Wednesday 29 July 2020

The Roles of a Friend

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

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

Being a Good Listener

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

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

Don’t Interrupt

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

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

It’s Their Story, Not Yours

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

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

Save Your Judgments for Later

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

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

Don’t Try to Fix Everything

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

Being a Balancer

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

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

Being a Haven

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

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


Wednesday 22 July 2020

The Languages of Love and Bipolar Disorder

By Janet Coburn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally published in February 2019 at Bipolar Me.


About the Author

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

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


Wednesday 15 July 2020

Beauty Everywhere: Engaging with the Natural World

“If you truly love nature, you will find beauty everywhere.” (Laura Ingalls Wilder)

Covid-19 has curtailed many of the activities that brought meaning to our lives. However, for many of us it has provided an opportunity to engage more with our immediate surroundings. Wherever we live and no matter our personal circumstances we can all invite the natural world into our lives.

Garden Visitors

Working from home has given me the chance to observe the wildlife in our garden more than ever before. Several times a day I step away from my laptop and take a stroll around the estate — aka our small overgrown garden.

We keep a variety of feeders stocked with sunflower seeds, peanuts, fat treats, and mealworms and have been blessed by visits from a wide range of species including blue tit, great tit, goldfinch, greenfinch, chaffinch, bullfinch, blackbird, robin, wood pigeon, starling, house sparrow, wren, lesser spotted woodpecker, and magpie. The feeders have also attracted a grey squirrel, a rat, several mice, and a black cat that goes by the name of Milo. Our garden has been visited by a young hedgehog in the past few days.

Out and About

I’ve not been more than a couple of miles from home since the start of lockdown but I walk for exercise every day and have discovered treasures I never knew were on my doorstep. These include a sheltered spot beside the Ouseburn stream which is almost completely hidden from view despite being no more than a few hundred yards from the main road. It’s the perfect place to sit and relax. I often take my notebook and journal or do some creative writing. I’ve found a woodland path through a narrow stand of trees on the edge of the ever-expanding housing development, surprised heron along the stream, and watched swallows harvesting midges on the wing. From time to time I’ve set myself a specific challenge while on my walks. One day I photographed as many “small things” as possible; the tiny plants, insects and details that are so easily overlooked. Another time, I challenged myself to photograph as many different colours, patterns, and textures as I could find.

Garden Free Wildlife

If you don’t have a garden you might think there’s little scope for encountering nature, but window feeders will attract birds and you can grow plants, herbs, and vegetables in a window box or in pots on your window sill.

Wild London has factsheets and instructions for a wide range of indoor activities including planting window boxes, buying a window bird feeder, helping birds avoid window accidents, making your own binoculars, and wildlife yoga.

The BBC has ideas for engaging with and helping wildlife from the comfort of your home and Friends of the Earth offers tips on how to help wildlife when you don’t have a garden, focusing on neighbourhood and community projects. These may not all be possible at the present time but there is nothing to stop you planning ahead for when restrictions are lifted.

Mindful Moments

Indoors or out, sometimes we all need a little peace and quiet. BBC Springwatch has twelve short mindful moments videos (“No music, no commentary – just the beautiful sights and sounds of nature.”) If you fancy something a little longer, you can unwind with twenty minutes of peaceful footage from Springwatch 2020.

For All the Family

Open to children between 6 and 15 years old, Green Blue Peter badges are awarded for sending in “letters, pictures and makes that are about or inspired by the environment, conservation or nature”. There are over 200 attractions in the UK that give you free entry as a Blue Peter badge holder.

Bird Aware Solent has a Lockdown Learning page with links to wildlife-based learning activities for the whole family. Wild London have a fantastic range of fact sheets and ideas for outdoor activities including gardening for wildlife, insect and wildlife spotting, making a hedgehog house, building a garden hide, and taking a stag beetle survey! For rainy days or if you don’t have a garden they have plenty of craft ideas too, such as making leaf tiles, model butterflies, saltdough creatures and butterfly paintings.

Quizzes and Fact Sheets

Test your wildlife knowledge with these three quizzes from the BBC Springwatch team: brilliant birds, incredible insects, and marvellous mammals. Wildlife Watch has a wide range of full-colour identification sheets (PDF) to print or take on your phone or tablet when you are out wildlife spotting.

There’s an App for That!

There are many free apps for the budding naturalist so check out these selections compiled by the NHBS (Natural History Book Service) and BBC Springwatch.


