Wednesday 29 December 2021

2021: My Year in Photos and Blog Posts

At the end of 2020 I shared one photo and one blog post for each month of a year that nobody could have predicted.

Since then, in the UK at least, vaccinations and other measures have enabled certain sectors of society to open up a good deal, but any reprieve has been far from permanent or even, and the much-lauded “new normal” remains frustratingly out of reach. Other parts of the world have fared, and continue to fare, far worse. With the Omicron variant rampant, it’s impossible to say what will happen next.

It’s in this context that I’m sharing my personal look back over 2021.


I took a local walk for exercise almost every day during lockdown in 2020, often exploring beside the Ouseburn stream. It’s been months since I’ve been back but this snow scene from January reminds me of a period in my life when it provided much valued me-time in uncertain times.

I’ve chosen a blog post that acknowledges and celebrates “Team Marty” — the people in my life who help me in so many different ways.


Continuing the snowy theme, I’ve chosen this photo of a local garden fence which was decorated by the family living there during lockdown last year. It remains a potent reminder of hope and community spirit.

February marked a important turning point for me and Fran, with the publication of new editions of our books: High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder (Revised Edition), and No One is Too Far Away: Notes from a Transatlantic Friendship.


I struggled quite a bit in the early part of this year, but March offered a measure of hope as the covid-19 vaccination rollout began here in the UK. I received my first dose at the end of the month, at Newcastle’s Centre for Life.

In an attempt to shift my mood, I shared a post focusing on things I was grateful for, including a renewed creative focus, celebrating my birthday, reminiscing with friends, and new writing opportunities.


Cafés and coffee shops had reopened by this point, but with outdoor seating only. It took a while for me to feel comfortable returning to my previous favourite establishments (Caffè Nero in Newcastle and my local Costa Coffee). The photo I’ve chosen shows my collection of notebooks set up on outside the Grand Coffee House, opposite Newcastle’s Civic Centre. It was my first trip into town of the year apart from getting my vaccination.

The mental health anti-stigma organisation Time to Change closed at the end of March. In Challenging Stigma in Changing Times: My Journey with Time to Change I shared my experiences as a volunteer with TTC and my feelings as it ceased its operations.

I’m including one more post from April because I feel it carries an important message for us all. In How to Be There for a Friend When No One Else Is I shared how I approach the situation in which I’m the only person available to respond to someone in need of help or support.


This little chap (or lady) was an occasional — and very welcome — visitor to the garden this year.

I was proud to be invited by author Anne Goodwin to review her novel Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home. The book gave me lots to think about and I chose to write the review in the form of an open letter to my friend and fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson.


Another dear friend of mine drove up to Newcastle in June to meet me for coffee. It was the first time Louise and I had met in person since we connected online two years ago, and the first time I’d visited Costa Coffee since hospitality restrictions were lifted. The photo shows us sitting on my favourite bench!

The post I’ve selected from June is the first in which I focused on my mental health, rather than other people’s. I’m proud of myself for writing it, because I had to overcome a good deal of internal inhibition and doubt before I could say publically, actually yeah, there are times when I struggle too. The title of the post — THIS BOY GETS SAD TOO — echoes BOYS GET SAD TOO, a clothing brand which has resonated with me since I first heard of it this year. You can see a BGST pin badge in the lapel of my tweed jacket in the photo of me and Louise.


Aimee and I took a day trip to Edinburgh in July. It was a bit of a rainy day, but we had a marvellous time. It was, and remains, the furthest I’ve ventured from Newcastle since the pandemic began. It would be good to return in future when the sun is shining!

I’ve written open letters to Fran before (I shared one earlier this year to mark our ten year anniversary as friends), but during July I wrote an open letter to myself. I found it an interesting — and enlightening — experience.


The photo I’ve chosen for August was taken in my local coffee shop, Costa Coffee in Kingston Park. Before covid struck, I used to call in seven days a week. These days, it’s far less often, but I still cherish every visit. The atmosphere is great, the staff are lovely, and the coffee is second to none.

During August I met up with two more friends, Paul and Fiona, for an urban ramble around Newcastle. There was great conversation, new places to discover, and coffee and cake in the Baltic gallery’s balcony café overlooking the Tyne.


Despite the relative relaxating of restrictions, I’ve continued to work from home and have mostly stayed close to where I live. This photo was taken on one of my local walks, which have given me plenty of opportunity to get some exercise, and mull over what’s been going on for me.

On one such walk it occurred to me that there’d been a significant downward shift in my mood over the past year or so. I explored this in a post titled Return to Down. In retrospect, it’s one of the most significant pieces I’ve written in a long time.


In August, I wrote an article about trust and responsibility, inspired by a drive I took with a friend of mine. We’ve been out a few times since and the photo commemorates a return visit to the Walls End Pub Restaurant. The halloumi platter was simply superb!

The post I’ve chosen is one I’d wanted to write for some time. It’s about how to be a steadfast and dependable friend; someone people know they can rely on.


Autumn has always been my favourite time of year, and this photo captures some of the gorgeous colour I’ve witnessed on my walks this year.

Two trees were lost to me during 2021. One stood at the edge of the playing field close to where I live. It was cut down early this year for no apparent reason. The loss affected me more than I might have imagined. For years, I’d sent Fran a photo of the tree each (pre-covid) morning as I set out for work, or when I set out on my daily walk. Storm Arwen hit the UK in November, and sufficiently damaged a tree in my back garden that it had to be felled for safety. Each time I stand at the back door now, or take a call with a friend in the garden, I’m reminded of the loss, and how things can change in an instant.

I explored a different kind of change in a post titled Supportive Disengagement: How to Be There for Your Friend When They Need Space. It’s something I’ve found helpful with various friends at different times. As the article describes, “accepting a friend’s need for disengagement and supporting them through it is one of the most profoundly caring acts we will ever perform.”


Aimee and I visited the beautiful cathedral city of Durham in December. Although it’s only a twenty minute train ride from Newcastle, I’d not been since we attended a local history event in June 2019. It was great to be back and we had a lovely time browsing the Christmas markets, including the splendid craft market on Palace Green between the cathedral and castle.

International Men’s Day fell on November 19, but for me it’s most significant impact was captured in two posts I wrote during December. A talk I attended for IMD convinced me of the importance of paying attention to my physical health. A few days later, I booked my first doctor’s appointment in thirty years to address my concerns. That led to an in-person visit to my GP surgery for blood tests and an internal exam to rule out prostate issues. All seems well, but I was anxious ahead of the appointment. I shared my feelings in a post I hope will be of value to others awaiting medical tests, diagnoses, and decisions.

Post of the Year

It was hard to choose one photo from all those I’ve taken this year, but I’ve selected this selfie taken on December 27 at my favourite coffee shop, Costa Coffee. As I mentioned earlier, the BOYS GET SAD TOO message is something that resonates strongly with me and it’s something I intend to explore further in the coming year.

As my post of the year, I’ve selected a guest post by a dear friend of mine. My choice might seem a little immodest, in that it’s written as an open letter to me. That’s not the reason for selecting it, however. I’m doing so because it’s a powerful testament to what connection and friendship can mean, and the difference all of us can make in the world.

I truly have learned how to be a better person because of you. I treat people better and love them more fully because you taught me and are still teaching me how to do just that. And isn’t that what real friendship is about? Mutual respect, being present, not judging. I can tell you anything and you support me right through. That is true friendship. That is a miracle.

And that’s really what this blog — and everything I endeavour to do in the mental health and friendship arena — is all about.


Wednesday 22 December 2021

The Miracle of Light: An Open Letter to My Friend Marty

By Brynn McCann

December 8, 2021.

Dear Marty.

