Wednesday 29 January 2020

A Landscape of Labels: Mapping Illness and Wellness

Imagine looking down on your country or continent from a plane. You are aware of the general terrain: mountains, lowlands, lakes and rivers. Perhaps you recognise some locations – places you have visited or heard about – but there are no lines or labels down there on the ground to distinguish this country or state from the next.

Now take out a map of the same area. The map is not the landscape, it is a model of the landscape, and it is full of labels. This area has a line drawn around it. The area inside is labelled so. If it is a political map, the line might define a country; this line a different country, this line a county, state or principality.

Select a different map of the same region. Maybe this one displays regions in terms of economic affluence, manufacturing output, average rainfall, or languages spoken. The area that was labelled “England” will now carry other labels. The labels applied depend on their definitions, and which maps we choose.

Maps and labels are incredibly useful. Without them we would, literally, not know where we are, individually or in relation to one another. Travel would be a challenge, travel planning even more so. On the political map I live in an area labelled “Newcastle upon Tyne” within the area labelled “England.” Fran lives in an area labelled “Portland” within a rather large area labelled “United States of America.” The map of languages will tell us that our nations each have English as their first language. We learn some interesting and useful things, but the labels do not tell the whole story. They are not who we are.

I find it helpful to think of health and wellness in a similar way. There is an area of the broad landscape of emotional, physical, and mental experience which on the diagnostic map is labelled “bipolar II disorder.” Parts of this area fall within a larger region labelled “depression.” If I choose a different map, some of the labels may be different. The “depression” region is larger, maybe. There is a region labelled “manic depression” which more or less corresponds to “bipolar disorder” but doesn’t match exactly. Another map has only two regions: “health” and “illness.” You get the idea.

Wherever we are on the ground the labels applied to us depend on who is looking at us and which maps they are referring to.

The labels of illness are useful where they help to define where we are on the landscape of wellness, and which treatments and approaches may benefit us. We can think of treatment as helping and encouraging us to move from our “regions of illness” and journey towards regions labelled healthy on the map. Fran might move in and out of areas labelled “mania” or “depression,” for example. If it is not possible to make these journeys for some reason, treatments can help us live more comfortably wherever we find ourselves.

Knowing that Fran is American (was raised and lives within the geographic area labeled “America”) helps me draw useful inferences about her cultural identity, and likely points of similarity and difference between us. Similarly, knowing Fran lives in a region of the wellness landscape labelled “bipolar” helps me to approach her with a degree of understanding and empathy. In both cases of course, it is possible to draw false conclusions, or apply the labels without reconciling them with who she actually is.

It is my responsibility to remember that she is not “an American woman with bipolar,” but an individual with her own unique, personal experiences and story. The same applies to how we think and behave towards ourselves. We can use the labels for what they tell us but take care not to over-identify with them.

Fran, you were saying last night that one of the most important things with us is that I don’t see you as “an ill person.” That I see the person, the whole person that you are. You mentioned that the labels (I think you meant labels like bipolar, cfs, fibro) are useful because they help you focus on why you have certain issues, and also because they qualify you for benefits. But you said it is possible to become too attached to them?

Yes Marty.. The labels help me care for myself.. They help me to understand why I do what I do sometimes.. The problem is if I make that my identity.. the way engineering was an identity for me before I got sick..

Misinterpreting the labels of mental illness is at the root of stigma and prejudice. We don’t have the time or the energy to get to know everyone we meet. Labels act as a shortcut. I suggest it is not possible to completely avoid this kind of thinking; we appear programmed to label the world around us and it is likely we could not function as social beings if we did not. The important thing is to recognise that the labels we apply say as much about us and the maps we are using as they do about the people we are labelling.


Wednesday 15 January 2020

Every Day Essentials for the Successful Blogger

because we wrote down one night everything in it
~ Adrian Henri

In a follow up to sharing my blogging workflow I thought I’d give you a behind-the-scenes peek at my EDC (every day carry). These are the items I take with me when I’m out and about for my blogging and journaling. This has been on my to-do list for ages. I was finally inspired to write it by a conversation with my friend and fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson.

