Wednesday 28 December 2022

The Three Kinds of Care

By Janet Coburn

December is National Family Caregivers Month, so it seemed like a good time to talk about caregiving. In my view, there are three kinds of caregiving: giving care, receiving care and self-care.

Caregiving

Caregiving is not an easy task, no matter whether you’re a family member or a professional. With an uncommunicative person such as one with depression, it practically takes telepathy. At times it seems impossible to know what kind of care is needed. A hug? Encouragement? Alone time? Help with chores? A listening ear? My husband, who is my principal caregiver, does all those things for me.

One thing about caregiving that I learned from my parents is that caregivers need recognition, too. My mother took care of my father all through the years of the illness that killed him. He wasn’t mentally ill, but his physical needs were many. Once my mother came to me and asked if she was doing a good job of caring for him. Of course, I reassured her. The thing is, objectively she knew that she was meeting his needs well. She just needed to hear it from someone else. You can talk about not looking for external validation, but sometimes it’s the kind you really need.

Receiving Care

All caregivers need recognition, and the best kind comes from the person for whom they care. That’s not always possible. Many therapists find it inappropriate to get gifts from their clients (mine accepted a small plant graciously). But a simple holiday card can be a nice remembrance. Other recipients of care have something to offer their caregivers as well – simple human connection.

Certainly, those of us receiving care can be irritable or even angry about needing care, but some recognition from us can go a long way toward keeping our caregivers, well, caring. Kindness is reciprocal. I know it’s hard to remember that or to act on it.

I owe my husband – my primary caregiver – more than I can say. Without him, I wouldn’t be able to do what I can do – take care of paying the bills and work enough to keep us mostly current, for example. And I thank him, appreciate him, and do what I can for him. I try not to be greedy with his time and efforts – I know he has other things he’d rather be doing or needs to do for his own care. I know I don’t do nearly as much for him as he deserves.

Self Care

For people who have a mental illness, self-care can be difficult. We know what we should be doing, but it’s often difficult. It feels like self-care is just another chore, on top of all the other things we’re not able to do. If I can’t keep on top of laundry and dishes, how am I supposed to keep on top of showering? If I can’t manage to get out of bed for more than a couple of hours a day, how am I supposed to find time and motivation to exercise?

I know that self-care is important, but I have trouble doing it sometimes. I know I’m capable of it. I’m on my own while my husband is at work, and I managed to keep up self-care while he was out of town earlier this year. But somehow, I never seem to get beyond the very basics of self-care – eating and sleeping regularly. Never mind the manicures, shopping sprees, and bubble baths that some recommend. Those might require getting dressed, going out among people, and spending money. (Bubble baths don’t, of course, unless you count going out to get the bubble bath, which I do count. I sure don’t have any on hand.)

If you’re able to make even modest efforts toward self-care, make sure you give yourself a metaphorical pat on the back. Believe me, you’ve earned it.

The bottom line is this: No matter whether you give or receive care or care for yourself, you need and deserve recognition and appreciation.

Originally published in December 2022 at Bipolar Me.

 

About the Author

Janet Coburn is a freelance writer/editor with bipolar disorder, type 2. She is the author of two books: Bipolar Me and Bipolar Us.

Janet writes about mental health issues including talk therapy, medication, books, bullying, social aspects, and public policy, but mostly her own experiences with bipolar 2. As she says, “I am not an expert and YMMV – Your Mileage May Vary.”

 

Wednesday 21 December 2022

And Sometimes It Happens: The Gentle Art of Letting Go

And sometimes it happens that you are friends and then
You are not friends,
And friendship has passed.
And whole days are lost and among them
A fountain empties itself.

— Brian Patten, “Sometimes It Happens”

Fran and I talk a lot about friendship. We post about it on social media. We blog about it here. We wrote a book based on our experience as transatlantic best friends. We believe friendships are healthiest and most resilient where there’s a commitment to honest and open communication. That’s not to say, of course, that honesty and openness guarantee a friendship will last forever. Things change, and that’s as true of friendship as anything else. Fran and I have weathered more than a few storms over the years. I’d say we’re stronger for it. But not all change is navigable and not all friendships endure.

That’s something I’ve not written about before, although it’s a topic I’ve wanted to explore for a long time. The starting point for this article was a conversation with Fran in which she shared that a friend had told her she’s “too kind,” and that people take advantage of her as a result. Fran agreed she finds it hard to maintain healthy boundaries, and this has led to problems with some friends in the past. I knew what she meant, but the conversation left me feeing uneasy. I knew why; it was the idea that kindness leads to being used or taken advantage of.

It’s certainly true that being unconditionally kind can lead to problems, including co-dependency. My mother was a perfect and tragic example of this, as I’ve shared previously in an open letter to my mother written six months after her death. Toxic, manipulative, and abusive relationships also exist, of course. I’ve no first-hand experience to draw on, but I’ve seen how devastating and long-lasting their effects can be. It seems to me, though, that most friendships struggle for more mundane reasons and with little malign intent on either part. Friendships succeed, I suggest, when we are able to meet each other’s needs. They falter, and sometimes end, when we are no longer able to do so.

No single friendship or relationship can meet all our needs at all times. Temporary imbalances are nothing to be feared, but if they become entrenched, they can lead to dissatisfaction and loneliness. I wrote on the subject of loneliness for Mental Health Awareness Week this year, inspired by an insight by Mark Rowland, CEO of the Mental Health Foundation: “Loneliness is the feeling we experience when there is a mismatch between the social connections we have and those that we need or want.”

But what constitutes a mismatch or imbalance? When does it become an issue? Who gets to decide? It might seem to some people as though I put myself out to meet Fran’s needs, and the needs of my other friends. We touch on this in our book, because it’s a form of stigma that needs to be challenged.

If you devote a lot of time and energy to your friend, others may worry you are being taken advantage of, especially if money is involved. Some may feel displaced in your affections, jealous, or otherwise uncertain as to the nature of your relationship. In our experience, the best response is to be honest and open, although this may not always be appropriate. Most people who learn of my role as Fran’s friend and caregiver are interested and supportive. This is appreciated on a personal level, and helps counter the stigma associated with mental illness. Our friendship has taught me to be more aware of others who may be struggling. That doesn’t mean I try and help everyone, but I offer what I can and neither absent myself nor run away. To do this, I need people prepared to support me in moments of confusion, frustration, and self-doubt — and they do occur — without imposing limits on my capacity to care.

I endeavour to be there for friends if and when they need me. I don’t consider that an unhealthy dynamic if it’s handled responsibly. I’ve explored this previously in such articles as The Constant Gardener: How to Be Someone Your Friends Can Rely On and How to Be There for a Friend When No One Else Is. Do I ever say no? Not often, but yes. Maintaining healthy boundaries will mean different things to different people. For me, it includes protecting my online time with Fran, and my personal “Marty time” when I’m writing or need space for myself.

I describe my friendship with Fran as mutually supportive. We meet many of each other’s needs, but not all. I’m part of Fran’s team, which includes other friends, and her professional support network. Fran is part of Team Marty, but she’s not the only person on the team. She told me once she was glad, because it means there’s less pressure on her. Another friend, Louise, expressed it beautifully. Someone I knew was struggling and I felt utterly unable to offer meaningful support. Louise reminded me that not all the team is on the field at all times. “Keep in mind that your friend is going through her stuff,” she said. “You’re still on her team, just not playing right now.” Her words helped me navigate a difficult and confusing phase in that particular friendship, and informed my concept of supportive disengagement.

What do I mean by [supportive disengagement]? Essentially, it means stepping back from the usual give-and-take dynamic you share with your friend, but being there if and when you’re invited in. It means providing encouragement and support when asked but otherwise getting out of your friend’s way so they can navigate whatever’s happening in their lives the best way they can.

It’s a safe way to manage mismatched needs, without bringing the friendship itself to an end.

Supportive disengagement is for situations when your friendship is taking a break rather than broken, when disengagement is less than total, and — crucially — where the lines of communication remain open.

