Wednesday 30 December 2020

2020: My Unpredicted Year

I don’t do New Year Resolutions, but in recent years I’ve shared “things I’d quite like to do” in the twelve months ahead. (If you’d like to see what they were you can do so here: 2017 | 2018 | 2019. You can read how I got on here: 2017 | 2018 | 2019.)

I decided to try something different for 2020. Instead of sharing a list of things I’d like to do at the start of the year, I drew up a personal shortlist of predictions. Needless to say, I didn’t see the pandemic coming!

Rather than explore my wayward predictions, I’d like to share my personal experience of a year that defied foretelling. For each month I’ve chosen one photo, and one article Fran and I shared that month on our blog. I hope you’ll enjoy them as much as I did bringing them together.


January

To get things rolling, I’ve chosen this photo of The Commissioner’s Quay Inn in Blyth. I was there at the start of the year with fellow blogger Aimee Wilson. We met twice more in January; once to mark her blog’s seventh anniversary, and once for a meal at Frankie and Benny’s restaurant in Newcastle. Sad to say, that branch of Frankie and Benny’s has now closed permanently, a victim of covid-19.

As my featured post for January, I’ve selected Every Day Essentials for the Successful Blogger, in which I share the tools I have with me wherever I go, to support my blogging and other writing.


February

My fondest memory from February is meeting one of my best friends at The Five Swans in Newcastle to celebrate her birthday. The pub was packed and noisy, but we had a table, good food, and a lot of fun. We planned to meet again in March for my birthday but those plans were dashed by the pandemic. That evening in the Five Swans was the last time I’d be in a busy social setting this year. I miss the noise and bustle of it.

I’ve chosen to feature Please Invite Me Out With You by Amy Cullis because it highlights the importance of human contact, inclusion, and presence. The imposition of covid restrictions here in the UK and world-wise has meant that collectively we’ve been much less able to meet in person with those we know and love.


March

The photo recalls one Saturday in March. I’d travelled into town to meet a friend for coffee. After we parted, I took myself to Stack, one of my favourite venues. It was still early and I had the place more or less to myself. I ordered a beer, and a veggie curry pie and chips. I didn't realise it at the time but that would be the last time I’d visit Stack — or see my friend in person — for many months. Covid restrictions, including the closing of hospitality venues, were announced in the UK on March 20.

The full impact of the pandemic may not be known for years, but in those first weeks we all struggled to make sense of what was happening. I was aware from the start how relatively privileged my situation was, not least because my job was safe and I was able to work from home. The guest article I’ve chosen to share — Coronavirus: Why “Stay Home” Is Not a Safe Option for Everyone — serves as a stark reminder that following the “Stay Home, Stay Safe” message was not equally feasible for all.


April

The photo shows a spread in my Passport Traveler’s Notebook at the start of lockdown. The holiday I’d booked in the English Lake District was cancelled because of covid. Instead, I spent two weeks at home, only going outside for groceries and permitted local walks for exercise. I missed the opportunity to meet with friends and visit the places I otherwise would have done, but as the days passed I settled into the new routine. It helped immensely that I could use technology to connect with friends near and far. My warmest memories are of sharing my walks and time in the garden with friends via video calls.

In A Postcard from My Lockdown Vacation I shared what was to be the first of three such staycations this year.


May

Socially distanced queuing outside the supermarket was one aspect of life under covid that fortunately didn't last too long. Queues are rare these days and much shorter than the one shown in this photo. Empty shelves and toilet paper shortages are also, hopefully, a thing of the past.

The theme for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week (MHAW) was kindness and in 10 Ways I Was Kind to Myself This Week I shared some of the ways I was kind to myself at that time.


June

My daily walks for exercise gave me the opportunity to explore my neighbourhood, including the narrow strip of wilderness between a new housing development and the Ouseburn stream. It soon became a favourite haunt. As always, I took my beloved Passport Traveler’s Notebook along.

Inspired by these walks, I compiled a list of all the official Traveler’s Company notebooks, inserts and accessories I could find online.


July

Apart from being unable to see my friends, what I missed most during lockdown was visiting my favourite local coffee shop, Costa Coffee in Kingston Park. It reopened in July during my second two week staycation and I visited as often as I could until it was forced to close its doors again to sit-in customers later in the year.

My featured post for July is Beauty Everywhere: Engaging with the Natural World. I’m a city boy but one thing I have enjoyed this year is discovering the natural world of my garden and local area.


August

By August, shops and hospitality venues were open and we were being encouraged to use them, providing appropriate covid measures were followed. I went into Newcastle for the first time since March to meet a friend at our favourite coffee shop, Caffè Nero in St Mary’s Place. It was great to see her but it felt very strange to be walking the streets of my city again when so much had changed since I’d last been there.

During August, Fran and I were delighted to share a great guest post by fellow mental health blogger Peter McDonnell, Painting, Photography and Positive Mental Health.


September

Music has been really important to me this year. The tracks and artists I’ve listened to whilst working in the garden and on my walks have more than kept me entertained. They have kept me company, and become part of my covid experience.

In I’m on My Way: Thoughts Inspired by Ed Sheeran's “Castle on the Hill” I shared what this one song evoked for me. As I wrote, “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.”


October

October brought the third of my covid staycations. I didn’t get to meet up with friends but I decided to treat myself to one day in Newcastle on my own. I got dressed up and visited Stack for the first time since March. It was especially meaningful as the seasonal Tipi bar was back again. I took my journal with me to record the moment. “I was at the door at 10am as they opened Stack and I’m the only person here in the Tipi. I have my pint of Maltsmiths, and some great music playing. [...] This place is VERY special to me, and it means the world to be here today — especially when new lockdown restrictions may mean no pubs etc open for some time.”

My featured post for October is Coffee and Scribbles: My Ten Favourite Writing Cafes, in which I shared some of the coffee shops and cafes that have played a role in my writing over the years.


November

November brought challenges at work and in my personal life, but also some successes and unlooked for rewards. The photo was taken on my evening walk on November 5, which is Bonfire Night (or Guy Fawkes Night) here in the UK. I didn’t see any bonfires but there were plenty of fireworks going off all around.

I’ve chosen to feature VRITRA: A Short Film on Mental Health, by Sachit Grover. Sachit contacted me on Twitter and I invited him to guest on our blog to introduce his film. Now available on Amazon Prime, Vritra is a moving tale with a message for us all.


December

The photo shows the biodiversity garden where I work. The area was fenced off through most of the year but the barriers came down at the start of December. I was on a video call with one of my best friends one day as I walked into work. As we approached the garden I got a sudden urge to have a go on the swing seats — so we did! It was a care-free moment in a year that has sometimes seemed short of such opportunities, and I treasure the memory.

Christmas under covid restrictions was never going to be the same, but it prompted me to look back over the years and explore What Christmas Means to Me. I concluded, “it’s fine if Christmas doesn’t all happen on December 25, or even in December at all. Christmas for me is less an event and more of a celebration of closeness and connection. In the same way that Fran celebrates her birthday month rather than just the day of her birth, we can celebrate Christmas 2020 during December and into the new year.”


Post of the Year

More than any other I’ve taken in 2020, this photo captures for me the essence of a year lived under covid restrictions. It shows the garden fence of a house not far from where I live. I passed it almost every day for months, when a local walk for exercise was the only permitted reason I had to leave the house, apart from trips to the store for groceries. I have photos of the mural taken at different times, as the family expanded on their orginal design. I spoke briefly with them twice, to commend their work and thank them for sharing such a positive and hope-full message.

