Wednesday 26 February 2020

It's Okay If You Don't Know How to Help Me

Came to you with a broken faith.
Gave me more than a hand to hold.
Caught before I hit the ground.
Tell me I’m safe, you’ve got me now.

(Jess Glynne, “Take Me Home”)

Listening to Spotify recently I came across Take Me Home by Jess Glynne. In the artist’s words, “This is a song about the need to have someone who cares when you are at your most vulnerable.” I’m fortunate to have people like that in my life. People who are there for me and allow me to be there for them. You might imagine this kind of support means always knowing how to help, but that’s not the case at all.

It feels good when you’re able to offer what someone needs; be that words of comfort or advice, or practical assistance. But there are times when you will have neither the words nor any clear idea of what to do. It is important to recognise and accept when this happens without feeling a failure to yourself or the person you want to help. As I’ve written elsewhere:

Don’t feel paralysed or useless if you can’t think of anything that could possibly help. If you are present and engaged, you are helping. Often, that is precisely — and all — that is needed. You’d be surprised how rare a gift holding space for someone can be.

The same applies when you’re the one in need of support. I’ve been feeling low for a while now. A number of things are contributing to this; chief amongst them is a deep-seated uncertainty about what direction to move in career-wise. A good friend of mine, mental health blogger Aimee Wilson, messaged me after I’d told her I wasn’t doing too well.

“Are you still struggling, Marty?”

“Kinda, yeah.”

“Want to talk about it or no?”

I appreciated the gentle way she invited me to share. Nevertheless, I hesitated. I wondered what she might think if I unburdened myself about something I’d previously only mentioned to her in passing. I needed to share with someone, though and took the plunge. Aimee waited while I explained how the workplace role I’ve held for decades is coming to an end. There are opportunities to retrain but a new technical role isn’t what I want at this point in my life and career. The mental health and wellbeing work I’ve been involved in over the past two years interests me far more but there are no full-time positions of that kind where I work. I stopped typing and waited for Aimee’s reply.

“I won’t pretend that I understand the work side of your struggle but the little bit you said on mental health ... I think that as long as you aren’t pretending that you know how the service user feels and are always advising from your carer’s insight then you definitely know what you’re talking about. If I met someone struggling with their carer role then I’d definitely pass them on to you. I’m that confident that you understand and it’s something you’re very good at.”

I agreed with what Aimee said. I’m a mental health first aider. I’ve had many people tell me I’ve helped them, including carers who support friends and relatives. The book I wrote with Fran has received some great feedback. The problem is I don’t know how to turn this into a paid role in the workplace. We continued chatting and Aimee suggested a few options I might explore.

“Aimee, thanks for asking how I am. I’m pretty much at sea career-wise right now and your support makes a difference.”

“Glad I can be helpful! It’s that thing again about not wanting the friendship to be one-sided. I want you to know that as much as you’re there for me, I’m here for you.”

I knew what she meant. It’s important to both of us that our friendship is mutually supportive. That doesn’t mean things are equal all the time but in any healthy friendship there is balance and the trust that each can rely on the other. On this occasion, Aimee knew just what to say. She invited me to share if I was ready and offered support and encouragement. A few days later I checked in with her and asked how things were going. She said she was okay. There was a pause, then she asked:

“Are you okay, Marty?”

“Not so great.”


“The work thing, mostly. I feel really stuck.”

There was another short pause, then:

“I don’t know how else to help.”

It was an admission that in another context might have seemed like failure. Maybe Aimee felt it that way. But I reassured her that she was helping because she cared. I messaged her the next day:

“Thank you for checking in with me last night. In a funny way, you saying you didn’t know how else to help really helped. Because what it said to me was, ‘I don’t know what to do or say right now, Marty, but I’m here.’”

There have been plenty of times when I’ve not known how to help Aimee. We were out one day last year when Aimee was suddenly taken with excruciating pain. We spent five and a half hours at the hospital A&E department while nurses and doctors attempted to deal with Aimee’s pain and establish what was going on. There was very little I could do to help. If I'm honest I felt pretty useless. I remember saying, “I wish I could take the pain away, Aimee, but I can’t so I’ll do what I can.”