It’s worth remembering that people’s needs change over time, and our friends may find others better suited or more available than we are to meet those needs. The same can happen in reverse, of course. I recall friendships where there’s been a lessening over time, a diminution, even an ending. Some connections have picked up again after a gap of weeks or months. Other endings have been permanent. Some fractures were intensely painful. Others were less so; a few almost graceful in their passing from engagement to disengagement. My friend Maya expressed this beautifully, looking back on our time as friends.

In recent years there was a sort of tearing that occurred in the fabric of our friendship. I think there have been a few tears, over the years, but most of those have been patched up with some pretty nice fabric and made “roadworthy” for want of a better term. I do believe friendship needs to be mutually strong enough to work through difficulties, differences, obstacles — and some are strong enough, and some aren’t. Although, I think there are times when friendships just dissolve as they come to the end of their meaning or purpose, and perhaps not all friendships are meant to last.

Maya’s words echo a quotation many will recognise: “People come into your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime. When you figure out which one it is, you will know what to do for each person.” Those are the opening lines of a poem frequently attributed to Brian A. Chalker, although authorship is uncertain. The full poem can be found in this blog post on the subject of friendship by Selina Man Karlsson.

When Maya and I were first friends, I remember telling her about someone who was very important to me at that time. Maya asked what purpose the friendship fulfilled in my life. The question caught me off guard. I’d never thought about my friendships in that way before. I probably answered by saying this person didn’t serve any purpose, she was simply my friend, someone I cared about. I understand rather more about needs and their fulfilment — and nonfulfilment — these days, through the work Fran and I have done with Non-violent Communication (NVC). The twin concepts of NVC and supportive disengagement have helped me navigate changes in the dynamics of friendships which previously would have been very hard for me to accept and process.

No matter the emotional tools at our disposal, there’s no escaping the fact that breakups are hard, especially if they come out of the blue. Even if the disengagement is gentle and mutually orchestrated, most closures involve loss, tears, and bereavement. That’s natural and nothing to be feared. Rationally, we might accept what’s happened, but our emotions are not rational and need to find their own equilibrium. They, and we, deserve time, care, and respect while we work things through.

Breakups can leave us feeling we’ve done something wrong — or worse, that there’s something wrong with us such that people always leave. (So why bother trying?) Self-pity may be part of how we process endings, but it’s unlikely we’re totally at fault. It’s easy to look back at previous friendships that have ended, seeing patterns where there are none, and ignoring or forgetting the reality that not all friendships are destined to last. Endings do not represent failure, on either part.

That said, sometimes the other person has chosen to end the friendship because of something we’ve said or done. To put it bluntly, sometimes we are the toxic one. If there’s something in how we behave towards others that tends to hurt or drive them away, we have a responsibility to acknowledge the fact and change our behaviour. That’s been the case with me at different times. There are people I will never meet or hear from again because of how poorly or clumsily I treated them. I hope I’ve learned at least some of the lessons.

Most times, though, neither of you is to blame. It’s simply that the imbalance of priorities and needs between you has become unsustainable. What happens then is up to you (both). Perhaps there’s enough of your friendship left to talk it out and find a way forward. Maybe things fractured harshly with no opportunity for discussion or repair, or faded so gradually it was hard to say where friendship ended and absence began. You might hold space for a while to see if things will realign, but there may come a time when you’re ready to let go. Not because you stopped caring about your friend. But because you started caring about you.

Allow the hurt and tears their place and time. Don’t push the feelings away. Acknowledge them. Invite them in. But don’t allow them to overstay their welcome. They have other places to be, and you have other guests to offer a place at your table. The warmth of friends you have not lost. The joy of those you’ve yet to meet. It’s not easy, but there is a way through. As one unattributed quotation I encountered whilst researching this post puts it, “Your peace will come when you learn to let go of whatever has let go of you.”

 

Over to You

The poem I quoted at the start of this piece has helped me a lot over the years. You can read Brian Patten’s “Sometimes It Happens” in full at Poetry Hoard.

I’ve shared how I approach the ending of friendships, but everyone’s experience is different. How do you feel and respond if a friendship fades or closes? How do you handle breakups? I’d love to hear from you, either in the comments below or via our contact page.

 

Photo by Peter Herrmann at Unsplash.

 

Wednesday 14 December 2022

I Am Known, Inside and Out

 

I am known, inside and out.

I do not feel the need to hide parts of myself away for fear of scaring you.

I listen, unafraid of the places you take me.

We express love, wonder, anger, jealousy, envy, frustration, freely.

We laugh and cry.

Real laughter. Real tears.

I tell you my how-it-is even when I know it is different from yours.

I listen to your how-it-is, holding it gently in the space between us.

We dance in the differences, the gaps where the magic happens.

 

~mb

 

This post was originally shared on social media, November 25, 2011.
Photo by Leslie Jones on Unsplash.

 

Wednesday 7 December 2022

Ready When You Are: Four Little Words That Mean So Much

I’m just waiting on a friend.
— Mick Jagger / Keith Richards. “Waiting on a Friend.”

Pretty much every voice or video call that Fran and I share begins with me messaging her “rwya” — our shorthand for “ready when you are.” It’s become so much a part of our friendship that I rarely stop to think about it. Except today I did as I was waiting for Fran to call. I thought it might be interesting to explore what that little acronym means for us, in the hope others might find it useful.

I can’t remember exactly when we came up with “rwya” but it was early in our friendship when transatlantic calls were still a novelty for us. In those days, Fran was going through a protracted episode of mania. She wanted and needed frequent and often immediate contact. I loved spending time with my new friend and was happy to accommodate her need for connection, but we needed to figure out how best to do that.

I consider it a kindness and mark of respect if someone messages me before calling to check if I’m available. Fran almost always did so, but the request might come at any moment, day or night. It’s fundamental to our friendship that I never ignore her messages but she recognised it wasn’t always possible for me to chat or speak immediately. She’d wait for my “rwya” before calling. For some technical reason that eludes me, our calls always worked better when Fran called me rather than the other way round, and we’ve stuck to that way of doing things. It also reduces the chance of us trying to call each other at the same time!

First and foremost, then, “rwya” lets Fran know I’m ready. I have time and space to connect, and any technology I need is at hand. That might be my PC, tablet, or mobile phone, my folding stand, and my Bluetooth headset. (I can’t understand anyone not having a phone stand and headset. They make life so much easier!) We mostly use Skype for our voice and video calls, and that works much better on my phone if I have the app open in advance. “Missed call from Fran” notifications are annoying for us both!

Our acronym carries another important message, though, represented by the “when you are” bit. Fran and I soon settled on times of day which were as mutually convenient as we could manage given the five hour time difference between us. If we were both free at those times, then we had our call. Mostly, that meant if we were each at home, but sometimes we’d call if we were out and about. Sharing aspects of our lives in this way is a great way to deepen a connection between friends. It’s also fundamental to our supportive friendship, as we describe in our book.

It might seem as though a five hour time difference would make it difficult for us to connect, but our lives mesh well. On a typical day we talk briefly in the morning and meet twice later for video calls, usually at two o’clock in the afternoon and six o’clock in the evening for Fran (seven and eleven o’clock in the evening for me). This regular scheduling provides stability and structure, which are otherwise lacking in a life governed by illness.

We’ve always let each other know if we’re likely to be to unavailable, but inevitably there are occasions when I’m set to take a call at our usual time but Fran isn’t quite ready, or can’t make it but hasn’t had chance to let me know her plans have changed. This is when the “wya” bit of “rwya” comes into its own. It means precisely what it says: I’m here and ready when (and if) you are. Most importantly, it means “it’s okay if you’re not ready, or if something’s come up.”

This might sound obvious, but I haven’t always been as patient and understanding as that description suggests. On more than one occasion I became frustrated and cross if Fran didn’t show up for a call and hadn’t let me know in advance. It came to a head one evening. I was pretty sure Fran was at home, and couldn’t understand why she hadn’t called yet or let me know what was happening. When we did eventually connect, I wasn’t shy in voicing my frustration. Fran calmly explained that she hadn’t been able to call me or let me know because she’d been helping support a friend who was in acute distress.

