Wednesday, 16 June 2021

THIS BOY GETS SAD TOO

And I might be okay but I’m not fine at all.

(Elisabeth Wagner Rose / Taylor Alison Swift. “All Too Well.”)

I wrote recently that I’ve never felt part of any group or collective, even those to which I’ve felt the strongest of attractions. As painful as that’s been, does it really matter? So what if I don’t belong to the tribe of writers and poets I’ve met in the past few years? There’s no lasting harm in discovering I’m not a performance artist! Some exclusions, however, are more perilous. Being excluded from my local recovery college for having no lived experience of mental illness was completely justified, but it left me feeling permanently estranged. If I began displaying symptoms of mental ill-health I’d almost certainly play it down. Not from shame, but because I’d be afraid people would think I was faking it, or exaggerating things in order to “join the club.” The irony is, even with a diagnosis I’d probably still feel I had no legitimate right to be there.

I feel a fraud, even admitting this. What right do I have to talk about mental health issues when I’m fine — certainly compared to many of my friends. Except I’m not fine, not all the time. The following lines are from my diary, written a few weeks ago. I’d ventured out to one of my favourite coffee shops for the first time since covid restrictions were lifted.

If I’m honest I’m not feeling much in the mood to be “out and about,” but I’ve made an effort. A decent pair of black trousers, my sage green t-shirt, and my tweed jacket. In my lapel is the BOYS GET SAD TOO pin I bought recently. It doesn’t mean the healthy kind of sadness that arises in response to events. I feel that kind sometimes, of course. It means depression, anxiety, stress, mental ill-health of all kinds. Boys — and men — get that way too. I get that way too. The deeper, pervasive malaise I’ve felt for a while is of that kind. It’s becoming endemic. Part of my emotional landscape. Flat, arid, featureless.

Founded by Kyle Stanger, Boys Get Sad Too (BGST) is a fashion brand working for positive change. (“Sometimes it feels like you’re alone. Boys Get Sad Too is here to show you that you’re not.”) I bought the pin to support their endeavours. I didn’t expect its message to resonate as strongly as it does right now.

In my role as a Mental Health First Aider I’ve attended several calls at work recently where the impact of society’s reopening on our mental health was high on the agenda. I heard many first-hand stories of stress, anxiety and other symptoms exacerbated by the drive to get back into the workplace after months of working from home, furlough, or unemployment.

I learned of a survey by the Mental Health Foundation which reported that three-quarters of UK adults have felt so stressed in the past year they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. Almost one third said they’d had suicidal feelings as a result of stress, and 16% had self-harmed. The only positive I can take from these numbers is that so many felt able to admit being overwhelmed or otherwise struggling. Is that what I’ve been feeling, I wondered. Not suicidal or at risk of self-harm, but stressed to the point of being overwhelmed?

As well as the article on belonging, in the past month I’ve written about gratitude and ingratitude, and reviewed a new novel that touches on mental illness, stigma, obsession, and identity. I love writing and it’s important to me, but it’s been intense. That’s in addition to my day job in the IT services industry and navigating everything that’s been going on for me and those I’m closest to. And of course, all this has been set against the backdrop of coronavirus, as society takes the next tentative steps towards post-covid normalcy. News and social media channels are full of strident, often contradictory, messages: vaccinations and variants, hope and warnings, “Let’s go!” and “No not yet!” All this takes its toll.

Another of last week’s calls discussed Wellness Recovery Action Plans. I’ve written about these before, and have a WRAP of my own. Writing is a key item in my WRAP toolbox. My journal and the articles I’ve been writing have helped me explore what’s been going on, but there’s more work to be done. This post is part of that journey. I messaged my friend and fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson of I’m NOT Disordered about it.

“I feel this article is going to be an important one for me, Aimee. Not necessarily a ‘great blog post’ in its own right, but important for me writing it.”

“They’re the best ones, and your thoughts on the importance of the piece will likely show in your writing.”

I hope so, because I owe it to myself to be as honest about my mental health as Aimee, Fran, and so many others I know are about theirs.

Talking with people I trust is another item in my wellness toolbox. I shared my analogy of a dry, arid landscape with Fran on one of our evening calls. I’m going to expand on it here because it captures how I’ve been feeling.

Imagine you’re standing on a hill looking out across the landscape. No matter how your life is going you can see features dotted here and there. Other hills. Mountains. Lakes. Cities. Rivers. The ocean. These are the events in our futures. Holidays. Birthdays. Vacations. Trips. Appointments. They won’t all be things we’re looking forward to but they’re the landmarks we use to measure our progress through life.

Covid descended like a blanket of fog. We lost sight of many of the things that were out there, but had hope they’d still be there when the fog lifted. The fog has been rolling back for some time now. Lockdown has ended, at least here in the UK. Restrictions are being eased. But as I stand on my hill, I’m searching in vain for things to focus on or move towards. For me right now, the landscape is flat, arid, and featureless. Life on the hill feels very small and lonely, but I’m scared to leave it in case what’s out there is worse.

Fran listened without interrupting. Eventually, I stopped talking.

“Are you depressed?”

I thought for a moment.

“Maybe.”

There was no judgment in Fran’s question. She asked the way she might if I’d described having a sore stomach or a headache. It reminded me of a conversation with Aimee a few weeks ago. On that occasion, I was feeling physically unwell, but Aimee asked something I’d not thought about before.

“Which do you struggle to cope with most? When you are poorly mentally or physically?”

It’s not an easy question to answer. I’m fortunate in having had pretty good mental and physical health all my life. I discussed my experience of illness in our book High Tide, Low Tide:

Looking back, I see I squandered many opportunities to develop a compassionate understanding of illness and its impact. My stoic attitude helped me deal with my own [occasional] ill health, but left me incapable of responding with compassion to the needs of others. I mistakenly believed that caring for someone meant making their pain and hurt go away. It would be many years before I learned to open my heart and simply be there for those I care about. I am still learning.

I believe I have learned to be there for people who are struggling or in need. My friend Jen gave me a great compliment recently when she said “You’re different, Marty. Not many people understand people with mental illness.” Right now, though, I’m being invited me to extend the same compassion and understanding to myself. This wasn’t the first time Fran has suggested I might be going through a period of depression. Others have suggested similarly in the past. I trust my friends. I’m aware I have strong emotional responses to events which can affect me for long periods, and I’ve been anxious several times in the past year. Even so, admitting I’m struggling mentally is new for me and it’s scary.

Returning to Aimee’s question, I’m much more likely to tell someone if I’m unwell physically, than if I’m feeling low, stressed, or anxious. In my article Faking Fine: Why We Fib About How We Are, I described how even Fran was surprised to learn there are things I choose not to share with her.

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

It’s valid — even healthy — to not share everything with everyone all the time, but keeping health issues to myself is definitely unhealthy. I’m getting better at being open and honest about it, but there’s still a long way to go. So, what am I going to do about all this? I mentioned my Wellness Recovery Action Plan. Most of the tools and strategies in there are geared towards navigating emotional difficulties. They are arguably less relevant for mental health concerns. So one thing I intend to do is review my WRAP and update it where necessary.

Something my friend Jen said is relevant here. We were talking about how she handles her health issues and she said, “The thing is, I help people when I need help. I’m going to call this one of my superpowers.” I realised I’m that way too. I’m more comfortable being there for other people than dealing with my own issues. That might partly be an avoidance strategy on my part, but being there for people is definitely good for my wellbeing. I gain a lot from the kind of genuine exchanges that underpin any mutually supportive relationship.

That’s important because it goes right back to where I started this discussion — my sense of separation and non-belonging. I’ve considered myself a mental health ally since meeting Fran ten years ago. My left wrist is adorned with nine silicone bands, almost all of which are from mental health organisations or events. I have a collection of mental health t-shirts and wear them proudly, even though I know wearing t-shirts is not enough. My BGST badge is the first mental health item I’ve bought that feels like it’s for me.

Maybe accepting and owning the reality of my mental health story — past, present, and future — will help me find the connection that’s eluded me for so long. Not specifically with or within the mental health community. After all, the most fundamental commonality we share is our humanity. My friend Jen summed it up perfectly: “You’re a human, Marty. We struggle. And it sucks but it’s ok.”

 


Boys Get Sad Too

The following information is from the BGST website.

Boys Get Sad Too aim to raise awareness for the huge percentage of people that struggle with Mental Health issues with conversation provoking designs. The more people talking about the issue the better chance we have of making sure more people are able to see that things can get better with the right support and mindset.

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.

Sometimes it feels like you’re alone. Boys Get Sad Too is here to show you that you’re not.

 

Wednesday, 9 June 2021

Belonging (Longing to Be)

It’s never about belonging to someone, it’s about belonging together.
— Renée Ahdieh

Searching for a blog topic the other day, I chanced on some notes from an exchange with Fran in March 2019. It was a time of considerable uncertainty for me, and the snippet arose in a conversation about my options and needs.

“I think, Fran, underneath much of this, I have an unmet need to feel I belong.”

“The reality is you do belong, everybody does. You just don’t feel it yet.”

A great deal has changed since then, but I never addressed this lack of belonging. There are hints scattered here and there in notes, blog posts, and journal entries, but nothing approaching an epiphany. Until now. Reading those old lines again, it came to me that belonging is a longing to be. No more, no less than that. A. Longing. To. Be. But be what? That will be different for everyone. A longing to be successful, perhaps. To be secure. Safe. Loved. Wealthy. What am I longing to be? The first things that spring to mind are to be genuine, to be real, and to be a part of something.

The first two could be summarised as authenticity. Being true to myself. I can’t imagine anybody not wanting to be true to who they are, but what does it mean? Let’s put that to one side for now. The third — my longing to be part of something — is easier to explore.

Looking back over my life, I’ve never truly felt part of things. More often than not I’ve been an outsider looking in through the window. At best (and mixing metaphors), I’ve hovered on the side-lines, never confident enough to join the field of play.

Our gender group is arguably the most fundamental belonging, but it’s eluded me. I’ve had very few adult male friends, and little of “what men are supposed to like” resonates for me. I tried to foster an interest in “boyish things” from an early age. Growing up as I did in Liverpool in the 60s and 70s, that meant following and playing football (soccer). My father took me to see the Liverpool squad return in triumph after some major win, but the crowd’s cheers as the team bus went by were alien to me. I didn’t get it, and never have. I did try. There’s a photo of me in Liverpool football strip in the garden of my parents’ house. I was good at rubbing dubbin into my boots, but hopeless at playing in them.

My school years were happy, but I had no interest in teams or groups. No place on the school team. No Cubs or Scouts like my friend Phil. No Air Training Corps like Gary. I joined the youth group for a while but I didn’t fit in. In Sixth Form my closest friends were from very different backgrounds. Peter was born in the UK to Chinese parents. Amjad’s parents were from Pakistan. SS (Saranjit Singh) joined the school when his family moved here from India. In our different ways, each of us was outside the norm as far as the rest of the school went. We were known, affectionately enough, as the United Nations.

I was born and raised in Liverpool, but have never considered myself a Liverpudlian or Scouser. I’m English and British by birth, but have little sense of national identity and no loyalty to local or national sports teams. I can rationalise this by saying it feels weird to identify with and take pride in things I had no part in achieving or creating, although it’s not really a rational thing. The connection simply isn’t there. I envy those who have these connections, because it’s so outside my experience. That said, I’m aware that my lack of group identity is a sign of my relative privilege.

Given that I’m writing about “a longing to be” it’s notable that one group of friends I made at university referred to itself as the BE-in crowd. I imagine the name was chosen to echo the love-ins of an earlier generation. (“Love-in. NOUN: A gathering at which people express feelings of love, friendship, or physical attraction towards each other.”) Some of the deepest relationships I’ve known date back to those days and people, but I never felt part of the group. I found a peripheral role as unofficial observer and poet-chronicler. This is not a criticism of the others, but it’s how it was. It’s how I was. I’ve always been better at one-on-one or three-way relationships. I struggle to find — and hold — my place in larger groups, no matter how welcoming.

Jump forward thirty years. Three years in London. A move to Newcastle. Marriage. A family. A change in career. A new best friend across the Atlantic. A new book underway. The three components of my search — to be genuine, real, and a part of something — came together in an article written in 2016 in which I recalled my first visit to Newcastle’s Literary Salon.

Some pieces were more to my taste than others but what struck me more than anything else was how everyone was introduced, welcomed, and received with equal warmth and respect: as writers and performers, but most of all as people. And it struck me this is another aspect of being real: the awareness and acceptance of our common humanity, no matter how different our individual situations and life experiences might be.

It was an ache to belong I’d not felt in years. I did my best. I dared my fears at the open mic and performed selections of my poetry and excerpts from the book Fran and I were writing. You can watch several of my performances on our YouTube channel. I returned every month to partake of this vibrant community of poets and writers. I was always made welcome but baulked at their intensity and conviction. Notes scribbled during salon performances show how outside it all I felt.

Jan 2017: I have no life experience equivalent to these people. No sense of place, lineage, family, social awareness, heritage, locale. I am rootless / adrift / scared. My poetry is boring, lifeless. Dare I find a way to be honest? What am I afraid of?

Apr 2018: I decided not to read my piece tonight (Schrödinger’s Fishing Tackle Box). Why? Not good enough. The piece, or me? Both, probably.

Being on the outside didn’t stop me enjoying and benefiting from the experience. On the contrary, I valued the challenge:

I’m not a part of the spoken word circuit but I know these people. [...] Good people. Good atmosphere. Good conversation. I am never wholly at my ease. I am challenged by words that take me way beyond my experience. My comfort zones. But that’s why I keep coming back. To be challenged in a safe environment.

Around this time I began volunteering with Time to Change and other mental health groups and organisations, including Newcastle’s Recovery College (ReCoCo). I’ve written elsewhere how excited I was to join the ReCoCo family, and how that fell apart when I realised I never should have been there. Once again, I was on the outside looking in, this time from the other side of a line separating those with lived experience of mental ill health and those without. It hurt deeply, although I understood. Services need to be developed and delivered with, and where possible by, people with appropriate lived experience. As I wrote at the time, “impostor syndrome undoubtedly plays a part [in this self-doubt], as does a need in me to feel I belong. A never-quite-satisfied desire for home.”

What was it about these groups that left me so desperate to belong? In the case of the BE-in crowd it was their breathtakingly authenticity. I'd never met people like that before, and it was intoxicating. It has taken me forty years to approach that level of self-knowledge and honesty. At the Literary Salon, I responded to the performers' passion of expression and shared identity as performance artists, writers, and poets. It’s something I’d yearned for since chancing on Ezra Pound’s “And Thus In Nineveh” in my teens.

Aye! I am a poet and upon my tomb
Shall maidens scatter rose leaves
And men myrtles, ere the night
Slays day with her dark sword

With the Recovery College and other mental health organisations, it was the consolation of shared experience. As a friend of mine expressed it, “The best way to describe the feeling of the Recovery College is that it’s like a family. A family without judgment.”

Fran said, “The reality is you do belong, everybody does. You just don’t feel it yet.” In the course of writing this article I’ve realised it doesn’t have to be within a group. Maybe that’s where I’ve been going wrong all these years, yearning for a group to belong to instead of acknowledging that I feel most genuinely myself, most at home, within my core relationships. These qualities and resonances I’ve been drawn to – authenticity, creative drive and passion, community of experience – are present in my closest friendships and connections.

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. In their different ways, these people get me. The ones who really get me understand why a sense of commitment and belonging is so important to me. I love people who claim their place in my life and offer me a place in theirs. That might sound cloying or constraining but it’s not. It’s commitment, to each other and to the relationship. I can express it no better than American author Renée Ahdieh who wrote, “It’s never about belonging to someone, it’s about belonging together.”

Maybe one day I’ll find a group that works for me. In the meantime, the yearning to belong helps me explore who I am and what belongs in my life. Not everything and everyone does. And that’s OK.

Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

 

Wednesday, 2 June 2021

Thank You Anyway: The Gift of Ingratitude

This article was inspired by something I saw posted to a mental health social media page:

Have you ever gone out of your way to help someone and found out how ungrateful they are?

In two and a half months the post has been liked and shared more than three and a half thousand times. It’s attracted over 800 comments, of which these are typical:

Unfortunately yes.
Yes! People suck!
All the time.
Too many times but I try not to [help] cuz when I need help there ain’t no one there.
Absolutely. It’s left me not wanting to be that kind of good any more.

The comments left me feeling sad and disillusioned. I decided to explore why that was.

Gratitude Feels Good

Let’s start with the obvious. It feels good to have our help acknowledged. At some level, it’s an ego thing, but that’s not necessarily unhealthy. Gratitude is encouraging and guides us to be better people. If someone thanks me I know I’m on the right track. If there’s no feedback, how do I know I’m offering what they need?

What Does Ungrateful Look Like?

The post talked about “[finding] out how ungrateful the other person is,” but why assume we know what’s going on for them? What does ingratitude look like, anyway? We can think of extreme examples. They might be verbally abusive or otherwise make it clear our help is neither appreciated nor wanted. Mostly, though, when we call someone ungrateful we mean they’ve failed to show us the gratitude we believe we’re owed. It feels like we’re getting closer, but what do we mean by gratitude? Does it look the same to everyone?

What Does Gratitude Look Like?

In How Cultural Differences Shape Your Gratitude, Kira M. Newman describes three ways of expressing gratitude.

  • Verbal gratitude: Saying thank you in some way.
  • Concrete gratitude: Reciprocating with something the [other person] likes or wants.
  • Connective gratitude: Reciprocating with something the wish-granter would like, such as friendship or help.

Writing has always been a big part of my life. I’ve kept a diary for over forty years. I’ve written short stories, a book of poetry, two mental health books, and kept a weekly blog for the past seven years. I tend to show my gratitude in words, with a spoken “thank you,” or a letter or card.

If I help someone I’m rarely looking for more than a simple “thank you” in return, although I do appreciate a little detail to help me understand how I’ve helped meet their needs. In that case, verbal gratitude crosses into concrete and connective territory: in addition to the words I’m getting something I value (honesty and context) and deepening friendship. Here are a few thankyous that meant a lot to me. The last one still makes me smile!

Thank you. You truly are someone I can rely on in an emergency, and at all other times.

Being your friend has made me a better person.

I always appreciate you telling me when you aren’t feeling ok.

Thank you, Marty. You’re good at supporting without being a prat.

But what if I don’t receive a thank you?

How Does Ingratitude Feel?

If we don’t get the gratitude we expect, we’re likely to feel sad, hurt, disappointed, disrespected, resentful, or taken for granted. None of these is pleasant, and it’s natural (if unfair) to blame the other person for making us feel that way. That’s why the social media post left me feeling so sad. I don’t see things that way at all. Leaving aside the extreme cases I mentioned earlier, I believe our responses to “ingratitude” say far more about us than they do the other person.

What Does Ingratitude Say about Us?

Few of us would admit to only helping others to get something in return, but our emotional response to ingratitude suggests differently. It’s worth asking ourselves why we helped them in the first place. Was it really for their benefit, or ours?

The quotation talks about “[going] out of your way to help someone.” It’s a common phrase but there’s more than a touch of the martyr about it. It implies we’ve done more than we were comfortable doing and expect a reward. We want our sacrifice acknowledged, as elaborately as possible. We want to be lauded as special, generous, kind, or saintly. It’s not always just about voicing our righteous indignation. If we’re honest we can admit to using it as an excuse not to help any more. We can do better than this.

I called this article the Gift of Ingratitude, because not receiving the gratitude we want shines a light on our needs and how we go about getting those needs met. I’m using “need” in an NVC context. Developed by clinical psychologist Marshall Rosenberg, NVC (nonviolent communication) is a model for relating to people that emphasises non-judgment and empathy. These needs (you can download a list of them) help us focus on what drives us and how best to have them met, or minimise the pain of them being unmet. There’s an equivalent feelings inventory to help us explore how we’re feeling.

Let’s look at an example. I’ve rarely experienced what I’d call ingratitude from people I’ve helped, but I can think of times when I’ve wanted more than the simple “thank you” I received. When that happens, I tend to feel discouraged, disconnected, frustrated, and insecure. I can take things a stage further by considering what needs of mine are going unmet. Looking at the NVC list, I can see the main needs that are going unmet relate to my connection with the other person.

My need for appreciation
My need for communication
My need to understand and be understood
My need for trust

Looking at things in this way I can see that what I’m feeling isn’t about the other person at all. It’s about my unmet need to understand what’s going on, and to feel appreciated. Thinking compassionately about my needs helps shift my focus to what might be going on for the other person.

We’re all different, of course. You might feel things differently to me, have different needs, and come to different conclusions. The point is we can use the situation to learn a bit more about ourselves, and consider the possibility that the other person isn’t necessarily “ungrateful” just because they’re not meeting our needs.

Reasons for Being Ungrateful

We can start by assuming the other person is grateful, even if they’re not expressing it how we want them to. Maybe they don’t know what we’re looking for. When did you last tell someone, or demonstrate, the kind of gratitude that works for you? We might go further and ask ourselves if it’s the other person’s role to satisfy our needs in this way. We might believe we deserve something in return for our helping, but we don’t. We certainly don’t have a right to expect other people to respond in a particular way just to make us feel good about ourselves.

Bear in mind it’s hard to be grateful for something you didn’t ask for, want, or need. Sometimes we’re so keen to help that we forget to check that what we’re offering is appropriate or necessary. It’s also hard to express gratitude if you feel undeserving, are embarrassed at receiving help, or resentful that you need to ask.

One of my friends feels her words don’t go far enough to express how grateful she is for the support I’ve provided over the years. I’ve never felt taken for granted, but I understand where she’s coming from because I’ve felt the same way at times. Another friend, mental health blogger Aimee Wilson, put it this way: “You can be too grateful... and the flip side is being unable to express the extent of your gratitude adequately; not being able to find the words.”

I find it helps to assume people are expressing gratitude the best way they can, remembering there may be cultural, generational, or personal reasons for how we respond to gifts of all kinds, help included.

Learning to Be Grateful

We’re taught to be grateful — or rather, to express gratitude — at an early age, whether we want to or not. I remember writing grudging thank you letters to grandparents, aunts, and uncles every Boxing Day. It’s polite, I was told. It’s expected. But is a forced, ritualistic, thank you really a good thing? If I help someone and for some reason they’re not grateful, wouldn’t it be better if they felt able to say why, without worrying they’ll upset me or push me away?

I’m reminded of a story I saw on social media. It’s Christmas and a mother is talking to her young daughter who hates having to be grateful for gifts she doesn’t like. “If Grandma gives you something you don’t like or have already,” the mother says. “Just smile and say thank you anyway.” The gift is duly handed over and unwrapped. The girl turns to her grandmother with a smile. “Thank you anyway, Grandma.”

Can You Be Too Grateful?

If I help a friend, I might reasonably hope for a thank you of some kind. But what if I’m helping them twice a week, or every day, or more or less continuously? Fran and I have been in a close, mutually supportive friendship for ten years. How often are we supposed to thank each other? How much gratitude is enough? How much is too much?

I’ve been prone to over-thanking Fran and other friends in the past, and it can become cloying and tedious. Like “I love you,” it is nice to hear (and to offer) a “Thank you” or “I’m grateful for you” every now and again, but it’s unhealthy to need, or need to give, continual reassurance.

So, What Can You Do about It?

We’ve looked at gratitude and ingratitude, but what can you do if someone you want to help appears incapable of returning the gratitude you feel you deserve?

Do the inner work first. Acknowledge your feelings and explore what they mean for you. Does the situation trigger memories of times you’ve been treated poorly in the past? What could you do now, to feel differently? What could the other person do or say so you feel appreciated? Do you need to do anything at all? Can you accept it all, and let go of your frustrations?

If it’s still a serious issue for you, consider letting the other person know how you are feeling, but ask yourself first if it’s really their job to make you feel good. This is especially true if they’re in crisis or otherwise going through a rough time. The last thing someone in such a situation needs is to have to reassure you or massage your ego.

Ultimately, it’s your decision whether to walk away. Maybe you need to do that, in which case let them know so they can find alternative sources of support. Whatever you decide, do it from a place of compassion and caring.

It’s a Gift!

I’ve had several excellent conversations in the course of writing this article. It’s a topic that resonates for a lot of people, I think because we’ve all felt unappreciated at some point in our lives, or struggled to show we’re grateful to someone who’s helped us.

There’s nothing wrong with these difficult emotions, but as I hope I’ve shown, we can turn things around. We can be grateful for what we perceive as other people’s ingratitude, because it grants us the opportunity to look at ourselves and explore what’s going on for us when we reach out to help someone.

We can also model good gratitude in how we treat others. When done properly, with grace, gratitude is more than reimbursement for a gift or service. It acknowledges our connection with the other person, and the care their help and support represents for us. Remember that it doesn’t have to be expressed in words alone. Trust, openness, and honesty are expressions of gratitude too.

I’ll close with a snippet from a conversation with my friend Aimee. We were talking about my ideas for this article.

It’s good to discuss ideas like this, Marty. You get a different perspective.

Yes! Only I’m going to have to credit you in the blog post now! And express my gratitude!

Thank you, Aimee, and everyone else I’ve discussed this with. One way or another you’ve contributed to this article and I’m grateful to you for that. I’m also grateful to friends past and present, for your gratitude and occasional ingratitude! In the words of J. R. R. Tolkien’s character Niggle, “It’s a gift!”

 

Wednesday, 26 May 2021

Warehousing Society's Estranged: A Review of Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, by Anne Goodwin

This book review is written as an open letter to my friend and fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson at I’m NOT Disordered.


In the dying days of the old asylums, three paths intersect. A brother and sister separated for fifty years and the idealistic young social worker who tries to reunite them. Will truth prevail over bigotry, or will the buried secret keep family apart? (Anne Goodwin)

Dear Aimee,

You asked what I thought of the book I’ve been reading this week. I’m glad you asked because I think Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home by Anne Goodwin is a book you’d enjoy.

A little about the author before I get going. I first met Anne a few years ago when Fran and I approached her as a potential reviewer for our book High Tide, Low Tide. (You can read her review here.) I met her in person in 2015 at a book launch for her first novel, Sugar and Snails. It was the first author event I’d attended and I loved hearing Anne talk about and read from her book. The cupcakes were fabulous, too! She got in touch recently and invited me to review her latest novel. She was kind enough to send me a free Kindle copy.

I should say up front that the book carries a trigger warning for mentions of rape and themes of mental trauma.

The story opens in Cumbria in October 1989, but also switches back to earlier periods in the lives of the three main characters, Henry, Matilda, and Janice. Many people in the book are referred to by different names (including titles such as the prince, the circus girl, and the shrimp-woman). This confused me a little, but when you think about it most of us are known by different names to different people at different times in our lives, and some people change their names altogether. You know me as Marty, but that name only goes back ten years or so. I’m Martin to anyone who knew me before 2011. Once I’d figured some of the different names out (I kept a notepad close to hand) I could see how they added to the story. For example, the lead character is variously known as Matilda, Matty, or Tilly. This gave me more insight into her situation and relationships than if she’d gone by one name through the whole book.

Anne grew up in Cumbria and worked there as a clinical psychologist in the NHS. This local knowledge shows in her use of dialect and real world references. I smiled at the mention of Keswick’s gift shops and Jennings bitter. I have fond pre-covid memories of holiday trips to Keswick, in particular the Pack Horse Inn which is tucked away just off the main street.

Origins, home, and family (especially mother-daughter relationships) are important themes. Most of the story takes place in and around Henry’s childhood home where he still lives, and the mental health unit where Tilly is living when the story opens. It’s hard to say much about the plot without giving things away, but there’s a strong whodunnit element (perhaps that should be whoisit / whereisshe). I found myself jotting down clues as I tried to figure out what was happening or would happen next. The threads of the story are very well interwoven and there are a number of twists along the way. Several times I had to scribble out what I thought I knew as the story unfolded!

I mentioned the trigger warnings. There are a number of accounts of rape and sexual abuse in the book. These are mostly brief, but no less potentially triggering for that, of course. I’d say these scenes are important to the story, although there was one incident which I couldn’t place or make sense of. The other trigger warning is about mental trauma. Mental illness and its treatment (and ill treatment, both in a clinical/professional sense and in terms of society’s attitudes towards mental illness) feature prominently throughout the book.

The main character Matilda spent fifty years as a patient in Ghyllside mental hospital before being moved to the smaller residential unit of Tuke House as the story opens. She’s diagnosed with schizophrenia and treated with antipsychotics but something didn’t ring true for me about her diagnosis. She has a very tenuous hold on reality, but to me (with very limited knowledge of the condition) her symptoms and behaviour suggested dementia more than anything else, especially given her age. “Does Tilly really have schizophrenia?” I wrote in my notebook at one point. Another clue? Maybe. If you read the book, I’d love to know what you think!

Stigma is very prominent. A few examples will give you an idea.

“George Windsor’s daughter would never go barmy.”

“Tilly a raving lunatic?”

“... a horde of nutters.”

“Crazies a stone’s throw from The Willows?”

Ghyllside hospital is referred to as “the loony bin,” and one professional talks of having a “schizophrenic moment” when he really means he’s in two minds over something. Suicide is seen as a shameful reflection on a person’s character, and a “lack of moral fibre.” A man who took his life is accused of abandoning his wife and child. The only explanation offered is that he “[m]ust have been wrong in the head.” You have to remember that the book is set in the 1930s and late 1980s. Our work with Time to Change and the many conversations I’ve had with you and other friends give me hope that society has moved towards a more compassionate understanding of mental illness and suicidality. But I also know there’s a long way to go.

Just about the only progressive voice belongs to the newly qualified social worker Janice. She values connection and has a strong saviour ethic. “This was why she trained as a social worker [...] for the human connection with people who were otherwise hard to reach.” She is my favourite character, not least because I identify with her relentless (or is it naive?) hope and optimism. I’ve been called pathologically positive in the past, and it’s not a compliment! The same could be said of Janice.

She’s not working in a vacuum, though, and there are signs of progress. The old ways of the asylum (summed up in the book’s most powerful phrase as the “business of warehousing society’s estranged”) are changing. The patients in Ghyllside are assessed for relocation to Tuke House (and then on into the community) based on their individual abilities. They are to be “identified not by brand of psychiatric disorder, but by a systematic assessment of their skills.” On the other hand (and without giving the plot away) Janice’s compassion, inexperience, and compulsive desire to set the world to rights are not without consequences. She’s doing her best, but I was left wondering just how helpful that best might be. A sobering thought, seeing how closely I identified with her. If only good intentions were enough!

The stigma and shame surrounding pregnancy outside marriage is another recurring theme, leading in some cases to abortion, adoption, or abandonment of the child. Speaking to her adoptive sister, one woman says, “They [their respective birth mothers] would’ve kept us if it wasn’t for the stigma.” The ache for reconnection between siblings, and between children and their birth or adoptive parents, weaves the individual characters’ stories into patterns which remain frustratingly out of reach. There were times I wanted to scream at the characters — or perhaps the author! — as they come closer and closer to finding one another, but never quite manage to. (Or do they? — no spoilers, remember!)

I’ve rambled on longer than I meant to, but before I finish I want to mention how the book explores the origins or causes of mental illness. Genetics, trauma, and the environment are all suggested as potential factors, but it’s the last of those which receives the most attention. At one point, Janice the social worker seems to think removing someone from their hospital environment into the community will restore their humanity. “Detached from the hospital,” she imagines, “her passengers were transformed from patients to people.” To me, this says more about Janice’s attitudes than the patients. They always were people, whether inside or outside the hospital and regardless of their diagnoses or how long they’ve been there. I think you would agree.

Janice’s naivety is challenged by events. It would give too much away to talk about what led to Matilda’s incarceration, but by the end of the book, “[Janice had] learned a painful lesson about environmental influence: put a woman in a madhouse and she’d behave as a madwoman, but putting her in an ordinary house wouldn’t necessarily reverse the process.” In other words, we are affected, often deeply and irrevocably, by our circumstances and by those around us. We might have expected Janice to have a better handle on this. Earlier in the book it’s said that “[her] identity had been shaped by her parents’ choice to pluck her from the orphanage.”

So, after all that, what did I think of the book?! In case you can’t tell (!) I enjoyed it a lot and it gave me plenty to think about. I don’t have any direct knowledge or experience, but it feels realistic as to how things must have been back then, and how easily people could find themselves lost within a mental health system that echoed rather than challenged the stigma and prejudice festering beyond its walls. My only criticism is that not all the loose ends were tied off, but that leaves room for the promised sequel.

If you’d like to read it yourself, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home is published by Inspired Quill and available from the publisher or Amazon from May 29, 2021. You can find Anne Goodwin on her website or follow her on Twitter.

I can’t wait to hear what you think of all this!

Marty

 


The following information has been provided by the author.

Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home Blurb

In the dying days of the old asylums, three paths intersect.

Henry was only a boy when he waved goodbye to his glamorous grown-up sister; approaching sixty, his life is still on hold as he awaits her return.

As a high-society hostess renowned for her recitals, Matty’s burden weighs heavily upon her, but she bears it with fortitude and grace.

Janice, a young social worker, wants to set the world to rights, but she needs to tackle challenges closer to home.

A brother and sister separated by decades of deceit. Will truth prevail over bigotry, or will the buried secret keep family apart?

In this, her third novel, Anne Goodwin has drawn on the language and landscapes of her native Cumbria and on the culture of long-stay psychiatric hospitals where she began her clinical psychology career.

Find out more on Matilda Windsor’s webpage.

Author Bio

Anne Goodwin grew up in the non-touristy part of Cumbria, where this novel is set. When she went to university ninety miles away, no-one could understand her accent. After nine years of studying, her first post on qualifying as a clinical psychologist was in a long-stay psychiatric hospital in the process of closing.

Her debut novel, Sugar and Snails, about a woman who has kept her past identity a secret for thirty years, was shortlisted for the 2016 Polari First Book Prize. Her second novel, Underneath, about a man who keeps a woman captive in his cellar, was published in 2017. Her short story collection, Becoming Someone, on the theme of identity, was published in November 2018. Subscribers to her newsletter can download a free e-book of prize-winning short stories.

Author links

Website: annegoodwin.weebly.com
Twitter: @Annecdotist
Link tree: https://linktr.ee/annecdotist
YouTube: Anne Goodwin’s YouTube channel
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Annecdotist
Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Anne-Goodwin/e/B0156O8PMO/
Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/Anne-Goodwin/e/B0156O8PMO/
Inspired Quill: https://www.inspired-quill.com/blog/anne-goodwin/
Newsletter signup: https://bit.ly/daughtershorts

Book Links

Matilda Windsor webpage: https://annegoodwin.weebly.com/matilda-windsor.html
Matilda Windsor link tree: https://linktr.ee/matildawindsor
Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/57764021-matilda-windsor-is-coming-home
Matilda Windsor’s Twitter: @MWiscominghome
Matilda Windsor at Inspired Quill: https://www.inspired-quill.com/product/matilda-windsor-is-coming-home/

 

Wednesday, 19 May 2021

Walking Through Darkness

by Jen Evans

Twenty years ago, when I was twenty-eight, and after a month with no sleep, I was diagnosed with a major mental illness. At the time this occurred, I couldn’t feel anything. My brain and heart were so completely shut down that when I was diagnosed, I had no reaction to the diagnosis and what the ER doctor was saying to me.

When the doctor told me that I had bipolar disorder, I stared blankly and flatly ahead of me, disassociating from the reality of this diagnosis and the surreal experience of sleeplessness and mania that I was experiencing at the time.

Although I had heard of the illness, I knew next to nothing about it. I certainly didn’t believe I had it, no matter what this doctor was telling me. He must be mistaken. But, something was wrong because a person just doesn’t stop sleeping for no reason.

Years ago, when I was fourteen and got my first period, odd things began happening in my day to day life. Though the circumstances I was living in at the time were challenging, I was a happy kid. I had never experienced either depression nor mania. I was/am a creative person so when the illness struck me and I went through mania, in particular, I thought this was part of my creative process. I thought it was natural because during mania, I wrote and thought and felt so much at one time. To me, this was simply my way of being. I never thought I had an illness.

Bipolar disorder also known in the past as manic depression, is an illness characterized by changing moods and is described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders:

People who live with bipolar disorder experience periods of great excitement, overactivity, delusions, and euphoria (known as mania) and other periods of feeling sad and hopeless (known as depression). As such, the use of the word bipolar reflects this fluctuation between extreme highs and extreme lows.

In the ER that night, bipolar wasn’t really explained to me or maybe it was and I simply don’t remember. Either way, I had no clear idea about how this illness would affect me nor could I know the epic, sad and tiring journey I would take with it. Honestly, if I had known what was to come, I might have ended my life right there.

But I didn’t know. I was forced to move back to my birthplace because I wasn’t stable enough to work at the time. I didn’t want to go home at all but, I needed to. After four years, I started therapy and began the work of recovery which will probably take me the rest of my life.

There is a lot of debate about the causes for bipolar disorder. For me, it is epigenetic. That is, it occurred in me because of my genetic make up and because of the trauma I experienced from a young age that continued into my early adulthood.

My dad has ADHD and probably some other psychological disorders. He has never been diagnosed with anything, because he never felt he had a problem. My mom is chronically depressed. So, between the two parents, I had some genes that helped to cause my illness.

I’m not going to lie, I don’t like having this challenge in my life. I hate mania and depression is just as bad. It’s not fun to get up each day and deal with this ongoing situation. But, recovery helps. I have tools and ways to confront the illness when it’s at its worst. I am still learning about the illness and I suspect that I always will be.

But, there are some blessings with the illness that I see in myself and others like me. I have become more compassionate towards others and their struggles. Because there has been a great amount of pain in my life, I am better able to walk with others through whatever journey they are on. I wasn’t always like this. But, my illness can be very humbling. I have been to some dark places on this journey and walking through darkness has given me a lot of strength and resilience. For this, I am very grateful.

Though I wish I didn’t have this illness, I have come to believe I was given it to help others. As I say that, it seems strange. But if I can help future generations in any way with my writing, than I am doing my job. If I can help fellow sufferers on their current path, than I am blessed indeed. It isn’t easy and if you’ve just received a diagnosis, take heed and realize, you are not alone.

 

Photo by Jordon Conner on Unsplash

 

Wednesday, 12 May 2021

No One Is Too Far Away to Be Acknowledged

As any author will tell you, compiling the acknowledgements page is not the simplest part of writing a book.

We learned so much compiling the acknowledgements for our first book High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder that we wrote an article about it, in the hope other authors might benefit from our experience, and our friends and readers might understand how we went about it (and, perhaps, why they were — or were not — included). It is the most read post on our blog.

You can read our acknowledgements for High Tide. Low Tide here.

The publication of a new edition of our second book No One Is Too Far Away: Notes from a Transatlantic Friendship offers us the opportunity to again share our gratitude here on our blog.


Acknowledgements

Fran and I would like to thank Sarah Fader and everyone formerly at Eliezer Tristan Publishing for inspiring this collection and publishing the first edition. We are grateful to Kingston Park Publishing for the opportunity to bring our writing to a new and wider audience.

Many of our articles are inspired by conversations with friends. There are too many to mention individually, but we thank you all for your encouragement, wisdom, and caring support. Fran wishes to thank Bob Keyes, Diane Atwood, Donna Betts, and Donna Murphy for being there in so many ways. I’m grateful to Aimee Wilson for encouraging me with humour, creative suggestions, and advice as I prepared this new edition, and to Jen Evans for her gentle support and colour sense. Special thanks to Vikki Beat who contributed to several pieces in this collection.

We are grateful to the many guest writers we’ve published on our blog, especially mental health blogger and author Aimee Wilson of I’m NOT Disordered, and best-selling author and coach Julie A. Fast. Your passion, authenticity, and determination inspire us and remind us why we do what we do.

Above all, we thank you, our readers. Without you, none of this would mean a thing

From: No One Is Too Far Away: Notes from a Transatlantic Friendship


Whether your name is listed here or not, we are glad to have you in our world!

Marty and Fran

 

Thursday, 6 May 2021

It's Not Boring! An Open Letter to My Best Friend on Our 10 Year Anniversary

Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born. (Anais Nin)

Sunday, May 2, 2021.

Dear Fran,

I’m writing this sitting on the bench that’s been my regular stopping / thinking / journaling place since we first went into lockdown last March. I’ve had calls with you here many times, and I’ve taken you along on my walks — sharing my world in photos and chat, and voice and video calls. We’re three thousand miles apart but we still use all the tools and means available to us to bridge the distance and keep our friendship and lives vibrant, aligned, and alive.

Ten years ago we’d not yet met. That was still a few days into my future and yours. (It’s a constant reminder that transformational change can appear at any moment.) And then that evening came — May 6, 2011 — and I posted seven words to a friend’s Facebook wall. A friend who was struggling. In pain. Suicidal.

Flooding light and love into your world.

Unknown to me, you were there too, at the same time on the same Facebook wall. How my naive words, intended to soothe our mutual friend, enraged you! Had my words been less hopelessly inadequate, you might not have been moved to respond as you did.

Sometimes, even too much love can be overwhelming.

The irony isn’t lost on me. Had I shown even a little more empathy and care, you and I would never have met. Likewise, if I’d not dared to post on her wall at all. How easy it would have been for me to just click away. It’s a scary thought. I can’t imagine my life without you in it. It is upon such moments that our lives turn. Our friend isn’t here to share our anniversary with us. She knew of our meeting that night on her page, though. It pleased her, I think. She is not forgotten.

You’ve told me many times that you’d not be here if it wasn’t for me. If not for us. I take you at your word, and there are no words to express what it means — how it feels — to believe you. And I do believe you. I would be here today, even if we'd never met. But the person I am today — the man sitting here writing to you — did not exist ten years ago. Or perhaps he was always there, but not yet awake.

“Does anyone call you Marty?” you asked. No, I replied. And in that moment the new me was born. I didn’t save you (No pedestals!, remember!) but we have helped each other save ourselves. To become, together and apart, who we truly are.

Most days, we meet for evening calls, but today you’re out visiting friends on Peaks Island. Your life on the mainland is much richer, but I miss those days on Peaks. Your little house. Walks on Centennial and around the island, me following along in photos, words, and the tracking app we used to use. We’ve come a long way since then. So much has changed, and so much hasn’t. We are here for each other as much now as back in those early days. We’re stronger. We have grown, in trust, and in maturity.

I was looking back over our ten years to pick out some highlights. Our first and only day together in person, in Southampton, is right up there, but there are so many more! Many of our moments and memories are private but a good deal of our friendship has been lived out on a wider stage. I’m writing this letter, for example, with the intention of sharing it on our blog. And it is ours, even though these days it’s me who provides most of the content and maintains the site itself. Pretty much everything we do in the wider mental health space is “us.” Teamwork makes the dream work, as they say. Gum on My Shoe is our creative and public platform, and it’s an important part of our story and journey together.

I know there’ve been times when you regretted suggesting I write a book about what it’s like to be friends with someone living with mental illness — but you did suggest it, and I (we) did write it! As you reminded me once when I was doubting myself: “You wrote a book.. A whole fucking book.. Don’t you give yourself credit for that?” High Tide, Low Tide is our great endeavour and achievement. I will always be proud of that. I refer to it a lot myself, to remind me of things we got right — and things we got wrong! Republishing it this year (and our book of blog posts) was an act of pure love.

Our blog. Our two books. Our online presence on Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere. I’m deeply committed to them all. But they are not us. They share our story and our message of hope, but we know the stories, tips, strategies, and techniques we write about because we have lived them. Day in. Day out. Ten years. 3,653 days. (And yes, I looked it up, to be sure I had the leap years right!)

I’ve loved it all, Fran. Not always liked it or found it easy — we’ve had our share of hurt and darkness, some of it our doing, some of it not — but I’ve always loved being with you. I told you once “I never don’t want to be here,” and that’s still true, no matter what is going on for you or for me. That commitment has kept our friendship strong and endlessly reinventing itself. The dark times and the light, the low and the high, the well and the unwell; they are all part of what we’ve shared and continue to share. As I’m sure I’ve said once or twice along the way, it’s not boring, being your best friend!

Thank you, Fran, for every one of the 3,653 days we’ve shared. Here’s to the next 3,653!

Marty

 

Wednesday, 28 April 2021

How to Be There for a Friend When No One Else Is

Always have a willing hand to help someone, you might be the only one that does. (Roy T. Bennett)

Fran and I write a lot about having a supportive team so you’re not relying on one person all the time. I’m proud of my place on her team, amongst the other friends and professionals who help her stay safe and well. Knowing I’m not alone helps me focus on being the best friend I can be, confident there are others for Fran to call on if I’m unavailable or can’t offer what she needs. It’s the same with my other close friends. I’m part of their support teams and they’re part of mine.

But sometimes a friend is hurting, distressed, or in need, and I’m the only person around. Perhaps the other members of their team are unavailable or can’t offer what my friend needs. Maybe there isn’t anyone else. Not everyone has a team. What do I do then?

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer. A lot depends on what my friend needs; how available I am to help; my relevant knowledge, skills, and experience; my other responsibilities or commitments; and my personal boundaries. I find it helps to remind myself of the options: saying yes, saying no, or saying no, but. We have these options all the time, of course, but the decision is more important when there’s no one else around.

Note that I didn’t include saying maybe. There’s no place for uncertainty when a friend is in need. Be honest about whether you can help or not, but don’t defer the decision or give false hope. And, whatever you decide, follow through. I remember Fran telling me years ago how she needs people to be straight with her. She asks only that people respect her enough not to promise what they have no intention of delivering. (“Yes is OK. No is OK. Not right now is OK.”)

I tell my friends: no matter what time it is or what you think I might be doing, if you need me, ask. I’d much rather be asked and have to say no than for my friend to stay silent for fear of bothering me. This works because I trust my friends to be honest about their needs and they trust me to be honest about whether I can help.

Let’s look at those options in a little more detail.

Say Yes

Saying yes is my default response. What is friendship, after all, if it’s not being there for one another? Far from feeling used or put upon, I consider myself blessed when I can use my skills, abilities, and experience to help another person. In the words of Ruth Bebermeyer:

I never feel more given to
than when you take from me –
when you understand the joy I feel
giving to you.

That said, being a good friend doesn’t mean saying yes to every request, even when you can.

Say No

Saying no isn’t just about being honest if I’m busy or can’t meet my friend’s request for some other reason. There’s a crucial difference between helping someone in positive ways and enabling unhealthy actions and behaviours. In the early months of my friendship with Fran, I helped her pursue a very unhealthy, mania-fuelled project because I didn’t see how dangerous it was. We realised before any lasting harm was done, but it would have saved a great deal of anguish if I’d recognised sooner what was happening and said no to her requests. Fran would have hated that but it would have been better for us both in the long run.

Selflessly acquiescing to other people’s demands is also unhealthy for the giver. This is something I’ve learned over the years, most painfully by witnessing what it did to my mother. Decades of putting other people before herself led to depression, anxiety, and despair. At her funeral, the priest eulogised, “She was a saint. Literally, a saint. She always put others first.” I wanted to scream “Yes she was. She did. And look what it did to her.”

Saying no is never easy for me but it’s hardest of all when the other person has few or no alternatives. As long as it doesn’t become a habit, I think it’s okay to convert what might otherwise have been a no into a yes. Making the other person a priority is pretty much what it means to be a friend. I’m not interested in being someone who’s only there for others when it’s convenient.

Some talk to you in their free time, and some free their time to talk to you. Learn the difference. (Unknown)

But what if you really can’t say yes? Let’s look at the third option.

Say No, But

Being the only one around doesn’t make you responsible for meeting your friend’s needs, but it does mean you’re part of what happens next. If at all possible, leave your friend with a way forward. That might mean confirming they can take that next step on their own, or suggesting alternate sources of support. This may not be the answer they were looking for, but an honest and engaged no, but — rather than simply dismissing them out of hand or turning your back — can be just as helpful in the long run.

Most fundamentally, make sure your friend is safe. If they’re in acute distress or you believe they may be at risk of harm — including self-harm or suicide — consider escalating to professional services or signposting them to an appropriate crisis or support line. If that’s not appropriate or necessary, maybe there are other ways you can help rather than simply saying “sorry, you’re on your own.”

I once took a call from a friend who was lost, scared, and alone. I didn’t have a car so going to pick her up wasn’t an option, but I stayed with her on the phone until she was safely home. On other occasions, I’ve arranged taxis or loaned friends the cost of a ride to get them where they needed to be as quickly and safely as possible. Sometimes the issue isn’t the request itself, but the timing. If so, I’ll offer to meet or take their call as soon as I’m free. Work with your friend to find a solution that works for you both.

Be Kind Always

Fran and I wrote a whole book about being a supportive friend but I still get things wrong. I described how my mother’s health suffered from always putting other people’s needs before her own. I’m far from blameless in that. On many occasions I failed to offer her the support she needed. I said no when I needed to say yes. I’ve failed other people too, either by not being there when they needed me, or by being overbearing — effectively saying yes when I hadn’t even been asked for my assistance or support. I believe I’ve learned from these mistakes, although the people who are part of my support team now, and who accept me as part of theirs, are better placed than me to assess that.

I can’t be there for everyone who calls on me at all times, no matter how much I’d like to be, but where there is honesty and trust, I know the friendship isn’t at risk just because I can’t always say yes. What matters is that I feel empowered to make those decisions, and supported in doing so.

[My friendship with Fran] has taught me to be more aware of others who may be struggling. That doesn’t mean I try and help everyone, but I offer what I can and neither absent myself nor run away. To do this, I need people prepared to support me in moments of confusion, frustration, and self-doubt — and they do occur — without imposing limits on my capacity to care.

Above every other consideration, if I find myself in a position to help someone when no one else is, I remind myself of the words of the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso:

Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.

 

Photo by Kato Blackmore on Unsplash

 

Tuesday, 20 April 2021

Book Review: Everything Disordered: A Practical Guide to Blogging, by Aimee Wilson

Aimee Wilson blogs at I’m NOT Disordered and has guested here at Gum on My Shoe on several occasions. I’m delighted to have this opportunity to review her new book Everything Disordered: A Practical Guide to Blogging.

Paperback: 222 pages
ISBN-13: 979-8713490348
Amazon UK | Amazon COM

Audience

This book will be of interest to anyone thinking about starting a blog but it is probably most relevant if you are blogging — or contemplating blogging — in the mental health arena. The majority of examples are drawn from the author’s experience and blog posts in this area.

Trigger Warnings

Everything Disordered includes some very honest descriptions of the author’s lived experience of mental illness, abuse, suicidality, and self-harm. This could be distressing or triggering for readers, but the author opens with a detailed note on content and trigger warnings, which also serves to orient the reader for the rest of the book.

Organisation and Content

The book is organised into seven parts.

  1. Should you blog?
  2. Choosing a blog name
  3. Blog posts
  4. Blogmas
  5. Collaborations
  6. Press and media
  7. Top tips for blogging

Each part contains practical suggestions, advice, and guidance drawn from the author’s experience as a highly successful blogger, amply illustrated with examples from her own blog posts. This approach echoes how Fran and I wrote High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder, illustrating our ideas and approaches with excerpts from our conversations to show how we put those ideas into practice. Everything Disordered takes this a stage further by including worksheets which the reader can use to explore the ideas and decisions being discussed. These and the title pages for each major section make for a colourful and engaging design.

It’s worth noting that the book doesn’t discuss the relative merits of different blogging platforms (WordPress, Blogger, Wix etc), software, or technology (computer, laptop, phone, tablet, etc). This is actually a strength, because any such advice would soon become out of date. Instead, the author focuses on the creative processes involved in blogging, which are mostly independent of platform and gadgetry.

Part 1: Should you blog?

The book opens by inviting the reader to explore why they want to start blogging, and whether they have the qualities to succeed. As a blogger myself I found this part really interesting and relevant. I agree with the author that passion is very important; passion both for your chosen subject area and for the practice of writing and maintaining a blog. Other qualities discussed are time, bravery and purpose, having a good support system, and creativity. The section on having a good support system resonated with me. Like the author, I find blogging can be a lonely pursuit and it helps to have people around you who are supportive, but who also acknowledge your autonomy and creative boundaries.

The author covers potential downsides to blogging such as triggering, overwhelm, struggling with boundaries, and receiving unwelcome reactions from others. The reader is encouraged to consider both the positive and negative aspects of blogging, and this section of the book includes the first of several worksheets for the reader to use.

Part 2: Choosing a blog name

Choosing a name for your blog might not seem that big a deal, but once chosen it’s something you are likely to be stuck with. There’s another worksheet to use when exploring ideas. The author describes how the name of your blog may influence how memorable your blog is and how other people perceive you. Also important is whether the name relates to your theme, purpose, and audience. These are relevant questions no matter what your subject area is, and are a good example of the book’s applicability beyond the mental health arena.

Part 3: Blog posts

This part of the book focuses on writing and publishing a blog post. I found the author’s discussion of sources of inspiration interesting because I use similar sources in my own blogging; personal experience, quotations, and media including social media. The author uses these in different ways to me, though, which has given me new ideas for my future writing. The media section, in particular, has led me to rethink my reluctance to blog about controversial current affairs topics. This part of the book closes with some top tips, a prepublication checklist, and some pros and cons about using photos and images, especially personal photos. I’ve written previously about choosing images for your blog posts and it’s interesting to see how another blogger approaches this topic.

Part 4: Blogmas

The book next covers the phenomenon of blogmas. (“Blogmas is where you publish a blog post every single day from December 1st until Christmas.”) The author covers the process in depth, from conceiving, planning, and writing a lengthy series of daily posts, to the benefits and potential drawbacks. There are two worksheets, and examples of the author’s blogmas posts. I’ve not attempted blogmas myself but the ideas are relevant to any series of posts and I’m sure I’ll find them useful. Topics include setting an overall theme for the series, collaboration (covered in more detail in part 5), guest posts, Q&As, and the importance of good time management and preparing material well in advance.

Part 5: Collaborations

Collaboration can be a valuable and rewarding part of blogging and the author shares tips and suggestions, generously illustrated with articles written in collaboration with organisations that include NHS Foundation Trusts, FutureLearn (an online training provider), Cats Protection, and LNER (London North Eastern Railway). Event blogging is covered in a similar manner. This is another section I found really interesting. I have blogged several events but have very limited experience of collaborating with others.

Part 6: Press and media

Working with the press and media is another area where I have very limited experience. The author’s wide experience is clear and there is a great deal for the reader to pick up and learn from.

Part 7: Top tips for blogging

The book closes with top tips for blogging, focusing on three key areas: confidence and self-belief; finding a sense of community, audience, and support; and appreciating that blogging can be a source of ongoing learning, personal development, and change.

Summary

It should be clear that I found Everything Disordered very relevant to me as a blogger in the mental health space. My life experience, writing style, and approach to blogging are very different to the author’s, but I found the book to be a wholly honest and realistic look behind-the-scenes at what it takes to be a successful blogger. I’ve learned a lot and look forward to putting what I’ve learned into practice.

Social media undoubtedly has its dark side. The author does not shy away from this reality but shows that social media in general — and blogging in particular — can be overwhelmingly positive and beneficial. Examples of how blogging has enriched and expanded the author’s life run through the book. One of my favourite quotations highlights the impact her words have had on others.

A little while after the blog post was published, a reader contacted me to tell me that after reading the post she had finally reported the abuse she’d experienced years before. [...] For the first time, I really realised that my words — my experiences, could have such a huge and important impact on readers.

Everything Disordered, page 62

This is expressed perfectly in the foreword, written by Debbie Henderson, Director of Communications and Corporate Affairs at Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust:

I would encourage anyone considering setting up a blog to read this book, not only as a practical guide, but as a true insight into the difference a well-run blog can make, not just to the author, but potentially to many other lives.

I will close with a shorter version of this review which I will post on Amazon.

A fascinating read, packed with advice and tips for the budding blogger

This fascinating and informative book is packed with behind-the-scenes insights, practical advice, and suggestions from Aimee Wilson who runs a highly successful blog called “I’m NOT Disordered.” The book is essential reading if you blog, or are thinking of blogging, in the mental health arena but the wide range of topics and ideas make it relevant no matter what you blog about.

The book covers whether blogging is right for you, choosing a name for your blog, writing and publishing posts, collaborating with individuals and organisations, event blogging, and working with the press and media. There is also a chapter on blogmas (publishing one blog post every day from December 1 until Christmas) which would be helpful when planning any series of blog posts. There are loads of tips and examples from the author's blog, and colourful worksheets you can use to explore the ideas yourself.

Highly recommended.

Everything Disordered: A Practical Guide to Blogging by Aimee Wilson is available in print from Amazon and other sellers. (Amazon UK | Amazon COM)

You can follow the author Aimee Wilson on her blog I’m NOT Disordered and on Twitter (@aimes_wilson).