She wasn’t up to talking much until the pain was brought under control but I sat with her. Asked the medical staff for updates when they seemed to have forgotten us. Watched Grey’s Anatomy with her on her iPad. At one point she was concerned that the battery pack for her phone and iPad would run out of charge if she had to stay overnight, and she didn’t have her plug-in charger.

“If they keep you in, Aimee, I’ll lend you mine.” I paused for effect. “That's how much I love you!”

I was rewarded with a smile, which was a blessing in the circumstances.

I want to close with an excerpt from High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend's Guide to Bipolar Disorder which I wrote with my best friend and co-author Fran Houston:

The most important role you can fill is that of someone your friend can rely on, feel safe with, and trust to be always there. Fran has friends “who are designated to be the string of my balloon.” We keep her grounded in times of mania and prevent her from sinking too deeply when she is in depression.

It is a cornerstone of our friendship that I am available for Fran no matter what is happening. We have spent many hours together when she has felt depressed, manic, anxious, afraid, or suicidal. There is little I can do to help on a practical level, but I can listen and talk with her. Above all, I can simply be there so that she knows she is not alone.

I think that says it pretty well. It’s okay if you don’t always know what to do or how to help. Of course, it’s also okay to ask your friend or loved one what they need!


Have there been times when you wanted to help someone but didn’t know what to do or say? Have you asked for help but the person you asked didn’t know how? How did it feel? Was it a problem for you and the other person? Fran and I would love to hear from you so please leave a comment.

Wednesday 19 February 2020

Please Invite Me Out With You

By Amy Cullis

Ever since I started to become mentally ill, I have noticed a distinct drop in the amount of times I have been invited out by friends. I have even lost friends because of the effects of my illnesses.

Many of the times I’ve been invited out, I know I’ve cancelled and this probably leads to someone wondering if I really do want to meet up with them. The truth is, I do though. I really truly do.

I have Generalised Anxiety Disorder, Depression, Borderline Personality Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. It’s hard to believe that one person can accumulate so many mental illnesses, but it is possible. Each of these illnesses affect my functioning in one way or another, and pretty much all of them can affect my ability to get out of the house and meet up with people.

My Anxiety and OCD make me worry about humiliating myself in public. I fear losing control of my bladder through not being able to get to a toilet in time. I have to complete rituals and even control the things I’m thinking otherwise I convince myself I will lose control and not be able to cope with the shame. My OCD in particular isn’t as bad these days, but in the past I have had to cancel plans last minute, or I’ve been late because I had to repeat my rituals. It takes a lot to quieten the intrusive thoughts I have around this. It also takes a lot to cut down my counting and repeating rituals. Part of me knows that logically the rituals mustn’t really affect how well I can control my bladder, but those toxic doubts of “what if?” hold me back and make me repeat them, just in case they do have an effect. The times when I’ve not been able to control my bladder, or I’ve almost not been able to, my brain puts down to not doing my rituals properly or enough. Next time I will be extra careful.

My Depression can severely impact my motivation and self-esteem. I see myself as a bad, unworthy friend; who will not be good company to be around. The thought of putting on a smile, being chatty, and coping with crowds in order to meet my friend/s can become very daunting and I may even think they don’t really want to meet up with me. If I have cancelled before, I also feel very guilty and this will make me feel too ashamed to meet up again.

My BPD has an impact on my thoughts and behaviour around friends. I may be clingy, or I might completely isolate in order to avoid abandonment and rejection. I will go through times where I cannot bear conversation. I cannot cope with the idea and even paranoia that my friends aren’t as close to me as I am to them. I feel no one will ever love me as much as I love them, and I get scared of holding on too tight, so I do the opposite. It will take so much for me to make plans, and eventually I believe I push friends away. They may think I’m not interested in meeting up with them, when in fact the opposite is true. I am so desperate to be loved and accepted that I fear what will happen if I take the plunge and attempt to make plans.

