Wednesday, 31 May 2023

RØRY and AMK: Two Brilliant Bands Living Rent-Free in My Head

And now Avril’s on the radio / Takes me back to 15 years ago
Just a small town kid with no regrets / ’Cause I ain’t dropped out of uni yet.

— Roxanne Emery, “Uncomplicated”

TW: Mention of suicidality, trauma, and addiction

Music is an important part of my life. I’ve previously shared two playlists: Twelve Songs That Remind Me What Caring Is All About and Ten Anthems for Comfort, Celebration, Inspiration, and Healing. In I’m on My Way I explored my response to Ed Sheeran’s “Castle on the Hill.” This time, I want to talk about two bands that have been living rent-free in my head for the past few weeks. I may just be very late to the party, but I hadn’t heard of RØRY or AnnenMayKantereit (AMK) until recently. It’s my pleasure to share them with you. Song links are to my favourite versions on YouTube.

RØRY / Roxanne Emery / ADHD_love

RØRY is the stage name of London-based singer-songwriter Roxanne Emery. I first came across Roxanne through the YouTube videos she’s made with her partner Richard Pink, in which they share their experiences of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). On their Instagram channel ADHD_love they introduce themselves as “Rich (neurotypical) and Rox (ADHD AF!)”. Their book Book Dirty Laundry: Why Adults with ADHD Are So Ashamed and What We Can Do to Help is available on Amazon and elsewhere.

I’ve not read their book yet, but Roxanne and Richard come across as lovely, genuine people with a passion for sharing their lived experience. It’s clear from the responses they get on social media that their content resonates with and helps a lot of people. It won’t surprise anyone that I draw parallels between them talking about ADHD and what Fran and I share in our book and blog regarding bipolar disorder and supportive friendships.

At some point I realised that Roxanne is also a fantastic singer-songwriter. It didn’t take me long to search out all the RØRY tracks I could find on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Spotify. Without exception, her songs are raw and personal, exploring such themes as depression, suicidality, family dysfunction, and addiction. The first song I listened to was “Help Your Friends Get Sober” and it remains one of my favourites. Speaking about it in an interview for Kerrang! Roxanne said:

We have a mental health crisis, especially among young men, and their coping mechanism? Going out with mates, getting in a few bags of cocaine, and staying up all weekend. That’s not what they need. They need a chat. A hug. And maybe some support getting help.

I haven’t lost anyone to addiction or suicide, but I do know the fear that someone I know and care about might be in serious danger. The final lines of the song hit me hard, as they should.

In December, just gone, I lost a friend.
Got a call from his mom, saying, “Jimmy’s dead.”
Where do we go now the party’s over?

“Alternative” explores the enduring impact of dysfunctional families. It opens with a spoken, close-to-tears introduction: “I think there’s a version of me that’s happy somewhere in an alternate universe. I don’t know why, but that just is so sad to think about.” Check out the official roof-top video on YouTube.

I’ve yet to find a RØRY track I don’t respond to, but the one that’s really got under my skin is “Uncomplicated.” I wake in the middle of the night and find the lines turning in my head. The official video is quirky and colourful, the lyrics are catchy, and it’s more upbeat musically than “Alternative” or “Help Your Friends Get Sober,” but pay attention and you’ll find a powerful story about living with the consequences of trauma, pain, and loss.

And now Avril’s on the radio
Takes me back to 15 years ago
Just a small town kid with no regrets
’Cause I ain’t dropped out of uni yet

And my brother is still in my life
Ain’t lost nobody to suicide
Take me back I fuckin’ hate it
Those days were uncomplicated

Discussing the song for Kerrang! Roxanne said “[i]t’s about feeling old and lost, and missing the days you were an angsty teen because things were uncomplicated then, even though you didn’t know it.”

With its mention of Canadian singer-songwriter Avril Lavigne, “Uncomplicated” has some personal resonances for me. Lavigne’s “I’m With You” was a favourite of my friend PJ who died way too young. Ironically, given the title, it also evokes fond memories of singing to Avril’s “Complicated” with a friend at Stack Newcastle, one of my Four Happy Places.

AnnenMayKantereit / Henning May

There’s less of a back-story to my discovering AnnenMayKantereit. Also known as AMK, the German band is named for its founding members, Christopher Annen, Henning May, and Severin Kantereit. I chanced on their cover of Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner” while browsing video shorts on social media.

I mean no disrespect to the other performers (on this track, AMK are joined by indie rock band Giant Rooks) but Henning May’s voice is beyond awesome. As the band’s Wikipedia entry attests, “[a] notable feature of the band’s music is the distinctly rough voice of the singer Henning May.” One YouTube comment on “Tom's Diner” puts it even more clearly: “I love how the second guy looks unassuming then he hits you with the most soulful shit you’ll ever hear.”

Despite covering only the first half of Vega’s lyrics the band have created something I find utterly compelling. I’ve been known to put it on repeat for an hour at at time, and it’s another song I find running through my head at unguarded moments. Musically and lyrically, it’s flawless, but I also adore how it plays to my love of coffee shops and people-watching.

I am sitting
In the morning
At the diner
On the corner

I am waiting
At the counter
For the man
To pour the coffee

And he fills it
Only halfway
And before
I even argue

He is looking
Out the window
At somebody
Coming in

I’ve written about this love elsewhere. In Coffee and Scribbles I described ten of my favourite writing venues. My current favourite, Costa Coffee in Kingston Park, Newcastle, is another of my Happy Places. As I write this now, I’m sitting at my favourite table in Costa, with “Tom’s Diner” playing in my headset on repeat. It captures the many hours I spend in coffee shops, my connection with the baristas (a recent post was inspired by a conversation with a friend who works here) and meeting up with various friends over the years.

Since discovering AMK I’ve listened to as many of their tracks as I can find. They cover several other songs in English, of which I love their gutsy version of “Roxanne” by The Police, Kylie Minogue’s “Can’t Get You Out of My Head,” Earth Wind and Fire’s “September,” and Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young.”

The majority of their songs, though, are performed in their native German. I can’t understand the lyrics at all, but I can certainly feel and respond to the emotion in such songs as “Katharina” and “Pocahontas.” I’m reminded of other foreign language songs I’ve enjoyed, including many of the recordings of Nana Mouskouri, “Je Voulais Te Dire Que Je T’attends” by Manhatten Transfer, Tolkien’s elven hymn “Namárië” as sung by Donald Swann, and the “French bits” of Blondie’s “Denis.”

Compassion and Understanding

On the surface, RØRY and AMK have very little in common. They nevertheless represent for me aspects of what I call vicarious living. As I wrote recently in Second-hand Experience, much of what I know about relationships, travel, and living with illness and trauma has been learned from other people.

Through her music and ADHD videos, Roxanne Emery shows me aspects of life I’ve never known personally. The music of AnnenMayKantereit evokes past experiences and people, but also opens me to things beyond my knowledge and understanding. In their different ways, both bands invite me to explore beyond my own lived experience.

As Fran and I were discussing the other day, when you’re confronted by other people’s experiences, especially those that confront or challenge you, you have a choice to make. You can reject them and turn away, or you can stay and do your best to listen, to learn, to grow in compassion and understanding. I’m grateful to RØRY and AMK for reminding me of this important lesson.

Over to You

In this post I’ve shared two bands I’ve recently discovered that mean a lot to me. Which musicians or bands speak most directly to you? Which songs or performances do you keep returning to? Who lives rent-free in your head? Who do you want to tell the world about? We’d love to hear from you, either in the comments below or via our contact page.


Photo by William White at Unsplash.