I don’t use our little acronym with anyone else, but its wisdom applies equally to my other friends. No matter who it is or what we’re arranging — a chat online, a call, or a get together in person — I approach it with the understanding that we both want it to happen but that other things might get in the way. It’s an approach that’s served me well on a number of occasions, saving me a good deal of frustration, anxiety, and hurt.

I appreciate friends who let me know when they’re on their way to meet me, or if they are delayed or need to reschedule. There’s an example of this in a short piece I wrote in November 2019 titled A Few Thoughts on Friendship Whilst Waiting for a Friend.

I’m sitting at a table in Newcastle’s City Library. At my side is the library copy of High Tide, Low Tide, the book I wrote with my best friend Fran. I never tire of seeing it on the shelf. It’s a proud moment for any author; second only to not seeing it because someone has taken it out on loan. I’m waiting for a friend. We’ll meet for coffee and then go for a drink or two; maybe something to eat. We’ll catch up with what’s going on for us. We’ll laugh, share old memories and make new ones. It is at moments like this that I feel most blessed.

The piece ends: “My friend has just messaged to say she’s on her way. Time to return the book to its place on the shelf and head out to meet her.” As far as I recall, she was on time, but I remember waiting for a different friend on a different occasion. She was more than an hour late in the end, but she’d let me know the reason for the delay and offered to reschedule. I was happy to wait. I was “ready” but she wasn’t, and it wasn’t a problem at all.

Whatever the situation, ready when you are is about maintaining a healthy balance between honouring the commitments we make to each other, and respecting our boundaries and needs as individuals.

Over to You

How do you handle making arrangements with friends and loved ones? Do you get frustrated if they’re unavailable or delayed? Do you find it easy to let other people know you can’t connect when they want to? How do you navigate these moments in your relationships? We’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas, either in the comments below or via our contact page.

 

Photo by William Krause at Unsplash.

 

Wednesday 30 November 2022

Marks on a Page: The Art and Craft of Letter Writing

I think I became a writer because I used to write letters to my friends, and I used to love writing them. I loved the idea that you can put marks on a page and send it off, and two days later, someone laughs somewhere else in the world.
— David Nicholls

I recently shared a selection of open letters I’ve written over the years, but what about regular, personal letters? Letter writing has always been an important part of my life and I thought it might be interesting to explore that a little. The inspiration to do so came when I discovered my friend Louise shares my love of letter writing. “It’s such a lovely thing,” she told me. “That hardly anyone does now. My mom used to make us write thank you letters to all our relatives after Christmas and birthdays so I think it’s been instilled in me.” I can trace my letter writing back to childhood too. I mentioned this last year in a blog post titled Thank You Anyway: The Gift of Ingratitude.

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

Grudging thank you notes aside, the first letters I remember writing were to two French penfriends when I was at school. I can’t recall either of their names, and I don’t think the exchanges lasted long, but it opened me to the delight of sharing aspects of my life and learning something of another person’s life that might be quite different to my own.

Letter writing really took off for me during my years at university in Bradford. In those preinternet times, if you wanted to keep in touch with someone you had two options; phone calls or letters. I never felt confident on the telephone, even with close friends, and relied on correspondence to stay in touch with ex-school mates when I was away at university, and with university folk during Christmas and summer break. As I mentioned recently in an article describing my adventures with Teeline shorthand and other writing systems, I corresponded for a time in Elven Tengwar with one school friend who shared my fascination with the writing modes described by JRR Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings.

One university friend, Vicky, was a wonderful letter writer. She left Bradford early when she realised the course wasn’t for her, but we wrote to each other for a year or more afterwards. Her letters — I still have them — were delightful, full of silliness and wonder. She once sent me a large box of gifts, using mini bags of jelly tot sweets as packing material. I miss her a lot. I wrote a good deal of poetry in those days, too. One poem describes the — delicious — agony of waiting for a reply from someone you care about very deeply, hoping they feel the same but knowing they probably don’t.

Faithfully (unanswered)

Faithfully I keep the vows
I never made,
chastening a love I know
yet understand not
in the flames of its integrity
—waiting for devotion doubt denies me.
So few words would despatch misapprehension,
end this love’s charade,
or blow despair upon the wings of a kinder truth.

But tide and time have marked another day
and still no word
—not one—
consoles me.
My mind spins in its circles,
weaving reason out of darkness,
filling the silence with dreams and sighs and promises
beyond regret:
how long before it weaves my love a shroud
and the one I needed fades
like the last strains of a finale …

Tomorrow may bring my consolation
or find me waiting still
—impaled upon a desire
that cannot cede
but wears its agony like a crown of thorns. Renewed and
selfless adoration
in this modern age?
Perhaps.

I spent two six-month periods away from Bradford on placement. Letters were a lifeline, and kept the pulse of friendships going when we couldn’t be together in person. This was especially true on my second placement, at the start of my final academic year. The following is taken from a blog post exploring loneliness.

One Friday in September 1982, I arrived in Norwich to begin a six-month work placement at the regional hospital. I unpacked in my tiny room in the nurses’ home, and phoned friends to let them know I’d arrived safely. I enjoyed the months I worked there, but on that first night as I put down the phone, with the weekend ahead of me in a new city with no one I knew, I felt an almost existential loneliness.

I wrote to my best friend Dawn every week of those six months and checked the post each day for replies. I can still remember my excitement when I’d find an envelope from her in my pigeon hole. Letters to and from Dawn continued after I left university and moved to London. I was writing to several friends at that time, on a more or less regular basis.

One thing I like about letter writing is that it finds its own frequency and rhythm. I’d write to some friends more or less by return of post; others every few weeks; others less frequently. Pam (PJ) was a return-of-post kind of friend, and I loved her for that amongst much else. Our letters — I still have many of hers and drafts of mine — were a delightful mix of what we’d been up to, what our mutual friends were up to, our dreams, hopes, and plans for the future. I’d often take a several days to write to a letter. I’d treat myself to each step of the process; jotting down a few ideas, writing the letter in draft, copying it out neatly, addressing the envelope, and walking to the post box to send it off on its way. Thinking about it now brings many warm memories.

After three years in London, I moved north to Newcastle upon Tyne. I continued writing to friends from university and others I’d made during my time in the capital. The frequency and content of the letters reflected the friendships themselves. Some were of the what’s-been-happening-lately variety. Others went much deeper, exploring what we were each thinking and feeling, our hopes and fears, the birth of new relationships, and the pain as relationships fractured and ended.

Around this time I connected with an amazing artist called Yuri Leitch and exchanged many long and detailed letters on topics I knew very little about but was keen to explore. Our friendship led to an introduction to someone who became a close friend and wonderful return-of-post correspondent for several years. Sorcha’s letters were full of life and energy, and I wove her knowledge and love of the Isles of Scilly into some of my fictional work.

My mother was the only member of my family I ever wrote to with any frequency. As her health deteriorated, her replies became intermittent and ultimately stopped altogether. I continued to send letters and cards, nonetheless. The following is from the open letter to my mother, written and published after she died.

It’s been a while since I wrote you. Six months. What was the last thing I sent you? A postcard, probably. Someone — one of your sisters, my aunts — told me a while back that my letters to you went unopened. Hence the postcards: nothing for you to open (or not open), a pretty picture for you to look at, and less aching white space for me to fill each week. It made it easier — for me at least. Nothing too heavy. News from up here in the north. Family. Friends. Work. Then best wishes for your wellbeing and family down there.

I wrote to hide my inability — some would say refusal — to respond to her needs in more meaningful and practical ways. It wasn’t the first time I’d done this. A close friend developed multiple sclerosis, which advanced far more rapidly than she or anyone else anticipated. As I’ve shared elsewhere,

I watched helplessly as the woman I had known was overwhelmed by disease, despair, and grief. The depth of her need terrified me. I wrote to her every day for what turned out to be the last two years of her life, but never once picked up the telephone. I visited her home only once, after her death, to attend a memorial ceremony.