Aimee: What’re you doing?

Martin: Right now, sorting what to bring out with me tomorrow. I carry so much in that green bag of mine, but it’s all essential blogging and writing stuff! I keep meaning to do a blog post about all I carry.

Aimee: That’s so funny because the new post I’m writing is about all the essentials for blogging!

Martin: No way! Really?

Aimee: This is why we’re best friends — we have so much in common!

You can read Aimee’s Essential Items for Bloggers on her blog I’m NOT Disordered. We approach things differently (compare Aimee’s post inspired by a Hidden Histories event with my more prosaic account) but with her permission I’ll use Aimee’s organisation of items into stationery, notebooks, technology, and tech accessories. To these I’ll add personal items and the bags I carry everything around in. I’ve listed everything I normally have with me, with buying links where possible.




Tech Accessories

Personal Items

  • Bisodol indigestion relief tablets
  • Paracetamol 500mg tablets
  • Ibuprofen 342mg tablets
  • Comb
  • Mints


Apart from the printers (I would take one or the other, not both) all of the above fits — just — into my trusty Lorenz Multi functional canvas bag/holdall. Clipped to the outside I have two brass binder clips and a small compass which is more decorative than functional — but you never know when you might need to know which way is north!

I also carry a cotton “Always Take the Scenic Route” shopping bag bought from Mountain Warehouse in support of the Sreepur Village in Bangladesh.

If I need more space the Lorenz fits perfectly into my Jack Wolfskin Berkeley 30L Daypack.

What Do I Do with It All?

That might seem an awful lot to carry around with me all day, so what do I do with it?

I keep a personal dairy in a series of Moleskine notebooks. My current diary is always with me so I can capture my thoughts and ideas whenever I am moved to.

I use my Standard Traveler’s Notebook for work notes and for drafting blog posts. The lightweight insert is ideal for blogging; the thinner paper means I have more pages to write in than with a regular insert.

My Passport Traveler’s Notebook is for memory keeping. I keepsake days out, holidays, and other special occasions. I decorate the pages with washi tape, stickers and stamps, also photos printed on my HP Sprocket or Paperang printers.

The gratitude journal was a recent gift from a friend and I keep it with me as a prompt to acknowledge and record moments of gratitude and appreciation through my day.

I love letter writing and keep a few sheets of writing paper, envelopes, and postcards in my bag.

The adjustable stand and Bluetooth keyboard turn my phone into a mini laptop when I want to type up my rough drafts. The stand is also great for selfies, time lapse videos, and video calls. I use my Bluetooth headset to listen to music, for voice and video calls, and recording audio blogs.

One Final Note

The Adrian Henri quotation at the top of this article has meant a lot to me since I first encountered it years ago. A fuller quotation from what is quite a long poem reads:

room gone now
room preserved forever
because of you
because of me
because we wrote down one night everything in it
because it looked like you
even when you weren’t there
room rented now like my dreams
to someone else

The idea of writing down the contents of a room in exhaustive detail remains extraordinary to me. It’s something I’ve thought about but never attempted. This article is my modest tribute to Henri’s genius.


Flatness and Disinclination

This article began as a fourteen minute audio clip recorded on my way into work. The recording is a bit rambling in places but I’m starting there because that’s how I was feeling that day. Flat. I’ve edited for clarity and added some other relevant material. You can listen to the recording here on our YouTube channel.

Good morning. I wanted to see if I could capture a little of how I’ve been feeling since some time yesterday. It’s what I tend to call “flat.” That’s verbal shorthand for a sense of feeling fairly low. Not actively low or depressed; it’s more like the absence of any specific emotion than the presence of a negative one, if that makes sense.

Over the past year or so I’ve noticed it occurring every now and again. It doesn’t usually last more than a day or so and it doesn’t impact me severely if I don’t engage with it too much. If I do engage with it, or if something happens to exacerbate things, it has the potential to take me bit lower but when it first occurs it’s more of an absence of emotion than anything else.