Wednesday, 24 May 2023

Second-hand Experience: If a Life's Worth Living, It's Worth Living Vicarously

I’m a gypsy, Marty. No matter how hard the traveling is I still go, again and again. You are a comfort creature traveling vicariously. — Fran Houston

One of my father’s favourite aphorisms was “If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing properly.” In this, he (perhaps unknowingly) echoed Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield, who in 1774 wrote to his son “Whatever is worth doing at all, is worth doing well.” These words of paternal wisdom came to mind as I began gathering my thoughts for a blog post about vicarious living. I’ve arguably lived more through other people’s lives than my own. “If a life’s worth living,” I pondered, “it’s worth living vicarously.” I’m going to focus on my experience of relationships, health, and travel. I’ll explore a few of the pitfalls, and what, if anything, I live for myself.


The Cambridge Dictionary defines vicariously as “experienced through the activities of other people, rather than by doing something yourself.” This very much applies to me with friendship and relationships. My earliest real experience of both came in my late teens when I was at university. I found myself amongst a group of mutual friends who lived and loved with breathtakingly authenticity. Their lives intoxicated and scared me in equal measure.

As I described in a blog post exploring my lifelong need to belong, “[s]ome of the deepest relationships I’ve known date back to those days and people, but I never felt part of the group. I found a peripheral role as unofficial observer and poet-chronicler. This is not a criticism of the others, but it’s how it was. It’s how I was.” Those largely second-hand experiences defined for me what it meant to love and live fully and deeply. I experienced coupledom and parenthood vicariously too, long before I knew either state for myself.

I continue to learn from friends who share details of their friendships and relationships with me. Most of us discuss our lives with people we trust, but occasional catch-ups hardly qualify as living vicariously. I talk at length and regularly — often daily — with my closest friends. In these circumstances, it feels less like “keeping in touch” and much more like sharing in their lived experience.

Health and Illness

I’ve shared my experience of illness previously, in a blog post excerpted from our book. Other than being hospitalised for ten days in 1987 following an episode of gastrointestinal bleeding, I’ve enjoyed good physical health. When I visited my doctor two years ago to rule out prostate cancer, it was my first medical appointment in thirty years. I’ve explored my mental health in articles including This Boy Gets Sad Too, Return to Down, Nobody Is Immune from Stress, and Anxiety and Me.

These examples aside, just about everything I know about living with disability and mental or physical ill health has come second-hand from Fran and other friends. It’s legitimate to ask how much one person can learn from someone else’s experience of illness. High Tide Low Tide is our attempt at answering that question, alongside such blog posts as If You’ve Never Been Depressed or Manic, How Can You Know What It’s Like?


It seems that most people love to travel, or would if they could, but I lack that sense of adventure. I’ve never been outside the UK, and only left the mainland once, on a childhood trip to the Isle of Man. I nevertheless love keeping Fran company on her travels. As she put it once, “I’m a gypsy, Marty. No matter how hard the traveling is I still go, again and again. You are a comfort creature traveling vicariously.” We explore this further in our book:

It might seem ridiculous for me to claim that I travel with Fran, or that she accompanies me on holidays in the UK. Yet we stay closely in touch, and share our experiences as fully as possible. My horizons have certainly been broadened as Fran’s virtual travel companion on trips to The Bahamas, Panama, Spain, and on a three-month tour of central Europe. [...] I have witnessed both the negative and the positive impact of travel on Fran’s health and well-being, as she challenges herself to explore new environments, meet new people, and discover more about herself.

There have been more trips since then, including a month-long visit to Mexico in 2018, which I documented in five parts as Our Mexican Adventure. Time zones and unreliable internet access sometimes get in the way, but we keep as close to our usual regime as possible. It’s this commitment to connection that allows me to experience Fran’s adventures as deeply as I do. She’s not the only friend I have who loves to travel. A special shoutout to Laurel, Andi, Sophie, and Craig. I value the opportunity to share virtually in all your adventures, whether that’s though social media posts, photos, videos, or chat. Thank you!

Perils and Pitfalls

Living vicariously can be seen as self-delusion, the equivalent of living in a fantasy world. It’s true that experiencing something second-hand isn’t the same as experiencing it first-hand. I’ve never walked the streets of Ajijic in person, seen elephants or hyenas in the wild, or had my photo taken with Donald Duck in the Magic Kingdom. I’ve not experienced mania, the pain of fibromyalgia, psychosis, psychoactive medication, or therapy. I’ve never owned cats or a rabbit (shoutout to Aimee and Vikki!) I have, however, experienced these things second-hand, and that second-hand experience has its own validity. Sharing other people’s lives has helped me clarify what I want — and don’t want — in mine. The danger only arises if you imagine first and second-hand living are equivalent. They’re equally valid, but they are not the same.

Amongst the pitfalls is the possibility that people will perceive it — and you — as annoying, overly intense, or intrusive. Codependency is another danger, especially where one person in the relationship lives with illness or needs ongoing support and caregiving.

Living vicariously can provide a useful distraction when things are going poorly in your life. If you’re not careful, though, you may lose the incentive to do things for yourself. Why bother, when you can live through your friends’ lives and experiences? You might stop pushing your boundaries and inviting new things into your life, relying instead on other people to take risks on your behalf.

Vicarious living also carries the risk of envy and frustration, if the people you’re living through are in situations you want to be in, or are doing things you want to do. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can introduce you to options you might never have thought of otherwise. There’s a danger, however, of setting the bar unfeasibly high, or craving something that’s not relevant to your needs. I spent many years seeking the kind of relationship I’d experienced second-hand in my university days. The search was ultimately fruitless and, arguably, cost me the opportunity to develop connections more in tune with my true needs.

A final problem arises if the people you’ve been living through break contact or no longer wish to share their lives with you. Friends part and relationships change for many different reasons, but if you’ve been living vicariously through their experience it can be hard to adjust. I’ve faced this kind of shift at different times and in various ways. It begs the question, what is my first-hand experience of life?

What Life Am I Living for Myself?

This is an important question. At the present time, this comes down to my work life, my writing, and my friendships. As I described recently in One More Cup of Coffee, I’m much happier at work since moving to a new team. I have no people management responsibilities — a major anxiety trigger for me — and can focus on developing and using my coding skills. It feels very much “me” and I’m certainly experiencing it first-hand. Writing has always been an important part of my life. I have friends who understand (major shoutout to fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson at I’m NOT Disordered) but whether it’s my personal diary, letters to friends, short stories such as Home Eleven, or blogging, writing is my core first-hand experience. It’s the clearest example I have of what it means to be me.

It might seem odd to claim that friendship is part of my first-hand experience when I live so much through other people. There’s no contradiction, though, not least because vicarious living is part of my first-hand experience. More fundamentally, connection is one of my key life values. It’s how I engage most directly with the world. My close friends know me better than anyone else. Better, perhaps, than I know myself. Ironically, I learn more about myself by sharing, second-hand, in their experience of me. I’m not sure my father would approve, but it works. Neither he nor the 4th Earl of Chesterfield were available for comment.

Over to You

In this post I’ve shared my first-hand experience of living vicariously. What do you think? Do you live through the lives of your friends? If so, what are the benefits and disadvantages? Do others live vicariously through you? How do you feel about that? Fran and I would love to know what you think, so do share, either in the comments below or via our contact page.


Photo by Mostafa Meraji at Unsplash.


Wednesday, 17 May 2023

Anxiety and Me

Hosted every May by the Mental Health Foundation, Mental Health Awareness Week (MHAW) is an annual UK event offering an opportunity to focus on achieving good mental health. The theme for this year’s MHAW (May 15 – 21) is anxiety, which is something that affects many of us. In a survey carried out by the Mental Health Foundation one in four adults said they sometimes felt so anxious that it stopped them from doing things they wanted to do. I’d like to share my experience of anxiety and a few things I find helpful.

Anxiety and Stress

The terms anxiety and stress are often used interchangeably, but there are some important differences. Understanding which condition we’re dealing with helps us figure out how best to respond. The following is taken from the Anxiety UK website.

Most people experience stress and anxiety at some point in their lives. Generally, stress is a response to an external cause, such as a tight deadline at work or having an argument with someone, and usually disappears or reduces once the situation has been resolved.

