Wednesday, 30 September 2020

The Hidden Cost of Unreliability

Call me irresponsible
Call me unreliable
Throw in undependable too

(James Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn. “Call Me Irresponsible.”)

At some point, we’ve all had issues with unreliability. The friend who always turns up late. Workmen or deliveries that fail to show when they’re supposed to. Appointments cancelled at the last minute. Friends who expect us to be there for them but rarely return the favour.

These are annoying but we understand life gets in the way sometimes, and we acknowledge we’re not always as reliable as we’d care to admit. Dealing with repeated or chronic unreliability is a different matter. If unresolved it can lead to anger, stress, anxiety, and other health issues. So let’s take a closer look at the hidden cost of unreliability, including the impact our own unreliability can have on others.

What Is Unreliability? defines reliability as things “that may be relied on or trusted; dependable in achievement, accuracy, honesty, etc.” Unreliability, then, is something or someone that cannot be trusted or depended on.

I gave a few personal examples earlier. Others include organisations and professionals that fail to follow through on promised action, or pass queries and complaints from one person or department to another. Unreliability in public services such as benefits, health, or public transport affects us all.

Coronavirus has brought uncertainty and unreliability on an unprecedented scale to many areas of our lives. National, regional, and local restrictions are changing all the time, making it difficult and stressful to plan anything more than a few weeks ahead. Nothing seems as safe, reliable, or dependable as it did before.

How Does It Feel?

Unreliability at an organisational level undermines trust and leads to delays and uncertainties that seem unreasonable because they are rarely explained to us. We may feel belittled or disrespected, as though we don’t matter enough for others to consider our situation or feelings. A friend explained that people don’t realise how much it takes it out of someone living with mental illness when people behave unreasonably towards you or mess you around. Another friend expressed it this way:

Unreliability is hurtful. Letting others down is kind of like betrayal. When you’re counting on someone [and they let you down] it hurts because you feel like you don’t matter.

Fran recognises that people have their own lives to live and may not always be available when she needs them. That said, she expects people to deliver on their promises. As recounted in our book High Tide, Low Tide:

Fran [...] asks only that people respect her enough not to promise what they have no intention of delivering. (“Yes is OK. No is OK. Not right now is OK.”)

In many ways, spontaneity is the socially acceptable face of unreliability. Fran builds space into her schedule for spontaneous invitations and trips, but she can be overwhelmed if too much happens in short order. It costs her energy to hold space for meetings and events, and to recuperate afterwards.

I’m better at dealing with spontaneous opportunities than I used to be, but I still prefer to know what’s coming up. At some level, I fear the spontaneous because it short circuits my cautious, rational side. On the other hand, too much structure can be stifling and restrictive. A modicum of randomness can open the door to things we’d never consciously plan into our lives. As a friend said to me recently, “Sometimes when we let go, we can have a new experience.”

Why Are People Unreliable?

Working patterns, family commitments, and other priorities can make it hard to plan ahead with any degree of certainty. On top of that, emergencies and crises can arise for any of us, meaning we need to change or cancel our plans. I was once cross at Fran for missing our scheduled video call only to learn later that she’d been supporting a friend. I’ve cancelled on Fran for similar reasons and she is always more gracious and understanding than I was on that occasion.

Some people seem incapable of arriving on time no matter how many reminders they’re given or how much they are prevailed upon. It’s part of who they are. I’m reminded of friends from years ago. To be fair to them, they rarely turned up late but the way they got ready was — from my point of view — fraught with delay, hesitation, distractions, and fuss. Being around them if we were going out left me stressed and anxious.

Mental illness can challenge our ability to behave reliably. Writing from the perspective of someone living with bipolar disorder, anxiety, and chronic migraines, this author describes how her conditions make her, in her words, an unreliable person.

I’m not the most reliable person right now. My disorder is preventing me from being so. I would like to be more reliable, a better friend, a better wife, a better mom, a better employee. I just can’t, not right now.

In an open letter to a friend, bipolar expert Julie A. Fast explains “why I can’t always do fun things with you.”

It’s the bipolar. I don’t ever use bipolar as an excuse for bad behavior. That is why we are such good friends. You trust me and I trust you. But I know that my inability to be as social as you might like can cause us some problems.

On its own or in combination with other conditions, anxiety can contribute to what other people perceive as unreliable behaviour. This is explained well in this post by Katie Andrews Potter, and in my article for bpHope on bipolar disorder and anxiety. As this article on the impact of addiction makes clear, “the inconsistency, unreliability, and lying involved with addiction” can be profoundly destabilising for everyone involved in the person’s life.

Physical health issues including chronic pain, fatigue, exhaustion, and insomnia can all affect our ability to function as reliably as we’d wish. The fear of failure, of disappointing others, or of not following through on our promises can also cause us to pull out of arrangements and commitments.

What Does Unreliability Cost Us?

Other people’s unreliability can lead to us feeling frustrated, anxious, stressed, and hurt. Processing these responses — and rescheduling cancelled appointments, meetings, and events — takes time and energy we may need in other aspects of our lives. Over time, it can lead to any of the physical, mental, and behavioural symptoms of stress.

If we are — or are perceived as being — unreliable it can lead to difficulties in our relationships, lost friends, lost jobs, and lost opportunities. It can also lead us to lose faith in ourselves; arguably the greatest loss of all.

How to Handle Unreliability in Ourselves and Others

We can begin by learning to handle our emotional responses safely, for example by sharing with those we trust. We might also consider if we’re responding in unhealthy ways or to an unhealthy extent.

Generally speaking, the problem isn’t that people change their mind or fail to fulfil their commitments it’s that they don’t let us know what’s happening. Keeping the channels open is the healthiest approach. A few years ago I arranged to meet a friend for coffee. I was there early as usual. The time we’d agreed came and went and I started wondering if she’d forgotten our meeting. Soon after she messaged to say a friend was in crisis and needed her support. She asked if I wanted to postpone but I was happy to wait for her. She was an hour late in the end but it wasn’t an issue because she’d kept me informed.

Not everyone does that. The New York Center for Nonviolent Communication (NYCNVC) runs an online course in compassionate communication. One lesson features a story similar to my cafe experience, except that the friend is habitually late.

This became a huge source of pain for me. I brought this to his attention on more than one occasion, hoping he would see my pain and start showing up on time. The more he showed up late, the more angry and disconnected I became.

The narrator realised he wasn’t angry at his friend’s lateness, he was angry because his needs were not being met while waiting for him to turn up. Rather than cancel further meetings as he’d been considering, he took the initiative. On future occasions, he brought a book or work to do while he waited for his friend to arrive.

It’s a great example of taking responsibility even when it’s the other person who is being unreliable. We do this by recognising that we rarely know what’s going on for other people and what they’re dealing with, by taking responsibility for ourselves, and communicating what we expect from others. Ultimately it’s down to us whether to accept our friends, colleagues, or family members for who they are.

Are there times when you are unreliable with others? Are you someone who always arrives early for meetings and hates being late? Do you struggle with other people’s unreliability? Have you found ways of navigating how you feel when other people, or life itself, let’s you down? We’d love to hear from you.


Photo by freestocks on Unsplash


Wednesday, 23 September 2020

I'm on My Way: Thoughts Inspired by Ed Sheeran's "Castle on the Hill"

Framlingham Castle Sunset

I’m on my way
Driving at 90 down those country lanes.
Singing to “Tiny Dancer”
And I miss the way you make me feel, and it’s real
We watched the sunset over the castle on the hill

(Benjamin Levin and Ed Sheeran. “Castle on the Hill.”)

