Thursday 24 December 2015

friends fierce with their friendship

My deep gratitude for all those who never gave up on me during all my holiday-hating years. You all deserve jingles and bells and snowflakes and carols and pressies and happiness. When one has mental illness it’s nearly impossible to feel anything but gloom or death or anger. Fortunately I have friends who are fierce with their friendship. They see the tiny glow inside me and gently fan it. Because of them today I feel alive and strangely jolly and hopeful. May everyone have friends who let us stand on their feet without flinching, and let us chance a look through their eyes to taste joy..



Wednesday 16 December 2015

I often forget..

I often forget..
Years ago
Months ago
Weeks ago
Days ago
Hours ago
Even minutes..

So many times I can’t access the pathways in my brain to take me to memories I’ve lived. I can’t access names or even faces. Photos help, Facebook helps, writing helps. My best friend logs a calendar for me and reminds me of things forgotten. He often reminds me who I am..



Small potatoes

Success with my test run of garlic mashed potatoes! It is amazing even that I am in the kitchen. I feel completely incompetent. I am petrified of cutting myself, which I did. I struggle to focus. I have to keep reminding myself of what I am doing and what’s next. Besides my neurons misfiring I am full of fatigue and everything hurts. None of this needs to be a problem. I just gently go in slow motion not pushing myself beyond the turtle speed I am at. The accomplishment feels monumental and need not be compared with those who are gifted. Npr helps. It offers a feel of intelligence and company.



Thursday 10 December 2015

The Secret to Closeness

“Two may talk together under the same roof for many years, yet never really meet; and two others at first speech are old friends.” (Mary Hartwell Catherwood)

American writer Mary Catherwood clearly knew a thing or two about friendship. Her words echo something Fran and I talk about in our book.

It is possible to feel utterly alone in the same room as people you have known for years. It is possible to sit beside someone you counted as a close friend, and feel utterly estranged. Those are the distances that get in the way. The good news is that distances can be bridged. Make the most of each opportunity, and every means at your disposal, to communicate honestly and often with your friend. Whether online or in person, find whatever ways work for you. That is the secret to closeness, and there is nothing virtual about it.

Gum on My Shoe, chapter 4, “Making Connections”


Don't Worry about Me. Care about Me.

“My friend didn’t feel sorry for me. She believed that I had the strength within me to recover and to grow. That was the kindest thing she could have done. That was her great gift.” (Helen Thomson)

These words from Helen Thomson epitomise the gift of care, rather than worry. As Fran and I explore in our book, the phrases “I worry about you” and “I care about you” are often used interchangeably, but there are three important differences.

When we care about a friend we are expressing our trust in their abilities, strengths, and resilience. We trust ourselves to support them as best we can, and others to contribute as they are able. We don’t feel we have to do it on our own, fix everything, or find all the answers. When we worry about a friend we express fear that they lack the resources to meet whatever challenges they are facing. We fear we don’t know what we are doing, that we will be found lacking, or not up to the task. We fear others won’t be around to contribute, and we will be left doing everything ourselves.

When we care we are focused on our friend’s needs and how best we can help them meet those needs. Worry is focused primarily on our own needs: our need to be perceived as loving and giving, or our need for the problem to go away as quickly as possible so we can get back to normal.

Worry dwells in the past (what has happened before in similar circumstances to us, to our friend, or to others) or the future (what might happen). Care attends to our friend’s needs in the present moment.


Sunday 6 December 2015

Raging on

Sometimes I am filled with fury igniting a storm of tornado, hurricane, or wild fire. The recurring themes are my many lives lost and my limited present life, not that there need be a reason. The storm razes all the tender shoots I’ve carefully cultivated. Only the closest of friends stand by as I am slinging shots and snots. They are not afraid. They know me. They trust.

Funny how my inner landscape clashes with my outer. Wishing escape from my hated self I stumble out the door to clothe myself in city. Art music and familiar faces let me access a different part of myself while the storm rages on inside. I had good health and good fortune, and then not.

I am well aware of my fundamental nonacceptance of what is but right now I shall pretend to be as others are. There will be pain from this. There will be fatigue. And there will be tenderness, embracing, and unquenching rest yet again.



Friday 4 December 2015

Spaceship Fran

I liken my body and mind to a spaceship. Not one all sleek and shiny and new and well-engineered. My spaceship looks like the hillbillies. Rusty and dented and old and engineered with duct tape. I need plenty of space to take off and land and navigate everything in between. My spaceship is rickety and noisy and overheats regularly.

It’s a Herculean task even to hold onto the madly vibrating controls, let alone steer the thing. The windshield is foggy and pebbled. Sometimes friends help guide my ship when I am unable. They also help with maintenance, which also is often too big for me. Eternal thanks is my contribution.

The controls consist of lots of buttons and dials. When I push a button I hope the something I want to happen does, but that’s not always so. Sometimes things go on when I want them off and vice versa. Sometimes the dials get stuck, the screens freeze and crash, and I’m left relying on my instinct, which hopefully is not also defective.

It would be tempting to leave me in the corner of the junkyard, but even without all the strength and frills others easily enjoy, I still believe I am valuable. At least that part’s not broken.



Wednesday 2 December 2015

Forever at the Heart, by Rachel Kelly

We are proud and delighted to introduce Rachel Kelly, author of Black Rainbow: How Words Healed Me, My Journey Through Depression and Walking on Sunshine: 52 Small Steps to Happiness.

Forever at the Heart

By Rachel Kelly

When I began to keep a diary of my year, noting down the strategies that were helping keep me steady, I began each new season with a poem.

