Wednesday 27 April 2022

10 Ways to Spend Quality Time with Your Friend That Don't Involve Talking about Mental Health

Most of the posts Fran and I share here at Gum on My Shoe are about mental health, which is one of the core themes of our blog. The other theme is mutually supportive friendship. Being able to talk with your friend about their mental health and yours is foundational, but it’s just as important to spend time together that isn’t focused on whatever you might be going through at the time.

Sharing quality time reinforces your friendship, builds memories, and reminds you both that you value each other’s company in fine weather as well as in stormy times. Plus, of course, it’s just really good fun! Here in no particular order are ten ways I enjoy spending time with Fran and other friends.

1. Read to Each Other

We don’t do it as much as we used to, but Fran and I love reading together. More accurately, we love me reading aloud to Fran on our video calls. Our reading list has included fiction and non-fiction titles, including the McCabe and Savage series of thrillers by Maine author James Hayman, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, and Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. The last book we read together was The Isolation Artist by award-winning arts writer Bob Keyes, about the life and death of American artist Robert Indiana.

Whatever the subject matter — I’ve read short stories, blog posts, and news articles to Fran as well as the longer books and series — there’s something very cosy and intimate about reading aloud to someone, or being read to. Give it a go sometime!

2. Do Something Creative Together

Despite living three thousand miles apart, Fran and I have written two books together. Maybe writing isn’t your thing, but if you and your friend share creative interests, getting together to discuss or work on your projects can be a very satisfying way to cement your friendship.

My friend Aimee blogs at I’m Not Disordered, and our mutual interest in blogging is an important aspect of our friendship. Whether we’re struggling with ideas, planning a new article or collaboration, asking for advice, or simply sharing what we’re working on at the moment, it means a lot to have someone who understands what we’re trying to accomplish. We also share an interest in creative journaling and scrapbooking, and sometimes get together to work on our current projects, whatever they might be.

3. Watch TV Shows and Movies

This might seem too obvious to include. Don’t friends do this anyway, whether they have mental health issues or not? Perhaps, but as with many of the activities I’m suggesting, it’s easy to overlook the value of “chill out time” spend with a friend. This might include going to the cinema together if your friend lives locally, but it’s easy enough to share screen time online.

Fran and I meet pretty much every day to watch movies or TV series together. We open a Skype call with me on my PC or tablet and Fran on her laptop. She brings up Netflix on her TV and turns the laptop so I’m facing the screen and can watch along with her. We’ve watched many different movies and series like this, as well as sporting events such as the Superbowl and Triple Crown horse races.

My friend Jen also lives in the US, and we’ve met online a few times to watch her favourite TV show, Northern Exposure. She gifted me the first season on DVD and I played it on my PC, sharing the screen with her on our video call. It was lovely to be able to share something that means so much to her. I rarely go to the cinema but I enjoy visiting Aimee for movies and takeout. “Netflix and pizza” has become synonymous for quality time together and is something we both look forward to.

4. Go For a Picnic

Not everyone might agree but in my book it’s hard to beat going for a picnic with a friend! Aimee and I planned a picnic day in Morpeth a few years ago, which was a great success. We also picnicked in Aimee’s garden in April 2021 as England emerged from lockdown; you could meet up with people again as long as it wasn’t indoors.

Picnics are arguably harder to arrange if you don’t live locally. I don’t recall Fran and I sharing a picnic virtually, but we’ve arranged video calls to share a drink many times, in our respective homes or when out and about. One occasion I remember with great affection was a video call with Fran and her friend Tracy. I was in the beer garden of a lovely pub in Ambleside in the English Lake District while they were having a drink at the Monhegan Brewing Company on Monhegan Island in Maine. It was a lot of fun, made all the more hilarious by the various video filters we played around with!

5. Plan a Trip

Fran loves traveling and over the years I’ve accompanied her virtually on trips all over the world. A big part of my travel buddy role is helping Fran plan for her excursions. Amongst other things, this involves looking for flights and accommodation, things to do when she gets where she’s going, or working with her on her packing lists. On a smaller scale, I love planning local days out with friends, whether that’s day trips with Aimee to Edinburgh and Durham as we did last year, or drives out for lunch with my friend Vikki. The latter are a real treat for me as I don’t own a car, so I get to go places I wouldn’t otherwise be able to visit easily.