My most recent mental health diagnosis is PTSD. My main trauma has little to do with friends and friendship groups, but it can affect how I act in busy situations. When I am out of the house I can feel unsafe and out of control. I am easily startled and always on my guard. Sometimes knowing I will be like this is too much to cope with and I will cancel plans.

This may seem like a lot to take in, and may leave my friends wondering what to do. For me, though, the worst things are lack of interaction from friends and not making plans. I may cancel many times but please keep the faith that there will be times when I am able to meet up. Just to be invited means the world to me, even if I can’t make it. Please include me. Feeling left out is something I’ve experienced ever since my childhood and it doesn’t take much for me to still feel left out now. If it confuses you that I cancel so often, then talk to me! I will be more than happy to explain what’s going on. It may even bring us closer together to know why I act the way I do. I promise I will always try my best to stick to our plans, and I will try not to cancel last minute without good reason.

Communication is so important in friendship. It may even become more important when one of us falls ill and cannot get out of the house as often as we’d like. Please continue to communicate with us and include us in your plans with friends. We may have not changed. Our health has.

About the Author

Amy Cullis is a mental health and chronic illness blogger from the UK. They have a BSc (Hons) in Clinical and Health Psychology. Amy blogs at Amy’s Mystery Illness, contributes to The Mighty and has a keen interest in writing, politics, and equal rights; alongside music and photography.



Wednesday 12 February 2020

Love and Friendship: What Valentine's Day Means to Me

Many moons ago I marked Valentine’s Day each year by exchanging friendship cards with one of my dearest friends, PJ. (Pamela Jane. She was Jane to her family, PJ or Pam to friends.) This was long before social media and instant messaging (yes really!) and we wrote letters to each other all the time, often by return of post. For years we shared the ups and downs of our lives that way; our hopes and fears and dreams for the future. I’m not sure we ever called each other best friends but that’s what we were.

Over time we drifted apart, as friends do sometimes. Our letters became less frequent. At some point we stopped sending each other Valentine’s cards. And then she got sick. Many years later I included our story in the first book I wrote with Fran.

I knew little of the disease [multiple sclerosis], and never took the trouble to ask or research what it meant. My friend spoke pragmatically of the impact it would have on her life, imagining and planning for a gradual physical deterioration. The illness advanced far more rapidly than anyone anticipated. I watched helplessly as the woman I had known was overwhelmed by disease, despair, and grief. The depth of her need terrified me. I wrote to her every day for what turned out to be the last two years of her life, but never once picked up the telephone. I visited her home only once, after her death, to attend a memorial ceremony.

From High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend's Guide to Bipolar Disorder

For a time PJ replied to my letters herself. Sometimes she had someone write on her behalf. Eventually the replies ceased altogether. Maybe she resented my attention by that point or was simply too ill to notice. Only those who stood by her could tell me and I’m too scared to ask them. It doesn’t matter now. What does matter is that I wasn’t there for her in ways that might have helped or meant something to her. That’s not something I’m proud of. She died way too young (whatever that means) in 2005 at the age of forty-three. I miss her, especially at this time of year.

I still have a lot to learn about being there in the right ways at the right time. I tend to be either “too much” or “not enough.” Two or three years ago I was struggling with another friendship. My friend had a lot to deal with. I hadn’t turned my back or walked away but I was failing to support her effectively. Things had become pretty fractured. In fact it’s fair to say our friendship was on the line. One night Fran asked me if I was so earnest about helping this friend because I believed I’d failed others in the past, PJ included. I’m sure there’s some truth there. Guilt can be a powerful motivator. One way or another – I’m not sure either of us knows how – my friend and I made it through those times and are still together.

A few days ago I hurt one of my best friends. I’m not happy that happened and my failure to recognise how much she was hurting only exacerbated the injury, but I’m proud that we worked it through the way we did. I do feel I’m learning. I messaged her the next day:

We are honest with each other. You get to call me out when I do or say something wrong. I get to do the same. And we each hurt a little when it happens, because it is painful when you hurt or upset someone you care about. And we learn a little more about each other. And we make up. And we move on, a little bit wiser for it.

That seems to me what a healthy friendship is all about. We all mess up. What matters is how we deal with it. I was never able to do that with PJ. Her illness and the impact it had on her body, and ultimately her mental health, terrified me. I had no idea how to respond and never asked what she needed. And she never dared tell me or ask, perhaps because she knew I wasn’t up to the task. What she most likely wanted was for me not to turn my back on her, and despite all those letters and cards, that’s what I did. This isn’t about beating myself up over not being a perfect friend, then or now. No one is. To be honest I’m not sure I’d want to be friends with someone who was perfect! But it is about being honest, with myself and others.

So here’s a promise to all my friends this Valentine’s Day. Card or no card, I pledge to be the best friend to you I can be; the friend you deserve.


Wednesday 5 February 2020

#TimeToTalk: Thank You for Not Assuming I'm OK

This year’s Time to Talk Day is Thursday February 6, 2020.

I wrote recently about feeling flat which is something that happens from time to time. Many of my friends live with significant mental health issues and it would be easy for them to dismiss my accounts of when I am feeling low. It is a testament to them and the nature of our friendships that I feel safe sharing how I feel no matter how mild that might be compared to what are often dealing with.

My friend Aimee Wilson blogs at I’m NOT Disordered about her lived experience with serious mental health issues including borderline personality disorder, self-harm, and suicidality. My moods, issues, and problems are mostly trivial in comparison to hers but Aimee has always treated me with respect and empathy. The following exchange is a great example of this. It meant a lot that she did not assume I was okay but checked to be sure.

Martin: Hiya. I’m making some notes towards answering the questions at the end of your travel post. The ALL THINGS TRAVEL & MENTAL HEALTH one.

Aimee: Awesome! Some very big questions!

Martin: I was feeling a bit flat this morning actually, so this new piece inspired by yours has given me a little boost.

Aimee: Why flat?

Martin: Dunno exactly. Getting bogged down with the writing is part of it (but also the writing gets stuck when I’m not feeling so great so it’s not always clear what’s going on).

Aimee: Catch 22?

Martin: Definitely. I’ve come to recognise that I get this way every now and again. It mostly passes in a day or so.

Aimee: Hmmm. I guess rough days are kinda normal. It’s hard because being in mental health I hear things like that and instinctively think you’re struggling, but actually a lot of people have hard days and don’t have a mental health diagnosis. Just so long as you’re safe.

Martin: Thank you for not assuming I’m OK, if that makes sense.

Aimee: Of course! Just because you’re usually the support doesn’t mean you don’t need it yourself sometimes! And I’m here for you just as you are for me.

Martin: I feel better already! OK, I guess I’d better get some work done. Catch up later.

I checked back with Aimee a little later:

Martin: Our chat really helped motivate me and lift me from feeling low. Thank you.

Aimee: I’m glad it helped.

What Aimee did and said might seem simple — even commonplace — but it is precisely such “simple” conversations that are so important. As I’ve written elsewhere:

It’s extraordinarily valuable to me that I have several people 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.

No matter who we are or what we are living with, we all need to feel that our feelings and problems are valid. It doesn’t take a lot to offer that sense of validation to someone. We can all do that. You can do that. Time to Change, the UK’s largest mental health campaign challenging stigma and discrimination has chosen the party game “Would you rather?” as the focus of this year’s Time to Talk Day, which is Thursday February 6, 2020.

Mental health problems affect one in four of us, yet too many people are made to feel isolated, ashamed and worthless because of this. Time to Talk Day encourages everyone to be more open about mental health – to talk, to listen, to change lives. We know that talking about mental health can feel awkward, but it doesn’t have to. This year, we’re using the popular game ‘Would you rather?’ to help break the ice and get the conversation flowing.