It’s late here; 12:42 am. As per usual, I am sleepless. It’s seven forty-two your time. A whole new day in your world and an end to one in mine.

You would have been proud of me today. I advocated hard for the right meds to get me to sleep. The thing is, I shouldn’t have to work so hard to get the care I need, on top of living with my illness. South Dakota does a poor job of taking care of it’s mental health clients. Something needs to change.

You know, for the last six years, you have been a constant source of light in a dim room I’ve lived in. You’ve accepted me as I am and loved me just as I am. You never judge and you lead by example... and that’s the best way to lead, I think.

Your “pathological positivity,” as you call it, is infectious and it always helps me to see what’s good in me, even when I can’t see it myself. I mean, you think I’m pretty even though I’m overweight and I feel like a frump queen.

We are kindred spirits and even though we’ve never met in person, we really work hard at truly seeing the other, and we succeed at that more than we fail.

I truly have learned how to be a better person because of you. I treat people better and love them more fully because you taught me and are still teaching me how to do just that.

And isn’t that what real friendship is about? Mutual respect, being present, not judging. I can tell you anything and you support me right through. That is true friendship. That is a miracle.

And because it is the holidays, we will call it the miracle of light. We can all do this. Be a torch for each other, always.

Merry Christmas, Marty.



Photo by Marcus Dall Col on Unsplash.


Wednesday 15 December 2021

How I Feel about Tomorrow's Appointment with My Doctor

Written Tuesday December 7, 2021.

Two weeks ago I described how I was inspired by an International Men’s Day presentation to book an appointment with my doctor for the first time in decades. My follow-up appointment for blood and urine tests, and an internal examination, is tomorrow. The idea is to — hopefully — rule out any issues with my prostate and get a better handle on what’s going on.

As I prepare to take this next step, I’m acutely aware of the anxiety and uncertainty it’s brought to the fore. I can’t be the only person who feels this way ahead of a medical appointment, so I thought I’d share some of my thoughts and feelings, in the hope they may help others.

It’s Out of My Hands

I was chatting with my friend Aimee Wilson earlier today and she offered an insight which I found really helpful.

I’ll be glad when I’ve got this appointment out of the way tomorrow.

Oh yes! Are you getting anxious or….?

I’m a bit on edge about it, yeah. Just because I’ve not had an in-person GP appointment in so long. Also that sense of well, if there is anything wrong, tomorrow is when the process of finding out and dealing with it starts, if you know what I mean.

Of course I get it. Maybies just remember that if there is anything wrong, you’re doing everything you can about it. Like, it’s kinda out of your hands. That might be intimidating or scary but I hope it’s comforting!

It’s kinda both, but comforting too! Thank you, it helps.

That idea of things being out of my hands, and in the hand of professionals instead, is something I’ve not experienced since I was in hospital years ago. I was in a lot of pain back then, which isn’t the case now at all, but Aimee has reminded me it can feel good to let go of worrying about things and allow others to take on the responsibility for a while.

It’s Not a Competition

I feel nervous, but I’m aware that the anxiety and apprehension I’m experiencing are minor compared to what many people go through when they engage with mental or physical health services.

I don’t say that to dismiss or minimise what I’m feeling. I’m a firm believer that whatever someone is going through is valid and important, no matter how it might compare with someone else’s experience. Depending how things go tomorrow, maybe I will have more to be concerned about next time I’m waiting to see the doctor,

It’s very easy to allow your thoughts, fears, questions, and uncertainties dominate your thinking. I can’t simply stop feeling anxious or stressed, but I can do my best not to dwell on how things might work out after tomorrow. I give myself permission to feel what I’m feeling right now, for what it is.

My friends’ courage in seeking professional advice, support, and treatment, especially when it may be difficult, painful, or triggering, helps to ground me. If my friends can do that, I can do this.

Educate Yourself but Don’t Self-Diagnose

I was finally nudged into making an appointment by an online session about men’s health I attended through work. Listening to some of the symptoms and issues men — especially men around my age — are prone to made me realise I could no longer ignore some things I’ve been putting up with for a while now.

Before my first — phone — appointment, I researched my symptoms online, some of the underlying issues that could be causing them, and how those conditions are diagnosed. Having that information to hand helped when I spoke to the doctor, as I understood the questions she asked, and the next steps she recommended. Those next steps are what is happening tomorrow.

On the other hand, it’s important not to rely on the Internet for information, and not to use it to self-diagnose. My degree was in pharmacy so I have some medical knowledge, but I’m happy to leave any relevant diagnoses to the professionals. It’s kind of what Aimee was saying when she said about putting myself in their hands.

I’ve not looked into the more serious possibilities. If I end up going down that road, I’ll want all the information I can get, but at this stage it would serve no useful purpose and is only likely to worry me further.

Take Notes When You Can

It’s a good idea to jot down any questions and concerns before going for any medical appointment. It means you’re less likely to get outside and realise you forgot to ask that one question you really wanted to ask, or mention something that feels important to you.

One thing I want to ask tomorrow is when I might expect the results of the tests they’re doing, as well as what the next steps might be.

It’s also worth taking time immediately after an appointment to record what was said, and how you feel about it. Do you have a follow up appointment booked? Are you now waiting on some test results? Do you have decisions to make about treatment options? Capture them as soon as you can, while things are fresh in your mind, and refer back to them in the days and weeks ahead.

Don’t Ignore What You’re Thinking and Feeling

Whether you feel you’re handling things well or poorly, pay attention to how it’s all affecting you. Stress and undertainty aren’t pleasant but they can be useful if you don’t try and push it all aside.

There’s no right way to handle these things, so do what works for you. Writing is a big part of my self-care toolbox, whether it’s in the form of blogging for a wider audience or journaling privately. Just sitting here now and writing this blog post is helping to distract me and calm my nerves about tomorrow.

I also find it helps to share what I’m going through with other people, although that does depend on what’s going on for me and who might be available to talk it over with.

Whatever coping strategies work for you, do that.

Ask For and Accept Help and Support

Everyone I’ve told has been incredibly supportive. Thus far, I’ve not had anything particularly difficult to handle, but having mentioned my concerns early on, such as they are, reassures me there are people I can turn to in the — hopefully unlikely — event there’s something serious going on for me. I can’t know what support might be necessary or appropriate but I know they are there for me.

Keep Going

One of my favourite mottos is “Baby steps are steps too.” Often, we get overwhelmed by everything that is going on in our lives, or in the wider world. It can feel like there’s nothing we can do to change things or make a difference. I’m not in that place right now but I can imagine being there if things were to develop in less than favourable ways.

One thing my close friends have in common is that no matter what’s going on for them, whether it’s health-related or not, they rarely stay stuck for long. They may feel overwhelmed by doubt and uncertainty but they remain open to new ideas and possibilities. It’s never long before they are taking that next step forward.

In the words of Chinese philosopher and writer Lao Tzu, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

Over to You

In this post, I’ve shared some of my thoughts and feelings as I await my medical check-up tomorrow. Have you ever been on the brink of medical tests or assessments that might potentially prove serious, even life-changing? How did you feel about it? What steps did you take to deal with how you were feeling? What helped? What didn’t? I’d love to hear from you, either in the comments to this post, or via our contact page.

Further Reading

I’ve included a few links relating to men’s physical and mental health. It’s good to be well-informed, but if you have concerns about your health don’t try and self-diagnose. Do what I (finally) did and make an appointment with a health professional.


Photo by Online Marketing on Unsplash.


Wednesday 1 December 2021

How International Men's Day Inspired My First Doctor's Appointment in 30 Years

In my last post, I described two calls I attended ahead of this year’s International Men’s Day. They gave me plenty to think about, but another session may end up having a more fundamental and long-lasting impact. On International Men’s Day itself, I dialled in to a presentation on men’s health by Steven Pearson-Brown from ToHealth Ltd. It wasn’t the first such call I’ve attended, but for some reason, this one really struck home; perhaps because it was part of the wider focus on men’s health and wellbeing.

