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.

 

Wednesday, 21 October 2020

Ever Wonder Why Our Blog Is Called Gum on My Shoe?

As our website and Facebook page declare, “Gum on My Shoe is a creative partnership between best friends Martin Baker and Fran Houston.” That’s clear enough — and true — but you might wonder why we chose such an unusual name and what it means. It dates back to a conversation Fran and I had not long after we met in 2011.

“You’re stuck with me now, Fran. I hope you realise that.”

“Like gum on my shoe...”

The phrase stuck (pun intended!) and when we began planning our book late in 2012 it was an obvious working title for the project, and for our new online platform. You can read the concept statement for our book here. We announced our Facebook page in April 2013. Our blog gumonmyshoe.com launched later that year.

Welcome to Gum On My Shoe! I have created this page as a sort of travel diary as I journey along the long and winding (and glorious) road towards publication of the book I am writing in collaboration with Fran Houston. The book’s working title is “Gum On My Shoe: My Bipolar Bestfriend and Me.”

The image shows one of a series of concept cover designs we developed in the early stages of our project.

As for what gum on my shoe actually means, I can do no better than to quote from this article:

We liked the title [“Gum on My Shoe”] because it captured several important aspects of our friendship. First, that Fran is “stuck with me.” I am not going anywhere. I am here for her no matter what; through good times (there are many) and not so good (there are many). I am the “gum on her shoe” that keeps her grounded, and helps hold her here in this life even—especially—when she wants to leave. It also turns on its head the notion that ill ones are a burden to those around them. I am not locked into a relationship of servitude: we are equals in a mutually supportive friendship.

It was well-received by many who knew us. One friend said, “I love the title. It makes me feel comforted. What a blessing to have someone that determined to stick with you!” Others were less convinced, and it became clear that our book deserved a new title more descriptive of its content, audience, and purpose.

As a title, “Gum on My Shoe” was understood and liked by many, but it confused others. More significantly, it was dismissed by people in the publishing world whose experience and judgement we respected. We resumed the search for a title early in 2015. By April, we had settled on “High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder.”

The new title fit perfectly:

The title of this book — High Tide, Low Tide — is an apt one. Fran lived on an island for many years, including the first eighteen months of our friendship. The stretch of water that separated her from the mainland, and the rhythm of the tides and ferry crossings, influenced almost every aspect of her life and our relationship. The title also suggests the Atlantic Ocean, which lies between us. Most significantly, it conveys the periodic nature of Fran’s illnesses.

Our original working title remained — and remains — important to us and the brand for our online presence. In the epilogue to “High Tide, Low Tide” Fran challenges our readers to step up and “be the gum on someone’s shoe.”

There are many like me who live in invisible institutions of stigma, shame, and silence, the walls built by others from without, or by ourselves from within. Dismantling these walls invites connection. Be the gum on someone’s shoe who has one foot inside and one foot outside. Stick around. It may not be easy but you can help someone make a life worth living. Maybe even save a life.

You’ve read what “gum on my shoe” means to us. What does it mean to you? We’d love to hear from you so please leave a comment or get in touch!

 

Wednesday, 14 October 2020

Faking Fine: Why We Fib about How We Are

Today we’re talking about “faking fine,” that thing we do when we pretend we’re doing better than we actually are. Why do we do this? Is it a good thing? What happened to being honest? Let’s start by looking at a few scenarios.

Fake It Till You Make It

This popular aphorism “suggests that by imitating confidence, competence, and an optimistic mindset, a person can realize those qualities in their real life.”

This is faking fine to ourselves, although its impact may be felt in our interactions with others. It’s an example of positive or affirmative thinking; of facing your fear and doing it anyway. If you are interested in learning more, I recommend Susan Jeffers’ book Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway.

Faking Fine as an Escape Hatch

Faking fine can be a way to escape awkward social situations or explaining yourself. Fran expressed this with characteristic aplomb in her essay “Lessons of the Night.”

“How are you?” Another hated and seemingly innocuous question. The simple answer is F–I–N–E. F**ked up, insecure, neurotic, emotional. Most friends really don’t want the long answer. This way I can simply smile and be honest gracefully.

Faking Fine as a Buffer

We don’t always have to share what’s going on for us. Sometimes we want to keep things to ourselves, either permanently or for a while. This allows us to process fleeting or temporary thoughts, feelings and situations without getting others involved until we are ready to.