For my final featured post I’ve chosen “Remember When?” — Building Shared Experience in Unprecedented Times. I wrote it in April when the immediate impact of covid was starting to sink in, but the full implications could scarcely be guessed. As Fran said at the time, “We are going through the pandemic together.” It closes with one prediction which holds strong as we come to the end of the year and look forward to whatever comes next:

There will be tears and pain when we look back on the pandemic of 2020. But there will also be joy and laughter, and the comfort that comes from surviving dark times in good company.


 

Wednesday 23 December 2020

Help When You Can: Notes for a Happy Life

Help when you can.
Be there when you can.
Encourage when you can.
A truly happy life comes
from giving more than you take
.

That anonymous quotation came up in my social media feed the other day. On the surface, it’s a straightforward encouragement to help people because it’s good for us to do so. There are three separate elements to it, though, each of which deserves exploring.

  • Offer what people need
  • Offer when you can
  • Enjoy the rewards

Let’s take a look at them in a little more detail.

Offer What People Need

The quotation doesn’t simply say help people, it suggests offering practical help, offering our presence, and offering encouragement. The point is there are different ways to support people, and it’s important to match what we offer with what will help them best. I’m reminded of a maxim of Fran’s that I find really helpful:

Give people what they need. Not what you need to give them.

It’s easy to skip the first part and leap in with whatever assistance we think is best for them or feel most comfortable giving. Unless you’ve been asked specifically, don’t assume you know what the person needs, even if you know each other well and you’ve helped them before. Listen more than talk, and if you’re unsure, ask. “How can I help you best right now?” is good. Be prepared for “I don’t know” or “Nothing, thanks” in reply.

It hurts when we see our friends or loved ones struggling and we’re unable to offer what they need, or they don’t want our help. Remind yourself that it’s not about you. The impulse to help is noble, but our need to do so is not the most important consideration. Sometimes, the most caring thing we can do is respect our loved one’s request for space.

Offer When You Can

When we are invited to help, the dilemma — in so far as there is one — is to balance supporting our friend or loved one with our own needs, boundaries, and responsibilities. That’s what the “when you can” part of the quotation means. Actually, it means two things: don’t over-commit yourself or do more than you're able, but also don’t do less. It’s easy to find excuses or be talked out of helping when it’s perfectly possible for you to do so.

“When you can” also reminds us there’s often a timeliness aspect to helping others. Sometimes the time simply isn’t right, and we serve ourselves and our friends best by respecting that. A friend of mine wanted to help someone she’s close to, but they declined the offer. My friend knew not to keep pushing and trusted her friend would come round when she was able to. That might never have happened, but it did. My friend’s help was all the more effective because she’d waited until the time was right.

Enjoy the Rewards

There’s no denying that it feels good to help someone, especially when it’s someone we know and care about. One of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received was when a friend told me I was someone they could rely on in an emergency, or at any other time.

It’s particularly comforting when you can offer and receive help without ego getting in the way. Fran and I are like that with each other, but it’s like that with other friends too. It means a lot that my friend Aimee can accept my presence and support simply, without either of us needing to make a fuss about it. She knows she can ask me if she needs help, and I'll be there if I can. Likewise, I know I can offer to help, and Aimee will accept it if she feels it is appropriate and meets her needs.

All that said, there are some potentially unhealthy things to watch out for. It’s easy to slip into feeling guilty if we’re unable to meet our friends’ needs for support. If we are always setting our own needs and boundaries aside in order to respond to other people’s requests, we can end up feeling burnt out, resentful, or overwhelmed. Codependency is another risk. This is where two people become dependent on the support they are able to offer each other (usually this is primarily from one person in the relationship to the other).

Doing too much, too often, or inappropriately invites the other person to become dependent on us. This is disempowering, and if left unchecked can develop into an unhealthy codependency. No matter how selfless we imagine ourselves to be — and selflessness is neither healthy nor sustainable — being a supportive friend or caregiver can play to our needs as much as to the other person’s. It can feel wonderful to be needed, and if our friend’s illness is chronic we have set ourselves up with a supporting role for the long term.

The best antidote to codependency is talking honestly with your friend or loved one about what is going on for you, including the need for each of you to maintain healthy boundaries.

I must disagree with the author’s claim that “a truly happy life comes from giving more than you take.” It sounds noble, but in my experience the rewards are greatest when support and caring are mutual, rather than one-sided. The balance needn’t always be 50:50, of course, and it will shift from time to time, but recognising that each of you can be there for the other is important. Aimee has been there for me many times when I’ve struggled or needed someone to talk to, but she still sometimes worries I might feel our friendship is a bit one-sided. I reminded her the other day that, as with me and Fran, the friendship we enjoy is definitely mutual. Another close friend thanked me recently for helping her. I replied with the certainty of previous experience, “You’d do the same for me.”

I’ll close with another excerpt from High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder:

Someone wrote to us recently, “Your journey as friends reminds us that mental illness doesn’t change what friendship is all about: being there for those we love.” That meant a lot because the reciprocal nature of our relationship is not always recognised. Fran is there for me as much as I am there for her.

Fundamentally, that’s what it’s all about. Or, as a friend of mine put it, “The more you give the more you receive in unexpected ways.”

 

Photo by TK Hammonds on Unsplash

 

Wednesday 16 December 2020

What Christmas Means to Me

I was searching for a blog topic recently and my son Mike suggested writing about my ideal Christmas. It was a good idea and I love this time of year, but I wasn’t sure how to approach it. My ideal Christmas has always been the last one I spent or the next one to come. In the end I decided to explore what I’ve enjoyed about Christmas in the past and how I’m feeling about this one, which is so different because of covid-19. I hope you enjoy sharing the journey with me.

Childhood Memories

My childhood memories of Christmas come to me as a series of disconnected snapshots or vignettes.

Hunting for the presents my parents had hidden away. Finding them in the suitcases stored underneath their bed.

Denshi board electronics set and Spirograph.

The wooden gifts my father made for me over the years: the castle my son inherited, the music box, and the fishing tackle box I wrote about decades later.

Standing outside Liverpool’s registry office on Christmas Eve in a blizzard at my cousin’s wedding.

Then there’s the year it was my parents’ turn to host the Boxing Day party for the extended family. It was so foggy no one could get home and aunts, uncles, and cousins had to stay overnight. This was fun for us kids, probably less so for the adults!

University Days

I studied pharmacy for four years at the University of Bradford. In common with many of my fellow students, I travelled home for Christmas, but there were plenty of opportunities to celebrate before we headed off.

I remember the day trip to London with a group of my new friends at the end of my first university term. We seemed to see more of the city on that one day than I would manage after university when I lived in the capital for three years!

I remember getting dressed up for my first year pre-Christmas Halls Ball, immortalised in my poem Contemplation 2:

Today, separated from you
by so many hours and tears
I found a picture of us
laughing.
Do you remember when we laughed as loud
—when a dream was all my desire
and the girl in the red dress danced away
a night of them
as I lay in her smile and the sounds of her singing

In my third year in Bradford, my housemates and I hosted a pre-Christmas meal for a few friends. I remember good food, laughter, and games. Somewhere, there’s a photo of Sally dancing on the table ...

London Town

After graduating from university I spent three years in London, although I still went home at Christmas.

I remember shopping in London for gifts and ideas. All the Christmas trees, lights and street decorations, in Covent Garden and elsewhere. Treating myself to roast chestnuts and mulled wine from street vendors.

I recall going into work at weekends to hand-print batches of Christmas cards.

I remember making cuddly toys and other presents for friends. The cuddly toy rats were particularly popular. I made Pemberton the grizzly bear as a Christmas gift for one of my dearest friends. Pemberton returned to me years later after she died.

