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 www.gumonmyshoe.com. 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.

 

Disclaimer

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.