Here’s my entry from the beginning of Spring:

We are just back from a family trip to the Lake District, where lambing was in full flow. Printed below is John Clare’s ‘Young Lambs’, his celebration of spring as a time of renewal, when all sorts of things seem possible. This poem slows me down and makes me appreciate and be more attentive to my surroundings, which I tend to ignore when I’m busy and overwhelmed.

The spring is coming by a many signs;

 The trays are up, the hedges broken down,

That fenced the haystack, and the remnant shines
Like some old antique fragment weathered brown.
And where suns peep, in every sheltered place,

The little early buttercups unfold

A glittering star or two – till many trace

 The edges of the blackthorn clumps in gold.

And then a little lamb bolts up behind

The hill and wags his tail to meet the yoe,

And then another, sheltered from the wind,

Lies all his length as dead – and lets me go

Close bye and never stirs but baking lies,

With legs stretched out as though he could not rise.

Clare describes the first signs of the unfolding season in loving detail. He sees ‘little early buttercups unfold’ into ‘a glittering star or two’. The haystacks from the last harvest have been dismantled ready for a new crop, leaving only a shining ‘remnant’ of hay behind. These winter leftovers are so out of place they seem like ‘some old antique fragment’ in a scene where everything else is renewed and brimming with possibility.

A lamb bounds out to meet the poet and ‘wags his tail’. Another, basking in the sun, allows him to walk right up to it ‘with legs stretched out as though it couldn’t rise’. Spring, to Clare, is best represented by a newborn animal, so carefree that it remains flat on its back, enjoying the sunshine even when the poet approaches. Stopping for a moment to imagine Clare’s sunbathing lamb always makes me smile.

Whatever the season, poetry has proved a lifesaver for me. Poetry first provided solace when I was first struck down with severe depression nearly twenty years ago. It was then that my mother – my constant nurse and companion – would sit by my bedside and repeat a line from Corinthians (the Bible being naturally rich with poetry): ‘My grace is sufficient for thee: my strength is made perfect in weakness.’

These words were at the heart of my recovery as they helped temper my feelings of despair. I learnt to believe I would become stronger as a result of the ordeal. I often think of depression as being like a trapdoor opening inside me, and so I would repeat the phrase endlessly, mantra-like, when I felt in danger of falling through.

Since that first depressive episode I have continued to battle with the illness, but thanks to drugs, therapy and above all poetry, I have learnt to keep my ‘Black Dog’ (as Winston Churchill famously referred to depression) on a tight leash. When I was very unwell, I could only absorb the odd line of poetry, which I would focus all my attention on, stilling the anxious chatter in my head. Favourites include the last lines of Arthur Hugh Clough’s ‘Say Not the Struggle Naught Availeth’.

‘In front the sun climbs slow; how slowly,
But westward, look, the land is bright’.

Another favourite is almost any line from Emily Dickinson’s ‘“Hope” is the Thing with Feathers’ in which the poet compares hope to a bird. Hope is ever-present, even if it’s small and in your peripheral vision.

‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

As I recovered I began to discover that I was not alone in finding poetry helpful in dark times. The healing power of words has a long history, dating back to primitive societies who made use of chants. By the first century AD, the Greek theologian Longinus wrote about the power of language to transform reality, to affect readers in deep and permanent ways, and to help them cope with the vagaries of their existence. Spool forward to the twentieth century and by 1969 the Association of Poetry Therapy was established in the USA.

I began to put my own own belief that poetry can help those facing adversity into practice, initially as a cottage industry. I swapped poems with friends and became a volunteer at our local prison’s education department where I ran poetry workshops. For me, one of the ways poetry helps most is by recharging the spent batteries of my own language. Take Herbert, for example. His poem ‘Love’ begins:

‘Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back.
Guilty of dust and sin’.

The line ‘Guilty of dust and sin’ describes exactly how I feel when I’m depressed: worthless, hopeless – guilty. What a perfect capturing! Herbert also offers a compassionate voice: that of Love, who ‘bids us welcome’. He knew how to perfectly balance the darkness of his descriptions with consolation.

A powerful poetic line can diminish ones sense of being alone. This was particularly striking to me when I came across poems written hundreds of years ago which describe a similar blackness to that which I was experiencing. Poetry also brings one’s mind into the present moment and back into ‘the flow’ of life. Mental illnesses such as depression tend to cripple ones sense of time – involvement in the present is overwhelmed by worries about the future or regrets about the past – but the complexity and subtlety of poetry requires you to concentrate on the here and now.

Robert Frost put it best when he said that a poem can offer a ‘momentary stay against confusion’, which is what happened to me all those years ago when my mother sat at my bedside and recited those words to me. Now I know those lines by heart and many more besides: a golden store to be used as and when. I find learning a poem especially helpful when I’m awake in the small hours. There’s something hugely comforting in the mind’s secure possession of a literary work.

The diary I spoke of earlier has now been turned into a book, Walking on Sunshine: 52 Small Steps to Happiness. In it I record the week-by-week strategies that have helped to keep me calm and happy: from the philosophies I try to practise, to spring cleaning, to new ways of communicating, breathing exercises and more. These strategies have all proved invaluable to me, but one of my favourite things about the book is still the poetry at the beginning of each season. I think poetry will forever be at the heart of each new chapter.

Walking on Sunshine: 52 Small Steps to Happiness is published by Short Books and is available for purchase on Amazon. For more information please follow Rachel on Twitter @RachelKellyNet or visit