Wednesday, 22 September 2021

Seven Things I'm Grateful for This Week (And One Extra Special One at the End)

I was inspired to write this post when the topic of gratitude came up twice for me in as many days. The first was when I was discussing journaling and gifting with my friend Brynn. It reminded me of the gratitude journal I was gifted a couple of years ago. I used to carry it with me everywhere and wrote in it regularly, but it’s sat on my desk for a while now, unused and rarely opened.

The second was when I opened Spotify to play some music on one of my evening walks and noticed a podcast on radical gratitude by my friend and fellow blogger Liz Kay. I’d added it to my Spotify library a few weeks ago but hadn’t got round to listening to it. I played it on my walk, captivated by Liz’s gentle passion for the subject, and have listened to it several times since. If you’re at all unsure about the benefits of gratitude, I recommend giving it a listen. There is a blog version here, if you prefer to read rather than listen.

To be honest, I wasn’t feeling much in the mood for gratitude at the time. I’ve been flat, low, and empty for a while now and had considered exploring that in a blog post. It seemed churlish, however, to reject the invitation to think more positively. So here, in no particular order, are seven things I’m grateful for this week.

Sexy Rexxy

I enjoy computer programming, but my day job as Associate IT Services Manager offers little opportunity to put my skills to use. It wasn’t that way in the past but things change. Chances to do fun stuff like that are few and far between. Nevertheless, this week I created one. I’d been pondering how best to validate a particularly complex file I’ll be receiving from another team in the near future. I’ve done it manually before and it’s tedious in the extreme. It occurred to me I might write a program to generate an equivalent file of my own, against which the new one could be easily — and automatically — compared.

No one had asked me to do so and I wasn’t certain the idea would work, but I figured it was worth the couple of hours it would take to find out. I spent a happy afternoon coding it in Rexx and can honestly say I had a great time doing so. It worked, too, and led me to investigate some anomalies with format of the files I’d not noticed before. The exercise lifted my mood and left me feeling more engaged than I’ve been in a while. I’m grateful to work for an employer where that kind of exploratory, ad hoc, enquiry is encouraged.

Positive Response to My Masking Article

I’m grateful for any response to my weekly blog posts, but last week’s article High Masking or Faking Fine? The Masks We Wear and Why We Wear Them received a far more positive reaction than anything I’ve written in recent months. I’m particularly grateful to Dr Carla Groom, whose talk on neurodiversity in the workplace inspired the article in the first place. She told me she was touched I’d been moved to write the post, and generously suggested some changes to align it more closely with what she’d said in her talk.

My article attracted very positive responses on LinkedIn, with one reader calling it “[a] fantastic read — inspiring, thought-provoking and poignant.” Another said it was “[a] powerful read from a perspective you don’t hear about very often.” I logged into work that day to find one reader had been moved to share it with colleagues across the organisation. Other recent blog posts have also been well received and shared at work within our Mental Health First Aider community, including my piece on men and mental health, and an article for World Suicide Prevention Day.

At times, I doubt the value of my writing. Positive feedback like this reassures me that, sometimes at least, I get it right.

Good Food and Good Company

Last month, I wrote a blog post on safety, responsibility, and trust inspired by a drive I took with a friend. We met again last weekend and took another drive out to a lovely pub for lunch and a catch-up. We’ve been friends for a number of years and it’s fair to say things haven’t always gone smoothly, but we are in a good place now. I’m immensely grateful for our friendship, and look forward to our next trip out together.

Friends Who Notice How I’m Doing

I’m fortunate in having friends who notice when I seem a bit off, and ask if I’m OK. Aimee did so the other day:

“Are you ok, Marty?”

“Kinda flat/low.”

“I did wonder …”

She asked if I could pinpoint any reason for how I was feeling. I couldn’t, but it helped to be asked, and in a way that didn’t put pressure on me to explain or share more than I felt comfortable doing.

I had a similar conversation the same day with my friend Brynn, which brought a little levity to the situation. She asked how I was and I said I was feeling flat, low, and empty. This led to me coining the word flempty, which I’m sure I will use again! I’m grateful for Brynn’s friendship and the fact we can talk about serious things one moment, and crack ourselves up laughing the next.

It’s the Little Things

Sometimes it’s the little things that mean the most. I’ve written about this before, and Liz mentions it in her gratitude blog and podcast:

DON’T DOWNPLAY THE SMALL THINGS! As they come up, just try to consciously think to yourself “hey, that was actually kind of cool!” By making a habit to acknowledge the small things as they arise, you are working to engrain thoughtfully thoughtless gratitude into your daily life and practices.

There have been a few “actually kind of cool” things this week. Aimee has been sharing photos and video clips of how her new bunny Luna and her cat Emmy are getting along. I don’t think I’ve ever typed “awwwwwww, cute!!!” as many times as I have to Aimee in recent days! I’m grateful for these behind-the-scenes glimpses which bring a touch of warmth and delight, no matter how I’m feeling or what might be going on for me.

In a similar way, Brynn shares photos and videos with me of her beloved dog Beckett. We also exchange YouTube music videos. She’s far more musically knowledgeable than I am — as she says, “I’m a music person, Marty!” — and loves to introduce me to artists and tracks I’ve never encountered before. It’s fun for me, too, trying to find songs Brynn may not know.

Turning the Page

Back in 2017, I wrote a about how Fran and I read together; more specifically, how I read aloud to her. Over the years, we’ve read a wide variety of books: fiction, nonfiction, long, short. At some point, for no particular reason, we stopped doing so, and I’ve missed it.

A friend of ours, award-winning arts writer and journalist Bob Keyes, who interviewed us in 2019 for the Maine Sunday Telegram, has a new book out about American artist Robert Indiana. Fran and I watched a couple of Bob’s interviews when the book came out, and it felt natural to read it together. So that’s what we are doing! I’m grateful for the opportunity to read to Fran again, and to learn about an artist I knew nothing about.

First Leaves of Autumn

I went for a lunch time walk last Thursday and for the first time this year found a drift of dry fallen leaves to walk through. There’s nothing like that first crunch of autumn! It was a moment of simple delight and joy, which I shared with Fran in a photo. (In retrospect, I should have recorded a video so she could hear it too!)

Last But By No Means Least

I’ve listed seven things I’m grateful for from the past week, but I’d like to close with a special mention for Liz Kay whose podcast on radical gratitude inspired me to do so.

Liz — we don’t know each other very well I guess, but please know that you mean a great deal to me. I remember us first connecting early this year when I was on one of my local walks, and the voice messages you sent me. (I’ve just gone back through my messages and replayed some of those — which brought warm smiles of remembrance.) Whether it’s through the medium of your blog, or your podcasts, in personal messages, or in your Facebook groups, you share so genuinely and honestly, and always from the heart. I’m grateful, happy, and proud to call you my friend. Bless you.

Check out Liz’s social media links here.

 

Photo by Gabrielle Henderson on Unsplash

 

Wednesday, 15 September 2021

High Masking or Faking Fine? The Masks We Wear and Why We Wear Them

This article was inspired by two online sessions I attended last week. The first, on neurodiversity in the workplace, was presented by Dr Carla Groom, Deputy Director of Behavioural Science at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). Dr Groom described what neurodiversity means (and doesn’t mean) and shared from her lived experience as someone diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum.

Discussing labels, she said she prefers the term autistic spectrum condition (ASC) to autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), which is the medical term for what was previously called autism. But what resonated most for me was what she said about the label "high-functioning." On one level, she conceded, the term describes her well (her LinkedIn profile describes her as a “[s]enior leader and behavioural science pioneer”). She nevertheless hates it when applied to her autism, because it denies or dismisses the work and effort that goes on behind the scenes for her to present this way and achieve the success she has:

[S]omeone like me might be called high-functioning. And fair enough, I am high-functioning by most reasonable definitions. But if you then say I have “the high-functioning kind of autism” or that my autism is “mild”, then I might get a little bit cross and say that I work extremely hard to make it mild for you. It affects everything about my experience of the world, for good and bad. To deal with a world designed for a completely different kind of human, I am constantly planning, risk assessing, coming up with mitigation strategies and suppressing my anxiety when those don’t work. They are invisible struggles.

