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 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.