Wednesday 27 October 2021

The Song Remains the Same: Thoughts on Change and Unchange

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

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

The Words Remain the Same

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

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

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

Stuckness and Drama

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

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

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

The Constancy of Change

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

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

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

A Need for Problems?

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

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

The Nature of Change

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

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

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

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

Stability and Change in Dynamic Tension

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

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

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

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

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

Over to You

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

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


Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash.


Wednesday 20 October 2021

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

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

— Philippa Perry, The Guardian, October 17, 2021

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

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

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

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

Statement: I should have phoned my mother yesterday.

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

Consequence: disappointment, guilt, censure.

Judgment: I’m a bad person.

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

Rules and Standards

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

Legal rules

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

Moral and religious rules

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

Cultural and societal rules

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

Why Does This Matter?

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

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

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

Shoulds in the Mental Health Arena

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

You should call the doctor.

You should take your meds.

You should go for a walk.

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

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

We can do better than this.

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

Example 1

Instead of: You should call the doctor.

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

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

Example 2

Instead of: You should take your meds.

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

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

Example 3

Instead of: You should go for a walk.

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

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

Example 4

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

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

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

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

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

It seems to me that ...

What I’m thinking is ...

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

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

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

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

Don’t Should Yourself

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

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

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

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

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

You really should.


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


Wednesday 13 October 2021

The Constant Gardener: How to Be Someone Your Friends Can Rely On

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

In this post I want to explore what it means to be someone your friends can rely on. That might not seem all that special or unusual. Isn’t that what friendship is about? To an extent, yes. Friendship, certainly the mutually supportive kind I value most, implies a degree of commitment and trust that you’ll be there for each other. On the other hand, I think most of us would agree they have one or two friends they’d unthinkingly turn to in moments of need or crisis. It’s not that those friends are better or more important than the rest. Dependability is one role in the repertoire of caring, but it’s not the only one and it has consequences. What’s it like to be that kind of friend? Maybe you are already. Maybe you wish you were. Maybe you wish you had one. Let’s take a look.

The Steadfast Friend

Two words came to me when I began writing this piece: constancy (in the sense of being unchangingly faithful and dependable), and steadfastness (being resolutely or dutifully firm and unwavering). I’ll discuss constancy later but I find this description of steadfastness by Barry Walsh very relevant, albeit couched in the language of business leadership:

Steadfast implies a sureness and continuousness that may be depended upon. The steadfast [person] is dependable, reliable, constant and unwavering. S/he stays the course, follows through, develops good habits and keeps them.

In other words, we’re talking about someone who is able to offer a stable and reliable point of reference for others. This is captured nicely in the following quotes from our book High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder. Here, Fran and I are discussing my role in our friendship, specifically that of being a safe haven.

The most important role you can fill is that of someone your friend can rely on, feel safe with, and trust to be always there. Fran has friends “who are designated to be the string of my balloon.” We keep her grounded in times of mania and prevent her from sinking too deeply when she is in depression. It is a cornerstone of our friendship that I am available for Fran no matter what is happening. We have spent many hours together when she has felt depressed, manic, anxious, afraid, or suicidal. There is little I can do to help on a practical level, but I can listen and talk with her. Above all, I can simply be there so that she knows she is not alone.

It’s especially valuable when Fran is in mania:

I once asked Fran what I contributed most to our friendship. She gave me the image of an oak tree, standing strong and tall. On other occasions, she has likened me to a rock or anchor, a still point of reference amid the uncertain tides of illness. I act as a buffer between her and the world and balance her thinking, which [when in mania] tends to be mercurial, dogmatic, and strongly polarised.

This degree of commitment is generally reserved for relationships with partners, siblings, parents or children. Thinking of me and Fran one friend asked, “Realistically, who’s got the time and energy to unfalteringly provide that level of care and dedication to someone outside your immediate family?” It’s a valid question but for me, it misses the point. Not everyone, whether living with mental illness or not, wants or needs the kind of connection that works for me and Fran. But pretty much everyone wants and needs people in their lives they can depend on.

What does steadfastness mean in practice? It means saying, as many times as your friend needs to hear it, I’m here for you. I’m not going anywhere. How can I help? – and not only meaning it at the time but following through. It means picking up when your friend calls or messages you, no matter what time it is, how your friendship stands at that moment, or how recently you were last in touch, even if it’s six months after the friendship broke down, because you promised you’d always be there and they believed you. I’m not necessarily talking about picking up a broken relationship. Things sometimes end for valid reasons. I’m talking about a commitment to be a steadying hand in a crisis, a gentle voice on the end of the phone, a safe space in which to talk, vent, or cry things out.