These coping strategies are called “masking” and it’s exhausting. I’m working to mask less and embrace my difference. That means, ironically, that I will seem more “autistic”, but I’m hoping that gives permission for other people to step outside narrow ideas of desirable behaviour, and see that there are many different ways to achieve good outcomes.

Summarising it for me later, Dr Groom said, “I don’t mind being called ‘high-functioning,’ although I do think ‘high masking’ is more helpful.”

I’m in no way qualified to talk about masking (also called camouflaging) in relation to autistic spectrum condition, but I found this description helpful:

Hiding who you are is an uncomfortable and exhausting experience. For many autistic people, that experience is a daily reality. In places where the full spectrum of neurodiversity is not understood or welcomed, autistic people often feel the need to present or perform social behaviors that are considered neurotypical. Some people may also feel they have to hide neurodiverse behaviors in order to be accepted.

I’ve included a list of resources at the end of this article if you’re interested in learning more.

Dr Groom’s account reminded me of something I learned early in my friendship with Fran. Whilst she doesn’t use the terms masking or camouflaging, Fran has often spoken in similar terms about how hard she works to present well in public, so as to fit in and not attract unwanted or hostile reactions. By that, she means hiding or minimising the impact of her mental and physical health conditions. Fran’s symptoms vary in frequency and severity but include mania, depression, suicidality, pain, and debilitating fatigue.

Fran hides these away because being open about her conditions can lead — and has led in the past — to varying degrees of stigma, rejection, and disrespect. I’m one of the relatively few people she trusts enough to be honest with, but even with me, there are things she tends to keep to herself. She’s not alone in this, of course. We all do it, to some extent. I do it, albeit for different reasons. We call it faking fine.

The downside is that the people Fran is “presenting well” to never learn the truth. Whether on social media or in person, they see the places she goes, the people she knows, and the things she achieves, and assume she’s okay. The reality is rarely so simple. They don’t see the courage and sheer hard work it takes for Fran to manage her conditions and make the best life she’s able to. This makes me sad, but I understand why she does what she does. It’s not Fran’s job to educate society to accept the realities of her life. She does what she needs to do, which includes presenting in ways calculated to evoke fewer unhelpful, ignorant, or hurtful reactions.

Fran is not alone in this, nor is it limited to mental illness and neurodiversity. One friend told me she experienced something similar following surgery on her hand. People saw the functionality she’d regained but didn’t necessarily appreciate the hard and painful work it took to achieve and maintain mobility, or the prescription pain medication she still needed.

Whilst useful, masking or “faking fine” can be extraordinarily frustrating and exhausting, given the effort involved in presenting as “fine” or “high functioning.” It’s an effort and burden that, almost by definition, goes unrecognised. It can have more serious consequences if it deepens a sense of disconnect and lack of awareness between the person wearing the mask and those around them.

The second talk I attended was organised by UK suicide prevention charity Grassroots, for World Suicide Prevention Day. Mental health advocate, broadcaster, and author of A Walk from the Wild Edge, Jake Tyler described his experiences during lockdown in 2020.

Asked about the theme of this year’s World Suicide Awareness Day, “Creating Hope Through Action,” he said the most important action he’d taken during lockdown was to nurture the relationships that meant most to him. Connecting online, rather than face-to-face, had opened him up to people and friendships that might not have developed or grown as they did had it not been for lockdown. Those connections had been powerfully protective in the context of suicidality and self-harm.

I brought this up the next day on a work call with fellow Mental Health First Aiders. We agreed that working and socialising virtually had changed our relationships with friends and co-workers, in many cases for the better. Connecting virtually on video calls as we worked from home allowed us to let down our usual masks to some degree, and interact more genuinely. In the words of one colleague, “The biggest positive from the past eighteen months or so is the way people have connected more deeply with each other.” I’ve noticed this in my own connections with friends and colleagues, although it’s not necessarily so for everyone. Setting our masks aside, whether virtually or in person, requires a depth of trust that’s not always present, and cannot be assumed.

Is mask-wearing healthy or not? I don’t think there’s a definitive answer to that question. I prefer to think of it as useful; necessary, even, in some circumstances. It can be a strategy for navigating a society unsympathetic of — and impatient with — anyone unable or unwilling to meet its behavioural norms. It’s neither kind nor helpful to coerce people into setting their masks aside, especially if that involves shaming them into doing so or suggesting mask-wearing is in some way dishonest or deceitful. We wear our masks for a reason and no one has the right to deny or invalidate those reasons.

Our aim, as individuals and as communities, must be to build and maintain spaces in which we feel safe to set our masks aside when we choose to, but also feel safe to use whatever masks and strategies we need to, without risk of censure.

That can only happen when we are aware of the masks we choose to wear, and the reasons for doing so. We can start by challenging the stigma associated with mental illness, invisible illness, disabilities of all kinds, and ways of apprehending the world that are other than neurotypical. What matters most is how we relate to and treat one another, however we present, recognising that without a doubt there’s more going on for each of us than we see or choose to share.

 

Further Reading

What is autism? (NHS)

What is autism? (National Autistic Society)

Blending Into the Crowd: What is Autism Masking? (Autism Parenting Magazine)

Autism Masking: To Blend or Not to Blend (Healthline)

 

Photo by Izzy Park on Unsplash.

 

Friday, 10 September 2021

Free Books for World Suicide Prevention Day

To mark World Suicide Prevention Day 2021 Fran and I are offering our book HIGH TIDE LOW TIDE for FREE on Kindle for five days between Friday September 10 and Tuesday September 14, inclusive.

Once the free offer is over the prices will go back to normal.

In High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder we share what we’ve learned about growing a supportive, mutually rewarding friendship between a “well one” and an “ill one.” With no-nonsense advice from the caring friend’s point of view, original approaches, and practical tips, our book is illustrated with real-life conversations and examples.

Buy it here.

World Suicide Prevention Day (WSPD) was established in 2003 by the International Association for Suicide Prevention in conjunction with the World Health Organisation. This year’s theme is Creating Hope Through Action:

Creating Hope Through Action is a reminder that there is an alternative to suicide and aims to inspire confidence and light in all of us; that our actions, no matter how big or small, may provide hope to those who are struggling. Preventing suicide is often possible and you are a key player in its prevention.

Through action, you can make a difference to someone in their darkest moments — as a member of society, as a child, as a parent, as a friend, as a colleague or as a neighbour. We can all play a role in supporting those experiencing a suicidal crisis or those bereaved by suicide.

This is a topic very close to our hearts and never far from our thoughts. Suicidal thinking has been part of my friendship with Fran since we met ten years ago, and we devote one chapter of our book to dealing with how to support a friend who is feeling suicidal.

For more information check out the following links.

 

Wednesday, 8 September 2021

Maybe Even Save a Life: Our Message of Hope for World Suicide Prevention Day

It may not be easy but you can help someone make a life worth living. Maybe even save a life. (Fran Houston)

World Suicide Prevention Day (WSPD) was established in 2003 by the International Association for Suicide Prevention in conjunction with the World Health Organisation. This year’s theme is Creating Hope Through Action:

Creating Hope Through Action is a reminder that there is an alternative to suicide and aims to inspire confidence and light in all of us; that our actions, no matter how big or small, may provide hope to those who are struggling. Preventing suicide is often possible and you are a key player in its prevention. Through action, you can make a difference to someone in their darkest moments — as a member of society, as a child, as a parent, as a friend, as a colleague or as a neighbour. We can all play a role in supporting those experiencing a suicidal crisis or those bereaved by suicide.

This is a topic very close to our hearts and never far from our thoughts. Suicidal thinking has been part of my friendship with Fran since we met ten years ago. Indeed, it’s how we met, when we each reached out to a young woman who was expressing suicidal thoughts on her social media page.