Anxiety is typically described as a feeling of apprehension or dread in situations where there is no actual real threat and is disproportionate to the situation faced. Unlike stress, anxiety persists even after a concern has passed. In some cases, anxiety can escalate into an anxiety disorder and can affect day-to-day life.

I explored my experience of acute stress a couple of years ago. In this case the external trigger was a household emergency. I experienced a number of very unpleasant symptoms including gut pain, elevated heart rate, and headaches for a couple of weeks, but they eased as soon as the situation was addressed and did not return.

My Experience of Anxiety

In the sense of a persistent “feeling of apprehension or dread” I get anxious anticipating stressful situations, especially where I feel overwhelmed at the scale of what needs doing. I can act decisively in a crisis but I’m much less adept at keeping on top of things proactively. Examples include household maintenance, repairs, and decluttering. I’ll put up with inadequate situations (and the attendant anxiety) rather than face things head on and deal with them promptly. This is especially so where addressing the issue would involve engaging or organising other people, such as tradespeople or other professionals. Examples include anything that includes legal or financial planning, such as wills, conveyancing, mortgages, or pensions.

I experienced a great deal of anxiety in the final years of my mother’s life. I dreaded the thought of having to organise things once she died, such as planning her funeral and dealing with the legal and financial aspects as a named executor on her will. I didn’t have a good relationship with the wider family and the prospect of having to work, negotiate, and coordinate things with them filled me with a near existential dread. It wasn’t present with me all the time, but neither was it ever very far away. It would surface from time to time, often without warning. In the event, everything was taken care of by others and I had no involvement at all. I could have addressed my anxiety by asking questions and clarifying what my role would be. Instead, I repeatedly pushed it aside. Not the healthiest of ways to deal with things.

I rarely get anxious at the thought of speaking in public, presenting to colleagues, or being interviewed. I’ve written about this previously in Speaking Up, Speaking Out: Harnessing the Power of the Spoken Word. I think the reason I don’t get anxious at such events is because I only have to deal with my own preparedness and performance. It would be very different if I had to organise the event itself. This is largely why I stepped back from heading the Mental Health First Aider (MHFA) network at work a couple of years ago. I’m still a Mental Health First Aider but I found organising and leading the calls increasingly stressful. I felt totally inadequate to the task of working with my MHFA colleagues to develop ideas and plan activities and events.

I get anxious if I feel I’ve done something wrong, especially if I think I’m going to get into trouble for it. A number of years ago I spent a very anxious fortnight on vacation. Just before I finished work for my break, one of the senior managers e-mailed everyone to say there was going to be an important announcement the following week. For some reason, I got it into my head this was about personal internet use, and that I’d be in trouble for using my work computer for my writing and research. The announcement turned out to have nothing to do with that at all. I needn’t have worried, as they say. Or rather, I could have dealt with my anxiety much better, by checking in during my break to see what the announcement was about.

Other triggers include worrying about other people (despite my no worries policy it does happen), doubts and uncertainty about the future, and the prospect — real or imagined — of relationship breakups and difficulties.

What Does Anxiety Feel Like?

When I’m anxious the main symptoms are a sense of being “in a bubble” and distanced from what’s actually going on around me, a tightness in the muscles of my face and jaw, a sense of breathlessness, and discomfort in my gut. These are similar to the symptoms I described in my blog post about acute stress, but less intense. They’re not present all the time, but fade in and out for as long as the underlying situation continues. Given that my triggers mostly concern situations which have developed over time or concern the future, and I do little if anything to address them, the symptoms can go on for a long time. Months, or even years, sometimes.

How Do I Handle My Anxiety?

In a word — poorly! As I’ve described already, I tend to avoid addressing situations which trigger my anxiety, until they become unavoidable or critical. I do my best to ignore the symptoms, or distract myself with other things until they go away. I’m aware that this isn’t a very healthy approach, not least because my anxiety will keep resurfacing until the underlying situation is resolved. It’s worth noting that I’m much better at helping other people address their issues, concerns, and worries, than I am at dealing with my own.

Why do I find it so hard? In large part, it’s because I doubt my ablilty to handle certain situations effectively, especially those which involve negotiation or organising other people. Unfortunately — and unhealthily — that includes asking for help. I rarely get anxious about things I’m able to deal with myself. Stressed, yes, but not anxious. In some circumstances, my reluctance comes down to fear. I can handle how things are right now (I tell myself), but what if they’re actually a lot worse than I imagine them to be? The truth, of course, is that situations are generally less awful than we anticipate, and simpler to deal with now rather than later.

The hashtag for this year’s MHAW is #ToHelpMyAnxiety, so what can I do to help mine? Writing this article has helped, because it’s forced me to accept how poorly I handle anxiety when it presents itself. My challenge is to acknowledge my limitations (for example, that I’m not an effective leader or organiser) and become better at asking for help when needed. In the meantime, I can be gentle with myself for handling my anxiety the best way I can right now, whilst exploring healthier strategies and approaches.

Further Reading

You can find a number of techniques for handling the symptoms of anxiety on the Mental Health Foundation website. These include focusing on our breathing, exercise and movement, keeping a diary, challenging our anxious thoughts, connecting with others, diet, and sleeping.

Anxiety UK offers a range of services including therapy, a helpline and text service, courses and groups, webinars, Anxious Times magazine, and a membership scheme.

Anxious Minds is a UK charity committed to improving the mental well-being of people in the North East of England.

Founded in 1979, the Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA) is an international nonprofit organization “dedicated to the prevention, treatment, and cure of anxiety, depression, OCD, PTSD, and co-occurring disorders through aligning research, practice and education.”

You will find a selection of articles for MHAW in previous years in our curated list of posts for mental health awareness days and events.

If you or someone you know is in need of immediate support, check out the help and crisis lines on our resources page.

Over to You

In this post I’ve described my personal experience of anxiety and some of the ways I handle it (and fail to handle it). How do you manage anxiety in your life? What strategies do you find helpful, or unhelpful? Fran and I would love to hear from you, either in the comments below or via our contact page.

Image by Diane Picchiottino at Unsplash.


Wednesday, 10 May 2023

One More Cup of Coffee: A Few Thoughts on Knowledge Transfer and Lifelong Learning

Learning to drink a coffee and learning to code is the same thing. — Waren Gonzaga

This post was inspired by a conversation with a friend who works at my local coffee shop. It was a busy Saturday morning and she was on her own after a colleague had phoned in sick. In between customers we got talking about team working, staff turnover, and the challenges of bringing new team members up to speed. Despite never having worked in hospitality, I could relate to what she was saying. It got me thinking about my experience of training and being trained, the things I learn relatively easily, and those I struggle to master. Working in a busy coffee shop would definitely fall into the latter category!

KT in the Workplace

My friend was amused that I couldn’t immediately recall my job title, but Intermediate Information Technology Service Manager reveals little about what I actually do. I explained that I’m part of a team responsible for ensuring the computer systems we support are up when they should be up and doing what they should be doing.

Until roughly a year ago I led a small team. It had been pretty stable for a long time in terms of staff and responsibilities. We knew each other well. We knew our respective strengths and weaknesses. We understood the applications we supported, and what we needed to do to keep them working as they should. After several of these applications were retired, my team was merged into another so that members of that team could move on pursue other opportunities.

All this means I’ve experienced the “new people needing to learn stuff” dynamic from both sides. I’ve had to learn the technologies, techniques, and processes involved in supporting applications that were totally new to me. I then found myself sharing that newly acquired knowledge and experience with two new colleagues who joined us from outside the organisation. Terms vary, but in my workplace this is known as knowledge transfer, or KT. Some of it involves formal courses or online learning, but much is on-the-job training conducted face-to-face, either in person or via video calls.

Things I Learn Well

This approach works well for me. I’m better at picking up new skills when they’re demonstrated to me, rather than being presented with masses of reading material, or sent on courses that relate poorly to the work in hand. Having things demonstrated by people currently in the role allows me to ask questions, take notes, and then begin taking on the tasks myself.

