Wednesday 31 January 2024

Listen Very Carefully (But I'll Say It More than Once)

Falling this year on February 1, Time to Talk Day is dedicated to countering the stigma surrounding mental health. Last year, I discussed some of the reasons we might not want to talk about how we’re feeling. This time, I want to explore something that’s rarely discussed in the context of conversations about mental health: repetition. UK readers of a certain age may recall a catchphrase from the sitcom ’Allo ’Allo!, which ran from 1982 to 1992: “Listen very carefully. I shall say this only once.” Sometimes, though, our message isn’t fully received at the first attempt. Being prepared to say things more than once can make all the difference.

These thoughts were inspired by a recent video call with my friend and fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson, who blogs at I’m NOT Disordered. We were talking about her experiences with the crisis team, specifically the initial conversation with the person who answers the phone. At times, these conversations have not gone well and we discussed how this might put people off seeking help. We talked about the training call handlers and crisis line staff receive and how important it is that they don’t exacerbate the distress someone’s in when they’ve mustered the courage to reach out. Aimee has generally had very good support from the nurses and other staff once they call her back. I suggested that if she needs their services again, she tells herself she just needs to get through the five minutes it will take for that initial conversation with the call handler, because once her details are logged and someone phones back, she’s very likely to get the care and support she needs. Aimee seemed to agree, and we continued talking about other things.

As we neared the end of our call, I wanted to remind Aimee about my suggestion, but I didn’t want to annoy her by implying she’d not been paying attention. I said something to that effect, and Aimee replied it was fine, go ahead. I repeated my idea and was glad I did. Although she’d heard me the first time, Aimee had thought I was talking generally and hadn’t realised how useful it could be to her personally. Thinking about our conversation afterwards, I realised there’s a more general point to be made about communicating effectively.

When you think about it, it’s amazing we manage to communicate anything to anyone, when all we have are the sounds we utter or the marks we make on paper or screen. Not only that, but each of us has our own set of values, hang-ups, and experiences. We’re scarcely aware of these in ourselves, let alone the people we’re talking to. We nevertheless assume our message has been received accurately by the person we’re communicating with, and that we’ve understood what they meant. In practice, there may be many reasons why this doesn’t happen.

We or the other person might have difficulty hearing, either because of a hearing impairment, or background noise. We might not be equally familiar with the language we’re using. There could be social or cultural differences, or problems understanding each other’s accent or dialect. We may be distracted by other things that are happening in our lives, or by what’s going on around us at the time. A funny example of distraction happened on a later video call with Aimee. At one point she didn’t seen to be paying attention to what I was saying. It turned out her adorable cat Ruby was just off camera, trying to steal food from Aimee’s bowl! We might find it hard to focus due to tiredness, pain, or issues such as depression, dissociation, or brain fog. We may process words and ideas differently. We might simply lose track of what’s being said, get bored, or find ourselves daydreaming. Text-based conversations such as online chat, text (SMS) messages, or emails have their own issues. For example, can be difficult to convey the feelings behind our words when all we have is text on a screen. For all these reasons and more, what we want to say may not make the journey unchanged, or at all.

It’s equally useful to confirm we’ve understood the other person correctly, especially if what they’re sharing is outside our personal experience. Not getting the message first time isn’t a problem, but continuing in error might be. Checking in allows you both to explore any areas of misunderstanding. Something as simple as “Can I just check I understand what you mean?” or “What I’m hearing is ...” allows you to confirm you’re on the same page.

A degree of common sense is important. It would be tedious to repeat everything that’s said just to be certain nothing was missed or misinterpreted. Nor does anyone like to feel they might not be paying attention or are unable to follow along. We can reasonably assume that most of what we say is being received more or less as we intended. But where there’s a hint of doubt or where the message is especially important, take a moment to clarify. Proceeding on the basis of a misunderstanding can cause more trouble further down the line.

Another aspect of repetition is highlighted by the “Ask Twice” campaign. As Molly Tanners reports in this blog post for the charity Step One, “Research released by Time to Change reveals that, when asked, over three quarters (78%) of us would tell friends and family we are ‘fine’ even if struggling with a mental health problem.” Asking again, and not just taking that “fine” at face value shows we’re genuinely interested. It also gives the other person permission to be more honest about what’s going on for them, if they wish to be. I know this from personal experience, as someone who’s much more likely to reply “fine” or “not too bad” first time round. I’m reminded of a brilliant stand-up routine by comedian and actor Bill Bailey, in which he relates the particularly British relationship to happiness.

Our happiness is based on this premise. Things could have been a lot worse. That’s as good as it gets in Britain. That’s why the standard greeting in Britain is:

“How are you?”

