Wednesday 25 August 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Photo by Fallon Michael on Unsplash


Wednesday 18 August 2021

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

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

Trust and Physical Safety

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

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

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

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

Safety and Challenge

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

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

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

Feeling Safe to Be Ourselves

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

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

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

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

Safety and Trust in Professionals

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

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

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

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

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

Safety, Suicide, and Self-Harm

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

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

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

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

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

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

There Are No Guarantees

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

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

Responsibility and Self-care

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


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


Photo by takahiro taguchi on Unsplash.


Wednesday 11 August 2021

Men and Mental Health: Resources and Heroes

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

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


Men’s Mental Health Statistics

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

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

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


Crisis and Support Lines

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


Groups and Organisations

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

Andy’s Man Club

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

Boys Get Sad Too

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

CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably)

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

Man Health

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


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


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

Men’s Minds Matter

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

Talk Tonight – Selby C.I.C

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




Podcasts and Videos


Awareness Days and Events

Men’s Mental Health Day (#MensMHday)

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

International Men's Health Week

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


Blog Posts

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

Martin Baker

Michael Baker

Stewart Bint

Quinn Brown

Jay Chirino

Jules Clare

Kenneth J Cody

Chris Good

Peter McDonnell

John Medl

Andrew Turman


Four Men Who Inspire Me

These men inspire me immensely in various ways.

Michael Baker

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

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

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

Jonny Benjamin MBE

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

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

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

You can follow Jonny on his website.

Quinn Brown

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

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

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

You can follow Quinn on Facebook and Twitter.

Peter McDonnell

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

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

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


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


Photo by Shane Rounce on Unsplash


Wednesday 4 August 2021

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

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

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

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

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

New Friends and Old Friends

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

Sharing Old Memories and Building New Ones

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

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

New Tellings of Old Stories

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

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

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

Old Labels and New

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

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

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

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

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

Urban and Personal Regeneration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Old World and the New

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

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

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