Having specific goals motivates me to learn. Many years ago I taught myself HTML, CSS, Javascript, and other web technologies so I could design and build websites for myself and others. I learned Photoshop to a high standard in order to process my digital photographs. I used these skills to design a website and promotional leaflets for an animal rescue centre I supported.

For the past year and a half I’ve been teaching myself Teeline shorthand. I’ve always been fascinated by different modes of writing, including the Tengwar letter forms created by fantasy author JRR Tolkien. I use Teeline to capture personal notes and blogging ideas, although I’m not yet sufficiently proficient to use it for taking meeting minutes at work.

At work, I enjoy the creative challenge of application design and development. I had little such opportunity in recent years, because the applications I supported were nearing the end of their life. Moving to a new team has reawakened my interest in problem solving and coding. I’m currently teaching myself unix shell scripting. I’m using a mixture of resources. These include adapting scripts written by past members of the team, discussing ideas with colleagues who know more about scripting than I ever will, YouTube channels, online tutorials — and a lot of Google searches to troubleshoot and refine my code.

I’m also exploring generative AI applications such as chatGPT. I’m interested in chatGPT’s potential as a learning/teaching resource, as well as its writing capabilities. I recently published a blog post generated by chatGPT in response to a prompt regarding identity and mental health. The risks and benefits of AI are beyond the scope of this article, but I was intrigued by this quotation by Yejin Choi, Professor of Computer Science at the University of Washington, in her TED Talk Why AI Is Incredibly Smart — and Shockingly Stupid.

These language models do acquire a vast amount of knowledge, but they do so as a byproduct as opposed to [it being a] direct learning objective. Now in contrast, human learning is never about predicting which word comes next, but it’s really about making sense of the world and learning how the world works.

Making sense of the world and how it works may be beyond the current scope of AI (and many humans for that matter) but I believe it has immense potential in developing solutions to practical problems. This is already true in relation to programming. It might appear a lazy approach (witness a recent social media meme: “I’m a programmer” “Which programming languages do you use?” “ChatGPT.”) but AI does much more than spit out cut-and-paste code fragments. Formulating the prompts helps me clarify my understanding of the task in hand. ChatGPT fully comments and explains its solutions which helps me learn. Furthermore, I can ask it to refine its solutions or suggest alternatives. In a very real sense (and I use the term deliberately) it’s like having a human tutor sitting beside me.

Things I Don’t Find Easy to Learn

The skills I’ve talked about so far have been mostly technology and process-related. I’m much less proficient at what are called soft or people skills; anything to do with leading, organising, or managing groups or teams. I recently wrote a blog post about anxiety for Mental Health Awareness Week 2023. In doing so, I realised that one the reasons I get anxious is that I’m poor at organising things that involve other people. I relate well one-to-one or in (very) small groups, but I struggle with larger groups or teams. This is reflected in the kind of support network I have.

I discharged my team leader role well enough, but I had a small team of three or four people, all of whom were skilled at what they did and worked together well. I handled the team’s workload but had little need to manage them personally or to moderate between them. I led a group of fellow Mental Health First Aiders for a time. I loved the conversations and discussions, but became increasingly anxious as the monthly meetings came and went. I stepped back from the role, although I remain a Mental Health First Aider. At the time I felt I was failing my fellow MHFAs and myself, but in hindsight it was the right decision.

I’ve undertaken training over the years to improve my interpersonal skills, including courses in Nonviolent Communication (NVC) and an online workshop led by Brene Brown. At work, I took the Living Leader training and was mentored for a time by my organisation’s CEO. NVC improved my one-to-one skills but otherwise these attempts have largely been unsuccessful. The main reason was that I had little idea what I wanted to be or achieve. I explored this in Connection, Creativity and Challenge: In Search of My First Best Destiny.

I have exasperated my workplace mentor (sorry, Loveday!), various bosses (apologies especially to you, Judith!), and colleagues, but I still have no sense of direction. A recent change of employer may open new opportunities, but only if I can figure out what I want.

Two years on, I still have little idea what I want to do or be. That said, moving to a new team — and relinquishing any managerial responsibilities — has given me the opportunity to focus on my technical skills. Accepting I’m not a natural leader (and have no desire to become one) has been liberating.

Mental Health Learning

I may not be cut out to lead a team of Mental Health First Aiders, but I value the MHFA training I’ve undertaken, including refresher training earlier this year. I’ve taken a number of other courses and workshops related to mental health, suicide awareness and prevention. If you’re interested, check our listing of Online Suicide Awareness Courses and Podcasts. My original MHFA and ASIST training was classroom based but in general I prefer online, self-paced courses, irrespective of the subject matter.

The best mental health awareness training of all, though, is talking with people with lived experience. It’s not their responsibility to educate me, but I’m hugely grateful to Fran and other friends who over the years have shared how their lives are impacted by mental and physical health conditions. To the extent I’ve learned anything, it’s down to their patience and trust. The benefits aren’t limited to mental health awareness, as I describe in our book High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder.

I am a better person for knowing Fran. I have a greater understanding of my strengths, values, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities than ever before. I have learned more about mental and invisible illness, suicidal thinking, stigma, determination, courage, and responsibility since we became friends than in the fifty years before we met. [...] I have greatly expanded my circle of friends, met people who feel safe sharing their stories in response to mine, and learned how it feels to offer my skills and experience in the service of others. I have grown — and continue to grow — as a friend and as a man.

Those words are as true now as they were written. I grow and learn from each and every friendship and connection. These days I’m much better at navigating difficulties with people when they arise, as they inevitably do. I’m also far less insecure and clingy when friendships change, or even end.

Sharing the Wisdom

Fran and I have always been keen to share what we’ve learned about managing a mutually rewarding and supportive friendship where one person lives with mental illness. That was the motivation for writing our book and the reason we continue to share on our blog and social media. My friend Emma McDade expressed this beautifully in relation to her recent guest post on disassociation. “I’m still learning how to live as myself,” she told me. “I want to be able to help others learn about it all, too.”

In the workplace, knowledge transfer isn’t always straightforward. It requires a willingness to learn, and patience on the part of both trainer and trainee. It also needs time to be set aside, which can be a challenge when you’re short-staffed and need to keep the show on the road. That’s something I recognise in my working environment. Secondary tasks such as documentation and knowledge transfer often take second place to supporting the live service.

When circumstances permit, however, I enjoy the opportunity to share my skills and knowledge. As well as the satisfaction of helping a colleague learn something new, I almost always come away with a deeper understanding of whatever we were discussing. Fran and I learned a great deal in the process of writing our book. The same applies to our blog posts and other work in the mental health arena.

This is sometimes that’s often overlooked. Helping others learn takes time and effort, and it can seem a chore with little to commend it. It’s not uncommon to find people reluctant to share what they know, hoarding skills and knowledge to consolidate their perceived expert status. Learning is not a zero sum game, however. Approached in the right way, both teacher and student benefit.

Whether it’s unix scripting, mental health, Teeline shorthand, or something else entirely, I hope the urge to keep learning new things never leaves me. Who knows, maybe my friend will teach me how to make a proper cup of coffee!

Over to You

In this article I’ve described some things I find relatively easy to learn, and others I struggle to master. What do you find easy to learn? How do you learn best? Do you enjoy learning new skills, or find it hard work? Do you feel confident sharing your skills and knowledge with others? Do you find it a pleasure or a bind? Fran and I would love to hear from you, either in the comments below or via our contact page.


Image by Gabriella Clare Marino at Unsplash.


Wednesday, 3 May 2023

Disassociation Episode Inbound

By Emma Jane McDade

Disassociation episode inbound. I thought I was just tired recently.

It’s scary when you start to feel distant from your own thoughts and senses.

Trying to desperately shake out of that seemingly empty day dream you disappear into.

I have to constantly stroke something or tap something, to try and keep in reality. No matter how hard I try, the sensation changes to it feeling like I am touching a different surface, no longer my own self. A different self.