“Not too bad.”

That’s as good as it gets in old Blighty. Not too bad. Things are clearly bad, but not quite as bad as we thought they were going to be. We’ve dialled down our expectation to an acceptable level of disappointment.

My outlook isn’t quite that bleak, but I am mistrustful of happiness. Okay. Fine. Not too bad. That’s what you’ll probably get from me if you ask how I am. Ask again, though, and I might open up a little more.

In this post I’ve discussed some of the reasons we might not always get what someone’ saying first time around. Keeping this in mind allows us to be more patient if we don’t understand straightaway, or if our message doesn’t seem to be getting across. Taking a moment to check in can go a long way towards resolving any doubt or misunderstanding. Remember also not to take someone’s words at face value if there might be more going on beneath the surface. Sensitively repeating what we’ve said, or asking again, can make all the difference.


Photo by Sandy Millar at Unsplash.


Wednesday 24 January 2024

Lessons of the Night

By Fran Houston

Sometimes I wake up. Sometimes not. I hold onto the bed for dear life. I am familiar with the night and its darkness. As a child I lived in the basement of our house as a mole does in his tunnel and could navigate through the narrow path of jagged, stacked boxes to the bathroom in the dark. The lights didn’t work.

Wrapped in my blanket of night, I am safe and warm. In the night are dreams. Dreams of all the things that can’t be done in my body because of its restrictions of fatigue and pain. I indulge my soul’s longing to fly.

The day hurts my eyes with its stinging brightness. Music hurts my ears with its loudness and overstimulation. I like the quiet of night.

I have chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, and bipolar disorder. They operate as independent sine waves. At any time, I can be exhausted and manic, energized and depressed. Every combination imaginable. The cycles can last for days or months or even years. It’s an odd assortment.

I had a mate. I had a family. I had a home. I had a career. I had a dog. I lost them all.

I made $14,000 in the last week I worked in the real world as an electrical engineer. Now I barely make that in a year. Fifteen years ago, I paid tens of thousands of dollars to get my health back, conventionally and alternatively. It took ten years to get an accurate diagnosis. Treating bipolar with antidepressants makes it much worse. So not fun to have cfs and fibro creep in alongside.

I finally went to the backwoods of Maine for a year and lived in a camp on 189 acres with no running water and no electricity — an attempt to find my baseline, fight my demons and find the night, or die. No TV, no radio, no books, no writing, no nothing. Just me and myself, grapes and garlic. I danced naked in the woods in the pouring rain. I shoveled snow thirty feet out to the outhouse to go to the bathroom. I made snow angels under the full moon. I watched frost form on the windows. I gazed for hours at the cherry wallpaper. I slept twenty hours a day. I dropped each thought as though dropping a hot coal. I’d think the same thought again; drop the thought again, over and over. I would not get up until I felt the internal impulse to do so. I fasted. I had a sauna each week — the only excursion besides getting water from a spring. And successfully navigated men who were intrigued and unsavory. I reached the edge of madness. I waited for the Jesus experience. There is no god; there is just life that flows. There is no hope. That was the beginning. Stop the search. For god. For healing. Just stop. The maple tree doesn’t want to be an oak. They are what they are.

I moved to an island off the coast of Maine in September 2003. My dad died that Halloween night — the night when the veil between the world of the real and the unreal is thinnest. There was an aurora borealis that evening. Beauty without effort.

I lost my mind. Consumed with thoughts of jumping off the boat, a frustrated friend asked, “Why don’t you?” I panicked.

I found the psychiatrist I still see now. He doesn’t see anyone anymore, but the deal was that I agreed to be in a fishbowl where he trained six to eight other psychiatrists for twelve sessions, and then I would have him for life. He is very conservative with meds, which I am very grateful for, although at times it’s enraged me. I think that psychiatrists nowadays are too pill pushy. Meds take a long time before you can see any results. One has to courageously wade through a myriad of side effects. He also is very relationship-oriented, which few are. He is respectful of me as a human being not just as a patient. Also, making an eye-to-eye commitment to him to stay alive has been a critical component of the process.

I began intensive group therapies. I got pissed off a lot. It was a full time job. I was exhausted. I was depressed. Having to do all this work. Needing to do all this work. No hope of getting better. Homework. It was worse than Engineering school. Cognitive Behavior Therapy made sense though. Event. Feelings. Thoughts behind feelings. Change the thoughts. Huh. Seeing others who’d been stuck in their ruts changing. Me changing. Huh. Not so depressed. My mind actually thinking thoughts other than depressed ones. How refreshing.

Chronic fatigue syndrome can mean days or months bedridden. Or can be as simple as feeling like there are cotton balls behind my eyes and mud running in my veins. Pain is always present. I take Advil when it is too much, or something else. I see an osteopath, acupuncturist, and chiropractor regularly. Once when I was at dinner with a friend I fell asleep. They ushered me out of there swiftly. I’ve been propped up in lazy boys in the corner with a blanket at parties just to be able to attend. Then again friends have broken up with me because of my proclivity to say no, or act strange. As a fellow cfs-er puts it, “I feel minimally crappy today.”

Bipolar I is like mowing the lawn in the winter naked. I have bipolar II. An example of my mania is when I was out in front of my home on the phone talking wicked fast with a depressive friend, and I was frantically picking the heads off dandelions while every square inch of countertop in my home was littered with furiously ink-covered yellow stickies full of ideas and things to do and be and dreams. I am like a pit bull with a bone. Another example is when I found out about the United Nations International Day of Persons with Disabilities on December 3. I found out that VSA (Very Special Arts) out of Washington had a video that would be shown in seventeen countries internationally. My mania launched me into a full-blown attempt to notify media and government outlets seeking coverage for this event. I sent cryptic, confusing e-mails and was very agitated. I wasn’t very successful, and thought that those who I contacted thought I was a nutcase. I felt like a mouse when a cat is playing with it and then the mouse just lies there stunned.

Depression was my best friend, the one I was most comfortable with. It’s been a lifelong companion. A favorite blankie. The one I return to for wisdom. Deep and dark. I remember the pain of trying to wash a fork amongst all the dirty dishes in my sink, wrapping myself in a blanket, wearing clothes that hadn’t been washed in a month, then opening a can of tuna and sitting on the cold floor to eat it. I told a depressed, suicidal friend once that it took more courage to make a cup of tea than to kill yourself. I still do have a stash of pills because I do feel that people should have that right, especially when you are old and everyone else is making decisions for you.

The problem/blessing with my illnesses is that they are unseen by the naked eye. “But you look fine,” is the response, as if arguing with me would help. I was going to write my behind-the-scenes story in the Island Times. I talked with a friend about it — a friend who I had “iguana-sat” for during a time of deep depression, where basically the “iguana” saved my life because I had to feed it every day and felt responsible for it, and was therefore not free to commit suicide. The friend was scared of being exposed on the island and advised me to not tell my story publicly. I didn’t. That is the kind of stigma that exists with disability.

I got to go to Hawaii because of a cat. They have quarantine rules and a friend moved there, and was delayed in bringing her cat and asked if I could escort him and stay for six weeks. I didn’t blink twice before saying yes. It was beyond my wildest expectations. Some friends gave me mad money and the deal was that I couldn’t do anything responsible with it, so when I was in Kauai I went for a helicopter ride, in the front seat, right next to the pilot, and you could look straight down. I wanted him to teach me to fly. I was so jazzed. Oh, the cliffs, the valleys, the ocean, the waterfalls, the rainbows. It was magnificent. It was absolutely the most amazing experience in my life. Even better than in my dreams.

The librarian on the island asked me to sit with an elder. So I started sitting with older islanders, and it was wonderful. They told me stories. I lived on the front of the island by the ferry boat slip, a great view. I bought a camera and took pictures of the sunsets.

I was frustrated. I wanted to somehow capture the elders’ stories and share them. I went to an exhibit of black and white photographs and storyboards. My heart lit up with a flame so intense. I had never experienced that before. I knew what to do. I spoke with our little art gallery on the island about doing an exhibit. I spoke with the Island Times about doing a column to advertise for the exhibit. At the June exhibit everyone asked, “Where’s the book?” So that began another journey. Mind you, I could only work a maximum of three hours a day. And I would have bouts of depression throughout. And bouts of freaked-out-ed-ness. I leaned on my friends and the community to help me. I busily interviewed and photographed islanders for another two years. Another gallery on the mainland offered to host the book launch/exhibit. In June of 2010 the book launched. By August it sold out. It’s now in its second printing. I never started out thinking I would write a book. If someone had told me that, I never would’ve started. I would have been too scared. Even as I write this today on Christmas Eve 2010, I have friends who are coming to help me clean my little 18 x 18 home next week because I cannot manage it on my own.

This project was such a community effort. This island has given me so much. When I first got here I was amazed at its kindness towards me. I was broken and it loved me. So I wanted to give back by doing this project. I was surprised to find that again I was the receiver. As I sat and listened to the stories of my “lovies” as I called them, they taught me. Some of them have limited lives, pain, memory loss, reliance on others for care. I learned how to live my life fuller. I learned grace, courage, and how to have a twinkle in my eye. My chronic fatigue syndrome and depression limit me, but I can choose to live as fully as I want within those windows and be thankful. One thing we all do is get old. We can be wise to learn how to live our lives now.

“What’s your next project?” I hated that question more than anything. I hadn’t been able to do anything for ten years and could hardly stand up, let alone conceive of doing anything else for the rest of my life. Nobody really knew what toll this had taken on me, but I present well. My pat answer became, “I’m going to take a lot of naps,” which I did until I went into a major depression for the beautiful month of August. I don’t have seasonal affective disorder. I can be perfectly miserable in gorgeous weather and happy as a clam in the bitter cold or damp fog or pouring rain. That’s clinical depression.

“How are you?” Another hated and seemingly innocuous question. The simple answer is F–I–N–E. F**ked up, insecure, neurotic, emotional. Most friends really don’t want the long answer. This way I can simply smile and be honest gracefully.

I still have chronic fatigue syndrome. I still have fibromyalgia. I still have bipolar. I manage them. They don’t manage me. They are a part of the package instead of who I am. I’ve learned to live alongside them, as esteemed companions, my teachers. Step by step, thought by thought, moment by moment. A little flame, follow it. Lessons of the night. I have this very simple view of life now. The good and bad come and go. Don’t hold onto anything. I love the moment. Every bit of it. That’s all I have. Heart wide open. It doesn’t matter if someone kicks you; just point yourself in the direction you want to go. As far as god, I don’t know. How can there not be?

The edges of the night are the best. Sunset, when the light slips below the horizon. That one moment taking the light over the rim of the earth, and rest comes. After which, the colors swell and dreams begin.

Fran Houston
Peaks Island, Maine
December 2010



This was the first piece I ever wrote, and chronicles some of my journey of illness and how my creative endeavor helped me emerge from the hole, to know and experience a bigger life of possibility and change. Months after it was written I experienced my most delirious mania, followed by the most hellacious depression ever. Thankfully I had a hand to hold.


Photo by Tyler Clemmensen at Unsplash.


Wednesday 17 January 2024

The Last of the Irish Rover: A Tribute to Shane MacGowan

Sad to say I must be on my way
So buy me beer and whiskey ’cause I’m going far away (far away)
I’d like to think of me returning when I can
To the greatest little boozer and to Sally MacLennane

— Shane MacGowan, “Sally MacLennane”

This is written as a tribute to British-born Irish singer-songwriter and musician Shane MacGowan who died November 30, 2023 at the age of 65. I have no privileged knowledge or insight into the man’s life or work, indeed I knew little about him until recently. I want to focus on the impact Shane MacGowan has had on my life. His death has given me a great deal to think about in a number of areas, including political history, national identity, resilience, mental health, and addiction. If you’re interested in more, I’ve included a list of resources at the end of this article.

Fairytale of New York

I must declare up front that I was never into punk rock, though it broke onto the music scene in the mid-70s when I was in my teens. To the extent that I considered punk at all, I found it brash and uncouth. My tastes at the time stretched to Irish singer and songwriter Dana, Neil Sedaka, and The Wombles. My musical credentials established, I’ll begin with the one song everyone knows, whether they’re a fan of MacGowan and The Pogues or not: “Fairytale of New York.” There are so many great recordings but the one I love best is this live performance from 1998 with The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl. As many will know, Kirsty MacColl died under tragic circumstances in December 2000. Watching them perform together is all the more poignant since MacGowan’s death.

In the past few years the song took on some specific and personal resonances. I went so far as to learn the lyrics, should I ever be called upon to perform it in karaoke. (I wasn’t.) Singing those lines to myself until they became part of me taught me the raw brilliance of MacGowan’s writing.

It was Christmas Eve babe
In the drunk tank
An old man said to me, won’t see another one
And then he sang a song
The Rare Old Mountain Dew
I turned my face away
And dreamed about you

— Jem Finer and Shane MacGowan, “Fairytale of New York”

Writing in The Independent in 2017, Roisin O’Connor called it “a drunken hymn for people with broken dreams and abandoned hopes.” I feel that captures the song’s spirit perfectly, and reflects its significance for me personally. Singing it loudly — if not quite drunkenly — on the streets of Newcastle is a memory I treasure. O’Connor’s article was republished in December 2013 following MacGowan’s death. One of the most moving versions of “Fairytale” is this performance by Glen Hansard and Lisa O’Neil at Shane MacGowan’s funeral in St Mary of the Rosary Church in the small town of Nenagh in Co Tipperary, Ireland.

