Wednesday 28 June 2017

Walking Home from the Store (Old Friends)

I am walking home from Tescos. It’s a little after 6 pm. I go to the store two or three evenings a week for groceries, or treats. Most times I would be pressing home, to be back in time for my Skype call with Fran at 7 pm. Not this evening, though.

We’ve not fallen out or anything like that, it’s just she’s out with friends all day today while she’s having work done on her apartment. We have chatted on and off. The last time was about half an hour ago.

Fran: Things are going well but I am exhausted. Horizontal day tomorrow.
Marty: I’m at Tescos
Fran: 1.45 movie
Marty: Ooo what movie?
Fran: My Cousin Rachel
Marty: I will have to look it up. With J?
Fran: Yes
Marty: Cool

We met up on Skype last night at 7 pm. We went through her checklist to make sure all the preparations were done, and she carried the laptop round the apartment so I could see the progress she’s made. We usually have another call later but didn’t last night, because there was still a lot for her to do.

It’s a beautiful evening here. Sunny, but (mercifully!) much cooler than it has been lately. I hate the heat! Can’t move. Can’t think. This is lovely though. The shopping bags are heavy but I’m not in a rush. I relax into the moment.

How am I feeling?

I feel proud of Fran, for having got everything done for when the workers arrived today. It has been a huge challenge. The physical side of things, for sure; clearing and packing things away so they won’t get damaged. Exertion can easily trip Fran into a fatigue crash. It’s a little early to be sure but I’m hoping we have avoided that. Then there’s the mental and emotional stress, and the disruption to her—and our—routines. In some ways, that’s even more of a challenge to Fran’s wellbeing and stability than the physical side of things.

What else?

I feel free, in having the evening to myself—and a little guilty for feeling that! It’s rare for us not to be meeting at all. I don’t know what I will do with my time! Feels like I should (one of my most hated words!) do something special, something particular, rather than let the opportunity simply pass through my fingers. Then again, I don’t have to do anything as such. Relaxing counts.

I cross the Metro train line. Turn right at the Community Centre. It’s nice enough to take the short cut across the playing field.

Guilt slides into envy. I am envious of the friends who get to spend time with Fran today, especially the friend who will accompany her to the movies. We watch films and tv dramas together on Skype or Netflix but—three thousand miles apart—we can’t go to the cinema for real.

Observing all this is interesting! We don’t label thoughts and feelings as “good” or “bad” (those labels carry a moral weight that is mostly inappropriate). We feel what we feel, and thoughts come as they will. “Healthy” / “unhealthy” we use sometimes. “Positive” / “negative.” I choose not to label my pride, guilt, and envy, however. They are old friends. They are all welcome here.

I stop for a moment. Rearrange the bags of shopping. Move on again.

What’s that poem about visitors to the house? Ah yes.

The Guest House, by Rumi

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honourably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

I am smiling now. Once upon a time, Fran being out all day like this—being busy, having other people to be with—would have triggered stronger emotions. Fear. Abandonment. Jealousy. I have grown since then. We have grown. We understand each other better. Codependency also is an old friend.

What else?

I am proud of me and Fran. We have worked well together this past week. I helped her plan the work and chart her progress through it. I have kept her company while she worked, listened to her grumbling about it, and encouraged her when she needed it. I am aware of—and at ease with—the things I could not help with, being on the other side of the Atlantic. I couldn’t fetch things, lift things, or be out all day today with Fran while the work is going on. I’m grateful there are other friends who are able—and willing—to be there for Fran in the ways I cannot be. Gratitude is the antidote to codependency.

Not too far now. I am crossing the playing field. Local kids playing football.

I have an idea for my evening. I am going to write a blog post—this one—about how I have been feeling and processing this experience. Later I may start the Prevent training course a friend recommended to me recently. Or maybe an early night.

Tomorrow Fran is going to be pretty shattered. As she said earlier, she will need a “horizontal day.” A rest day. We will meet up on webcam, I’m sure. We will talk, share our experiences of today. Her day out. The movie. My day. My evening. My feelings—and this piece of writing they inspired. I will likely read some more from the novel we are reading together (James Hayman’s The Girl on the Bridge). Maybe we will watch some television. Doc Martin. Or Poirot.