Honesty and Vigilance

Let’s step back a little. Surely faking fine is kind of, well, fibbing? What happened to being honest with each other? What happened to trust? How does all this work out in practice?

Trust, honesty, and openness are vital to the friendship Fran and I share, as we describe in chapter 1, “The Caring Friendship: Key Skills and Attitudes,” of our book High Tide, Low Tide:

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

We know each other so well it’s difficult to hide things from one another even if we want to. It’s not just a case of trusting each other. There are specific benefits to this kind of honesty.

I’ve written elsewhere about bipolar red flag behaviours. Fran’s physical appearance, her tone of voice, what she wants to talk about, and how engaged she is in the conversation all give me a handle on her mood. Secondary clues include what she’s been doing since we last talked, whether she’s been socialising or has plans to, who she’s been in touch with, and how physically active she’s been.

Fran’s equally well-versed in my moods, and often picks up on what I’m thinking or feeling, sometimes before I’m aware of them myself. The same is true with other close friends who know me well. All that said, we recognise that we are responsible for what, when, and how much we share. And as we've seen already, there can be very valid reasons for not disclosing exactly what's going on.

Fran sometimes pretends she’s less depressed than she is because she doesn’t want to deal with the anticipated response, or fears not being heard if she’s completely honest. It’s not easy for me to accept, but sometimes she needs to do this with me too.

Like you said the other day, Fran, you often do your best to “fake it” when you are with people so they don’t get too worried, or so you can give yourself a break from it all. And yes you do that with me too sometimes, and that’s okay. I think generally you’re more honest with me [than others] because you don’t feel you need to pretend as much. That means we are more real with each other than with pretty much anyone else in our lives. And mostly that feels good and sometimes it feels shitty. But it’s why we are here. It’s what we do.

I believe it’s important to acknowledge that faking fine happens, rather than becoming defensive or accusatory. I’d go so far as to say respecting each other’s need for boundaries — including faking fine when necessary — is the sign of a healthy relationship.

We All Do It

I have my own reasons for faking fine, although Fran found this hard to believe when I pointed it out to her. She assumed I rarely needed to, or would have anything I needed to fake. I understand why she might think this. I don’t live with illness the way Fran and many of my friends do. There are no serious traumas or crises in my past or present. Fran knows me so well that she can often tell if there’s something up with me, whether I mention it or not. But not always.

Mostly, I want to share things with Fran, to vent and get it out into the open. She’s my best friend. I value her perspective and honesty. Sometimes, though, I need to work things through on my own, or let go of them without engaging too deeply, like the hot coals technique Fran taught me long ago. I might be working with things Fran has little knowledge of, that she might find triggering or that could impact our friendship itself. I may need to process them myself, or with other friends, before I’m ready to bring them to Fran.

At other times what Fran is going through (good or bad) leaves little opportunity for me to share my situation. It’s not that her needs are more important than mine, but I’m mostly content that they take precedence when we are together. Sometimes I simply choose not to bring my troubles into her day. I kept the fact I was feeling low to myself a few weeks ago because it was Fran’s birthday and I didn’t want to spoil her special day.

It’s not solely a question of opportunity. Fran sometimes needs me to take responsibility for handling my issues because she needs every portion of her time, energy, and focus to manage what she’s going through. We discuss an example of this in our book:

About this time, Fran began talking about managing more on her own. (“I need to learn how to be myself and stay healthy, without you.”) Although hard for me to hear, this was a healthy and necessary impulse. Writing my diary one evening, I recalled a favourite saying of ours: “Give people what they need, not what you need to give them.”

Fran has so much going on right now. I need to be here for her, but not push too hard or lay my own stuff on her too heavily. Now really isn’t the time, with only chat and intermittent phone calls. I want to be the friend Fran needs me to be.

I had my own share of concerns, including work, family, and other friends who were struggling in various ways. If I was not to burden Fran with my problems, I needed to take responsibility for my self-care, and involve my wider support team if need be.

That excerpt highlights how valuable it is to have more than one person you can share with. Different people can help in different ways. Depending on what’s going on for me I might choose to share it with someone other than Fran, at least initially. The same goes for Fran and other friends, of course. I know I am a trusted and valued friend but I will not always be the first person they turn to or need.

The Downside

There are downsides to faking fine, of course. The most serious for me and Fran is that it’s harder for me to help her stay well if she’s less than honest about how she’s doing. This came up for us last year. Fran had been depressed for several months. We’d been talking less on our daily calls than usual, and less deeply, but I believed I understood what was going on. I was wrong.