I listened attentively as Steven discussed a range of topics including weight, exercise, and healthy eating. I’ve been paying more attention to these of late, having put on most of the weight I’d managed to lose. It’s tough to find yourself almost back where you began seven or eight years ago, doubting you can go through that journey again. Steven’s presentation helped reinforce the message that I’m right not to give up. It was another section of his talk, though, that really caught my attention.

My Health History

Before I come to that, let me share a little of my health history. The following is excerpted from a section in our book High Tide, Low Tide which discusses my experience of illness. You can read the full section on our blog.

In my early twenties, I developed dermatitis on my hands and arms. It was painful and inconvenient, but I accepted it as something over which I had little control. It eventually cleared and has not returned.

A few years later [in 1987], I was hospitalized following an episode of acute abdominal pain and bleeding. The condition responded to anti-inflammatory medication, which I took preventatively for two years afterwards. I recall attending an outpatient appointment to learn the results of some diagnostic tests. I was prepared to discover I had experienced either a nasty but limited inflammation, or the first visitation of some serious, perhaps life-threatening, condition.

The results were inconclusive, and the doctors decided further tests would not be performed unless the condition reoccurred. I remember feeling cheated. Even a serious diagnosis seemed preferable to doubt and uncertainty. Fortunately, the condition never troubled me significantly again.

That was more than thirty years ago and for most of that time, my health has been fine. I’ve had a few bouts of abdominal discomfort but nothing that led to me phoning my doctor. I didn’t ignore my health altogether, though. I had a routine bowel cancer screening examination in 2016, a skin cancer screening at work, and a general wellness check about three years ago. It was at this point I discovered I no longer had a GP. At some point, the NHS surgery I’d been with had gone private. I don’t recall being informed of the fact, but in any case, I failed to register with another practice.

Scroll forward to 2020. We’re in the middle of a global pandemic and I figured maybe it was about time I found myself a doctor. It took a couple of attempts, but I eventually registered with a practice within walking distance of home. It made things much easier when it came to getting my flu jab last winter (a first for me), and my covid vaccinations this year.

Making the Decision

I mentioned that I’ve put back most of the weight I lost over the past few years, but my heart rate and blood pressure are healthy enough. I enjoy a beer or two at home or out with friends but I’ve not been drunk or hungover since I lived in London in the mid-1980s.

As I get older, however, I find myself paying more attention to what my body’s doing, or not doing as well as it used to. Something I’ve become increasingly aware of over the past year or so is that I need to urinate more than I used to, both at night and during the day. I didn’t pay too much attention last year when I was working from home and unable to meet up with anyone socially, but it’s become more of an issue since lockdown ended, especially if I’ve wanted to go out for a drink. It’s inconvenient, and a little embarrassing, to keep having to go to the toilet, although the few friends I go out with are understanding. I could continue to live with the inconvenience, but it can indicate underlying issues in men of a certain age. Pretty much my age, in fact.

I’d known all this for a while and not done anything about it, but as I listened to Steven talking about prostate cancer and how important it is to get checked out as early as possible, I made a promise to myself to do just that. Three days later, I booked my first appointment with a GP in over thirty years. Fingers crossed, there’s nothing seriously wrong, but I wasn’t going to ignore or put it off any longer. There were a couple of other things I wanted to discuss with the doctor, but this was the main one and the reason for making the appointment.

How the Appointment Went

Initial appointments are conducted by phone. I was on edge waiting for the call to come through, but everything went well. The doctor was lovely and very thorough. She asked lots of questions but explained things as we went along so I understood why she needed to know and the potential significance of my answers. I got to say what I wanted, and felt involved and listened to. I was glad I’d made notes in advance. They helped me stay on track and cover everything I wanted to mention or ask. This is something I’ve learned over the years from helping Fran prepare for appointments with her psychiatrist.

The doctor agreed my symptoms might indicate issues with my prostate — not necessarily cancer — but said there are other possibilities to consider, including type 2 diabetes. We agreed the next stage is for me to have a physical examination and blood and urine tests. I have an appointment booked to attend the surgery in a couple of weeks. I was surprised, and pleased, to get a follow-up appointment so promptly. I dare say I’ll be anxious nearer the time, but for now, I’m happy to have started the process. It wasn’t nearly as scary as I thought it might be.

Support and Encouragement

The friends I’ve told have been incredibly supportive and encouraging. One put it this way: “As someone living with a chronic condition, it’s hard to imagine being so healthy that you don’t need a doctor for thirty years, but I’m proud of you for exploring it now.” They understand that taking this step is a big thing for me precisely because I’ve been healthy enough over the years to ignore any niggling doubts or symptoms. Until now.

I wasn’t sure about sharing all this in a blog post when I don’t even know if there’s anything wrong. Hopefully, there isn’t. Many of my friends live with serious physical and mental health conditions but like most people, they consult their doctors when they need to without feeling the need to tell everyone about it. The one exception — and my inspiration for writing this post — is my friend and fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson. Aimee blogs about her lived experience with an honesty that has opened my eyes to a lot of things and helps many people who find themselves in similar situations to hers.

Maybe there are people out there — men in particular — who’ll read this and think, if Martin can call his doctor and make an appointment, I can do it. If just one person does that, I’m content.

Further Reading

I’ve included a few links relating to men’s physical and mental health. It’s good to be well-informed, but if you have concerns about your health don’t try and self-diagnose. Do what I (finally) did and make an appointment with a health professional.


Photo by Shopify Partners from Burst.


Wednesday 24 November 2021

I'm Having a Good Day: Connection and Conversation Inspired by International Men's Day 2021

How goes it?

I’m having a good day. Was on an excellent call this morning about men’s mental health and support groups. Got my MHFA Network call this afternoon too.


That little exchange is from a chat conversation with my friend Brynn last Thursday lunchtime. I’d been pretty low for a few days, which she knew, but when I sent those words I was feeling much better. Being able to say that to my friend was important in itself, because it reminded me there are good days as well as rubbish ones. So what had made the difference? In a word, connection.

The morning session I mentioned was organised through the Men’s Network at work, ahead of International Men’s Day (November 19). The call was led by Gary MacDonald, who founded the Mind the Men peer support group in Glasgow, Scotland, in memory of his cousin Grant Macdonald who was lost to suicide in 2018. The group provides men “a safe place to talk about their challenges be listened to and feel supported.”

The presentation began with some statistics about men’s mental health, including the fact that 75% of people who die by suicide are men, and that suicide is the largest cause of death in men under fifty years old. I’m not a huge fan of stats; I find them hard to hold in my head or relate to directly, but I agreed with a colleague who messaged me privately while Gary was speaking: these numbers are shocking, scary, and unacceptably high.

Gary talked about founding Mind the Men, and how the weekly group sessions provide an opportunity for men to come together and share as much or as little as they feel comfortable doing. The six questions he and his fellow facilitators use to structure the support sessions reminded me of Andy’s Man Club, which operates similar groups across the UK. He spoke movingly of the positive changes he’s seen in some of the men attending the groups, but it’s not only the men who benefit. Their families, friends, and co-workers do too. Gary made a point of acknowledging the support and encouragement of the women — girlfriends, wives, partners, mothers, sisters, aunts, grandmother’s — in the lives of the men who attend.

I came away from the call moved and feeling that maybe — maybe — I might check out Andy’s Man Club or a similar men’s support group if I can find any local to me. As a man who has never felt fully at ease in male company, and rarely felt part of the wider “man clan,” that feels significant. It was at this point in my day that I took my lunchtime walk, and messaged Brynn. We had a video call, and I shared more about Gary’s talk and how positively it had impacted me.