I’m rarely affected by the death of artists, actors, and celebrities. I don’t know why it was different this time, but the outpouring of love, loss, and appreciation at MacGowan’s passing caught me off guard. This man was clearly so much more than the co-writer and performer of the best Christmas song ever. I wanted to know more about him, and why his passing affected me so much.

Last year marked three decades of continuous service at my place of work. It was something of a wake-up call, leading me to consider the inevitability of my eventual demise. I’ve never given much thought to my death and funeral. I won’t be there, so why bother? I’ve come to realise that’s unfair to those I’ll leave behind, and have committed to addressing the basics at least. For certain, the event won’t be televised globally, as Shane MacGowan’s was. There’ll be no live band, dancing, or singing. No eulogies or readings by the likes of Nick Cave and Johnny Depp. No presidential attendees. My name and memory won’t be toasted in pubs and bars around the world. But what kind of legacy would I like? What do I deserve? As I wrote when considering my thirty years service, “these are questions for another day, but at least — at last — I’m asking them.” Unlikely as it might seem, Shane MacGowan is helping me ask them.

My first response to his death was to seek out other songs performed by The Pogues. (Fun fact: the band was originally called Pogue Mahone, an anglicisation of the Irish for kiss my arse.) I’ve linked a number of my favourites at the end of this piece, but I want to mention three in particular: “The Irish Rover,” “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda,” and “Sally MacLennane.”

The Irish Rover

I was blown away by the energy of “The Irish Rover,” as performed by The Pogues with Irish folk band The Dubliners. Credited to composer J.M. Crofts, the song tells the fantastic tale of The Irish Rover on her voyage from Ireland to America. The ship herself is magnificently if improbably equipped. It boasts thirty-seven masts and a cargo that includes “one million bags of the best Sligo rags, two million barrels of stone, three million sides of old blind horses hides, and four million barrels of bones.” Surviving calamities which at one point reduce the crew to two (“myself and the captain’s old dog”) the ship eventually founders, leaving the narrator as truly the last of The Irish Rover. The very different styles of the bands’ lead singers — Ronnie Drew for the Dubliners and MacGowan for the Pogues — complement each other perfectly. It’s a near flawless performance which deserves to be wider known.

It awakens in me a yearning only truly great folk music can inspire. Part of me wishes I could claim Irish, Welsh, or Scottish descent, because those nations seem to have more or less clearly defined national identities and sense of collective pride. That may be naive but it’s how it appears to me from outside. I’m British / English but I’ve never known that kind of rootedness. I’ve written of this before, in such posts as Like a Rootless Tree (Where Are Your Roots?), and Belonging (Longing to Be). Born in England to Irish parents, MacGowan was proud of his Irish republican ancestry. Former Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams delivered a reading at his funeral, which was also attended by Irish president Michael D. Higgins. His life and music have inspired me to become better informed about world history, especially the World Wars, the Middle-East, and the long and bloody history of Anglo-Irish politics.

And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda

Written in 1972 by Scottish-born Australian singer-songwriter Eric Bogle, “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” tells the tale of a young Australian soldier who is maimed in the Gallipoli campaign in World War I. It carries huge significance for the ANZAC veteran community, and is a powerful expression of the futility of war.

And as our ship pulled into Circular Quay
I looked at the place where my legs used to be
And thank Christ there was nobody waiting for me
To grieve and to mourn and to pity

There are many recordings of the song, including this one by Bogle himself, but for me this live version by The Pogues captures the pain and pointlessness of the conflict better than any. It inspired me to learn more about the courage of those who fell in the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign.

Sally MacLennane

It’s impossible to talk about MacGowan without addressing his long-term addiction to drugs and alcohol. Both are well documented. In an obituary piece in The New York Times Matt Phillips described MacGowan as “a titanically destructive personality and a master songsmith whose lyrics painted vivid portraits of the underbelly of Irish immigrant life.”

His wife, Victoria Clarke once stated that “his whole career has revolved around [drinking] and, indeed, been both enhanced and simultaneously inhibited by it.” There’s no denying the devastating effect addiction had on his life. It led to him being dismissed from The Pogues in 1991 due to the impact of drugs and alcohol on the band’s live performances. He was arrested in 1999 in London after being reported to the emergency services by Irish singer, songwriter, and activist Sinéad O’Connor. He later credited her intervention as helping him ultimately to beat his drug addiction. He was sober from around 2016 following treatment for a fall which fractured his pelvis. In 2004, Shane MacGowan told The Guardian that he’d been given six weeks to live, “about 25 years ago.” He outlived the prediction by more than forty years.

