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?

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.