It’s not always easy, because the role is a function of the other person’s needs. There may be times you’re called on to take a step back and give your friend space because they have other things going on for them, because they’re doing better and don’t need you as much, or they’re having a really rough time and you’re not who they need right now. On the other hand, you may feel you need to hide or buffer changes in your life and circumstances so as to be the person your friend’s grown used to depending on. If you present as other than stable, solid, and reliable, maybe you’ll risk losing your role as the steadfast friend who’s always there for others.

This is something I’m working with at the moment, as I begin to explore my mental health more openly in conversations with friends and in my blogging. One friend said she felt less confident turning to me for support because she didn’t want to upset me or make my situation worse. I told her that’s not how things work for me. Being there for others, including hearing whatever they wish to share with me, never brings my mood down, depresses, or overloads me. Quite the opposite. Hopefully, my friend understood and was reassured.

Codependency and Over-Reliance

All this might sound as though I’m talking about an unhealthy degree of codependency, or putting yourself at someone else’s beck and call. It’s certainly something to keep an eye out for, and challenge if it begins to affect your relationship or wellbeing. Left unchecked, the consequences of putting other people’s needs before your own can be devastating, as they were for my mother. Her mental health deteriorated to the point where she was barely able to function. Ironically, she spent her final years depressed, anxious, and wracked with guilt for not having done more. Fran and I have found openness to be the best antidote to codependency:

Begin by speaking honestly with your friend about what is going on for you. Talk about the things you are able to do, but also discuss setting healthy boundaries.

There may be others with claims on your time and energy: young children, elderly relatives, other friends, or a partner. You may be ill yourself, or have problems and issues which require your attention. There are also limits to your skills, knowledge, and competence. No one can tell you where the boundaries ought to lie, and they may shift from time to time. That is something you, your friend, and the others in your life must work out for yourselves.

Actively encourage others to play their role in your friend’s care, rather than trying to do everything yourself. Keep an eye on your health and well-being too. It can be exhausting to support someone with illness, and you may need your own support team from time to time.

For more on this, check out How to Be Kind and Clever, Four Things It’s Hard for a Mental Health Ally to Hear (And Why It’s Important to Listen), and What My Mantra Means to Me: Healthy Boundaries.

The Constant Gardener

I’m fortunate to have had several healthy examples of steadfastness in my life. The first was the husband of one of my older cousins. I didn’t know him well but I remember the devotion he showed to his wife and stepdaughters. Nothing appeared too much trouble and I’ve held him as something of a role model ever since.

The second is a current friend of mine. Like me, she cares for a best friend who lives with mental health issues. She also supports a number of other friends. We relate well because we understand the particular demands – and rewards – of this kind of steadfast care. With characteristic insight, she once said to me, “Maybe we’re just these weird people whose forte in life is to be needed.”

My third example is the character of Marnie played by Susan Sarandon in the 2015 movie The Meddler. One moment captures Marnie’s generosity of spirit perfectly. The lines are delivered by her friend Jillian, played by Cecily Strong, at her (Jillian’s) wedding, which Marnie funded and helped arrange.

“Marnie, words cannot even begin to express my gratitude to you. After my mother died I couldn’t imagine being loved so unconditionally by someone who wasn’t my family.”

Staying with fictional characters, my fourth example is Samwise (Sam) Gamgee, in J. R. R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy novel The Lord of the Rings. Played by Sean Astin in the movie adaptation, Sam was Frodo Baggins’ gardener, but also “[his] steadfast companion and servant, portrayed as both physically strong for his size and emotionally strong, often pushing Frodo through difficult parts of the journey and at times carrying Frodo when he was too weak to go on.” According to the Open-Source Psychometrics Project, Sam’s top three personality characteristics are loyalty, kindness, and heroism. He’s also been called “a quintessential ISFJ” on the Myers-Briggs personality scale:

The ISFJ is known as the defender or protector, which is exactly what Sam does for Frodo. ISFJs are also known for their loyalty and quiet determination. Sam is willing to sacrifice everything to stand by Frodo’s side and save Middle-earth.

I used to be a devoted fan of Tolkien’s work, and ran a fan group called Middle-earth Reunion between 1996 and 2005. In one of my favourite stories for our quarterly magazine, I explored Sam’s steadfast service through my main character, William (Bill) Stokes. In the following excerpt, Bill finally comes to understand the nature of his role supporting his wife through her battle with cancer, and finds healing for the pain and guilt he’s carried since she died.

And it came to him, hard and sudden. If the second acorn — this tiny oak tree in the plastic carrier at his feet — was the gift of the Lady then he was Samwise Gamgee. Not warrior but steadfast companion, whose hands were not those of a healer but gardener of a line of gardeners.

In that moment he saw himself through Joan’s eyes. She didn’t see — hadn’t seen — him as a failure, hadn’t hated him for failing to make the disease go away. They had been married twenty-seven years and he had been what she needed him to be. Faithful friend, truest companion on the longest road. He was her Sam.

Not Aragorn, damn his eyes. Sam. The hands of a gardener.

Bill Stokes, grower of things. He knew at last what the last tree was for.

My final gardening reference is the character of Justin Quayle in the 2001 novel The Constant Gardener by British author John le Carré. According to one reviewer, the book’s title “refers to Justin’s determination to grow things, literally and figuratively. We see Justin gardening as a hobby, offering gentle but diligent attention to his plants. On a broader thematic level, gardeners never stop digging, and after [his wife] Tessa’s murder, Justin digs endlessly for the truth.”

This finds an echo in a talk I attended in September for World Suicide Prevention Day. Asked about this year’s theme, “Creating Hope Through Action,” mental health advocate and author Jake Tyler said the most important action he’d taken during the long months of lockdown was to nurture the relationships that meant most to him. He reminded us that connections require ongoing, dutiful, care in order to blossom and remain healthy. They also need room to grow. Fran and I discuss this throughout our book, most specifically in the following passage in which we describe one of our guiding maxims.

Open Hands. Open Arms. Open Heart.

This important principle reminds us not to hold too tightly to people, relationships, and situations. Healthy things grow, and to grow is to change. In the time we have known each other Fran has moved from mania to depression and out again. She has grown in self-awareness, and developed tools for looking after herself. I have learned a great deal about what it is like for someone living with illness, and how to respond to Fran’s needs and the needs of others. At times Fran needs me close beside her, at other times she needs space to grow independently.

“Open hands” recognises that change is natural, healthy, and necessary. It gives us permission to grow without feeling guilty or restricted. Imagine holding a small bird in the palm of your hand. It feels safe, protected, and cared for, but it is free to move, to grow, and even to fly away. “Open arms” reminds us that, no matter what happens, we will always welcome each other back as friends. “Open heart” connects our friendship to our wider network of relationships with other friends, family, and the people we encounter in our lives.

On that note, I’ll bring this discussion to a close. I’ve examined some aspects of being a reliable, steadfast, and constant friend. It’s not without its challenges but I believe they’re far outweighed by the rewards. The quotation at the start of this post is one of the most genuine, heart-felt, and meaningful acknowledgements I’ve ever received.

“You truly are someone I can rely on in an emergency and at all other times.”

Do you have someone in your life you trust always to be there for you? Do you fulfil the role of constant gardener for your friends and loved ones? How does it feel? I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.


Photo by Avelino Calvar Martinez on Burst.


Wednesday 6 October 2021

Do One Thing (A Day, a Week, a Month, a Year, Now, for You) for World Mental Health Day

Do you believe we should live in a society where everyone has access to proper mental health support? So do we. (Mind)

Organised by the World Foundation for Mental Health and observed each year on October 10, World Mental Health Day (WMHD) is an opportunity to raise awareness of mental health issues and to mobilize efforts in support of mental health. This year’s theme is Mental Health in an Unequal World.

This theme was chosen [...] because the world is increasingly polarized, with the very wealthy becoming wealthier, and the number of people living in poverty still far too high. 2020 highlighted inequalities due to race and ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity, and the lack of respect for human rights in many countries, including for people living with mental health conditions. Such inequalities have an impact on people’s mental health.

Here in the UK, mental health charity Mind’s Do One Thing campaign for WMHD invites us to add our voice to those championing change, “Because if we all do one thing, we can change everything.”

This post is my invitation to you — and a reminder to myself — to do one thing to counter stigma, discrimination, and unfairness. Not just on WMHD, though. Not just occasionally, when we think about it or are reminded by some awareness campaign. But regularly, repeatedly, reliably, relentlessly; until anyone and everyone in need has access to the support and care they need.