To feel your vision is not your own anymore, like you have taken a step back and are watching through someone else’s eyes.

You can see what this body can see but can no longer feel or smell what it can. You no longer have the emotions or humanity it encased.

Until the vision just stops, the lights turn off.

The most terrifying part, “waking up” minutes or hours later, not knowing how you got to where you are. Where even are you? What time is it?


Image by Irene Giunta at Unsplash.


Wednesday, 26 April 2023

Ten Things I Want You to Know: An Open Letter from a Supportive Friend

My dear friend,

One of the things I love most about us is that we’re open and honest with each other. We talk about pretty much anything and everything. There are some things, though, that maybe I’ve never told you. Things I’d like you to know. Maybe you already do. You’re a smart cookie! I want to tell you, nevertheless, because sometimes it’s good to hear things, even when we know them already.

You are never a burden. I’m putting this one first because it’s fundamental to who we are as friends. You take me at my word when I say call or message me any time, day or night. You’re respectful of times you know I’m busy or with other friends but if you need me I know you’ll reach out and ask. You understand I’d much sooner you did that, than for you to feel you shouldn’t bother me or I’m too busy. Maybe you do feel that way sometimes. If so, I get it. I feel that way too at times. It says a lot about us that we’re able to overcome those inhibitions and ask for help when we need to.

The flip side is that I know I’m not always who you need. I used to struggle with this one. It’s natural to want to fix things for those we care about when they’re in pain, or poorly, or struggling. We want to take the hurt and difficulty away and make everything okay again. It’s natural, but profoundly unhelpful. Often, you don’t need anyone to fix things. What you mostly need is someone to hear you, to listen to what you’re going through and not judge you for what’s happened or the situation you’re in. We do that all the time, and I know it helps. There are practical things I can help with too. I’m happy to do so. But at other times I’m not the person you need — and that’s okay. Maybe you need professional help and support, or you need what other people can offer better than I can, or space to deal with things on your own. We’ve come a long way in handling these times, and I’m as grateful for your honesty in telling me when I’m not who you need, as when you tell me I am.

I won’t always understand but I’ll always want to learn more. You know I have no mental health diagnosis. I also have very little experience that’s relevant to what you’ve lived through and live with. I used to feel that put me at a disadvantage in being a supportive friend, because how could I understand if I’ve not gone through something similar myself? There are still times when I feel my lack of experience gets in the way, but it’s never been an issue between us. That’s partly because we’re honest about it, but also because you help expand my awareness and understanding. It’s not your job to educate me, but I learn from you sharing the day-to-day realities of your life with me. I want to understand as much as I can. Not so I can tell you what to do or how you should behave — that wouldn’t go down well! — but so I can be the friend you want and deserve.

You’re the expert in being you. No matter how much I learn about what you live with, I will never know as much as you do. The same is true of doctors and other professionals. They are the experts in treating the conditions you’re diagnosed with, but they don’t know what it’s like for you to live with those conditions. Most times I’m likely to encourage you to take whatever help and support they offer you. More generally, if you ask for my opinion, or I’m particularly concerned for your safety, I’ll tell you what I think about the choices you’re making and the options available to you. But my starting point will always be to respect your lived experience and what you want to happen.

It means the world to me that you feel safe sharing how things are for you, but I don’t expect or need total honesty. I understand there’ll always be things you can’t share with me, or choose not to. That used to hurt, if I’m honest. Surely if we’re true friends (I’d think) you’d be able to tell me anything? But I realise now how ignorant, selfish, and plain silly that is! It’s right that you pay attention to your boundaries, in terms of what you share and who you share with. You have a right to expect me to respect those boundaries, just as you respect mine.

I love that you tell me when I get things wrong! There have been several times when I’ve messed up badly, and you’ve told me in no uncertain terms what I did and why it was so hurtful, triggering, or unhelpful. It’s hard to hear, but by being honest you give me the opportunity to learn how to do better in future, not only with you but with other friends. It’s also good when you tell me I’m getting things right! That “thank you for listening” or “what you did there really helped” lets me know I’m on the right track and helps me become the friend you need me to be.

One of the best things about our friendship is its mutuality. We are there for each other. My needs and concerns are often less immediate, critical, or severe than yours, but you never dismiss or make light of what I’m dealing with. Likewise, you celebrate my successes, small and large, as much as I celebrate yours.

There are times I wish our friendship was enough to keep you safe. That’s understandable. Who doesn’t want those they care about to be kept from harm? It’s ignorant, though. It’s also profoundly disrespectful, because it implies you’re incapable of taking care of yourself or asking for the help you need. In a crisis situation I would do everything I could to keep you safe, even at the risk of damaging our friendship. But I have no right to try and take the responsibility for your wellbeing and safety away from you. That responsibility is yours and I honour it as I honour you.

I don’t worry about you but I care. You know this one! Not everyone understands it, because we’re programmed to equate caring about someone with worrying about them. If I’m totally honest, there are occasions when worry gets the better of me, but I recognise how toxic it is. When things are rough, you don’t need me adding my worry energy into the mix. What you need is to know I’m here, that I care deeply, and that I’ll do whatever I can to help you through to the other side. I trust you to ask for help if you need it. You trust me never to turn you away or ignore you. That’s what caring is. That’s what love is.

After all that you’re probably glad I’m almost at the end! What else, you must be wondering, does he want to say to me? What else is there? Perhaps the most important thing of all. I’m glad you’re my friend! More than glad, I’m happy and proud. I don’t know if we’ll be friends for always. I hope so. I can’t imagine not having you in my life and being in yours. But no matter what happens, I will always be grateful for you and for our time together.

Your friend,



Image by Brad Neathery at Unsplash.


Wednesday, 19 April 2023

Left or Right? Nine Strategies for Making Wise Decisions

Always make decisions that prioritize your inner peace. ― Izey Victoria Odiase

We make hundreds of decisions every day. What time to get up. What to wear. Where and what to eat. The majority of our decisions are minor, even trivial, and we make them without weighing all the options and consequences. But every now and again there’s a decision to be made and we just — stop. We’re unsure which way to turn, or if we even need to decide right now. That’s when we turn to our strategies for decision making. But what are they, exactly? In this post I explore eight techniques I use, and one I don’t because I’m scared to.

1. The 51% Test

In a recent conversation with Fran I shared that I was undecided about whether to reach out to someone I’d lost touch with. There was no obviously right or best path to take. Fran listened to me for a while, then asked, “Are you 51%?”

I knew what she meant. It’s an approach we’ve used on numerous occasions. I closed my eyes, gauging how I felt about contacting my former friend. “I think I’m 51%, yes.”

“Then do it,” Fran said.

I wavered. “I’m only just 51%.”

“51% means yes,” she reminded me. That’s the beauty of this technique. It doesn’t require you to feel very sure, just more than half sure. If you’re unclear of your emotional response, you can reverse the test. In my case, that would mean testing how I felt about not contacting the person I was thinking about. I remained undecided, so Fran offered me an alternative strategy, the ring of fingers.

2. The Ring of Fingers (Self Muscle Test)

Fran invited me to join the thumb and forefinger of my left hand into a circle, then form an interlinked circle with the thumb and forefinger of my right hand. Unsure of where this was leading, I did so. Fran instructed me to move my hands apart, first resisting, and then allowing my fingers to part. Once I understood the technique, she told me to close my eyes, imagine myself contacting the person, and move my hands apart. Whether my fingers instinctively opened or resisted opening would give me my answer; yes if they opened, no if they resisted opening. I did so and found my fingers instinctively resisted opening.

I later learned that this technique is better known as the self muscle test. It’s one of several methods based on connecting with the body’s state of tension or resistance to various scenarios. I haven’t tried them enough to comment on their validity, but they provide an interesting approach to when I’m unsure about which decision feels right.