I’m not on any form of medication but if I was starting on something new and watching out for side effects I’d say I feel mildly zoned out. I’m not quite responding emotionally to what’s going on around me as I usually would. Dinner not ready? No worries. Favourite tv show cancelled? Whatever. Friend changed our plans at the last moment? Fine. I don’t mean not feeling annoyed or upset in a positive calm way. I mean not feeling anything.

I’ve wanted to explore this sense of flatness for a while now. One reason I haven’t is that when I’m this way I don’t feel inclined to do anything as positive as trying to explore it too much. I’m hoping an audio recording can help me get past that block.

And there’s an interesting play on words – not feeling inclined to do things – because one meaning of incline is a slope or gradient. An upward incline might be a path rising in potential like climbing a mountain, or less positively as an uphill struggle. You might see a down slope as taking you somewhere you don’t want to go. In a more positive or even exciting way it might suggest things opening up for you, the way ahead getting easier, going with the flow downstream or downhill. The ups and downs might be gentle or have all the fear and excitement of a roller coaster. But when I’m this way I’m disinclined, with no particular ups and no particular downs. Flat.

It’s worth saying that there’s nothing specific going wrong in my life right now. Nothing “bad” has happened. All of my key friendships and relationships are good and strong and solid. Relationship issues can trigger me but that’s not the case. I could broaden it out a little and find a few things going on which probably have contributed to how I’m feeling but I don’t want to go into those right now. I’m not looking for explanations or causes here, I’m hoping to capture a little of how it feels and what I need when it happens.

When I get like this I tend to withdraw a little both on social media and from conversations and chats with people generally. I just can’t be doing with it. But I will reach out to a few people who are likely to get it, or at least be okay with me feeling like this. Those people, those friendships, are so important to me. I can say, “You know what, I’m feeling kind of flat today.” And maybe they will offer to explore it with me if I’d like to but they’re okay with that being how I feel right now. They don’t need to prise it apart or try to fix it like some other people would.

It helps that they recognize these feelings come and go for me. As long as I don’t do anything to send me any deeper the flatness will pass and something else will come along and I’ll move on. It’s also important for me to realize and accept there’s nothing inherently bad or wrong. I don’t have to force my way through or take steps to get myself out of it. In fact, periods of flatness can give space for introspection and to gather myself together.

I do tend to have a few negative feelings about these periods of flatness. The main one is that I’m not being a good friend if I’m unable to be there for other people. As I said I tend to withdraw a little. It’s what I need to do for myself but it has the knock-on effect that I’m not there for people I might normally be engaging with. I need to get my head around the dilemma because I like being there for people. I value friends who are there for me when I need it and who I can be there for when they need it. I had a good example of that yesterday with one friend. We had a good chat in the morning where I helped her explore a few things that were going on for her. Later in the day I wasn’t feeling great and she helped me unpack that a little. That mutuality is really important to me.

It’s extraordinarily valuable to me that I have several people – I’m not going to embarrass myself or them by naming or even counting them – who I know I can go to. I trust them and I trust myself with them. These are the people I know I’m safe with, that I can be vulnerable with if I’m feeling under the weather or something’s going on for me.

So one positive aspect of this flatness is it’s a learning experience. I’m learning to recognize what’s going on for me and who I need around me to offer a hand to hold while I gather myself and move forward. I’m also learning about where I need to be a little bit more aware of my boundaries. I’m not being disrespectful to those people or those friendships that are not helpful at such times; I’m focusing on what I need.

I’m not sure whether I’ll share this as an audio recording or whether I’ll use it as the basis of a written piece. I have wanted to blog around this subject of flatness for ages. It’s something that that comes up for me from time to time and I think it might resonate with other people. I haven’t managed to do that yet so I’ll review this audio and see if it feels like it would be of value to others. If so I might use it as the jumping-off point for writing something a little more structured about flatness and disinclination.

I’m going to leave it there. If you’re still there, thank you!

Bye for now.