For WSPD 2020, we posted a selection of relevant articles from our blog. This year, we’re sharing an excerpt from the chapter of our book High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder which deals with supporting someone when they’re feeling suicidal. In the spirit of “creating hope through action” we hope it conveys the vital message that each one of us can make a difference to those we care about.

High Tide, Low Tide will be available FREE on Kindle for five days, September 10–14, 2021.


 

How Can I Leave?

I remember clearly the first time Fran told me our friendship was one of the main things keeping her alive. I was profoundly moved, but had the presence of mind to realise this was not as simple as it appeared. In a moment of insight I said, “You may come to hate me for that, Fran.” Her reply was immediate and sincere. “I’m already there.” It has become something of a private joke between us, but it is a joke with edges.

Fran: I wish I hadn’t met you. I’d be gone already.

Martin: I told you long ago, Fran, that you would come to hate me for that. You’d better get used to it. You have years of hating me ahead of you!

I asked her once if she truly believed she would not be alive if it were not for me. “Yes it is true. You hold me here. You nag and pull and push at me all the time with your love and your care. How can I leave?”

Nagging aside, I help Fran best by staying with her, listening to what she is saying, and then engaging with her calmly. I bring negative or skewed thinking to her attention, offering positive alternatives wherever possible, but I never dismiss or trivialise what she is going through. I do not tell her not to worry, or that everything will be all right. I have never promised to keep our conversations secret if I believed secrecy would endanger her. Fran knows I would do everything in my power to keep her alive, including bringing in other people and agencies if it became necessary.

But it would be wrong to imagine I never feel scared or get things wrong. In the summer of 2013, Fran was traveling in Europe with her parents. At the end of a particularly hard day, we shared a thirty minute telephone call, the longest we had managed in several days. The following is from my diary, written later that evening.

Fran was pretty drunk tonight and I got on her case about that without listening to her side of things. Towards the end of the call she suddenly became very weepy about how much she loves her Mom. I stayed with her until she was cried out, and then we parted so she could walk back to the hotel. I haven’t heard from her since. Given how tipsy and tearful she was, I could do with knowing she got back OK. I’ve texted her and left messages, but no reply yet.

What I failed to record in my diary, because I scarcely dared to, was that before bursting into tears Fran had said, “If I don’t make it back to the hotel, I need Mom to know how much I love her.” She had never spoken like that before, but I did not challenge her or ask what she meant, perhaps because I had already given her a rough time about her drinking. I said she could count on me to tell her mother if anything ever happened to her. That seemed to reassure her, but after we parted, I started to worry. Had she, even subconsciously, been hinting at something darker? I did not seriously believe she intended to kill herself, but it was a horrible feeling, which deepened as the hours passed. What if she had stepped into traffic, or thrown herself from a bridge? What if that conversation had been our last? What would her mother think of me? Her friends? Everyone would blame me for not keeping her safe.

I went to bed, but kept waking and checking my phone for messages. I finally heard from Fran around five thirty in the morning (six thirty for Fran). She had reached the hotel without incident, but had then been sick and still felt poorly. She had tried to contact me, but the hotel’s Internet service was down and she had only a poor phone signal. I mentioned our telephone conversation. She scarcely remembered it, but assured me she had definitely not felt suicidal.

The experience taught me to stay focused on what is happening whenever I am with Fran, and to bring any hint of dark or suicidal thinking into the open, rather than ignore or dismiss it. If your friend lives with suicidal thinking, or has made a suicide attempt in the past, I recommend educating yourself about a subject that can be difficult and painful — yet also extraordinary and courageous — to approach. We look at awareness and education later in this chapter. In an emergency, or if you are in any doubt as to your friend’s safety, do not hesitate to contact a doctor, hospital emergency department, or crisis helpline.

A Promise Is a Promise

Long before we met, Fran made a commitment to her psychiatrist that she would not kill herself without contacting him first. In her words, “It was a soul promise, made eye to eye.” She still considers it in force. It is arguable how much weight her word would carry in a time of crisis, but I knew from the beginning I would never ask her to make an equivalent commitment to me.

One thing, Fran ... and this is something I have wanted to say to you for a while. I will never ask you to give me your word not to kill yourself. That is a lie of course. In desperation I would beg you to promise. On my bleeding knees I would beg you. But if I cannot trust your word already given (and more importantly if you cannot), if you ever reach a place where that is not enough, what difference would a promise to me make?

I once told Fran that if she ever chose to leave, I would not hate her for it. That might seem at best naive, and at worst dangerously close to condoning her suicide, but my promise was instinctive and heart-felt. I also believe it to be protective. Fran later told me how important my words were to her. Paradoxically, they gave her strength to go on. Most people, she said, “try to lay guilt on you about how bad they’d feel if you killed yourself.” That argument would never persuade her, but dealing with it drained her of the energy she needed to fight to stay alive. My promise not to hate her finds an echo in the words a friend shared with us concerning her son’s attempt to end his life.

When I got to the hospital that night, I decided that if he died, today or any other day, it would be OK. But I needed to tell him that. So I told him, I cannot comprehend why he is the way he is, but, if he succeeds one day, I just want him to know. It will be OK, because alive or dead, happy or sad, no matter what ... I LOVE YOU.

Other Hands and Other Hearts

I am not the only person Fran has to turn to. In addition to a committed support team she has friends she trusts to help keep her safe. It is hard to overemphasise how important it is for your friend to have a trusted support network. In a moment of crisis, one person may be available to help when others are not. Early in our friendship, Fran was calling or e-mailing me many times a day. On one occasion I was busy at work and failed to respond. Thankfully, she called another friend who made time to talk with her. I contacted him the following day.

Fran told me you talked with her yesterday, and how important (literally life-savingly important) that was to her. How you know how to handle her like no one else can (I guess we each do in our different ways). I wasn’t available for her yesterday when she was trying to call me. I was at work and had to go Do Not Disturb. I didn’t know she wanted more than a chat. But it wasn’t me she needed, it was you.

I asked Fran what he had said to her. “He said, ‘You just need to stay alive until tomorrow, Fran. You can do it.’”

 

Excerpted from chapter 7, “The ‘S’ Word: Being There When Your Friend Is Suicidal,” of our book High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder.

 


Resources and Links

World Suicide Prevention Day 2021 (Rethink Mental Illness)

World Suicide Prevention Day 2021 (IASP)

Selected Articles for #WorldSuicidePreventionDay 2020

Online Suicide Wwareness and Prevention Training and Podcasts

If You Need Help

Our resources page has links to suicide crisis lines and support organisations, training resources, and books. UK mental health charity Mind offers help and information if you need support or are concerned for someone else. The IASP has links to international helpline and crisis centre organisations.

 

Wednesday, 1 September 2021

Self-Harm, Addiction, and Recovery: Thoughts Inspired by My Friend's 365 Day Milestone

This article was inspired by conversations with friends and colleagues, including Aimee Wilson of I’m NOT Disordered who recently shared on social media that she was a day away from celebrating one year free of self-harm. In addition to talking with Aimee about her achievement, in the past week I’ve spoken to two people beginning their respective journeys to shed unhealthy dependencies. One is working to break an addiction to sugar and unhealthy food. The other is determined to give up alcohol and nicotine. Despite very different situations and experiences, certain themes kept coming up, which I want to explore in this article. I should state up front that I have no first-hand experience of self-harm or addiction. My perspective is that of a caring and concerned outsider.

What Is Self-Harm and Is It Addictive?

Self-harm can take many forms. In the words of UK mental health charity Mind, “[s]elf-harm is when you hurt yourself as a way of dealing with very difficult feelings, painful memories or overwhelming situations and experiences.” In the charity’s words, “[o]nce you have started to depend on self-harm, it can take a long time to stop.” The Mental Health Foundation confirms that “[i]t is habit-forming, and some people believe you can become physically addicted to self-harm.” A friend with lived experience told me she definitely sees self-harm as addictive, especially if it is someone’s main or only coping strategy.