That’s what old friends do.


Thursday 22 June 2017

Anxiety is my Wingman … I Think, by Sarah Fader

I’ve had chronic anxiety since I was 15, but my symptoms (in small ways) started earlier. As a child I was quite nervous about being away from my mother. She was my safety blanket, and I wanted to be with her all the time. I still (at 37) have a close relationship with my mom, and I value her opinion so much. She is my person that I talk to when I feel down. My mom is an integral part of my support system, and I love her dearly.

But back to anxiety, which is the theme of this post. I find anxiety to be both exhilarating and debilitating. At my high positive points, I feel like I can do anything. Anxiety gives me energy, and combined with mania, I find myself writing a ton of articles, and working on several projects at once. It’s those points where I feel like anxiety is on my side. There are other points where (after the crash of manic energy) I feel low and defeated. It’s like a balloon that runs out of helium. I don’t feel like I can anymore, I’m the little engine that could NOT. That’s no fun for me, and I want to curl up in a ball and die; that’s a hyperbole, actually, I don’t want to die, but I just want relief from those overwhelming feelings of dread. It’s difficult to function when my filter is full, or my plate is empty.

I’ve heard people talk about Bipolar Disorder like a coffee filter that is filled with the grounds from coffee. When the filter is full, I can’t take on anything in life and I just want to sleep. I want to be curled up in my blanket. During those moments I can’t access the energy associated with anxiety, my wingman. I long for the times when I can do anything, or at least I feel like I can.

I refer to anxiety as my wingman, because it’s a trusted companion. You’ve heard people talk about the devil you know? Well, that’s anxiety for me. I rely on it to push me forward. Anxiety is my biggest cheerleader when I use it “right.” And that’s what I’m trying to do in my life. I want anxiety to be my best friend, rather than my worst enemy. There’s no need for anxiety to be a nemesis. It can be used for good.

Now, I want to ask you, how do you view anxiety? Is a good friend or a terrible enemy? If you have resentment toward your anxiety, perhaps you can shift that relationship. Maybe anxiety can push you forward and help you accomplish tasks. I’m trying to see the positive attributes of anxious energy so that I don’t get caught up and overwhelmed in its grasp. I believe you can do this too. In the comments section, please tell me a time where anxiety helped you. I know you can do it!

About the Author

Sarah Fader is the CEO and Founder of Stigma Fighters, a non-profit organization that encourages individuals with mental illness to share their personal stories. She has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Quartz, Psychology Today, The Huffington Post, HuffPost Live, and Good Day New York.

Sarah is a native New Yorker who enjoys naps, talking to strangers, and caring for her two small humans and two average-sized cats. Like six million other Americans, Sarah lives with panic disorder. Through Stigma Fighters, Sarah hopes to change the world, one mental health stigma at a time. You can find Sarah at


Wednesday 21 June 2017

How to Handle Anger Creatively in a Supportive Relationship

If you avoid conflict to keep the peace, you start a war inside yourself.—Cheryl Richardson

In the first of a new series of Question & Answer posts, Anna asks: “Do you and Fran ever get angry with each other? How do you deal with that?” Quoted passages are excerpted from our book.

In any relationship worthy of the name there will be times when one person or the other becomes irritated, frustrated, or even furiously angry. It’s important not to imagine or pretend otherwise, or hide from it when it happens. My six year friendship with Fran has transformed my relationship with anger. I am no longer afraid. It’s not that anger is a good thing in itself, but when it turns up we acknowledge it, and are honest about what is happening.

One of the most important lessons I have learned is that it is okay to get things wrong sometimes; for me to become irritated, frustrated, or angry at Fran; or for her to feel that way about me. In a relationship founded on trust and honesty, we feel safe expressing how we feel. If we allow the experience to flow without resisting it, we can emerge on the other side: still friends, cleansed, and perhaps a little wiser.

