Wednesday 16 June 2021


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.


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.


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