Respect and Understanding

When someone we care about engages in harmful practices, our instinctive response is to try and get them to stop. I’ve certainly felt that way in the past. The impulse is understandable, but it’s unlikely to help or be appreciated if it’s imposed without the person’s agreement, and without attempting to understand what led them there in the first place.

Unless the underlying issues are resolved or our loved ones find healthier ways to manage them, they may turn to self-harm again. This is not because they are “weak-willed” or lack what is sometimes still called “moral fibre.” I suspect people who use those terms have no idea what it means to be in such pain that self-harm appears the best or only step to take. Anyone who has been in that situation deserves respect, understanding, and support, not judgment or condemnation.

There’s No Single Road to Recovery

I’m unqualified to discuss how self-harm, addiction, or dependency are best addressed. I’ve included links to a number of organisations in the resources section at the end of this article. That said, it’s clear that no single strategy will be appropriate for everyone. I’m grateful to those who’ve shared with me approaches they’ve found helpful.

The protective effect of treatment for underlying health conditions, including mental health conditions, cannot be overstated. Aimee has written previously about how badly she was affected when one of her prescribed medications was stopped. Her safety was severely compromised until the error was identified and corrected. More generally, Aimee finds aspects of dialectical behavioural therapy (DBT) invaluable in keeping her safe.

Another friend used the Twelve Steps recovery programme when working with addictive behaviours in the past, and still finds it helpful. Under medical guidance, she’s started a new program to address her dependence on sugar/soda, caffeine, and unhealthy eating. She’s currently exploring whether a cold turkey approach, in which she attempts to give these things up all at once, will work for her, or if she’s better titrating herself down more gradually.

Fran and I have experienced our own struggles with weight and eating. We’ve learned how difficult it is to follow healthy strategies, and how complex our relationships to food and body image can be.

Whatever their situation, anyone working to change deep-seated behaviours deserves encouragement and support in doing so, recognising that it may take time to find something that works.

When the Time Is Right

Motivation and timing are hugely important in changing unhealthy habits and coping strategies. Perhaps we’ve reached a point in our lives when we feel we deserve to treat ourselves better. Maybe we’ve been advised to make lifestyle changes that mean reducing our dependence on things we’ve previously taken for granted. Perhaps self-harm or addiction is taking a serious toll on our physical and mental health. Whatever the impetus for change, the right time includes having appropriate support in place. This may include professional involvement. It certainly includes the non-judgmental support of trusted friends and family.

As I mentioned earlier, coercing someone into changing before they’re ready is unlikely to help in the long term. Self-harm might be the only control or agency a person feels they have in their lives. As unhealthy as that may be, prohibiting or preventing self-harm before realistic alternatives are available may do more harm than good. The exception to this is where there is a serious and immediate threat to health or life.

We Are All Dependent on Something

Most of us have unhealthy habits we indulge on a regular basis. Some, such as caffeine, smoking, and alcohol, are more socially acceptable than others, but they’re all unhealthy to some degree. We use them for the perceived benefits they bring, because they make us feel better, or help us manage the stresses in our lives.

I say this not to belittle the devastation that addiction and dependency can wreak, nor to equate my moderate drinking and coffee dependency with alcohol addiction, overdosing, cutting, or drug use. Rather, I believe that recognising our unhealthy behaviours, and how hard it can be to give them up, helps dispel the stigma attached to riskier and less socially acceptable behaviours.

Every Day Is a Victory

No matter how long or short a time has passed since someone self-harmed, smoked a cigarette, or took a drink or drugs, it’s worthy of respect, recognition, and celebration. Every day safe or dry or clean is a victory.

Aimee uses the tally and day counter app Teal to track her progress, and shared milestones with me from time to time. I celebrated with her on each occasion, recognising the effort it took and its significance. To me, each milestone is equally important. I’m as proud of her for staying free of self-harm for 365 days (and counting) as I was when it was one week, or ten days, or a month. In a few months, another friend will be three years free of self-harm. That is no more (and no less) an achievement as Aimee’s one-year milestone, or someone marking their first day of safety or sobriety.

Relapse Is Not Failure

The flip side to celebrating milestones is acknowledging that relapses happen. Making changes is hard, and it’s not uncommon to slip back into unhealthy patterns. It’s natural to feel you’ve failed yourself and others if that happens, but I’ve never felt my friends have failed themselves, or me, or anyone else. Quite the contrary. It takes enormous courage to acknowledge you’ve resorted to behaviours you’re trying to leave behind, to pick yourself up, and continue the journey. That’s the hallmark of a hero, not a failure.

Sharing Our Stories Matters

On a work call the other day with fellow Mental Health First Aiders, I mentioned that my friend had marked one year free from self-harm. It led to a couple of them sharing their stories. It was a telling reminder of how many of our friends, families, and colleagues deal with such things, or have done in the past. One colleague described how she successfully broke a long-term smoking addiction following a programme described by clinical hypnotherapist Max Kirsten.

Another shared how she used to self-harm on a daily basis because it was the only thing that helped her handle what she was dealing with at the time. I thanked them both for their honest and openness. For me there’s nothing as compelling as hearing someone tell their story. That was the motivation for the books Fran and I have written, and it’s the motivation for every article published on our blog.

Feed Hope Always

The stories my friends and colleagues shared were sometimes painful to hear but ultimately hopeful. No matter how difficult the journey may be, and despite setbacks and relapses, there is always hope. That said, success is by no means certain or necessarily permanent. Lacking lived experience I can only relate what others have told me, which is that you never completely recover from self-harm and addiction.

One friend said she feels she’s unlikely to resort to self-harm in the future because she’s developed more healthy coping strategies, but she can never be certain something won’t happen to overwhelm those strategies and push her towards self-harm again. Staying safe is a matter of ongoing vigilance.

Recognising this places a responsibility on all of us, to feed hope, and support others on their journey. Self-harm and suicidality are different, but as Fran and I describe in our book, we all have the capacity to help keep someone safe — or not.

Fran distinguishes suicide interrupters, “those who are able to defuse the suicide bomb,” and suicide aggravators. The latter are people who, consciously or unconsciously, impact her so adversely that suicide seems a viable choice.

A careless, ignorant, or judgmental remark can have consequences long after we’ve forgotten what we said. In a recent tweet, Aimee recalled how badly she’d been affected in the past by someone saying she would continue to self-harm. This person’s lack of belief in her potential for recovery led her to lose faith in herself. Fortunately, she was able to change her perspective. One year on, her success is a testament to her courage and determination. As she rightly said, “How wrong did I prove him?!!”

Afterword

Announcing her achievement on Twitter, Aimee invited her followers to imagine it was a year ago and they could give themselves one piece of wisdom or advice. I would tell the Marty of a year ago to take nothing for granted and to fight with all he has for the people who mean most to him. And above all, to remember to include himself in that list.

Resources

Mind self-harm page, with links to organisations including Harmless (user-led organisation that supports people who self-harm, and their friends and family), LifeSIGNS (user-led self-harm guidance and support network), National Self Harm Network (NSHN), and Samaritans.

NHS addiction page, with links to addiction services and help dealing with drug addiction, alcohol addiction, smoking and gambling.

NHS drug addiction: getting help.

NHS self-harm resources page, with links including Self Injury Support webchat (women and girls), and CALM webchat (men).

NHS quit smoking page.

Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH) page on self-harm.

The Truth About Self-Harm, leaflet (PDF) by Mental Health Foundation.

International helplines, suicide hotlines, and crisis-lines hosted at TherapyRoute.com.

For further information including help and crisis lines, see our resources page.

 

Photo by Fauzan Ardhi on Unsplash

 

Wednesday, 25 August 2021

I'm Sure I Was Somewhere. Do I Get a T-Shirt?

What if you were there already and didn’t realise because there was no big red YOU ARE HERE arrow on the map; no neon sign or text alert saying “This is it. You’ve reached that place the others were talking about.” There should be a kiosk selling BEEN THERE T-shirts or badges. Then you’d know. And others would know too.

They say if you’ve never experienced something for yourself, you can’t understand what it’s like. I get the point, but it’s not precise enough for me. How similar must my experience be to yours, for me to understand what you’ve been through? Exactly the same? Somewhat similar? Who gets to decide?

This is not a trivial question. Depending on the circumstance, it can affect friendships and other relationships. In the health sphere, it can affect access to services, care, and support. Peer support in particular is predicated on the concept of shared experience:

Peer support brings together people with shared experiences, and these experiences can vary. For example, you might share a diagnosis of a particular mental health problem or similar personal interests. Or you may have shared experiences, such as hearing voices, identifying as LGBTIQ+ or having a shared cultural background. (Mind)

What counts as shared experience, though? Some things are pretty black and white. Redundancy. Marital breakup. Homelessness. Sexual or physical abuse. The death of a spouse or child. These have either happened to you or they haven’t. But not everything in life is as clear cut as that, mental illness included. Even if you’ve experienced something, does that automatically mean you understand how it would be for someone else?

The “What if you were there and didn’t realise” paragraph at the top of this post came to me as I was thinking about how low I’ve felt of late. Looking through my journal, there are things I’m used to hearing from others, but have rarely felt — and even more rarely expressed. Have I just been feeling low or is it something more serious? I tend to assume my experiences, dark moods included, scarcely register compared with what others go through. But what if I’ve reached somewhere they would recognise. How would I know?

Frequent readers of this blog might answer on my behalf. Talk to someone you trust, Marty. Share how you’re feeling. Above all, believe that your experiences and feelings matter and are as valid as anyone else’s. I smile as I write that. I love having my own words and ideas bounced back to me! Good friends do that. Sharing can certainly help. It’s the basis of the friendship Fran and I have grown over the past ten years. Above and beyond the value of having a safe space in which to vent, sharing helps us baseline what we’re going through. It can be profoundly validating.

Sharing also allows the other person into our world. This is important because it addresses a question I’m sometimes asked about me and Fran: “If you’ve never been depressed or manic, how can you know what it’s like?” Fundamentally, I can’t know what it’s like, and it’s important I never lose sight of that. There are certain advantages to not understanding another person’s situation, but an informed awareness of what it means to live with illness helps me support Fran more effectively. As I’ve written elsewhere:

With that in mind, I try and learn as much as possible, by talking with Fran and with others, by reading widely and by taking all the training courses I can find. I work on the basis that Fran is doing her best to share with me the reality of her situation, and share my own understanding with her. In this way we honour each other and grow together.

Some experiences are too powerful or devastating to comprehend unless you’ve lived through something similar. I can listen to someone’s story of abuse or rape, for example, but I’ve experienced nothing that even approximates to what they’ve been through. A friend expressed it perfectly:

If I met someone and we talked about trauma, I can acknowledge their experience but not much more, other than hold space. I need to respect their journey. I can empathize but do I truly understand that experience? I don’t think so.

Furthermore, everyone responds to events differently and is affected differently by them. Another friend told me she knew of others who’d gone through what she had in the past, but that didn’t mean they’d had the same experiences.

In the mental health arena, a clinical diagnosis is the closest thing to a BEEN THERE badge or t-shirt, because it implies a certain shared history, symptoms, or behaviours. People with the same diagnosis may also have medications, therapy, or other treatments in common. My friend and fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson was originally diagnosed with all nine criteria for borderline personality disorder (BPD). She says this gave her insight into others she’s met who satisfied fewer criteria when they were diagnosed. (A diagnosis of BPD can usually be made if you answer “yes” to five or more of nine questions.)

Even so, two people diagnosed with the same mental health condition will experience it differently. Aimee is the only person I know well who has a diagnosis of BPD, but I have three friends diagnosed with bipolar disorder and their lives are impacted very differently by it. Knowing Fran’s support needs, for example, doesn’t mean I necessarily know what my other friends need. I consider myself fortunate that I have a broader awareness of what bipolar disorder can mean for someone, from seeing how it affects these friends in different ways.

A word of caution is needed when it comes to sharing. Oversharing, or sharing inappropriately, risks overwhelm and rejection. Having someone’s unexpurgated experience thrust in your face can be unnerving, awkward, or even triggering, as a friend of mine discovered recently. She agreed with me, however, on the principle of shared experience. In her words: “The idea that to be empathetic we have to have gone through the exact same thing as someone else is unrealistic, really. It can be helpful and make for a stronger connection, but it’s not necessary.”

Returning to my original “what if you were there” scenario, there’s no certain way of knowing where we are. No YOU ARE HERE sign painted on a wall or the pavement. No GPS coordinates or what3words address we can share so others can say “Ah yes, I’ve been there too,” or find us if we lose our way. All is not lost, however. We can talk to the people we meet along the way. We can compare itineraries and histories, exchange contact details and do our best to keep in touch when our paths diverge. And if there’s no T-shirt stand, maybe this one will do.

 

Photo by Fallon Michael on Unsplash

 

Wednesday, 18 August 2021

Safety, Responsibility, and Trust: Thoughts Inspired by a Drive with a Friend

I took a drive with a friend the other day. It was the first time I’d been in a private car in over a year and the first time my friend had driven me anywhere. She has yet to pass her driving test and I was there to supervise so she could gain additional practice. We had a great time and I felt completely at ease in the car with her. Thinking about it afterwards, it occurred to me how important safety, trust, and responsibility are in our lives.

Trust and Physical Safety

I was supervising but I was very much in my friend’s hands. I trusted her driving ability and sense of responsibility. If she felt confident behind the wheel, that was good enough for me. No matter how experienced we may be, every driver understands what’s at stake when we start the engine and pull out into traffic. We are responsible not only for our own safety but that of our passengers, other road users, and pedestrians. Many of us drive so frequently we take this for granted but it’s worth reminding ourselves every now and then.

We stopped for lunch, which raised further questions of safety and trust; this time from a covid perspective. Back in March as England began to emerge from lockdown I shared my fears that things would never be the same as in pre-covid days. A few months later, I was struggling mentally, in part because it seemed I had little or nothing to look forward to. I’ve taken a number of steps forward since then. I’ve met with friends a few times, including an urban ramble around Newcastle. I’ve revisited some of my favourite places and spent a day in Edinburgh.

Nevertheless, as we entered the restaurant I felt on edge. Was it covid-safe? Were the tables far enough apart? Were customers and staff wearing masks? Now that rules have been eased, safety is much more a question of responsibility and trust. My friend and I are fully vaccinated. We felt safe in the car without masks but kept the windows open. We wore our masks inside the pub until we found a table, and when ordering at the bar. The place was fairly busy but the tables weren’t too close together and we felt safe. Had we not, we would have gone elsewhere.

Later that day I called into one of my favourite bars. I expected it to be busy but it was literally heaving with people. I used to love the atmosphere but on this occasion, I was uneasy. It may not have been unsafe, but it felt so. I trusted my instinct and came away.

Safety and Challenge

There’s a flip side to all this talk of safety. Many of us deliberately put ourselves in situations where we are — or feel — unsafe or in danger. Whether it’s scary movies, roller coasters, extreme sports, or pursuits like mountaineering or skydiving, we challenge ourselves for kicks or personal growth.

Fran told me recently of a time she was on a wilderness trail and felt unsafe navigating the rocky terrain. It reminded me of the time in the early 1980s when a university friend and I ascended Snowdon, Wales’ highest mountain. Our route included Crib Goch which I’ve since learned is “an adrenaline-fuelled gut-wrenching scary arête [...] not to be undertaken lightly.” My friend was a seasoned hiker and I’d trusted him to choose our route, but I was out of my depth as we picked our way along the ridge, with mist filling the valley on one side and on the other, a clear drop to the rocks below. I’ve never felt as unsafe as I did that day.

A few years ago I did two zip wire slides for charity from Newcastle’s Tyne Bridge. Friends praised my bravery, but in truth, I felt perfectly safe. I trusted the event organisers to know what they were doing and I trusted the safety equipment and procedures. It was scary, but it was safe-scary. Challenges help us expand our horizons, as long as we choose them wisely.

Feeling Safe to Be Ourselves

Another important safety is feeling we can be open and honest without being judged or rejected. This requires trust, in other people and in ourselves, but also the responsibility not to share indiscriminately. As Brené Brown puts it in her book Daring Greatly, “Oversharing is not vulnerability. In fact, it often results in disconnection, distrust, and disengagement.” You can read more about vulnerability vs. oversharing in this excellent article by Hannah Braime.

Our ability to share appropriately can be compromised by illness. Fran experienced this during a period of mania, as we describe in our book High Tide, Low Tide:

In the grip of mania, Fran clamoured for attention, and pushed her ideas at people whether they wanted to listen or not. She was capable of presenting herself with stunning clarity, but at other times her thoughts could be hard to follow. Such behaviour disturbs, worries, and alienates people. Some approached Fran with kindness, but from others there was mistrust and misunderstanding.

I’m fortunate to have friends with whom I feel completely safe, and trust implicitly. I wrote about some of these recently in a post I titled Team Marty because that’s how it feels to have them on my side.

Safety and Trust in Professionals

We have a responsibility to look after ourselves, but our health also depends on our doctors and other professionals. Trust is essential. If we trust the people involved in our care we’re more likely to follow their guidance. That doesn’t mean we should accept things naively or uncritically. As in any profession, mistakes can and do happen and need to be challenged.

When we met in 2011, Fran’s mania was poorly controlled by her prescribed medication. No one was necessarily to blame. Symptoms of bipolar disorder are prone to change over time, requiring adjustments in treatment. Despite all she’s been through, Fran has never lost trust in her clinicians. This is nowhere better expressed than in the open letter she wrote to her psychiatrist when he retired.

Not everyone’s had a positive experience with the medical profession, of course. Chris Good shared his experience with us in a guest post titled Twenty-Plus Years of Misdiagnosis and Incorrect Treatment. Another friend suffered due to a serious dispensing error, as I’ve described previously:

[The] pharmacy stopped dispensing one medication altogether. This wasn’t spotted for some weeks, during which my friend’s stability and safety were severely compromised. It was an error with potentially serious repercussions. Even after the mistake was corrected it took time to restore the full protective benefits of the medication. It’s fair to say my friend will pay very close attention from now on to what is dispensed.

You can read my friend’s account of the incident here.

Safety, Suicide, and Self-Harm

The final aspect of safety, trust, and responsibility I want to discuss is safety from self-harm and suicide. It’s a subject close to my heart. Fran and I devote an entire chapter of our book to it (“The ‘S’ Word: Being There When Your Friend Is Suicidal”). Suicidal ideation is less present for Fran than it used to be, but we remain vigilant. Suicidality and the urge to self-harm are an ongoing or recurrent reality for many, including several of my friends. Information, support lines, and training courses are widely available. I’ve previously pulled together a list of suicide awareness and prevention courses, and you can find further information on our resources page.

Strategies for staying safe are necessarily personal but may include a Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP), Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT), or other techniques. Fran has a personal care manual and travel wellness plan. My friend and fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson has written extensively on her use of DBT, including this detailed guide.

What matters most is that the strategies work for the person concerned. For many years, Fran kept a stash of medication. Others might disapprove, but she considered it protective because it filled a need that might otherwise have found expression in more dangerous ways. In her words, “I needed the insurance to escape. Perhaps because this was the only thing in my life I had control over and I needed to do it my way, not everyone else’s way.” As I trusted she would, Fran voluntarily relinquished her stash when the time felt right.

Trust distinguishes caring about someone from worrying about them. These terms are often used interchangeably but there are important differences between them:

When we care about a friend we are expressing our trust in their abilities, strengths, and resilience. We trust ourselves to support them as best we can, and others to contribute as they are able. We don’t feel we have to do it on our own, fix everything, or find all the answers.

When we worry about a friend we express fear that they lack the resources to meet whatever challenges they are facing. We fear we don’t know what we are doing, that we will be found lacking, or not up to the task. We fear others won’t be around to contribute, and we will be left doing everything ourselves.

There Are No Guarantees

It’s worth reminding ourselves that trust and responsibility are no guarantee of safety. All we can do is our best, and all we can expect of others is that they do their best. For me, the clearest example of this is my relationship with Fran. She trusts me to be there for her, to be on her side, to fight her corner, and to always have her best interests at heart. For my part, I trust that I will handle whatever might come up. That doesn’t mean I can or have to handle everything on my own. I’m one member of a team of people — professionals and other friends — Fran trusts to help her stay as safe and as well as possible. I nevertheless accept that no one and nothing can guarantee Fran’s safety. This is nowhere better expressed than in this excerpt from our book:

Fran has told me many times I help keep her alive. There is no objective way to know if that is true, but I take her words at face value. I cannot explain my lack of fear when she is suicidal, but trust is fundamental. [...] It is not that I trust Fran never to try to harm herself, or imagine our friendship guarantees her safety. She has never attempted suicide, but she knows what to do, and I take very seriously any hint she is thinking about hurting herself or ending her life. But I trust her to not hide her suicidal feelings from me, and to be honest with me about them. Ultimately, I trust Fran to allow me to help her stay alive.

Responsibility and Self-care

We all need a hand to hold and people to trust, but it’s important not to rely on the same people all the time. Fran is happy I have others in my life I can turn to because meeting all my needs would be too much. There are times when she needs all her focus and energy to take care of herself, or is simply unable to help me deal with what’s going on for me. She trusts me to do whatever I need to keep myself safe.

Afterword

This discussion might appear to have come a long way from its inspiration in the passenger seat of my friend’s car, but I believe it shows how important safety, trust, and responsibility are. How do these themes play out in your life? Do you have any safety strategies you would like to share? Who do you trust most, and why? We’d love to hear from you.

 

Photo by takahiro taguchi on Unsplash.

 

Wednesday, 11 August 2021

Men and Mental Health: Resources and Heroes

After attending a men’s health webinar at work, I realised I write very little on mental health for men. I blog about what I’ve learned supporting friends who live with mental illness and other health issues, but almost all those friends are women. I write about my feelings, moods, and self-care, but I’ve never explored men’s mental health as such.

In this article I’ve drawn together some key statistics on men’s mental health; crisis and support lines; organisations, books, podcasts; and awareness days. I’ve also selected a number of articles written by men which we’ve hosted here at Gum on My Shoe, and a few posts of my own where I’ve touched on my mental health. Finally, I’ve briefly profiled four men who inspire me: Michael Baker, Jonny Benjamin MBE, Quinn Brown, and Peter McDonnell. I’m grateful to Quinn and Peter for their contributions to this article.

 


Men’s Mental Health Statistics

I struggle to hold statistics in my head for long but here are some numbers from the Men’s Minds Matter website that emphasize how big a deal mental health is for men — and how that potentially affects everyone.

  • Men currently make up 76% of all suicides in the UK
  • 42% of men have considered suicide
  • Three-quarters of missing people are male
  • 90% of homeless people in London are men
  • Men are more likely to be victims of violence
  • 5% of men (compared to 7% of women) have reported being a victim of domestic violence
  • Men make up the vast majority of the prison population
  • Men experience more substance abuse and dependence
  • Men account for 79% of drug-related deaths
  • The outward expression of male distress causes significant problems for other men, women and children

For further information, check out this report by mental health charity MIND: Get It Off Your Chest: Men’s Mental Health 10 Years On (PDF).

 


Crisis and Support Lines

The following are not specifically for men but are listed by groups and organisations supporting men’s mental health, or have been personally recommended. For further links, check our resources page.

 


Groups and Organisations

The following groups and organisations are based in the UK. If you know of others, in the UK or worldwide, please let me know.

Andy’s Man Club

Andy’s Man Club runs “talking groups throughout the UK for men who have either been through a storm, are currently going through a storm or have a storm brewing in life.”

Boys Get Sad Too

Boys Get Sad Too is not just a clothing brand. It is a community of like-minded people who want to see a positive change in the world. We are official supporters of CALM (The Campaign Against Living Miserably) charity who we donate 10% of our profits to, and we actively work to try and raise awareness for the struggles that men face.”

CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably)

The Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) is leading a movement against suicide. Every week 125 people in the UK take their own lives. And 75% of all UK suicides are male. CALM exists to change this.” CALM operates a helpline and webchat.

Man Health

From the Man Health website: "Staying quiet about your struggles does not work. Our culture is definitely getting better at talking openly about mental health, but we still have a way to go. Many men still feel ashamed at confessing their own struggles and it’s this shame of the fear of judgement by others which we have to challenge”

Mantality

Mantality’s mission is to go beyond stigma and inspire the everyday male to become the most comprehensive version of themselves; with their mental health the first point of address. We believe in being proactive around mental health, not reactive. We work towards progressing the conversation around mental health, developing the knowledge around it, so we can all live better lives.”

MANUP?

From the MANUP? website: “The adopted term of ‘MAN UP’ as we know it, needs to be challenged. Don’t just brush yourself down and get on with it. That's our focus, that’s our mission. We are well aware that mental health isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ so we just talk to those who have lived through it, with the aim of showing those who might be struggling that they/you are not the only one.”

Men’s Minds Matter

Men’s Minds Matter is a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to the prevention of male suicide by building psychological resilience and emotional strength. We are passionate about reducing suicide rates for men through the development and provision of psychological crisis interventions that prevent suicide.”

Talk Tonight – Selby C.I.C

Talk Tonight – Selby C.I.C (Community Interest Company) is a peer-to-peer support group for members of our community [Selby, North Yorkshire, and the surrounding areas] who are struggling with their mental health or for those that care for someone with a mental illness.”

 


Books

 


Podcasts and Videos

 


Awareness Days and Events

Men’s Mental Health Day (#MensMHday)

Founded in 2014, Men’s Mental Health Day is an awareness day marked in Canada on the Tuesday before Father’s Day, during International Men’s Health Week. The event “aims to raise awareness of how signs and symptoms of mental health conditions may present themselves differently in men, and to normalize conversations about mental health issues to reduce the stigma that often prevents men from seeking help.”

International Men's Health Week

Men’s Health Week is celebrated each June as the week leading up to and including Father’s Day. Its purpose is to heighten the awareness of preventable health problems and encourage early detection and treatment of disease among men and boys. The first Men’s Health Week was in 2002, following discussions at the first World Congress on Men’s Health in 2001 concerning the need to coordinate awareness periods around the globe. The next Men’s Health Week will be June 13-19, 2022.

 


Blog Posts

A selection of posts by men here at Gum on My Shoe, starting with three of mine where I’ve discussed aspects of my mental health.

Martin Baker

Michael Baker

Stewart Bint

Quinn Brown

Jay Chirino

Jules Clare

Kenneth J Cody

Chris Good

Peter McDonnell

John Medl

Andrew Turman

 


Four Men Who Inspire Me

These men inspire me immensely in various ways.

Michael Baker

In the interests of full disclosure, Mike is my son — and I could not be more proud of him! Mike is open about living with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS/ME) and IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), and also deals with anxiety. As he has shared in guest posts with us (see here and here), these conditions have a major impact on his life, but Mike navigates the challenges they present with fortitude and good — if sometimes a little dark! — humour. In his own words:

It can be very difficult for those of us who suffer from chronic illnesses such as this to keep our spirits high. One thing I do is create a big list of things which make me happy, and do all I can to make those things happen, as often as I can. Being happy really improves your outlook, so I suggest we all give it a shot!

Mike is a novelist and a freelance writer in the games industry. He also creates fantasy maps for gamers and authors, and blogs on gaming and fantasy writing at The Thousand Scar’s Muse. You can find Mike’s cartography services on Facebook, and follow him on Twitter at @thethousandscar.

Jonny Benjamin MBE

I met Jonny Benjamin in August 2019 at an event on mental health and friendship. Many will know the story of how in 2008, recently diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, Jonny stood on London’s Waterloo Bridge prepared to take his life. His life was saved by a passing stranger who talked him down from the edge. As I described in my blog about the event:

Hearing Jonny talk about what happened on the bridge was intensely moving for me, as I’m sure it was for everyone in the room. He spoke of Neil holding space, of his being engaged and “invested.” Above all it was Neil’s positivity and lack of judgement that made the difference, as well as him telling Jonny there was no need to be embarrassed. This stranger’s acceptance, compassion, and simple humanity saved Jonny’s life.

I haven’t attempted to contact Jonny since the event, but I follow his social media with interest. In addition to The Stranger on the Bridge, Jonny co-authored The Book of Hope: 101 Voices on Overcoming Adversity which is “an inspiring and moving collection of 101 honest stories that illustrate human strength and resilience.” An anthology of his poetry was published in 2012 as Pill After Pill: Poems From A Schizophrenic Mind.

You can follow Jonny on his website.

Quinn Brown

Quinn has been something of a hero to me since we first connected on Twitter in 2019. We’ve yet to meet in person but surely that day cannot be too far away! In Quinn’s own words, “I am a proud gay, trans man who has been out as trans since 2018 and as gay since 2020.”

He is active online and locally, with an LGBTQ+ support group in Selby, Yorkshire called seLGBTQ+. For details, check out the group’s Facebook page. Quinn launched a campaign earlier this year under the hashtag #InWithTheBins to encourage businesses, organizations and shops to install sanitary bins in men’s toilet cubicles. As Quinn rightly says, “trans men do have periods and cis men may have underlying health conditions which mean they require a sanitary bin to dispose of waste.”

Quinn has been nominated in the category of Positive Role Model (LGBT) in the National Diversity Awards 2021 for his dedication and ongoing work. He’s also been nominated for a Selby District Shining Star award in the Shining Star Through the Pandemic category, which is “for an individual who has overcome the challenges of the pandemic and made a difference to your local community.” He’s a great guy and I’m proud to call him my friend.

You can follow Quinn on Facebook and Twitter.

Peter McDonnell

Peter is a mental health advocate and blogger who I first met on social media in 2017. He blogs on a range of topics based on his own lived experience of mental illness and his passions for travel and art. He has guested here at Gum on My Shoe on a number of occasions. In his own words, “I have found painting to be helpful and cathartic, therapeutic and a fun hobby. During my recent hospitalisation I did nine canvases in three weeks while on an acute mental health ward, seeing out a blip after having to come off meds due to physical side effects.”

Peter volunteers at the Basingstoke Community Furniture Project, and Parklands hospital where he was a patient, and is on the North and Mid Hampshire Mental Health Service User Advisory Board. Peter shared his experience of mental health wards in a recent article for the Basingstoke Gazette.

You can find Peter on his blog Pete’s Mental Health.

 


The majority of links I’ve provided are specific to the UK, as that’s where I live. If you’d like me to include other organisations, groups, or services related to men’s mental health, please let me know and I’ll update the article. Thank you!

 

Photo by Shane Rounce on Unsplash

 

Wednesday, 4 August 2021

Growing Old and Staying Young: Thoughts Inspired by an Urban Ramble

“We need old friends to help us grow old and new friends to help us stay young.”
— Loretta Cottin Pogrebin

I had the pleasure recently to meet up with two friends for an urban ramble in my home city, Newcastle upon Tyne. It was my first outing with Paul and Fiona since we first met three years ago on a bench overlooking Derwentwater in Keswick.

For anyone interested in our route, we met outside Newcastle’s Life Centre and walked down to the river via Central Parkway and Forth Bank. Passing beneath the Tyne Bridge we continued east along the Quayside as far as the Millennium Bridge. We crossed to the Gateshead side and stopped for coffee and cake at the Baltic gallery café, overlooking the river. Returning to the Newcastle side, we continued east to where the Ouseburn stream meets the Tyne. Turning left, we explored the winding Riverside Walk as far as the City Farm and Cluny music venue, then made our way through Shieldfield, emerging close to Northumbria University. We concluded our jaunt at Caffè Nero, St Mary’s Place.

The inspiration for this post, though, isn’t the ramble itself but some of the topics we discussed (or rambled on about!) in the three and a half hours we were together. We covered a lot, but looking back on the day there were several themes which can be summarised as newness vs. oldness.

New Friends and Old Friends

The most obvious new/old aspect was that despite having known each other on social media for three years, I was new to Paul and Fiona and they were new to me. It’s been a while since I added to my circle of friends — especially my circle of local friends — and I was happy to discover how well we got along. I’m confident it won’t be our last time out together. My local friends are mostly younger than me, and whilst that’s never been an issue it was good to be out with people a little closer to my own age. Almost all my close friends, local and otherwise, are women, and it was something of a novelty for me to get on so well with another guy! (Fiona, I think you’re great too!)

Sharing Old Memories and Building New Ones

Some of the places we visited held specific memories which I enjoyed sharing. The Life Centre which I visited with my friend Aimee on our first “bloggers’ day out” three years ago, and where I received my covid vaccinations this year. The Tyne Bridge from which I’ve zipwired twice for charity. The Quayside which I’d last visited in November 2019 on a sponsored walk for the Chris Lucas Trust. The Cluny, where I once performed a live reading from High Tide, Low Tide.

It was a day for building new memories too. The many sights we encountered on our walk, the conversation, the little interactions with other people we met, and (far from the least memorable) stopping at the Baltic gallery for coffee and cake overlooking the river. We each kept our mobile phones at the ready and shared photos afterwards, posting the best on social media and tagging each other with good-natured abandon. It added a lot to the day for me. I printed a few of my photos and added them to my beloved Passport Traveler’s Notebook, which Paul has always admired. Paul, you’re in there now!

New Tellings of Old Stories

Within minutes of starting our walk, and noticing the “Boys Get Sad Too” badge in my lapel, Paul commended me for my mental health work and asked how I’d found myself on that path. Most of the people I hang out with know the stories well, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share the highlights of the past ten years or so for a new and attentive audience.

I told them how it started when Fran and I first met online in 2011, and our first and only face-to-face meeting two years later when Fran stopped in Southampton en route to Germany. I described learning from Fran about the realities of living with mental illness, and how our book came into being. I talked about how I came to volunteer with Time to Change, my involvement with the mental health team at work, and some of the great people I’ve met along the way.

Paul and Fiona’s stories were new to me too, and I hope they found sharing their tales as rewarding as I did hearing them. I was fascinated to discover how neatly our life experiences interlaced in places and differed widely in others.

Old Labels and New

When I told my friend and fellow blogger Aimee Wilson of I’m NOT Disordered that I planned to blog about my day out, she suggested “Mental Health Conversations and How They Help” as a title. That didn’t quite work for me, but mental — and physical — health featured prominently and those conversations were amongst the most interesting and helpful of any we had that day.

Most of my friends have first-hand knowledge of living with mental illness. I learn a lot from those relationships but it was good to share insight and ideas with people who, like me, lack first-hand experience of mental illness, but understand what it means to love and care about people who do.

We discussed the distinction between struggling mentally where the causes or triggers may be short-term, situational, or environmental, and longer-term or life-long conditions which may be biologically or genetically based. (The term severe mental illness, SMI, is sometimes used to refer to severely debilitating conditions such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, but it’s not a term I favour because supposedly “lesser” conditions can still have a devastating impact on the people living with them.)

We also discussed some of the labels — clinical and otherwise — used to describe mental and physical health conditions, and how labels and treatments have changed over the years. I was reminded of the novel I recently reviewed (Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, by Anne Goodwin) which describes life in mental health institutions in the latter half of the twentieth century. As a society, we can be rightly proud of the advances in treatment and care, but I think Paul and Fiona would agree with me that there’s still much work to be done.

One of the most interesting things that came up was how such labels as “cripple,” “mental,” and “mad”, long used as terms of discrimination and abuse, are being taken back and owned by people to whom they have been applied by others. It’s a topic with broader relevance, given that certain diagnostic labels are hotly contested by some to whom they are applied by clinicians. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome — variously referred to as CFS, myalgic encephalomyelitis, ME, CFS/ME, or Systemic Exertion Intolerance Disease SEID) — is one example. Borderline Personality Disorder (also referred to as emotionally unstable personality disorder, EUPD) is another. Our conversation was a valuable reminder that the words we use matter, but that there is no universally accepted or acceptable lexicon when it comes to matters which affect large numbers of people deeply and personally.

Urban and Personal Regeneration

The second half of our walk, after leaving the Baltic gallery and returning to the Newcastle side of the Tyne, took us along the Ouseburn Riverside Walk. Paul and Fiona knew the route from previous trips but it was a revelation to me. I was especially fascinated by the mix of old and new. Seeing our photos on social media, a friend commented: “The whole area is gradually being developed, often very sensitively. Brilliant vibe, a bit ‘hipstery’ but it’s transforming what used to be a rough and extremely run-down area.”

The hodge-potch of buildings reminded me of the decaying sprawl of Gormenghast Castle in Mervyn Peake’s eponymous trilogy. We even saw a horse on a rooftop, although unlike Peake’s it wasn’t swimming! Gormenghast was locked in its past, however. Attics and extensions had been tacked precariously onto the castle’s crumbling edifice over the years but there was no sense of development, growth, or progression. As my friend noted, the Ouseburn is opening to new investment, input, and creative expansion.

As I thought about it afterwards, I drew parallels between these outer examples of regeneration and the inner, personal changes I’ve been working through of late. Architecturally or personally, it’s not always clear which things can be salvaged, repaired, or repurposed, and which are due for replacement. It can be tempting to bulldoze everything to the ground and start again. That may seem cleaner and more straightforward, but a great deal of value can be lost in the process, or buried beneath the concrete and glass of new construction.

I’m reminded of a line from a poem of mine from years ago, complete with pretentious Homeric references:

How fair the stars beneath an Illian sky … but concrete and prestressed demands a new vibration

In that poem and others, I sought to explore the changes I was experiencing as I left my cloistered life at home for university. I’m not sure how successfully I regenerated myself in the process. I’ve often found myself on the outside of things rather than integrating into a new environment. I’ve struggled to find that sensitive balance that might have honoured both old and new and allowed for growth and development.

The challenge for me now is to achieve the kind of transformation that eluded me in the past.

The Old World and the New

At the end of our walk, I introduced Paul and Fiona to my favourite city coffee shop, Caffè Nero at St. Mary’s Place. Our conversation turned this way and that as we explored more of our stories, experiences, and beliefs, including our thoughts about covid and the wider world situation. Even for someone like me who has been described as “pathologically positive,” it’s hard to remain optimistic in the face of such monumental change and uncertainty. The past eighteen months have overturned everything we thought we knew about ourselves and the world in which we live. There’s no way back to how things were before. I’m no fan of the phrase “new normal” but in a very real sense we are already living in a new world (not so much post-covid as alongside-covid). Individually and collectively, we are figuring out what that means.

My friends’ essential hopefulness provided a warm and welcome reminder that there are good people in the world doing good things. It’s okay to feel overwhelmed and uncertain for a time, but if life has a purpose it is surely to live as well and as creatively as we can. I can do no better than close with a quotation from arguably the most inspiring artwork we encountered on our urban adventure. Arch 4, Stepney Bank hosts the beautiful Ancient Place mural by artist Faunagraphic, with lettering by Ciaran Globel.

An ancient place / Of lead and stone and steel and scrap / Sluice gates, water, tunnels, mud/ Children, artists, beasts and birds / Where future grows /and shakes its wings