In the early stages of our friendship, I found Fran’s manic intensity exciting, but I was shocked at the frustration and anger she stirred up in me. Fran valued the emotional energy and encouraged—sometimes goaded—its expression: “Let your anger flow through you furiously, thoroughly, until it’s totally spent. It’s beautiful.” This was a revelation to me. I had spent my entire adult life trying not to become angry or upset anyone.

Irritations, grumbles, and disagreements crop up all the time, of course. They are part and parcel of life itself. Real flare ups are much rarer, but trust me we do get mad with each other sometimes! The anger is not always directed at each other. Sometimes it is triggered by other people, situations or things. We get to deal with that too.

We were talking one evening, a few months into our friendship, when I mentioned something apparently innocuous. Within moments, Fran was sobbing and furious. She hung up on me. It was the first time she had done so, other than occasionally as a joke. I had no idea what to do. I called back several times, but she failed to answer. I e-mailed her and said I was here when or if she wanted me.

I thought about how I was feeling. I was angry. Not with Fran, but with myself for having said what I did. I had not intended to hurt her, of course, nor could I reasonably have anticipated what my words would trigger. I was also concerned about her, although I trusted her to handle things, however she needed to, and to get back to me when she was ready.

As my feelings settled, I was left with a sense of calm. Something very intense had happened, but it was okay. More than that, it was important. I called Fran an hour or so later, and this time she picked up. We talked through what had happened, grateful to each other for the experience. Out of the apparent mess we had learned something new about each other and our friendship.

The source of Fran’s anger is often frustration: at her situation, at the realities of a life lived with illness, or at other people—me included—who she feels are not paying attention or taking her concerns seriously. A few times we’ve been on a call together and suddenly Fran has been crying and screaming at me that I didn’t get it: that I could never understand what she’s going through.

Paranoia can play a role. If Fran is convinced everyone is against her or hates her, I mention it to her as a potential red flag for illness. (Fran will sometimes notice it first, and share it with me so we are both aware.) But of course not all her rage is symptomatic. The world is neither fair nor pretty. All of us feel frustrated, angry and fearful from time to time. Those who live with mental illness also face stigma, ignorance and discrimination. These challenges are very real, and far more prevalent than many of us “well ones” recognise.

I get frustrated too. I get frustrated that, being 3,000 miles away, I am unable to help Fran as much as I would if we lived closer. I get frustrated if my attempts to help are clumsy or ill-fitted to her needs. And sometimes I get frustrated for no good reason at all.

I am clearer about my boundaries these days, but early in our friendship I felt I was letting Fran down if I could not do what she asked straightaway. We had been friends for about three months when things came to a head. I had helped her throughout the day and evening, but had turned my computer off and was about to go to bed. The description of what happened next comes from my diary, written the following day.

I was feeling overwhelmed about a lot of things, mostly nothing to do with Fran, but I was OK until she called after I turned the computer off and asked me to edit something to post online about wanting a ride to the Bob Dylan concert. I said I was going to bed and would do it in the morning. Fran said OK, but in a way that sounded like she was disappointed. All of a sudden I was furious at her! I hung up and turned my phone off so she couldn’t call me back. I put the computer back on and did the edit she wanted, and then e-mailed it to her. “Here you go, best I can manage. It’s twenty past midnight. I will edit the other things you wanted tomorrow. Night.”

I had no intention of talking to her again that night, but I turned my phone back on after a while, and saw she had sent me the most ridiculous cartoon video of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” All my tension and anger dissolved in an instant! Not just the stuff about Fran, but the rest of it too. I called her and we had a huge laugh about it! I learned three lessons that night. First, it is important to respect my needs as much as I respect Fran’s. The editing was not urgent; I was tired and needed sleep. Second, I have choices. I might have chosen to do the work gracefully to get it out of the way, or leave it until morning. Having a tantrum about it was also a choice. Third, I learned that extreme emotions can be cleansing. Fran defused my outburst with humour, simultaneously releasing the rest of my pent-up frustrations. As I wrote to Fran later, “I needed to get mad at you. Thank you.”