After returning home, I prepared for the fortnightly call I facilitate with fellow Mental Health First Aiders at work. Due to holidays and various work commitments, it was six weeks since we’d last got together. I had very little news to relate, and wondered how we’d fill the hour if the others didn’t have much to share. Five regular attendees had sent apologies, which didn’t reassure me at all! As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. It was one of the best calls we’ve ever had.

I dialled in a few minutes early and found one of my fellow male Mental Health First Aiders eager and ready to go. We exchanged pleasantries and waited for others to join. Five minutes past the official start time there were three of us on the call — all men — so I made a start. We were joined shortly afterwards by another male colleague. I smiled to myself: it’s rare for me to find myself talking to a group of only men. It felt appropriate, though, as I mentioned International Men’s Day and described a few of the wellbeing and mental health calls I’ve attended in recent weeks, I was talking about Gary’s presentation on men’s peer support when a fifth — female — colleague joined us. I mentioned a statistic from Gary’s talk which (if I recalled it correctly) suggested less than a quarter (23%) of men have close networks of friends. This led to a brilliant discussion about how easy or otherwise people – men especially – find it to open up to others (family, friends, colleagues etc) about what’s troubling them. The rest of this post is based on notes I took during the call, with names changed.

We started off talking about who we feel most comfortable sharing with, whether that’s friends, partners, other family members, or professionals such as doctors, therapists, or counsellors. Some said they tend only to share when things get especially bad. I could relate to this, because it’s only in the past ten years or so that I’ve started talking about what’s going on for me (and even more recently that I’ve started blogging about it). Prior to that I tended to keep things to myself. Instead of talking to others, I’d process whatever was going on for me in the pages of my diary. I still journal on a daily basis, but nowadays that’s in addition to talking to people I trust and feel safe with.

Jane said she finds it easier to listen to and help others, than talk about her own situation, which I could also relate to. We talked about how helping other people is valuable and important, but that it can lead to an unhealthy codependency where we need to have people around us — family, friends, co-workers — who need our support in order to feel good about ourselves. This is something I’ve struggled with at times, as I’ve written previously. We agreed everyone is different and no one should feel they have to share with others if they don’t want to, as long as they have other coping strategies that work for them. The important thing is to have people we can call on if and when we want or need to. Our support networks can be of different kinds, as I discussed in a recent blog post.

Malcolm mentioned some of the cultural influences he’s experienced, regarding how acceptable it is — or rather isn’t — for men to admit we need help, for fear of being perceived weak or inadequate. John mentioned the tv drama The Sopranos, which I have to admit I’ve never seen. I hadn’t realised there was a strong mental health thread running through the series until John shared how the character of Tony Soprano battles anxiety and depression, and goes for therapy, but is unable to be honest about his struggles because of the macho male culture he inhabits.

It was really good to have Jane on the call, especially in the context of this year’s International Men’s Day theme of “Better relations between men and women.” I think she found it interesting too, as it gave her the opportunity to ask how things are for us as men. It felt odd to be asked to give my thoughts on behalf of men as a whole, but I think the others felt similarly about it.

Jane asked if there’d been a particular turning point that lead to us overcoming the “man up,” “big boys don’t cry,” “grow a pair” narrative which sadly is still prevalent in society. For Colin, it was something that “just happened” during a chat conversation with a family member. We talked about how important it was that his family member had picked up on what he said, rather than dismissing it or moving the conversation on. That’s something I’ve learned with Fran and other friends. It’s important to pay attention to what someone is saying, and not ignore something that might be a sign they’re struggling or simply want to share what’s going on for them.

I don’t always get it right and there have been times when I’ve failed to pick up on the clues, but I believe I’m learning. I’m still not very confident letting people know I’m low or struggling, and I know how it feels if the person I’ve chosen fails to pick up on my tentative attempts to share. The onus is on me to be clearer about asking for help, but that’s not always easy, especially if I can’t identity — or express — what’s happening. Sometimes I just want to let someone know I’m feeling low, stressed, anxious, or whatever.

In answer to Jane’s question I said there hadn’t been a single turning point for me, but I’d learned the benefits of opening up from being a supportive friend to Fran and other friends over the past ten years or so. I saw how it helped them to have a safe space in which to talk, vent, or otherwise share what’s happening, and realised could it help me too. Talking gives me a different, outside, perspective, and the opportunity for people to suggest approaches I might never have thought of myself.

Jane also asked if we found it easier to share with people face-to-face, as opposed to in other ways. Colin said he follows a number of sports-related accounts on Twitter, and he’s seen plenty of examples where someone has tweeted that they’re not doing too well, and there’s been a really positive supportive response. That’s something I see a lot on Twitter and other social media, although I mostly follow mental health and creative journaling accounts and hashtags.

I said I have some friends where we can share openly and honestly on chat or social media, and others which rely on voice and video calls, or face-to-face meetings now those are possible again. In my experience, it depends more on the personal preferences of the people concerned, rather than whether they’re male or female. Having said that, the vast majority of people I talk to, online and offline, are women, so my experience may not be universal.

Overall, we agreed that while there may be gender differences in how readily men and women share with others, and with whom, cultural factors and personal preference can be just as important. Our conversation was a perfect example of how important, challenging, and rewarding it can be to talk about how we’re feeling, and explore the difference and the similarities between us. We were having such a great time that that when the hour was up we agreed to reconvene next week to continue our discussion!

I’m grateful not only to my fellow Mental Health First Aiders who took part on our MHFA Network call, but also to Gary MacDonald and everyone involved in organising the programme of events and discussions this week for International Men’s Day. I’ll close by sharing four articles I’ve written in the past about men’s mental health in general and my own in particular.

Men and Mental Health: Resources & Heroes

Dear Marty: An Open Letter to Myself


Return to Down: How My Baseline Mood Has Slipped from Positive to Low


Photo by Kaleidico on Unsplash.


Wednesday 17 November 2021

Spokesfriends and Insular Groups: What Kind of Support Network Do You Have?

Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one. – Jane Howard

It’s no secret that I take friendship seriously. Just about everything I write, including this blog and the book I co-authored with my best friend Fran, concerns the nature of supportive friendships. In High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder we describe the part I play in Fran’s wider support network, and how it’s important for me to have a network of my own. Until now, though, I’ve scarcely written about supportive networks themselves.

At different times, Fran’s network has included close friends, her psychiatrist and doctor, therapists, a care coordinator, and an Independent Support Services worker (homemaker). Mine consists exclusively of trusted friends. Yours might be a combination of family, friends, colleagues, or professionals. I’m focusing on friends in this article, but it’s the connections between the people in your network that count, rather than their role or relationship to you. Put simply, do they know each other or not?


If I drew my network out on paper there’d be a dot in the middle representing me, with lines radiating out to each of my supportive friends, like the spokes of a wheel. I’m reminded of a joke I saw on social media: “A friend of mine works for a company that makes bicycles. He’s their spokesman.”

This kind of network is more likely if your friends live far apart, as mine do, although that’s not necessarily the case. A few of my “spokesfriends” have met, in person or online, but none of them know each other well or socialise.

Insular Groups

In contrast, Fran has several small groups of friends, most of whom live locally to her. Within each group, people know one another and call or meet up more or less regularly. Fran’s support network could be drawn as a number of overlapping circles, plus me and a couple of others who aren’t in any of her groups of mutual friends.

A friend described these groups as insular, in the sense of “relating to or from an island.” It’s particularly appropriate for Fran, who lived for years in the kind of small island community where everyone knows everyone else. Insular groups, then, are groups of friends who know each other and keep in touch.