Fran snapped at me a couple of times for not paying attention to what she was saying, or responding the wrong way. I was confused because her frustration and anger seemed out of step with how I thought she was feeling. It took a heated exchange where Fran was blisteringly honest with me for the penny to drop. I messaged her afterwards:

Maybe you could be more explicit about what you mean when you are sharing things with me and want me to understand things in a particular way. [...] Because as much as I love you, I am not psychic and I will hear what you tell me in ways that make sense to me at the time.

Other downsides include the possibility of upsetting or alienating friends and loved ones who expect unwavering honesty at all times. Hiding too much makes it hard for others to understand how things are for us, and can lead to mistaken assumptions and unrealistic expectations.

Let’s Be Honest About It

Faking fine (or not) is a balance of honesty, respect, and responsibility. Being honest about our need to fake fine sometimes is the antidote to misunderstanding and the most straightforward answer to the charge of fibbing, lying, or mistrust.

Do you ever take fine, or hide how you’re really feeling from others? How do you feel about that? How do you feel about loved ones faking fine with you? We’d love to hear from you.

Afterword

I began writing this article over a year ago. In June 2019 I met up for a day out in Morpeth with my friend and fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson. As we walked through the park, I shared my idea for a blog post about how people sometimes fake how they’re feeling. I asked Aimee if she ever faked being better than she actually was. She said not really, because when she’s happy she’s so genuinely happy she can’t imagine ever being able to fake it. She went on to talk about when she’s feeling low or poorly, but after a minute or two, I realised I wasn’t following what she was saying. I don’t think she was either, because she suddenly stopped walking and looked at me.

“Do you know what I mean?”

I hesitated.

“I thought I did...”

Perhaps you needed to be there but that cracked us up and it’s become a treasured memory we recall from time to time. So much so that when I told Aimee I was (finally) picking up the threads of the article I’d started so long ago she wanted to be sure I included our conversation in the park. I’m happy to do so.

It’s a nice way to end, and the perfect example of a totally unfaked fine.

 

Photo by Shaurya Sagar on Unsplash.

 

Wednesday, 7 October 2020

Mental Health for All in an Uncertain World

Organised by the World Foundation for Mental Health (WFMH) and observed each year on October 10, World Mental Health Day (WMHD) is an opportunity to raise awareness of mental health issues and to mobilize efforts in support of mental health. This year’s theme is “Mental Health for All: Greater Investment — Greater Access.” In the words of WFMH president Dr Ingrid Daniels:

Mental health is a human right — it’s time that mental health is available for all. Quality, accessible primary health care is the foundation for universal health coverage and is urgently required as the world grapples with the current health emergency. We, therefore, need to make mental health a reality for all — for everyone, everywhere.

You can read Dr Daniels’ full statement and find further resources including a downloadable information pack on the WFMH website. A joint release on WMHD 2020 by the World Health Organization, United for Global Mental Health and the WFMH is here.

Individuals and organisations will mark WMHD in their own way. Here in the UK, mental health charity Mind’s Do one thing campaign invites us to take one small step towards fostering a more inclusive and open attitude to mental health:

Making positive change can seem so hard, especially during uncertain times. And sometimes, it can be hard to know where to start. Whether you want to take the first steps towards getting some help or learn more about helping those around you. [...] Whether it’s going for a walk, learning a new skill or doing something creative, taking the first steps to[wards] getting support for yourself, or reaching out to someone else; take the opportunity to do one thing this World Mental Health Day.

This blog post is my “one thing.” As I write I’m thinking about what mental health means to me, my role in the workplace and beyond it, the impact coronavirus has had on me and those I care about, and what the future might hold for us all. Two words characterise it all for me: uncertainty and change.

Whatever our individual situations it’s fair to say very few of us were prepared for the impact of coronavirus. Our lives have, quite simply, been turned inside out, and there is little certainty about what lies ahead. I’m fortunate that my job in the IT sector has not been at risk and I’ve been able to work from home. It’s not been easy but compared to the many whose lives have been severely impacted — including some of my closest friends — I have been lucky. No, that is incorrect. I have been and remain privileged, to enjoy a degree of relative security.

Nevertheless, lockdown and the ongoing restrictions have affected me more deeply than I imagined they would. I’ve had far more voice and video calls than before lockdown but I sorely miss meeting friends in person. I’ve only managed to meet one of my local friends, once, since the start of lockdown in March. I missed my local coffee shop desperately when it closed for lockdown. That might seem ridiculous but it was very much part of the fabric of my life. I used to visit seven days a week and count several of the staff as friends. I’ve spent two lockdown vacations at home instead of going away, and am about to begin a third.

More fundamentally, I’ve struggled with working from home, especially when it became clear things are unlikely to return to how they were before the pandemic. I became more stressed and anxious than I remember being in many years. As restrictions eased, I’ve returned to the office three days a week. This has helped my mental health enormously but there’s no guarantee I can continue doing so indefinitely. Like everything else, it is contingent on events beyond my control — beyond any semblance of control at all.

An unforeseen change was announced at work last week. It has nothing to do with the pandemic but it will affect everyone in the company. I found it interesting how colleagues responded to the news. Some, myself included, approached it as something which may bring positive change and opportunity. Others reacted with dismay, as though the future holds nothing but distress, disruption, and harm. It’s not that one response is right and the other wrong. For each of us, reality will probably lie somewhere between those two extremes. It was nevertheless a lesson in how our response to unforeseen events can affect how we — and those around us — feel and behave.

I’m writing this at a table in the coffee shop I mentioned earlier. I’ve just been chatting with my friend and fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson of I’m NOT Disordered.

Hi Marty. What are you up to?

Hello! I’m working on a blog post for WMHD.

I am too.

I’d be very surprised if you weren’t!

Lol good point!

I’m going to mention last year’s WMHD event in Cullercoats that I went to with you. Who could have imagined so much would change in a year?

I know. It’s a little bit scary

It is, yes.

Organised by Launchpad North Tyneside, the Cullercoats event was “planned and developed by a dedicated group of volunteers made up of service users, survivors, carers, workers and people with a general interest in mental health.” I attended with Aimee and members of LEAPS (Listening Ear & Positive Support) which she chairs. There was a full programme but the highlight of the day was Aimee’s talk. As I wrote in my blog of the event:

Almost the entire room was quiet and focused as she shared her lived experience, the success of her blog I’m NOT Disordered, the benefits and pitfalls of social media, and how all of us can play a role in supporting those we care about.

That day meant a lot to me. For months I’d faced doubt and uncertainty about my role at work and beyond. I found it hard to remain positive, as friends who helped me through those times can attest. The event, and Aimee’s talk in particular, renewed my focus. For the first time in a long time, I felt I had a place and a voice amongst people working for change in the mental health arena.

I’m fortunate to work for a company that is committed to building a compassionate, diverse, and inclusive culture. I co-lead the mental health and wellbeing working group and contribute to the company’s broader diversity, inclusion, and wellbeing initiatives. As I wrote in February for Time to Talk Day, “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.” With support and engagement from the very top of our organisation, we responded creatively and passionately to the challenges lockdown brought to our company and colleagues. I’m proud to have played a part.

This might all seem a long way from WMHD’s aim of “[making] mental health a reality for all — for everyone, everywhere.” It’s true that workplace initiatives of the kind we’ve championed are no substitute for professional mental health and support services. That said, I believe that encouraging a more open, inclusive, and caring culture takes us in the right direction. This is more important than ever with so many of us working from home, connected by phone and video calls but lacking the social dimension we’re used to in the workplace.

It is not only in the workplace, of course, that the impact of coronavirus is felt. Individually and as societies and nations, we are only beginning to grasp the long-term consequences for our mental health and wellbeing. We all have a role to play in mitigating the dangers, in supporting each other, in caring for each other. The challenges can seem overwhelming but we each bring our lived experience, talents, and gifts, to the game.

My nine-year transatlantic friendship with Fran has taught me a great deal about relationships that never or rarely include meeting face-to-face. I believe this has stood me in good stead handling lockdown and the ongoing restrictions that prevent me from meeting my local friends, family, and colleagues in person. I miss face-to-face contact but I know that connection and caring are not measured by how many times we get together in person.

I’ll close with Fran’s message of challenge and hope from the epilogue to our book:

It may not be easy but you can help someone make a life worth living. Maybe even save a life. One little bit by one little bit. A smile, a wink, a hello, a listening ear, a helping hand, a friendship all work together to interrupt the grasp of illness. Be open and honest, with your friend and others you meet. Judge not, for misunderstandings abound. Acceptance, understanding, and kindness can pave another way. Let’s.

Caring is one thing we can all do. You. Me. Everyone. And not just once a year on World Mental Health Day, but every day.

 

Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash