Wednesday 24 July 2024

Annoyance Day: Here's a List of Things That Are Annoying Me and You're On It

“Did I mention I’m annoyed?”

I was on my regular evening call with Fran. It was a Friday. “Yes, Fran. I noticed.” After thirteen years of friendship, I don’t miss much. She was, indeed, annoyed. By this friend and that. By this thing someone had done or said, that thing someone had not done or not said. By people in general. By life. There was quite a list. Like any of us, Fran gets frustrated from time to time, but it was rare for her to be quite so annoyed at quite so many things all at once.

I invited her to take advantage of how she was feeling by throwing anything and everything that was annoying her into the pot. This and that. Him and her. Everything and everyone. Noting that my name was conspicuously absent from the list, I told her I was feeling left out. “Aren’t you annoyed at me?” It turned out she was, so we got that out into the open too.

I didn’t try to fix things or dismiss how she was feeling. I didn’t offer my point of view, rationalise why maybe that person had done what they did, or why things perhaps weren’t as bad as she was making them out to be. That could come later, if needed. Right now, it wasn’t about helping Fran find her way out. It was about being with her where she was. My intuition was borne out the following week when she thanked me for how I’d handled things on Annoyance Day, as she named it.

“You didn’t tell me to get over it and move on, or just let it go. You sat in the shit with me.”

I laughed at that. “I didn’t sit delicately at the edge, either. I invited you to throw it all over me too!”

Sitting beside her in the mess is an analogy Fran’s used several times, and it’s one I’ve taken to heart. The following is from the epilogue to our book High Tide Low Tide. Fran is talking about some of her darkest times.

[Marty] did not reach down a hand to pull me up from my dark hole. He came down and sat with me while I began rethreading, bit by bit, what could be mended. .... To him it wasn’t about getting me to climb out. It was about being with me in all of it.

That Friday evening, things weren’t that bleak. Fran wasn’t furious, or desperate, or suicidal. She was simply annoyed. Pissed. (Pissed off, as we’d say in the UK.) It would have been easy for me to try and placate her. Debate or cajole her out of how she was feeling. I might have succeeded. More likely, I’d have added to her catalogue of annoyances. Allowing her to be in the middle of all she was feeling, without judging her for it or pushing for her to put it behind her, gave Fran permission to own her emotions and experience them for what they were. Afterwards, we acknowledged how well it fit in with our mantra Feel it. Claim it. Love it. Let it go. Here’s another excerpt from our book:

It can be challenging to handle powerful emotions, especially when they seem to come out of nowhere. Rather than allowing our emotions full rein, or trying to deny them, we find it helps to accept what we feel, take whatever meaning we can from the experience, and then release our attachment to it so we can move on.

All four steps are important, but it’s easy to rush through the first one, especially where the emotions are unwelcome. The ultimate goal may be to let go, but if we don’t allow ourselves to feel what we’re feeling we’re cheating ourselves of the moment’s potential. It’s an approach worth considering. I’m happy to report that in our case, Fran was able to move through her annoyances and emerge the other side. There will be other Annoyance Days, I’m sure. For her. For me too. We know how to approach them, though, both individually and as friends. There’s strength and comfort in knowing that.

Over to You

What do you think of how Fran and I handled things on this occasion? How would you respond to a friend who came to you with a big list of annoyances? How would you want your friend to respond if you were feeling that way? What helps — and doesn’t help — in moments like that? We’d love to hear from you, either in the comments below or via our contact page.


Photo by 傅甬 华 at Unsplash.


Wednesday 17 July 2024

One Old Man on a Bench

I’ve always had a thing for benches, so much so that they feature in three of my four all-time happy places. Benches to rest on. Benches to think, write, and dream. Benches to sit and talk with friends. Benches with a view. Benches with memories. This evocative photo by Huy Phan inspired me to explore the role benches have played, and continue to play, in my life.

To Sit With Friends

There are two wooden benches in the middle of the village of Great Musgrave in Cumbria. I’ve shared many calls there with Fran on my evening walks from the holiday cottage I used to visit almost every year. A little further on, down a narrow avenue of horsechestnut trees, another of my favourite benches sits in a field outside St Theobald’s Church beside the River Eden. Another happy place bench is in the beer garden of The Wateredge Inn, in Ambleside.

From my table, less than twenty feet from the waves lapping against the pebbles of the shore, I have a perfect view south along the lake. It’s early evening and the last few ferries of the day ply their trade from the Ambleside jetty to Bowness and beyond. It’s simply, breathtakingly, beautiful. On the table is a pint of beer, my beloved brown passport-size Traveler’s Notebook, fountain pen, phone stand, and journal. On my head, my Bluetooth headset, anticipating a call. Fran and a few other close friends have shared moments with me there.

Dismantled in 2022 to make way for an unspectacularly banal office complex, former music and social venue STACK Newcastle holds a special place in my heart.

I have great memories of sitting by the roaring open fire in the Tipi Bar or at the benches in the main area, catching up with my journal, capturing ideas for future blog posts, or waiting for friends. As well as local friends, I’ve shared time at Stack with Fran and others through photos, chat, and video calls.

Other benches come to mind. Beside the River Wansbeck in Morpeth, where Aimee I had a picnic a few years ago before cracking each other up (“Know what I mean?” “I thought I did!”) and climbing Ha’ Hill to look down over the town. The blue painted bench at Beaulieu in Hampshire where I sat with Fran on the first, and so far only, occasion we’ve met in person. The ocean view bench she shared with me many times when she lived on Peaks Island in Maine. More recently, we had a video call together on a bench in the grounds of Fran’s former school in New Jersey. We shared the events of the day, stories from her past, and the local wildlife. “Marty, look! A bunny, a robin — and a deer!”

My favourite bench of all, though, sits at the intersection of Fawdon Walk and Brunton Lane, less than ten minutes’ walk from my home. It’s not the most comfortable or delightful to look at. It doesn’t have the best view. It’s nevertheless witnessed a great deal of my life and a few of its most significant moments over the past few years. I’ve spent hours on that bench talking with Fran and other friends, sharing the highs and lows of our lives no matter what was going on at the time. This was never more valuable than during covid lockdown when local walks were my sole escape from the disruption and uncertainty playing out in the world. I remember the chat and voice messages I exchanged with one friend a few years ago, discussing our respective blogs and podcasts. (Hi Liz!) Most of all, I treasure the selfies taken with my friend Louise when she came to visit. Lou, I adored your excitement at finally seeing the bench of which you’d heard so much! Hopefully, it won’t be too long until we’re sitting there together again.

Solitude and Contemplation

There’s more to benches than sharing time and conversation, however. They can be a place to be quiet, with and within yourself. I almost always have my diary with me on my walks, and keep my eyes open for somewhere to sit and catch up with the events of my day. During lockdown, I’d go out two or three times a day if the weather permitted. I start every diary entry with the date, time, and where I’m writing. There are literally hundreds of entries through 2020 and 2021 that begin with the words “Fawdon Walk bench.”

Another great location to sit and think is the white metal bench beside the lake at Kirkharle in Northumberland. Originally designed by English landscape gardener Lancelot “Capability” Brown, who was born at Kirkharle in 1716, the lake was created in 2010 after his plans were discovered. Continuing the benches-beside-water theme, I wrote a piece for Mental Health Awareness Week 2018 sitting on a bench at Tynemouth.

Today — Saturday, May 19, 2018 — is the day of the Royal Wedding. I wish Harry and Meghan well in their life together but I brought myself out to the coast to avoid the media, and social media, onslaught. It’s just not something I feel a part of. Here at Tynemouth there is calm and space and air and sky and sea. And a bench where I can sit and write.

That was a time of excitement, motivation, and change, with new opportunities and projects opening up for me. Sitting there with my Midori Traveler’s notebook on my lap, I explored how I was feeling. Of two fundraising events I’d attended that week, I wrote: “[they] were a lot of fun and raised much needed funds for local mental health projects. They meant a lot to me on a personal level too. I came away with a stronger sense of belonging than ever before: of belonging to a local community of people who accept me, who are genuine and open, and passionate about making a difference. Borrowing words from Fran, I feel I have found my tribe. And that’s a powerful thing.”

Loneliness and Exclusion

Keywords for the image I chose to illustrate this post include senior, depression, mental health awareness, mental health, person, man, bench, adult, and alone. At first glance, I saw an old man sitting on a bench in the city, head down, excluded from — or at least on the outside of — everything going on around him. I marked my sixy-third birthday a few months ago. I wonder what people see when they pass me sitting on the bench at Fawdon Walk. I’m almost always alone. Head down, more often than not, on my phone or writing my diary. There’s a poem by M. W. Ketchel which addresses this directly.

Old Man On A Park Bench

The old man stops and exhales life,
sitting down on a park bench, if but for a moment to rest.
He ponders the decades, his many years of strife,
and his heart grows weary in his chest.

The elder reflects on his better years,
and happier times that have passed him by.
What remains now is loneliness, some tears,
and memories of a time when he might ask, why?

Age and wisdom, he looks across the park to watch the children play
and he smiles a private, sad, but tender smile.
Was it so long ago or only yesterday
He closes his eyes in the sun, and decides to stay awhile.

A far more sinister interpretation of the “old man on a bench” trope can be found in the decrepid character of Aqualung in Jethro Tull’s song of the same name.

Sitting on a park bench.
Eying little girls with bad intent.
Snot running down his nose.
Greasy fingers smearing shabby clothes.

According to the band’s lead singer Ian Anderson in a 1999 interview for Guitar World, “The idea came about from a photograph my wife at the time took of a tramp in London. I had feelings of guilt about the homeless, as well as fear and insecurity with people like that who seem a little scary.” He continued, “I suppose all of that was combined with a slightly romaticized picture of the person who is homeless but yet a free spirit, who either won’t or can’t join in society’s prescribed formats.”

There’s a milder, albeit still disturbing, echo of Aqualung in my unpublished short story “And Men Myrtles.” The principal character Bill Stokes is fifty-three years old, “perhaps a dozen fewer than he appeared to casual observance.” The tale opens in Oxford’s Wolvercote Cemetery where Bill is tending his wife’s grave. His world and life are overturned by events he’s incapable of understanding.

There was a bench along the path and he made his way towards it with shuffling steps. It was close — too close — to this strange party but he needed to sit down. And there was something else, something that might be curiosity but felt to William rather more like need. The arrival of these people into his world, the tall man and the girl with the raven hair, was a more than incidental event. He did not know what it meant but, good or bad, he needed to find out.

He’s more than aware how he must appear to others.

He felt himself being swept up into the darkness but he was afraid to open his eyes in case the crowd had noticed him sat there. In case she had noticed him sat there: an old man on a cemetery bench. Decrepit. Pathetic.

In many ways, it’s a tale of redemption, transformation, even hope. There’s a price to be paid, however, and it’s not paid by Bill alone.

Loneliness and exclusion remind me of Ronan Keating’s brilliant song When You Say Nothing At All from the soundtrack to the film Notting Hill. The video opens with Keating sat at one end of a park bench. As he sings about knowing what his lover means “without [her] saying a word” a woman joins him on the bench. The secret thoughts of visitors to the park are displayed as they go about their lives. The woman on the bench reveals a certain enigmatic claim to truth — “People think they know him, but they don’t.” — but there’s a hint of more. Disappointment, perhaps, or something darker. “What you see is never what you get.” The video spotlights the disconnect between what we naively tell ourselves — that there’s no need for honest and difficult conversations because if we love someone we intuitively understand what’s going on — and the reality of people unable to express their genuine thoughts and feelings.

A Place to Rest

I don’t want to overplay the old man card, but at sixty-three I’m increasingly grateful for benches as somewhere to sit and rest. I recognise this can be frustrating for anyone out with me who may be younger, fitter, or simply less in need of a sit down every twenty minutes. I’m happy, nonetheless, to take the weight off my feet when someone went to the trouble of providing somewhere to do so. Perhaps that’s what the man in Huy Phan’s photo is doing. Maybe he’s waiting for a friend to join him, minding the bags while his partner looks round the shops, pausing to consider what next to do with his day, or simply letting the world go by without him for a while. In the words of Jon Kabat-Zinn, “It is indeed a radical act of love just to sit down and be quiet for a time by yourself.”

Less literally, being on the bench means sitting things out, watching from the sidelines as the action plays out in front of you. A number of years ago I was unable to support a friend who was going through a really rough time. I felt on the outside of things, although I respected the fact I wasn’t who they needed at that time. Louise reminded me that I was still on my friend’s team, I just wasn’t on the pitch at that moment. I was on the bench, waiting until I was called back onto the field. The analogy helped me greatly at the time, and has done so on many occasions since.

Over to You

Do you have a favourite bench? Do you enjoy sitting there with a friend, or taking a few moments for yourself? What would your ideal location be for a bench? Overlooking the ocean, perhaps, or some other scenic vantage point. Fran and I would love to hear from you, either in the comments below or via our contact page.


Photo by Huy Phan at Unsplash.


Wednesday 10 July 2024

Lost and Found: Glastonbury 1983 and Other Memories

You don’t have to write everything down. You can trust your consciousness that what needs to come back into your mind will come back.

— Fran Houston

This post was inspired by two recent conversations. The first happened a week or so ago at work when the discussion turned to music festivals. Someone mentioned Woodstock. I said I was a little young to have attended (I was eight years old and on the wrong side of the Atlantic) but I’d attended Glastonbury twice, in 1983 and 1984. One of my colleagues asked what bands I’d seen. I couldn’t remember. I told him I’d have to look in my diary!

The second conversation was with Fran. A few months ago she began keeping a journal, in the form of weekly letters to her mom. Discussing her most recent letter, she commented that it isn’t necessary to write everything down. I asked what she meant. “You can trust your consciousness,” she said, “that what needs to come back into your mind will come back.” That struck me as an interesting insight. I decided to use it as a jumping-off point to explore my experience with journaling and memory.

I’ve written a daily diary for almost fifty years. I’ve long been aware of the interplay between what I choose to write down — events, feelings, details of friendships and relationships, hopes, fears, and dreams — and what I remember. I’ve always felt that I don’t need to remember things, because at any point I can take down my diary from the shelf and remind myself what I was doing, thinking, and feeling. Whatever I chose to record at the time isn’t lost to me. The flip side, of course, is that what I don’t write down — either deliberately or because it’s not possible to record everything that happens — is likely gone forever. At best, it’s subject to the vagaries of my organic memory.

I decided to reread my diary for June 1983. Before doing so, I asked myself what I could recall of Glastonbury. I couldn’t remember who I’d seen perform but there was plenty that came to mind. The three friends I went with: Pete, Richard, and Dawn. The weather. Both weekends were blisteringly hot. (I’m aware that for seasoned festival goers you’ve not really been to Glastonbury unless you were knee deep in mud for three days!) I remembered Pete and I being offered weed within hours of arriving, and politely declining the offer. I remembered our tents. The Pyramid stage. Cutting my foot open on a discarded tin can. That last one turned out to be 1984.

Glastonbury was a revelation. I’d never experienced anything like it, not least the number of people there. The official website records attendance in 1983 as 30,000. Most were in their late teens or early twenties but there were plenty of older folk too. Some as old, if not older, than I am now, forty years on. Couples with young children. Babies. What struck me most were many different lifestyles, attitudes, and cultures on display. The colour. The noise. The sense of being free to express who you are, no matter how or who that might be. I captured the essence of the weekend in my diary:


Children — Sun — Rock/Reggae
Hash — black — hot knives
Everyone/everything accepted
Lack of privacy
Women topless — men naked
Stalls — food — clothes — records
jewellery — alcohol — candles
CND — Greenpeace — Ecology
Relaxed — Slow — L. O. V. E.

It’s worth saying that no gathering of thousands of people is without its issues, up to and including criminality, serious drug use, and violence. I felt totally safe both years we were there, but there will be people whose experiences and memories are far less rosy than mine.

Reading through my diary, it turns out I saw some pretty significant bands and performances. These included Marillion, ASWAD, Incantation, and UB40 who I’d previously seen play at the Student Union in Bradford. Most significant to me at the time — and I can hardly believe I forgot this — was seeing American singer-songwriter Melanie Safka perform on the iconic Pyramid stage.

After eating we went to the Pyramid for what must surely be my most personal memory of this Festival, watching Marillion and Melanie.

Don’t ask her why she needs to be so free | She’s gonna tell you that the only way to be | She just can’t be chained to a life where nothing’s gained and nothing’s lost | But such a cost ...

If you’re interested, the following performances from Glastonbury 1983 are on YouTube: Incantation, UB40, and Melanie Safka.

As I turned the pages of my diary the memories flooded back, tender and bittersweet. The following paragraphs are excerpted from what I wrote over the festival weekend.

As I begin, it is about 1:15 am Friday morning and I am sitting in the car at Glastonbury. Pete is in the film tent watching a rather silly sci-fi film, which I walked out on, mainly because it was getting a bit cold. Rich and Dawn are in their tent.

We spent all afternoon sunbathing and listening to some excellent music, including the Enid. It was very hot — several woman were topless and there were even a couple of naked men (for Dawn!)

Around 3:00 pm I drove Pete into Taunton where he was catching a coach to Barnstaple for his interview tomorrow. When I got back, R+D were in their tent. We had tea of cheese and corned beef sandwiches, then R+D had to pack up to leave. I didn’t stay to wave them off, but went for a wander up to the market area to get Dawn a rainbow belt she wanted. Then to the Pyramid to hear some more music — reggae and African roots — and watch the fireworks display. It wasn’t very late when I went to bed.

It’s natural enough to forget details after forty years, but there are some things I can’t recall at all despite the evidence of my own hand. A prime example occurred a few days before Pete and I met up with Dawn and Richard at the festival site.

Pete and I got up very early this morning and caught the train from Durrington to Portsmouth, then the ferry over to the Isle of Wight for the day. We first went to Alum Bay via Newport, on the bus, saw the Needles and the lighthouse, then walked along the clifftop for a few miles in the gloriously hot sunshine. After that we caught another bus to Shanklin where we had tea on the prom, by which time it was about half past six and time to head back.

I have zero recollection of that day. If anyone had asked me if I’d ever been to the Isle of Wight, I’d have said no, never. It’s odd — even disturbing — to have no memory of what was clearly a significant and enjoyable day. This exercise has highlighted to me the complex interplay between memory and reality. I can distinguish six categories of memories.

1. Things I remember, despite never having written them down anywhere. My diary can’t add to these in any specific way, but might help set them in context by recalling other events and experiences of my life at that time.

2. Things I remember, that I recorded in my diary at the time. My diary might add context, clarity, and details to my recollections.

3. Things I don’t recall, but am reminded of when I read my diary. My diary helps bring these back to me. Watching Marillion and Melanie perform at Glastonbury are examples of this.

4. Things I wrote in my diary that I have no recollection of, even when I read about them later. My visit to the Isle of Wight is the perfect example.

5. Things I don’t remember and didn’t record in my diary at the time. These events, feelings, and experiences are lost to me unless something happens to bring them to mind.

6. Things I remember that never, in fact, happened. I still hold fast to treasured “memories” despite having been reliably informed they’re factually incorrect.

Maybe this is what Fran was hinting at when she said, “You don’t have to write everything down. You can trust your consciousness that what needs to come back into your mind will come back.” Her words seemed naive at first, because I interpreted her as saying “don’t worry about recording things, you’ll remember what you need to.” Having thought things through, I parse it differently. She’s not saying “what is important will come back to you” but rather “what comes back to you is important.” Journaling has a role to play in that, as does writing letters, blogging, or talking with people who were with us at the time. In the midst of the covid pandemic, I discussed this in a post titled Remember When? Building Shared Experience in Unprecedented Times.

The people we hold close now will forever be part of our coronavirus experience. We will turn to them in months and years to come for comfort and to validate what it meant to live through these times. “Remember when?” will help us make sense of it all. That is something powerful and profound, and worth preparing for.

But what we forget is important, too. Dementia and other forms of memory loss extort a terrible price, but forgetfulness can be a blessing. There’s a grace in letting go of the need to remember everything. After forty years of daily record keeping, I sometimes wonder why I bother to write a diary when I rarely revisit what I’ve written. Fran’s insight might hold the answer. Journaling allows me to release thoughts and feelings onto the page so I no longer have to carry them around with me. They can be retrieved, but there’s no imperative to do so. Opening a diary — including one’s own — is a perilous undertaking. My 1983 diary contains much more than my three-day weekend at the festival. It was one of the most intense years in my life to date, which is saying plenty. Engaging with it now is not without its challenges, as warm as most of the memories are. I’m content for some things to remain unremembered. My diaries serve their purpose even if they remain on the shelf, unread.

As I’m writing this, Glastonbury 2024 is in full swing. Headlining this year are artists even I have heard of, including Dua Lipa, Coldplay, Shania Twain, and Cyndi Lauper. I could watch online, but I’ve no interest in doing so. It could conceivably bring some forgotten memory to the surface, but it’s as likely to taint those I hold dear. Things change. For context, official attendance in 1983 was 30,000. The ticket price was £12 (£40 in today’s money). This year’s attendance is estimated to be 200,000 with tickets priced at £360. It bears the same name, but it’s not my Glastonbury.

As fickle and fragile as my memories are, I’ll let go of the need to remember everything. As Fran suggested, I’ll trust that what needs to come back into my mind will come back.


Photo of Glastonbury Festival 1983 by Martin Baker.


Wednesday 3 July 2024

Six Feet Above: A Conversation With Ellis Ducharme

... at the beginning where I was doing it every day like clockwork, it entirely carried me out of that low spot, and I believe that it saved my life.

— Ellis Ducharme

Fran and I recently shared our experiences visiting the Portland Museum of Art and the Laing Art Gallery here in Newcastle upon Tyne. Continuing the Art of Friendship theme, we’re delighted to showcase photographer and videographer Ellis Ducharme, whose exhibition Six Feet Above showed through June at the Peaks Island library in Maine. The website described Six Feet Above as “a collection of thirty-six photos from a personal project to fight depression and raise awareness of mental health. Ocean themes and many cityscapes focus on finding beauty in places most deem undesirable and ugly.”

Fran lived on Peaks Island for many years. Although I’ve never visited in person, I feel a great affection for the island as Fran’s shared so much of it with me. She still visits regularly and attended several of this year’s PeaksFest events, meeting old friends and making new ones. She spoke with Ellis about his exhibition and how photography helped him climb out of depression. She shared with him her experience living with bipolar disorder, commenting that it was nice to meet “a fellow understander.”

Afterwards, I reached out to Ellis and invited him to share the story behind his work. He described how the project began seven years ago when he was going through a particularly difficult time.

The project started and pretty much concluded as a method to keep my spirits up, and was never really intended to see the light of day. I’ve suffered from severe depression from an early age, and at the time that I started this project I was at an all-time low.

I was working a one-on-one job with an employer who made me feel worthless on a daily basis. Since my wife was working three jobs and my social circles were slim at the time, my employer was the only person I was seeing regularly, and I was very susceptible to her comments about my value. I truly didn’t think I was capable of doing anything right, and I was ready to end things.

Ellis described how his wife suggested a way for him to regain a sense of agency in his life.

Thankfully, my wife could see what was happening to me, and she suggested that even though I was incredibly busy and didn’t have time for much, I had time to go out and take a single photo each day just to prove to myself that I did have the ability to be creative and make my own decisions. Additionally, this was a task where nobody could tell me I was doing it wrong. I had complete control over this one aspect of my life.

So, the next day after work, I just remember walking past my car and out into the little downtown of Biddeford, Maine where my office was. Camera in hand, I just started aimlessly walking through back alleys and parking lots, looking for something to shoot. I settled on the spire of Biddeford City Hall, owing to my love for the architectural style of the area.

At first, I wasn’t very sold on this photo, and admittedly, it is far from the best photo in the set. But I brought it home, retouched it, and posted it on my Facebook along with a brief but honest explanation of my hopeful commitment to do this each day, and why I felt it was important for my well-being. As soon as I posted it, I felt incredibly empowered and clung to that feeling.

I would continue on this schedule for about three years, taking a single photo somewhere in the natural span of my day, retouching it and posting it with a timestamp and where my mindset was that day. I still will occasionally add to this series, but at the beginning where I was doing it every day like clockwork, it entirely carried me out of that low spot, and I believe that it saved my life. I owe that to my wife, Justina.

Ellis’ account reminds me of Fran’s experience when she lived on Peaks Island. Emerging tentatively from a desperate winter-long depression, she’d leave her little house to walk on the shore. As we describe in our book, the haiku poems that came to her on those walks fed the tiny flame of hope that there could be better times ahead.

The wild, personal, and passionate poetry which flowed during Fran’s major episode of mania ceased when she fell into depression. Her creative voice was silenced for months. When it returned it was completely transformed. The haiku forms that emerged as she began to climb out from depression were more than descriptions of the island scenery around her. They were Fran’s attempt to find a reason to go on living.

These poems were written on Centennial Beach, a short walk from where Fran lived at the time. She would return home, show me her latest poems, and then share them on her social media page. It was her way of reaching outward again. As she said later, “I was trying to save my life, to get out of the house onto Centennial and wait for the haikus to come. That was all I had.”

High Tide, Low Tide

Fran used her fingers to remember the lines until she returned home and could write them down, a memory technique she uses to this day. Despite differences in their situations, Fran and Ellis are describing very similar experiences, each grounded in their creative response to the world around them. It’s clear that Ellis’ project has had a long-term positive impact on his life and wellbeing.

As of today, there are almost 900 photographs, most of which I can still remember what was going on in my life on that day, how I was feeling, and what I was going through. When I started this, I was in a place where I was questioning my own validity and how real of a person I even was. Having this concrete evidence of my mental journey documented in a way that only I can decipher has been very grounding.

Ellis selected five photographs from the collection.

1-4-17 — Biddeford City Hall, the first photo
1-8-17 — Bailey in the bath
2-24-17 — One of my favorite photos in the set, visually
9-20-17 — Photo taken the day I left the job that made me start this series
4-8-17 — Photo taken on an especially low day

Fran and I are immensely grateful to Ellis for sharing his story and work so openly. If you’re interested to learn more, check out his website, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Flikr.

Over to You

Does Ellis’ story resonate for you? What activities have helped you with your sense of self-worth when you’ve been going through a difficult time? Fran and I would love to hear from you, either in the comments below or via our contact page.


Photo of Ellis Ducharme at the Peaks Island library by Fran Houston. Other photography by Ellis Ducharme.


Wednesday 26 June 2024

Q&A with Aimee Wilson, Founder of Shake My Hand, the Media Campaign for Survivors of Rape and Sexual Abuse

TW: Mention of rape and sexual abuse.

What is Shake My Hand?

Shake My Hand is a media campaign I have created with the goal and mission of increasing the number of Survivors of rape and sexual abuse who report their traumatic experiences. Currently, the statistics (courtesy of Rape Crisis England and Wales) show that sadly, five of six women who are raped don’t report it.

In a bid to achieve our goal, Shake My Hand will provide 1:1 peer support sessions with rape and sexual abuse Survivors. This would be with the hope that if a Survivor feels they have someone who truly understands how they’re feeling and what they’re going through, they’ll feel encouraged and reassured to a point where they might then be willing to report their experiences. We will also be offering to facilitate training packages, workshops, and awareness sessions on both rape and sexual abuse and mental health including suicide and self-harm, because we recognise that over 60% of all Survivors of rape and abuse have a mental health problem and over 10% attempt suicide (these statistics are also from Rape Crisis England and Wales).

Other work the Campaign will do is endorsing other organisations, charities, and signing and promoting petitions which are all relevant to our cause.

Where did the idea come from to create the campaign?

Well, I have personal experience of both rape and sexual abuse from when I was fifteen until sixteen and that obviously had a huge impact on my life and — more specifically — on my mental health. Having that experience, I’ve always wanted to do something in my life that helps others going through that same trauma, and I think I’ve tried to do that throughout my blogging career. However, a lot of my blog’s content has been centred around mental health more generally and with simple mentions of what I went through — occasionally, I have published pieces that have focused on advice around abuse; but they’ve been rare.

Then, as my blogging has led to me developing a huge interest and passion in the communications and marketing industry that has led to me gaining employment experience as well as qualifications in the field. Through doing that, for the last few months, I have wanted to do some sort of project that was more formal than a collaboration on my blog or a series of blog posts, but I struggled to find inspiration and actual ideas! Then, a girl I have followed on Twitter for a number of years was on TV discussing the fact that her abuser’s Lawyer treat her so poorly in the cross-examination when she took her abuser to court. It made me think about how many times a rape and/or sexual abuse survivor is asked why it took them “so long” to report their experiences and why everyone’s answer could very justifiably be “because we get treated like this when we do!” This frustration set off the distinct feeling that there must be something I could do about it and so — just like that — Shake My Hand was created!

What has been the most rewarding aspect of Shake My Hand so far?

Just, how much I’m enjoying the entire process of creating it and beginning to run it. So many people refer to me doing these things as “work” and I always say that yes, I suppose it is a bit of a job or a career, but I don’t feel like the things I actually do are “work” in terms of the fact I enjoy them so much. I think “work” has a negative connotation that you’re doing a task or assignment that you don’t really want to do but, for some reason, you’re compelled to do it anyway, and that can make you resentful and frustrated. These are things I definitely don’t experience — and haven’t experienced in creating Shake My Hand! I’ve loved the creative necessities to it too! It’s taken a lot of work on Canva and that’s a real favourite of mine for online creative tools, so I’ve really enjoyed using it so much and the amount I’ve done on it has meant I’ve actually learnt about a lot of functions on it that I haven’t needed to use until now, and I love learning new things!

Do you have a most memorable moment in the creation process?

Yes! Some people might deem it to be a bad element to find the most memorable, but I’ve found a lot of good in it too! So, I was creating — or trying to create! — the Facebook Cover Photo for the Campaign’s Facebook account (which you can visit here) on Canva. Now, if anyone is reading this and has never used Canva, on it, you can actually search for a “template” which is where you type in what you want to design, and Canva creates a blank (or you can choose from already-designed documents and edit them to your own criteria) piece for you that is of the correct sizing by width and height. (You can actually even — if the website doesn’t have a design of the size you require — create a custom size document.)

So, I had the exact correct size for a Facebook Cover Photo and yet when I would look at it once applied to the account, I found that it cropped the design and cut out a lot of details where I’d added the link for the website, the Campaign’s email address, and the taglines for its other social media accounts. I kept moving the text backwards and forwards and up and down and closer to the centre of the graphic so that there was no way it could be missed out! But then it started cropping the other side of the graphic! It took a good hour or so to realise it was because I was creating it on my laptop, but then looking at it on my phone! And I remembered that in creating my blog, you could alter the perspectives from which you were looking at it and that in doing that, it changed the appearance of the design. So, on realising this, I googled the size of a Facebook Cover Photo on an iPhone and used the “custom size” feature on Canva to create the graphic in that size because I believe that people are more likely to look at a website on their phone now rather than a computer or laptop so I’d rather it was the right size for the phone.

I’d had a Carer at my home the entire time this was going on and when I finally sussed it out; I said to her “have I been a drama queen saying this took forever?” And she was like; “no, you’ve been trying loads!” Then, I went to empty the Recycle Bin on my laptop and found I’d made FOURTEEN attempts! So yes, that was pretty memorable; but, like I said there was a good element to it too; and that was that I sussed it out in the end! I accomplished something and learnt something — which, to me, makes a really stressful situation really worthwhile, more memorable, and actually rewarding!

Have you faced any challenges in the creation process?

At first, I thought I’d take this question out because I thought “can anything beat that previous example?!” But then I thought of something else, and it’s not exactly one particular instance or action that was challenging: but more of a collection of them. So, a number of times, when I’ve spoken to people to tell them about the Campaign, I’ve always found myself talking about the fact that it’s definitely a lot more work than I had anticipated. There’s a lot more to it which I hadn’t thought of or considered. This doesn’t mean I regret the decision to create the Campaign, but I do wish I’d perhaps researched the idea more thoroughly first!

What advice would you give to someone thinking about starting a Media Campaign?

Based on that previous answer, my advice for someone would be to research their idea — not just to ensure they’re fully aware of the potential workload; but also, to ensure that their idea is original too! Having an Instagram account for the Campaign, has meant I’ve actually seen a ton of accounts from charities, support groups, well-known individuals, and organisations that are in some sort of support or awareness-raising for individuals who have experienced sexual abuse and rape. So, I think I’ve been incredibly lucky to have stumbled across a seeming gap in the market with Shake My Hand.

How will you balance your personal life and your blogging career with Shake My Hand?

I have no clue! Haha! I think that a lot of it is just going to be a “learn-as-I-go” type of process in that I’ll develop balancing acts with my commitments depending upon experiences with them. I think it’ll also really depend upon my calendar and my day-to-day and weekly schedule. I mean, if I have a ton of meetings one week — I’m also doing a lot of work with HumanKind in their merger with my support service provider, Richmond Fellowship — then other things might have to pass by and receive less focus. Or, if I’ve got a lot of free time and only support sessions, I will be able to dedicate more time to Shake My Hand. At the minute, I don’t want it to overtake, or be prioritised over, working on my blog content; I really want to do all I can to maintain them equally. But, I think it’s going to be something I learn along the way.

How has technology and the digital world played a role in Shake My Hand?

I think the most influential aspects of technology or the digital world there has been on Shake My Hand, have been Canva and social media — particularly Instagram. I think that the two have really had a big impact on the popularity and success of the Campaign in its early days. Canva has impacted the reception the Campaign has received — particularly in partnership and endorsement emails where the Campaign Strategy (designed completely through Canva) has been attached. Then, Instagram has impacted the audience that are hearing about the Campaign first and becoming its first support.

Looking ahead, what are your hopes and dreams for Shake My Hand?

I really hope that Shake My Hand becomes genuinely influential in the realm and industry that I want it to be relevant to. I hope that it helps at least one person and that it secures at least one endorsement from a well-known and personally meaningful organisation.


Further Reading

The Shake My Hand Campaign encourages survivors of rape and sexual abuse to report their experiences. For more information and to receive help and support:



Facebook: Shake My Hand Campaign

Twitter/X: @shakemyhanduk

Instagram: @shakemyhanduk


Wednesday 19 June 2024

Five Reasons Being My Friend Means You Have Permission to Get Things Wrong

This blog post was inspired by a recent conversation with my friend and fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson. We’d been chatting for a while when I asked for clarification about something she’d mentioned a few minutes earlier. Aimee replied, pointing out that she’d told me already. I thanked her and we continued chatting. I didn’t think any more about it until she messaged me back a little later.

Are you angry I told you I’d already said something you asked about?

No! I can’t really imagine you doing something that would make me angry! (This is not a challenge to you lol)

Hahaha kinda took that as a dare.

I thought you might!

That little exchange is typical of our friendship, with its mix of respect, care, and humour. On reflection, what I told Aimee was incorrect. I can imagine her upsetting me or making me angry. It’s happened before, just as there’ve been times when I’ve upset or angered her. What I meant was — and I know Aimee understood perfectly — on this occasion you didn’t upset me at all, but even if you had, it would be okay. We’d be okay. The idea that being friends with someone gives you both permission to get things wrong is something I’ve long believed but haven’t really explored. Here, in no particular order, are five reasons I believe this is true and what it means.

I Trust You Not to Hurt Me Deliberately

For me there’s a big difference between issues that arise between friends and those that arise with people outside my friendship bubble. The same hurtful thing might be said or done, but with friends I trust that they didn’t intend to upset me. Being friends doesn’t mean I trust you to never hurt me. It means I trust you not to do so deliberately or carelessly. With friends, my default is to assume no harm was intended.

No One Is Perfect

If two people are close, honest, and open with each other there are going to be times when something’s said or done that the other person doesn’t like or takes exception to. I don’t enjoy upset and conflict but I’ve learned that it’s okay to feel frustrated, cross, or even angry. Upset isn’t something to fear or run away from. I spent much of my adult life afraid of anger and upset, but that’s not a healthy attitude. Turning a blind eye to how we feel means irritating attitudes or behaviour go unchallenged and unresolved. Walking on eggshells isn’t fun, as anyone who’s been in that kind of situation knows. Accepting that no one is perfect is far more honest and ultimately more healthy.

Not Every Upset Is a Big Deal

Giving my friends permission to upset me doesn’t mean I can’t challenge them about it. It actually makes it easier to do so because I trust that challenging them won’t put our friendship at risk. I get to decide whether I want to do so, when, and in what way. It’s tempting to believe that being honest means challenging every little slight and disagreement, but that’s refusing to take responsibility for our reactions. More often than not, what happened was innocuous and doesn’t need me to challenge it at all. Maybe my friend spoke a little thoughtlessly. Maybe they were too caught up in their own situation to fully pay attention to mine. Maybe it was a simple misunderstanding or momentary lapse. In such situations, I can acknowledge that my upset reaction is valid without needing to do anything about it. I can take a deep breath, “drop the hot coal” (a lesson I learned from Fran) and move on.

A Red Line Is Still a Red Line

All that said, friendship means respecting boundaries. Sometimes, challenge is appropriate and necessary. I don’t do this very often, because it’s rare for my close friends to cross my red lines, but I have done so in the past and reserve the right to do so again. It’s important not to think of such challenges as a problem or a failure. Bumping each other’s boundaries — and even crossing them at times — is inevitable and healthy. It’s the only way you can discover where and what they are. It’s never fun to be told you got it wrong, but I want and need my friends to challenge me where my attitude or behaviour has crossed their red lines. If you take it in that way it can be a positive experience, for you personally and for your friendship. I’ve written in the past about a few occasions where I’ve got it wrong with friends including Fran and Aimee.

Our Friendship Is More Important to Me Than Our Disagreement

Every friendship — every relationship of any kind — has its ups and downs. Times where things are going brilliantly and times where either or both of you are struggling. Maybe you doubt whether the friendship is still working for you. Maybe you’ve moved on, or your friend has moved on without you. Maybe you’ve had a big argument or bust-up. I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with friendships adapting in response to change, or even coming to an end. Things happen. Life happens. But I also believe in the resilience of my friendships and their potential to weather difficulties and continue, stronger and more honest for having done so. My most valued friendships have survived break-ups and disagreements that appeared serious, even terminal, at the time. As Aimee said after one such moment in our friendship, “It wasn’t an argument, [really]. It was a misunderstanding. And I think it made us stronger.”

I want to be very clear that the “permission to get things wrong” I’m talking about does not include tolerating toxic or abusive behaviour, whether that’s psychological, physical, sexual, financial, or any other kind. If you are in that kind of situation or know someone who is, consider seeking professional help. The NHS provides information and support links for the UK. Wikipedia has an equivalent listing of global resources. If it is happening in your workplace, there should be a reporting process for bullying or harrassment.

Over to You

In this post I’ve talked about how being friends means granting each other permission to get it wrong sometimes. What do you feel about that? Do you agree? How do you approach disagreements and difficulties in your relationships? Do you find it easy to challenge other people’s behaviour or do you find yourself walking on eggshells, scared to bring issues into the open? How do you feel when friends challenge you on your behaviour? What are your personal red lines and boundaries? Fran and I would love to hear your thoughts, either in the comments below or via our contact page.


Photo by Guilherme Gomes Dos Santos at Unsplash.


Wednesday 12 June 2024

Navigating Mental Health Miles Apart: An Interview with the Co-Founder of Gum on My Shoe

Welcome to Gum on My Shoe, a platform dedicated to fostering understanding, support, and advocacy for mental health, particularly in relation to bipolar disorder. Today, we have the privilege of delving into the story behind this impactful blog and its companion book, High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder. Join us as we chat with Martin Baker, one of the blog’s co-founders, about the power of friendship, resilience, and breaking down barriers in mental health advocacy.

1. Can you share the inspiration behind starting Gum on My Shoe and writing High Tide, Low Tide?

The idea for our book High Tide, Low Tide came when I mentioned to Fran that I felt inspired to do something creative. I wasn’t thinking about mental health as such, more like maybe some short stories, or focusing on my photography. Fran had other ideas! “I know what you could do,” she said. “You could write a book about being friends with someone who lives with mental illness!” I realised straight away what a great idea it was, but it took a while to figure out the best way to approach it. Ultimately, it was a conversation Fran had a couple of months later with a mutual friend of ours, Laurel, which provided the insight I needed. It took us four years, from the original idea to publication, but we’re both proud of what we achieved.

Our blog, Gum on My Shoe, initially arose from wanting to develop a platform to showcase the book we were working on, and other content on the theme of mental health and mutually supportive friendships. In time, it took on a life of its own. We posted rather haphazardly in the beginning as and when we had something to share. After a while, we settled on publishing something new every week. That might seem a challenging schedule, but it works for us and we’ve only once missed a deadline!

2. How has the distance between you and Fran influenced your friendship and your collaborative efforts in mental health advocacy?

Great question! Fran lives on the east coast of the US. I live on the other side of the Atlantic, on the east coast of England. You might imagine that being three thousand miles and three hundred minutes (five timezones) apart would be a problem, but it’s not hard to stay connected if you want to be. We’re in touch every day, usually several times a day, on chat or video calls.

There are some negatives, of course. The most obvious is we can’t hang out in person. We’ve met once, in Southampton, when Fran called in there briefly en route to Germany for a three month trip around Europe with her parents. Those months were a massive challenge to Fran’s health, to our friendship, and to my ability to support her effectively, because technical issues meant we couldn’t keep in touch as much or as easily as we normally would. We share a lot of what we learned during those months in our book, which is filled with excerpts from our phone calls and chat conversations as we did our best to hold things together.

The five hour difference in timezones actually works well for us. This was especially true in the first months of our friendship. Fran was in an acute manic phase at that time. The time difference meant I could be available to chat or talk with her at times when it was inconvenient for her friends over in the US, such as through the night over there.

In other ways, the physical distance is irrelevant. I can chat and talk as easily with Fran on the other side of the world as I can with other friends much closer to home. Cloud apps such as Onedrive and Google Drive mean we can share documents and collaborate easily. That’s how we wrote and edited our book together. We’ve been interviewed about our book and other mental health work for podcasts and review articles. On one occasion, I attended a live forum in the US to discuss mental health and social media. The other panelists were there in person, while I was present via video call, on a big screen off to one side of the stage. To mark the launch of our book, Fran and I had an online party with friends and followers from all over the world. We also organised a live event at a music venue to raise funds for a local mental health non-profit. Again, I attended via a big screen placed next to Fran on the stage!

Ultimately, distance, whether measured in miles or minutes, needn’t prevent people connecting and supporting each other. It can even be beneficial. As we like to say, “no one is too far away to be cared for or to care.”

3. What has been the most rewarding aspect of running Gum on My Shoe for the past ten years?

As I mentioned, our initial aim with the blog was to provide a platform for us to share and publicise our book and our wider interests in the mental health arena. It remains focused on mental health and supportive friendships, drawing extensively on our experience as friends. It’s not about awards or recognition as such but I was very proud to be included in a 2020 article at Health Central that showcased seven people who have changed how we view bipolar disorder.

Initially my contributions were mainly written from the perspective of the “well one” — the supportive friend of Fran and others who live with mental health issues. That’s still very much our focus, but over the ten years we’ve been running the blog, other themes have developed. These include my own mental and physical health, friendship and relationships in general, and blogging itself. Writing for the blog each week has shifted from being something I do, to being an important part of who I am. Writing has always been important to me. I’ve kept a daily journal since I was fourteen, and at different periods in my life have written poetry, short stories, and creative non-fiction. I still write my journal each day, but my weekly blog posts give me an additional opportunity to explore ideas and topics that are important to me.

I must mention guest posts here. I love showcasing the work of other writers, whether that’s someone already established in their own right, or someone who’s maybe never shared their thoughts, ideas, and experience publically before. If you’re reading this and would like to contribute, check out the contact page of our blog. I’d love to hear from you!

Blogging also contributes a great deal to my friendships. Many of my posts are inspired by conversations I’ve had with friends, and they help me develop my ideas around whatever I’m currently working on. That’s especially true of one of my closest friends Aimee Wilson who has her own immensely successful blog, I’m NOT Disordered. The fact that we’re both so committed to blogging is something we both value immensely because not everyone understands how much goes on behind the scenes. There have been a few times when I’ve wondered why I continue to blog and considered either stopping or reducing the frequency of the posts we publish. Having Aimee there as a support and encouragement is a major reason that Gum on My Shoe is still up and running.

4. In your experience, what are some common misconceptions about bipolar disorder, and how does your blog work to dispel them?

A while ago I was stuck for something to blog about and asked Fran if she had any ideas. She replied, “Write about how you help me with my relationships. Bipolar is a relationship disease.” It reminded me of something I came across when we were researching our book. It was an account online of a man whose girlfriend had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She broke up with him because her therapist told her she could never have a deep relationship with anyone. She was twenty-eight years old.

That kind of misconception — especially from a professional who ought to know better — is so damaging. It’s one of the key messages we hope to share through our book and blog. Because while Fran has experienced difficulties with relationships in the past, and to some degree still does, many of these can be attributed to ignorance and stigma around what it means to live with mental health issues in general, and bipolar in particular. Mania can be particularly difficult, because its very intensity tends to push people away. We have a highly successful, close, long-term friendship, and we want people to know it’s possible for people living with mental health issues to have and maintain good relationships, and to have — and be — great friends.

It’s worth saying that it’s not all one way. I’ve learned as much about friendship and relationships from and with Fran as she has. In particular, I’ve learned not to slam the door shut on relationships if they appear to have run into difficulties, but hold open the possibility of them resuming in the future.

Another misconception is that a mental health diagnosis is a life-time sentence with no hope of change, recovery, or remission. There’s no cure for bipolar disorder, and it can be very difficult to manage. That’s true for the person living with bipolar and their friends and loved ones. But it’s categorically not true that a diagnosis condemns you to a life that is in any way hopeless, less than, or devoid of potential. Fran and I both hope that our book and blog contribute to countering those unhelpful stereotypes around bipolar disorder in particular, and mental illness in general.

5. Could you describe a particularly memorable moment or story that has come from your interactions with readers of Gum on My Shoe?

If it‘s okay, I’ll widen the question to include readers of our book and our followers on social media, because it’s not always clear how someone first came across us online. I’ve met a great many wonderful people through over the years, including several that have gone on to become good friends. It’s no exaggeration to say that all my closest friends over the past decade or so have happened through my friendship with Fran and our online presence, in one way or another. Several friends have written guest posts for our blog, and a few times I’ve written joint pieces with friends, which is especially meaningful. I’ve already mentioned my friend Aimee. We met through the former mental health anti-stigma campaign Time to Change rather than online, but I’d never have thought of volunteering with TTC if it wasn’t for my friendship with Fran and our other mental health work.

It’s not only friends, though. There have been many occasions when someone I don’t know has come across our blog or book and contacted me to share something they’re going through or to ask for advice. That kind of direct personal connection is the most rewarding aspect of what Fran and I do. It reminds me why I began on this journey, and why I continue to write and share as I do.

6. What advice would you give to someone who wants to support a friend or loved one living with bipolar disorder?

In our book, Fran and I are explicit about not providing specific advice that will be applicable to everyone in a similar situation. Fran actually describes High Tide, Low Tide as a kind of menu, like in a restaurant, where you might choose this idea, or that approach, whatever feels right to you. Being there for a friend or loved one who lives with a mental health condition doesn’t mean you have to be an expert in that condition, to have special skills, or always know the right thing to say. Educating yourself about their diagnosis and what it means for them to live with it is certainly valuable, and I recommend taking advantage of the many resources you can find online to do that. But the most important things aren’t actually related to mental health at all, they are true of any supportive friendship or relationship. My friendship with Fran works because we trust and respect each other, because we’re open and honest, and because we’re committed to keeping the channels of communication open between us, no matter what’s going on in our lives.

7. How do you balance the personal nature of your experiences with mental health with the need to maintain boundaries and privacy?

For me, the key thing is to sharing honestly but appropriately. Not everything is to be shared with everyone, and even close friends may not always be available or able to handle what we want to share. That’s where having a support network is so valuable, whether that’s friends, professionals, or a mix of both. Fran and I are each blessed in that regard. If one person isn’t around for any reason, there will be someone else who is.

When it comes to blogging and social media, I’m reminded of something our friend, bipolar expert and bestselling author Julie A Fast once said. That is, never share publically about mental illness or other personal issues while in the middle of that situation. I think it’s wise advice. I keep it in mind when inspired to write about my friendship with Fran, my personal situation, or that of other friends. Waiting until we’ve passed through whatever was going on provides valuable distance and perspective. On top of that, they are some topics I’d never discuss publically, for reasons of privacy.

8. What role do you think technology and online communities play in promoting mental health awareness and support?

This is something Fran and I talk about a lot in our book, because it’s central to our own long-distance, mutually supportive friendship. You asked earlier about how distance affects us. It’s certain that we couldn’t have grown and maintained our friendship without the technology that means we can stay in more or less constant touch. Over those years we’ve used just about every channel open to us, including e-mail, text (SMS), instant messaging (chat), social media, and voice and video calls. It’s equally true for my connection with other friends, whether they live on the other side of the world, as Fran does, or more locally. Being able to reach out to someone easily, no matter the time of day, provides that baseline of support that says, “If you need me, I’m here.”

Technology plays a wider role than that, though. I’ve mentioned the courses and other information available online on all kinds of mental health topics, including suicide awareness and prevention. Most of this information is available free or at very low cost. That includes blogs and podcasts such as Gum on My Shoe, and others by people I know and respect enormously, including my friend Aimee Wilson, Julie A Fast, and another friend of ours, Gabe Howard. You’re also never more than a few clicks away from the information, resources, and support offered by official organisations, crisis lines, and respected peer support communities.

That’s not to say there aren’t risks associated with social media and online communities. The dangers and pitfalls are real and need to be taken seriously. But on balance I feel technology is massively beneficial in enabling people to keep in touch with one another and access the information, help, and support they need, as and when they need it.

9. Have you faced any challenges or pushback in your advocacy work, and if so, how have you navigated them?

Another really good question! My first thought was, no, not really. Family, other friends, and colleagues have all been immensely supportive of my friendship with Fran, our book and blog, and everything else we do in the mental health space. My interest in mental health was very much encouraged where I work. For a time I was part of a small team working to improve mental health awareness throughout the organisation. I later joined the community of workplace Mental Health First Aiders.

All that said, there have been a few obstacles along the way. One time, a friend invited me to attend the local recovery college, where she was both a student and a tutor. I loved the supportive atmosphere and went along several times, attending very helpful classes on self-harm and WRAP (Wellness Recovery Action Plans). Later, however, I learned that some of the other students didn’t understand why I was there when I didn’t have a mental health diagnosis and had no experience of being a service user. It’s was a totally valid concern on their part. The recovery college is run for, and by, people with that kind of experience, and I ought to have realised that or at least checked that it was okay for me to be there. It nevertheless hit me hard at the time. It took a while to get past those feelings of not being “mental enough” to be helpful or effective in the mental health arena. It’s all part of the learning process, though, and I’m grateful for the lesson. It’s something I’d definitely take into consideration in future.

10. Looking ahead, what are your hopes and aspirations for the future of Gum on My Shoe and the broader conversation around mental health?