Gift wrapping has always been a huge part of Christmas for me. I remember sitting on the floor in my bedsit wrapping presents for friends and family. I took it very seriously and built boxes from scratch for the odd-shaped items that are so difficult to wrap.

Newcastle

Christmasses in the thirty-plus years I’ve lived in Newcastle have been rich and varied. My first memory is a pre-Christmas meal in the house I shared in Sandyford before I moved to Kingston Park the following year.

Family trips to Dobbie’s garden centre in Ponteland for lunch on Christmas Eve. Choosing one new tree decoration each to add to the collection.

The wooden pirate ship and dolls house I made for Mike and Emma.

Cross-country trips to deliver gifts to family in Carlisle. Shopping and lunch at Gretna Green.

The annual trek into town to the post office to mail boxes and packages to friends in the UK and beyond.

The excitement of receiving packages through the mail, and (less fun!) the long queues at the sorting office to collect those which came when there was no one at home.

Dressing the tree in space cleared amongst the customary household clutter. Green and red ribbon bows I made decades ago for our first family Christmas. Precious decorations from friends and loved ones over the years. Mike’s pipe-cleaner beast. The paper crown and plaster tree Emma made at nursery.

Christmas morning phone calls and messages to those far away. Coffee and toast for breakfast in a sea of wrapping paper. Cooking the dinner. Roast chicken, rather than turkey. Roast potatoes and parsnip, Brussels sprouts, carrots, sage and onion stuffing, cranberry sauce, and gravy. Christmas pudding and custard.

Buffet meals for a day or so after. Raiding the fridge for cheeses, cold stuffing, olives; whatever can be found. Chutneys. Pringles. Mince pies, two at a time with cheese.

Marty and Fran

Fran and I met online in May 2011. Of all the Christmases we’ve shared since then, none have meant more than our first, as we described in our book High Tide, Low Tide.

During our first December as friends, Fran was in a deep depression after spending most of the previous year in mania. She felt bereft, isolated, suicidal, and alone. It meant a great deal to her that she could spend time on webcam with me and my family over Christmas and New Year. We opened our presents together, and Fran kept me company in the kitchen on Christmas morning as I cooked dinner, my netbook perched precariously on top of the saucepan stand. Fran told me later it was the best Christmas she had ever spent.

In December 2013 Fran took me on a visit to Swan Hall, which is a large Victorian house which opens its doors to visitors at Christmas in aid of local charities.

Fran: Do you wanna go to Swan Hall with me?

Martin: Is that the Christmas tree house?

Fran: Yes.. It’s $5 but I don’t think they’ll charge for you..

Martin: I’d love to! Christmas starts here!

We were on a video call as Fran arrived. I imagined she would end our call and take photographs to show me later, but she kept me on the line and even introduced me to the people on the door. “This is Marty, my friend from England. Do we need two tickets?”

Recent Years

Recent Christmases have been blessed by time spent locally with friends.

For the past two years, I’ve taken part in the wonderful Jingle Bell Walk in support of the Chris Lucas Trust. I have warm memories of us gathering with the other walkers outside Newcastle Civic Centre and then walking along Northumberland Street to Monument, down Dean Street, under the Tyne Bridge and along the Quayside to be met at the finish by Santa and his reindeer beside the Millennium Bridge. Dancing and singing along to Disney’s Let it Go!, then a quick drink in the Pitcher and Piano before heading home.

Drinks upstairs at the Charles Grey pub, then standing at the crowded doorway for the countdown to the Newcastle’s Christmas lights being turned on. Singing and dancing in the street to the Pogues’ Fairytale of New York, which will always remind me of that day.

Christmas shopping in Morpeth with Aimee. Calling on her just before Christmas so we could open our presents together.

Opening presents with another dear friend in our favourite coffee shop. The gratitude journal she gifted me last year is still very much in use.

Christmas 2020

Many of the moments and traditions I’ve come to treasure have had to be set aside or postponed under the shadow of covid-19. The UK government plans to allow up to three households to meet indoors between 23 and 27 December (see the official guidelines) but my family and friends have decided it’s safest not to meet until the new year at least. That means no cross country drive to visit family in Carlisle, no Jingle Bell walk (it was cancelled anyway), no trip into town with friends to see the lights, and no opening presents together in person.

I’ve not shopped in Newcastle as I usually would have done. (I have only been into town twice since the start of lockdown in March.) Everything I’ve bought has been sourced online or in my local shops. Fran and I agreed not to ship gifts to each other this year. Instead, we ordered online and had the packages sent directly. We will meet on webcam on Christmas Eve as usual. Aimee and I have exchanged three gifts each by post, which we’ll open together on a video call, and will save the rest for when we can meet safely in person. I’m doing the same with other friends. It will still be special, just different.

My Ideal Christmas

At the start of this post, I said that my ideal Christmas has always been the last one I spent or the next one to come. Having looked back now over the years, I’d say the one I spent last year — Christmas 2019 — was a near-perfect blend of moments spent with family and friends at home, in coffee shops, restaurants, pubs, and bars. This year can’t be like that but it can still be ideal in its own way because we’re all making it work in different ways.

For some people, celebrating Christmas at the proper time will be paramount, but for me, it’s fine if Christmas doesn’t all happen on December 25, or even in December at all. Christmas for me is less an event and more of a celebration of closeness and connection. In the same way that Fran celebrates her birthday month rather than just the day of her birth, we can celebrate Christmas 2020 during December and into the new year.

What Christmas Means to Others

I asked Fran what her ideal Christmas would look like.

My ideal Christmas is where I get to spent time with my friends, and decorate my apartment so I can make my home warm and inviting. And have good things to eat — not too fattening! And get lots of pressies! Oh, and Netflix shows!

I smiled, because despite covid-19 restrictions, she is able to realise her ideal Christmas this year, and that makes me happy.

Over the years, a number of guest writers have written for our blog on seasonal themes. I’ve chosen three to share with you here.

How I Unplugged the Christmas Machine and Created Stable Holidays, by Julie A. Fast

Season’s Greetings, by Roiben

Let It Go: Reducing Holiday Triggers for Your Child, by Tricia

I’d also like to share Carolyn Spring’s Christmas Is Optional.

My friend and fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson told me, “Christmas is important to me because I’ve been a psychiatric inpatient over Christmas before, so I like to fully enjoy it now I’m better and at home.” Aimee ran joint blogmas and vlogmas posts on her blog I’m NOT Disordered last year (a herculean endeavour, to create written and video content for each day from December 1 until Christmas!). I’ve contributed to her Christmas posts in the past, including my Christmas wish list last year and a Christmas Q&A back in 2017. This year, Aimee is running a blog series on the theme of recommendations. You can follow, starting with the introduction in which Aimee talks more about what Christmas means to her.

What does Christmas mean to you? Is it a joyful time, or something you survive rather than enjoy? Does it bring good memories or recollections you’d rather not revisit? What would your ideal Christmas look like? We’d love to hear from you.

 

Wednesday 9 December 2020

How to Cope When People Invalidate Your Depression

By Kate Adermann

Depression is a common mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness, loneliness, and a general loss of interest. This mental health condition may affect how a person thinks, feels, and behaves, as well as causing a variety of physical and emotional issues. With that being said, dealing with depression is extremely difficult, especially when you are trying to keep it together for your friends and family. But, what happens when people invalidate your depression? Unfortunately, it’s all too common for outside individuals to be unable to understand the true nature of another person’s depression.

You may have been told, “You’re too sensitive,” or, “You are just overreacting, get over it!” Hearing statements like these while attempting to cope with the symptoms of your depression only adds to the loneliness and sadness that you already deal with. When people invalidate your depression, it is referred to as psychological invalidation. This behavior is actually extremely mentally and emotionally damaging, as it makes people feel as if their internal experience is not important. However, there are ways to cope when people invalidate your depression. Let’s take a look at healthy coping mechanisms for psychological invalidation.