Alcohol and drink culture run through much of The Pogues’ repertoire. Another of my favourite songs, “Sally MacLennane,” was allegedly inspired by drinking sessions MacGowan had with friends in London before boarding the boat train home to Ireland. The title refers to a dry Irish stout brewed by Redlight Redlight Beer Parlour & Brewery. My favourite version is this live performance from 1985.

We walked him to the station in the rain
We kissed him as we put him on the train
And we sang him a song of times long gone
Though we knew that we’d be seeing him again

Sad to say I must be on my way
So buy me beer and whiskey ’cause I’m going far away (far away)
I’d like to think of me returning when I can
To the greatest little boozer and to Sally MacLennane

The lyrics evoke the kind of drunken camaraderie I’ve scarcely experienced. (One session at the end of my final year at university is a possible exception.) I’ve never smoked, nor taken recreational drugs of any kind. That’s not to claim any moral superiority or willpower on my part. No one in my family smoked or drank more than occasionally. None of my school or university friends smoked. At university, I drank beer at the pub and white wine at parties. I occasionally got drunk but never considered it something to be proud of. I’ve been offered drugs once in my life, by a stranger within minutes of arriving with a friend at the Glastonbury Festival site in 1983. It was probably marijuana but neither of us were tempted or interested enough to ask. We declined, politely.

In more recent years, I’ve known a few people who smoke. Fran has occasionally self-medicated with alcohol and cigarettes. Our book recalls is a chat conversation from 2013, while Fran was on a very stressful three month road trip in Europe.

Martin: Tell me three things you want to accomplish today.

Fran: Charge my phone, smoke, breakfast, rest.. I will quit smoking on the boat home.. For now it helps take the edge off my stress..

Martin: The cigarettes are self-medication for stress? Like drink is for mania and depression?

Fran: Yeah.. I’m using them now to make it through hell..

Fran stopped smoking on her return home and reduced her drinking to social levels. She’s recently given up alcohol altogether. I consider myself fortunate never to have taken up smoking or drugs, or drinking excessively. I’m aware enough to recognise I might easily have become dependent if I’d been exposed to them. Fran was able to stop smoking and drinking without too much trouble but I’ve known other friends for whom smoking and other addictions have been far harder to address. I applaud and support anyone battling addiction and other compulsive behaviours, however they manifest.

I’m reminded of other artists I admire whose lives have been affected by addiction. The first to come to mind is Amy Winehouse, who died of alcohol poisoning in 2011. Performing as RØRY, Roxanne Emery is another. I wrote of my love of her music last year in a post which also discussed German band AnnenMayKantereit. In an interview for Underground Emery said, “I got sober in 2018, and then a load of therapy in 2020 when I realised being sober was HARD. I processed a lot of trauma, from the death of my mother at 22, to the dysfunctional dynamics and addictions in my family.”

Shane MacGowan, the Absurd Man

I recently explored my response to the philosophy of Albert Camus. Specifically, his approach to the existential absurdity of seeking meaning and purpose in a universe that offers neither. For me, MacGowan exemplifies Camus’ Absurd Man better than anyone I can think of. This may seem presumptuous, if not ridiculous, but it’s not the first time parallels have been drawn between punk and existentialism. In Existentialism as Punk Philosophy Stuart Hanscomb identifies a common spirit of rebellion. “Punk is music that is anti-music,” he declares. “Existentialism is a philosophy that is anti-philosophy.”

Rebellion is a central theme in Camus’ work. In The Myth of Sisyphus he asserts “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” It’s hard not to think of MacGowan when you read those words. The following is from a tribute piece in The Guardian by Sean O’Hagan titled “Chaos? This is natural living!” The genius of Shane MacGowan.

More than anyone else I have ever met, he lived entirely in the moment, the eternal present as he understood it, inextricably linked to an altered state of consciousness: alcoholic, chemical or hallucinogenic.

O’Hagan recalls a conversation with MacGowan which is especially pertinent to Camus.

“I believe in the dignity of the human soul,” [Shane] once told me, when asked about his spirituality. “People who can put up with incredible hardship and still not be depressed, still enjoy themselves.”

This is the essence of the Absurd Man. Condemned by the gods to forever push a boulder to the top of a mountain, only for it to roll down again, Sisyphus finds a way to escape the futility and hopelessness of his situation. Camus writes:

Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

We must likewise imagine Shane MacGowan happy. Certainly he drank deeply of life. I’m reminded of the poem “And Thus in Nineveh” by Ezra Pound.

“It is not, Raana, that my song rings highest
Or more sweet in tone than any, but that I
Am here a Poet, that doth drink of life
As lesser men drink wine.”

