Wednesday, 30 June 2021

Twelve Songs That Remind Me What Caring Is All About

I was listening to some of my favourite tracks on YouTube and Spotify a few weeks ago and realised many capture aspects of what caring means to me. Here’s a selection in no particular order, each with a note explaining why it resonates for me. Maybe they’ll resonate for you, too. Links are to my favourite versions of the songs on YouTube.

I’d like to acknowledge my friend and fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson of I’m NOT Disordered who encouraged me to explore what the songs mean to me, rather than simply sharing the lyrics as I’d originally intended. It added hugely to the effort involved in putting this post together — but she was right! I learned a good deal about these songs, their artists and backstories, and the article is far stronger as a result. Thank you, Aimee!


1. You Will Find Me

You leave me room for my imperfections
I’m a mess and you jump right in
If I drift in the wrong direction
You turn the tide and you calm the wind
Anytime, every time I get lost
You will find me

Alex and Sierra — You Will Find Me

This is a recent addition to my playlists. I’m not sure how I came across it, and know nothing of the artists beyond the fact that they won the third season of The X Factor US. I like the song because it stresses allowing people to be themselves, with all their (our) “imperfections” and “mess,” rather than trying to fix or change them.

The line “any time, every time I get lost you will find me” echoes something a friend once told me: “It doesn’t matter how dark it is, Marty. You’ll always find me.”

There’s another line that means a lot: “It could be a late night call — you take it all.” It’s a basic tenet of my friendship with Fran that I’m there for her any time day or night, but that goes for other friends too. I have other things going on in my life and can’t always take a call at a moment’s notice, but I do my best to be available for my friends when they need me/


2. If You Need Me

When you’re happy and when you’re scared,
I can still be your shoulder,
I’ll be by your side even if I’m not next to you.

Julia Michaels — If You Need Me

This song reminds me that being there for someone isn’t just about supporting them through the bad times. Aimee once told me it means a lot that I want to spend time with her when she’s well, as well as when she’s struggling. It recalls something I said to Fran a long time ago: “No matter what is going on, whether you’re having a good day or a bad day, whether I’m having a good day or a bad day, I never don’t want to be here.”

The line “I’ll be by your side even if I’m not next to you” is relevant to all my caring friendships, especially with Fran who lives 3000 miles away on the other side of the Atlantic. Technology means there’s little excuse or reason to not be present. As we like to say, no one is too far away to be cared for or to care.


3. I Won’t

I won’t let you down, my friend
I won’t let you fight alone
I won’t leave you in the cold on your own
I won’t let you down, my friend

Calm down, come and sit with me now
Pour out whatever is weighing you down
I’m here to hold you up again
Calm down, calm down

Richard Walters — I Won’t

This is another recent find. I recognise the commitment to stand with your friend, to be there and not abandon them, no matter what happens. The “calm down” line sits uneasily with me — I hope I’d never say that to someone anxious or struggling, because it’s unhelpful and condescending. Apart from that, the lyrics capture the essentials of a caring and attentive friendship.


4. How to Save a Life

Where did I go wrong? I lost a friend
Somewhere along in the bitterness
And I would have stayed up with you all night
Had I known how to save a life

The Fray — How to Save a Life

This song means a great deal to me. I remember it playing when I was out with a friend in the early days of our friendship. We both knew the words by heart and sang along together. The lyrics express the rawness of being there for someone who is really struggling — and the fear you might not be there or know what to do when it matters most.

The song was inspired by a meeting singer Isaac Slade had with a teenager struggling with drug addiction. In an interview, Slade explained: “Here I was, a protected suburbanite, and he was just seventeen and had all these problems. And no one could write a manual on how to save him.” I’m reminded of something Fran wrote years ago about wellness and recovery:

It’s as if your body/mind is a spaceship and you are creating the owner’s manual. You are the only one who gets to make those choices. You can then share this manual with others who can support you in your process.

We wrote High Tide Low Tide to help others write and share their manuals. There is no more important work. As Fran again writes, unconsciously evoking this song, “Stick around. It may not be easy but you can help someone make a life worth living. Maybe even save a life.”


5. Take Me Home

Came to you with a broken faith
Gave me more than a hand to hold
Caught before I hit the ground
Tell me I’m safe, you’ve got me now

Jess Glynne — Take Me Home

Jess Glynne wrote Take Me Home about a time when she was at a very low point. She’s written, “I was reminded of who I was as a person by someone who cared so much and wouldn’t let me break.” The song “is about being grateful and taking advice from the people who care, and who are there for you when you are in need.”

For me, it’s a raw and very real account of someone reaching out for help, and finding someone willing and able to offer the help they need. The challenge is not to be taken lightly: “Could you take care of a broken soul?”

Supporting a friend is most often about helping them help themselves, or sitting with them until they’re ready to take the next step. But sometimes, we’re called on to prevent further harm, and reassure our loved ones they’ll be okay. The line “[you] caught [me] before I hit the ground, tell me I’m safe, you’ve got me now” captures this perfectly.


6. I Will Be Your Friend

I know that lately
Things haven’t been so good
I always said
If I could ever help you, I would

Sade — I Will Be Your Friend

This has been a favourite of mine for many years. It’s perhaps the first “how to be there for a friend” song I came across. There’s a simple warmth and honesty in the lyrics — and in the singer’s performance — that feels like being hugged; like being held close against whatever it is that’s hurting. Sometimes, that’s what we need.


7. Monsters

I see your monsters
I see your pain
Tell me your problems
I’ll chase them away

I’ll be your lighthouse
I’ll make it okay
When I see your monsters
I’ll stand there so brave
And chase them all away

Katie Sky — Monsters

With its talk about chasing monsters, this song might come across as light and unrealistic, but it rings very true to me beneath the surface. Sometimes, we’re aware of our friends’ pain and want to help, but we know we can’t fix things from the outside. All we can do is let them know we’re here. The line “I’ll be your lighthouse” reminds me of a quotation by Anne Lamott:

Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.

Another important aspect of supportive friendships is expressed in the line “I will be here like you were for me.” The healthiest relationships are founded on mutual support, encouragement, and care.


8. Fight For It

Don’t tell me that you’re gonna run away from it now
You’re gonna stand here and fight for it
Don’t tell me that you can’t
And that you’re gonna back down
You’re gonna stand here and fight for it

Lucy Spraggan — Fight For It

I’m no advocate of “tough love” but occasionally something more than gentle encouragement is needed. Fran and I write about this in our book:

Challenge arises naturally between us, as it does in any relationship based on honesty. If something does not feel right, we let the other person know, even if they might initially be hurt or distressed to hear it. This degree of emotional maturity is very important.

Lucy Spraggan’s Fight for It expresses this perfectly. She challenges her friend to stand and fight for herself, when it would be easier to run away and hide. Most importantly, she lets her friend know she will be there too, fighting alongside her. That commitment to stay in the ring and not turn away when help is needed most, is the raw, dirty, bloody truth of what it means to be there for another human being. There have been times in the past when I’ve failed to be there for people who had a right to expect better of me. This song reminds me why I vowed to do better and be better from now on. As Lucy Spraggan sings, “I’m gonna stand here and fight with you.”


9. Sober

Momma, I’m so sorry, I’m not sober anymore
And daddy, please, forgive me for the drinks spilled on the floor
To the ones who never left me, we’ve been down this road before
I’m so sorry, I’m not sober anymore

Demi Lovato — Sober

Most of the songs I’ve included express things I’ve learned first-hand about caring for others, but this one is different. I have no personal experience of alcohol or drug addiction, nor of supporting someone through these conditions. Like Suzanne Vega’s Luka, Love The Way You Lie by Eminem, and Pink’s Perfect, this song drags me outside my comfort zone. It provides a small insight into the life of someone who fears being judged and abandoned for what they perceive as failure and weakness. I’m grateful for that insight. A month after the song’s release in June 2018, Demi Lovato was hospitalized due to an overdose.


10. Keep Holding On

You’re not alone, together we stand
I’ll be by your side, you know, I’ll take your hand
When it gets cold and it feels like the end
There’s no place to go, you know, I won’t give in

Keep holding on
‘Cause you know we’ll make it through
We’ll make it through
Just stay strong

Avril Lavigne — Keep Holding On

I don’t know if there’s a backstory, but this song was used as the musical theme for the 2006 film Eragon. (The video I linked includes clips from the movie Bridge To Terabithia). I’m a big fan of Avril Lavigne which is reason enough for me to include it, but in addition, the song captures the essence of a close, caring relationship. Throughout the lyrics, the use of “we” resonates strongly. That’s what caring means to me: a mutual connection and commitment.


11. Avant Gardener

The paramedic thinks I’m clever cos I play guitar
I think she’s clever cos she stops people dying

Gordi — Avant Gardener (song by Courtney Barnett)

This song is based on a true event. Its writer Courtney Barnett decided to do some gardening one day but started having trouble breathing and ended up in hospital. The lyrics shine a light on what it might mean to live with a chronic physical health condition, but it’s the simple, almost naive, exchange between singer and paramedic that stands out for me. It’s easy to applaud those in the caring and health care professions, but this past year has taught us just how vital — and undervalued — those roles are. The song reminds me we owe a great deal to those who, literally, stop people dying.