What Is Depression and How Is It Valid?

Depression, or major depressive disorder, is a real mental health condition that affects many people across the world. Being one of the most common mood disorders, the term “depression” is thrown around a lot. As a result, the loose use of this word may contribute to the misconceptions society has placed upon depression, and the people it affects. For example, it is common for people to say they are feeling depressed, even when they are just dealing with everyday sadness. This makes it hard for individuals - who have not dealt with depression directly - to understand the true struggles of the condition.

However, depression is not equal to everyday sadness. In all actuality, depression is an all-consuming mental health condition that may make it difficult to function in everyday life and activities. Many individuals who struggle with depression deal with symptoms that are severe enough to cause problems in day-to-day activities, such as work, school, social activities, or relationships with others. Keeping this in mind, depression is a valid condition that is not easily “ignored” or “gotten over”. Because of this, the invalidation of one’s depression can cause feelings of worthlessness, despair, being misunderstood, and even make people feel as if they are not cared about or taken seriously.

It’s important to be prepared for psychological invalidation. In doing so, you will be able to cope healthily without worrying about what other people think.

Coping With Invalidation

When someone invalidates your depression, they are performing a form of psychological invalidation. By definition, psychological invalidation is the act of rejecting, dismissing, or minimizing someone else’s thoughts and feelings. In this case, they are rejecting, dismissing, or minimizing your depression, which can be extremely mentally damaging. You may feel as if they think your experience is wrong, not important, or unacceptable. However, there are ways to cope with this form of emotional abuse.

Speak with your therapist

If you have a diagnosis for depression, chances are that you have a therapist or psychiatrist who knows the validity of your experience. And, if you don’t, dealing with the invalidation of your depression is a good reason to begin attending therapy. Whatever the case may be, speaking with a therapist will help you to work through the negative feelings associated with psychological invalidation. Additionally, your therapist has probably heard some form of psychological invalidation first-hand, making them one of the best people to gain support and advice from.

Learn to validate yourself with affirmations

One of the most important things you can do after being invalidated is to learn how to become validated within yourself. Once you are able to do this, the opinions of others may not matter as much. To begin validating yourself, start utilizing positive affirmations. For example, you could utilize affirmations such as, “My depression is valid and my feelings matter”, “I will be compassionate with myself and disregard the negative opinions of others”, and “I choose to be around people who are supportive of my growth”.

Have a conversation with your friends or family

If you are close with the person who has invalidated your depression, consider having a conversation with them. Oftentimes, this type of invalidation comes from a place of misunderstanding. Oddly enough, sometimes people think they are helping by saying things such as, “It’s not that bad, I’m sure you will be fine soon.” While this is the opposite of helpful for an individual with clinical depression, your friends or loved ones may not be aware of this.

If you feel comfortable enough, consider talking to them about your depression. Explain the science behind depression, how it affects people, and what recovery may look like. Additionally, it may be easiest to provide them with resources about depression. In doing so, you may educate them on depression and cause them to rethink their statements.

Join a depression support group

Lastly, when you have been dealing with people invalidating your depression, it may be wise to join a support group. Depression support groups are meetings where individuals who are struggling with depression get together to provide support and a place to vent. Within one of these groups, you could express the psychological invalidation you have been dealing with, see that you are not alone, and obtain helpful tips for coping. Additionally, you will have the opportunity to meet other people who are trying to recover from depression as well, providing you with mutually supportive friendships with people who understand.

About the Author

Kate Adermann is a passionate writer from Memphis, TN. She is in recovery from alcoholism, a mental health advocate, and a dog enthusiast.

 

Main photo by Ben White on Unsplash

 

Wednesday 2 December 2020

How to Choose the Perfect Image for Your Blog Post

If it’s true that a picture paints a thousand words, the thousand or so words you’ve written for your latest blog post deserve the very best picture you can find. But it’s not always easy! Do you struggle to find that perfect image to accompany your lovingly crafted words? Do you ever wonder if it’s okay to use that photo you found on the Internet? Read on.

What Kind of Image Are You Looking For?

It’s worth spending a few minutes thinking about what kind of image you’re looking for. Are you after a banner image to go across the head of your post, or one (or more than one) placed within the body of the post itself?

What aspect ratio do you need? Square? Landscape? Portrait? Some image library sites let you search on aspect ratio which can help you find the right image quicker. Bear in mind that you can crop an image yourself to whatever shape or size you need.

Is the blog post one of a series? If so, are you looking for an image that matches others in the series? Do you have a house style or branding that it needs to align with?

Do you want an image that works on its own or are you intending to overlay text or other elements? If so you may want something that is not too detailed or “fussy” so the other elements can be seen clearly.

Are you looking for an image that matches the subject or content of your blog post, or one that is more generic? If you want a matching image, your blog post key words or labels should help you narrow your search.

People Not Necessarily Like Us

If you are looking for portraits or photos that include people, pay attention to the people you choose. It’s easy to select pictures featuring “young beautiful people,” or people from your own social and cultural demographic. There’s nothing wrong with that as such, but think about who you may be excluding. How often do the images you choose to illustrate your blog posts represent people of different ages, cultures, or races? A good friend of mine, mental health writer and coach Julie A. Fast, brought this to my attention when we were discussing the choice of images for her guest posts at Gum on My Shoe.

“In the future,” she said, “let’s use some pics with older people that represent my age group. So many images today are youth-oriented and yet many of us with bipolar are older.”

It was a valid point and one I’ve kept in mind ever since.

Special Consideration for Mental Health Bloggers

If you blog in the mental health arena there are some additional things for you to consider. The first is not to reinforce unhelpful or unhealthy stereotypes concerning people living with mental health conditions. As an example, avoid using the mundane or stereotyped image of someone holding their head in their hands, when illustrating depression or other mental health diagnoses. Check out this article on why journalists should avoid using “head clutcher” stock images.

The second important consideration is to avoid images that may be unnecessarily triggering, especially when illustrating suicide or self-harm topics. UK charity Time to Change has published guidelines on the responsible use of images in such contexts:

Often the pictures accompanying stories around mental health are generic stock showing people isolated and in distress. In fact people with mental health problems come from all walks of life and will have much more going on than simply their mental health problem.

The National Suicide Prevention Alliance has published its own media guidelines (PDF) for mental health promotion and suicide prevention.

Copyright or Wrong?

There are few things more frustrating than finally finding that perfect image and discovering you don’t have permission to use it, so let’s get this out of the way. If you didn’t take the photograph or create the image from scratch, you can’t use it unless you have permission. Read that again.

That awesome pic on Instagram or Pinterest. The photo your mate shared on Facebook from some group he’s in. That product image on Amazon or Etsy. Unless you’ve obtained permission from the copyright owner, or you’ve bought a licence covering what you intend using it for, or you’ve checked (not guessed) that it’s in the public domain, just don’t.

Copyright theft is a thing. Litigation is a thing. Yes, really.

So, What Can I Use?

In The Essential Guide to Using Images Legally Online, Kristi Kellogg suggests the following approaches:

  • Public Domain Images
  • Creative Commons Images
  • Stock Photos
  • Your Own Images
  • Social Media Images (but only with permission)

Let’s take a closer look at each of these.

Public domain images are those whose copyright has expired or never existed. They can be used by almost anyone for personal and commercial purposes. This article lists 31 free public domain image websites.

There are six Creative Commons (CC) licences which grant different permissions, plus CC0 (CC Zero) which means creators have given up their copyright and put their works into the public domain. CC0 allows others to distribute, remix, adapt, and build upon the material in any medium or format, with no conditions. The Creative Commons website offers a useful image search tool.