3. Imagine You’ve Already Decided

The third strategy is one I’ve used many times. It works best when you’re struggling to decide which of two or three options feels right to you. Close your eyes and imagine you’ve already taken the first path. The decision is behind you. You’re on the other side. Focus on your emotional response to having taken this path. How does it feel? Do you feel warm, positive, and optimistic about the path you’re now on; or uncertain, anxious, regretful, or scared? Open your eyes, then after a few minutes repeat the exercise with each of the other options. I find this technique useful because it takes me out of the decision making process, and allows me to focus on how I feel about the options themselves.

4. T-Chart

The T-chart is a simple technique for thinking through the advantages and disadvantages of taking a particular decision. Write the option or decision at the top of a sheet of paper. Draw a horizontal line below what you just wrote, and a vertical line down the centre of the page, to form a large “T” shape. On the left side, list as many advantages, positive outcomes, or justifications you can find for taking this option. List disadvantages, negative outcomes, or reasons for not taking this option on the right hand side. Once you’ve finished, review what you’ve written to help reach a decision. I find this works best for yes/no decisions.

5. Best in Class

This technique works well when you need to choose between several different options. I’ve used it recently when trying to decide which mobile phone to buy. On a sheet of paper, draw vertical lines so you have one column for each phone you want to compare, plus one extra column. To compare three phones, divide the page vertically into four columns. Label the first (left-most) column “Features” and label each of the remaining columns with the name of the phone you are considering.

Down the first colum, list key features, such as price, memory, storage, size, plus any others you’re interested in. For each phone in turn, research and fill in the relevant details. Once you’ve completed the grid, highlight or circle the best result for each feature. In the price row, circle the lowest price. In the memory row, circle the highest or best memory. When you’ve finished, review the results and see which option scores highest in the most categories.

Due to its grid structure, this approach works best on lined or squared (graph) paper, or in a spreadsheet if you prefer to work digitally.

6. Write it Out

I’ve kept a daily diary for decades so I’m used to exploring what’s going on for me by writing about it. I also blog here on a weekly basis, often incorporating events and situations from my life into my blog posts. Exploring things in these ways helps me clarify my priorities, thoughts, and feelings, which can help me towards making a decision about what’s best for me.

7. Talk it Out

Talking things over with people I trust to listen without passing judgment can help me move towards a decision. The conversation with Fran that I mentioned earlier is a great example, but other friends help me in different ways. It’s important to me to have people who will let me share my thoughts and feelings without pushing me down any particular path. There’s a good example in our book High Tide, Low Tide. In this case the roles were reversed; Fran needed to reach a decision about whether to embark on a three month trip around Europe with her parents. She needed me to help her reach a decision, but it was important I didn’t influence her unduly. My role was to remind her of her options, and hold a space in which she could explore things for herself.

Martin: You can still decide not to go.

Fran: i wanna go.. it’s just that it won’t be easy.. it may stretch me beyond what i am capable of.. i have some peace to make with my mother.. i want an adventure and am scared shitless.. afraid of getting lost.. of not knowing where i am.. of how to do things.. but the adventure lures me.. i want to be there for my mum.. it would mean a lot to her and to me.. it is the right thing to do..

Martin: I think I just helped you clarify some things.

Fran: yes.. thank you for drawing that out.. i will need to keep reminding myself when i feel like giving up.. it won’t be easy..

8. Random Strategies

When you’ve tried every strategy you can think of but still can’t make up your mind, you might consider letting chance decide for you. If it’s a yes/no decision, you might toss a coin. If there are more than two options, you might roll dice or employ a pseudo random number generator such as I’m personally wary of delegating my decision making to chance. I can trace my feelings to the novel The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart. The lead character begins basing his everyday decisions on the throw of a die. It begins innocently enough but the practice leads him into some very dangerous situations. The blurb was enough for me. I’d be scared to read the book in case I was tempted to try.

Discussing this, my son Mike offered sound advice about using random processes safely. “Toss a coin,” he said. “And if you get a strong negative feeling about the decision, choose the other one.”

9. Defer the Decision

The desire to make the best decision — or to avoid making the wrong one — can get in the way of us seeing things clearly. It’s worth remembering that defering your decision is often a valid option. Maybe you need to gather more information, seek expert guidance or advice, or talk things over with others. Maybe you need time to process what’s happening until you’re ready to reach a decision you’re comfortable with.

We discussed one deferral approach recently in The Box on the Shelf: A Strategy for Handling Difficult Issues and Situations. As we described it, “[the box] is a strategy for dealing with troublesome or persistent issues a little at a time, setting them aside in between so you can get on with other things. It’s not intended as a way of hiding things away or putting them off altogether.”

What Is a Wise Decision, Anyway?

I’ve described techniques I use to help me make what I hope are wise decisions. I’ve said nothing about what constitutes wise decision making, because that’s a very personal thing. What is a wise decision for one person might be folly to someone else. It’s a topic I may return to on another occasion. For now, I’ll share two quotations which shed a little light on my own perspective. The first is by author and speaker Deepak Chopra. It counters the stifling notion that there’s always a right or best decision to be made.

If you obsess over whether you are making the right decision, you are basically assuming that the universe will reward you for one thing and punish you for another. There is no right or wrong, only a series of possibilities that shift with each thought, feeling, and action that you experience. (Deepak Chopra)

This resonates because I’ve never been someone to regret past decisions. There are choices that didn’t work out well for me or for people I’ve impacted, but to me regret is a pointless indulgence. The honest response to making “wrong” decisions is not regret but acknowledging and owning their consequences. That’s how we grow and mature. As Mark Twain put it, “Experience comes from making bad decisions.”

The second quotation is spoken by the character Meredith Grey in the medical drama Grey’s Anatomy.

We’re all going to die. We don’t get much say over how or when, but we do get to decide how we’re gonna live. So, do it. Decide. Is this the life you want to life? Is this the person you want to love? Is this the best you can be? Can you be stronger? Kinder? More compassionate? Decide. Breathe in. Breathe out and decide. (Meredith Grey)

Although it does speak of being the “best you can be” (and thus hints at making the best decisions towards that goal), I like this quotation. It’s the perfect antidote to indecision and prevarication, and a call to each of us to own our decisions and take responsibility for how we live our lives.

Over to You

What are your thoughts on the techniques I’ve presented? How do you approach decision making? What techniques or approaches work for you? Do you regret decisions you’ve made in the past? Fran and I would love to hear from you, either in the comments below or via our contact page.


Photo by Burst at Unsplash.


Wednesday, 12 April 2023

Exploring the Depths of Mental Health: Who Are You, Alone, Yourself, and Nameless?

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a hot topic these days, so I thought I’d check it out. I downloaded an app called AI Chat and began giving it writing prompts. After a few interesting but fairly generic results, I decided to request something more specific. I chose a quotation from The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien which I’d been working with in another context. Here is the writing prompt, exactly as I presented it to AI Chat.

Write a 1200 word blog post relating to mental health, inspired by the JRR Tolkien quotation “Tell me, who are you alone, yourself and nameless?” Include a title for the blog post optimised for SEO.

I haven’t edited the resulting article in any way.

Exploring the Depths of Mental Health: Who Are You, Alone, Yourself, and Nameless?

J.R.R. Tolkien, the beloved author of The Lord of the Rings, once asked the question: “Who are you, alone, yourself, and nameless?” This introspective query, while seemingly simple, is imbued with profound depth and complexity. In fact, it is a fundamental question that touches upon the very essence of human existence — our identity.

For many of us, mental health challenges can exacerbate this question of identity, further complicating the already murky waters of self-discovery. Whether it is anxiety or depression, bipolar disorder, or any other condition, one thing is certain — mental health issues have the power to disrupt, distort, and even dismantle our sense of self.

As someone who has experienced mental health challenges, it can be tempting to define ourselves solely through the lens of our illness. We may assume that our diagnosis is the sum total of who we are, rather than recognizing it as just one aspect of our multifaceted identity.