Fran often notices a shift in my mood and asks me about it before it can spill over into anger, but sometimes there is little or no warning. A couple of months ago we were talking together on webcam. Suddenly, I was more furious than I can ever recall being in my life. I was yelling at her, swearing at her, raging at her. I can still recall the fury. I can taste it. I have no recollection now of what triggered my outburst, but I know we stayed on our call. Fran waited for me to calm down. We talked it through. I could ask Fran to remind me what it was about. Perhaps I will. But the point is we can experience moments of even extreme anger, process them, and move on.

How do we do that? First and foremost we are honest and open with each other. We are not proud of our anger but neither are we ashamed. We do not take it as a personal affront or as a threat to our relationship. We talk as soon as possible, looking “under the bonnet” at what might actually have been going on. It can be a very cleansing experience, and allows us to move forward without feeling guilty or nursing bruised egos.

When I began writing this post I joked to Fran that I had enough material already so there was no need for us to get mad at each other for a while. A few days later, something happened. It was no more than a minor misalignment, but it could easily have escalated if we had not been open to exploring what was happening. We were on our regular early evening call (early evening for me, early afternoon for Fran due to the time difference). Fran talked for a while about her day, how she had made a few phone calls and got movement on some things she’s been dealing with lately. When it seemed we’d talked that through, I shared what had been going on for me. I read her a new book review we’d received, and told her about an invitation I’d received to attend a mental health event later in the year.

I could tell Fran wasn’t paying attention, and as soon as I stopped speaking she took the conversation back to what she’d been talking about earlier. I let it go but I felt aggrieved. I’d have liked some acknowledgement of what I’d shared. I was also irritated by some of what Fran was saying about other people and events, as though everything and everyone was against her.

After talking for a few minutes Fran paused. She’d noticed my shift in mood. She acknowledged she was being unreasonable. She knew I was excited about my news, but couldn’t focus on that because she was so worried about what was going on for her. She was also concerned her bipolar might be kicking in again. I realised I’d not picked up on just how concerned she was about everything. Although “tired and grumpy” she had seemed to have things in hand.

It didn’t take long to talk it through. No more than a couple of minutes. Before we ended our call I told her: “I’m proud of how we do this stuff, Fran. You get to say how it is for you. I get to say how it is for me. And we get over ourselves and move on.”


Wednesday 14 June 2017

My Support System, by Meghan Shultz

For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Meghan and I have Bipolar Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, and Anxiety Disorder. Today, I’m going to tell you about my support system.

I get a lot of support from a lot of different people. My husband, my doctor, my parents, my case worker, my psychiatrist, the local hospitals, my psychologist, and my employment worker who really just likes to sit and chat rather than look for work for me which is just fine by me. But each and every one of these people plays a role in supporting me. Each in a different way. I get a lot of support. I am a lucky one. I’m in a lucky country.

Everyone plays their part. My husband plays his part on a personal level that only he can. He sees me at my worst and at my best. And when I say my best I mean at my most manic. He’s seen me in every spectrum of my disease and still he sticks around and does everything that he can to support me. And that’s not always easy. I don’t always make it easy. I’m not always an easy person to deal with. But he loves me anyway so he stays.

My husband, he takes me to appointments, he sometimes waits patiently in the car for me to finish. If it’s a long appointment he’ll go home and then come back again to pick me up. He also questions me when I start taking things that don’t look like psych meds, i.e. diet pills or laxatives. I used to have an eating disorder. Diet pills are a serious issue. He knows to question these things. But it’s not just medical things that he supports me in it’s my writing pursuits also. I want to be a writer. I guess I am a writer. And he helps to encourage that in me. He drives me to a writing group once a month and last weekend he drove me into the city to attend another writers course which will probably become a regular thing. He encourages me as well as supports me.