Saturday 11 July 2020

Bad Sh*t Happens to Good People Too

I don’t believe that if you do good, good things will happen. Everything is completely accidental and random. Sometimes bad things happen to very good people and sometimes good things happen to bad people. But at least if you try to do good things, then you’re spending your time doing something worthwhile.
— Helen Mirren

I recently came across the following two related statements on social media:

“Bad things don’t happen to good people.”

“Nice things happen to nice people.”

They struck me as unhealthy at best; at worst stigmatising and judgemental. It was particularly disturbing because they were posted by someone who claims to be a mental health advocate dedicated to combating stigma.

Their author aside, what’s my issue with these statements? At first glance they seem innocuous enough: comforting platitudes of the sort we’ve probably all uttered at some point in our lives. But that’s the point. Such “innocuous” remarks, masquerading as positivity, seep into our collective subconscious.

“Bad things don’t happen to good people” implies we’re not good people if bad things have happened or are happening to us. Illness? Abuse? Trauma? Unemployment? Homelessness? Bereavement? If we’ve experienced these, the logic goes, we’re not innocent victims or survivors. We are complicit; guilty of attracting these things into our lives because we weren’t good enough in some way. It’s a claim, implicit or otherwise, that I reject utterly.

“Nice things happen to nice people” is more subtle. It doesn’t blame us for the bad stuff in our lives. Instead, it places full responsibility on our shoulders for manifesting the good stuff. Don’t have the things you want yet? Still mired in depression, anxiety, poverty? Addicted? Suicidal? Be a nicer person. Try harder. It’s a short hop from there to the religious equivalent I’ve seen in practice: pray harder, believe more, give yourself to Jesus/God completely.

Both statements play into the false narrative that some people deserve good (or bad) things to happen to them and others don’t. It’s a narrative that can easily lead to envy, resentment, self-recrimination, self-loathing, and despair when we don’t receive what we feel we’re due, whilst others have more than we believe they deserve.

It does matter what kind of people we are and how we go about our lives. I believe we have a responsibility to be the best we know how to be and do all we can to care for ourselves and others. As Helen Mirren says, “if you try to do good things, then you’re spending your time doing something worthwhile.”

Just don’t imagine that doing good will necessarily protect you from bad things or attract good things into your life. It doesn’t work that way. Bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people. Yes it sucks. Do good anyway.

“Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best you have anyway.” (Kent M. Keith)

Don’t throw lines like “Bad things don’t happen to good people” or “Nice things happen to nice people” around as though they don’t affect people. They can and they do, in unhealthy and harmful ways.

And, please, please, please, don’t judge others — or yourself — based on how life appears to have treated them.


Wednesday 8 July 2020

SpeakUp4MentalHealth: My Interview with Amy Gamble

Last week I joined motivational speaker and mental health trainer Amy Gamble on her Speak Up 4 Mental Health podcast. We talked about my friendship with Fran, our book High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder, and a number of other mental health topics. You can watch the interview here. Amy’s podcasts are also shown on West Liberty University Television (WLU-TV 14).

Amy and I first connected in 2017 and she guested on our blog shortly afterwards. Her interviews normally go out live at 11:30 am EST (4:30 pm here in the UK) but she kindly agreed to a time more convenient for me (6 pm EST, my 11 pm). We connected on Zoom twenty minutes ahead of time to check everything was working. We’d never spoken before but Amy immediately put me at my ease as we discussed how the interview would go. There was a short pause as she connected us to her Facebook group — then we were live!

After introducing me to the audience Amy invited me to share how Fran and I first met. I talked about how we found ourselves in May 2011 on the Facebook page of a mutual acquaintance who was feeling suicidal. You can read more about our meeting in this excerpt from our book:

I could have clicked away to another page and put [this lady] out of my mind, but I chose to stay. We were not friends, but I knew something of her situation. I felt involved, but what could I possibly contribute that would be meaningful to her, if indeed she was there to read it?

Finally I posted something: “Flooding light and love into your world.”

The words sounded trite and inadequate, but they were the best I could manage. Someone by the name of Fran Houston responded almost immediately: “Sometimes even too much love can be overwhelming.”

My friendship with Fran begain in that moment. Amy observed that with all the social media and online contact we have these days it’s not unlikely to find ourselves in a chat room or Facebook group and realise someone is really struggling. She suggested that not everyone would have reached out as I did. That might be true but there’s an irony there. If I’d posted something more appropriate to the situation Fran would have felt no need to respond and we might never have met.