If family members are part of your support network, they likely form an insular group, as may local friends, workplace colleagues, or people you met at school, college, or other organisations.

Pros and Cons

Neither kind of network is necessarily better than the other. There are differences, though, in how they operate when you are supporting someone or needing support yourself. Understanding these differences can help you figure out what’s happening if problems arise. Let’s take a look at them in turn.

Insular Groups In Practice

This post was inspired by a recent conversation with a friend. My friend — I’ll call her Sarah — described a time when she’d been concerned about someone she suspected was struggling. Sarah wanted to help, but her friend wouldn’t speak to her about it or ask for support. Instead, her friend told others in their circle of friends, who then shared their concerns with Sarah. “They were warning me something needed to be done,” she said. “But at the same time telling me not to let [her] know they’d told me.”

It was very isolating for Sarah to have learned something about her friend’s situation, yet have to pretend she didn’t. As she told me, “It was particularly hard when she’d told them some things and they assumed I knew, because I didn’t want them to know how difficult she was making it for me by shutting me out.”

Sarah’s story illustrates the advantages and disadvantages of insular networks. If you need help, you have people you can turn to, who know you and each other. If it’s another member of the group who needs assistance, you don’t have to do it all on your own. You can share the caring responsibility, discuss the best way to help, and support each other though what might be a difficult situation. Sarah said her circle was very helpful in discussing and arranging support for the person who was struggling.

On the other hand, it can be hard to maintain boundaries of trust, respect, and confidentiality. Things can become awkward if some people in the group know more of the story than others, or have been told different or conflicting versions. There’s also the potential for miscommunication and differences of opinion as things are passed on or discussed back and forth. As another friend expressed it, “If your friendship group is insular, you can get caught up in the arguments, regardless of who they are between. If your friends are not insular, you don’t have that issue.” Sarah found it helped to discuss things with me. “It’s good to have friends like you who are out of the circle,” she said. “I’d never have got through that situation without your support.”

The person needing help can also run into issues. Fran likes to talk things over with friends if she’s struggling over something, but on occasion she’s had to handle the fallout from telling several people who know each other and have gone on to discuss it amongst themselves.

Spokesfriend Networks In Practice

In a post titled Belonging (Longing to Be) I shared that I’ve never truly felt I belonged to any group or tribe. A spokesfriend network works for me. I feel supported by people who care about me but are essentially independent of one another.

I’m blessed with friends who I love fiercely and who love me fiercely in return. Several know each other but these are individual one-to-one connections rather than a group of mutual friends.

My friends know me in different ways and to different degrees. If I’m struggling, unsure, or simply need to talk things over, I’m free to choose the person most likely to help or understand. I can even discuss the same thing with two or more people to get their different perspectives, confident that the conversations will remain separate.

It’s not that I don’t trust my friends to keep things private. I trust each of them implicitly — although if they were sufficiently concerned about me I’d expect them to reach out or escalate. Likewise, it wouldn’t be a problem if they needed to turn to their support networks after helping me. The important point is, I can choose to share with one or more of them individually without the rest knowing what’s going on for me.

The downside is that my network lacks social richness. Each of my friendships is strong and mutually supportive but there’s little scope for my friends to share the responsibility of being there for me, or help and support each other. Each friendship has its ups and downs, its great times and difficult times, but there’s no opportunity to develop and grow together as a group.

Do What Works For You

If it works for you, there’s no right or wrong way to do this. Neither network type is inherently better than the other; nor are they mutually exclusive. As Sarah found, it can help to have people outside of your insular groups, whilst groups offer the potential for shared support that’s hard to achieve if you only have separate spokesfriend connections.

Bear in mind that these things can shift and change. Over time, you may lose people from your support network, and gain others. The kind of network you have may also change. Many years ago, my main source of support was a close group of mutual friends I first met at university. Over the years, I fell out of meaningful contact with most of them. I felt adrift and alone for a long time, but I gradually built a new network of friends I care about and trust to be there for me. It works well for me, although I’m open to the possibility of further change in the future.

Over to You

In this article I’ve described two types of supportive networks, which I call spokesfriends and insular groups. I’ve looked at some of the differences between them and how they work in practice.

What kind of support network do you have? Does it fall into one of my two types? Perhaps, like Fran and Sarah, you have one or more groups of mutual friends, plus people who aren’t part of those groups. Maybe you’ve a different kind of network I’ve not covered here. How does it work for you? Do you run into problems at all? If so, how do you resolve them?

I’d love to hear from you.


Photo by Seth Doyle on Unsplash.


Wednesday 10 November 2021

Supportive Disengagement: How to Be There for Your Friend When They Need Space

I’ve written in the past about some of the roles I play in the mutually supportive friendship I share with Fran. It’s a topic we describe in detail in our book. I’ve written less about how friendships sometimes move through distinct phases. In this post, I want to discuss one such phase, which I call supportive disengagement.

What do I mean by that? Essentially, it means stepping back from the usual give-and-take dynamic you share with your friend, but being there if and when you’re invited in. It means providing encouragement and support when asked but otherwise getting out of your friend’s way so they can navigate whatever’s happening in their lives the best way they can.

I’ve written this from the perspective of the supportive friend, but it’s equally relevant if you’re the person needing space. Like any other phase of a friendship, supportive disengagement works best if you’re both aware of what’s happening.

What Supportive Disengagement Isn’t

It’s natural for friendships to ebb and flow. Sometimes you’re closer and more actively engaged; at other times, things get in the way, you connect less regularly or in different ways. Sometimes friends break up altogether. For someone like me whose sense of wellbeing is closely related to the state of their relationships, any lessening in a friendship — real or perceived — can be hard to handle. It’s taken time and a lot of inner work to learn how to respect a friend’s need for space without responding as though I’ve been rejected or abandoned.

Disagreements between even very close friends are not uncommon. Fran and I describe several in our book, and I’ve had plenty of disagreements with other friends. Issues are best dealt with at the time rather than ignoring them or putting them off until later. Supportive disengagement is not a substitute for working problems through with your friend. On the other hand, if a friendship has broken down altogether, there’s wisdom in accepting the reality of the situation. Fran has taught me it’s possible for a connection to end, and where necessary to be mourned, without resentment or bitterness. I’ve found this a healthy way to process endings. It’s helped me more than once to hold space for someone to re-enter my life if they want to, without expecting or needing that to happen. There is grace in this kind of acceptance, but it’s not supportive disengagement.

Supportive disengagement is for situations when your friendship is taking a break rather than broken, when disengagement is less than total, and — crucially — where the lines of communication remain open.

When Is the Right Time?

So, when is supportive disengagement appropriate? In short, it’s any time where the usual level of contact, support, or help is no longer possible, needed, or wanted, but neither of you wants the friendship itself to end.

For me and Fran, that’s included times when Fran has been travelling, most notably her three month trip around Europe in 2013. This severely limited how often we were in touch, the nature of our connection, and the support we could provide each other. We describe the challenges we faced and how we handled them in part three of High Tide, Low Tide. With other friends, it’s happened under a variety of circumstances. Perhaps they’ve been unwell; had other commitments which required their focus, time, and energy; or needed space to consider what they want from our connection. Whatever the reason, it’s been okay.

You might know or be able to guess why your friend needs space, but if they don’t offer an explanation don’t push for one. Your friend has a right to expect their need for space to be respected without having to explain or justify it to you.

Ground Rules and Expectations

It helps if you can talk things through in advance. One friend told me there might be times when she’d need space, and we discussed how we’d handle things if and when that happened. Fran and I spent a considerable amount of time discussing how we’d handle her travelling around Europe when we knew we’d struggle to stay in touch.

Be honest about what each of you needs and expects. The aim is to make things as easy as possible in what may be difficult circumstances. Reassure each other that you still care and that this is a stage in your journey as friends, not the end. Here are a few suggestions based on my experience with various friends.

  • Agree how often you’ll check in, for example, once a day, or once a week.
  • Decide how you’ll stay in touch, for example by phone, chat, or email. Is it okay for you to instigate contact, or will you wait for your friend to contact you?
  • Discuss what support might be useful, and anything that’s unlikely to help.

You may want to discuss how long the period of disengagement might last. Does your friend need space for a few days, a few weeks, or longer? How will you know when it’s over? Bear in mind that your friend might not know, or may be unable to give timescales.

What Does It Look Like?

Your role during a period of supportive disengagement can be summed up as follows:

  • Stay out of your friend’s way.
  • Don’t make things harder for them.
  • Let your friend lead.
  • Enable them to move forward, but don’t try to direct their path.
  • Do what you can, but don’t offer more than you’re asked.
  • Hold space when they need it. Give space when they need it.
  • Keep the connection open.
  • Be the friend they need you to be.

What this means in practice will depend on the nature of your friendship and what, if anything, you arranged in advance. If you agreed to check in once a week, don’t message or phone in between. If you agreed not to pester for updates, don’t pester for updates. If your friend asks for help or support, provide it without fuss and don’t push for more engagement than necessary.

It’s harder without ground rules because you may have little idea why things have changed, what’s being asked of you, or how long it will last. Nevertheless, respect your friend’s need for space and accept things are going to be different for a while.

What Does It Feel Like?

Even if you understand your friend’s reasons, it’s natural to feel some degree of hurt or loss. This is especially true if you were previously in touch a lot, as I tend to be with my close friends. It may seem as though you’re being ignored or cast aside, but in my experience, that’s not what’s going on. You’re being asked to be a friend under circumstances many would struggle to accommodate.

If you’re used to your friend being there for you, it can feel scary to lose their support. Remind yourself that it’s not because they’ve stopped caring. They need all their time, energy, and focus for themselves at this time. This is something I learned with Fran. It’s captured in our motto “Care but Don’t Crowd. Share but Don’t Pollute.”

“Care but don’t crowd” reminds me to be there for Fran when she needs me, but not to nag her to tell me how she is doing, or pester her for attention. She deserves and needs her own space. “Share but don’t pollute” is no less important. We are friends and I value her insight and support [...] but it is important not to share simply for the sake of it, or where doing so would drain her of energy she needs to keep herself well.

Ultimately, it’s unhealthy to rely on only one person or relationship for support, so use the time to expand your network. I’ve written about this previously in a post titled Team Marty (Because No One Can Be Everything for Everyone). Above all, focus on what you can gain from this experience.

It’s a Gift!

One of my all-time favourite short stories, J. R. R. Tolkien’s Leaf by Niggle, ends with the words, “It’s a gift!” Although it may not feel like it, supportive disengagement can be both a gift and a blessing.

They say you only appreciate something when it’s gone, but supportive disengagement offers the opportunity to appreciate your friendship without having to lose it first. It can also serve as an antidote to codependency, which is a situation where two people become dependent on each other to an unhealthy degree. It’s a particular risk if one person tends to provide support and care for the other. Spending time apart helps you see what’s been going on, and if necessary reset things when you reconnect.

Your friend has trusted you to deal with the changes to the connection you share and handle your needs while they attend to theirs. Take the opportunity to focus on your other friendships and relationships, to learn about yourself, and to explore your need for connection.

How to Re-engage

It’s one thing to successfully navigate a period of supportive disengagement, but what about when it comes to an end? There’s no guarantee things will be the same as they used to be. You may pick up again with calls and meetings, but you’ve lived through this period apart. You may feel closer for the experience, or it may seem there’s ground to make up. Whatever the circumstances, approach things gently, rather than leaping in and expecting things to be exactly as they were before.

Fran’s Europe trip is a good example. She returned physically and mentally exhausted, but couldn’t rest because she had to immediately start looking for a new place to live. It was an extremely traumatic time for us both but in a way that helped us to re-engage. There was no time to ponder if we were okay because we were thrown back into things straight away.

We knew in advance when Fran would get back from her trip but what if there’s no specific date you can point to on the calendar? How do you know when to start reconnecting again? Take your lead from your friend. If they start picking up with you again, go with it. Take the call. Agree to a meet-up. Talk about whatever your friend wants to talk about, and go from there. If it feels like things are returning to normal, that’s probably what your friend intends, but don’t take that for granted or assume their need for space is over. If in doubt, ask.

It’s reasonable to ask what happened while you were apart and share how things were for you, but accept that your friend is under no obligation to meet your need for understanding. Invite them to share but respect the fact that they may not want to talk about it yet, or at all.

It can feel as though you’re starting again from scratch, but that needn’t be a problem. Approach it as a new chapter in your friendship. Enjoy exploring what works for you now, built on all you’ve shared in the past. As one friend said as we reconnected, “I will always treasure the memories we shared. And so will you.” We’ve gone on to build many more.

I’ll close with something I wrote in my journal during a period of supportive disengagement. I’d been struggling to handle the changes in our friendship, which felt very much like being pushed away, but realised I didn’t have to look at it that way.

I can choose to celebrate the positives in all this and let go of all the rest. I can be the person who hears what my friend wants and needs, and works with her to enable things without fuss or complaint. I can be here while she’s going through what she’s going through. THAT is what I am being offered. THAT is the friend she needs me to be.

In that moment I understood that accepting a friend’s need for disengagement and supporting them through it is one of the most profoundly caring acts we will ever perform.

Over to You

In this article, I’ve explored supportive disengagement, which is where a friend or loved one needs to disconnect from you for a time but doesn’t want the relationship itself to end.

Have you found yourself in that situation? Have you ever needed to pull back from someone or ask them to give you space? How successful was it for you? How did it feel? Did you re-engage afterwards? We’d love to hear from you.


Photo by Ansgar Scheffold on Unsplash.


Wednesday 27 October 2021

The Song Remains the Same: Thoughts on Change and Unchange

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
The more things change, the more they remain the same.
— Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr

In this article I’m going to explore some thoughts concerning change and unchange that I’ve wanted to write about for some time.

The Words Remain the Same

Although I’ve kept a diary since I was fourteen years old, I rarely look back over what I’ve written. I might flick through my current journal to remind myself how I felt a week or so ago, but once a volume’s filled and put away, it tends to stay closed. The exception was when Fran and I were writing High Tide, Low Tide. I read every diary entry I’d written from our first meeting in May 2011, sourcing material to use in our book.

A few weeks ago, though, I decided to read one of my old journals, and chose the A4 day-to-a-page diary for 1984. It was a year of significant change: my first full year in London after graduating from university, a role as best man at the wedding of my two closest friends, a new place of work at the Parkinson’s Disease Society Research Centre, new colleagues, and new friends. Flicking through the entries, there were events, people, and moments I’d not thought about in years. There were others I couldn’t remember at all, such that I’d deny they happened if not for the evidence of my own handwriting. Did I really go to that party, have that conversation, entertain those thoughts?

Most striking of all, though, was how little I seem to have changed. Time and again I read passages from 1984 I could easily have written last year, or last week. The same doubts, fears, and insecurities. The same search for meaning and engagement. The same sense of looking for something just out of reach.

Stuckness and Drama

I recently met up with a friend I’d not seen since December 2019. Over a drink in one of my favourite coffee shops we caught up on what those two years have meant for us. Covid, of course, but there were other significant events and changes in each of our lives; some welcome, some not so much. Sharing with her gave me a fresh perspective on things. You don’t always notice slow or incremental change when you’re talking with the same people all the time. Back in March, I shared my profound sense of foreboding and loss at what the pandemic has wrought. More recently, I described how my underlying mood seems to have fallen from positive to low. Other aspects of my life have remained more or less unaltered. These include my key friendships and relationships, but also my sense of stuckness at work, and lack of clarity about career and personal goals.