Stock photo websites such as Shutterstock and iStock offer photos that the creators have licensed for use to anyone who pays the appropriate fee. It is important to read the license details carefully to ensure it covers what you want to do with the image.

If you took the photo, you own the copyright so there are no restrictions on how you use it.

As Kristi Kellogg says, “Images appearing on social media are no different than any other image you’ll find online, in that you must act responsibly and ask for permission.” Bear in mind that the person who posted the image may not be the copyright owner and it may be difficult to determine the status of a particular image. In my personal opinion, unless you know you are asking the creator or copyright holder, it’s far safer, and easier, to look elsewhere.

Three Online Image Libraries

I routinely use the following image sites because I know the photographs will be okay to use. Check the sites’ respective license pages for full details.

Unsplash is my go-to site for high-quality photographic images. It has over two million high-resolution images which can be downloaded and used for free. The Unsplash licence means no permission is needed to use the images for commercial and non-commercial purposes, although an attribution to the creator is appreciated.

Burst has free stock photos for websites and commercial use. Some images are released under Creative Commons CC0 license. Others are made available for use under a nonexclusive license. See the Burst Terms of Service for full details.

Pixabay shares copyright-free images and videos. All contents are released under the Pixabay license and can be used without permission or giving credit to the artist, even for commercial purposes.

For more options, check out this article at Verve which lists 27 sites offering royalty-free stock images for commercial or non-commercial use.

Four Image Editing Apps

The following websites and applications are useful for editing and cropping images.

Pablo is a simple browser-based app linked to the Unsplash library of royalty-free images. You can search for an appropriate image, or upload one of your own. Once loaded, you can crop the image (square, portrait, or landscape), convert to black and white, apply various filters, and overlay text. You can download your finished images and use them in any way you wish. Check Pablo’s licence page for further details.

Pixlr offers powerful free browser-based photo editing. Supported image formats include PSD (Photoshop), PXD, JPEG, PNG (transparent), WebP, SVG and more. There are two browser applications: Pixlr Express for quick edits and beginners, and Pixlr Editor for advanced editing and professional-level tools.

I recently discovered and fell in love with Affinity Photo, which is a fully-featured photo editor akin to Photoshop at a fraction of the cost. At the time of writing, it is available for download for PC/Mac at GBP 48.99 (Ipad GBP 19.99). Far too many features to detail here, but check out the Affinity website and tutorials.

Canva is a template-based design platform for creating social media graphics, presentations, posters, documents and other visual content. It is available for browser, Windows, Android, and iPhone and is free to use. (There is a subscription service offering additional features.) My friend and fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson of I’m NOT Disordered is an avid user of Canva and was keen to share her impressions:

I discovered Canva through a digital marketing internship and immediately found it incredibly easy to use. Over the past year, I’ve continued to learn about more of Canva’s functions and love that it allows me the opportunity to use my creativity and imagination to produce images for my blog.

A Worked Example

I thought it would be helpful to see how I select images for my own blog posts, using this article as an example. I began as I usually do, with a visit to the Unsplash website. A search for “blogging” returned 277 images. Limiting it to landscape orientation reduced the number to 158. A quick scan through them yielded nothing promising so I refined my search to “blog photos.” One image immediately caught my attention: a number of vintage photographs on a desk, by Joanna Kosinska. I bookmarked it and continued looking.

Searching for “choose photo” yielded several similar images. I bookmarked two, by Dan Gold, and Sarandy Westfall, respectively. Equivalent searches at Burst didn’t return anything I liked, but at Pixabay I found a photo by jarmoluk which I added to my shortlist.

I had four excellent but similar images to choose from, but I wasn’t finished yet. I returned to Unsplash and searched around concepts such as “choosing,” “choice,” and “website design.” Nothing came up that caught my attention. I put the title of my blog post into Google and scanned through the image results. Two links stood out for me: How to Select the Perfect Image for Your Blog Post, and 11 Best Practices for Including Images in Your Blog Posts. The banner images their authors had chosen were similar to the four I’d selected. I downloaded the images I’d shortlisted and set them aside until the next day.

Clockwise from top left: Dan Gold, jarmoluk, Sarandy Westfall, Joanna Kosinska.

Dan’s and Joanna’s photographs stood out for me and I tried each as the banner image for my article before deciding to go with Joanna’s. I hope you agree it works with the theme of my post.

Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

 

Wednesday 25 November 2020

How To Understand People and Be Understood

One of the most beautiful qualities of true friendship is to understand and to be understood.
(Seneca)

Someone once told me we have no right to expect others to understand us. She was adamant about that. Angry, almost, that anyone could imagine otherwise. The most we can expect, she said, was to be heard. I was reminded of this recently when a close friend said it felt like I didn't know her at all. I got to thinking about what it means to know someone or be known by them.

To Know or to Understand?

What exactly do we mean by knowing or understanding one another? Is there a difference between knowing someone and understanding them? Ephrat Livni drew a distinction in his article It’s better to understand something than to know it:

“Knowing” and “understanding” are related concepts, but they’re not the same. Each is a distinct mental state involving cognitive grasp: Knowing is static, referring to discrete facts, while understanding is active, describing the ability to analyze and place those facts in context to form a big picture.

Livni was discussing these concepts in a business and scientific context, but I think the distinction is useful when we’re thinking about our awareness of ourselves and others. Our friendships and relationships are not static things we can ever fully grasp or know. They are dynamic. They wax and wane over time. They deepen as we learn more about each other. Sometimes they fracture or end. They may pause or stall for a time but their nature is to change. The same applies to us as individuals.

We might seek to know each other at any point in time, but for me, the fundamental need is to be understood at a deeper level. Our lives are incredibly complex and interlinked, and our understanding can only ever be partial, Nevertheless, it is this yearning that underpins our need to understand and to be understood, and our pain when that need is unmet.

Is It a Healthy Need?

I disagree with the person who said we’ve no right to expect understanding from others, but am I right? Is it a healthy need? The Center for Nonviolent Communication (CNVC) includes the need to understand others and be understood in its needs inventory. I’m no means an expert but NVC’s approach to communication makes a lot of sense to me. Fran and I have used it when we’re exploring issues that arise between us or with others. Ralph Nichols, “Father of Listening” and author of Are You Listening, went further. He claimed “The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.”

What Do We Want People to Understand about Us?

A few months ago a friend asked me twenty questions she’d found in an online “How Well Do You Know Me” quiz. It was fun and we had a good laugh at some of the questions — and my answers! I surprised myself actually, in getting more right than I’d imagined. Understanding is more than a game of twenty questions, though. What do we want others to understand about us? It will be different for everyone but here’s what I’d like people to understand about me.

  • My likes and dislikes
  • My values and red lines
  • My plans, hopes, and dreams
  • My issues and triggers
  • What scares and delights me, what makes me smile and cry
  • What I need when I’m sad or struggling

It may be a tall order to expect someone to understand me on so many levels, although Fran comes close. On the other hand, I believe it is possible to have people who understand certain aspects of me really well. What counts is whether someone is willing to engage, to learn, and understand — and allow me to do the same. Taylor Swift captures this commitment in her song Stay Stay Stay:

You took the time to memorize me
My fears, my hopes and dreams

It’s worth remembering that no matter how close the relationship there will always be things we choose not to share; aspects of ourselves and our lives we wish to hold secret from most, if not all, others.

What Does It Take to Be Understood?