I’m no music aficionado but if I really like a song I’ll play it over and over, to the point where I have the lyrics committed to memory. If I ever find myself at a karaoke with a few pints inside me and a friend at my side there are a few numbers I’d have a go at. “Let it Go” (from Frozen), “Take Me Home” (Jess Glynne), “Fairytale of New York” (The Pogues), “Stay Stay Stay” (Taylor Swift) — and Ed Sheeran’s “Castle on the Hill.”

I found Sheeran via a video of Canadian singer-songwriter Shawn Mendes performing “Treat You Better” at Capital FM’s Summertime Ball. The song meant a lot to me but in this recording Mendes opened with lines I didn’t recognise. A quick search revealed they were from “Castle on the Hill” by Ed Sheeran. I found the official video and was soon hooked. It evoked memories and feelings that were not always comfortable: a good indicator something is worth paying attention to. The song describes Sheeran’s childhood and teenage years in Suffolk, England. The castle of the title is Framlingham Castle.

[I’m unable to post the full lyrics for copyright reasons but you can find them here.]

The song opens with Sheeran recalling breaking his leg at age six. The incident is presented as a badge of honour. I have no equivalent badges, never having broken my leg or anything else for that matter. My earliest childhood memory is visiting my father’s office on one of his rare Saturdays at work. I was maybe ten years old. The memory plays like a short clip from a black and white movie in which I’m sitting on a tall stool in front of an enormous typewriter while my father busies himself in his smaller office next door. There’s no sweet perfume like the mountain grass Sheeran recalls; perhaps there is a musty aroma of printers’ ink.

Sheeran recalls finding his heart and breaking it. I recall a crush on my classmate Lynette, another girl whose name escapes me, and Anne and Glenda who were rumoured to sell kisses if you were in the right place at the right time. I had good friendships through childhood and my teens but none survived my leaving home for university. I occasionally think of searching for them on social media but in truth I have little interest in picking up old threads.

The chorus, which I quoted at the start of this post, evokes memories of driving at speed with the radio on full blast, but I’ve only once driven at anything like ninety miles per hour. On that occasion, I briefly touched 100 in my mother’s Ford Fiesta to collect a friend who’d broken down late at night. There was no music on that occasion, but when I had my own car my driving playlist included “Echo Beach” by Martha and the Muffins, and Sniff ‘n’ the Tears’ “Driver’s Seat.” The latter is the archetypal driving track. (I agree with the person on YouTube who commented “Should be built into every new car. There should actually be a button for it on the steering wheel.”) Listening to it now I’m transported thirty or more years into the past, driving around London or to and from Bradford to visit friends.

I’ve never been a big fan of Elton John and didn’t recognise the “Tiny Dancer” reference until I looked it up. I’m glad I did, because certain of Bernie Taupin’s lines resonate strongly for me. “Blue-jean baby” recalls my first year at university, my first real love, and these lines from my poem “Passionale.”

After so long in blue-jeans
I still need a girl with a feminine flair
who can put on a dress that is not
an invitation

Other resonances are more recent but no less potent. I love how Taupin’s line “But oh, how it feels so real” is echoed in Sheeran’s “And I miss the way you make me feel, and it’s real.” I sing along tunelessly, but with great feeling. I’ve never watched the sun setting over a castle on a hill but I’ve sat with friends at Alderley Edge as night fell across the Cheshire Plain.

Beneath the trees
Beneath the stars
Cautiously we found each other
And a place for silence.

In the second verse Sheeran describes smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and getting drunk with his friends on cheap booze. I was a late starter in these rites of passage too. I’ve never smoked tobacco (or anything else). I’ve never run from the police and had scarcely touched alcohol before I left home at eighteen. I’ve had my share of drunkenness since then but only once threw up afterwards, and that was due as much to food poisoning as the amount of alcohol I’d consumed.

I don’t recall what day of the week I had my first real kiss but I do remember who I kissed. Did I do it right? Probably not — who does, the first time? — but there were many more after that so perhaps I didn’t do too badly.

For me the most poignant part of the song is the bridge section, which describes what happened to the singer’s closest friends since they were in their teens. I have little idea how my friends’ lives unfolded. Aside from my immediate family only one person I’m close to now has been in my life more than ten years; most only two or three. I’m not sad about that. Many people seem able to reconnect with people after months or even years as though nothing has changed but I’ve never been that way. For me, meaningful connection implies continuity and a certain frequency of contact. We don’t have to check in every day but if it’s less than once a month the friendship is unlikely to last long in any meaningful sense.

Despite his friends’ various life challenges, Sheeran declares that “these people raised me and I can’t wait to go home.” Apart from my parents I was never emotionally close to my family — my sister, aunts, uncles, and cousins. The one exception was my Auntie Beb who took me hiking in my teens. I was raised, like Sheeran, by my friends — in my case those I met at university. I thought of them as family at the time and for years after, although I never felt a full member of the tribe despite strong ties of love and commitment. Over the years the ties that bound us thinned and faded. Some were severed, others I relinquished when they no longer served me. I have no yearning to “go back home” the way Sheeran does. Indeed, there is no one or nothing to go back to. It no longer exists.

Maybe like Ed Sheeran I’m on my way — but toward what future or destination am I travelling? I’ve wrestled with this for months now, mostly concerning my career but other areas of my life too. I think that’s why “Castle on the Hill” evokes so much for me. It challenges me to look inside myself and see myself for who I really am.


This blog post has stirred a lot of memories and emotions. This is a deep dive, not just into my past but into the person I am now. It reminds me of what one of my friends told me the other day about therapy. How it’s not about fixing you, it’s about making connections between the gaps inside you. (That is a weak echo of how she expressed it.) She spoke with passion and clarity about how gut-wrenchingly hard the work of therapy is. How if you’re not prepared to do the work you’re unlikely to benefit.

What I‘m doing here doesn’t come close to that intensity or depth, but I sense there is more beneath the surface. An image arises in my mind of the Tolkien’s Dwarves who dug too deeply and awakened the Balrog. We each have our monsters, our creatures lurking in the dark, our hidden memories and secrets. My friends. Me. Ed Sheeran. All of us.


Photo by Happy Bean Photography / CC BY-SA


Wednesday, 16 September 2020

Is Being "Too Sensitive" a Bad Thing?

No place for beginners or sensitive hearts
When sentiment is left to chance.

(Sade Adu and Raymond St. John. “Smooth Operator.”)

Have you ever wondered if you’re too sensitive or need to be more thick-skinned? Have others said it to you? The question came up recently in three separate conversations with friends and I’d like to explore it in some detail because it feels important.

I’m wary of labels like “too sensitive” or “too thin-skinned” because they imply there’s some universal scale of sensitivity and you’re outside the acceptable range. There may be some truth in that but careless use of such labels fosters stigma, including self-stigma when we use them about ourselves.

That said, my friends used words like these to describe what they’re going through. Setting my reservations aside, what did they mean?

What Does “Too Sensitive” Look and Feel like?

In their different ways my friends were expressing the belief that they respond to things in unhealthy ways, or to an unhealthy extent. This might manifest in many different ways.

  • Responding with frustration or anger if it seems people don’t understand what we mean or how things are for us.
  • Becoming anxious about what someone might do or say next time we see them.
  • Becoming irritated when friends don’t check in with us as much as we’d like them to, or when they want to connect with us all the time.
  • Feeling people are being judgmental or vindictive towards us.
  • Feeling hurt or distressed at things that don’t seem to upset other people as much as they do us.
  • Reacting in ways others find inappropriate or that seem disproportionate to what actually happened.
  • Feeling abandoned or pushed away when people ask for space or want to pay healthy attention to their boundaries.

In conversation it might sound like:

“My neighbour has his music really loud. It’s very distracting. I wish I weren’t so sensitive.”

“I need to be more thick-skinned then it wouldn’t hurt so much.”

“I worry too much and get offended easily. I take things too personally, like when my friend said what she said. I got mad rather than just acknowledging that I don’t agree.

Isn’t That Just Part of Everyday Life?

Up to a point, yes. Whatever our history or situation, we’ve all developed ways to deal with what life throws at us. Mostly we do a pretty good job of it. But sometimes our strategies don’t work as well as they usually do and we’re hit by something — or a series of somethings — that overwhelms our capacity to deal with it.

Maybe we’re overstressed or fatigued. Maybe we’ve not slept well for weeks or are dealing with chronic pain or a physical health condition. Maybe we live with a disability or a mental or behavioural health condition. Relationship problems or worries about friends and relatives, money, employment, housing... any of these can affect our ability to handle the twists and turns of everyday life. It’s worth remembering that what is “everyday” to one person might be difficult, traumatic, or triggering to someone else.

Whatever the circumstances, sometimes we find ourselves reacting in ways we normally wouldn’t, or shutting down because we can’t deal with everything all at once. That’s when we may need to look at how we’re doing and consider new strategies.

Is It Them or Me?

Given that we’re mostly talking about issues with other people, it’s valid to ask if the problem lies with their behaviour or our reactions to it. It can be hard to distinguish between banter, a difference of opinion, personality clash, bullying, harassment, and abuse — especially if our perception of what’s happening differs from the other person’s or from the opinion of other people involved. It’s important to trust our instincts, but that’s not always easy if we’ve come to doubt our ability to accurately gauge what’s going on — or if there’s someone telling us we’ve misread the situation or are overreacting.

Maybe we are — or maybe we are being subjected to gaslighting, which is a form of psychological abuse in which the victim is manipulated into doubting their sanity. The term comes from the 1944 film “Gaslight” in which Ingrid Bergman’s character Paula is almost convinced by her husband that she’s imagining things, when in fact he is scheming against her. Gaslighting can occur in any relationship, especially ones with an unequal power dynamic, including the workplace. It’s a strategy often adopted by narcissists to control and abuse their targets.

All that said, it’s important not to automatically blame the other person or assume they are trying to manipulate us. Most people aren’t out to trap, bully, or denigrate those around them. Most people are doing the best they can, often under circumstances we know little or nothing about. Fran has a phrase she likes to use: “Everyone gets to be who they are. Even the assholes.” It reminds me that we’re not responsible for (or able to change) other people, even those we find difficult or have issues with. On the other hand, we don’t have to excuse or condone behaviour that hurts us.

What Can I Do about It?

Our options depend on what’s happening.

Gaslighting or abuse

If you’re being subjected to gaslighting, intimidation, or any form of psychological, physical, or sexual abuse, consider seeking help. The NHS provides information and support links for the UK. Wikipedia has an equivalent listing of global resources. If it is happening in your workplace, there should be a reporting process for bullying or harrassment.

Physical and mental health

Being highly sensitive is not a diagnosis in itself but there are clinical conditions which encompass forms of emotional oversensitivity. These include borderline personality disorder, ADHD, bipolar disorder, major depression, and social anxiety. Physical health conditions including chronic pain, fatigue, and insomnia can also affect how we react. If you feel your issues might be health-related discuss your concerns with your doctor.

A friend of mine anticipated some difficult times ahead which might be hard for her to manage. Based on past experience she consulted her clinician to see if a change of medication might be appropriate. Fran and I keep an eye on how she responds to people and events because over sensitivity can be a red flag for mania or bipolar anger.

Give yourself space

If the problem is circumstantial and temporary you may find yourself less overwhelmed once the situation calms down. In the meantime, or if things keep triggering you, take yourself out of the situation if possible. A friend of mine does this if she finds herself overwhelmed or triggered. It can help to have someone you can safely let it out (or “vent”) to.


Fran and I find meditation helps us respond more calmly and proportionately to whatever’s happening in our lives. Other friends of ours also find it useful. I recommend the loving-kindness meditation because it focuses on our attitude to other people. There are a number of versions, my favourite is this one by UNH Health and Wellness.

Resilience training, NVC, and the Four Agreements

You might benefit from learning some more healthy approaches to handling stress and situations that trigger you. If so, you’ll find a range of information and training available online for resilience training (for example here, here and here) and nonviolent communication (NVC). Also called compassionate communication, NVC is based on the idea that we all have the capacity for compassion and only resort to violent or harmful behaviour when we are unable to find more effective strategies to meet our needs.

With Nonviolent Communication (NVC) we learn to hear our own deeper needs and those of others. Through its emphasis on deep listening — to ourselves as well as others — NVC helps us discover the depth of our own compassion. This language reveals the awareness that all human beings are only trying to honor universal values and needs, every minute, every day.

Fran and I have found NVC helpful in exploring our responses to difficult situations with each other and with other people.

A friend recently mentioned something I’d heard of but knew very little about.

Have you seen The Four Agreements, Marty? One is: Don’t take anything personally. When other people say shit to me like that it’s a reflection of their ignorance and narrow mindedness. It really has nothing to do with me.

She was talking about a body of work inspired by The Four Agreements: Practical Guide to Personal Freedom, by Don Miguel Ruiz. The agreements are:

Be impeccable with your word.
Don’t take anything personally.
Don’t make assumptions.
Always do your best.

Of these, the second and third have the most to say about being (or feeling we are) too sensitive.

Don’t take anything personally. “Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.”

Don’t make assumptions. “Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.”

Taken together with NVC, these principles remind us that other people have their issues, hangups, perspectives, and needs too. We don’t have to like how they behave towards us or others but we have options. Not leaping to conclusions, and not assuming we are at fault, can take us a long way towards responding in ways we feel comfortable about.

I’ll close with a quotation from a blog post I came across whilst researching this article:

If considering yourself as a ‘highly sensitive person’ (HSP) helps you understand yourself, and works to make your life easier and more fulfilled, wonderful. And if it means you focus your sensitivity in useful ways like being creative and empathetic, even better.

But if you find you are using being oversensitive as an excuse, then not so great. If you are opting out of relationships, for example, or not going after the career you want, because you are ‘too sensitive’, then that is not helpful.

And if you suspect you had childhood trauma or did not receive the love and care you needed when young, then it’s a very wise idea to reach out for support.

Do you consider yourself to be “too sensitive”? Do you consider it a blessing or a curse? Have you ever thought life might be easier if you were more thick-skinned? Do other people’s words and actions affect you more than is healthy for you? If so, what changes or strategies have you found helpful? We’d love to hear from you.


Photo by Nicole Baster on Unslpash.


Thursday, 10 September 2020

Selected Articles for #WorldSuicidePreventionDay 2020

For #WorldSuicidePreventionDay 2020 we’ve compiled a selection of relevant articles we’ve shared over the past few years. Thanks to our friend and fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson of I’m NOT Disordered for the inspiration for this post, and much more.

How to Take Care of Yourself When Your Friend is Suicidal

Being in a relationship with someone who talks about wanting to die can be stressful and draining, so remember to pay as close attention to your well-being as to your friend’s. [Read more]

17 Online Suicide Awareness Courses and Podcasts

This article presents a selection of online suicide awareness courses and podcasts for anyone who wants to learn about this challenging subject that is a lived reality for many. No course or podcast can make you an expert overnight. You will, however, be better equipped to help someone who may be considering suicide and be in need of support. Many of these resources also address wider issues including stigma and the importance of open communication. [Read more]

The Stranger on the Bridge and Other Stories of Friendship and Support

Hearing Jonny talk about what happened on the bridge was intensely moving for me, as I’m sure it was for everyone in the room. He spoke of Neil holding space, of his being engaged and “invested.” Above all it was Neil’s positivity and lack of judgement that made the difference, as well as him telling Jonny there was no need to be embarrassed. This stranger’s acceptance, compassion, and simple humanity saved Jonny’s life. [Read more]

Sometimes We Need to Ask the Questions

This post was inspired by an open letter to me by fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson in response to an article I wrote recently about imposter syndrome, self-doubt, and legitimacy. In her letter, Aimee described how important it is to have people she can turn to for support. [Read more]

A Heap of "S" Words and an Aitch: Stigma, Suicide, Self-Harm - and Hope

Having a study buddy is great because — as Fran and I have found many times — you have someone to share ideas and perspectives with, and to talk through any issues that come up. This is especially valuable with something as complex and important as suicidality. [Read more]

She Is So Not OK: Being There When Your Friend Is Suicidal

Suicidal thinking has been part of our friendship since we met. Indeed, it is how we met. One evening in May 2011, I found myself on the social media page of someone who was clearly going through a rough time. She didn’t seem to be online, but in the previous hour she had publically shared suicidal thoughts and feelings. [Read more]


Few people are helpful when you are sick and many push you closer to that edge, either from lack of understanding or by disappearing altogether. It is, after all, an illness, a dangerous one, as surely as any of the physical conditions that can take your life. It is hard to know, sometimes, where you end and where illness starts. Therein lies the conundrum. [Read more]

Be the Best Yourself You Can Be

I feel it is important to say that being there for someone who lives with suicidal thoughts and feelings isn’t all about talking them down from a bridge or asking how many pills they took, what they were and how long ago. [Read more]


If You Need Help

Our resources page includes links to suicide crisis lines / support organisations, training resources, and books. UK mental health charity Mind offers a range of help and information if you need support or are concerned for someone else.


Wednesday, 9 September 2020

No Sorries

Fran and I have a “no sorries” rule, which means that we don’t apologise to each other for things we do or say. There are times when we need to talk about things we know will be difficult for the other to hear, and we trust each other to handle what comes up.

This might seem strange. We are brought up believing we should apologise when we’ve done something which – deliberately or not – has upset or harmed another person. An apology, “Sorry I hurt you”, is how people generally acknowledge the damage they’ve caused and seek to set things straight. Refusing to do so might appear counterintuitive and disrespectful, as though we are refusing to take responsibility. In fact, the opposite is true. It’s far too easy to say “sorry” and expect the other person to move on, or demand an apology as though that will wipe the slate clean.

Don’t get me wrong, “sorry” has been known to escape our lips, although the other person tends to respond with a “no sorries” reminder and a smile, recognising that something important is happening. Because, of course, I do feel bad if something I say or do results in Fran feeling hurt or distressed, and she feels the same way.

Many years ago I reacted without thinking to Fran telling me she’d been drinking more heavily than usual. I leapt on her with the dangers of relying on alcohol to get her through difficult times, when what she needed was for me to listen. She wasn’t hiding her drinking from me, in fact she brought it to me precisely because she needed me to help her remain aware of what was happening. My instinctive response, however, was unhelpful and I realised so immediately.

Frannie, I know we don’t do “sorries”, but I am sorry for leaping at you like that!

It’s okay, Marty. No worries. No sorries.

I’m listening now. What were you trying to say?

The point isn’t whether or not we feel bad, it is how we deal with those feelings and what we take responsibility for. Fran and I take our personal responsibilities very seriously. If Fran says something which I find hard to accept or deal with, she will take responsibility for saying it, but I take ownership of my response.

Our triggered reactions are often only superficially related to what the other person said or did. It is my experience that there can be huge therapeutic value in triggered responses. More often than not I end up grateful to the other person for playing their part in the process.

“No sorries” does not mean that Fran and I get to blunder about with no awareness or regard for the other’s feelings or well-being. We do not deliberately trigger hurtful responses in each other for the fun of it or on the off chance that we benefit in some way as a result. But neither do we wrap each other in cotton wool, protecting them from experiencing things because we might judge it painful to them. That would be to rob both of us of the opportunity to learn something new about ourselves and each other.

In the first year of our friendship I wanted to buy Fran a gift for her birthday. She seemed to like the idea but as we discussed it one night she became increasingly distressed and anxious. I kept pressing her to talk about it. In the end Fran broke down in tears and ended the call. I felt awful and, as I recall, flooded her with apologetic messages and texts. I wanted to take it all back, to make everything right again, to erase whatever it was that had just happened. Later, Fran shared with me something of her life-long issues with gift giving and receiving. This helped me understand what had happened between us and offered me an insight into Fran’s past, her life and issues. I realised that hers were almost the inverse of my tendency to over-gift. If I’d been more cautious, if I’d spotted the early signs of her distress and backed down straight away we might never have reached that level of understanding.

More generally, “no sorries” gives us freedom to feel and express the little grievances, irritabilities and frustrations without feeling guilty for them, blaming the other person, or having to apologise afterwards. It doesn’t always work, of course, but it works more often than you might imagine.

So, the next time you find yourself about to apologise for something you’ve done or said, take a moment to consider what the “sorry” actually means to you. Find different words to express that meaning to the other person, and see what happens.


Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash


Saturday, 5 September 2020

Let It Out! How to Vent Powerful Emotions Safely

Let it go, let it go.
Can't hold it back anymore.

(Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez. “Let It Go.”)

In a previous article I discussed three kinds of conversation you might encounter in a mutually caring relationship. I call these “My Turn, Your Turn,” “It Will Be Your Turn in a Minute,” and “I Need to Talk Right Now.” Each has its place but the third is arguably the most critical — and perilous — because we’re at our most vulnerable when we allow ourselves to share powerful emotions.

There are times when we want and need to just let the words flow, to “dump” (although I hate that expression), to express whatever it is we are feeling or thinking without being interrupted, questioned, or judged.

In this article I want to explore how to let the words flow — to vent — as safely and productively as possible.

Who, How, When, and Where

It goes without saying that it’s best to vent to someone you trust; someone who can hold space without judging you or trying to stem the flow of what you need to get out. Fran and I write about this kind of trust in our book High Tide, Low Tide:

We believe it is healthier to be open about our thoughts and feelings than to dismiss, hide, or avoid them. We share what is happening with us, discuss things if we need to, and then move on. In doing so, we hold a safe space where we can “let it all out.” We sometimes get upset or angry with each other, but we deal with discord promptly if it occurs, recognising there is no need to fear even powerful emotions when they can be explored safely.

It’s what Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has called deep listening:

Deep listening simply means listening with compassion. Even if the other person is full of wrong perceptions, discrimination, blaming, judging, and criticizing, you are still capable of sitting quietly and listening, without interrupting, without reacting. Because you know that if you can listen like that, the other person will feel enormous relief. You remember that you are listening with only one purpose in mind: to give the other person a chance to express themselves, because up until now no one has taken the time to listen.

Of course, not everyone wants or needs to vent in person like this. I find it hard to share really strong emotions, even with Fran and other friends I trust and feel safe with. I’m more likely to process strong emotions by writing them out. I’ve kept a daily journal for the past forty-five years and if I don’t have it with me I take notes on my phone. Venting onto the page like this helps me let things out without necessarily bringing them to others who might be affected by what I’m going through. Journaling does carry the risk of disclosure, however, unless you can be certain your words — whether digital or written in a diary or notebook — are secure from being read by others.

When words elude me, walking helps. It’s particularly effective when I’m in a rage or overwhelmed by feelings of abandonment, worry, or anxiety. It doesn’t matter much where I’m walking; what matters is the physical exertion and movement.

When I’m happy, I walk. When I’m sad, or lonely or lost. When I’m hurting, or numb. When there’s too much to think about Or nothing on my mind. I walk.

Walking is so important to me that I included it in my Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP).

Be Clear About What’s Going On

If you’re opening up in person or someone is opening up to you, it’s important you both understand what’s going on. Clarity protects us from oversharing or overwhelm, or what Brené Brown calls floodlighting (not to be confused with gaslighting):

Oversharing? Not vulnerability; I call it floodlighting. ... A lot of times we share too much information as a way to protect us from vulnerability ...

Being clear about our needs gives the other person chance to make space and prepare themselves, or to say they’re unavailable if that’s the case. A close friend messaged me recently:

I could really do with a call. As soon as it is convenient for you if you don’t mind. I’m raging so will need to have the floor at first then it’s all yours!

I was grateful for the heads up. In those few words, my friend gave me the context and let me know how urgently my support was needed — as soon as possible but not necessarily immediately. I cleared space to take her call and was able to hold space from the start without engaging in small talk or asking unnecessary questions. On this occasion, I was aware of the back story but I try not to anticipate what — or why — someone needs to share with me. Fran rarely gives me a heads up but I’ve learned to let her lead when we start our calls in case there’s something she urgently needs to share.

As Long As It Takes

Anger is perhaps the emotion we most commonly need to vent, or that someone might need to vent to us, but it might be any strong emotion such as anxiety, frustration, resentment, despair, jealousy, or envy. Venting safely can form part of a protective strategy which allows us to acknowledge the emotion for what it is without acting in unhelpful or unhealthy ways.

Bipolar anger is a common experience for many who live with the disorder. One friend described it as “bipolar’s go-to emotion.” That might sound like abrogating responsibility, but I find the description helpful. It conveys how hard it can be to handle a triggered response and engage more “reasonably.” My friend takes herself out of the triggering situation if possible. Having someone to vent to — whether in person or on the phone — allows her to handle her anger safely until it has passed.

Holding space for someone in this way can take anything from a few minutes to an hour or so. While my friend is talking I try not to interrupt her, ask too many questions, or offer suggestions. After ten or twenty minutes the flush of anger has passed. She is calmer and can focus more clearly on what needs to happen next.

These days, it’s rare for Fran to vent anger in this way, although it’s happened in the past, particularly when she has been in mania. More usually, it’s frustration at her life situation or something that’s happened within her immediate circle of friends. Letting go might fill one or more of our twice-daily calls. Some deep-seated issues have seen me holding space for up to an hour or so every day for several weeks.

It’s similar when I’m venting to myself in my journal. I might “write it out” for half an hour or so at a time, then set it aside and return to it later if necessary. This might continue over a period of days or weeks if the situation keeps recurring.

Moving Forward

Venting can help us move safely through overwhelming emotion, but it is not a fix for whatever condition, situation, or trigger brought us to crisis in the first place. It might be a one-off, an occasional occurrence, or part of an ongoing pattern. If you’ve held space for someone, consider offering your support in the future. Knowing there’s someone who will listen no matter what you’re going through without judging you or insisting on “fixing things” can be extraordinarily reassuring.

Be the person who won’t turn away when your friend or loved one needs to vent. I’d go so far as to say it’s the single most powerful thing you can do to help someone deal with whatever they’re going through.


Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash


Wednesday, 26 August 2020

Waiting for Fran: A Few Thoughts on Expectation and Boundaries

Originally written December 2012.

Last night I was waiting for Fran to get home and come online for our call. She messaged to say she was home and was just going to send her friend a birthday message. I was happy to hear that and figured she wouldn’t be long. Then she messaged to say she was going to check my Facebook wall.

I started getting impatient. Couldn’t she come on webcam with me while she did that? I put some gentle music on and did some meditative breathing while I waited.

Fran finally called at 11:30. She was thirty minutes “late”. The first thing she said was that she had found the “Two minutes of calm” video I’d posted on Facebook and had meditated to that. I was cross, because I’d thought we could have done that together (which we did, later, once I’d regained my composure).

Part of me recognised that, of course, Fran is free to do whatever she wants. She’d been out all day and must have wanted a little space to herself before meeting with me. But another part of me was sorely aggrieved. Surely she knew I was waiting and was eager to see her. It was a classic pouty moment!

It didn’t last very long. Fran was great with me. She allowed me to acknowledge what I was feeling until I was ready to let go of it. THAT is why we work so well together. We understand how these things work.

The day before, she was uptight about not having heard back from her friend about accommodation for their Barcelona trip. On that occasion I gave her space to express what she was feeling, to let it out so she was ready later to sort things out with her friend. It’s what we do.

Thinking about all that leads to something really important: the changes the well one goes through as the ill one moves towards wellness. The shifts in role. The sense of being abandoned or left behind; that all this care has been given and what is the caregiver going to get back in return? I remember Fran telling me of cases where the person with illness (cancer, I think) had really strong/bad reactions from their carers or partners as they moved towards wellness and the balance shifted.

It fits with what happened last night. I was frustrated because Fran didn’t seem as keen to be online with me as I was. In fact, she was taking care of herself and paying attention to what she needed, in a very healthy way.

I’m proud of her for doing that. I’m proud of us both.


Photo by Nordwood Themes on Unsplash.

Wednesday, 19 August 2020

Three Things I've Learned About Mental Health Medication

Following on from my article Three Things I Wish People Knew about Loving Someone with Mental Illness I want to share a few things I’ve learned about mental health medication. First, a disclaimer. I have no first-hand experience of taking mental health medication. What I’ve learned comes from my nine-year friendship with Fran and from other close friends.

My loved ones live with a variety of mental health conditions and symptoms including anxiety, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder (BPD), depression, visual and auditory hallucinations, suicidal thinking, and self-harm. Some live with more than one of these. Several also have physical health conditions to deal with, including chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS/ME), type 1 diabetes, fibromyalgia, hearing loss, visual impairment, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Despite their different conditions and histories, my friends have many experiences and approaches in common when it comes to medication. I’ve chosen three — compliance, weight gain, and vigilance — which seem particularly important from my perspective as a caring friend.

A Commitment to Compliance

Compliance (sometimes called adherence or capacitance) is the degree to which someone follows medical advice. It usually refers to medication (“taking your meds”) but it can apply to other things such as using medical devices, self-care, or attending and engaging with therapy. My friends all follow their prescribing clinicians’ instructions closely and rarely if ever miss a dose. If they do, it’s through a lapse of attention or because of a change in routine. Fran sometimes asks me to remind her about her meds when she is away from home, for example, and we double check she has all her medication before she travels.

My friends rightly consider themselves experts in their lives and how illness and medications affect them. They also respect the professionals involved in their care, although they may disagree with them at times. Fran has sought second opinions in the past, for example. As one friend said to me recently, “They’re the ones who have studied for years!” That respect comes easiest when the professionals — be they clinicians, psychiatrists, therapists, doctors, nurses, case managers, or other mental health workers — are open to the opinions, experiences, needs, and fears of those they are charged with supporting.

It took Fran many years to arrive at a set of meds which, by and large, allows her to maintain her stability without too many side effects. Some struggle to find that balance or are still on the road towards it. I can only imagine — and commend — the determination it takes to persevere, day after day, month after month with regimes of medication, often coupled with other treatments and therapies, with little success to show for it, whilst often enduring the most horrendous side effects.

I would never judge someone who is unable or unwilling to pursue a particular treatment regime if it proves unworkable or unendurable. Indeed, it should be part of their dialogue with their prescribing clinician. But the consistent message from those I know best is that a commitment to compliance is the straightest path to stability and wellness.

Weight Gain

Amongst the varied side effects of psychoactive medication, weight gain is one of the most common, least understood, and hardest to manage. In our book High Tide, Low Tide Fran and I discuss her struggles with weight, body image, and her relationship with food. Before we met I little understood how hard it can be to unpick the complex knot of interdependencies and make meaningful and lasting changes.

It’s a simple fact that many meds prescribed for mental health conditions lead to increased weight. The mechanisms are not fully understood but I don’t need to understand how it happens to know that it does. Fran and I have seen it with her weight over the years we have been friends. Almost every change in medication has led to a weight increase which has been incredibly hard to counter. I hear similar tales from other friends.

Weight gain is not a trivial or benign side effect. It can have serious physical repercussions and its effects on mood, self-esteem, confidence, and relationships cannot — and must not — be ignored. They can too readily lead to depression, despair, and suicidality. As one friend said to me recently:

My choice shouldn’t be sane and fat or skinny and fucking nuts. How many regular people would consider it and how many psychiatrists would put up with it? Being fat is a whole different stress emotionally and socially. It’s social suicide in many ways. Weight gain makes me very depressed. My mind is heavily weighed down by my thoughts as it is. When you add physical weight into the mix, everything feels heavier.

Ongoing Vigilance

Managing mental health conditions is a dynamic act akin to juggling, or keeping a set of dinner plates spinning. What balls or plates am I talking about? It depends on the person, their life experience, and underlying health conditions, but here are a few things Fran is juggling on a more or less constant basis:

  • Mental health (depression, mania, agitation, anxiety, suicidality).
  • Physical health (fatigue, pain, insomnia).
  • Activity, energy, and rest.
  • Weight, eating, and drinking.
  • Relationships (family and friends).

Each of these requires her attention and ongoing adjustments to keep everything from crashing to the ground. To hijack the familiar saying, the price of wellbeing is eternal vigilance.

Meds are meant to be stabilising but they often introduce new instabilities which themselves need to be managed. Even when things seem stable there is a need for vigilance. It’s the clinician’s responsibility to diagnose and prescribe but no one knows better than the person with illness what they need and are experiencing. For example, Fran can make temporary preapproved adjustments to her medication if she detects the onset of mania. If symptoms persist or worsen she will make an appointment to see her psychiatrist. Another friend recently experienced symptoms of anxiety for which she has been treated in the past. Recognising the dangers she consulted her prescribing clinician to ask if a meds adjustment might be appropriate.

A different friend’s pharmacy stopped dispensing one medication altogether. This wasn’t spotted for some weeks, during which my friend’s stability and safety were severely compromised. It was an error with potentially serious repercussions. Even after the mistake was corrected it took time to restore the full protective benefits of the medication. It’s fair to say my friend will pay very close attention from now on to what is dispensed. It’s also important to keep an eye on — and seek appropriate treatment for — physical symptoms such as insomnia, fatigue, and chronic or extreme pain because these can significantly affect a person’s mental health.


We’ve taken a look at some of the things I’ve learned about mental health medication. Do you have experiences you’d like to share? What would you want others to know? What is the most important thing you have learned? We’d love to hear from you.

Photo by Halacious on Unsplash


Wednesday, 12 August 2020

Painting, Photography and Positive Mental Health

By Peter McDonnell

As on most weekends, today I was out and about visiting nearby open gardens run by The National Garden Scheme. My mum and I park the car after the usual drive through villages of thatched cottages, village halls, churches and well-kept lawns. During lockdown the large properties that host the gardens are not busy and we are often treated to a personal tour by the owners. You can see how happy they are sharing stories old and new about how their gardens came to be. You can pick out the differences of the owners’ individual spots of fondness, occasionally accompanied by a comment of slight aversion to their spouse’s decision to place some quirky item amongst the otherwise perfect design!

We walk around for about an hour, my mum teaching me the names and attributes of flowers. This is where I get my photography done. Most of the roses are past their best now that it is August, but I’ve taken many photographs of my favourite flower over the last two months.

I think they look especially good climbing up or falling over the top of a stone wall, so much so that I did an oil painting of a photo I took of roses on the wall of a thatched cottage that we saw on one of our recent summer afternoons out.

Rosy Cottage on Abbey Road

Painting and photography has made a real difference to my mental health

I started painting in March, inspired by the coronavirus lockdown. I bought some acrylic paints when I was eighteen in 2000, and they sat in the loft unused for twenty years. Occasionally I’d think about them but it always seemed like a chore to fetch them down and use them.

Recently, though, I watched a few TV programmes about how to paint, including ‘The Joy of Painting’ by the wonderful Bob Ross, the American guy with the afro hairstyle who in the 80’s presented clips painting quick but skilled scenes where he talked us through how it was done.

Inspired, I got the paints out and set myself up in my garden. By the end of the day I had completed something that wasn’t half bad! Of course, it wasn’t skilled but it was imaginative and colourful. I remember thinking about David Hockney and how his works are rarely based on accuracy and he gets on okay… he sells his paintings for millions, £94 million is his record.

Not having the burden of accuracy increased the enjoyment I felt. I remembered a few of Bob Ross’ tips (paint the background first, distant objects need less detail etc.) and away I went. A few days later I bought some canvasses, oil paints etc., and started my second painting. For that one I had a few really interesting ideas about provoking some thought, and the big tree that was the centre of focus looked fantastic. After a couple of days I couldn’t have been happier with the result. Then on to the next one … I have now painted about twenty canvasses. I can’t stop! My boss at one of my part-time jobs liked my online gallery and asked me to paint a series of murals in his large shop. I’m halfway through and it’s a pleasure.

If you are wondering about the connection with mental health, I’m so happy while I’m painting my murals. Mixing up the colours, being adventurous and bold and feeling it actually work into something alluring is a feeling that stays with me for the rest of the day. I step back and feel a sense of achievement. People come and go in the shop and often ask about it. They compliment me too if I’m lucky. I feel a little boost every time someone says they are impressed. When I go to my evening part-time job, colleagues ask how I am and I always say ‘I’m fantastic’ because I am, because I’ve been painting. Some people have spoken about being a little slowed down in activity during the pandemic, but I’ve surprised myself. I’ve never been so productive.

My favourite artists and inspirations are Van Gogh, Monet, Manet and Hockney. I knew who these artists were before lockdown but that was all. Since getting into painting I’ve also started looking at art. I’ve ‘caught the bug’ and I found a wonderful app, the Google Arts and Culture app, which has told me all about these guys. This new passion will be by my side until I’m old. I know much of their work intimately now. A real joy.

Mental Health

I was diagnosed with ‘cannabis-induced psychosis with delusions of a grandiose nature’ and serious anxiety in 2002 and 2005. It has mostly fallen away now. I consider myself ninety percent recovered due to good luck, support and hard work. I have had a long, serious and interesting journey. I am still on anti-psychotic and anti-anxiety medication. The antipsychotic worked wonders for me. I think of it with actual fondness. But it dulls the brain slightly, for some more than others, as do many medications. It slows me down in my cognitive abilities etc, and I feel the difference most profoundly in my memory. Before medication it worked smoothly and quite effortlessly, but these days if I don’t write things down or use mnemonic tips, information and everything else is subject to something of a disappearing act.

Since I started painting though, the creative side of my brain has returned in an enjoyable and controlled way. It’s also affected my memory in a very positive way. A few days after my new hobby began I found that I was remembering things – the best-before dates on refrigerated items coolly awaiting dinnertime consumption, numbers on paperwork at work, my mum’s varying weekly schedule. I must say it’s a welcome change after so many years of being on the forgetful side. It’s connected to the painting and the creativity in the same way that it’s easier to remember a colourful scene than a black and white one. So as well as all the joy of painting it’s improving my memory and cognitive skills too in a real way.

So having that working away, it helps me to build on it, which is where the photography comes in amongst other things. When I’m taking pics of flowers and nature and sharing them, it’s another piece of my mind that is awakened and happy indulging in a hobby. During my recovery my supportive team encouraged distraction techniques, activities that got me out and about, and spending time on an activity that I could enjoy.

One thing I have found for myself is that maintaining good mental health requires small but consistent efforts and doing things every day to keep me happy. This is part of why painting and photography have been so helpful. It seems like a cliché sometimes that art is good for mental health but knowing how it has helped me I’d really recommend it. I hope the positivity continues!

Thanks for reading. I have more to see on my mental health blog including my online art gallery and posts about how my medication turned my life around, a post about visiting Monet’s garden in France last year, and more about art and mental health.

About the Author

Pete is thirty-eight and lives in Hampshire, England. He is very open about mental health and discussing his journey. He has lived through serious psychosis, suicide attempts, hospitalisations, and panic attacks, then had a slow but steady recovery helped by writing and blogging, and more recently art and photography. He is now enjoying life and working on his memoirs. He is always keen for new visitors to his mental health website and blog


Wednesday, 5 August 2020

Julie A. Fast on Kanye West, Bipolar Disorder, and Relationships

Kanye West’s recent public struggles with bipolar disorder have brought considerable attention to a condition which affects millions around the world.

One of our regular contributors Julie A. Fast wrote an article for Psychology Today called Is Kanye West Just a Grandiose, Attention-Seeking Rapper? in which she discussed the difference between bragging and grandiose mania/psychosis.

She was subsequently interviewed for US television on the topic of Kanye West and bipolar disorder. It’s worth reading the article before watching the video (below) as Julie mentions it regularly in her interview.

In the interview, Julie talks about herself, bipolar disorder and why it’s so hard for people like Kanye to get help, even with his wealth and resources. She also talks about the message that his wife Kim Kardashian posted on Instagram, from which the following is excerpted:

“Living with bi-polar disorder does not diminish or invalidate his dreams and his creative ideas, no matter how big or unobtainable they may feel to some. That is part of his genius and as we have all witnessed, many of his dreams have come true. We as a society talk about giving grace to the issue of mental health as a whole, however we should also give it to the individuals who are living with it in times when they need it the most. I kindly ask that the media and public give us the compassion and empathy that is needed so that we can get through this. Thank you for those who have expressed concern for Kanye's well-being and for your understanding.” (Kim Kardashian)

Author of Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder, Take Charge of Bipolar Disorder, and Get it Done When You’re Depressed, Julie is well-placed to offer her perspective on the subject of romantic relationships and bipolar disorder:

  • She has bipolar disorder and a psychotic disorder. She was originally diagnosed with bipolar disorder; later changed to schizoaffective disorder. When a person has bipolar disorder and a separate psychotic disorder, the diagnosis is more complex.
  • Julie was in a relationship for ten years with a man who has bipolar I (bipolar 1 disorder).
  • She wrote the first book ever for the partner of a person with a mental health disorder. Her book Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder: Understanding and Helping Your Partner has sold over 400,000 copies and remains the #1 book for partners in the world.
  • As you can tell from her Psychology Today article, she has been a fan of rap music since the 1980s!

Julie has guested on our blog several times and is a huge champion of our work. She was an original reviewer for our book High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder which opens with her words:

Friendship soothes the soul and provides hope for people with bipolar disorder and yet the illness creates unique challenges to the friendships we so desperately want and need. Marty and Fran specifically address these challenges in this bright, uplifting and brutally honest book. Filled with stories and practical tips, there is more laughter than sorrow as the reader learns to cultivate a loving, kind and caring friendship that transcends the illness and creates a lasting bond.

Julie often tells people that High Tide, Low Tide is one of the best books for siblings of people with bipolar disorder, as they don’t get the attention they need due to their sibling’s illness. We love working with her and are proud to know her as a friend as well as a valued contributor to Gum on My Shoe.


Wednesday, 29 July 2020

The Roles of a Friend

This article is excerpted from chapter 1, “The Caring Friendship: Key Skills and Attitudes,” of our book High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder. Photo by nonresident on Unsplash.

No matter who we are, we all assume various roles in our relationships with others. At different times, Fran and I have used a variety of labels to clarify our respective roles. These include friend, best friend, listener, confidant, teacher, balancer, haven, gate-keeper, and advocate. The three most fundamental are listener, balancer, and haven.

Being a Good Listener

Being a good listener is a very specific skill; knowing a person well and caring about them does not necessarily make the role easier. Four key points help me focus on what is important.

  • Don’t interrupt.
  • Remember it’s their story, not yours.
  • Save your judgments for later.
  • Don’t try to fix everything.

Don’t Interrupt

It is hard to listen to someone in distress—especially a friend or loved one—without offering comments, questions, suggestions, or potential fixes. Nevertheless, your friend needs to feel able to share without being interrupted or pressured to find a solution. This doesn’t mean you must listen in complete silence, but resist the temptation to interject or influence the story. Small supportive comments will help things along, and occasionally echoing back what your friend has been saying will reassure both of you that the message is getting across. Ask for clarification if you do not understand, but do not pester for details. Allow your friend to share what they are ready to share.

Fran’s thoughts sometimes flow so rapidly that she struggles to express them coherently. She hates me interrupting because it breaks her concentration; she finds it almost impossible to pick up the thread afterwards. This was hard for me in our early days. I found the frequent admonitions to “Just let me finish!” frustrating. I was interested in what she had to say, but often felt I was missing the opportunity to contribute ideas of my own or explore hers. If I pushed her, she would lose track and become irritated. Our tempers sometimes got the better of us, but gradually we learned to work together. These days, Fran lets me know if she is having trouble marshalling her thoughts, and I allow her to finish what she is saying before taking my turn. I still catch myself talking when I should be listening, but I am better at it than I used to be.

It’s Their Story, Not Yours

If we have had similar experiences it is tempting to share. (“Oh, I know just how you feel. That happened to me.”) We want to show we understand what our friend is going through, but the ways in which we were affected, how we responded, and the lessons we learned––or failed to learn––are part of our life story not theirs. No matter how well-meant, our recollections and advice are likely to be neither relevant nor helpful. We are also shifting the focus away from our friend, who might imagine we value their story less than we do our own.

On the other hand, you may feel at a disadvantage if you have no similar experiences to draw on. I am fortunate to have known no major traumas in my life, and used to imagine this prevented me from connecting with people whose life stories were complex or traumatic. My friendship with Fran has taught me that whilst shared experiences can be useful, they are less important than a willingness to hold oneself open and honest. I no longer feel the need to apologise for the lack of trauma in my life.

Save Your Judgments for Later

Most of us like to believe we can listen to our friends without judging them, but there is a difference between forming an opinion (judgment) and imposing it on someone else. The former is healthy and necessary; the latter is, generally, unhelpful. Our opinions are based on our personal scales of goodness, rightness, or usefulness; if your friend trusts you then these scales are part of the person they trust. What counts is how you handle your opinions.

You have a responsibility to voice your concerns if you believe your friend’s situation or behaviour places them in danger. If the risk is serious or imminent it may be necessary to tell others; perhaps your friend’s doctor, psychiatrist, hospital, or the police. We describe just such a situation in chapter 9. Otherwise, save your opinions for later, rather than interrupting what your friend is telling you. Note the beliefs that underlie your judgments. They tend to say more about you than they do your friend.

Don’t Try to Fix Everything

This is the one I find hardest to put into practice! I have a tendency to suggest fixes for whatever seems to be wrong or broken. Fran will often ask for assistance, and I am happy to help if I can, but I need to remind myself that it is not my responsibility to resolve everything for her. To think otherwise would be unhealthy and disempowering for Fran. To focus only on what seems broken also robs her of the opportunity to simply talk through what is on her mind. Unless your friend specifically asks for assistance, assume that what they need right now is someone to listen. Better still, ask what your friend needs.

Being a Balancer

When Fran is in mania everything appears black or white to her. People are either angels or devils. Everyone loves her or everyone hates her. If things are going well, the universe is on her side and she is heedless of normal checks, precautions, and concerns. If something goes wrong, the whole world is against her. Depression skews her thinking heavily towards the dark. She loses track of even small successes and forgets that someone said something kind or was helpful. Things have always been as bleak and hopeless as they seem to be in that moment, and always will be.

It is part of my balancing role to notice such unhealthy patterns, bring them to Fran’s attention, and gently counter them. I first acknowledge that her thoughts and feelings are real to her. If I am unsure how factually accurate they are (did so–and–so really say or do what Fran is telling me they did?) I might try and draw out further details, or check Fran’s story against other evidence. I then offer Fran my own interpretation—not necessarily as the truth, but as an alternative which might not have occurred to her. I am not always successful, but over time, this approach has helped shift Fran towards a more balanced way of thinking.

Being a Haven

The most important role you can fill is that of someone your friend can rely on, feel safe with, and trust to be always there. Fran has friends “who are designated to be the string of my balloon.” We keep her grounded in times of mania, and prevent her from sinking too deeply when she is in depression. It is a cornerstone of our friendship that I am available for Fran no matter what is happening. We have spent many hours together when she has felt depressed, manic, anxious, afraid, or suicidal. There is little I can do to help on a practical level, but I can listen and talk with her. Above all, I can simply be there so that she knows she is not alone. Fran has written of this aspect of our friendship.

[Marty] didn’t try to change me. He didn’t try to fix me. He was simply there, listening, being a friend. He believed in me when I couldn’t believe in myself. One thing he said was that he wouldn’t go away no matter what I said or did. That enabled me to share freely with him. Without that safe container it’s much harder to share with people because boundaries are unclear.


Wednesday, 22 July 2020

The Languages of Love and Bipolar Disorder

By Janet Coburn

In 1995, Dr. Gary Chapman published his popular relationship book, The Five Love Languages. In it he proposed that there are different ways – or “languages” – that people use to communicate their love. Problems happen when one partner doesn’t speak the same language as the other; for example, when one gives the other literal gifts while the other yearns for time together.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about love and bipolar disorder lately and it occurred to me that the five love languages could be a helpful lens for looking at relationships. In particular, they might help a person realize what the other one needs when experiencing symptoms of the disorder.

Here are the five love languages and how they might be helpful if you are in a relationship with someone who has bipolar disorder.

Words of affirmation. I’m not talking here about the kinds of affirmation we are supposed to look in the mirror and give ourselves. I mean words of affirmation that come from outside, from another person, and are gifts of love. Everyone needs affirmations at times, but for people whose love language is words of affirmation, they can be positively soul-feeding.

For the bipolar person, these affirmations can be as simple as, “Thank you for coming out with me,” or “Congratulations on getting the bills paid,” or even, “I know you can do it,” or “I knew you could do it!” And for the bipolar person who struggles with self-esteem, imposter syndrome, or lack of motivation, these can be the words that keep us going.

Quality time. Quality time doesn’t have to mean an elaborate outing or a two-week vacation. It can be as simple as sitting on the sofa with your partner watching a movie, or cooking together. Especially when there’s something else you could be doing. Giving up that other activity to spend time with your loved one is another kind of love-gift.

Quality time – extended periods of togetherness – can be extra special to someone with bipolar who feels lonely, isolated, or unlovable. Just the idea that someone wants to spend time with you, even though you can barely stand to be with yourself, sends a powerful message.

Receiving gifts. There are people who value physical gifts and see in them the care and attention that another person spends selecting just the right thing. Diamond rings are unnecessary. In this language of love, a simple houseplant can even be preferable.

You probably shouldn’t expect a physical gift to “cheer up” a person with bipolar depression. As with any gift, the important thing is knowing what the person values and providing it to them. Comfort objects such as plush animals, mp3s of calming or favorite music, or a weighted blanket to ward off panic may be just the thing. Even a silly coffee mug with an appropriate saying can become a treasured item.

Acts of service. If the person you love values acts of service, then your way of speaking that love is accomplished when you do something for her or him. Doing the dishes or some other chore that usually falls to the loved one is one example.

For the bipolar person, acts of service that speak of love may be as simple as handling phone calls and visitors, or doing the shopping when he or she just can’t face the grocery store. “I’ll do it for you” is a powerful message that says, “I care about you and want to help ease your burdens.”

Physical touch. Strange as it may seem, some people never think of physical touch as a language of love unless they’re talking about sex. Of course, the physical and emotional intimacy of sex can speak love, but other kinds of touch do just as well for some people.

Bipolar people in the manic phase can have a high sex drive and appreciate some sexual attention even if you wouldn’t ordinarily want it at that time of day, for example. But the bipolar person can crave touch without sex as well. Hugging and cuddling, sitting close with an arm around the shoulders, and even a touch on the shoulder as you leave a room can speak volumes.

The important part of this is to learn and know what your partner values – what language of love she or he speaks – and to give it to them. Mixed signals, speaking the language that you would want instead of the one that your partner does, will not be processed as love. Physical gifts to one who hears love in affirmations will miss the mark.

Obviously, the best thing to do is to ask your partner which “language” they speak. But she or he may not even realize that there are different languages or which one is theirs. Observation, attention, and even trial and error may be necessary to get the communication going. But if you want to speak love to a person with bipolar disorder, these are communication skills that can be vital.

Originally published in February 2019 at Bipolar Me.


About the Author

Janet Coburn is a freelance writer/editor with bipolar disorder, type 2. She is the author of two books: Bipolar Me and Bipolar Us.

Janet writes about mental health issues including talk therapy, medication, books, bullying, social aspects, and public policy, but mostly her own experiences with bipolar 2. As she says, “I am not an expert and YMMV – Your Mileage May Vary.”