Wednesday 26 January 2022

How Sharing Quiet Moments Can Deepen Your Friendship

Real friendship is when your friend comes over to your house and then you both just take a nap. (Unknown)

As we approach Time to Talk Day (February 3), I can only agree with Rethink Mental Illness that “[c]onversations have the power to change lives — helping to create supportive communities where we can talk openly about mental health and feel empowered to seek help when we need it.” The book Fran and I wrote about our now ten-year friendship is founded on our belief that any successful mutually supportive relationship requires a commitment to communication. That commitment is important no matter how close or far apart you are geographically, but it’s especially so for us, given that we live on opposite sides of the Atlantic.

There’s nothing quite like having someone you feel safe enough with to talk openly and honestly about whatever’s going on for you. It can help enormously, whether you’re simply sharing what’s happening, exploring options, or asking for — or offering — assistance and advice. But support and caring aren’t always about doing things or talking things over. Sometimes there is no need for words. Sometimes there is a need for silence.

I was reminded of this last week on one of our regular evening video calls. Fran and I talked for a while about our respective days, and how we were feeling. We were both pretty low and we talked about that, but we were also really tired. I asked Fran if she wanted to end our call early so she could rest. She thought for a moment, then suggested we stay on the call but spend it resting together quietly.

Even three thousand miles apart on a video call, sharing silence is an intensely personal, even vulnerable, experience. Nevertheless, I agreed readily and closed my eyes. Fran did the same. For maybe twenty minutes we shared the space without words. It was lovely, and much needed. I wasn’t trying to think about anything in particular, or not think about anything in particular. I simply closed my eyes and sat there in my rocking chair. Fran afterwards claimed I’d fallen asleep while we were taking our little time out. I denied it at the time, but I was certainly tired enough for it to have been true!

It reminded me of times early in our friendship when Fran would call me late at night. She was in mania at the time and barely sleeping, her mind was far too active. Talking with me helped calm her down, and sometimes I’d stay quietly on the call until sleep caught up with her. It didn’t always work, but sometimes it did.

Meditation is another great example of sharing quiet time. We started meditating together after Fran read about the potential benefits of meditation in cases of depression. We signed up for a free three-week online course and meditated together on our daily calls. Afterwards, we compared notes and discussed the topics raised in that day’s lesson. It gave us a shared purpose, and the opportunity to explore topics we might otherwise never have encountered.

It’s been a while since we meditated together like that, but I got a lot out of it in the past and we might take it up again at some point. It’s worth saying that it’s not always a comfortable experience, as we describe in our book:

Meditation is by no means always an easy discipline. At times, we have found ourselves confronting aspects of ourselves we were unaware of, or thought closed. As Fran put it, “I think the meditation is bringing up things I need to face. It is making me more aware and I don’t like it. I am resisting it.” Despite the challenges, we persevered, and have completed several courses together. It is immensely supportive in such situations to have someone who understands what we are experiencing, and the context in which it is being experienced.

Fran and I spend a lot of time watching movies and TV shows together. That’s not silence as such, but we tend not to talk much while we’re watching. I used to wonder if we watched too much TV and worried that it had become a substitute for conversation, but I’ve come to value the cosy quiet times when we settle down of an evening to watch our favourite show. It confirms our commitment to each other and provides an opportunity to simply be in each other’s space and lives without needing to “do things” or “talk about stuff” all the time.

Fran’s not the only friend I’ve spent quiet time with. I’ve written previously about visiting my friend and fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson for an afternoon of journaling and scrapbooking. We’ve also shared quality quiet time watching movies, writing for our respective blogs, and travelling to and from events. Whatever the circumstance, it’s good to be sufficiently comfortable with someone not to feel the need to fill every minute with conversation.

In writing this post, it’s been interesting for me to think about which friends I spend quiet time with, and those I don’t. With the latter, it’s not necessarily that we couldn’t. In some cases, it’s more that we tend to meet in places or circumstances which are not conducive to silence. It’s something worth bearing in mind when you are planning time with friends. No matter the time or venue, however, we can all allow space for gaps in the conversation to emerge, without immediately needing to fill them with words.

It’s worth pointing out that I’ve been talking about what I might call gentle, peaceable, or consensual silence. We’ve all known the opposite — the awkward, even painful, silences that arise at times between even the closest of friends. If it occurs a lot with certain people, there may be something going on that needs to be brought into the light, but I’ve learned to allow even uncomfortable silences to have their place, without seeking to break or question them at the time. In my experience, they don’t always imply there’s anything wrong with your relationship. They can reflect nothing more or less than the other person’s tiredness, preoccupation with other things, or even episodes of dissociation. Allowing such times to be there without challenging them in the moment can be an act of trust and compassion.