We can’t hope to understand or be understood if we’re not prepared to truly communicate; in NVC terms, to listen with empathy and express ourselves honestly. We all like to imagine we’re open and honest with everyone, but this is perilous work and not to be undertaken lightly. Allowing people in close requires trust and courage, and the more we engage the more vulnerable we make ourselves. Psychoanalyst Thomas Moore describes this well in his book Care of the Soul:

We need people in our lives with whom we can be as open as possible. To have real conversations with people may seem like such a simple, obvious suggestion, but it involves courage and risk.

It’s very important who we choose to open up to, as Brené Brown makes clear in her book Daring Greatly:

You cannot be vulnerable with everyone. It is important to build trust and boundaries before being vulnerable. Otherwise, more times than ever, you will end up getting betrayed and hurt.

This is especially true where experience has taught us not to let people in too close as a defence against betrayal, abandonment, and loss. Psychic and life coach Jamila White expresses this powerfully in her piece Ultra-independence is a trust issue:

You learned along the way that you just couldn’t really trust people. Or that you could trust people, but only up to a certain point.

Even without such issues, connecting clearly and cleanly is not as straightforward as we sometimes imagine it to be, as Fran and I discuss in our book High Tide, Low Tide.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to communicating effectively is the belief it should be easy. When you think about it, it is amazing anyone manages to communicate anything meaningful at all. Each of us has our unique mix of thoughts and feelings, hopes, fears, joys, pains, plans, worries, and views about how the world works. We scarcely understand them ourselves, yet we hope to share them with someone who has their own mix to contend with. And the only tools we have are the sounds we can utter, and the marks we can make on paper or a computer screen. It is no wonder we struggle at times!

Given the potential for misunderstanding and hurt, why do we risk it? Why do we want to be understood at all? This can only be a personal thing but for me there is a deep joy in feeling known in the moment, and understood at a more fundamental level. It’s expressed beautifully in an anonymous quotation which inspired a previous blog post of mine.

Imagine meeting someone who wanted to learn your past not to punish you, but to understand how you needed to be loved.

The fact that this understanding can only ever be partial and temporary doesn’t lessen the reward. On the contrary, it deepens it. The gap between what I understand of myself and what my friend understands of me is fertile ground. Any difficulties that come up are part of the journey towards understanding, rather than problems to be avoided or shunned.

It’s worth saying that being understood can be uncomfortable. My friend and fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson shared this with me recently:

I feel like you know me through and through, Marty. Sometimes that’s annoying and I don’t like it, but ultimately I think it helps our friendship.

In what way is it annoying?

It’s like if I say something and you’ll be like “I thought so.” I’m in no way saying I don’t want you to do that anymore, just that in a funny way I’m like “fs he knows me so well.”

I find it disconcerting when someone can tell how I’m feeling before I’ve told them, sometimes before I’m fully aware of it myself. Fran does this a lot and it’s not always what I need, especially if I’m faking fine — pretending I’m doing better than I actually am.

Getting it Wrong

Understanding someone doesn’t mean never getting it wrong. In fact, we’re more likely to get it wrong with people we feel we understand because we tend to act on the basis of what we know, or believe we know. That’s what happened with me and my friend who said it felt like I didn’t know her at all. We’ve moved forward since then, but it was a valuable reminder not to become complacent or assume I understand people better than I actually do.

Another friend contacted me the other day. She wanted to talk but I was working from home and couldn’t pay her the full attention she needed. I told her so and we agreed to see how we got on, but it didn’t work and we soon ran aground. She messaged me later:

Understanding is hard and requires patience, which is in short order these days. To understand and be understood takes time. It’s [about] understanding when your friend has a lot to do, and also understanding when your friend is three days without sleep. It’s picking up on cues that can be silent, and not missing much when you’re with your friends …

Although unpleasant, mistakes like these can be valuable because they offer the opportunity to grow in understanding. I’ve written in the past about other occasions when I’ve worked through disagreements and issues honestly with friends. Aimee and I have had our share of misunderstandings, but we’ve been honest about them and emerged stronger:

I’m not sure if you agree, Aimee, but I’d say we understand there are times we will get it wrong, and that’s OK. It might not feel OK at the time but it will be when we are able to step back a little.

Definitely! And I think more and more we’re learning not to feel like total failures if we do get it wrong, and not blame one another for it.

I’ll close with another short passage from High Tide, Low Tide. Fran and I believe profoundly that the secret to understanding is honest and ongoing communication.

Approach your friend on the basis that you are each doing the best you can. Be gentle with yourself and with each other when things are not flowing well, and celebrate when they are. Good or bad, keep the channels open.

Do you feel understood by your friends and loved ones? Do you have a good understanding of those you’re close to? If not, you wish you did? Fran and I would love to hear from you.

 

Afterword

Writing this article has made me realise how fortunate I am to have friends who understand me — not perfectly, perhaps, but well. They understand what makes me who I am; the things that are important to me, my hang-ups, frailties, and strengths. They get it wrong with me sometimes, of course, just as I get it wrong with them. But they get me, and that’s a really good feeling. Oh, and the person who told me we’ve no right to expect others to understand us? Ironically, she believed she had a really good handle on who I was. She was invariably wrong.

 

Photo by Diego Sanchez on Unsplash

Wednesday 11 November 2020

I'm Proud of You: Four Words That Mean So Much

This article was inspired by a conversation with fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson. We discussed how valuable it is to feel proud of our achievements and each other’s, and how sometimes we hesitate to say we are proud of someone in case it comes across as insincere or patronising.

For me, telling someone you’re proud of them implies a degree of closeness and connection. An expression of pride means far more to me if the person has been there through my struggles, doubts and uncertainties. Their expression of pride acknowledges their role in what led to this moment without in any way claiming it for themselves. Aimee expressed this perfectly in a social media post which I quoted when discussing how to celebrate success.

After almost every blog post, Martin is there telling me how much they meant to him. After every achievement, he is there telling me how proud he is. Well, now it’s my turn! I’m a very proud bestie after all of his recent achievements at work!

Fran and I share several similar moments in our book High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder.

Bear in mind that the other person may not know how to respond. They might feel shy or embarrassed, or doubt they deserve the spotlight you’ve put on them. On the other hand, it’s not uncommon for the other person to respond by telling you they’re proud of themselves.

“I’m so proud of you.”

“I’m proud of me too!”

My ego used to get a little bruised when this happened, as though my “gift” was being dismissed as unnecessary or inappropriate. I see things differently now. The gift is not me saying I’m proud of my friend, it is our mutual recognition that something pride-worthy has occurred. These moments can be profound. They reinforce the importance of taking responsibility for ourselves and our successes, and the part we can play in supporting others.

It’s no less special when someone spontaneously shares that they’re proud of themselves. A friend talked to me recently about her experiences at work. I was happy to hear she’s doing well but what moved me most was when she said “I’m really proud of myself!” because she recognised her achievement and the contribution she’s making in the workplace. Another friend and I were discussing the inner work she’s doing in certain areas of her life.

“I’m just so proud of me!”

“I’m so glad to hear that.”

“It’s nice to feel proud and in control and working on a major issue.”

As we describe in our book, the summer of 2013 was one of the most stressful and perilous periods in Fran’s life. There were times when we both feared for her health and wellbeing, but there were rare moments of relief when things came together:

Yesterday was so soul filling for me, Marty.. The best day yet.. Makes it all worth it.. This is what I came for.. I am proud of myself and the work I’ve done on myself..

It’s easy to say “I’m proud of you” but the words can come across as patronising or insincere if you don’t have a meaningful connection with the person you say them to. Worse, they might give the impression you’re claiming a part of the other person’s success, or a role in their life you do not possess. It helps to be specific. “I’m proud of you for how you handled that tricky situation,” or “I’m proud of you for making time for self-care in the middle of everything you’re going through” are more meaningful than a vague “I’m proud of you” which suggests you want to say the right thing without engaging too closely. I sent a generic “I’m so proud of you” when a friend told me they’d signed up for a training course. She thanked me but considered it premature. She was concerned whether or not she’d be able to complete the training.