Planning time to celebrate birthdays, the anniversary of your first meeting as friends, your successes and achievements, or other special occasions counts too. It doesn’t need to be big or expensive: a simple meet up for coffee or a drink reminds you both that you value the pleasure of each other’s company. Some of my fondest memories with friends have been when we’ve met to mark our respective birthdays and successes, such as Aimee’s blog achievements or Vikki’s return to university a few years ago.

6. Have a Music Night

It’s great to share music with friends, whether virtually or in person. Jen and I love sharing songs when we’re online together, taking turns to suggest our favourite tracks and artists. Even when I’m listening to music on my own, I often post YouTube links to my Facebook page so other friends can listen along if they choose to. It’s a great way to connect with other people with similar (or indeed widely different) musical tastes.

It’s been a long time since I attended a live gig or concert, but I have great memories of listening to music — and singing and dancing along! — at Stack Newcastle with Vikki, and open mic nights at Bar Loco. I’m sad that Stack is about to close, but I will be keeping an eye — and an ear — out for other live music venues.

7. Take a Walk Together

As I’ve written previously, walking has always been an important part of my life. Even when I’m walking on my own, I love to share the experience with friends. This was especially valuable during lockdown, when I shared my daily walks for exercise with Fran and other friends via voice or video calls. Whether it was cows or horses in the fields (“Look! Horsies!”), the peace and quiet I found beside the Ouseburn stream, or the wonderful — and hope-full — garden fence mural I passed almost every day, sharing my walks enhanced my appreciation of my local area, and provided something to talk about with my friends beyond the realities of life under lockdown.

Fran shares walks with me too. I especially remember following her on a walk around Sitges, near Barcelona in Spain. We chatted as she explored the old town and seafront, and I followed her location using Glympse and Google maps. In a similar way, Fran used to share her walks around Peaks Island where she lived at the time. In-person walks with Aimee through Carlisle Park and up Ha Hill in Morpeth, and an urban ramble around Newcastle last year with my friends Paul and Fiona are further examples. Health-wise, I find long walks more challenging than I used to, but I look forward to many walks with friends in the future.

8. Share Quiet Time

So far, my suggestions have involved doing things, but it can be just as valuable to do nothing — or very little — with your friend. Whether it’s meditating together, sharing companionable silence because you’re tired or otherwise occupied, or even dozing off with your friend, quiet time brings its own reward.

9. Get Up On the Stage

It won’t be for everyone but watching your friend perform, or having your friend’s encouragement and support while you do, is a wonderful thing. I’m by no means a natural on stage but I’ve performed live readings of my poetry and excerpts from High Tide Low Tide, and it was particularly meaningful to have Vikki in the audience on a few of those occasions. Likewise, I’ve watched Vikki and other friends on stage in pantomime, karaoke, and open mic sessions. I’ve also been there to support Aimee speak at a number of events, including one for World Mental Health Day in 2019. Whatever the event, there’s nothing like applauding your friend for their courage and talent, and being applauded in turn for yours.

10. Volunteer Together

I’ve mentioned Vikki and Aimee a lot in this article (I don’t have many local friends!) but they get another shout-out here because I met each of them through volunteering with the mental health charity Time to Change. I’ve enjoyed volunteering with them and other friends at a number of events, including Pride and a Halloween fundraising event for Newcastle Recovery College. It’s a great way to meet new people and get outside your comfort zone for a little while. The prime example of that for me was volunteering to zip-line from Newcastle’s mighty Tyne Bridge to raise funds for homelessness charity Crisis.

Likes and Dislikes

In this article I’ve shared ten ways I’ve found to share quality time with friends that don’t involve talking about our mental health. That’s not to say no such conversations ever occur while we’re doing these things, because sometimes they do. That’s perfectly natural, but the point is we’re sharing time regardless of whatever might be going on for us, for the simple pleasure of each other’s company.

It’s worth mentioning, however, that sometimes our mental health might influence the activities we feel able to do, whether due to triggers, anxiety, stress, or other factors. Be aware of that when planning activities with your friend, and be open to the possibility that plans may need to change, be postponed, or even cancelled. Mental health aside, we all have different likes, interests, and preferences. Not everyone would enjoy a crowded music venue, for example, even before the pandemic. Likewise, going for a four hour walk or volunteering would not be to everyone’s taste.

Talk with your friend about what they’d like to do together, and be creative about the possibilties. If Fran and I can do this, living as we do on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean, I’m confident you and your friend will find plenty of things you can do too!

Over to You

What do you and your friends enjoy sharing? In what ways does it help build your friendship? Do any of the things I’ve suggested appeal to you? We’d love to hear your thoughts so do get in touch, either in the comments below or through our contact page.


Photo by Valiant Made on Unsplash.


Wednesday 20 April 2022

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. I’ve used some previously — see examples below — but most I’ve yet to write about.

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.


1. My aims and aspirations for my blog.

2. How did you choose the name for your blog?

Example: Ever Wonder Why Our Blog Is Called Gum on My Shoe?

3. Five things I will never blog about and why.

4. How I write my blog posts.

Example: Secrets of a Successful Blogging Workflow

5. The best and worse things about being a mental health blogger.

Example: When Blogging Is Hard and What to Do About It

6. Finding good copyright-free illustrations.

Example: How to Choose the Perfect Image for Your Blog Post


7. How to use social media to support your friends and loved ones.

8. Why it’s important to have different kinds of support networks.

Example: Spokesfriends and Insular Groups: What Kind of Support Network Do You Have?

9. Virtual vs “real life” friendships and support.

10. Online mental health resources I’ve found helpful.

Healthy Friendships and Relationships

11. Ten ways to spend quality time with your friend.

12. How to reconnect (or not) when a friendship breaks down.

13. Envy and jealousy in a caring relationship.

14. How getting it wrong led me to a deeper understanding of what my friend lives with.

15. How to ask the right questions (and listen to the answers).

16. Healthy boundaries: when to say yes, and when to say no.

17. Six things I want my friend to know.

18. The friend you need and the friend I need to be.

19. How to build and maintain a mutually supportive friendship.

About You

20. How did you become a mental health blogger?

21. Write an open letter to yourself.

Example: Dear Marty: An Open Letter to Myself

22. One argument (or mistake or setback) that had a lasting positive result.

23. Things I’m grateful for.

Example: 11 Things I’m Grateful For This Week

24. Things no one knows about me.

Example: 21 Things You Didn’t Know About Marty

Ideas and Inspiration

25. My top inspirational music tracks.

Example: Twelve Songs That Remind Me What Caring Is All About

26. Five mental health books I’d recommend.

27. People you respect and admire in the mental health community.

Example: Six People I Admire in the Mental Health Community

Mental Health

28. An open letter to my friend after her overdose.

29. Can you ever really understand if you’ve not experienced mental ill health yourself?

30. What not to say when your friend is depressed (or anxious, or in mania, etc).

31. Three mental health terms I never understood — until I did.

32. 99 words on depression (or any other mental health condition).

33. Healthy habits and how to keep them.

34. What self-care means to me.

35. How to educate yourself about your friend’s mental health condition.

36. An interview with your friend about what it’s like for them living with mental illness.

37. Five things you’ve learned about mental illness.

38. How to be a mental health ally.

39. The best and worst mental health memes you’ve seen.

40. Mental health awareness days and events — are they helpful or do they trivialise how things are for your friend and others living with mental illness?

More Mental Health Blogging Ideas

Check out the following links for more mental health blogging topics.

For more specific ideas, search for “blogging ideas for depression” (or anxiety, bipolar disorder, etc).

Over to You

I hope you found these ideas interesting and useful. Please feel free to use or adapt any of them as you wish. There’s no need to link back to his article, though I’d love it if you did! If you tag me or let me know you’ve used one of these topic ideas, I’ll be sure to share a link to your post on our social media.



Photo by Nick Fewings at Unsplash.


Wednesday 13 April 2022

I Want to Write: How Our Book HIGH TIDE LOW TIDE Came to Be Written

This is the story of how our first book High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder came to be written, taken from the book’s Preface. It’s available from all good booksellers; check our book page for details.


Writing has always been an important part of my life. I remember the teacher who encouraged me by providing a notebook for my extracurricular stories. I remember being snubbed by my classmates for asking if I could submit a poem in place of the expected essay: our teacher thought it such a good idea he set poetry for the entire class. I remember volunteering as assistant editor on the school magazine because I had a crush on the teacher. I remember the yellowing copy of Ezra Pound’s poetry I borrowed from the library and neglected to return. I wrote poetry through sixth form (my final two years at school) and university; later essays, articles, and short stories. I have kept a personal diary for over forty years.