I’ve no idea if MacGowan knew of Pound’s work, but it’s an epitaph of which he might have approved. There’s a wonderful YouTube video on Camus titled Absurdism. How to Party at the End of Meaning. Its irreverent and engaging narration ends as follows:

Absurdism isn’t an answer to the mysteries of life, why bad things happen, where the universe came from or how to survive this shit. It’s just asking the question, oh god what if we never achieve final explanations, what if we never see the big picture, what if we go our whole lives without ever having known what it was all about, and replying to oneself — oh look, it’s a puffin! It’s a nice puffin. It’s a nice day. Oh, we’re alive. That’s unprecedentedly weird and cool, whether it’s fully explained or not. Let’s go for a beer.

In this piece I’ve explored aspects of Shane MacGowan’s life and work as they resonate for me. I hope I’ve brought an awareness of his genius — and flaws — to others who, like me until very recently, knew him only as the front man in a punk band who sang that song about Christmas. I hope I’ve shown there was much much more to the man, his music, and his life. At the end of that life, he was and remains loved and feted by millions. Absurd or not, that’s a life well-lived.

I’ll close with a quotation from author Neil Gaiman’s charge to artists everywhere (which is to say, all of us) in his commencement address at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts.

Now go and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here.

Shane MacGowan more than met that charge. The onus is on us to do the same.


Further Reading and Listening

The following links are provided for anyone wanting to further explore the life and works of Shane McGowan.


A Drink with Shane MacGowan by Shane MacGowan and Victoria Mary Clarke

A Furious Devotion: The Life of Shane MacGowan by Richard Balls


Shane MacGowan (Wikipedia)

Victoria Mary Clarke on her husband Shane MacGowan

“Chaos? This is natural living!” The genius of Shane MacGowan

Fairytale of New York

Fairytale of New York (Wikipedia)

Fairytale of New York lyrics

Fairytale of New York Official video

Fairytale of New York with Kirsty MacColl 1998

Fairytale of New York The Pogues and Ella Finer

Fairytale of New York played at Shane MacGowan’s funeral (Glen Hansard and Lisa O’Neill)

Other Songs and Performances

Spancil Hill (Shane MacGowan and Christy Moore)

The Rare Old Mountain Dew (The Dubliners and The Pogues)

The Irish Rover (The Dubliners and The Pogues) The Late Show 1987

Sally MacLennane (album version)

Sally MacLennane (Live)

And the Band Played Walzing Matilda (Live)

And the Band Played Walzing Matilda (Eric Bogle)

A Rainy Night in Soho (Live)

A Pair of Brown Eyes (Live)


Photo 185240628 | Shane MacGowan in concert. Milan, Italy. June 2009. © Fabio Diena |


Wednesday 10 January 2024

I Wish Our Friendship Could Keep You Safe But I Know it Can't. And That's Okay.

TW: Mention of suicide

I weep because you cannot save people. You can only love them. You can’t transform them, you can only console them. (Anaïs Nin)

This piece has its origin in two sobering thoughts that came to me recently.

Being the best person and friend I can be is not enough to keep my loved ones safe.

One day my friend might not be here anymore.

These aren’t new thoughts. One way or another, I’ve lived with them since Fran and I met twelve years ago. They’re not specific to me and Fran, though. As I wrote last year in Breaking the Silence several people I know live with thoughts of suicide and self-harm, or are in situations that mean they’re sometimes at risk. There will be people in your life too — your friends, family, neighbours, and colleagues — for whom such things are part of their lived experience. It’s not a comfortable realisation, but it’s the simple truth. I know it’s true for my friends because it’s not a taboo subject for us and comes up in conversation whenever it needs to. In that article, written for World Suicide Prevention Day, I discussed how open and honest communication can be protective, even preventative. Putting it bluntly, talking and listening can save lives. It’s far from being a guarantee of safety, though. I learned this early in my friendship with Fran. In our book I describe writing to a mutual friend how I was online for hours with Fran one night.

When I called, her first words were that she wanted to die. I know they are not just words; I understand to some degree how real and ever-present a choice it is for her. She should terrify me. I wonder how it can be that she does not. She says it is because I trust her. I guess that is true.

I continued:

It is not that I trust Fran never to try to harm herself, or imagine our friendship guarantees her safety. [...] But I trust her not to hide her suicidal feelings from me, and to be honest with me about them. Ultimately, I trust Fran to allow me to help her stay alive.

Those words, and the situation which inspired them, date from 2011. A great deal has changed in the intervening years and Fran’s mental health is a good deal more stable than it was. There are no guarantees, however, and that message of trust is as relevant today as it was then. It’s captured in a mantra of ours I find especially helpful: Don’t worry about me. Care for me. Those seven words underpin our friendship, but they apply no less to other friends and loved ones. The mantra grounds me and reminds me of the boundaries and relative responsibilities that are essential in any healthy relationship, whether mental illness is present or not.