The truth is that our experiences, emotions, and thoughts — both negative and positive — are all valid components of our identity. To truly understand who we are, we must examine the totality of our being, including our mental health.

Mental Health and Identity

Our identity is the sum total of our experiences, beliefs, values, and attributes that make us unique. However, for individuals struggling with mental health challenges, their identity can become overwhelmingly wrapped up in their illness.

In some cases, people may feel as though their mental health struggles define them — that they are only seen as their diagnosis, rather than as a complex, multifaceted human being. This sense of identity loss can be distressing, and can even worsen symptoms of mental illness.

It can be difficult to reconcile our mental health with our sense of self, but it is necessary for a healthy, fulfilling life. We must recognize that our struggles with mental health do not define us; they are just one piece of our identity.

Additionally, we must acknowledge that mental health is not static — it can and will change throughout our lives. This means that our identity, too, is a fluid concept that can evolve over time.

By embracing the complexity of our identity, including our mental health challenges, we can move towards a greater understanding of who we are as individuals. We can also find support and compassion within our communities, knowing that we are not alone in our struggles.

Mental Health and Stigma

Unfortunately, mental health challenges are often accompanied by stigma and discrimination. This can make it difficult for individuals to seek the help they need, and it can also make it challenging to form a positive sense of self.

Stigma can lead to feelings of shame and isolation, further exacerbating existing mental health challenges. It can also perpetuate the myth that mental health struggles are a personal failing, rather than a condition that requires care and support.

To combat stigma, it is important to educate ourselves and those around us about mental health. By challenging stereotypes and misinformation, we can work towards a more compassionate and understanding society.

We must also acknowledge that mental health struggles are a common experience — one that can affect anyone, regardless of their background or circumstances. By recognizing our shared humanity, we can cultivate a sense of connection and community, rather than isolation and division.

Mental Health and Self-care

Self-care is an essential aspect of maintaining good mental health. It involves taking intentional steps to prioritize our physical, emotional, and mental well-being.

Self-care looks different for everyone — it may involve practicing yoga or meditation, getting enough sleep, seeking therapy, or engaging in creative pursuits. Whatever form it takes, self-care is an important tool for cultivating a positive sense of self and managing mental health challenges.

It is important to remember that self-care is not a selfish act. Taking care of our own well-being allows us to show up as our best selves for our loved ones and communities.

If you are struggling to prioritize self-care in your life, start small. Make time for activities that bring you joy and relaxation, and seek support from loved ones or mental health professionals as needed.

Moving Forward

The journey towards understanding ourselves and our mental health is ongoing, but it is one that is worth taking. By examining the depth and complexity of our identity, we can move towards a greater sense of self-understanding and compassion.

Remember, your mental health struggles are just one aspect of your multifaceted identity. By embracing the totality of who you are, you can work towards a positive sense of self and a fulfilling, meaningful life.

As J.R.R. Tolkien once said, “Not all who wander are lost.” In the same way, our journey towards understanding ourselves and our mental health may involve wandering — but it is not a lost cause. By asking the question “Who am I, alone, myself, and nameless?” and embracing the complexity of our identity, we can move towards a more positive and hopeful future.


Over to You

I chose this writing prompt because I was interested to see how the app would handle questions of identity and authenticity. I was frankly blown away at what came back. I’m interested to know what other people think of this piece in particular, and the idea of AI content in general. Incidentally, I ran the article through the AI detector at GP Zero, which accurately determined it was “likely to be written entirely by AI.”

What do you think? Is the article of interest? If I hadn’t told you, would you have suspected it was generated by an AI process rather than written by a human writer? What difference, if any, does knowing that make to you? Fran and I would love to hear your thoughts on this, either in the comments below or via our contact page.


Image by Andy Kelly at Unsplash.


Wednesday, 5 April 2023

ECT: A Patient's Perspective

By Eric Russell

I want to begin by expressing my gratitude to Martin Baker for allowing me this opportunity to share my experience with electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). His book, High Tide, Low Tide, focuses on the intersection of mental health and relationships. So here I come down a side street to narrate my journey along the ECT path. I have bipolar disorder.

After all the medications I tried failed to calm the episodes and manage the symptoms my doctor asked if I were ready to discuss ECT. She explained that while medications have a success rate of 30-35%, ECT sees a roughly 80% efficacy rate in academic studies. However, at that moment I was too nervous to hear the favourable comparison. Although I was afraid of the unknown, my doctor convinced me to educate myself and make a fully informed decision. In the end I opted in.

As a part of the preparation my primary care physician had to sign off that I was physically healthy enough to undergo ECT. This involved both a regular physical and an EKG to get a sense of how the heart would respond. Another step in the process was to interview with two different psychiatrists. This is really for patient safety as the doctors must verify the patient has the capacity to give consent for the treatment. In my case it was my regular psychiatrist and the psychiatrist who would be administering the ECT. The double interview might seem a hassle, but governing bodies want to protect patient rights.

Although not required, I did the initial series inpatient. This was for two reasons. First, the initial series is three times a week for three or four weeks. Going inpatient meant my family didn’t have to sacrifice all those days driving back and forth. (I live two hours from the hospital.) Secondly, family was also spared taking that time off work. Consequently, I was introduced to the experience all on my own. Looking back on that time though, I can’t recall any of it other than what got written down in my journal.

It wasn’t long after getting home that I realised I had memory holes. At times I struggled to recall the names of individuals close to me, details of autobiographical events, and how to navigate once-familiar landscapes. While this can seem disconcerting, it reinforced my determination to live in the present and cherish the loved ones who surround me.

At the same time, I have learned that the memories are not actually gone. For example, one day on my way to the hospital for ECT as usual I passed the Civic Center and a flood of memories came rushing back to me. I was riding in a bicycle race which went under the Civic Center’s arches. I could see the road as it curved through a descent. I could hear the tires on the road, the shifting of gears. I could feel the breeze. The memory had come to life in my mind again, giving me a confident new attitude toward those memory holes. I can refill them.

It’s important to make clear though, ECT is not a cure-all. I still had to take medicine and continue with ECT. After the initial series my doctor scheduled me for treatments once a week. Before too long the interval was extended to every other week. Eventually, it was stretched to every fourth week, and there it stays.

On treatment days I arrive early at the ECT department’s Pre-Op staging area to make sure I don’t throw the schedule off. I’m taken to a private room to change into my pyjama bottoms and a hospital gown. We take my vitals then there’s usually a bit of a wait before a nurse comes in to start my IV so I wrap my arm in a warm blanket as this seems to make the stick easier when it’s time. That done, we go over health and health care as well as medications I’ll be given in preparation for the procedure and those I take on a regular basis. Then, after speaking with my doctor, I’m left by myself while the IV replenishes my fluids.

With the IV bag near empty the OR nurse comes to get me. After a quick visit to the lav I’m ready for the procedure. We go back and I settle in on the gurney. I meet the anaesthesiologist as staff attach all the monitor leads. As I’m filling my lungs with pure oxygen, my doctor attaches electrodes to each temple. (I get bilateral treatments. Unilateral electrode placement would be the temple and crown.) At about the same time, the anaesthesiologist lets me know the muscle relaxant and anaesthesia are flowing. From that moment when I fade into sleep it seems only seconds before the Recovery Room nurse calls my name.

It wasn’t as simple as waking up and walking away from the crushing depression, but through the dedication of my care team it did seem like an awakening in a way. I had been struggling for a long time and finally began to feel good. I did things with and for my family; I even returned to interests I’d had in the past. I had my life back.

In conclusion, as I look back over my years of electroconvulsive therapy although it is typically thought of as a treatment of last resort, I don’t feel it should be. I consider it all a small price to pay for the benefits I’ve gained and a reliable tool to keep in mind.


The image is a sketch I drew in 2015 while inpatient during the initial series.


Wednesday, 29 March 2023

Free Books for World Bipolar Day

To mark World Bipolar Day 2023 Fran and I are offering our books for FREE on Kindle for five days between Wednesday March 29 and Sunday April 2, inclusive.