I’ve included suggestions for daily, weekly, monthly, and annual engagement, something you can do right now, and a reminder not to forget about yourself. Most focus on exploring outside our personal experience, so as to expand our knowledge of lives other than our own. It’s important, though, not to lose sight of our own needs. Whoever you are and whatever your situation, you matter too. Your health and wellbeing matter. You are as entitled to your share of respect, care, and support, as everyone else. If you experience any of the inequalities touched on in this article, you might choose to focus your time and energy advocating for yourself and others in similar situations.

Do One Thing a Day

To the extent you feel comfortable, keep up-to-date on current affairs, especially issues relating to mental health and inequality. Consider setting a limit on your engagement — for example fifteen minutes a day, or every couple of days — if you feel overwhelmed by all that’s going on in the world.

The theme of this year’s WMHD rightly draws our attention to the discrimination and lack of opportunities experienced by many people around the world. That’s not the whole story, however. There’s a lot to celebrate and be thankful too, if you keep an eye out for it. One good place to start is Positive News: “The magazine for good journalism about good things [...] dedicated to quality, independent reporting about what’s going right.” Another great source of meaningful content is Humans of New York.

Check in with friends and loved ones, especially anyone you feel may be struggling or isolated.

If you’re on social media, follow key organisations and influencers in areas you’re interested in. Check their content regularly, and engage by commenting and sharing their posts on.

Do One Thing a Week

Follow a podcast or blog that resonates for you and commit to catching up on their latest content once a week. Feedspot is a curated database of bloggers and podcasts covering a wide range of topics. We are currently #73 in their list of mental health blogs. My friend Aimee Wilson’s blog I’m NOT Disordered is #2 for borderline personality disorder.

Once a week can be a convenient frequency to check in with friends or family you’re not in touch with on a day-to-day basis, whether it’s a hand-written letter (remember those?!), chat, or a video, or voice call.

If you keep a diary or journal, consider writing a brief weekly summary of things you’ve done, learned, or achieved.

Do One Thing a Month

Each month, choose a topic you know little or nothing about. Set aside a few hours, or a day or two, and learn as much about it as you can. Research online, take a course, or read a book on the subject. If possible, talk with someone for whom your chosen topic is part of their lived experience. It won’t make you an expert by any means, but it will broaden your knowledge of experiences other than your own. Here are a few suggested topics to explore:

  • A physical or mental health condition
  • Diversity and inclusion
  • Homelessness
  • Human rights
  • Intersectionality
  • Any of the protected characteristics (age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation), especially as they relate to discrimination or unequal access to services and support
  • Suicide and suicidal thinking
  • Unconscious bias

MIND’s campaign page has information on a range of topics including children and young people’s mental health, support for our emergency services, benefits, and housing. They also link to partnership campaigns with the English Football League, Heads Together, and the Scouts A Million Hands initiative.

Another good resource is the Awareness Days website. This is a searchable calendar of awareness days, weeks, and months throughout the year.

If you are looking for training courses, check out Centre of Excellence, Free Courses in England, Future Learn, and Open Learn (free courses from the Open University). We’ve previously published a list of online suicide awareness and suicide prevention courses and podcasts. The No Stigmas network offers an ally program which includes free online training.

Do One Thing a Year

Choose one area of mental health, inequality, or change as your focus for the year, and devote yourself to learning more about it, and engaging with and supporting those whose lives are most affected.

Take out or renew your membership to a mental health organisation, charity (non-profit), or other body whose vision and mission you support.

Volunteer your time, energy, or expertise to a cause that is meaningful to you.

Sign up for a fundraising event or challenge.

Do One Thing Right Now

Right here, right now, as you’re reading this article, take a moment to consider how you might make a positive difference in the world.

Do One Thing for You

Remind yourself of the good things in your life, your successes and achievements. It’s important and healthy to celebrate your wins, no matter how great or small they might seem to be.

Take a break when you need to. That includes stepping away from social media and the news if you feel stressed, anxious, or overwhelmed.

If you, or someone you care about, are in need of support we have a list of crisis and support lines on our resources page.

One Last Thing

In the words of UK mental heath charity Mind, “[t]his World Mental Health Day is your chance to learn about mental health inequality. It’s also an opportunity to speak out, spread the word and make change happen.” We’ve shared a number of ways to approach this challenge, but we’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas. What does Do One Thing mean to you, and how do you feel we can best challenge mental health inequality?