To get involved check out the Time to Change website. Share why you’re choosing to talk about mental health by using #TimeToTalk on your social media posts. Follow #TimeToTalk on Twitter and Instagram, and reply to and share posts.


Monday 3 February 2020

Would You Rather? Time to Talk Day 2020

Time to Talk Day 2020 is Thursday February 6, 2020.

Time to Change, the UK’s largest mental health campaign challenging stigma and discrimination has chosen the party game “Would you rather?” as the focus of this year’s Time to Talk Day.

Choose talk, change lives.

Mental health problems affect one in four of us, yet too many people are made to feel isolated, ashamed and worthless because of this.

Time to Talk Day encourages everyone to be more open about mental health – to talk, to listen, to change lives.

We know that talking about mental health can feel awkward, but it doesn’t have to. This year, we’re using the popular game ‘Would you rather?’ to help break the ice and get the conversation flowing.

I have a confession to make. I’d never heard of, let alone played, this “popular game” until I started writing this article. Maybe I don’t get invited to the right kind of parties! To save you the trouble and embarrassment of googling it (as I had to!) the game is played by asking a series of questions of the form “Would you rather [do this] or [do that]?”

The questions can be light, deep, funny, silly — whatever you like. The idea is to get a conversation started in a fun and potentially interesting way. Any number of people can play, individually or in teams. You can even ask and answer the questions on your own, perhaps in a diary or journal. It’s easy to see how this fits the Time to Talk Day idea. The Time to Change website has examples of questions you might use, including:

Would you rather be stuck in a spider’s web or talk to a friend who feels trapped in their thoughts?

Would you rather kiss a jellyfish or talk to a colleague who feels all at sea?

Would you rather have the neck of an ostrich or talk to a friend who’s burying your feelings?

I thought about it and came up with a few of my own. One resonated with me especially. I’ll come back to that in a minute.

I’ve been a Time to Change Champion (the charity’s word for its registered volunteers and supporters) for several years in a personal capacity and co-lead the mental health and well-being team at work. I’m passionate about what we are doing at BPDTS Ltd and proud to have led the initiative to sign the Time to Change Employer Pledge. You can read our pledge on the Time to Change website.

I’m also one of the company’s team of mental health first aiders and it’s here that my Would you rather? question feels most relevant. The mental health first aider role involves being available to colleagues who want to reach out for a chat, information, or signposting to relevant support services.

It’s become one of the most rewarding aspects of my job. I’ll go further. My involvement in the mental health and wellbeing working group has become the single most rewarding aspect of my job, eclipsing the technical role in personal significance. I’m particularly excited to be involved in arranging mental health first aid training for others within the company.

Mental health first aid (MHFA) is certificated training delivered by trainers affiliated to Mental Health First Aid England or equivalent organisations around the world. I’ve described my experience taking the training previously. You can read how it equipped me to work in the mental health arena on the Mental Health First Aid England blog.

A healthy workplace is one which fosters an environment where we all feel able to talk with our peers, team leaders, and management. You don’t need to have completed special training to do this of course, but our mental health first aiders provide confidential points of contact. As I mentioned earlier, we offer confidential conversation, information, and signposting to support services provided within and by the company, as well as external organisations and professionals.

I hope colleagues throughout our organisation feel able to reach out to us without feeling they are imposing on our time or interfering with the techie side of our role. In my case at least, that’s never going to be an issue. There’s literally nothing more important to me than these kind of conversations.

So, what was the question that resonated so strongly with me?

Would you rather [insert any work-related task here] or have a conversation about mental health with a colleague?

I think we know the answer to that one!


Get Involved

Time to Talk Day 2020 is Thursday February 6, 2020. To get involved check out the Time to Change website. Share why you’re choosing to talk about mental health by using #TimeToTalk on your social media posts. Follow #TimeToTalk on Twitter and Instagram, and reply to and share posts. Oh, and have fun!