My parents do their best to understand what I live with, this illness, this Bipolar, but they don’t live with me so it’s different for them. It’s harder for them to understand. But they try and, like my husband, they stick around and still love me regardless. They always keep in contact with me, my mum visits often or my husband and I go round to her place, and my dad calls every couple of weeks to check in. I can’t fault them in their support. I couldn’t ask for better or more supportive parents.

Now, health professionals, you would have noticed that I see a lot of health professionals. They play a fairly big role in my treatment and support; not as big as my husband, but fairly big. I see my general doctor every week. I see my case worker fortnightly. I see my psychiatrist every few months. I see my psychologist every few weeks. My current hospital trend is that I’m an inpatient a few times a year. And I see my employment worker once a week. It seems like a lot but it’s a strong team and it works. It works for me. It supports me.

Probably the most important for me of all the health professionals would have to be my general doctor whom I see every week. I see him so often that we’ve developed quite a good relationship. We generally only have ten minute appointments but he’s never in a rush to shove me out the door. First and foremost he always asks about my symptoms and how they’ve been, if I’ve been manic or depressed over the past week. After that we’ll just sit and chat about this or that for a while. Before I leave we’ll discuss how my meds are going and if I need any refills. But the biggest thing for me is that I am on disability and he is incredibly supportive of that, he has to be, otherwise I never would have been approved for it. Everything about him is supportive and I couldn’t ask for a better doctor.

All of these people in my life that I have just listed, they don’t have to give a crap about me, they don’t have to care, they don’t have to give a shit, even if it’s their job. My doctor doesn’t have to care, my psychiatrist doesn’t have to give me the extra attention that she does when I see her. My husband doesn’t have to love me. But they do. And all of these people support me in their own ways. All in their different ways. But they all support me in some way or another.

About the Author

My name is Meghan, I’m 27 years old. Author of Always Unstable: Bipolar and Hospitalisation: A Memoir and Blogger at You can find me on Twitter at @alwaysunstable.

I love rain, tattoos, bad decisions, writing, and knitting. Also mentally ill but you already got that, right?


Wednesday 7 June 2017

Like a Rootless Tree (Where Are Your Roots?)

“So, where are your roots?”

It’s not every day you get asked a question like that in the gents’ toilet at Bar Loco. At least, it’s not every day I get asked that in the gents’ toilet at Bar Loco. Then again, I’m not there very often.

It was the t-shirt, of course. My American Roots t-shirt. Specifically, given I was standing at the urinal, the back of the shirt which asks WHERE ARE YOUR ROOTS? in sans serif caps.

Caught off-guard, mid pee, I stumbled for an answer. “Well,” I said, looking down at my chest. “I’m not American. The shirt is. It was a gift from my bestie in Maine. I’m from Liverpool.”

“Cheshire,” my new friend responded.

“Erm.” Zipping up and turning to see who I was addressing. “Merseyside.”

“Cheshire.” He asserted, smiling.

I knew he was wrong. Liverpool was in Lancashire when I was growing up, until 1974 when I became a teenager and Liverpool became a part of the metropolitan county of Merseyside. But I didn’t feel confident enough to contradict him without googling it to check, and somehow I didn’t feel right doing that just then.

Our impromptu conversation (I was washing my hands by this stage) moved on to my Scouse accent—or rather, my lack of one. My sister is fiercely proud of her accent. My mother hates to be reminded of hers. I am indifferent. My accent was never strong, and I’ve not spent any significant time in Liverpool since I left at eighteen.

I was at University in Bradford for four years. London for three. Six months in Norwich staying in the nurses’ home at the Norfolk & Norwich Hospital (which sounds racier than it was, me not being a very racy chap). Thirty years and counting here in Newcastle. I’ve picked up a little dialect and inflection here and there. Talking on Skype with Fran three hours a day for six years has added an American twist or two. I frequently find myself somewhere mid-Atlantic, poised between tomahto and tomayto, shedule and skedule. Especially when reading aloud to Fran, which I do a lot. Especially reading books by American authors (ditto, we know a few). But that’s another story.

Where was I?

Ah yes. Bar Loco. I was there for the Newcastle Literary Salon spoken word event, and this month’s theme was PLACE AND IDENTITY. You can see where this is going—which is more than I’ve ever been able to do, really. I’ve never had much idea where I was heading. Not so much drifting as carried by whatever currents were in play at the time. Only in the past few years have I gained any sense of direction. Of purpose. Of—now I come to think about it—rootedness.

Noun. The quality or state of having roots, especially of being firmly established, settled, or entrenched.

Aside: this post’s title comes from the Damien Rice song “Like a Rootless Tree,” specifically this version with Lisa Hannigan. If you don’t know it, listen to it now. You will thank me. Really. As a friend of mine said, “I fucking LOVE this song!” (The expletive is deliberate, you’ll understand when you listen to it.) Several of those performing at the Salon—poets for the most part—had borrowed from song lyrics or titles in the pieces they shared. So I’m in good company.

I’ve attended most of the Salon events over the past year. I’ve performed three times (Jun 2016 | Jul 2016 | Sep 2016) reading excerpts from our book High Tide, Low Tide. This time, though, I was there to listen. To open myself to the frequently raw, gutsy passion of those who dare to bare and share at the mic. I’ve written before how potent and challenging the Salon is for me.

I wasn’t disappointed. One after the other, I was moved by performer and performance alike. Aidan Clarke, whose voice I would willingly drown in. Melissa Chaplin, who spoke of her own issues with dialect and accent. Iain Rowan’s performance resonated especially. He spoke of how our roots need not be limited to the places we grew up in; they can be all the places and connections we have made in our journey through life. And that got me thinking. Or rather, it got me feeling. Always a good thing for a writer to hear, so I hope Iain gets to read this.

I’ve never felt much attachment to my city and region of birth. My one remaining attachment to Liverpool is my mother. Despite having other family there, I know that when my mother dies I will never revisit. There will be nothing there for me. Nothing there of me. For me, places are rendered meaningful not by accident of birth or count of years, but by virtue of the events and relationships they held or hold.

One poem of Iain’s (“We Planets, We Comets”) recounted a summer of earnest and joyful friendship. It recalled university days and months—and poetry—of my own.

In the REAL WORLD nothing rhymes and no one cares
yet here
still, even
the furniture loves us.
Maybe we’re right
but know we’ll never leave this place
our place though fortunes raze our hopes
erase our friends and set our eager souls dutifully.

From “for Richard’s room.”

That’s part of my rootedness, for sure. Bradford. One house in particular. Where else? One cottage in Wales. A London bedsit. Our holiday cottage at Brough. Evening walks to Great Musgrave along “Memory Lane.” Keep ’em coming. The waiting room at the QEII Cruise Terminal in Southampton. Brayloo.

I’m liking this sense of rootedness Iain has gifted me! Roots don’t have to be where we were born or grew up. They are—or can be—collected along the way and carried around with us.

In which case my rootedness (I see this now) includes places I’ve never travelled. Not in person. Not in the flesh. But virtually (whatever that means) as Fran’s armchair travel buddy, tagging along in her pocket by the magic of Skype and instant messaging. Spain. Germany. Austria. Amsterdam. Peaks Island. Portland, Maine: a city I feel at home in despite my feet never having touched the sidewalk. Never having touched the pavement.

It’s a fundamental tenet of my relationship with Fran and the work we are doing in the mental health arena that physical distance need not preclude deep, meaningful and successful relationships. Our vision is a world where no one is too far away to be cared for or to care.

I once asked Fran what I contributed most to our friendship. She gave me the image of an oak tree, standing strong and tall. At the time, I hadn’t felt too grounded, solid, rooted. Looking back now, I can see things differently.

Rather than imagining myself rootless, I can choose to see myself, to feel myself, part of a network with roots deep and wide enough to encompass the globe. (Think oaks, not baobabs: a nod to the wisdom of Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry’s Little Prince who attended to the toilet of his tiny planet as we would be well advised to attend to the toilet of ours.)

Speaking of toilets, next time I’m in the gents at Bar Loco I’m going to be prepared. I know where my roots are.