I’m going to close with a few lines written many years ago, which I’ve quoted previously in a post inspired by Ed Sheeran’s “Castle on the Hill.” They recall a time of blissful silence shared with friends at Alderley Edge as night fell across the Cheshire Plain. It remains one of the most profound experiences of my life.

Beneath the trees
Beneath the stars
Cautiously we found each other
And a place for silence.


Do you share quiet time with your friends? What kind of shared silences work for you? How do you handle awkward silences? We’d love to hear from you!


Photo by Leo Rivas on Unsplash.


Wednesday 19 January 2022

Helping People Helps You Too (But Don't Lose Sight of Your Needs)

“We rise by lifting others” — Robert Ingersoll

I’ve written quite a bit over the past year or so about how low I get at times, including how my baseline mood has dropped significantly from where it used to be. There are periods when I doubt the value of what I do, both in the workplace and in other aspects of my life. That includes my connections, friendships, and relationships; my writing; and other work in the mental health arena.

When I’m in this kind of “what’s the point?” slump, as I have been recently, nothing seems worth the effort because it feels like nothing is going to make a difference. It’s tempting to just give up on things, or at least contemplate doing so. The scary thing is how easily slumps like this can creep up on you, and how tough it can be to shake those self-defeating thoughts and feelings. The good news is, they can and do shift, and sometimes it’s the little things that make a difference.

I was reminded of this last week. I’d like to share a few of the details because it helps to remember how much difference a word or two of thanks, an offer of help, or indeed a request for help can make.

Checking my social media one morning last week, I saw I’d been tagged in a Facebook group run by bp Magazine which focuses on support for the loved ones of people living with bipolar disorder. In response to a request for advice on how to help a friend, a member I’ve spoken to before suggested the Gum on My Shoe Facebook page that Fran and I maintain, our blog, and our book High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder. They went on to say our work was the first they’d encountered that wasn’t from the perspective of a spouse or parent, that they’d learned a lot from it, and that their relationship with their loved one would not be what it is today without my help. Needless to say, this meant a huge amount, and was (and is) profoundly validating. I hope our book and other resources might help the person who asked for guidance, and others who are in need.

Something similar occurred the next day. I’d posted a link to an article of mine titled Supportive Disengagement: How to Be There for Your Friend When They Need Space. The same person who’d recommended our book replied to thank me. “I needed to read this today,” she said. “Thank you.”

Two opportunities to be of help and support arose later that day. One was from a friend who was in need of practical assistance. I was more than happy to say yes to her request, especially as I was the only person available to do so. The second involved keeping a friend company on chat and encouraging them as they moved into their day and began working through the things they needed to accomplish. I was proud of my friend’s achievements but didn’t realise just how valuable my presence had been until she thanked me later.

The mutuality of support came up in a conversation with Fran in which she shared how much she’d valued the chance to spend a couple of days with a close friend. I suggested that the time she’d spent with her friend had been a gift to them both, and would be something they’d remember for a long time.

As valuable as it can be to help others, it’s important to pay attention to your own needs, and I was reminded of this too last week. One specific thing that’s been on my mind recently is whether I need to step back from my workplace role as a Mental Health First Aider. It’s not something I want to do and I’ve felt I’d be letting myself and others down if I were to step down for even a short while. On the other hand, I’ve felt very drained of late — physically, mentally, and emotionally.

I mentioned this to one of my fellow MHFAs. She replied with such empathy and compassion that I was moved deeply. She understood. Two things she said resonated with me in particular. The first recognised how valuable and validating it can be to offer support to others: “Helping people is a satisfaction which is sometimes unmeasurable, it is also a blessing to be able to offer that support.” She’s wise enough and experienced enough to realise how much supporting others can take out of us at times, and how important it is to pay attention to our needs. As she pointed out, “[k]nowing the difference between loving ourselves and validating ourselves is sometimes a very hard thin line.” I’ve yet to decide about my MHFA role, but her words reminded me it’s ok if I need to take a break, whether for a short time or more permanently.

My mood hasn’t lifted dramatically as a result of these exchanges, and I still have my doubts and uncertainties about what I ought to be focusing on. The comments and conversations I’ve described, though, did help me move through what I was feeling, and gave me some degree of reassurance that I’m not totally on the wrong path. As I said to Fran when I told her about the Facebook group comments, “Little things like this are good to see. They help me feel I’m doing something useful.”


Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash.


Wednesday 12 January 2022

My 5 Best Buys of 2021

As a change from my usual blog topics, this week I’m sharing my five top purchases from 2021. One way or another, they’ve made their way into my life and feel very much at home here! I’ve listed the items in the order I bought them.

1. NRS Healthcare F19959 Divan Overbed Table

After balancing my work laptop on my knees since the start of lockdown in March 2020, I finally splashed out on a table in February to make working from home a little more comfortable. It’s sold as a “divan overbed table” and is the kind you might find in a hospital ward, but it’s perfect for me to work at. At 60 cm x 40 cm (23½ inch x 15¾ inch) it’s large enough to take my laptop, phone on its stand, notebook and pen. It’s very stable and adjusts in height. You can also tilt the table top, although I keep it horizontal. I’ve added a large bulldog clip to one side as a hanger for my headset, and to manage the cabling. When I’m not working, it doubles as my writing and crafting table, both of which are much easier now I’m not balancing things on a lap board across my knees!

Amazon listing for details.

2. Samsung Galaxy A8 Tablet (Wi-Fi, Black)

It’s no secret that I like my gadgets. I’m rarely off my phone, and have a PC, an ageing Chromebook, a Kindle Paperwhite, and a number of accessories including a Bluetooth headset and keyboard. I don’t collect gadgets for their own sake, though, and rarely spend money on something unless I’m sure I’ll have a use for it. I’ve no great interest in a smart watch, for example, because there’s no gap in my life it would fill. My phone (a Samsung Galaxy S9) is several years old, but unless it breaks or its performance drops significantly I’m unlikely to upgrade. For a long time, I felt the same way about tablets. I could do pretty much everything I wanted to do on my phone, and I had my PC for the rest. I rarely stream movies, and the only games I play work very nicely on my phone. What use did I have for a tablet?

I draft almost all my blog posts on my phone using my Bluetooth keyboard, both at home and in cafés and coffee shops. It works well and my new table means I can use this setup more at home of an evening when I might previously have used my PC. The only downside is that I found myself getting eye strain at times from working for long periods on the small screen of my phone. I began considering a tablet as something that might meet a need, and finally in April I bought a Samsung Galaxy A8 tablet.

I have to say, it’s more than met my expectations. It’s significantly less responsive than my phone, especially when switching between apps, but it performs brilliantly for my purposes. I can write for long periods without eye strain, and it’s also proven excellent for video calls. I use it most evenings for my Skype calls with Fran, which means I’m no longer tied to my PC and desk.

Amazon listing for details.

3. Lixada Crossbody Bag

This purchase counts as a success for the internet advertisers! You know how it goes, you click on something that catches your eye, after which you keep coming across adverts for it on websites and social media! In this case, though, I’m glad I followed through, finally buying one of these crossbody bags in September.

My regular EDC (every day carry) kit is pretty large (see Every Day Essentials for the Successful Blogger for details of what I take with me on trips out). I replaced the Lorenz bag described in that article with a larger AlwaySky bag in August 2020, but sometimes I don’t need or want to take my full EDC kit out with me.

My Lixada crossbody bag fits the bill. It’s just large enough to carry my diary, pen, battery pack and cables, with room for a few other items such as a spare mask, coins, small notebook, carrier bags etc. It’s also slim enough to be worn under a coat or jacket. It’s perfect for local walks, or for days out if I don’t anticipate needing much with me.

Amazon listing for details.

4. M&S Thermowarmth™ Gilet (Grey Mix)

Anyone who knows me knows I love pockets. Bags, trousers, coats. The more pockets the better. For many years I’ve owned a Highmount bodywarmer/gilet like this one – note the high pocket count! I’ve worn it almost every day; as an outer layer on all but the warmest of days, and under a coat when it’s extra cold. It’s seen better times, though, and I spent most of last year looking for a replacement. I may still pick up another of the same kind, but in October I walked into the Marks and Spencer department store in Newcastle and was delighted to find a very nice padded gilet in a grey/black mix.

True to the manufacturer’s claims, it’s very cosy. It can’t compete with the Highmount for pockets, but it has two patch pockets and two handwarmer pockets on the front, and four inside pockets (one zip closure, three hook & loop) which is more than adequate. It’s a little too bulky to wear under a coat, but as an outer layer it’s perfect. Best of all, I feel great wearing it.

M&S listing for details.

5. BGST Block Logo Hoodie (Mustard)

I mentioned my new Boys Get Sad Too hoodie in my look back over 2021, but it deserves a further mention because it’s definitely one of my favourite new items. The design caught my attention in June when I first came across the BSGT brand and bought myself a pin badge which I still wear proudly. As I wrote at the time:

Founded by Kyle Stanger, Boys Get Sad Too (BGST) is a fashion brand working for positive change. (“Sometimes it feels like you’re alone. Boys Get Sad Too is here to show you that you’re not.”) I bought the pin to support their endeavours. I didn’t expect its message to resonate as strongly as it does right now.

It took me a long time, though, to commit to ordering the hoodie, as I’m wary of buying clothing online. You can never be sure of the quality and size/fit. I was also uncertain how often I’d actually wear it. I’m so glad I finally took the plunge (and to Fran for making it my Christmas gift from her) because it fits me perfectly and has become my absolute favourite item of clothing. It goes especially well with my M&S gilet. Expect it to feature in selfies for some time to come!

BGST listing for details.

Over to You

I hope you’ve found something of interest in my top buys from the past year. Maybe you’ve gained a fresh insight or two into my life and likes, or seen something you’d like for yourself. What new things came into your life in the past twelve months?


Wednesday 5 January 2022

Nine Ways I Distract Myself When I'm Feeling Down

No matter who we are, there are times when we’re not feeling good. It helps to have strategies in place for handling times like this. A personalised Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) can be helpful. In other posts, I’ve described how to turn a bad day around, how to be kind to myself, and things I’m grateful for.

In this article I’m going to describe the strategies I use to distract myself while I wait for my thoughts or mood to shift. Just about anything can serve as a distraction technique if you’re able to immerse yourself sufficiently in it. If you’re interested in the role of distraction in Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT), I recommend this post written by my friend and fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson.

Here, in no particular order, here are my personal top distraction techniques.

1. Writing My Diary

In one form or another, writing has always been an important part of my life, and it’s one of the primary self-care strategies in my WRAP. I’ve kept a daily diary since I was fourteen years old. Mostly, I use it to record and explore what’s going on for me. It’s a mix of what I’ve been doing that day, plus how I’m feeling and thinking. This might seem the opposite of a distraction technique — and it is — but getting things out onto paper helps me let go of things and move forward. If that fails and I find I’m getting stressed or anxious about something, I can choose to write about other things instead, which serves as a useful diversion or distraction. On rare occasions I’ve imposed a moratorium on writing about a given topic or situation, to give myself space to move past it.

2. Blogging

I often use this blog to actively explore my thoughts, feelings, and experiences. A few good examples would be Flatness and Disinclination, Return to Down: How My Baseline Mood Has Slipped from Positive to Low, and THIS BOY GETS SAD TOO. At other times, I need to set my stuff aside, so I’ll pick something else to blog about. Whatever the topic, the discipline involved in writing and publishing a new post every week provides a useful distraction. This is helped by having a workflow I’ve honed over the years.

3. Creative Journaling

I’ve written previously about creativity in the context of it being part of my “first best destiny” (together with connection and challenge). It’s taken many different forms over the years, including clay modelling, soft toys, jewellery, and wooden toys and clocks. In recent years, I’ve taken to carrying a Traveler’s Notebook (TN) with me wherever I go, and use it as a memory journal to record special days and events.

Designing and creating spreads in my TN can be totally immersive and allows me to put other cares and thoughts aside for a while. It’s also positive, in the sense that I mostly use it to record and celebrate happy and rewarding moments. I usually journal on my own, but it can be fun to work creatively in good company as I described last year. I enjoy sharing photos of my TN with like-minded folk in the journaling community.

If you’re interested in learning more about Traveler’s Notebooks, check out my article listing official Traveler’s Company notebooks, inserts, and accessories.

4. Learning Teeline Shorthand

I’ve always been interested in writing modes or scripts. In my teenage years I taught myself the Tengwar script created by J. R. R. Tolkien, the author of The Lord of the Rings to the extent I used it to correspond with like-minded friends. I also developed a writing system of my own for personal use. A recent conversation with a friend who is teaching herself Braille inspired me to have a go at shorthand. I researched a few systems, including Pitman and Gregg, before settling on Teeline. Teeline is used by the National Council for the Training of Journalists, which certifies the training of journalists in the UK.

I treated myself to three books: Teeline Shorthand (Harry Butler), Teeline Gold: The Course Book, and the Teeline Gold: Word List. Keep an eye out for second-hand copies on Ebay, World of Books, etc. There’s a wealth of online material too. Teeline Shorthand offer a range of training courses (fees apply) but share sample lessons and practice material for free on their website, Twitter account, and YouTube channel. The Let’s Love Teeline Together YouTube channel is also excellent, with a series of engaging training videos, which I’ve found very helpful.