 

Wednesday, 7 April 2021

Challenging Stigma in Changing Times: My Journey with Time to Change

“Time to Change was a social movement to change the way people think and act about mental health problems. The campaign started in 2007 and closed at the end of March 2021.” (Time to Change website)

In October last year I received an email purporting to be from Time to Change, announcing the closure of the organisation at the end of March 2021. The news seemed so unlikely that I messaged the Time to Change Twitter account to check it wasn’t a scam email. Sadly, both email and news were genuine. As of March 31, 2021, Time to Change is no more. Their website and social media accounts remain for the time being, but visitors are met with the following stark message:

Time to Change closed on 31st March 2021, but the stigma and discrimination experienced by people with mental health problems hasn’t gone away. We need you to continue changing how people think and act about mental health problems.

The closure has inspired any number of social media posts and articles. Most I’ve seen have either been written from a societal perspective (such as A ground breaking campaign that changed the mental health landscape by Brian Dow, Deputy CEO of Rethink Mental Illness) or by people who themselves live with mental health issues (the two categories are not, of course, mutually exclusive). I can’t speak from a broader society perspective and I have no direct lived experience, but I’d like to share what Time to Change meant to me.

Volunteering with Time to Change

My involvement with Time to Change began in November 2013. In the two and a half years since we first met online in May 2011, Fran and I had built a rich network of connections within the mental health community in the US, mostly in the state of Maine where Fran lives. I remember Fran jokingly asking if anyone in the UK lived with mental illness, because we didn’t seem to know any individuals or organisations here. It was time for me to step up and find out what was happening on this side of the Atlantic.

Time to Change was the first UK organisation I checked out and I registered as a Champion, as TTC called its volunteers. In no time at all I received an email with details of a local networking and social event. Turning up on my own at the Crisis Cafe in Newcastle was the scariest thing I’d done in a long time, but I received a warm welcome from Angela Slater, who at the time was Time to Change Regional Coordinator and Equalities Coordinator for Disability. I remember attempting small talk with the people I was sitting next to, some of whom were new volunteers like me, and the passion of the various speakers. I particularly remember talking with Darren Hodge who told me about Mental Health First Aid training. I enjoyed the experience, but as I’ve written elsewhere it left me unsure whether I was ready to follow up and engage fully.

I enjoyed the evening, but left feeling unsure whether I had the skills and experience to contribute to what Time to Change and the other organisations and individuals I had met were doing. This was no reflection on the warmth of the welcome. Rather, it was a voice inside me that told me I was not yet ready to engage fully.

It took two years for me to reconnect with Angela and actually volunteer with Time to Change. During that time I was growing and learning. I took the MHFA training and engaged in other ways, including an appearance on local radio to talk about my friendship with Fran and the book we’d begun writing. What finally tipped the balance was an online workshop Fran and I took with research professor, author, and public speaker Brené Brown on courage and vulnerability. Within days, I heard about an upcoming awareness event in the centre of Newcastle, to coincide with Time to Change’s annual #TimeToTalk campaign. I signed up as a volunteer before the voice in my head had chance to intervene. As I wrote in my diary, “Fear of engagement has always kept me on the outside, looking in on the arena. It is time to show up for my life.”

It turned out to be one of the best decisions I’d made in a long time. I reconnected with Angela and met several people I’d see at Time to Change events over the coming years, including Aimee Wilson who is now one of my closest friends. I’ve written about the event itself elsewhere but I want to quote something I’ve found to be consistently true as I’ve learned more about sharing space, time, and conversation with people with lived experience of mental health issues.

Some stories, whether of mental illness or the often-related issues of poverty, benefits, or housing, were undeniably hard to hear. But the atmosphere wasn’t sombre in any way. No matter the content, genuine connection is empowering if we are open to hear what people are saying. And there were moments too of sheer delight, laugher, and merriment.

I volunteered with Time to Change at Northern Pride for three consecutive years (2016 through 2018). As with the first event I volunteered at, the idea was to engage members of the public about TTC’s role, mental health, and stigma. We handed out leaflets, encouraged people to make mental health related pledges, took selfies, and answered questions. After one event I told a friend:

For me, what makes it so worthwhile is when I am talking to someone who might not be used to sharing about their mental health and I comment or ask a question and they are like “yes!” In that moment there is this really genuine human connection. That happened a few times today.

Time to Talk Day

One of Time to Change’s key contributions to raising mental health awareness was establishing the annual Time to Talk Day in February.

Mental health problems affect one in four of us, yet too many people are made to feel isolated, ashamed and worthless because of this. Time to Talk Day encourages everyone to be more open about mental health – to talk, to listen, to change lives.

Talking about mental health is something Fran and I do on a day-to-day basis. It is the basis of our friendship and the cornerstone of our book High Tide, Low Tide. I wrote What Does Having a Conversation about Mental Health Look Like? for Time to Talk Day 2019 because what comes naturally to me and Fran (most of the time) can sound difficult or intimidating if you are not used to it.

Having “a conversation about mental health” might sound daunting, but it simply means allowing someone to talk openly about what’s going on for them. It might be a face-to-face conversation, a phone or video call, or a conversation by e-mail, text (SMS), or instant messaging. Whatever works for you and the other person.

Confidence and Support

Working with like-minded and like-hearted people is healthy and rewarding. I’ve grown a lot in self-confidence, directly and indirectly, from being a Time to Change volunteer. I discovered I have something valuable to contribute on a wider stage and have felt supported in doing so. I’ve met some amazing people and made good friends, including two of my closest friends, Vikki Beat and Aimee Wilson. I’ve also connected with other people and organisations locally and online, including Newcastle Recovery College (ReCoCo), Launchpad, and LEAPS. I believe I’ve grown and become a better person.

It would be wrong to give the impression that everything has been “sunshine and rainbows,” though. I’ve had periods of crippling self-doubt about my role within the mental health community, including Time to Change, because I lack lived experience of illness or mental health services. Perhaps the worst bout came in late 2018 / early 2019, as I related in Impostor Syndrome, Self-Doubt, and Legitimacy in the Mental Health Arena. The support and encouragement I received from work colleagues and friends, including people who know me through Time to Change, made a huge difference and reassured me I have a role to play and a contribution to make. I will forever be grateful for their honesty and support.

Employer Pledge Scheme

In 2018 I joined the mental health team at the company where I work, BPDTS Ltd. I knew of the Time to Change Employer Pledge Scheme and met with our Chief Exec and senior executive team to sell them the idea.

My main objective was to gain approval for the company to sign up to Time to Change’s Employer Pledge Scheme. It says a lot about our leadership team that my recommendation was approved unanimously. I’m looking forward to taking the initiative forward in the weeks to come.

It was very much a team effort, and we had superb support from our CEO down, but as Pledge Lead I can admit a good deal of personal pride when we were accepted into the scheme. The scheme itself has closed but you can still read our company’s pledge on the Time to Change website. The mental health team which I now co-lead has expanded considerably, and I look forward to even greater things as our company merges with DWP (the UK government’s Department for Work and Pensions) to form a new digital organisation.

BPDTS CEO Loveday Ryder, Martin Baker, Lois White

What Next?

I will always be proud of my association with Time to Change and grateful for the opportunities and connections it brought me, but what next? There is so much more to be done. It feels short-sighted at best for Time to Change to close when society as a whole, and each of us individually, has been so severely challenged by covid. I will miss the sense I had of being supported and encouraged by an organisation I imagined would be a permanent part of the mental health landscape. But, as the final email from Time to Change to its volunteers makes clear, we can feel proud of our successes and commit to continuing the work.

Whether you have been part of the Time to Change movement since we began in 2007 or you’ve only recently joined us on this journey, you have played a significant role in changing the way we all think and act about mental health problems. Remember that each action we take, however big or small, has the power to improve attitudes and behaviour towards those of us with mental health problems.

And while Time to Change is closing, we can all continue to use our voices to challenge mental health stigma and discrimination. Our enduring efforts will help to empower and support others to join us on this journey as we strive to create a more equitable society.

If you are wondering how the work and journey will continue, the Time to Change website has plenty of information and suggestions.

We encourage you to continue to challenge stigma and discrimination when you see it, hear it or experience it for yourselves. On this website, you’ll find a range of useful resources which will help you to take action.

There are lots of ways that you can continue to campaign around important mental health issues with our charity partners, Mind and Rethink Mental Illness. Find out how to get involved with our partners.

You can still find Time to Change on their website, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts.