Wednesday, 10 August 2022

Blogging Besties: A Joint Q&A With Aimee Wilson

Blogging isn’t rocket science. It’s about being yourself and putting what you have into it. (Anonymous)

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. My answers are below. You can find Aimee’s on her blog I’m NOT Disordered.

We’d like to thank everyone who contributed, whether your question made the final list or not. They brought back a lot of great memories and did what all good questions do; they challenged us and made us think! I can imagine some serving as jumping off points for future articles.

Our blogs were founded a few months apart in 2013. Aimee’s blog I’m NOT Disordered is amongst the most popular for borderline personality disorder (BPD) and in 2022 was top UK blog for BPD at feedspot.com. Her book Everything Disordered: A Practical Guide to Blogging was published in 2021.

Martin’s Answers

1. Do you feel under pressure to keep going with your blog?

Yes, but it’s self-imposed. Fran and I started our blog in August 2013. We posted haphazardly to begin with but after a while I committed to publishing one post a week. With one exception, I’ve kept to that schedule. It’s a struggle sometimes, but the deadline keeps me focused. To be honest, I fear that if I let things slip and didn’t post for a time, I’d be unlikely to pick things up again.

2. Does your blogging ever feel like a job or is it for pleasure?

I get a lot of satisfaction from blogging, but it’s not something I do for pleasure. It’s more like something I need to do. Writing has always been a vital part of my life and has expressed itself in different ways over the years: the diary I’ve kept since I was fourteen, poetry, short stories and articles, the book I wrote with my best friend Fran Houston, and this blog. Writing, including blogging, is part of my self-care toolbox. It helps me explore whatever is going on for me but can also be a useful distraction technique. I don’t quite know who I’d be if I wasn’t writing (but that’s a topic for another post!)

3. How does negative feedback impact what you’re doing? And how do you cope with it?

I’ve had very little negative feedback about my blogging, or anything I’ve done in the mental health space. Family, friends, and colleagues have always been supportive and encouraging.

4. Do you think that you blog the same because of you both being mental health bloggers?

Aimee and I couldn’t be more different when it comes to our blogging! On numerous occasions we’ve attended the same event or blogged on similar topics, but our articles are always written from very different perspectives. I’d say I approach things in a straightforward, documentary way, whereas Aimee often finds unique approaches which draw on her creativity and lived experience. I like to think our styles complement each other well. I’ve certainly learned a lot from her.

5. What’s your favourite memory together?

It’s hard to pick just one! Fond memories include our first day out as friends at Newcastle’s Life Science Centre; our picnic in Aimee’s garden in 2021 after not seeing each other for a year because of covid; and the wonderful spread she put on for me for my birthday this year. My favourite memory though is when we were discussing a blogging idea I’d had, about how people sometimes fake how they’re feeling. At one point I realised I’d lost track of what Aimee was saying. I think she had too because she asked, “Do you know what I mean?” I hesitated. “I thought I did...” You maybe had to be there, but we found it hilarious and remind ourselves of it from time to time!

6. Favourite photo of you both?

It’s even harder to choose a photo than it was to decide on a favourite memory! I shortlisted half a dozen joint selfies (we love joint selfies!) but my favourite is the earliest, taken outside Newcastle Life Science Centre in January 2019.

7. Can either of you ever imagine ending your blog?

There are times when I wonder why I put myself through the weekly routine, or doubt that my blogging serves any real purpose. But then I’ll receive positive feedback from a reader, or something I’m writing about will spark a conversation with a friend, and I know it’s not time to stop. Blogging is also an important aspect of my friendship with Aimee. Writing can be a very lonely pursuit, and we each value having someone in our lives who understands what it takes to blog week after week, especially in the mental health space. I’m not saying we couldn’t still be friends if either of us stopped blogging — but I’d rather not test that out! Joking aside, Aimee is a huge inspiration to me and a big part of why I’m still blogging.

8. Do you think that your content and blog is helping to reduce mental health stigma?

In a modest way, yes. The book I co-authored with Fran (High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder) is on Bipolar UK’s recommended book list, and I’m proud to have been included in a Health Central article profiling people who have changed the public perception of bipolar disorder. I’ve also written for several mental health organisations including Bipolar UK, Mental Health First Aid England, and bp Magazine for Bipolar. As a Mental Health First Aider I’ve helped foster a more open culture around mental health and wellbeing in the workplace.

9. How does it feel to hear positive feedback when your content has resonated with a reader?

It’s the best feeling ever! A general compliment is great, but it means even more if something I’ve written has affected someone directly, or helped them relate to what a friend or loved one is going through so they can support them better. The most recent example happened a few weeks ago. A reader messaged me and Fran to share how deeply our words and experiences had moved her. “I am at a loss for words. I have actually been hit by it very hard — in a good way.” She continued, “As you say, Fran, I am realizing I need to build my life the way I need it and want it. Thank you for the book, for your advocacy. It is too bad there are not more Martys in the world!”

10. How is your own mental health impacted when you’re putting a lot of effort into your work, but people are still slipping through the net and taking their own life? Does it make you feel like you’ve wasted your time?

Hearing that someone has found themself in such extreme pain or distress that suicide or self-harm seemed their only option is very hard, but it doesn’t Invalidate the message of hope and support we do our best to put out there. On the contrary, it reinforces how important it is to share that message, and to be there for those we care about. Every life lost to illness — that’s how I think of suicide — is a tragedy, but there’s only so much any of us can do to keep those we love safe. That’s something I learned early in my friendship with Fran. As I express it in our book, “It is not that I trust Fran never to try and harm herself, or imagine our friendship guarantees her safety. [...] But I trust her not to hide her suicidal feelings from me, and to be honest with me about them. Ultimately, I trust Fran to allow me to help her stay alive.”

11. After writing something intense, how do you wind down? What do you use as self-care?

I mostly feel a sense of release when I’ve finished a blog post, especially when it’s something that seems especially important or that I’ve put a great deal of myself into. I’ll take a day or two to unwind, but my blogging schedule dictates that I’ll soon be focused on the next post. That helps me put things behind me and move forward. I might choose a lighter or less challenging topic if my previous post was particularly intense.

12. What would you like to see happen in the future for mental health services?

Aimee is better placed to answer this one, as I don’t have first-hand experience as a service user. My three main observations, from the outside as it were, are that services are overly focused on crisis intervention rather than prevention and ongoing support; services are often not available at all for those who need them, where and when they need them; and the quality of care and support seems to vary hugely depending on where you live. I’d like to see some attempt to share best practice. I believe service users should also be more involved in shaping the services and support that are provided and rewarded financially for doing so.

13. What are your thoughts on giving someone a diagnosis?

It’s no part of my role as a friend to Fran, Aimee, or anyone else to diagnose them or encourage them to self-diagnose. Diagnosis is a responsibility reserved to doctors, psychiatrists, and other clinical professionals. More generally, I think diagnostic labels such as anxiety, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, depression, or psychosis can be of value, if they help someone access appropriate treatment and support, or better understand what they’re dealing with. Labels can be problematic, though, if they’re used to stigmatise or discriminate against someone, or suggest there’s something wrong with the person themself.

14. Do you think there’s more that can be done for service users to really feel ‘heard’ by clinicians?

This is often the first question I ask when a friend has attended a clinical appointment: Do you feel you were heard? It helps to be as prepared as possible. I help Fran prepare for appointments with her psychiatrist by typing up a summary of her mental, physical, and emotional health, plus anything she specifically wants to ask. Fran sends the notes to her psychiatrist in advance of her appointment.

15. How do you feel that for some people, mental health and mental illness is only really talked about on dedicated awareness dates.

I have friends with mental health issues who find awareness days and events frustrating, dismissive, or unhelpful. I found this strange at first; surely any attempt to bring mental health to the forefront is a good thing? I’ve come to understand some of the issues and frustrations, which include the lack of professional support services and the fact that campaigns tend to avoid some of the most serious mental health conditions such as psychosis and schizophrenia. I nevertheless continue to engage with, and write for, awareness events such as Time to Talk Day (February), World Bipolar Day (March 30), Mental Health Awareness Week (May), World Suicide Prevention Day (September 10), and World Mental Health Day (October 10). Despite their limitations, I believe campaigns can make a real difference. Last year an event I attended for International Men’s Day (November) prompted me to arrange my first doctor’s appointment in three decades, to rule out the possibility of prostate cancer.

16. Do you feel your blogging is supported by the people around you?

I mentioned that family, friends, and colleagues have always supported and encouraged my writing and other mental health work. That remains true, but Aimee is the person most actively engaged with my blogging because she knows what’s involved. We often discuss what we’re working on, or check in with each other for suggestions on approach, content, or illustrations.

17. How did you both meet?

I’m interested to see if Aimee remembers this the same as me! The first conversation I recall was at an outdoor event for Newcastle Mental Health Day in February 2016, though I think we were both at the orientation session for the event the week before. I was volunteering with Time to Change and Aimee was running the social media side of things.

18. What’s your favourite thing about each other?

I have huge respect for Aimee’s courage, determination, and honesty; both in her personal life and in sharing her knowledge and experience to help others. She’s always open to new opportunities and rarely seems to get knocked back and discouraged for long. She has a great sense of humour and is someone I trust to be there for me if I need it. If I had to pick one thing, it would be that she’s not afraid to challenge me if I do or say something unhelpful or that she doesn’t agree with. That’s quite rare and very important to me.

19. What do you think has been your greatest blogging achievement?

It might sound a little trite, but my greatest achievement is knowing my words have helped people, whether in their own lives or in helping them support friends and loved ones. The single most treasured endorsement anyone has ever given me and Fran was about the book, but I like to think it relates to my blogging too: “[This is] a deeply honest and detailed account of two people’s journey as friends, which reminds us that mental illness doesn’t change what friendship is all about: being there for those we love.”

20. Aside from blogging, what’s your favourite thing to do?

I enjoy time spent in good company, whether in person or online (chat or calls) with Aimee, Fran, and other friends around the world. I also enjoy creative journaling and am teaching myself Teeline shorthand.

Over to You

You can read Aimee’s answers to these same questions on her blog I'm NOT Disordered.

We both hope you’ve found these questions and answers interesting, and that they’ve shed a little light on us as people, as friends, and as bloggers. If you have any questions or comments we’d love to hear from you!

 

Photo by Martin Baker, Newcastle Life Science Centre, January 2019

 

Wednesday, 3 August 2022

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.

  1. Do you tailor your writing for your audience?
  2. Are there topics you’d never write about?
  3. What are you afraid of?
  4. Describe something intensely personal that you’ve blogged about. How did it feel?
  5. Do you always tell the truth in your blogging?
  6. How important is editing and proofreading to you?
  7. Describe your blogging approach or process.
  8. What makes a good blogger?

Whether you publish your answers on your blog or not (if you do, a link back to this article would be appreciated) it can be a very useful exercise to keep your writing genuine and on track. Are you up for the challenge? My answers are below.


1. Do You Tailor Your Writing for Your Audience?

The focus of our blog is mental health and supportive friendships, and I try to keep posts balanced between those two themes. I also write articles targeted at other writers and bloggers, especially those working in the mental health arena. Perhaps surprisingly, the most read article on our blog describes how to write the best acknowledgment page for your book. It was written based on our experiences writing High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder. Our book is a good example of tailoring my writing to a particular audience; specifically, people wanting to support friends who live with bipolar disorder or other mental health conditions.

2. Are There Topics You’d Never Write About?

In my list of 40 Mental Health Blog Topics From the Caring Friend’s Perspective, number three is Five things I will never blog about and why. It’s a subject that feels important, but I’ve never figured out how to address it properly. It’s hard to write about topics you’d never write about!

I’m wary of writing if I have little or no experience of the subject under discussion, unless I’m presenting the insights, opinions, and accounts of others who do. For example, I wrote about bipolar anger after asking several friends to share their experience of this particular symptom. I’ve also written about suicidal thinking, based on conversations with Fran and others who know first-hand what it’s like to be in such a place. I mostly discuss mental illness from the perspective of a supportive friend, although in the past couple of years I’ve begun sharing aspects of my mental health.

There are topics I’d like to write about but haven’t yet found a way to approach them as I’d wish to. These include my perspective as a caring friend when someone I know has taken an overdose or harmed themself. I can’t imagine ever writing about abuse, addiction, rape, or trauma. Those are too far beyond my lived experience for me to do them justice.

3. What Are You Afraid Of?

This is such a great question! Three quotations come to mind. The first is from John Powell’s book Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am? Insights Into Personal Growth.

Why am I afraid to tell you who I am? I am afraid to tell you who I am, because, if I tell you who I am, you may not like who I am, and it’s all that I have.

I would like to be completely honest, open, and genuine in everything I do and write, but honesty means admitting I’m afraid people might not like what I’ve shared, and won’t like me as a result. Who I am — who I really am, with my insights, experience, and wisdom; but also my faults, failings, and hang-ups — is all I have to offer. There are things I’ve chosen not to write about because of that fear. That fear is natural. It can also be healthy, in that it guards us against sharing too much or inappropriately. Maintaining healthy boundaries is important. We can be honest and genuine without sharing everything with everyone.

The second quotation is something I’ve come across several times on social media. I haven’t been able to trace its author but the challenge of it stops me short every time.

What would your life be if you weren’t afraid to fail?

I don’t enjoy failing but fear of failure plays little part in my writing. I’m never going to make a fortune from my books and blogging and I’m unlikely to find myself a guest on Orah. I’m happy when one of my blog posts atttracts plenty of pageviews or comments, or we receive a positive book review, but I don’t write with that kind of success in mind. My writing has the potential to change a few lives. I don’t need to change the world. What does scare me is the possibility of unlimited success. I’m reminded of the well-known passage by Marianne Williamson that begins:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.

A few years ago I took a leadership course at work. One exercise involved writing a personal vision statement: an aspirational what-if-anything-were-possible snapshot of my life at some point in the future. I found the exercise exhilarating, but looking back on it a year or so later I realised I’d not achieved any portion of my goals. As I’ve written elsewhere, “I began the journey but looking back I can see that I failed to follow through. I lost faith in the vision itself. Arguably, I lost faith in myself.” It was fear of success and the changes that might bring to my life which kept me stuck where I was.

4. Describe Something Intensely Personal That You’ve Blogged About. How Did It Feel?

Fran and I shared a great deal in our book, including many of our personal conversations. Some of those related to times when we were feeling unwell, upset, stressed, or otherwise vulnerable. I felt good about sharing those details, because we wanted to show what it’s like to be in a mutually supportive friendship when one friend lives with illness. We set a few boundaries about what we would share and what we’d keep private, but it was important to us that we were honest and didn’t just present the easy or palatable bits.

It took some time for me to share my experiences, thoughts, and feelings outside of my role as a supportive friend. The first really personal article I wrote was an open letter to my father, which was published in 2016 by The Good Men Project. I later wrote an open letter to my mother in response to a call for submissions by Stigma Fighters. It’s significant that each letter expressed things I would never have told my parents when they were alive, and that I’d told to very few people, if any at all. I felt very vulnerable putting myself out there like that, but it felt important and I’m glad I did so. It made it easier to share other aspects of my life, including my mental health in such posts as BOYS GET SAD TOO, and Return to Down.