The friend I treated so poorly was none other than PJ. My daily letter writing was rooted in the love and meaning we’d shared in former times, when we’d often correspond by return of post. Her replies fell away, though, as the illness progressed and her hope diminished. I might have responded to those changes by asking how I could help more meaningfully, but I kept on relentlessly mailing my daily thoughts and best wishes until she became too ill to read them, or even have them read to her. I’ve no record of what I said to her, but I know where I was when I wrote the final letter. The following is from a blog post about my favourite writing cafés and coffee shops.

One of my clearest memories is of sitting at the window [of the Rendezvous café in Whitley Bay] one day in September 2005 writing a letter to my friend PJ who I’d known since university. She was very ill with multiple sclerosis and I had written every day for two years. I addressed and sealed the envelope but for some reason, I didn’t post it. A mutual friend phoned me the following evening to tell me PJ had died overnight.

I haven’t always got it wrong with my letter writing, though. I can’t recall how soon I began writing to Fran, but before long I was posting letters to her every week. As we describe in our book, “[w]e love to communicate and use all means available to us. Telephone and video calls, e-mails, text messages, letters, instant messaging, and other social media — each medium has its virtues, and adds its particular spice to our conversations.” You might wonder what handwritten letters and cards gave us, given that it can take up to a week for a letter posted in the UK to be delivered to the US. Immediacy, however, is not always the prime consideration.

In a friendship conducted almost exclusively online there is something special about sitting at a table in my favourite coffee shop, taking up my fountain pen and writing a letter, then sealing the letter into an envelope, addressing it, and taking it to the post office. The fact that a week may elapse before my words reach Fran enhances their significance rather than diminishing it. In a letter, I pay less attention to our day-to-day situation, problems, and activities, and explore more general themes operating on longer timescales. Fran often reads my letters to me once they have reached her.

These days, the person I write to most regularly is my friend Maya. We’ve been friends for many years. There have been times when we’ve struggled, and without the pulse of our letters it’s likely we’d have drifted apart or failed to repair issues when they arose. She sends the best letters, whether written by hand or typed and printed out. Our friendship has always touched on deeper topics but we can do light and fun too! Her letters interweave personal and family news with quizzes, jokes, stories, photos, and illustrations. The envelopes are true works of art, often layered with washi tape, stickers, craft papers, tissue paper, and natural elements such as dried leaves. She tells me she gets a great deal of pleasure crafting her letter and envelope for me each week. My replies are written by hand and far less colourful but — I hope — are as meaningful to Maya as hers are to me.

I’ve talked about writing letters to keep in touch, but what can letters offer that other modes of communication can’t do better and more quickly? It can take days for a letter to reach its recipient, and at least as long again to receive a reply. Why bother, when you could send an e-mail or instant message, or pick up the phone? That inbuilt delay is the whole point, though. It gives us pause to consider what we want to say and how to say it, and to ponder what our loved one might be doing when they receive our letter. Will they open it straight away or wait — as I often do — until they can give it their full attention. We imagine our loved one’s face, their feelings and reaction as they read our words. As author David Nicholls puts it, “I [love] the idea that you can put marks on a page and send it off, and two days later, someone laughs somewhere else in the world.”

It’s not always laughter, of course. Our words might evoke tears, frustration, anger, or more. Likewise, we might experience a range of emotions reading words sent to us from afar. The best letters I’ve ever sent or received were written from the heart, honestly and truthfully, and sometimes the truth is challenging, to say the least. Sometimes it hurts like hell. Where there’s no expectation of an immediate response, e-mails and even instant messages can be written as letters and received in the same way. I exchanged weekly e-mail letters with a friend at a time when we were uncertain if our connection had any future. The discipline of only connecting once a week allowed for a great deal of inner work.

Putting this article together has been more emotional than I imagined it might be. It’s brought back memories of people and moments I’d not thought of a long time. I’m grateful for all the people I’ve corresponded with over the years. Some are still in my life, many are not — and that’s okay. Not every connection lasts forever. No matter the current situation, letters provide a tangible reminder of when channels were open and love flowed “from my heart to your heart.”

I can think of no better way to close than with these words by Soraya Diase Coffelt: “Letter writing can be seen as a gift because someone has taken his/her time to write and think and express love.”

Over to You

Are you someone who loves writing and receiving letters, or do you prefer to keep in touch in other ways? What was the best or most meaningful letter you ever received? Have you ever sent a letter you wished you could recall?

I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas, either in the comments below or via our contact page.

 

Photo by the author of an envelope crafted by Maya Hayward.

 

Wednesday 23 November 2022

The Truest Response Is Letting Go

Life is not a lesson, though you can choose to see it as such. Life is not a trial, though you are free to live yours as though it were.

 
My friend’s words from the other day are still present in my mind: “The truest response is letting go...”

Yes... let go of pain, of joy, of aching, of delight... Do not hold on to any of it, let it rise, have its moment, and go, to be replaced by what arises in its stead... externally and within you.

Offer minimal resistance to what arises... Let it pass through you, joyously, gratefully...

We cling, we hold on, from fear. Fear of losing what was never ours to begin with. Fear of daring to reach for what is within our grasp.

This moment is all that you will ever own. It is what you have brought into being, it is what you were brought into being to experience, herenow. You are the universe’s gift to itself in this moment. No other has been granted this gift. Accept it, take it in your hands, examine its shape, colours, textures. Allow it fully into your awareness... And let it go again...

Let all arise... Shun nothing.

Life is not a lesson, though you can choose to see it as such. Life is not a trial, though you are free to live yours as though it were.

Any gift worth the name comes with no strings, you are free to decline it, trample on it, pass it on to another, keep it under lock and key... And so it is with life, with this moment.

 

Originally posted on social media, October 18, 2012.

 

Photo by J. Balla Photography at Unsplash.

 

Wednesday 16 November 2022

Being a Man: Exploring My Gender Identity for International Men's Day

My pronouns are he/him/his.

Observed each year on November 19, International Men’s Day (IMD) celebrates the positive value men bring to the world, their families and communities, highlighting positive role models and raising awareness of men’s well-being, including mental health. I shared some general thoughts on connection and conversation for IMD last year. This time, I thought I’d go a little deeper, and explore what being a man means to me.

That should be pretty easy, right? I’ve had sixty-one years to figure out what being a guy is all about. Oddly enough, it’s proven a lot harder than I imagined. It’s not that I’ve ever felt misgendered, or unhappy at being thought of as male. I’ve worn my gender identity all my life, albeit without thinking much about it. I was a boy. I am a man. But what does that mean?

Let’s start with International Men’s Day itself. Do I feel it’s for and about me? Does it resonate? It does, yes. Last year was the first time I’d engaged with IMD, building on work I’d done earlier in the year exploring aspects of my mental health in articles such as Return to Down and This Boy Gets Sad Too, and men’s mental health in general. I attended a series of sessions at work organised for IMD last November, one of which focused on men’s physical health. It prompted me to face concerns I’d had for some time, and arrange my first GP appointment in thirty years. I’m glad to say the tests, for prostate cancer, came back negative, but it brought home to me the realities of living with this biologically male body.

For me, though, being a man isn’t just a matter of biology. Trans women and non-binary people who were assigned male at birth are also at risk of prostate cancer and other “men’s health” concerns. Conversely, a trans man might have physical health issues that I never will. Maleness has nothing to do with sexual or romantic preference, either. I’ve only ever been attracted to women, but I’d be no less — and no more — a man if I was gay, bisexual, or asexual.

My gender says nothing about me as a person. I’m no better or worse, more or less worthy, as a male than if I was female, nonbinary, or agender. That said, I’d be naive to imagine my gender hasn’t influenced my route through life or how I’ve been treated. I’ve never experienced discrimination because of my gender, been held back, or otherwise treated poorly. The fact I spent most of my adult life ignorant about male privilege speaks volumes. It was easier to be ignorant because it had never affected me personally.

I mentioned romantic and sexual relationships, but what about friends? A recent newspaper article asserts that men have few meaningful friendships, quoting counsellor and psychotherapist Adrian Wilson-Smith:

There are a lot of men having functional relationships with other men – I know this guy because he can help me out with my business idea. Or partying – these are the guys that I go out with for a drink or a line of coke. But enduring friendships, of the kind seen in many female-to-female friendships, are not something that most men over forty see any need to have.

I have good functional relationships with men in the workplace, but I’ve never had party buddies of the kind Wilson-Smith describes. I definitely still have a need for caring and mutually supportive friendships, but those I have are almost all with women. Indeed, I’ve had very few male friends since I was at university. I can no longer claim to be a young man but I’m reminded of a quotation by Leo Tolstoy: “Nothing is so necessary for a young man as the company of intelligent women.” I’ve no idea how common it is nowadays for men to have meaningful friendships with women, but the newpaper article only mentions same gender friendships: men with men or women with women.

International Men’s Day is founded on six key pillars “which are applied equally to men and boys irrespective of their age, ability, social background, ethnicity, sexuality, gender identity, religious belief and relationship status.” If manhood can encompass all those differences, there must be something that men have in common. But what? This question is important to me because despite being a man, I feel little sense of commonality with most other men, or with men in general. This isn’t new. As I wrote in Belonging (Longing to Be) I’ve never truly felt part of things.

More often than not I’ve been an outsider looking in through the window. [...] Our gender group is arguably the most fundamental belonging, but it’s eluded me. I’ve had very few adult male friends, and little of “what men are supposed to like” resonates for me.

I watch TV adverts for “men stuff” — razors, body spray, shampoo — with amusement because I relate to very little of it. (I prefer Head and Shoulders Supreme Moisture or Smooth and Silky shampoos to the Men Ultra or Classic Clean varieties. This may or may not have anything to do with me fancying Claudia Winkleman, who fronts the H&S adverts.) I’ve never felt at home in what are traditionally seen as men’s spaces or activities such as football (playing or watching), men’s clubs, or communities centred on formerly male-dominated industries such as mining or shipbuilding. Even ordering at the bar was a man skill that eluded me until quite recently. This is important because initiatives to help and support men tend, understandably, to focus on the places men go and the things men do. Except, I don’t go to those places, and I don’t do those things.

I’ve written before of peer-led groups such as Andy’s Man Club, which 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.” In similar vein, Men’s Sheds organises “community spaces for men to connect, converse and create.[...] They help reduce loneliness and isolation, but most importantly, they’re fun.” I recognise the value of such groups. I’ve even thought of seeking out a group near me. I’m nevertheless put off by the very thing that’s meant to attract me: their male-centredness. I might surprise myself if I gave it a go, but I imagine I’d struggle to relate to other members on a man-to-man basis.

All that said, I do feel I’m making progress. I identify strongly and instinctively with the message and marketing of Boys Get Sad Too, a fashion brand working for positive change. I wear my BGST hoodie with pride. It’s one aspect of “being a man” which, for some reason, I feel able to embrace wholeheartedly. That brings up the question of dress and appearance. How much does how I dress and present myself align with and express my sense of being a man? My beard is a bit of a giveaway, but then again, that’s biology not gender. In the past I’ve grown it in full Gandalf style. These days I keep it trimmed close. That may be vanity. I feel better and imagine myself looking better this way. I wear my (Smooth and Silky™) hair as long as it will grow. Long hair is important to how I see myself and I can’t imagine cutting it voluntarily. Does it make me look less, or more, “manly”? I don’t know and don’t really care. I tell myself that CSNY would approve.

I don’t believe clothes, colours, and styles are inherrently gendered, but I dress in a manner unlikely to leave anyone guessing. Most of the time I wear t-shirts and cargo pants, which are pretty much unisex, but my coats and jackets are more conventionally male. My favourite item of clothing is the Scottish tweed jacket I picked up second hand a few years ago. I’d be hard pressed to explain why but, as with my BGST hoodie, I feel good about myself the moment I put it on.

I’ve never had heroes or role models, but I’ve been thinking about some of the key men there have been in my life. I knew neither of my grandfathers, but my father and two uncles exemplified different aspects of maleness as I was growing up. I’ve written about my father before; briefly in a passage excerpted from our book High Tide Low Tide, and at greater length in an open letter. The latter, written decades after his death, captures the essence of our relationship. He was the head of the household. He was never overly strict or authoritarian, but he wasn’t open with his feelings. I loved and respected him, but I never knew him. As I wrote, “I have no idea how you felt about your life. Or your death.”

My father was distribution manager at Distillers Company Ltd. In Liverpool. I remember him taking me into his office one Saturday. I was perhaps nine or ten years old. I was fascinated by the high desks with their rows of typewriters but I never wanted to follow his choice of career. His love of Western movies was a different matter. I desperately wanted to be a cowboy; or failing that, to drive a steam locomotive like Alan Hale’s character Casey Jones in the television series of that name. Needless to say, my dreams of being a cowboy or a locomotive engineer went unfulfilled.

My father’s brother John — Uncle Jack — was an architect and pipe smoker. Those are the first things that come to mind when I think about him. Pipe smoking might be considered a quintessentially male activity, but the only other pipe smoker I’ve known was a woman I worked with in London after graduating from university. I’ve never smoked a pipe, cigarettes, or anything else, but Uncle Jack’s pipe and the paraphernalia that went with it fascinated me. He gave me a smoker’s companion: a three piece tool that slid inside a narrow metal case. I loved technical drawing at school and harboured ideas of becoming an architect like Uncle Jack until I switched allegiance to follow the biological sciences. He gifted me one of his draftsman’s mechanical pencils, a Rotring technical drawing pen, and a fully-rigged model of the Mayflower. I wasn’t his only nephew but he and my Auntie Elsie had no children of their own; a rarity in my extended family. It’s possible he saw me as a child after his own heart.

My mother had four sisters and two brothers, all but one of whom lived locally. Uncle Charlie was married to my mother’s sister Clarice (Cal). I enjoyed visiting their narrow terraced house with its sliding door leading to the staircase, its paved back yard, and the rail line running no more than twenty feet from their back gate. Most of all, I loved Uncle Charlie’s shed. He was a joiner by trade, and his shed was an Alladin’s Cave of tools, wood shavings, sawdust, half-finished projects, and glass jars holding an assortment of nails, screws, paint brushes, and other treasures. He was the archetypal artisan and craftsman who earned his living with his hands but also put his skills to use for the pleasure of himself and his family. He had a wonderful sense of humour, a permanent twinkle in his eye, and I think of him now with great fondness.

Another man who influenced me was the second husband of one of my cousins. I didn’t know him well but I remember how devoted and caring he was to my cousin and her daughters from her first marriage. That devotion served as a template or model of a caring husband and father when, many years later, I became first a step-father and then a father. I make the distinction deliberately. I’ve never understood how anyone can view their step, foster, or adopted children as any less than or different from their biological offspring. I can express it no better than this answer posted on Quora in response to the question Do you think you could ever love your step-child as much as you love your actual child?

My stepdaughter IS my actual child.

So is my adopted son.

So is my biological son.

I’m their Dad and earned that title by reading to them, feeding them, helping them with schoolwork, playing with them, listening to their troubles, caring for them when they were sick, transporting them hither and yon, and taking daily delight in having them in my life.

The notion that any of my flavors of parentage aren’t “actual” is absurd.

— Andrew Weill

I’ve written elsewhere about four men I respect, including my son Mike. Two of the people I most admire in the mental health community are men. In the realm of fiction, Samwise (Sam) Gamgee from J. R. R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy novel The Lord of the Rings exemplifies aspects of the steadfast and caring friend for me. Played by Douglas Henshall, Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez in the British television crime drama Shetland is one of very few male roles I’ve ever identified with or wanted to emulate. I wrote about him in an article titled Being Jimmy Perez: Shetland and the Art of Listening.

What struck me is how good Perez is with people going through crisis and change. (He is less good with his own crises and changes, but isn’t that the way of things? The series closes with a hint he may finally be finding a way forward.) Whether interviewing a suspect, talking with witnesses, confronting a violent crime boss, or engaging with colleagues, his stepdaughter, or a new lover, Jimmy Perez is usually calm and measured, although he can be assertive when necessary. He doesn’t always get it right but he owns his mistakes. He comes across as honest, genuine, and caring. He is someone you’d feel safe with.

Those final sentences express how I hope I’m perceived, as a person and as a man. Honest, genuine, and caring. Someone you feel safe with, emotionally as well as physically. These qualities are not the prerogative of men, of course. Maybe I’ve been asking the wrong question all along. What’s most important about Jimmy Perez, Sam Gamgee, my father, my uncles, or my cousin is surely not their maleness, but their character. I couldn’t care less whether they are sufficiently “manly.” What matters is their — and my — integrity, compassion, and goodness. No matter our gender, isn’t that what’s most precious and important about each of us?

Over to You

While writing this piece, I asked a number of people what their gender means to them. None found it easy to answer. I posed the question on social media, and received the following responses.

[To me it means] living life through understanding. (Paul)

I’ve said to many men over the years ... “Want to be a better man? Start thinking like a woman.” I do that! Mental alertness and intuition are the defining experiences of this time we live in and women are stronger in those than men! (Paul)

I’ve never given it much thought except when gender prevents a lack of opportunity for equality. I think the glass ceiling has lowered a bit but has to descend further. I’m thrilled to be part of the gender able to experience the miracle of giving birth ... then get those men back beside me to continue the journey. (Maureen)

It’s strange. Tonight, as I was out to dinner, I felt inadequate. I don’t wear make up or cutesy boots with tops and scarves. I don’t attract boys because I’m a tomboy, I think. I’m not very girly at all. I don’t wear heels or dresses unless I’m going to a funeral or a wedding. So, I’m a feminine? I don’t know exactly. From a male’s perspective, probably not. Then again — like you, Marty — I have never been group-oriented. I walk my own way. I have tremendous intuition, which feels like a great gift and at other times, a curse. I identify as a girl but I’m not typical at all. I’m fussy about my hair! I don’t paint my nails. You get the idea. In recent years, I’ve learnt a little bit about the divine feminine ... the female aspect of God. It seems fitting that there is a female counterpart to a very male God. I feel we need a balance, because we all matter and I think at our best, males, females or whomever, are sacred regardless of gender. (Brynn)

What does your gender mean to you? Do you have role models? Who are they and what do they represent to you? I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas, either in the comments below or via our contact page.

 

Photo by Andrew Neel at Unsplash.

 

Wednesday 9 November 2022

I Am Not Afraid: Three Messages of Hope for Caring Friends

I can’t promise I won’t get scared sometimes, but I am not afraid.

The first key message I want to share is that there’s nothing to be afraid of in being friends with someone who lives with mental illness. That might seem an obvious thing to say, but it’s important given the degree of stigma and social isolation many people experience if they live with debilitating illness of any kind. We all like to believe we’re above such prejudices, but if we’re honest most of us can admit to having felt uneasy at times in the company of people who, on the surface at least, appear different from us or whose needs leave us feeling uncomfortable or helpless. Even if we don’t feel that way ourselves, we might have had difficulty dealing with other people’s negative reactions to our friend or loved one.

If anyone had told me years ago that I’d meet somebody online who would become a close friend, I’d have been happy to believe them. If they’d gone on to say that this person would live on the other side of the world and that we might never meet in person I’d have found the prospect interesting, even exciting. If they’d then told me that my friend would have bipolar disorder, and at the time of our meeting would be in high mania, frequently distressed, subject to the darkest depression and at times suicidal, I’m not sure I’d have hung around to find out more. I’m glad I did.

Before I met Fran I had little experience of mental illness, primarily because throughout my adult life I’d chosen to distance myself, literally and emotionally, from its visitations. My sister was diagnosed with mental health issues in her early twenties and my mother knew harrowing times with depression and anxiety. In each case I fled the scene — literally and figuratively — horrified by their situation and the depth of their need. There’s little honour is absenting oneself from the pain of others but I can be honest enough to admit that I did so. Years later, a friend developed crippling multiple sclerosis and whilst I was not utterly absent this time, I acquitted myself poorly and helped her very little. Her sobbing on the telephone terrified me. I rarely called her and never made the effort to visit. I wrote letters to her every day throughout what turned out to be the final year of her life. It allowed me to feel I was doing something, but it was not at all what she needed.

History had shown me no great candidate to be a friend to anyone with serious illness or in desperate need. It’s fortunate that I’d grown somewhat by the time Fran and I met, but our success as friends is as much down to Fran as it is to me. It takes two to make a friendship work.

The second message, then, is that you don’t have to be superhuman or special in any way to be of help and support to someone else, no matter their mental or physical health or the relationship between you. Your past history, your failures as a person, real or imagined, don’t mean you can’t be there for your friend or partner, your son, daughter, or parent if you’re prepared to be as honest with yourself as with them. Recognise and accept that it’s okay to be less than perfect. It’s okay to get things wrong sometimes. It’s okay for either of you to get upset or frustrated or angry, as long as you can find ways through it to the other side. Be who you are and do what you can.

The third message I want to share is the best of all: this kind of relationship can offer so much to both people involved. It isn’t about you as the well one supporting your friend all the time, with no regard for your needs. It isn’t about always putting them first. It’s about sharing the high points and the low points and all points between. It is about growing a healthy, changing, dynamic relationship that’s beneficial and fulfilling to you both.

I’ve learned and grown and laughed and cried so much since I met Fran. I’ve developed a far greater sense of who I am (both “good” and “bad” aspects) and discovered that I can make a real difference to the lives of other people; not by being or Imagining myself better than them but by becoming better than I was before. Most of all, it’s about sharing. You and your friend or loved one are on a journey together. Take things one day at a time, one step at a time. Support, encourage, comfort and care for each other. Embrace the journey.

 

This article is adapted from material originally written in 2013 for our book High Tide Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder. One short passage has been blogged previously. It has been edited lightly here to bring it up to the present date.

Photo by Benjamin Davies at Unsplash.

 

Wednesday 26 October 2022

How I Became a Mental Health Blogger

By Janet Coburn

Of course, blogging didn’t exist when I started writing. It was quite a journey ending up where I am today. Even mental health services were a big blank to me when I was young, something that no one I knew experienced or even talked about, except to make jokes about going to “Wayne Avenue,” the location of the nearest insane asylum (as we called it then).

But it’s hard to remember a time when I didn’t write. Childish poems fueled by voracious reading. Hideously depressive poems fueled by burgeoning bipolar disorder. (I still commit poetry from time to time, writing sonnets and villanelles about bipolar disorder.)

But before I returned to poetry with more structure, I indulged in free verse – unrhymed, unmetered verse that relied on the juxtaposition of images rather than formal style. I studied creative writing in high school and college. But the bipolar disorder was undeniably with me, influencing the topics I wrote about: “Two Ways of Looking at the Same Pain” and “Whiskey on the Knife,” a poem about self-harm, are two examples.

As my poetry developed, it started reading more and more like prose, strung out in sentences that relied on line breaks with twists and jarring pauses to create poetic effects. Eventually, I gave up on poetry and simply gave in to prose. I made my living doing prose, and nonfiction at that, writing for magazines about education, technology, child care, and even martial arts.

Bipolar disorder took that away from me. After being diagnosed with clinical depression for years, I finally was identified as having bipolar 2. It was treatment-resistant for many years and during that time I was often unable to write.

My mental health blog Bipolar Me grew out of a journaling exercise. I began by listing what I did each day – not much, as I was stuck in a major depressive episode and not able to do much. But once again, what started as something else turned into prose. And by that time blogging was a thing.

I started blogging largely as an exercise for myself, to explore bipolar disorder, its symptoms and treatments, and my particular version of it. I set myself the task of posting once a week, a schedule that I still keep. I wrote short essays and longer pieces, whatever I was thinking about at the time. Hardly anyone read the blog. I sometimes wonder if the title “Bipolar Me” was a turn-off, but really that summed up my knowledge about bipolar – my own experiences.

Slowly, I started finding my voice. and finding things to say with it. Things other than what was inside my own head. Oh, I still wrote about my symptoms and my meds and my coping mechanisms, major depression and hypomania, mood swings and roller coasters. But I also started approaching the wider world of bipolar. Bipolar in the news. Bad science reporting about bipolar. TV commercials about bipolar meds. Bipolar disorder and gun violence. All of this was still through the lens of my own experience, as I have no degree in psychology, counseling, or biochemistry, for that matter.

And I started reaching a wider audience. My writing appeared in The Mighty, Invisible Illness, IBPF, Thought Catalog, Medium, and as guest posts on other bloggers’ sites. Eventually, I had enough material to make Bipolar Me into a book of the same name. And then a sequel, Bipolar Us. Both are still available on Amazon and through other outlets.

I know I’m not in the same league with mental health bloggers like Pete Earley and Gabe Howard. They are true activists and influencers, as well as terrific writers. Their work reaches thousands of people with information, analysis, inspiration, and more impact than I will likely ever have.

But I won’t give up blogging just because I’m not the best. I’ll be here every Sunday, posting my bipolar thoughts and opinions, sharing my bipolar experience, and chronicling my bipolar life.

Originally published in May 2020 at Bipolar Me.

 

About the Author

Janet Coburn is a freelance writer/editor with bipolar disorder, type 2. She is the author of two books: Bipolar Me and Bipolar Us.

Janet writes about mental health issues including talk therapy, medication, books, bullying, social aspects, and public policy, but mostly her own experiences with bipolar 2. As she says, “I am not an expert and YMMV – Your Mileage May Vary.”

 

Wednesday 19 October 2022

#AmBlogging: A Curated List of Blog Posts about Blogging

In the latest in our series of themed posts, I’ve selected articles from our backlist which cover various aspects of blogging. Scroll through them all or click a link to jump to the relevant section.

I’ve provided a short excerpt from each post, with a link to the original article. I will update the list as relevant posts are published in the future.


Blog Topics and Prompts

Struggling to come up with a compelling idea is one of the inevitable frustrations of blogging, especially if you publish frequently or to a set schedule. The articles in this section offer a variety of topics and prompts to help get your creativity flowing.

40 Mental Health Blog Topics From the Caring Friend's Perspective

Whether you’re an experienced blogger or starting out on your blogging journey, one thing I can guarantee is that you’ll sometimes struggle to find a new or engaging topic to write about. In this post I’m sharing a number of topics from my personal ideas cache, with a focus on supporting friends or loved ones who live with mental health conditions.

For convenience I’ve grouped them into themes: Blogging, Support, Healthy Friendships and Relationships, About You, Ideas and Inspiration, and Mental Health. I’ve also included links to a few other lists of mental health topics.

Read the full post here.

21 Image Prompts for the Mental Health Blogger

As bloggers, we tend to write first and then look for images to enhance or accompany what we’ve written. While searching for that perfect image I’ve frequently come across pictures which weren’t what I was looking for, but nevertheless spoke to me. I realised that images can serve as blog prompts or inspirations in their own right. With that in mind, I’ve selected 21 images from Unsplash which I feel could be useful as prompts for mental health blog posts.

Read the full post here.


Blogging Workflow

Whether you follow a tried-and-tested process or approach each project on its merits, there’s a lot to putting a blog post together. The following articles cover coming up with an an idea, writing, editing, proofreading, choosing the perfect image, and scheduling your post for publication. There are also a few ideas on what to do when things get hard, as they’re bound to from time to time!

Secrets of a Successful Blogging Workflow

Fran and I have been blogging since August 2013. Just about everything we do is a joint enterprise, although I look after the website itself and take the lead with the writing. Let’s take a look at how I go about putting one of our blog pieces together.

Read the full post here.

How to Choose the Perfect Image for Your Blog Post

If it’s true that a picture paints a thousand words, the thousand or so words you’ve written for your latest blog post deserve the very best picture you can find. But it’s not always easy! Do you struggle to find that perfect image to accompany your lovingly crafted words? Do you ever wonder if it’s okay to use that photo you found on the Internet? Read on.

Read the full post here.

When Blogging Is Hard and What to Do About It

No matter how committed you are to your blog there will be occasions when things aren’t flowing as easily as you’d wish. It helps to have a streamlined process (I’ve described my blogging workflow elsewhere) but there are still times when I struggle with ideas, when the words won’t flow, or when I change my mind at the last minute. Here’s how I handle these issues when they arise. Maybe some of it will resonate with you.

Read the full post here.


Blogging Q&As

Question and answer posts can be an interesting blog format, whether it's a guest interview with someone active in your chosen field, or an opportunity to answer questions posed by your readers. Hopefully, the following articles will give you some ideas for Q&A posts of your own.

Write without Fear, Edit without Mercy: Eight Questions for the Honest Blogger

When I compiled my list of 21 Image Prompts for the Mental Health Blogger, one image in particular caught my attention. Taken by hannah grace, its call to write without fear and edit without mercy inspired me to draw up a short Q&A for anyone wanting to explore their honesty as a writer.

Whether you publish your answers on your blog or not it can be a very useful exercise to keep your writing genuine and on track. Are you up for the challenge?

Read the full post here.

Blogging Besties: A Joint Q&A With Aimee Wilson

I’m grateful to my friend and fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson for suggesting this collaboration. Over one hundred questions were submitted by readers and social media followers, from which Aimee compiled the twenty we’ve each answered.

Read the full post here.


Practical Tips

Blogging is a practical craft, so here are a few pointers from my own experience, plus my friend Aimee Wilson's book.

Every Day Essentials for the Successful Blogger

In a follow up to sharing my blogging workflow I thought I’d give you a behind-the-scenes peek at my EDC (every day carry). These are the items I take with me when I’m out and about for my blogging and journaling.

Read the full post here.

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

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

Read the full post here.


The Personal Touch

There are many bloggers writing about mental health topics, and each of us has a unique and personal voice.

How I Became a Mental Health Blogger

Of course, blogging didn’t exist when I started writing. It was quite a journey ending up where I am today. Even mental health services were a big blank to me when I was young, something that no one I knew experienced or even talked about, except to make jokes about going to “Wayne Avenue,” the location of the nearest insane asylum (as we called it then).

Read the full post by Janet Coburn here.


Over to You

If you have any thoughts about the articles we’ve included, or suggestions for topics about blogging we might explore in the future, please let us know, either in the comments below or via our contact page.

 

Photo by Toa Heftiba at Unsplash.

 

Wednesday 5 October 2022

Speaking Up, Speaking Out: Harnessing the Power of the Spoken Word for WMHD

When we speak we educate and also free ourselves from a silence that surrounds mental illness.
— Brynn McCann

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 mobilize our efforts in support of mental health. Fran and I have shared pieces in the past to mark WMHD and other mental health awareness days and events. I was keen to do so again, but when I saw this year’s theme — Making Mental Health and Well-Being for All a Global Priority — I was unsure what to focus on or how to proceed. The topic is hugely important, but that was the problem. It felt too big, too wide-ranging, for me to address it meaningfully. Surely, anything I wrote could do no more than touch the surface.

I was pondering this when my friend and fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson asked if I’d like to go with her to a local WMHD event. I said yes immediately. We attended the event in 2019 and it was really good. I remember listening to presentations by local individuals and organisations, and meeting a number of interesting people. On that occasion, Aimee was one of the keynote speakers. I was incredibly proud of my friend for speaking so powerfully and honestly about her lived experience. She’s not speaking this year, but all at once I could see a connection; a way in, as it were, to writing something meaningful for WMHD.

There are few things more compelling than someone telling their story in their own voice. As Fran and I have said elsewhere, “The most important sounds we can ever share with another person are our own voices.” Speaking our truth and listening to other people doing the same counters stigma and discrimination by opening us up to lives lived differently than our own. It turns out I’m not alone in making this connection: one UK mental health charity has chosen to mark WMHD this year by focusing on “using spoken word to show the different ways people talk about their experiences.”

I’ll focus on my experience of speaking publically about mental health and wellbeing. I’m aware of the irony of writing about how important the spoken word can be; where possible I’ll provide links to video or audio recordings so you can hear me for yourself, if you’d like to!