“Don’t be proud yet. I appreciate what you are saying but I haven’t done it yet.”

It was a useful reminder to pay attention to what’s important in someone’s life before leaping in to praise them.

When we get it right, expressing pride in ourselves and others can be a beautiful and powerful thing. Aimee and I both blog in the mental health arena, albeit from very different perspectives. This gives us a good understanding of each other’s challenges and goals. We were chatting the other day when Aimee mentioned a new blogging collaboration she’d landed.

I’m so proud of you, Aimee! Which is appropriate, because right now I’m blogging about how to tell people you’re proud of them!

Oooooo, that’s such a good topic! It means so much to me how often you say it to me.

It can take time — sometimes a long time — to reap the benefits, but it can be worth the wait, as Fran shared with me when we were writing our book:

Over the years one lady repeatedly told me she was proud of me. I didn’t understand at first. I never asked her why she did this. Then it began dawning on me. Each tiny painful baby step I took she saw. She saw the work I was doing. The struggles and successes. Who I was becoming. And the answers of why she was proud of me became clearer as I looked deeply and began seeing myself. I began to become proud of myself. I no longer needed her to tell me. In all my life I never had anyone say those words to me and now I realize how very important they are.

Do you have a story about a time someone was proud of you, or when you’ve been proud of someone else? Do you find it easy to say the words or hear them said to you? We’d love to hear from you.

 

Wednesday 4 November 2020

VRITRA: A Short Film on Mental Health

By Sachit Grover

Now available on Amazon Prime, VRITRA is a short film on mental health. The film stars Sachit Grover, Ankit Prasad, Maya Patel, Bhumika Jain, Arushi Pahuja, and Snuggles. It is directed by Nipa Shah.

In Hindu mythology, Vritra was a dragon who blocked the rivers and caused a drought. Lord Shiva killed him with a bolt and released the waters. In the context of our lives, Vritra represents the mental dragons that grip us — self-doubt, anxiety, sadness, etc. and our friends and family collectively represent Lord Shiva to enable us to be released from our dragons.

This was my first ever short film and I was extremely nervous while filming this. I wanted to have a powerful performance, but I also wanted the performance to be very realistic. Finding this balance was a little difficult. To prepare filming, I had to talk to close friends and family who were dealing with mental health issues. After chatting with a few people, it became easier to get in character. I really wanted to do justice to this role and have this film help bring awareness on mental health.

In the south Asian community, mental health is often overlooked or ignored. I am confident that this short film will be a good step in raising conversation around the topic of mental health within south Asian communities.

Through my acting work, I constantly post videos that touch upon various social issues. On my YouTube channel, I have posted about suicide awareness and domestic abuse, among other topics. I believe it’s important to raise awareness on different societal issues.

To check out my work, subscribe to me on YouTube. You can also follow me on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

 

Wednesday 28 October 2020

Coffee and Scribbles: My Ten Favourite Writing Cafes

Two of my greatest passions are coffee and writing. I thought it would be fun to share a selection of cafés and coffee shops with particular links to my work. Over the years, my writing has moved through several phases. For ten years (1996 through 2005) I ran Middle-earth Reunion (“The alternative Tolkien Society”). I designed and maintained the group’s website, and published our quarterly journal and newsletter. I wrote articles and short stories which explored the consequences of asserting Tolkien’s role as translator of authentic Middle-earth texts. You can find many of these writings on the Middle-earth Reunion website.

My next major focus was High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder co-written with Fran Houston between 2012 and 2016. My blogging career began with the launch of Gum on My Shoe in 2013. I’ve written for many other blogs and organisations, including bp Magazine (Bipolar Hope), Mental Health First Aid England, I’m NOT Disordered, Bipolar Happens, and The Good Men Project.

I’ve listed my top ten writing venues in chronological order based on when I started writing there. All but one are in my home city of Newcastle upon Tyne. I’ve included website links and full addresses in case you’d like to visit. (Thanks to my friend and fellow blogger Aimee Wilson for that suggestion!) If you’re interested in what I take on my coffee shop adventures, check out my Every Day Essentials for the Successful Blogger.


1. Blackfriars Restaurant and Banquet Hall

Friars Street, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 4XN
www.blackfriarsrestaurant.co.uk

I started going to Blackfriars during a period of unemployment. At the time I was running Middle-earth Reunion and worked extensively there on my personal project The Tresco Manuscript and the Lore of Life, Leaf and Stone.

The ‘Tresco manuscript’ is named for Tresco in the Isles of Scilly, where it was reputedly discovered in the 19th century. It comprises the only documented link between Tolkien’s tales of Middle-earth and our own, modern world.

Blackfriars provided a haven of calm at a time when my personal life and future were far from certain.


2. Boskoops

1 Eldon Square, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 7JG

Situated on the second floor of the magnificent east terrace surrounding Old Eldon Square, and with commanding views of the square below, known locally as Hippy Green, Boskoops was a favourite of mine for a year or two.

My novella Playing at Darkness was inspired by the goths and other clans who gathered each Saturday in Hippy Green. There is more than a little of the author in the story’s socially awkward hero Malcolm.

Long before he knew her name he had watched Stitch with her people in the town square beneath the window of his favourite café; had gone back each week to watch them gather while he lingered over his breakfast and endless top-up coffees.

The title — Playing at Darkness — was inspired by a conversation overheard in another café, at Newcastle’s old central library.

For all the black leather and heavy makeup, for all that several professed allegiance to the Enemy in their attire [...] the Gothrim were children. Children playing at darkness. At least he had thought so at the time and it had almost turned him away from them. That wasn’t what he was looking for.

I’ve reworked Playing at Darkness several times, and retain a hope of publishing it one day.


3. Elula

13 Ridley Pl, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 8JQ
Facebook page

The downstairs café at Elula’s was a hidden gem. It was the setting for my short story gamma in the wrong place.

3pm, Saturday afternoon

Sat in the downstairs café in the Otherworldly crystal and incence shop. Less a café than a space for coffee. Small. Cosy. Spiral staircase from the shop above. Friendly. Pan pipe music.

Four six form students at a table across the room. Two adult women to my right. Mother and daughter? Maybe not. Students happy together but a bit loud. Women commenting on them (“product of the education system”). Two more women enter. [...]

Why did I come here? To sit. To scribble (having just bought this exercise book for that very purpose ...) To capture some thoughts. Looking for the muse. Is this the kind of place a muse would frequent? Maybe. Ellen might come here. (Ellen might work here).

Wandering today in the sunshine, I thought of the Green Fair. It is the kind of day to meet them.

Mention of Ellen and the Green Fair connects gamma to another tale from this period. Home Eleven describes my first contact with Ellen and Kai of the Ylfe (modern day Elves) at Newcastle’s Green Festival.

More or less directly across the clearing a kitchen stall boasted a fiercely vegetarian cuisine. Strung between branches overhead a broad shimmering silk banner proclaimed the legend “Home Eleven.” I wondered if it was the name of the kitchen or of the site itself. A strange name, in either case. The stall seemed to be manned by a tall good-looking guy in blond dreadlocks and a girl with long red-gold hair, a great figure and a loose purple dress.


4. The Grand (formerly Campus Coffee)

141 Percy Street, Grand Hotel Buildings, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 7RU

Situated opposite Newcastle City Hall, Campus Coffee was my regular Saturday morning haunt for years until dwindling custom forced it to close at weekends. I wrote my diary there each Saturday, also letters and cards to friends. One of the staff was passionate about archery, which inspired my short story Kindling.