Fran and I fully intend to continue with our blog on its current weekly publishing schedule. We’ve held true to our original themes of mental health and supportive friendships, inspired by and based on our respective roles as “well one” (me) and “ill one” (Fran). Those are as important to us today as they were when we started out, not least because we feel the role of supportive friends isn’t something that’s discussed widely. That’s really why we wrote our book High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder.

As I mentioned earlier, we’ve broadened the scope of our blog quite a bit over the years. We’ve been keen to invite guest bloggers on a wide range of topics, and that’s something I’m eager to continue, perhaps with one or two regular guest contributors. I’ve also written more about my own health and mental health, rather than focusing solely on my role as a supportive friend to Fran and others. I’ve explored my experience of anxiety, imposter syndrome, my lack of a sense of belonging, and alexithymia. I’ve also written about aspects of my physical health, men’s health and mental health in general. These are all things I’m keen to develop further, as is the role of philosophy in helping us deal with whatever’s going on in our lives. Albert Camus’ ideas of absurdism have been very helpful to me personally.

I’m also interested in exploring ageing, death and bereavement, and personal legacy. Those topics might sound somewhat morbid but they are things that affect us all. I’m also keen to learn more about psychosis. I have no personal experience of it, but it’s something that affects several of my friends and I’d like to understand how I might support them better. I’m thinking about revamping the blog’s look and feel, so that’s something our readers can look forward to. Finally — you didn’t ask but I thought you might so I came prepared with an answer — Fran and I don’t have any plans for another book. Then again, never say never!


Thank you, Martin, for sharing your insights and experiences with us today. Your dedication to fostering understanding, empathy, and support in the realm of mental health advocacy is inspiring. We wish you and Fran continued success with your book and blog and look forward to seeing the positive impact of your work in the years to come.

You can find Martin and Fran’s blog at Their book High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder is available on Amazon (print and Kindle) and in print via all good booksellers.



This interview was generated by the artificial intelligence app ChatGPT in response to the following prompt.

With my best friend Fran who lives with bipolar disorder, I run a blog called “Gum on My Shoe” which is focused on mental health and mutually supportive friendships. We started the blog ten years ago, and also published a book in 2016 called “High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder” based on our experience as friends. Fran lives in the US. I live 3000 miles away in the UK. We met online in 2011. Write a ten question interview that I can answer, as though you are interested in these topics. Give the interview a title and include short opening and closing paragraphs.

I edited the opening and closing paragraphs a little for clarity and added book contact details. The questions are unedited. I hope it's obvious that the answers are all mine.

— Marty


Photo by Michal Czyz at Unsplash.


Wednesday 5 June 2024

All the Things I Need to Hear You Say: An Exercise in Letting Go

What you want to hear from others is what you need to tell yourself.

— Pia Savannah

This post was inspired by a recent conversation with Fran. She told me about some issues she was having with a friend. She kept running things over in her mind and was finding it hard to find resolution or let things go. We’re similar in that way. We both need time to process things internally, especially if it involves connections with friends and loved ones. Fran said she was thinking of writing a letter to her friend; not to send, but to get things out of her head and onto paper. It reminded me of a situation I’d been in, years ago. I was having some difficulties at the time with a friend. The friendship was fundamentally sound, but I was frustrated about what was going on between us. Like Fran was doing, I found myself churning the same thoughts and feelings over and over without getting any clarity or being able to move past it.

I don’t remember all the details, but I do recall, precisely, what I did and how much it helped me. I was out walking near my home, frustrations running though my head as they had been doing for some time. I found myself thinking about Nonviolent Communication (NVC) and how almost all our issues and difficulties can be traced to our unmet needs. What needs of mine were not being met in this friendship at that time? What would it take to meet those needs? NVC is based on a few key principles. First, we are motivated by our feelings and needs. Second, it’s not the responsibility of other people to meet our needs. And third, our needs can be met in different ways. The last one is especially relevant because we tend to assume that this person or that, this relationship or that, “should” be meeting our needs. (I put should in quotes because it’s a very judgment-loaded word. You can read more about my aversion to the word here.)

I realised that two key needs that were unmet in this friendship were my need for attention and my need for recognition. It wasn’t that I felt unappreciated. I knew I was. Nevertheless, these needs were going unmet because my friend wouldn’t or couldn’t acknowledge me in the way I needed them to. It wasn’t their fault. It wasn’t really about them at all. It was about me and, in particular, my expectations of what our friendship should be delivering.

In that moment, I knew what to do. I turned my phone’s voice recorder on and, as I continued walking, I recorded the words I needed to hear my friend say to me. It took five minutes, maybe ten. I played the recording back several times over the next few days. I may have copied the words into my journal, I can’t remember now. But I do remember that the exercise helped me. That might seem odd. How could telling myself the words I wanted to hear from my friend make a difference? It helped because although my friend would never have used those exact words, I don’t believe they would have disowned or contradicted them. I wasn’t making it up or fantasising. I was expressing what was there, in the terms I needed to hear. And this went further than just this one moment with this one friend. These were words I needed to hear, period. It didn’t matter who spoke them. Pia Savannah expressed it perfectly in the title of an article subtitled How to unlink your confidence from external validation. What you want to hear from others is what you need to tell yourself.

Getting back to my conversation with Fran, I described my “words I needed to hear from you” experience. She loved the idea, although she said she’d prefer to write it out as a letter to herself from her friend, rather than record it as I had. I suggested there are three letters she might write, representing different aspects of her relationship with her friend.

What I would like to say to my friend.

What I would like to hear from my friend.

What I think my friend would say to me.

Whether we write these letters or not, thinking about things in this way can help filter the turmoil of ideas, issues, and frustrations. Which of them are things we want to say to the other person but haven’t been able to? What needs of ours are going unmet in this relationship? How important is it that this person meets those needs? How might we have our needs met in other ways? What are my friend’s needs? Am I meeting those needs for them?

What about actually talking to the person, you might be thinking. Surely it would be better to tell them what you’re feeling, frustrations and unmet needs and all? How else is anything going to change if you don’t tell them? Don’t you and Fran talk about how important it is to be honest and open with each other? It’s true that NVC focuses on talking things over with the other person. The standard NVC conversation goes something like: “When you do or say [that], I feel [this], because my need for [such and such] isn’t being met.” This approach is legitimate where our boundaries aren’t being respected, or the other person is behaving — deliberately or otherwise — in ways that are hurtful or toxic. Telling them how you feel, and why, can be important for you, the other person, and the connection you share. I’m grateful to Fran and to other friends who’ve called me out when my behaviour has been disrespectful, unhelpful, or just plain inappropriate.

That’s not always what’s happening, though. Are they actually disrespecting us? Could it be that they’re doing their best, whilst also getting on with their own lives? It’s unhelpful — and unkind — to insist on our needs being met by someone when they’re too proccupied, exhausted, or poorly to take our issues on board. As my friend said to me on more than one occasion, “It’s not my job to make you feel good about yourself.” My frustration didn’t really have anything to do with them at all. I was projecting my expectations onto them, allowing myself to feel disregarded as a result when they didn’t provide what I wanted in the way I wanted it. It was a valuable experience in acceptance and letting go. I didn’t need my friend to say the words I needed to hear. Saying them to myself was enough. If anything, it was more valuable, because it allowed me to recognise my own worth, my own value. That was what I really needed.

Examining our expectations and needs, and looking for other ways to meet those needs, can go a long way to relieving the frustrations that can arise in any relationship. It allows us to celebrate the people in our lives and our connections with them for what they are, rather than stressing because they’re not something else.


Photo by Anastasiya Badun on Unsplash.