5. Do You Always Tell the Truth in Your Blogging?

I mentioned above that Fran and I agreed what we would share in our book and what we’d keep private. It was important to us that we were truthful about what we did share, and we outlined our sources and methodology in the book’s introduction. We selected conversations that best illustrated whatever point was being discussed, but aside from minor edits for clarity we published our exchanges as they happened. Anything less would have felt dishonest, and misleading to our audience. I work to the same principles when I’m blogging. I choose what I want to blog about, and what I want to share or say on that topic. There may be — and indeed are — things I choose not to write about or include, but if I write it, it’s true.

6. How Important Is Editing and Proofreading to You?

Editing and proofreading are very important aspects of my writing process. No matter the topic, forum, or audience, I want to present my work to as high a standard as possible. I tend to edit as I go along, which means that writing anything takes a lot longer than if I simply wrote and then went back to edit afterwards. I’ve tried that approach but it doesn’t work for me. Reading the words I’ve just typed, moving them around a bit, replacing this word with another (and often back again later) helps me feel my way forward as I discover what shape the piece is going to take.

Once the article is written, I’ll edit it several times from top to bottom. My first drafts are usually too wordy so I’m looking to cut redundant or repetitive sections, as well as improving how the piece flows overall. I’m also checking for consistency, spelling, typos or missing words, and punctuation. I’m a stickler for smart quotes and proper em or en dashes, so I check for those too. I do a final proofing pass just before I schedule the post for publication. Typos and other errors still get through occationally, of course. If I find one I’ll correct the post, no matter how long it’s been since it was originally published.

7. Describe Your Blogging Approach or Process.

I’ve described my blogging workflow elsewhere so I’ll keep this brief. Almost all my blog posts are drafted in Google Keep on my phone (Samsung S9) or tablet (Samsung A8). This works well as I can write pretty much anywhere at any time: at home, at work, when traveling, or in one of my favourite coffee shops. I have a Bluetooth keyboard which works with either device. I rarely use my PC at all these days. Once I have the article complete in draft, I do a couple of passes of editing in Keep and then move the text into MS Word. I find it easier there to do a final pass of editing / proofreading, also to ensure all dumb quotes are converted to smart quotes, double spaces are removed, etc. If I’ve not done so already, I search for suitable images to accompany the article. I move the completed text into Blogger and add links, images, and HTML/CSS formating (headings, lists, blockquotes etc), previewing as I go. The final step is to add keywords, and schedule the article to post.

8. What Makes a Good Blogger?

I’m in danger of embarrassing my friend and fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson here, but for me she exemplifies the qualities that make for a good blogger.

  • Passionate about expressing herself creatively.
  • Keen to help other people by sharing her ideas, thoughts, and lived experiece.
  • Has the courage to write with honesty no matter the subject matter.
  • Generous with encouragement and support for other bloggers.
  • Open to suggestions and advice but clear about her creative vision.
  • Keen to explore new techniques and ideas.
  • Eager to pursue opportunities for collaboration with other bloggers, individuals, and organisations.
  • Writes what she wants to write, but keeps an eye on her audience’s interests and needs.

Our blogging styles are very different, but Aimee is a great inspiration to me and I’ve learned a lot from her. I can only dream of achieving the pageviews she gets on her blog, but I’m content with the connections and feedback Fran and I receive here at Gum on My Shoe. I know we’re making a difference. Does that make me a good blogger? I’ll leave that assessment for others to make, but Aimee and other great bloggers I know keep me honest in what I’m attempting to do.

Over to You

I’ve enjoyed the challenge of answering these questions, and hope you find my answers of interest. Perhaps they will inspire you to address your own writing approach and process. If you have any questions please get in touch, either in the comments below or through our contact page.

I’ll close with one of my favourite quotations about writing, by Rachel Thompson. In just a few words, it captures a lot of what I’ve explored in this article.

My only writing advice:
1) give yourself permission to write on ANY topic (even if it ruffles feathers)
2) write what scares you.

 

Photo by hannah grace at Unsplash.