Wednesday 8 January 2020

14 Great Posts from Last Year That Will Change Your Now

Each month Fran and I share the ten most viewed articles here at Gum on My Shoe. As we enter a new year and a new decade I thought I’d do something different and choose my personal favourites from everything we published during 2019. One way or another these articles changed my perspective or thinking. Maybe they will change yours.

1. Six Things I’d Quite Like to Do in 2019

Published: 1 January 2019

I’ll start at the very beginning (a very good place to start!) with the list of things I felt I’d like to do through the year. You can see how I got on here. It might appear as though I didn’t do very well but that’s partly because things turned out other – and a lot better – than I anticipated. I’ve made these lists for the past three years (see how I did in 2017 and 2018) but I’m taking a break. I want to hold myself open to what comes along in 2020 rather than keeping an eye on my expectations at the start of the year.

How about you? Are you a resolution or objectives sort of person? If so, how did you get on during 2019?

2. Announcing Our New Book, “No One is Too Far Away: Notes from a Transatlantic Friendship”

Published: 16 February 2019

This choice is bittersweet as our publisher Eliezer Tristan Publishing recently closed its doors and our second book No One is Too Far Away: Notes from a Transatlantic Friendship will shortly go out of print. It has been a lesson in trust for me and Fran. With no disrespect to the people involved we feel let down and are unlikely to place our work with start-up concerns in future. We intend to republish No One is Too Far Away: Notes from a Transatlantic Friendship so keep an eye out for that in the near future.

Our first book High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder remains in print.

3. Impostor Syndrome, Self-Doubt, and Legitimacy in the Mental Health Arena

Published: 23 February 2019

I agonised over this piece for a long time before finally getting my words together and posting it in the final week of February. The start of 2019 was a period of intense introspection triggered by self-doubt, insecurity, and feelings of inadequacy in many areas of my life. Much of what had seemed so positive and full of potential in 2018 fell apart leaving me seriously adrift in both my personal life and my work in the mental health arena.

Looking back at this piece I can see I was trying to express myself without revealing too much of what was going on below the surface: never an easy task. Nevertheless, it said something valid and represented a turning point in my recovery. The support and encouragement I received in response to its publication made a huge difference to me – I am forever grateful to those who were there for me through that time.

4. A Heap of “S” Words and an Aitch: Stigma, Suicide, Self-Harm – and Hope

With Aimee Wilson

Published: 20 March 2019

I’m including this one because it deals with several topics close to my heart and Fran’s: stigma, suicide, and suicidal thinking; also self-harm which I became more aware of last year. But there is also HOPE. It was written in collaboration with fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson, of I’m NOT Disordered. Aimee and I met in 2016 at a Time to Change session for Newcastle Mental Health Day.

5. Secrets of a Successful Blogging Workflow

Published: 24 April 2019

Fran and I began our blog in August 2013. Over the years I have refined my blogging workflow a good deal. There’s nothing especially fancy about it but it works for me, and in this article I share my approach in the hope it might be of use to other bloggers.

6. Mental Health Awareness Week Roundup

Published: 19 May 2019

I am cheating a little with this one because it points to some extraordinary content hosted here at Gum on My Shoe and elsewhere for Mental Health Awareness Week 2019, the theme of which was body image. Contributors include Aimee Wilson, Jen Evans, and Charlotte Underwood.

7. Six People I Admire in the Mental Health Community

Published: 1 June 2019

By June when I wrote this article I was feeling more confident in my personal life and in my role of mental health author and blogger. Focusing on the six people I included in this tribute piece helped refine my attitude to my own work.

One way or another each of the six people I’ve selected is making a difference by actively combating stigma and discrimination, by sharing personal stories, or by supporting people with lived experience, their friends and loved ones.

8. Weepy, Angry, Catatonic: Three Kinds of Depression and How You Can Help

By Julie A. Fast

Published: 26 June 2019

Fran and I have hosted some brilliant guest posts this year. (Click here for a full list.) I especially like this one by our dear friend Julie A. Fast because it opens up the dialogue around one specific aspect of mental illness – depression. Julie’s message is that not all depressions are the same. The different forms deserve to be recognised and find appropriate responses from those experiencing them, as well as those who care for them.