A sudden spark of light caught his attention. He walked across and knelt in the dirt to examine it more closely. By chance, the morning sun had struck upon what seemed to be a shard of silver buried deep in the heart of the wood and exposed only because of the ancient, time-wrought fracturing. What the thing was and how it had got there he could only guess. Heart racing now, he fetched the chain-hoist and canvas sling.


5. Rendezvous café, Whitley Bay

Dukes Walk, Northern Promenade, Whitley Bay NE26 1TP
Facebook page

This iconic Art Deco café was built in 1930 and was originally called Garden Restaurant. Its name was changed to the Rendezvous Café in 1957. It has been described as a “perfect example of a traditional seaside ice cream parlour.”

I used to stop there on “me days” at the coast. I’d catch the Metro to West Monkseaton Metro station, walk to the sea front at Whitley Bay, then head north along the beach and promenade as far as St Mary’s lighthouse. The café was roughly midway and provided a welcome stopping point for coffee, a sandwich, and maybe a slice of cake or tray bake. One of my clearest memories is of sitting at the window one day in September 2005 writing a letter to my friend PJ who I’d known since university. She was very ill with multiple sclerosis and I had written every day for two years. I addressed and sealed the envelope but for some reason, I didn’t post it. A mutual friend phoned me the following evening to tell me PJ had died overnight.


6. Pret a Manger, Northumberland Street

142-145 Northumberland St, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 7AG
www.pret.co.uk

Pret was my regular Saturday morning place for a while, although I’m struggling to recall exactly when or what I would have been writing at the time, aside from letters and my journal. It got busy sometimes and I never had a table I considered “mine” but the food was excellent, the coffee was good (and cheap), and the staff friendly.


7. Starbucks, Northumberland Street

137 Northumberland Street, Newcastle, ENG NE1 7AG
www.starbucks.com

For several months in 2009 I got into the habit of catching an early train into Newcastle each weekday morning. I’d spend an hour or so in Starbucks with my diary and notebook exploring what was going for me at the time, then catch my train into work.

One Saturday in May 2008 is captured in one of my notebooks. Five years had passed since my friend PJ’s death, and the network of friends I’d relied on since university days had dissolved. Beyond my immediate family I felt adrift and almost completely alone. I was also struggling to find any sort of creative focus.

Right now, I have perhaps the fewest number of people ever. Is this a delayed reaction to losing PJ? There is no one and nothing for me to identify with. When did I have a creative focus?

Tolkien / Middle-earth Reunion (website, people, writing, artwork).
Poetry — “Aye! I am a poet” (School, University, London).

When did I last make a difference?

What do I need? A creative friend. Someone to teach me. A muse. Someone I can help.

“... only she was tired and sad and human.”

Those notes (the quote is from William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer) are eerily prophetic of Fran, who I met exactly three years later in May 2011, and the close, mutually supportive, and creative relationship we enjoy to this day.

The line “Aye! I am a poet” is from And Thus In Nineveh by Ezra Pound. The poem affected me a great deal when I encountered it in high school. The title of my short story And Men Myrtles — which includes a café scene — is taken from the same poem.

He lowered the book and his fork and poured himself a cup of tea from the brown earthenware pot. As he did so he found himself staring at a small almost perfectly heart-shaped mark at the edge of the spout.

It was nothing: Maisie had chipped the thing putting it into or out of the dishwasher — or maybe it was a fault in the glaze. The mark could have no significance whatsoever. Nevertheless its shape — or William’s interpretation of it — felt as though it might be important. He had been noticing little things like this a lot recently. Ever since ... Ever since when?

He knew the answer well enough. Ever since that Sunday last September in Wolvercote cemetery. One year and a week ago. Something had happened that morning and though he had never met their like before or since he owed it all — his reawakening as he had come to think of it — to the motley group of visitors at Professor Tolkien’s grave.


8. Church Gallery, Kirkby Stephen

3-7 Market Street, Kirkby Stephen, Kirkby Stephen, CA17 4QW
www.churchgallery.co.uk

This is the only café on the list outside my local area, but it’s been a regular of mine for years when holidaying in Cumbria. Strictly speaking, it’s less a café than a self-serve area upstairs in the wonderful Church Gallery shop, but it is one of the cosiest places I know.

Over the years I’ve written many postcards and letters there. I worked on the book proposal for “High Tide, Low Tide,” scoured my diaries for content for the chapters covering Fran’s time in Europe in 2013, and agonised over who to include in our acknowledgements page.


9. Caffè Nero, Saint Mary’s Place

4–5 Saint Mary’s Place, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 7AA
www.caffenero.com

My premier writing venue in recent years, Caffè Nero is located in a former post office building, as I describe in a blog post from 2017.

It’s hard to visualise, but this used to be the City Post Office. I’ve stood in line many times — where these tables are now — for postage stamps, or to send packages off all over the world. It looks so different now! And yet, there is a sense of continuity. I may have to go elsewhere these days for my postal services (as I did this morning, to buy stamps and to mail out a copy of our book) but it is here, a large black coffee to hand (“Would you like the extra shot?” “Yes please!”), that I write my letters, cards, and postcards.

It soon became my favourite place to meet up with friends, and played its own role in the development of High Tide, Low Tide.

Caffè Nero is my social hub these days. The staff have changed over the years but have always been warm, personable, and supportive of my mental health work and our book. If I am meeting someone in town, here is my first choice of venue, and I have made several new friends from amongst the other regulars here.

I had many fascinating conversations with staff and other customers as I worked away at our book week after week. When High Tide, Low Tide was published they graciously allowed me to display my contact cards and leaflets. That degree of support and encouragement meant a lot.

One Saturday I got talking with local poet, writer, and publisher Fred Lewis. Fred told me about Newcastle Literary Salon which met each month at Bar Loco. I performed my first ever book readings there and met a number of exceptional poets and writers. I wrote about my first visit to the Salon for the #BeReal series at HastyWords.

There was poetry, a great short story with a twist, the opening to a new novel which completely blew me away. Some pieces were more to my taste than others but what struck me more than anything else was how everyone was introduced, welcomed, and received with equal warmth and respect: as writers and performers, but most of all as people.

And it struck me this is another aspect of being real: the awareness and acceptance of our common humanity, no matter how different our individual situations and life experiences might be. Two pieces in particular summed this up for me: Angela J. Kennedy’s powerful poem “Women’s Work,” and Jenni Pascoe’s “One Day I Will Die.” I spoke with Jenni at the end of the event. We discovered a mutual love of hats and she told me she’d noticed her poems seemed to resonate with me. She was right. We connected.

You can watch me perform my book readings on our YouTube channel.


10. Costa Coffee, Kingston Park

Belvedere Retail Park, Unit 5, Belvedere Parkway, Newcastle upon Tyne NE3 2PA
Facebook page

I’ve saved the best until last! I started going to Costa Coffee a couple of years ago. It is a ten minute walk from my home, and it soon became my favourite place to sit and write. Before covid struck here in March 2020 I was visiting Costa seven days a week: on my way into work, for a couple of hours on a Saturday morning as prelude to whatever else I had planned for the day, and on Sunday afternoons before doing my supermarket grocery shop.

The staff are wonderful and several have become good friends. I was genuinely devastated when Costa had to close at the start of lockdown, and was one of the very first customers to return when it reopened.

My daily journal, letters and cards to friends, social media posts and blog articles — all have been written at these tables. Appropriately enough, the idea for “Coffee and Scribbles” came to me at Costa, and I’m sitting here now at my favourite table by the window as I draw the article to a close.