I know the uncertainty of not being sure what happened or what might happen next. Someone I knew well died young. They’d spoken of suicide previously but I didn’t ask anyone afterwards and never will now. Knowing wouldn’t change how I think and feel about my friend. If they had a part in deciding how and when they died, I don’t judge them for that and respect them no less. Not knowing allows me to say that with confidence, and to say to others as I have to Fran, if you ever chose to leave, I would not hate you.

This isn’t about dealing with loss, however. It’s about knowing that our friends and loved ones may be at risk sometimes, recognising our friendship and support can help but will never guarantee their safety, and still wanting to be there for and with them. There have been times I’ve woken to a new day unsure whether someone I love is still in the world. It’s not a good feeling but it’s never — never — made me doubt my commitment to our friendship.

I’m far from unique in this, of course. I have many conversations with people concerned for friends and loved ones who may be at risk in various ways. I have three people in mind as I write this. They know that heart-gripping uncertainty. Is my friend okay? What can I do? What about next time? As I have, they’ve learned it’s okay to be unsure, to be scared even. I remember what I said to Fran one time, when she was coming down from mania and anticipated a desperate period of depression. “I can’t promise I won’t get scared. But I am not afraid.” I’m not going anywhere.

How can I remain calm and balanced in the middle of this kind of uncertainty? Everyone is unique and every situation is different but here are a few things which help me.

Care don’t worry. I mentioned this earlier but it’s the single most important thing I’ve learned about being there when my friends are in crisis or at risk. It’s impossible to never worry, and there certainly have been times I’ve tripped into worrying about Fran or other friends. The message remains: worry energy is toxic to you, to your friend or loved one, and to whatever situation they’re in. As Fran puts it, “worry is a negative energy. It hurts people.” For more on this, read Don’t Worry about Me. Care about Me.

Don’t judge your friend for what’s happening or has happened. That applies whether it’s the first time they’ve found themself in this situation, or the second, or the twenty-second. It applies whether you believe they had agency to act otherwise, or not. I’ve written about this previously in Here We Are Again. Whatever happened, no matter how dangerous it might be or have been, you’re not in your friend’s situation and have no business judging them for their actions, inactions, or decisions. Not judging doesn’t mean you don’t have your own opinion or suggestions, but it does mean paying attention and not overriding your friend’s reality with yours just because you think you know better.

Be curious. Ask questions when your friend is in a place to answer (or not answer; both are valid responses). Suggest new approaches or options if your friend is open to hearing them, because an outside perspective can be valuable, but don’t assume you know what’s best or that you’re able to fix things. Take the time to educate yourself about your friend’s mental health condition or situation. You’ll learn more about your friend, what they may be going through, and what you can do to support them. But accept there are limits to what you can understand, and the help you’re able to provide.

Pay attention to boundaries.You’re responsible for your side of the relationship, which includes helping your friend or loved one stay as safe as possible. You’re not responsible for your friend’s safety. Be clear about what you are able to offer, and if that changes, make sure your friend is aware of the change. Don’t say “call me any time day or night” unless you mean it. On the other hand, offer what you’re able to. You might be the only person who does.

Don’t resent it if your friend doesn’t reach out to you when they’re in crisis. There may be any number of reasons. Perhaps you’re not who they need in that moment. Maybe they feel embarrassed or unsure how you’ll respond. Allow them space to call on the support they need when they need it, whether that’s professional support and care, family, or other friends. Know they’ll reach out to you when they’re able to. An approach I’ve found helpful is supportive disengagement, which can be summarised as being there for your friend when they need space.

Know what to do in an emergency. It’s important to know what to do if your friend is in crisis or at immediate risk. I’ve written about this in various posts including How Are You, Really? Eight Things I’ve Learned About Suicidality and Self-Harm. Our resources page has links to international suicide crisis lines, support organisations, training resources, and books. UK mental health charity Mind offers a range of help and information if you need support or are concerned for someone else.

Look out for yourself. Being there for friends and loved ones is a great thing, but it’s not always easy and it’s important that you don’t lose sight of your needs while caring for other people’s. Check out Because You’re Worth it for a selection of self-care ideas.

Finally and above all, trust that you and your friend are doing your very best to keep them, you, and your connection strong, safe, and healthy. I’m conformed by the fact that friends and loved ones trust me with their dark and difficult times, as well as their good times. They’re here for me as truly as I am here for them. There may be no guarantees, but we’re committed to remaining present in each other’s lives. And maybe that, ultimately, is what safety is all about.


Photo by Vitolda Klein at Unsplash.