9. Four Things It’s Hard for a Mental Health Ally to Hear (And Why It’s Important to Listen)

Published: 24 July 2019

Something I’ve struggled with a lot over the past few years is finding my role within the mental health community as a “well one.” This came to a head at the end of 2018 and is explored in the “Impostor Syndrome, Self-Doubt, and Legitimacy” article I mentioned earlier.

In “Four Things It’s Hard for a Mental Health Ally to Hear” I shared four things that have been said to me over the years by people who have what I do not: lived experience of mental illness. It’s one of the most personal pieces I wrote last year. I would love to hear your thoughts on it.

10. The Efficacy of Electroshock: a Personal Story

By Andrew Turman

Published: 31 July 2019

When we published this guest in July author Andrew Turman had completed 128 sessions of electroshock (ECT). Five months later that number has reached 150. It is well worth reading to hear Andy’s take on what remains a controversial treatment.

In this day and age, it perplexes me as to why Electroconvulsive Therapy, or electroshock, still seems to get a bad rap. [...] I, for one, can attest to the efficacy of its use for not only depression, but also mania. Just last week, I underwent shock treatment three times to control my mania, upon which the use of very dangerous psychotropic medications do not seem to have any effect.

11. Three Things I Wish People Knew about Loving Someone with Mental Illness

Published: 25 September 2019

The starting point for this piece was the realisation that almost all the people I am closest to live with a mental health condition or have experienced mental health difficulties in recent years. Drawing on my experience as friend and ally I share three things I wish people were aware of about caring for someone who lives with mental illness.

12. Friends in Deed: An Interview with Bob Keyes

Published: 23 October 2019

Fran and I were honoured to be interviewed by award winning arts writer and storyteller Bob Keyes for a profile piece in the Maine Sunday Telegram. Here I share the background to the interview, with a bonus appearance from our friend Aimee Wilson and her bunny Pixie!

13. Caregivers Need Care Too

By Janet Coburn

Published: 13 November 2019

As I have mentioned, Fran and I love having guest bloggers. (If you are interested in writing for us check out the guest guidelines on our contact page.) In this article Janet Coburn, author of Bipolar Me, shares her perspective on the needs of caregivers with special reference to her husband of thirty-five years, Dan. As a caregiver I found the piece insightful and very welcome.

14. How to Be Honest without Losing Your Friends

Published: 23 November 2019

I’m writing this “Great Posts from Last Year” article in the bar at Hadrian’s Tipi so it feels appropriate to include this piece on honesty which features the venue in one of its scenarios:

“Over there — that’s where we had our first tiff!”

My friend Vikki and I were standing at the bar in Hadrian’s Tipi in Newcastle for the first time in about a year. I smiled. “Yeah. I was pretty grumpy that day!” She didn’t contradict me.

Emotional honesty is the foundation of any relationship, whether mental illness is a factor or not. In one of my favourite posts of the year I share three personal examples of working through disagreements and issues with friends. It’s not always easy but as I say in the article, if I can do it you can do it!


Friday 3 January 2020

If You're Really Paying Attention (Unfulfilled Magnificence)

Audio version here (YouTube)

I was just thinking about one of my friends a moment ago and what came to my mind was I'd never met anyone like her before. And then I thought about it for a moment and I'm like hang on, if you're really paying attention you could say that about every single person that you know, that you meet, in your life.

If you're really paying attention you've never met anyone like that person before, because there is no one else in the world like that person. We are all stupendously and spectacularly unique. We each carry our load of issues, unresolved situations and patterns from the past, and unfulfilled magnificence.

So yeah, the friend I was thinking about, I've never met anyone like her before. Or her. Or him. Or you.


Wednesday 1 January 2020

Six Things I'd Quite Like to Do in 2019 - How Did I Get On?

At the start of the year I posted a list of Six Things I'd Quite Like to Do in 2019. I shared an update in August, but how did I get on overall? Let’s take a look!