12. Don’t Give Up

Don’t give up ’cause you have friends
Don’t give up you’re not the only one
Don’t give up no reason to be ashamed
Don’t give up you still have us
Don’t give up now we’re proud of who you are

Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush — Don’t Give Up

Written by Peter Gabriel, Don’t Give Up was inspired by the Depression-era photography of Dorothea Lane. The lyrics describe the despair of someone brought to the edge by circumstances outside his control, and the response of someone who cares for him deeply but perhaps doesn’t know how best to help.

Some of the “Don’t give up” lines work better for me than others. It’s not always enough — or helpful — to be told you have friends, that you’re not alone, that there are people who care and would be devastated to lose you. But one line gets me every time: “Don’t give up now, we’re proud of who you are.” No matter what has happened or what we are going through, simply making it from one day to the next is courage, and courage deserves to be acknowledged. It is the antidote to the stigma that labels mental illness, despair, and suicide as weakness and failure.


In this article I’ve shared some of the songs and lyrics that remind me what caring is all about. What artists, songs, quotations, or writers inspire you? Fran and I would love to hear from you!

 

Photo by Genessa Panainte on Unsplash

 

Wednesday, 23 June 2021

Why Little Things Are Big Things When It Comes to Our Relationships

But you keep my old scarf from that very first week. Cos it reminds you of innocence and it smells like me.

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

I recently met up with a friend I’d not seen in person since last August. As we rediscovered how to do face-to-face after so long relying on chat, voice, and video calls, I was reminded how important the little things can be. Our choice of coffee shop and table, the small gifts, familiar actions, and the recalling of past times we’ve spent together, all reassured us our friendship’s still going strong.

And that’s what this post is about. The little acts, customs, and traditions we cherish in our friendships and relationships. They’re not memories as such, but they provide the framework upon which our memories are strung, like beads on a friendship bracelet or fairy lights on a tree. As my friend reminded me, “It’s the little things that count the most.”

The best and most potent of these are personal. Not necessarily intimate, but particular to the friendship or relationship. They work precisely because they are repeated, or recalled repeatedly. The repetition reinforces the sense of belonging to the connection you share. The great thing is they can be almost anything as long as they’re meaningful to you. Here are a few of mine.

Many couples have an “our song” but there’s nothing to say friends can’t too. Fran and I have one, and several other friends and I have a song or two linked to specific moments and memories.

Fran and I had an “our tree” for many years until they cut it down a few months ago. It stood not far from where I live. Every time I left the house I’d send her a photo of our tree. It began as a simple way for me to show Fran what the weather was like here, but it became a part of our shared daily life. When the tree was felled, we both felt the loss intensely.

In-jokes are common amongst families, especially between siblings, but friends have them too. My friend Aimee and I share a few that would mean little to anyone else, but cement our friendship every time we recall them (which we do on a regular basis!)

There’s a social media meme that reads, “A morning text doesn’t only mean ‘good morning.’ It also means ‘I think about you when I wake up.’” Good morning messages reinforce the connection and remind you you’re still present in each other’s lives.

I chat online with friends every day, and each friendship has developed unique catch-phrases and ways of communicating. Most of my friends would recognise particular phrases and greetings that, whether they realise it or not, are unique to the two of us.

Watching shows and movies together is fun, but it’s all the more significant when they become the equivalent of an “our song.” Fran and I watched every episode of Gilmore Girls a few years ago, all of Downton Abbey, and recently finished the sixteen seasons of Grey’s Anatomy. These shows are part of our DNA now. Set in Alaska, the comedy-drama Northern Exposure is likewise part of the DNA I share with my friend Jen.

I mentioned gifts earlier. Whether it’s a favourite bar of chocolate, cat treats, the Anam Cara pendant I still wear around my neck, or the “3000 miles, 300 minutes, 3 years” key ring I had made to mark the third anniversary of my friendship with Fran, personal and commemorative gifts help cement our connections. My key chain only carries one key but there are lots of fobs — including a “Coffee Cures All of Our Ills” one from Aimee, who knows me well!

It’s worth saying that these little-big things don’t always last forever. Friendships and connections change, and what was deeply significant in the past may lose its relevance or become stale and redundant. Such changes serve as red flags, alerting you to potential changes in your relationship’s health and integrity. It can be hard to relinquish something that brought comfort and delight, but where the connection itself is sound, remind yourself that one little-big token can be exchanged for another.

Each little-big thing we share began somewhere. A few days ago I met my friend Louise in person for the very first time. We’ll see which new moments stand the test of time (I have a couple of candidates in mind) but first times such as this are a great place to start!

What little-big things do you value in your friendships and relationships? How much do they mean to you and how do you feel if they change or drop away? How good are you at making new ones? We’d love to hear from you!

 

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!”