I’m learning it purely for interest and enjoyment. I find it’s excellent for distracting my mind from dwelling on other concerns and worries.

5. Watching Maths and Physics Videos

There’s nothing quite like other people’s passion for topics you scarcely understand to take you out of yourself. With that in mind, I regularly visit YouTube for mathematics and physics videos. They take my thoughts and ideas into areas way beyond anything I might be stuck on or struggling with at the time. My favourite channels are Numberphile and Up and Atom, but Matt Parker’s Stand-Up Maths and Vsauce (Michael Stevens, Kevin Lieber, and Jake Roper) are great too.

Produced by video journalist Brady Haran, Numberphile hosts “topics rang[ing] from the sublime to the ridiculous… from historic discoveries to latest breakthroughs.” The presenters – my favourites are Matt Parker, James Grime, and Tony Padilla – are all fantastically passionate about their subjects. I discovered Numberphile a few years ago when I chanced on some videos about big numbers, by which I mean brain-numbingly big numbers, such that even getting my head around the notation used to express them is a serious challenge! For a taster, check out The Enormous TREE(3) or Graham’s Number, but you can pick pretty much any of their videos at random (including this one on random numbers) to discover something fascinating.

Up and Atom (“Making hard stuff less hard”) was launched in 2016 by Australian physicist Jade Tan-Holmes, and features “lively and entertaining introductory videos about popular physics.” Jade is a wonderfully engaged and engaging presenter who explains complex topics in a way that make them relatively (pun intended) easy to understand. It’s hard to pick a favourite, but here are three I’ve enjoyed and keep coming back to: The Raven Paradox, This Paradox Proves Einstein’s Special Relativity, and The Halting Problem — An Impossible Problem to Solve.

6. Playing Games on My Phone

I’m hopeless at computer games but in the past year or so I’ve taken to passing time with a couple of games on my (Android) phone. I started out with the Ball Sort Puzzle by IEC Global Pty Ltd. More recently I have started playing Easybrain’s Blockudoku block puzzle game. What I like about these two games is that they are very simple, have few rules, are essentially endless (I am currently on level 3,115 of the Ball Sort Puzzle), and can be played with my brain more or less on auto pilot. I find they’re a great way to pass the time if I need a break from thinking about anything else.

7. Watching Movies or TV Shows

It’s rare for me to simply sit and watch TV. I’m almost always doing something else, whether that’s writing, chatting with friends online, or otherwise engaged on my phone or tablet. The exception to this is when Fran and I get together of an evening on a video call to watch a movie or Netflix show. Over the years we’ve watched a wide range of series including The Gilmore Girls, Downton Abbey, Grey’s Anatomy, and NCIS. We’re currently watching the American crime drama Criminal Minds. I’ve come to really value this shared time with Fran, and it gives me an opportunity at the end of the day where I’m focused almost entirely on the on-screen drama, rather than whatever might be going on for me.

8. Listening to Music

I’m including music in my list of distraction techniques, because I do find it helpful at times. I especially like to listen to music when I’m out walking, and have built up a number of YouTube and Spotify play lists which I like to dip into. I’ve previously shared two lists of my favourite tracks: Ten Anthems for Comfort, Celebration, Inspiration, and Healing and Twelve Songs That Remind Me What Caring Is All About. That said, there are times music is unhelpful as a distraction, because so many of the tracks on my playlists have associated memories, meanings, and significances. Depending on what I need to distract from, explicitly choosing to not listen to music can be a useful tool when I’m feeling stuck, low, or flat.

9. Spending Time With Friends

It’s no secret that connecting with trusted friends is high on my list of self-care strategies. High Tide, Low Tide, the book Fran and I wrote as a guide to supporting friends living with mental health conditions, is based on our belief that honest and open communication is the key to navigating difficult times. I’m grateful for Fran and other trusted friends who know how to handle my low mood, but there are times when I feel unable or unwilling to talk about what I’m going through. This is something I’ve described previously in a post titled Faking Fine: Why We Fib about How We Are. At such times, spending time with friends — whether online or in person — and doing or talking about other things can provide a healthy distraction, if I feel up to engaging with them.

Over to You

In this article I’ve shared a number of strategies I use to distract myself when I’m stuck, stressed, or anxious. The best distraction activities are things we enjoy or find engaging in some way, so yours may differ from mine. What do you do to distract yourself, to shift your thoughts and mood, and give yourself a break from what’s troubling you? We’d love to hear from you!


Photo by Nong V on Unsplash