Mention of stuckness reminds me of English artist Tracey Emin, whose memoir Strangeland I read years ago. Emin once told her then boyfriend Billy Childish he was “stuck! stuck! stuck!” with his art, poetry, and music. The insult was adopted by Childish and fellow artist Charles Thomson, who coined the term “Stuckism” for their art, claiming it “a quest for authenticity.” I’m probably not using it the way the artists intended, but what stuck (pun intended) in my mind was how the word could be simultaneously viewed as an insult and a label of pride and acclaim.

Much of my adult life was lived in a state of stuckness akin to being asleep. Not the restful sleep that refreshes and renews; more like being in a coma. I woke, or was woken, maybe fifteen years ago, since when my life has been anything but static. It’s been intense, dramatic, and changeable, and much of the intensity has involved other people. Not for nothing are CONNECTION and CHALLENGE my key values. It occurred to me that I may value intensity so much that I seek it out or create it if it’s not already present in my life. As I asked in my journal a few weeks ago, “Do I crave emotional drama to distract and disturb me from baseline depression and numbness?”

The Constancy of Change

The epigram with which I opened this article — Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose — was coined by French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr in 1849. It translates into English as “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” I take this as suggesting there’s a deeper order beneath the ups-and-downs we perceive as drama or change. It’s something I’ve glimpsed on occasion, most recently in relation to one of my best friends.

Ours has been amongst the most changeable and intense friendships I’ve ever known. There were times we weren’t friends at all. What I realised the other day, however, is that I feel incredibly safe and secure in our friendship. The insight is this: if I focus on the ups and downs, the things that have happened in the past and may happen again, our friendship feels dramatic and uncertain. But once I accept that change is an integral part of the connection we share, I can appreciate the underlying constancy of our commitment as friends.

This insight doesn’t mean there’ll be no further drama, in this friendship or my life in general. I’m sure there will be. I hope there is. But I see now that it doesn’t have to be one or the other. Stability and challenge can coexist.

A Need for Problems?

Karr’s words led me to an article titled The More Things Change, The More They Remain The Same. It’s well worth reading, but it was an excerpt from one reader’s comments that caught my attention: “Why is it that people need to have problems? I think we get bored, life is all about making things better we almost want to break something [in order] to fix it.” This is similar to what I said about my decades asleep at the wheel and my craving for emotional drama. Author Maya Mendoza claimed that “[n]o amount of security is worth the suffering of a mediocre life chained to a routine that has killed your dreams.”

But not everyone is looking for this kind of challenge. One friend told me she’s had enough trauma and drama, and craves nothing more than the stability of “a normal life.” In her situation I’d feel the same. The decades I look back on as insufficiently challenging were largely the product of privilege and good fortune. I could afford to be bored because I was lucky enough not to have experienced trauma, serious illness, abuse, or any of the other “dramas” so many have known. There are many who would exchange the circumstances of my life for theirs in a heart-beat.

The Nature of Change

I’ve been talking as though we can choose a life of stability or one of change. We can certainly invite change into our lives. I once made a conscious decision to dissolve the inner circle of friends model I’d lived with for years. It wasn’t easy but it profoundly improved the quantity and quality of my relationships. One friend told me she hates feeling powerless when change is imposed on her; the covid pandemic being the most recent major example. On the other hand, she holds herself open to opportunities. “Chosen challenge and change,” she said. “Are things I embrace willingly.”

But the opposite isn’t true. We can’t decide to have no change in our lives at all, no matter how much we might wish it. Change happens, irregularly, and often not how we’d want it to, but it happens. No aspect of our lives is immune. The people we care about and rely on, our role in those relationships, the places we inhabit, the society in which we live, and the world at large. Everything is subject to change. Some changes creep up on us so gradually we’re scarcely aware what’s happening. Others arrive suddenly and unannounced. The latter are often the most significant and impactful, whether we deem the impact good or bad. (And our perception may shift over time as we review past changes in the light of what came afterwards.)

Every new friendship brings change into our lives. Fran and I met by chance one day in May 2011 on the social media page of a mutual friend. Within minutes, we were friends, and have never looked back. It was different with another of my best friends. Aimee and I met through the mental health charity Time to Change but our connection deepened gently over time and it’s hard to pinpoint the moment we became friends. However it begins, no relationship remains the same for long. Fran and I discuss the principal drivers of change in our friendship in our book High Tide, Low Tide.

It would be wrong to give the impression we are in a stable, fixed pattern in which we always know what to do and nothing ever goes wrong. There is little stable or fixed about living with mental illness or caring for someone who does. Our friendship grows as we face the challenges of our long-distance, mutually supportive relationship. Fran’s health is inherently variable. Depression, mania, fatigue, and pain fluctuate — sometimes together, sometimes independently — and affect us in different ways. Her love of travel is a further challenge. It limits our ability to keep in touch, and can threaten Fran’s health directly as she moves beyond her established routines and supports.

Stability and Change in Dynamic Tension

Earlier, I said how little I seem to have changed since the 1980s. I was genuinely dismayed to realise I’m still dealing with issues, frustrations, and hang-ups I wrote about in my diary thirty-seven years ago. How much of our nature and behaviour falls within our power to change? Have I not been trying hard enough?

It’s a topic that comes up a lot in conversations with Fran and other friends. It won’t surprise you to learn I have no clear answers, although I believe meaningful change and growth are possible. I see it time and again in others, and in myself too. At some fundamental level I may be the person I’ve always been, and some of the doubts and insecurities I struggled with years ago undoubtedly remain part of my make-up. But in other respects I have grown.

I believe there’s a dynamic tension between the urge to improve (which is to say change) our situation and challenge ourselves in ways that are meaningful to us, and the comforting reassurance of whatever is whole, known, and stable in our lives. Whether stability means family, friends, home, work, or some inner resilience, it provides the grounding from which we can move forward. One friend of mine is working on making healthy changes in her life, despite feeling overwhelmed at the enormity of the task. She sometimes feels she’s making no progress, but as I wrote to her, “You keep moving. It might be baby steps sometimes but you never stay stuck for long. You are always looking for ways to move forward.”

This urge to grow, to push out and on from where we are, is echoed in the following lines from the Led Zeppelin classic, “The Song Remains the Same.”

You don’t know what you’re missing, now
Any little song that you know
Everything that’s small has to grow
And it’s gonna grow, push push, yeah.

Over to You

I’ve shared some of my thoughts concerning change and stability or stasis. These affect us all in different ways and I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you welcome change or find it difficult to navigate? Do you yearn for stability or does it terrify you? In what ways do you feel you’ve changed over the years? In what ways are you the same?

Over to you. Comment below or get in touch. Our contact details remain the same!


Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash.


Wednesday 20 October 2021

Examine Your Shoulds: Why It's a Word You Shouldn't Use

So again, it’s time to examine your “shoulds.” “Shoulds” are so often the assimilated wants of other people and of your culture.

— Philippa Perry, The Guardian, October 17, 2021

This article was inspired by a short exchange on social media. I said I’d completed one blog post and was pondering what to write next. A friend replied: “Write about pondering what to write!” It brought a smile, reminding me of the time I was struggling to write, and ended up writing about exactly that. I smiled too, because I’d had to consciously avoid saying “I’m pondering what I should write about next.” That word — should — slips so readily into our sentences, even when we know we should avoid it. Ooops. See what I mean?

