Wednesday 16 January 2019

Complex Simplicity: The Art of Being Honest

This article was originally published as a guest post on Peter McDonnell’s blog.

I am grateful to Peter for inviting me to guest on his blog. He didn’t set a specific topic so as I sit here in one of my favourite coffee shops on a Saturday morning I’m wondering what to write about. What to share.

On the table beside me is the book I have been re-reading for the first time in decades: John Powell’s Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am? It’s not a book about mental health as such. It is a book about communication; about sharing our truths, doubts, fears, delights, and hang-ups with one another; and in so doing, allowing understanding and compassion to grow. (It is Powell’s contention that only by being honest and open with others can we come to know ourselves.) And that is of relevance to all of us, whether we live with a mental health diagnosis or not.

This kind of honest communication is fundamental to the close, caring, mutually supportive relationship I have with my best friend Fran Houston. It is also the central message of our book, High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder. When it works – when you allow it to work – the rewards can be immense, as I said to Fran just yesterday:

Martin: Things are so much simpler when we can be honest with each other.

Fran: It is because we feel safe and we trust.

Note that I said “simpler” there, not “simple”! Emotional honesty isn’t something that comes easy to me. There have been very few people in my life I’ve trusted enough to be vulnerable with. And doing so doesn’t guarantee an easy ride! It’s not about easy, it’s about real. It requires courage on both sides; not only to share your truth honestly but to face the consequences of your honesty, and the other person’s.

The exchange I quoted earlier between me and Fran was in response to a less-than-easy exchange yesterday on one of our twice daily video calls. (We live three thousand miles apart on opposite sides of the Atlantic. Our relationship is lived online using chat, emails, and voice and video calls.) We caught up on our news since we’d last met online, including our respective weights (we have been weight loss buddies for the past six years or so). I then moved on to talk about a friend of mine who has been having a rough time. Fran listened patiently, then drew me back to centre. It was clear that from her perspective things were far from okay.

I knew Fran’s weight has been increasing lately, and that she was disappointed and annoyed at her apparent inability to get on top of what was happening. But I hadn’t recognised just how desperate she was feeling about it, or that she felt alone in dealing with the complex and conflicting issues it brought up for her. She didn’t feel I was on board with it – and her – at all.

Fran’s honesty brought me up short. There was a flicker of defensive ego response – “I’ve had a lot going on for me recently, Fran, you know that.” – but that lasted no more than a moment or two. It was true, I have been working through some personal issues of my own for a while now. Fran has been there for me, which I have greatly appreciated, but I probably took my eye off the ball in terms of what was going on for her and what support she herself needed.

We stayed present with each other. We stayed calm. We stayed online. We talked, and listened. I asked Fran what I could do to help her. She suggested some practical things I could do but most of all what she needed was for me to hear her, and be there for and with her. We agreed I would be more vigilant, and that Fran would let me know if she again felt I was not fully on board in the ways she needed me to be.

I am proud of how we handled what might have been an awkward or contentious situation. We each got to share who we were and what was going on for us at that moment. We accepted without judgment what we were hearing. We acknowledged what was missing, what was needful. We recommitted to each other. And we moved on as friends, together.


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