1. Take Three Well-being Courses


I feel I've done pretty well with this one. I began two courses which I've yet to complete: Overcoming Self-Sabotage at DailyOM and OpenLearn's Understanding Autism. I updated my Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training and took Pluralsight's excellent Introduction to Emotional Intelligence, also Future Learn's Understanding Suicide and Suicide Prevention Strategies in a Global Context.

Best of all I completed the three day Personal Leadership Programme offered by The Living Leader. This was excellent and gave me plenty to think about. The single best aspect of the course was the Vision Statement we were each invited to write: a snapshot of the ideal life we might have if we believed anything were possible. That is something I will be keeping very much in mind as I move into 2020.

2. Bring My Weight Back under 176 Pounds


As you can see from the graph my weight remained stubbornly above 180 pounds for most of the year, peaking around 184. I got back on top of things in the final month or two but I’m ending the year higher than I began, a little over 181 pounds. It’s not merely a numbers game for me. I’m fascinated by how my weight is influenced by, and influences, my mood and what else is going on in my life. It will be interesting to see how it varies as I move into a new year with whatever challenges and opportunities that brings.

3. Happy Happy Joy Joy


At the start of this year I wrote:

“I had some really fun times last year which took me out of myself in ways I’ve not been used to. I’m not going to prejudge how many there might be or what they might look like but I’d quite like some more joyful moments, please!”

I’ve more than achieved this one. So much so I hardly know where to start!

I’ve had some fabulous times this year with my “blogging bestie” Aimee Wilson including visits to Newcastle’s Life Science Centre, an Easter fundraiser at the Cats Protection Adoption Centre, day trips to Durham and Morpeth, and an afternoon in Blyth. We were official bloggers at the Hidden Histories: Mining in the North East event in June which was something new for me, and attended North Tyneside’s event for World Mental Health Day. Another highlight I shared with Aimee (okay I invited myself along!) was meeting Jonny Benjamin MBE at a mental health event in Newcastle. That evening was extra special because I got to reconnect with my friend Vikki who I’d not seen in ages.

As far as fun times and joyful moments go it would be hard to beat singing and dancing with Vikki at Stack Newcastle, or the Skype call I had with Fran in May when we met a hedgehog and a (very attentive) cat and found a special place down by the river. I’ve had some wonderful calls with other friends too throughout the year — I’m thinking of you in particular, Jen! The run-up to Christmas brought more opportunities, starting off with Christmas shopping with Aimee in Morpeth (see photo), then the Jingle Bell Walk fundraiser for childhood cancer charity The Chris Lucas Trust. Joining Fran and her friend Diana on Skype while they decorated Fran’s apartment was also wonderful!

All in all it’s been a year filled with warm, fun, and joyful times, and I’m grateful to those who shared them with me. Here’s to many more in 2020!

4. Meet Two Online Friends Face to Face


As I reported in my mid-year update I met up twice this year with my friend Soph who I’d previously only known online.

I’d hoped to hook-up in person with a few more folk but for one reason or another it didn’t happen. Here’s to next year!

5. Have One Caffeine Free Week


I never did attempt a week — or even a day — without caffeine! It’s perhaps for the best: according to the keyring Aimee gifted me recently, COFFEE CURES ALL OF YOUR ISSUES!

6. Visit Barter Books, Alnwick


Despite my best intentions I didn't make it to Barter Books in Alnwick, nor Keel Row Books in North Shields which was also suggested to me. Another one to carry forward as I’ve only heard good things about both bookshops.

I have been a bit remiss on my reading this year generally. I am half-way through Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend, and recently bought Jerold J. Kreisman’s I Hate You — Don't Leave Me: Understanding the Borderline Personality at the suggestion of a friend. I intend to complete both in the new year.

I think that makes two and a half of my “things” accomplished out of six! Not great in percentage terms but looking back it was a brilliant year and the things I did achieve more than made up for those I didn’t.

Did you set yourself any resolutions, objectives, or “things to do” for 2019? If so, how did you get on?