A keen science student, I studied pharmacy at the University of Bradford, Yorkshire. I graduated in 1983 and took up a postgraduate position at the Department of Neurology, Institute of Psychiatry and King’s College Hospital Medical School in London. In 1987, I moved north to work in the biomedical sciences laboratory at Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary. I met my wife Pam that same year. I later retrained in business computing and have worked in the information technology services industry ever since.

I met Fran Houston online in May 2011. Fran lives with bipolar disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome, and fibromyalgia, and we joke that when she discovered I was a pharmacy graduate with three years’ research experience in neuroscience she thought all her worries were over. Here at last was someone to sort her life out for her! In fact, little I had learned in the lecture theatre or laboratory prepared me to help someone living with chronic, debilitating illness. Education is extremely valuable — I have completed a number of courses and workshops since meeting Fran which help me support her more effectively — but ultimately caring is not about how much you know, it is about who you are and what you do.

This book was conceived in October 2012. During a phone call with Fran I mentioned that I felt inspired to do something creative. Without hesitation, she suggested I write a book about befriending someone who lives with illness. The idea made a great deal of sense. Despite living three thousand miles apart, we had forged a relationship that was strong, caring, and mutually rewarding. I saw immediately that my experience could be of value to others. But if the suggestion was inspired, it was also scary. My first thought was that I had never looked on her as “someone living with illness.” I saw her as my friend.

That is the point, Marty! It is how you are with me. People do not usually treat me that way once they know I have illness. It is a powerful thing. It has helped me see that I am not just my illnesses. I have value and gifts to give.

In the weeks that followed, we discussed possible approaches, formats, and the likely audience for such a book. I researched similar titles, made notes, and sketched outlines. The further I pursued the idea the more it eluded me. I could see the book only as an autobiographical account of our friendship, and while that could be a tale worth telling, it wasn’t what Fran had envisaged. I began to lose heart. Our conversations turned to other topics and the idea of the book lapsed.

One night in late November, Fran telephoned me. It was four o’clock in the morning here in the UK. She was very excited. She had been to dinner with someone who wanted advice on how to support a friend diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Fran offered suggestions from her own experience, and mentioned she knew someone in England who was writing a book on that very subject. Her friend thought it was a great idea and wanted to know when the book would be published. My heart sank. Too sleepy to be anything but honest, I told Fran what I had come to realise, but had not until that moment shared with her. Our book was never going to happen. Fran didn’t press me for details or explanations. She said goodnight and let me get back to sleep.

I went to work next day as usual, and avoided thinking about our conversation until I was walking to catch the train home. It was a shame nothing would come of Fran’s idea. My thoughts turned to a book on depression I had recently finished reading. Written by a clinical psychologist, it had an easy style and was illustrated with snippets of conversation. It was nothing like the book Fran and I had talked about, but could a similar approach work for us? Something clicked. I messaged Fran from the train.

Thank you for mentioning our book to your friend last night, for telling me about her reaction to the idea, and for the response it stirred in me. It was the jolt I needed. Just now, in the very act of repeating to myself how our book will never come into being, I caught a glimpse of how it might. I want to rededicate myself to the project. I want to start making notes, drafting ideas. I want to write.

It was a breakthrough moment, and one utterly in keeping with the central message of the book you are holding. No matter what happens or what you are struggling with — be that some practical or creative project, your relationship with others, your own health or that of a loved one — the important thing is to set aside preconceived notions of how things should be, or whether you are up to the task. Instead, be honest with yourself about what is happening. Acknowledge your limitations, but refuse to be bound by them. Trust in your ability to grow to meet the challenge. Recognise joyfully the potential of each moment. Be who you are. Do what you can. Embrace the journey.

Martin Baker
Newcastle upon Tyne, UK


Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash.


Wednesday 6 April 2022

Pathologically (Covid) Positive

If you follow me on social media you’ll have seen that I’m currently on a fortnight’s holiday from work. I rented a car for the first week and took little excursions and day trips here and there in the northeast of England. Alnwick. Bamburgh. Belsay. Otterburn. It was good to be behind the wheel after more than two years, and to revisit places I’ve not seen since the start of the pandemic. My modest adventuring stalled, however, when I developed a cough late last week. I took a lateral flow test on Saturday which confirmed I’d picked up a coronavirus infection from somewhere. It was bound to happen at some point. I’ve had all my jabs but that was never a guarantee I wouldn’t catch it.

I can’t say where, when, or from whom I contracted it. I imagine it was one of the restaurants or coffee shops I visited last weekend or at the start of the week. I’m not mad at whoever passed it on to me. Maybe they were asymptomatic and had no idea they were contagious. Maybe they thought it was just a cold. Maybe they suspected what it was but figured they were unlikely to pass it on. Maybe they planned to take a test but couldn’t get to the shops or pharmacy. None of us is perfect. I’ll own my share of the responsibility. I’ve continued to wear a face mask when grocery shopping or on public transport, but I’ve become less strict about wearing a mask in other settings, social distancing and other measures since England officially emerged from its pandemic regulations. Maybe I’d have avoided catching it if I’d been more careful. My main concern now is not to pass it on to anyone else.

The first thing I did was cancel the plans I’d made for the weekend and for this week. It’s a shame to spend the second half of my holiday keeping as much to myself as possible, but fortunately my symptoms have been relatively mild. I’ve a cough, a sore throat, and was very fatigued and “wiped out” for a couple of days, but it’s not been too bad. I’m grateful for the vaccination and booster shots which make it — for me so far at least — little worse than a heavy cold. So, instead of grumbling (too much!) about the things I didn’t or won’t get to do while I wait it out, I’ll focus on what I was able to do last week, what I can do this week, and whatever positives I can take from the experience.

My holiday fortnight began two Fridays ago with a lovely evening out with friends in Newcastle. Before falling ill, I managed three trips to the Blacksmiths cafe at Belsay, an afternoon at Alnwick Garden, a trip to Otterburn Mill, breakfast at The Barn at Beal, a visit to Bamburgh, and meals out at several local pubs and restaurants Other wins from the first week of my holiday include learning how to use the WAZE navigation app on my phone to replace my ancient TomTom satnav device, and the book giveaway Fran and I ran for World Bipolar Day. Over five days we gave away 150 Kindle copies of our books (130 copies of High Tide Low Tide, and 20 copies of No One Is Too Far Away). It’s good to think of all those new folk reading our words for the first time and — hopefully — finding something there to help and inform them.

Despite needing to isolate as much as possible, there are some things I can look forward to this coming week. I can take local walks — weather permitting! I can maybe arrange some nice video calls with friends, to make up for not being able to meet in person. (As I said to one of my friends the other day, “You can’t catch covid from an e-hug!”) I can practice my Teeline shorthand, which I’ve been meaning to pick up with again. I can also write, if I’m not feeling too run down.

I’m smiling to myself as I jot down all these things I have to be grateful for and look forward to. I remind myself that it’s okay to feel rough, ill, sad, disappointed, or annoyed. I don’t have to “look on the bright side” all the time! That’s true, of course. Being overly optimistic or positive isn’t a healthy trait. It is part of my psychological DNA, however. The title I chose for this post is a gentle reminder that Fran used to call me pathologically positive, and she didn’t mean it as a compliment! I’ve written about this before, including in this article about things I’ve found hard — but necessary — to hear from Fran and other friends who live with illness.

Fran calls me pathologically positive and it’s not meant as a compliment. We only met at all because she was furious at my inept response online to someone in suicidal distress. I’ve always been a positive person, but mostly I deployed it defensively to avoid facing up to how shitty life gets. It’s been hard to accept this was hopelessly naïve and prevented me engaging fully with life and with other people. [...] I’m learning that courage isn’t about being relentlessly positive. Real courage is dealing with the shittiness of life when you’re unable to set it aside or run away from it.

I explored the idea further in an audio piece you’ll find on our YouTube channel. Recorded the morning after the UK general election in December 2019, I discuss my pathological positivity in relation to politics and privilege. Listening to the recording again today as I write this latest blog post (in between coughing and sipping at my mug of Lemsip) I’m reminded how privileged my life has been throughout most of my life — and still is.

I have covid right now. It’s not a fun experience, but I’m fully vaccinated and able to take time to rest and attend to my symptoms. My general health is such that a week with covid is unlikely to pose any dangers. It sucks being ill when I’m on holiday (could this not have waited until I was back at work?!) but I’m fortunate in having a job at all. I get paid holidays, and paid sick leave. Falling ill is inconvenient but my job, home, income, and livelihood are not at risk. I can afford — literally and figuratively — to be positive about my present situation, but it’s important for me to remember how privileged a position that is, and hold myself open to hearing, helping, and supporting those who find themselves in less fortunate circumstances.

Pathological or not, that’s one positive I can take away from this experience.