier in the book it’s said that “[her] identity had been shaped by her parents’ choice to pluck her from the orphanage.”

So, after all that, what did I think of the book?! In case you can’t tell (!) I enjoyed it a lot and it gave me plenty to think about. I don’t have any direct knowledge or experience, but it feels realistic as to how things must have been back then, and how easily people could find themselves lost within a mental health system that echoed rather than challenged the stigma and prejudice festering beyond its walls. My only criticism is that not all the loose ends were tied off, but that leaves room for the promised sequel.

If you’d like to read it yourself, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home is published by Inspired Quill and available from the publisher or Amazon from May 29, 2021. You can find Anne Goodwin on her website or follow her on Twitter.

I can’t wait to hear what you think of all this!

Marty

 


The following information has been provided by the author.

Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home Blurb

In the dying days of the old asylums, three paths intersect.

Henry was only a boy when he waved goodbye to his glamorous grown-up sister; approaching sixty, his life is still on hold as he awaits her return.

As a high-society hostess renowned for her recitals, Matty’s burden weighs heavily upon her, but she bears it with fortitude and grace.

Janice, a young social worker, wants to set the world to rights, but she needs to tackle challenges closer to home.

A brother and sister separated by decades of deceit. Will truth prevail over bigotry, or will the buried secret keep family apart?

In this, her third novel, Anne Goodwin has drawn on the language and landscapes of her native Cumbria and on the culture of long-stay psychiatric hospitals where she began her clinical psychology career.

Find out more on Matilda Windsor’s webpage.

Author Bio

Anne Goodwin grew up in the non-touristy part of Cumbria, where this novel is set. When she went to university ninety miles away, no-one could understand her accent. After nine years of studying, her first post on qualifying as a clinical psychologist was in a long-stay psychiatric hospital in the process of closing.

Her debut novel, Sugar and Snails, about a woman who has kept her past identity a secret for thirty years, was shortlisted for the 2016 Polari First Book Prize. Her second novel, Underneath, about a man who keeps a woman captive in his cellar, was published in 2017. Her short story collection, Becoming Someone, on the theme of identity, was published in November 2018. Subscribers to her newsletter can download a free e-book of prize-winning short stories.

Author links

Website: annegoodwin.weebly.com
Twitter: @Annecdotist
Link tree: https://linktr.ee/annecdotist
YouTube: Anne Goodwin’s YouTube channel
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Annecdotist
Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Anne-Goodwin/e/B0156O8PMO/
Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/Anne-Goodwin/e/B0156O8PMO/
Inspired Quill: https://www.inspired-quill.com/blog/anne-goodwin/
Newsletter signup: https://bit.ly/daughtershorts

Book Links

Matilda Windsor webpage: https://annegoodwin.weebly.com/matilda-windsor.html
Matilda Windsor link tree: https://linktr.ee/matildawindsor
Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/57764021-matilda-windsor-is-coming-home
Matilda Windsor’s Twitter: @MWiscominghome
Matilda Windsor at Inspired Quill: https://www.inspired-quill.com/product/matilda-windsor-is-coming-home/

 

Wednesday, 19 May 2021

Walking Through Darkness

by Jen Evans

Twenty years ago, when I was twenty-eight, and after a month with no sleep, I was diagnosed with a major mental illness. At the time this occurred, I couldn’t feel anything. My brain and heart were so completely shut down that when I was diagnosed, I had no reaction to the diagnosis and what the ER doctor was saying to me.

When the doctor told me that I had bipolar disorder, I stared blankly and flatly ahead of me, disassociating from the reality of this diagnosis and the surreal experience of sleeplessness and mania that I was experiencing at the time.

Although I had heard of the illness, I knew next to nothing about it. I certainly didn’t believe I had it, no matter what this doctor was telling me. He must be mistaken. But, something was wrong because a person just doesn’t stop sleeping for no reason.

Years ago, when I was fourteen and got my first period, odd things began happening in my day to day life. Though the circumstances I was living in at the time were challenging, I was a happy kid. I had never experienced either depression nor mania. I was/am a creative person so when the illness struck me and I went through mania, in particular, I thought this was part of my creative process. I thought it was natural because during mania, I wrote and thought and felt so much at one time. To me, this was simply my way of being. I never thought I had an illness.