In High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder we share what we’ve learned about growing a supportive, mutually rewarding friendship between a “well one” and an “ill one.” With no-nonsense advice from the caring friend’s point of view, original approaches and practical tips, illustrated with real-life conversations and examples. Buy it here.

Friendship is a beautiful part of life and an important component of long-term wellness. No One Is Too Far Away: Notes from a Transatlantic Friendship is a collection of articles from our blog which shows that mental illness needn’t be a barrier to meaningful connection; indeed it can be the glue that holds people together. Buy it here.

Once the free offer is over the prices will go back to normal.

World Bipolar Day is celebrated each year on March 30, the birthday of Vincent Van Gogh, who is thought to have lived with a bipolar condition.

The vision of World Bipolar Day is to bring world awareness to bipolar conditions and to eliminate social stigma. Through international collaboration, the goal of World Bipolar Day is to bring the world population information about bipolar conditions that will educate and improve sensitivity towards the condition.

For more information check out the following websites.


Wednesday, 22 March 2023

Please Wait Here Until You Are Useful

The inspiration for this article was a conversation I had with Fran a few weeks ago. We were discussing the nature of friendship, help, and support when she suggested that “the need to be useful is a sign of insecurity.” I knew exactly what she meant. Most of my life has been spent trying to satisfy a need within me to be of use, help, and value to other people. It’s not that this impulse is wrong or necessarily unhealthy, of course. Eleanor Roosevelt asserted that “[u]sefulness, whatever form it may take, is the price we should pay for the air we breathe and the food we eat and the privilege of being alive.” The Dalai Lama went further. “What is the meaning of life?” he asked. “To be happy and useful.”

With that in mind, it might seem surprising that the Nonviolent Communication (NVC, sometimes called compassionate communication) model doesn’t mention usefulness explicitly in its Needs Inventory. The closest need is support, listed in the Connection section alongside appreciation, cooperation, communication. Feeling that you matter (to others, to yourself, or to the world) is included in the NVC Feelings Inventory. NVC’s emphasis on cooperation and respecting one’s own needs no less than other people’s aligns with the belief Fran and I share in the importance of mutually supportive connections. It’s the constant thread that runs through our book and our almost twelve year transatlantic friendship. That mutuality is foundational. Our needs differ in nature and over time, but we respect those differences and attend to each other’s needs as best we’re able. I think Fran would agree we’re still useful to each other, though that’s not the sum of what we mean to one another. On reflection, this kind of mutual usefulness has been a feature of virtually all the most significant and meaningful relationships I’ve ever known.

That said, I believe there’s a role for what I might call nonmutual usefullness, or unrecipricated service. That is, offering help and support with no need or expectation that it will be repaid in any way. I discussed this aspect of supportive friendships in The Constant Gardener: How to Be Someone Your Friends Can Rely On.

What does steadfastness mean in practice? It means saying, as many times as your friend needs to hear it, I’m here for you. I’m not going anywhere. How can I help? — and not only meaning it at the time but following through. It means picking up when your friend calls or messages you, no matter what time it is, how your friendship stands at that moment, or how recently you were last in touch, even if it’s six months after the friendship broke down, because you promised you’d always be there and they believed you.

Where this becomes unhealthy, or in Fran’s words where the need to be useful becomes a sign of insecurity, is where we ignore or lose sight of our needs, setting them aside in order to meet the needs of others. Left unchecked, the consequences of putting other people’s needs before your own can be devastating, as they were for my mother. Her mental health deteriorated to the point where she was barely able to function. Ironically, she spent her final years depressed, anxious, and wracked with guilt for not having done more.

As I’ve written elsewhere, helping people helps you too, as long as you don’t lose sight of your needs. The insecurity aspect comes from placing too high a regard on how others see us, and imagining that we’ll only have value to other people if we’re useful to them. “No one will like me just for me,” the voice of insecurity asserts. “But if I’m useful they will like me, and need me.” This is something I’ve come to recognise in myself. I have trouble seeing myself as someone people will want to hang out with if I’m not making myself useful to them in some way.

There are three problems with this way of thinking. First, it opens us to exploitation by people predisposed to take advantage of others. I’ve not experienced this personally, but the danger is real. The second danger is codependency, which describes a situation of mutually toxic dependency. The best defense against codependency is honest communication, as Fran and I discuss in our book and have described elsewhere in How Much Help Is Too Much? Codependency in the Caregiving Relationship. The third problem is the fact that in relationships as in the workplace, no one is indispensable. If you base your sense of self-worth on your usefulness to others, you leave yourself open to disillusionment and loss of self-esteem when the situation changes. When this occurs — as it has for me on several occasions — it’s necessary to assess what has changed, what’s left, and what you want to do about it.

This insight first came to me several years ago. One friendship had become so imbalanced that it seemed the only thing keeping it going at all was my continued offer of help. For a long time I struggled to accept that what we had no longer met my definition of a mutually supportive friendship. I finally realised there was nothing wrong as such, it was simply that things had changed between us. In acknowledging that fact, I knew I had a decision to make. I could end the connection and walk away, or I could continue to offer the support I knew was very much needed and valued. I decided to continue, and felt almost instantly relieved and at peace with the situation. The connection might not meet my need for mutuality, but it did satisfy my need to be useful. In time, we reestablished the balance we’d known previously. Our connection remains strong to this day. Another friendship stalled under different circumstances. We reached a situation where my need to be useful was no longer being met, largely because my friend’s needs had changed or were being met elsewhere. Without that “Are you there?” / “I’m here” / “I need you” / “What to you need?” dynamic the connection lapsed naturally and gently. There is sadness, but neither blame nor acrimony.

Exploring our need to be useful can be immensely beneficial, both to our sense of self-worth and to our relationships. It’s helped me recognise the validity of offering help when that help is wanted and asked for, but resisting the impulse — all too common with me in the past — to push help in people’s faces in a desperate attempt to validate myself by “being useful” all the time. It hardly needs saying that such behaviour is annoying at best, and seriously toxic at worst. It’s also taught me a lot about boundaries; mine and other people’s. I’ve come to realise that I’m not responsible for other people’s choices or decisions, and needn’t contort myself to fulfill roles that are no longer relevant or needed. In short, I can be there when people need me, but I can’t insist on being there when they don’t.

The need to be useful isn’t unhealthy in and of itself; indeed, I’ve learned that helping others is an important part of my ethical makeup. I’ve recently been exploring aspects of moral philosophy, in particular the course on moral philosophy by Jeffrey Kaplan on YouTube. One video which left a lasting impression is Ordinary People Are Evil based on the idea of moral obligation propounded by Peter Singer. This is beyond the scope of this blog post but I may return to it in the future.

Likewise, it’s healthy to value the usefulness of other people in our lives, whether it’s someone with a car who can offer day trips or rides to appointments, or people with specific resources, skills, and experience they’re willing to share with us. Acknowledging this doesn't mean we’re manipulative or taking them for granted. My friend Aimee and I are both passionate about writing and blogging. We’re useful to one another because we understand the process, stresses, and excitements of blogging in the mental health arena. We often call on each other for advice and support. My friend Louise and I each have a good deal of experience supporting other people in various ways. It’s immensely valuable to have someone like that in my life. We’re able to draw on our experience to support each other when we need someone to listen to what we’re going through; someone who will understand without needing everything explained in detail. Mutual usefulness of this kind is a wonderful thing.

I’ll close with Fred Rogers’ famous quotation about looking for the helpers. It has its detractors, but for me it captures the essence of being useful.

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping. (Fred Rogers)

I hope there are some people, whether still in my life or not, who would think of me in this light.

Over to You

In this article I’ve explored what being useful means to me. How do you feel about the topics I’ve covered? Do you have a need to be useful? Do you have useful people in your life? Whatever your thoughts and ideas on this topic, Fran and I would love to hear from you, either in the comments section below, or via our contact page.


Image by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona at Unsplash.