Mentally Sound Radio Show

In May 2015 I was interviewed by Steven Hesse and Sharon Race for the Mentally Sound show on Gravity Radio NE, talking about my friendship with Fran and what I’d learned about mental health and supportive relationships. It was my first live interview and I was both nervous and incredibly excited. You can listen to the recording here.

Fran and I later recorded two episodes with Steven for his podcast Geek Apocalypse, where we discussed bipolar disorder and our friendship. You can listen to those episodes here and here (MP3).

Time to Change, Time to Talk (and Listen)

In February 2016 I volunteered with Time to Change at a mental health event in the centre of Newcastle. As a volunteer, my job was to engage members of the public in conversation about mental health. This was utterly new territory for me and my first conversations were a little tentative. I soon settled into things, though. As I wrote at the time, “Some stories, whether of mental illness or the often-related issues of poverty, benefits, or housing, were undeniably hard to hear. But the atmosphere wasn’t sombre in any way. No matter the content, genuine connection is empowering if we are open to hear what people are saying.” One conversation in particular left a lasting impression:

One very telling moment for me came when I happened to step back slightly just as the man I was talking with shared that he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. “That’s what people do,” he said. “When they find out. They step away.” I hadn’t done so because of what he said, but it brought the realities of stigma home to me in a very personal way. I was grateful to him, and told him so.

It’s a lesson I hope I’ve learned. I volunteered with Time to Change on other occasions, including Newcastle Pride for three consecutive years (2016 through 2018). After one event I told a friend: “For me, what makes it so worthwhile is when I am talking to someone who might not be used to sharing about their mental health and I comment or ask a question and they are like ‘yes!’ In that moment there is this really genuine human connection. That happened a few times today.”

Podcasts and Interviews

I’ve mentioned my first time on the radio, and guesting with Fran on Steven Hesse’s podcast. Fran had appeared on TV and radio to talk about her first book before we met, and we’ve been interviewed together several times. If you want to know what we sound like, check out the following links. There’s a full list on our news and appearances page.

In October 2016, I was proud to appear as a panellist in Maine Behavioral Healthcare’s annual It Takes a Community forum discussing social media and mental health. You can listen to the session here, including a contribution from Fran in the audience!

Book Readings

The publication of our first book brought plenty of opportunity to tell people about it and (hopefully!) interest them enough to buy a copy. The first book readings I did were at Newcastle Literary Salon. I attended one session to get a feel for the place before my speaking gig the following month. It left a lasting impression on me, which I wrote about for the hastywords #BeReal blog series.

I knew nothing in advance about any of the people who came forward to read. That in itself was an exercise in realness: to hold each person without prejudgment, to hold myself open to whatever they’d chosen to share. There was poetry, a great short story with a twist, the opening to a new novel which completely blew me away. Some pieces were more to my taste than others but what struck me more than anything else was how everyone was introduced, welcomed, and received with equal warmth and respect: as writers and performers, but most of all as people. And it struck me this is another aspect of being real: the awareness and acceptance of our common humanity, no matter how different our individual situations and life experiences might be.

That night opened my mind to the power of the spoken word, and gave me the confidence to take my place at the mic. I read from our book on three occasions: June, July, and September 2016. Each time I felt I was amongst friends who were attentive and interested in what I had to say. I remember especially one lady who approached me after my first live reading to say how much my words had meant to her, and share a little of her story in return.

I’ve read excerpts from our book at other venues, including in the interval of a pantomime, and at a wellbeing event in Ely in November 2017. My theme for the Ely event was how you can be a supportive friend to someone living with mental illness, whether you live in the same town or thousands of miles apart. I gave the same talk later at a work event for International Women’s Day.

Fran and I have recorded ourselves reading from our book for our YouTube Channel. I recorded the following four pieces while on holiday in Cumbria.

You can read the backstory to those recordings here.

Other Voices

I’ve focused on me and Fran sharing our story of mental health, friendship, and support, but it’s not a one way street. Listening to other people’s stories is no less important.

In February 2017 I attended the premiere screening of Speaking Up, a Film about Mental Health at Newcastle’s Tyneside Cinema. This was the first in a series of short films “exploring young people’s experiences of mental health issues by producing and creating their own shorts to convey powerful, practical messages.” The first part opened my eyes to the realities of living with anxiety. The team then took to the streets of Newcastle to interview members of the public. The films are available on YouTube; I recommend checking them out.

Another great opportunity came in March 2017 when I was in the audience for my friend Sharon Sutton’s TEDx talk. In a powerful and moving speech, Sharon offered an insight into what it’s like to live with mental illness, and how she’s found her purpose and passion. I don’t have a video link, but you can read the transcript of Sharon’s talk.

Other friends have experience of public speaking about mental health. I invited two to share a few thoughts on what that means to them. We’ll hear first from Brynn McCann.

I have just started to speak publicly about mental health and my journey with Bipolar 1 and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. This is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. and I think it’s important because normalizing and breaking the stigma around mental illness is crucial.

Working with a mental illness is a full time job and I don’t think that people who don’t live with a mental illness realize this. That’s why speaking up is so important. Our stories matter, as do we.

When we speak we educate and also free ourselves from a silence that surrounds mental illness. This silence needs to be broken and talking about mental health hopefully opens up doors to understanding without judgement.

— Brynn McCann

Next we have Aimee Wilson, who blogs at I'm NOT Disordered.

Before I began blogging, I was definitely not good at public speaking! My blog, however, has given me so much more confidence and has really taught me how important it can be to talk to others about mental health.

Speaking out more can help someone feel less alone, encourage them to get help, and aid them in being better educated to support someone with a mental illness.

Without mental health being talked about, the lack of education can very easily lead to misunderstanding which will often influence stigma and discrimination. So please, don’t be afraid to initiate a conversation.

— Aimee Wilson

I’m grateful to Brynn and Aimee for their contributions.

Private Voices

Brynn’s observation that “talking about mental health hopefully opens up doors to understanding without judgement” is true of our private conversations as well as speaking out publically. The conversations we have with friends, family, and colleagues are every bit as important in breaking down the barriers of stigma and misunderstanding, and building trust and empathy.

As regular readers will know, many of my blog posts are inspired by conversations I’ve had with friends, either in person or online. My friendship with Fran is founded on our commitment to keep in touch, and in particular to keep talking. We may live 3,000 miles apart, but our voice and video calls allow us to appreciate what’s going in our lives and support each other effectively. The same is true with other friends. Text-based chat, SMS messages, e-mails, and written letters all have their place — Fran and I have used them all at different times — but there’s something special about that face-to-face connection, whether in person or online.

This is something that was highlighted for so many of us during the covid pandemic. During lockdown, voice and video calls were often the only means we had of talking to one another. Aimee and I didn’t meet in person for over a year, for example. We chatted online a lot, but occasional video calls meant a lot and helped keep us truly connected.

Risk and Responsibility

It’s important to recognise that speaking out about our lived experiences is not without risk, whether conducted publically or in private. No matter how much trust we have in our chosen audience, it’s not always possible to predict how things will go. We can clarify our meaning and respond to questions or challenge, but once our words are “out there” they cannot be taken back.

No one should feel obligated to share more than they feel comfortable doing, or in ways that feel unsafe to them. It’s not the responsibility of those living with mental health issues — or excluded or marginalised in any way — to educate the rest of society.

Over to You

In this article I’ve explored how speaking up about our lived experience — and listening to others who speak up about theirs — can help counter stigma and discrimination. Fran and I hope our story has touched people, and maybe opened them to the idea that mental illness does not preclude anyone from enjoying full, mutually supportive relationships, and that being friends with someone with a mental health diagnosis is far from the uphill struggle or constant firefighting exercise it’s sometimes imagined to be.

What are your thoughts about speaking out about mental health, whether publically or in private? If you’ve done so, was it a good experience for you? Was your audience receptive to what you were saying, or did you feel ignored, rejected, or shut down? What’s the most transformative speech you’ve heard, or the most valuable conversation you’ve had?

More generally, what does “Making Mental Health and Well-Being for All a Global Priority” mean to you, and how best can it be achieved? We’d love to hear from you, either in the comments below or via our contact page.