Bipolar disorder also known in the past as manic depression, is an illness characterized by changing moods and is described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders:

People who live with bipolar disorder experience periods of great excitement, overactivity, delusions, and euphoria (known as mania) and other periods of feeling sad and hopeless (known as depression). As such, the use of the word bipolar reflects this fluctuation between extreme highs and extreme lows.

In the ER that night, bipolar wasn’t really explained to me or maybe it was and I simply don’t remember. Either way, I had no clear idea about how this illness would affect me nor could I know the epic, sad and tiring journey I would take with it. Honestly, if I had known what was to come, I might have ended my life right there.

But I didn’t know. I was forced to move back to my birthplace because I wasn’t stable enough to work at the time. I didn’t want to go home at all but, I needed to. After four years, I started therapy and began the work of recovery which will probably take me the rest of my life.

There is a lot of debate about the causes for bipolar disorder. For me, it is epigenetic. That is, it occurred in me because of my genetic make up and because of the trauma I experienced from a young age that continued into my early adulthood.

My dad has ADHD and probably some other psychological disorders. He has never been diagnosed with anything, because he never felt he had a problem. My mom is chronically depressed. So, between the two parents, I had some genes that helped to cause my illness.

I’m not going to lie, I don’t like having this challenge in my life. I hate mania and depression is just as bad. It’s not fun to get up each day and deal with this ongoing situation. But, recovery helps. I have tools and ways to confront the illness when it’s at its worst. I am still learning about the illness and I suspect that I always will be.

But, there are some blessings with the illness that I see in myself and others like me. I have become more compassionate towards others and their struggles. Because there has been a great amount of pain in my life, I am better able to walk with others through whatever journey they are on. I wasn’t always like this. But, my illness can be very humbling. I have been to some dark places on this journey and walking through darkness has given me a lot of strength and resilience. For this, I am very grateful.

Though I wish I didn’t have this illness, I have come to believe I was given it to help others. As I say that, it seems strange. But if I can help future generations in any way with my writing, than I am doing my job. If I can help fellow sufferers on their current path, than I am blessed indeed. It isn’t easy and if you’ve just received a diagnosis, take heed and realize, you are not alone.

 

Photo by Jordon Conner on Unsplash

 

Wednesday, 12 May 2021

No One Is Too Far Away to Be Acknowledged

As any author will tell you, compiling the acknowledgements page is not the simplest part of writing a book.

We learned so much compiling the acknowledgements for our first book High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder that we wrote an article about it, in the hope other authors might benefit from our experience, and our friends and readers might understand how we went about it (and, perhaps, why they were — or were not — included). It is the most read post on our blog.

You can read our acknowledgements for High Tide. Low Tide here.

The publication of a new edition of our second book No One Is Too Far Away: Notes from a Transatlantic Friendship offers us the opportunity to again share our gratitude here on our blog.


Acknowledgements

Fran and I would like to thank Sarah Fader and everyone formerly at Eliezer Tristan Publishing for inspiring this collection and publishing the first edition. We are grateful to Kingston Park Publishing for the opportunity to bring our writing to a new and wider audience.

Many of our articles are inspired by conversations with friends. There are too many to mention individually, but we thank you all for your encouragement, wisdom, and caring support. Fran wishes to thank Bob Keyes, Diane Atwood, Donna Betts, and Donna Murphy for being there in so many ways. I’m grateful to Aimee Wilson for encouraging me with humour, creative suggestions, and advice as I prepared this new edition, and to Jen Evans for her gentle support and colour sense. Special thanks to Vikki Beat who contributed to several pieces in this collection.

We are grateful to the many guest writers we’ve published on our blog, especially mental health blogger and author Aimee Wilson of I’m NOT Disordered, and best-selling author and coach Julie A. Fast. Your passion, authenticity, and determination inspire us and remind us why we do what we do.

Above all, we thank you, our readers. Without you, none of this would mean a thing

From: No One Is Too Far Away: Notes from a Transatlantic Friendship


Whether your name is listed here or not, we are glad to have you in our world!

Marty and Fran