Perhaps you’re wondering what all the fuss is about. What’s wrong with should? It’s a word. It is, indeed. It can be used in a variety of ways but they tend to fall into one of two categories.

  • Implying a sense of duty or imperative. (I should have phoned my mother yesterday.)
  • Implying a sense of what will probably happen. (I think it should rain this afternoon.)

I’m going to focus on the first of those. It’s easy to tell when we’re using the word this way because there are implied rules or standards, consequences, and judgments. 

Statement: I should have phoned my mother yesterday.

Rule: family members are expected to be there for each other.

Consequence: disappointment, guilt, censure.

Judgment: I’m a bad person.

Let’s take a look at this in a little more detail.

Rules and Standards

If we were clear about the rules and standards were invoking, I’d have less of an issue with the word should. The problem is, they mostly go unspoken because we assume they’re obvious, absolute, and universal. More often than not, this is not the case. The rules I’m thinking about come in three main flavours: legal, moral and religious, and societal or cultural.

Legal rules

These are the most straightforward. You shouldn’t steal because it’s illegal and if you get caught you could face penalty or jail. You shouldn’t kill, injure, or assault people, for the same reason. Legal rules are more or less obvious, in that we tend to know and understand the laws that govern us. They are absolute and not open to individual interpretation. In principle at least, they apply universally within the relevant jurisdiction. We may be ignorant of the law, or choose to disobey the rules, but we cannot exempt ourselves from them.

Moral and religious rules

Expressed simply, these rules cover how “good people” and “bad people” behave. More generally, they define what we mean by good and bad. Excluding any which may be enshrined in law, they are matters of personal choice, acceptance, and adherence. Whatever your upbringing, beliefs, and opinions, it’s unwise — and frankly disrespectful — to assume other people adhere to exactly the same rules you do.

Cultural and societal rules

These include the often unspoken rules of acceptable (or civilised) behaviour. There may be an overlap with those in the moral/religious sphere, but these tend to be more local or even personal in nature. Organisations, social groups, and communities often have their own standards of behaviour. Some may be written down, such as workplace policies on time-keeping, absence, dress code, bullying, and harassment. Others are generally undocumented but no less important, such as water-cooler etiquette, the taking of coffee or smoking breaks, or any of a hundred unspoken rules that will be familiar to anyone working in that environment. Within the group, they’re accepted as “how things are.”

Why Does This Matter?

We absorb and adapt the rules we’re presented with. We may reject, ignore, or adapt some, justifying this to ourselves as being pragmatic or sensible. These modified rules become part of our personal rule book, governing how we believe it’s acceptable to behave.

Every should (or shouldn’t) is a judgment on our behaviour or the behaviour of others. It’s valid to hold people to account, but we cannot assume someone acknowledges, accepts, or adheres to the same rules and standards. What is obviously the right thing to me may be irrelevant or invalid to you, and vice versa.

This is a problem, because judging people against rules they neither recognise nor accept is the basis of stigma, discrimination, and division. From the opposite perspective, being held accountable to other people’s rules fosters resentment, anger, guilt, worthlessness, and despair.

Shoulds in the Mental Health Arena

This is never more important than when we’re talking about mental health. It’s natural to want to help when someone we know is struggling, but well-meaning comments and suggestions are rendered toxic by the injudicious use of should.

You should call the doctor.

You should take your meds.

You should go for a walk.

You should tidy this place, it’s a mess.

None of these statements makes clear what rule is being broken, but each implies the person is failing to care for themself properly. There’s no attempt to understand what’s going on for them, or find out what help they actually need. We may feel we’re being supportive but all we’ve conveyed is our negative judgment. All we’ve achieved is to convince the other person we’ve no idea how to help.

We can do better than this.

There’s no one right way to support someone (Fran and I wrote a book to share ways we find helpful) but here are a few alternatives that avoid the dreaded “s” word. (For a discussion of other “s” words, including stigma, suicidality, and self-harm, check this article.)

Example 1

Instead of: You should call the doctor.

Try: Things don’t seem to have improved for you in the past couple of days. Do you think it’s worth checking in with your doctor?

You might suggest arranging the appointment or going with them, if you feel that might be helpful.

Example 2

Instead of: You should take your meds.

Try: Sometimes when I have tablets from the doctor I find it hard to remember to take them at the proper times. It’s just a thought but I’m happy to message you a reminder each morning/night, if you’d find it helpful. Just let me know.

This is something I’ve asked several friends at different times. Some have been grateful to receive a reminder, others have politely declined. Be clear that you’re offering a reminder or check-in only; the responsibility for taking the medication remains with them.

Example 3

Instead of: You should go for a walk.

Try: Do you fancy some company? It’s a bit chilly out but it might be nice to go for a walk to the shops if you feel up to it. We could go for a coffee while we’re out, if you like.

It’s often said that exercise is good for our mental health. That may be true, but it’s unhelpful to tell someone they should get out more when they can barely muster the energy to get out of bed, if they are in physical pain, or live with mental or physical conditions which make it hard to be active.

Example 4

Instead of: You should tidy this place, it’s a tip.

Try: Would you like some help with decluttering or putting things away? I could come round for an hour or so tomorrow if that works for you.

Offers of practical help are likely to be far more welcome than expressions of disappointment and disgust. The other person is probably aware of what needs doing, but may feel overwhelmed at the thought of dealing with it, or not know how to start.

At all times, be aware of the implicit judgment behind your words, and the behavioural rules you’re invoking. How relevant are they to the person you’re talking to? What concern for their health, wellbeing, safety, or happiness are you trying to convey? Is there a better way of saying it? Sometimes the simplest way of rephrasing an impending should is to keep your mouth shut!

Remember that you’re sharing your opinion or personal take on things. Invite the other person’s opinion and be open to the possibility they may disagree.

It seems to me that ...

What I’m thinking is ...

From my perspective ... But maybe you see things differently?

When you did that last time, things didn’t seem to work out the way you hoped they would. Is that right?

Express your thoughts and concerns, and explain what you see as potential consequences. But don’t guilt-trip them into complying with your wishes just because you disagree with how they’re living their life. They may have far more going on in their lives than you’re aware of or can understand.

The only exception is where you believe they may be in crisis or at risk of harming themselves or others. That is a judgment call and you won’t always get it right, but if the situation appears critical encourage them to engage with appropriate support. You may need to do so yourself if they’re unable or unwilling. You can find a range of international crisis and support lines on our resources page.

Don’t Should Yourself

I’ve focused on using (or rather, trying not to use) the word should when talking to other people, but the arguments are just as valid when we’re talking to or about ourselves.

It’s easy to tell ourselves we should do this or that, or should have behaved differently in the past, without realising what rules we’re holding ourselves to, or why. There’s a strong possibility they’re rules we grew up with, or accepted along the way, without ever challenging them or checking if they remain valid for us. Behavioural rules are often based on putting other people’s needs before our own. Ask yourself who the rules benefit, especially if you find yourself feeling guilty because you can’t live up to them.

That doesn’t mean rejecting all rules out of hand, of course. Like the stories we tell ourselves, we’ve acquired them for a reason and many will still be relevant, appropriate, or necessary. Whether legal, moral, or cultural, they’re part of the structure or our lives, our societies, and our world.

This article isn’t really about the word should at all. It’s a word. Use it if you must. Just be clear about which rules are important to you, and accept that not everyone’s going to agree with you. And be gentle, with other people and yourself. No one gets it right all the time. We break the rules, for a thousand reasons; some justifiable, some not so much. Being told we should have done differently is never kind, empathetic or helpful.

So, the next time you’re about to should yourself or someone else, stop. Take a breath. Consider what you really want to say, and express it differently.

You really should.


Photo by TungCheung, with thanks to Janet Coburn for help sourcing the image.