Amy asked if there had ever been a time when Fran was in crisis and I had to intervene. The question took me back to 2013 when Fran was travelling in Europe and we — jointly — invoked her wellness plan and contacted her professional support team back home. Amy and I briefly discussed WRAPs (Wellness Recovery Action Plans). You can discover more about WRAP plans here and read my personal Wellness Recovery Action Plan on our blog.

About twenty-five minutes into the interview Amy mentioned that someone called Aimee Wilson had commented on the Facebook feed:

Just wanted to say hi! I’m one of Martin’s best friends and I think it’s amazing that you’re shedding light on the incredible work he does!

I was delighted she was watching! Aimee is a dear friend and a very successful mental health blogger in her own right (check out her blog I’m NOT Disordered). I gave her a little shout-out as my “blogging bestie.” It’s fair to say she loved being mentioned!

Amy was interested to know about the UK anti-stigma campaign Time to Change. I described how I’d first connected with the organisation (shout-out to another dear friend, Angela Slater, who at the time was regional community equalities coordinator for Time to Change) and a few of the occasions I’ve volunteered with them, including for Newcastle Mental Health Day and at Northern Pride. We talked a little about the Time to Change Employer Pledge and my role in the mental health and wellbeing team at BPDTS Ltd.

All too soon we were out of time. Thirty minutes had passed so quickly, but Amy suggested the possibility of a further interview in the future, either on my own or with Fran.

It’s no secret that at times I doubt myself and my place on the wider mental health stage, but as the interview ended I felt included. Amy reminded me I have a voice and something of value to share. That means a great deal and it’s something I’ll carry with me against times when the doubts return, as they do from time to time.

You can watch our interview on Amy’s Facebook page. Contact Amy Gamble on her website, on Facebook, and on Twitter.


Wednesday 1 July 2020

Where the Magic Happens: A Few Thoughts on Friendship, Difference, and Understanding

“Friend, how did we come here down such different roads?” (Martin Baker)

I’ve always delighted in the differences between people. The gaps in thinking, experience, and outlook offer enormous potential for growth, learning, and understanding. They are where the magic happens. This isn’t always easy, of course. No matter how much we care, significant differences in attitudes and opinion can get in the way of communicating effectively. It takes patience and commitment on both sides to handle difference creatively but I believe it’s possible if both parties are open to doing so.

Difference manifests in many areas of our lives. The following differences (and more) may be present in any given relationship.

Differences in age, gender, and sexual orientation; nationality, race, and culture; marital status; wellness and illness; financial and material security; education, skills, and abilities; life experience; worldview, political and religious beliefs; employment status and history.

It’s largely on the basis of such information that we make up our minds about other people and they make up their minds about us. It’s how we describe ourselves to a new friend or on our resume. The greater the match between our profiles the more at ease we feel. Conversely, too great a mismatch can put us off and get in the way of exploring deeper. If so, we are missing out, because this kind of information says very little about us as people. We rarely describe or introduce ourselves in ways that reveal our true selves, at least not up front or all at once.

Hi! I’m Marty. I get a bit carried away by new people sometimes so you might want to watch out for that but I’m a loyal friend. I didn’t know how to cry for most of my adult life but these days I cry easily so bring tissues! I have come a long way but I haven’t stopped growing, or learning, yet. I value honesty and openness and being called out on my shit so if you’re good with that let’s grab a coffee!

If we shared this kind of information more readily — our frailties, our fears, what delights and motivates us (who we are rather than what we do or what we have) — we’d see we have more in common with one another than we might otherwise realise, and begin to see the potential for understanding that our differences represent.

I believe this is what Fran detected early in our friendship:

“Fran, I have never thought of you as someone with bipolar or chronic fatigue or fibromyalgia, just as you.”

“And that is the point! It’s how you are with me. You treat me no less. People do not treat me that way once they know I have illness. It is a powerful thing. And it has helped me see how I am. That I am not just my illness, I have value and gifts to give.”

She didn’t mean, of course, that I was blind to her illnesses or their impact. They represented — and represent — significant differences between us as friends and between the life Fran lives and the life she would prefer to live. But difference of any kind does not define us, and whilst it can be a source of misunderstanding, complication and difficulty, it can also provide an opportunity for exploration, awareness and growth.


Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash.