Wednesday, 21 July 2021

Dear Marty: An Open Letter to Myself

Dear Marty,

We’ve known each other for a long time but I don’t think I’ve ever written you a letter before. I’ve thought of it a few times, even started once or twice. Maybe I won’t finish this letter either, or will decide not to send it after all. It’s scary to get real with someone you’ve known a long time but have never really been open with. But you know that, I think. It seems to me we would both benefit from some honest connection. So here goes.

I see what you post on social media but sometimes I wonder what’s really going on for you. From what you’ve shared recently it seems you’ve been going through a lot and I just wanted to reach out and ask if you’re ok. You seem to be there for other people a lot. I hope you have people who are there for you too. I’m pretty sure you do, to be honest, but hey if you ever need a new shoulder or someone to hold space for you, I’m here. I don’t find it that easy to open up, even with people I trust. But I think we would do ok.

I was talking with a mutual friend of ours the other day and she said something that made a lot of sense to me and I wanted to share it with you. It’s pretty much what prompted me to write to you, actually. She said, “A lot of Marty’s sense of self and wellbeing relies on contact with others. This can be both a good and a bad thing depending on when and what and how balanced it is.”

I wonder what you think about that. It would be good to have that conversation sometime. Does your mood depend on how your relationships are doing? if so, I get it. I’m like that. The people I’m close to are so important to me that if something goes wrong or seems to be going wrong it affects me a lot. Too much, maybe. How much is too much, though? Maybe I’d like to not react quite so much or recover my stability a bit quicker, but I wouldn’t want to be so distanced from my friends that I didn’t feel it if something changes. I can sense you nodding as you read this!

Is that what’s been going on for you lately? Some shift or change in one of your key relationships? If so, I’m not going to say don’t feel it, or try and push the feelings away. Like I say, I get it. But if I may offer a few words of support or guidance from my own experience, I’d say don’t overthink things. There’s that line from your book. The one you wrote with Fran. How does it go? “Feel it. Claim it. Love it. Let it go.” I’ve found that helpful so many times, especially when I’m feeling overwhelmed. I don’t have to explain it to you — you wrote it! But maybe you don’t need my suggestions. Feel free to tell me where to get off! I don’t mean to be pushy.

From your social media posts and what our friend said the other day, I think you’re doing the right things and paying attention to self-care. You seem to be taking yourself out for “Marty time” now that the covid restrictions are lifting. I love your coffee shop photos! They remind me of the Marty I used to know. Maybe we could hook up in person sometime? I’ll leave it to you to suggest where and when. One of your favourite coffee shops maybe? Or Stack? That looks like a great place. Is it still open after covid?

Are you reaching out to the people who care about you, though? I think you find it easier to be there for others than ask for help. I’m that way too. Is it a guy thing, do you think? There are people who love you and are here for you. Dare to reach out, Marty. There will be a hand there to take yours. Someone to listen. To help, if you need that. I’m here.

I don’t get to read everything you publish but I’ve noticed a shift in the pieces you’ve posted on your blog over the past month or two. You seem to be sharing more openly about your mental health and how you struggle too sometimes. Would you agree? I wonder if it’s a deliberate shift, or just how things have evolved naturally with your writing? However it’s happened, I think it’s important and healthy, for you personally and for your audience.

The book you wrote with Fran is about how you’re the “well one” in your friendship, with her as the “ill one.” But those terms are relative, aren’t they? “Well ones” like us struggle too. And sometimes the line between the “well ones” and the “ill ones” becomes blurred, to say the least. I’m not sure you realise how important what you’re sharing is. That “Boys Get Sad Too” piece felt like a turning point for you. Would you agree? I recognised myself in what you wrote there, for sure. It was a bit of a wake up call, to be honest.

So another reason for writing to you today is to say thank you for all you do. Maybe you do realise how much your writing affects people and the impact you’re making. I hope so. You might never end up on Oprah (I remember you telling me years ago how it was an ambition for you and Fran to appear on her show!) but you don’t have to be on national TV to make a difference.

You matter, Marty. Do you doubt that sometimes? I know I do, in my own life. It’s easy to get into a rut, and see other people going about their lives, especially those we care about, and wonder if we’re as important to them as they are to us. I think it’s natural to feel that way. Okay, I’m not qualified to say it’s natural (sometimes I wonder how different my life would have been if I’d studied psychology or counseling instead of pharmacy!) but I get that way sometimes and I know others do too. Sometimes things just get a bit too much, don’t they, and we doubt our worth and the value we are adding in the world.

There’s a line somewhere, between feeling overwhelmed, or down, or “flat” as you put it, and being clinically anxious or depressed. (I’m certainly not qualified to draw that line.) Your posts remind me to stay vigilant about how I’m doing and pay attention to any signs I’m not ok. That in itself is huge, Marty. To remind other people it matters how they’re doing, and to reach out when they need to.

That’s my tuppence-worth, anyway! (Two cents’ worth, for Fran and our American friends!)

I wonder if we could meet up face-to-face sometime. I’m free most Saturdays, or we could meet one evening after work. Whatever works best for you. Is that something you’d like to do? It’s been tough this past year or so, not being able to meet up with friends, but I see you’ve seen a few folk recently since things have been opening up. I loved the pics you shared from when you and Aimee got together for your little picnic in her garden. (Say hi to Aimee from me, please.) And your other friend who came to see you. Louise, is it?

Do you ever meet up with your male friends? Do you have guy friends? Like you, almost all my close friends are women. It’s always been that way. But lately I’ve had some great conversations with guys too, mostly at work. I’m not sure what’s changed, if anything has. Maybe I’m feeling more open to people generally. Maybe I’m exploring what it means to be me, which includes being a dude!

You wrote a while back about how you never felt you belonged. That’s very much how I feel about being a guy. Like you, I never felt I fit in with the “guy club.” I never understood the rules What I was supposed to do, or like, or not like. I never felt that pressure when hanging out with women. I’m more able to be myself. Maybe it’s like that for you? It would be good to talk about that. If you want to, of course. Too much? Am I scaring you off? I know I can be a bit much. It’s something I’ve tried to change over the years but I still get it wrong.

Heavens! I didn’t expect to write so much! When I’ve tried writing to you in the past I scarcely got past the first page, but for some reason the words are flowing today. I’m a bit scared to read it over, in case I change my mind and trash it for being too long or too pushy or just generally too much. Because it feels right to connect with you at this time, Marty. And maybe it will feel right to you too, when you read it. Sometimes you have to go with your gut, right? Take a risk. Seize the moment. That’s something I’ve learned from you and Fran.

I’m proud of you, Marty. Have I ever told you that? Maybe at specific moments in your life, when you’ve achieved something you were aiming for. It’s important to acknowledge those things, but life isn’t just about completing a checklist of achievements. I’m proud of you as a person. I’m proud to know you and count you my friend. Because you’re worth knowing. You give a lot to the people in your life, and although you’ll say you get it wrong (who doesn’t?!) you get it right too. More than most. As another mutual friend of ours told me, “Marty’s good at supporting without being a prat.” I laughed when she said that. I think you will too. You have a good sense of humour, no matter what some people might say to the contrary!

I think that’s a good place to stop. I’m glad I decided to write to you, and I hope you’re glad I did! Let me know if you fancy a face to face sometime, either a video call or in person — preferably the latter, I’m keen to try that salted caramel chocolate cheesecake you keep raving on about!

Keep on being you.

Martin

 

Photo by Owen Michael Grech on Unsplash

 

Wednesday, 14 July 2021

Millions Like Me: A Conversation with John Medl

Writer, poet, and mental health advocate John Medl hails from Ohio, USA. I chatted with him recently to discuss his life and work.

MB: Hello John, could you tell us a little about yourself?

JM: I’m an author and mental health advocate from Cincinnati, Ohio USA. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder with psychotic features in 2006, and I have general anxiety and panic attacks. I will be forty years old in October.

MB: When did you start writing?

JM: I’ve been writing since high school, but my first book wasn’t published until 2014. That first book was out of desperation. I didn’t know if I was going to survive. I wanted to tell my story in case anything happened to me.

MB: That’s a powerful motivation. How many books have you written?

JM: Five altogether. The first was Millions Like Me: My Struggle with Mental Illness, followed by Poems From a Bipolar Mind, The Last Day of July: 13 Years of Madness, The Entropy of Bipolar Disorder, and Mental Illness Is An Actual Illness. They are all available on Amazon in paperback, for Kindle, and as audiobooks.

MB: I listened to the audiobook previews and I have to say I was really impressed. How did they come about?

JM: Reading is difficult for me, and I jumped on the chance to produce audiobooks.

MB: You used the same reader for each book, I think?

JM: Yes, because she was so good. I didn’t know how a female voice would work, but I like it.

MB: Me too. I wonder if I could ask about your poetry. In our book, High Tide, Low Tide, we describe how Fran was inspired to write poetry for the very first time during a period of mania, shortly after we met in 2011. She wrote incessantly for months but her poetry stopped when she fell into depression. When she finally emerged she began writing again but the new poems were very different from her mania ones. Would you say the style of your poetry is influenced by the different phases of bipolar disorder and your mental health in general?

JM: Most of my poetry was written during mania when I felt more energetic and creative. However, some poems were written while I was more sedated. The poems were written both before and after I was diagnosed and medicated.

MB: Where can people hear more about your story?

JM: I’ve recorded podcast interviews on The Mark Howard Show, Screaming Chuy Show, and Tindel’s Razor talking about my books and my life.

MB: Fran and I have recorded a few podcasts and always enjoyed doing them. How did yours come about?

JM: Mark Howard saw that I was giving away free books in a writers’ group, and asked me to do a podcast interview with him. The other two podcast interviews were referrals from friends or colleagues.

MB: Are you on social media, if people would like to connect with you?

JM: I am on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. I also run a Facebook page called Mental Health Awareness and Support.

MB: Thanks. I will include links for all these and your books of course. What are your plans for the future? Do you have any more books in the pipeline?

JM: I finished my fifth book a few months ago, so I’m enjoying a little free time now. It was a goal of mine to convert my books into audiobooks too, and I’ve accomplished that. I’ve started painting and cooking as hobbies because I was too involved with my advocacy work. I was getting burned out. To answer your question, I’m in a little bit of a limbo right now, but I don’t plan on writing any more books.

MB: If there was one thing you’d like to share with others about what it means to live with mental illness, what would it be?

JM: So much to say! It took me five books to say everything I wanted to. Having mental illness is difficult and a lot of work, but happiness and contentment are possible. There are going to be people who don’t believe you, or even believe in mental illness. People are going to judge you for taking medication. I think the most important thing is honesty. Be honest with health professionals and yourself. Sometimes, it takes a few attempts to get the correct medications. There’s no magic pill either. Mental illness can feel a lot like work sometimes. My doctor told me once that he was there to help me, not hurt me, and that comforted me.

MB: Thank you so much, John. It’s been great to chat with you. Good luck with all you do.

Book Excerpts

Excerpt from Millions Like Me: My Struggle with Mental Illness:

There are many purposes to this book. One is to educate and inform the reader of the disorders I have (and millions of others that are affected). Another is to help motivate and inspire those with mental illness. Lastly, I want the reader to try and see what mental illness looks like from someone who suffers from it. There are many people with no experience in these matters, and it is hard to convince some that mental illness is even an illness at all. Some people think you can will your way out of it either through diet and exercise, or positive thinking, prayer, or whatever “cure” they think there is. Some people believe mental illness affects the weak-minded. Mental illness affects people at all levels of intelligence.

There are those that I could educate until I am blue in the face, but they will not be convinced otherwise. A friend described it as there being two types of people: the receptive and the non-receptive. As someone with mental illness, it’s important to know the difference and focus on the ones who will be receptive. They could be receptive to a variety of things; my symptoms and feelings for example. Just like any belief really. Like politics or religion. I think this will end up being therapeutic for me also. I use humor a lot, even though this book isn’t supposed to be humorous exactly.

Excerpt from Poems From a Bipolar Mind:

There Is Hope

I lose my mind from time to time But I always seem to find it I sometimes get excited about the future But my past looms right behind it.

Pain that pity and recovery can’t resolve An assortment of memories involved And plans that never blossomed.

But if anyone thinks for one second I will give up my hopes and dreams Just to spite the daily screams. There’s just some things I can’t repress I try to give my all and nothing less.

When I started to come out of “the fog” of the sedatives, I was feeling hopeful because my life was starting to come back together again. I want everyone to know that there is life beyond mental illness, and that “there is hope”.

Books

John Medl’s books are available on Amazon in print, for Kindle, and as audiobooks.

Millions Like Me: My Struggle with Mental Illness (2014)

Amazon link

This is my life story. This is what mental illness looks like. This is how it breathes. A real-life account of a man that is going through mental illness from the state of Ohio.

Poems From a Bipolar Mind (2017)

Amazon link

This book is a follow-up to “Millions Like Me: My Struggle with Mental Illness”. It is a collection of poems from someone who suffers from mental illness.

The Last Day of July: 13 Years of Madness (2019)

Amazon link

This is a journal detailing what it’s like to live with mental illness. Everyone is different, but this is how I experience mental illness every day.

The Entropy of Bipolar Disorder (2020)

Amazon link

This book is a collection of journal entries and social media posts related to mental illness in general and bipolar disorder specifically.

Mental Illness Is An Actual Illness (2021)

Amazon link

This book gives more insight into the total package that mental illness brings, from physical to mental ailments. It’s a collection of thoughts and philosophy from someone who suffers from mental illness.

Podcast Interviews

The Mark Howard Show (55 mins)

Screaming Chuy Show (52 mins)

Tindel’s Razor (53 mins)

Social Media

You can find John Medl on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. His Facebook page is Mental Health Awareness and Support.

Photo credit: Barbara McGraw.

 

Wednesday, 7 July 2021

On the Same Page: Thoughts Inspired While Journaling with a Friend

Cause lately I don’t even know what page you’re on.

(Taylor Swift. “The Story of Us.”)

I spent a few hours last weekend with my friend and fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson. We had a good catch-up (hard to shut either of us up when we get talking!), watched a movie, and ordered takeout. Best of all, we journaled: Aimee in her scrapbook and me in my beloved Passport Traveler’s Notebook.

We’re close friends but we have very different life experiences and approach things from different perspectives. Difference can be divisive. People can become so estranged they’re not only not on the same page, they’re scarcely in the same library! But as we chatted away and decorated our journals it came to me that difference isn’t something to be feared, skirted around, or avoided. Difference can be positive, complementary, and creative.

My notebook pages are far smaller than those in Aimee’s scrapbook, giving me much less real estate in which to work. She sources images and quotations from magazines, which I rarely do. I use ink stamps a good deal. Aimee doesn’t. We also have different aims in terms of what we want to capture and express in our work. On the other hand, we have a lot in common. We each love incorporating photos, stickers, and washi tape into our designs, and share a delight in the creative process itself. Working alongside Aimee as we shared ideas and traded stickers and decorative items felt warm and companionable. We were very much on the same page, even as we worked on our different pages!

Our approaches to blogging are similarly different but complementary. On a few occasions, we’ve attended an event together and each blogged about it afterwards. Our approaches reflect what the occasion represented and evoked for each of us. As an example, here’s my article about a Cats Protection fundraiser we attended, and here’s Aimee’s post inspired by the same event. Neither approach is right or wrong. We told our individual and complementary stories. We were on the same page, even if our blog pages are different.

This came to mind on a call I had with Fran the day after visiting with Aimee. I can’t always relate directly to what Fran she’s going through, especially where it closely involves some aspect of her mental health or lived experience. But on this occasion, I felt very much on the same page as Fran shared what was going on for her at the time. Although different in details, I had equivalent experiences on which to draw and could offer insights and wisdom relevant to her situation. This isn’t exactly a new thing for us. Our books are full of “on the same page” moments. But when it happens it’s no less special for being familiar. There’s a sense of commonality, of closeness, of belonging in the moment, that I find deeply rewarding.

On the same page is a great place to be — as long as you don’t get stuck there. That’s something I’ve learned from keeping a daily diary since I was fourteen years old. Pages are made to be turned. The new spreads I created in my notebook at Aimee’s invite me to record new memories in the days and weeks to come. In time the insert itself will be filled, archived, and replaced. This post, inspired by our time together and the conversation with Fran, will scroll further down our blog’s homepage as each new article is published. Even the books we’ve published invite the possibility of further books to follow, each full of pages! We intend to publish a new volume of No One Is Too Far Away in due course.

Being on the same page is great and feels wonderful. But even better is being in the same story.

 

Wednesday, 30 June 2021

Twelve Songs That Remind Me What Caring Is All About

I was listening to some of my favourite tracks on YouTube and Spotify a few weeks ago and realised many capture aspects of what caring means to me. Here’s a selection in no particular order, each with a note explaining why it resonates for me. Maybe they’ll resonate for you, too. Links are to my favourite versions of the songs on YouTube.

I’d like to acknowledge my friend and fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson of I’m NOT Disordered who encouraged me to explore what the songs mean to me, rather than simply sharing the lyrics as I’d originally intended. It added hugely to the effort involved in putting this post together — but she was right! I learned a good deal about these songs, their artists and backstories, and the article is far stronger as a result. Thank you, Aimee!


1. You Will Find Me

You leave me room for my imperfections
I’m a mess and you jump right in
If I drift in the wrong direction
You turn the tide and you calm the wind
Anytime, every time I get lost
You will find me

Alex and Sierra — You Will Find Me

This is a recent addition to my playlists. I’m not sure how I came across it, and know nothing of the artists beyond the fact that they won the third season of The X Factor US. I like the song because it stresses allowing people to be themselves, with all their (our) “imperfections” and “mess,” rather than trying to fix or change them.

The line “any time, every time I get lost you will find me” echoes something a friend once told me: “It doesn’t matter how dark it is, Marty. You’ll always find me.”

There’s another line that means a lot: “It could be a late night call — you take it all.” It’s a basic tenet of my friendship with Fran that I’m there for her any time day or night, but that goes for other friends too. I have other things going on in my life and can’t always take a call at a moment’s notice, but I do my best to be available for my friends when they need me/


2. If You Need Me

When you’re happy and when you’re scared,
I can still be your shoulder,
I’ll be by your side even if I’m not next to you.

Julia Michaels — If You Need Me

This song reminds me that being there for someone isn’t just about supporting them through the bad times. Aimee once told me it means a lot that I want to spend time with her when she’s well, as well as when she’s struggling. It recalls something I said to Fran a long time ago: “No matter what is going on, whether you’re having a good day or a bad day, whether I’m having a good day or a bad day, I never don’t want to be here.”

The line “I’ll be by your side even if I’m not next to you” is relevant to all my caring friendships, especially with Fran who lives 3000 miles away on the other side of the Atlantic. Technology means there’s little excuse or reason to not be present. As we like to say, no one is too far away to be cared for or to care.


3. I Won’t

I won’t let you down, my friend
I won’t let you fight alone
I won’t leave you in the cold on your own
I won’t let you down, my friend

Calm down, come and sit with me now
Pour out whatever is weighing you down
I’m here to hold you up again
Calm down, calm down

Richard Walters — I Won’t

This is another recent find. I recognise the commitment to stand with your friend, to be there and not abandon them, no matter what happens. The “calm down” line sits uneasily with me — I hope I’d never say that to someone anxious or struggling, because it’s unhelpful and condescending. Apart from that, the lyrics capture the essentials of a caring and attentive friendship.


4. How to Save a Life

Where did I go wrong? I lost a friend
Somewhere along in the bitterness
And I would have stayed up with you all night
Had I known how to save a life

The Fray — How to Save a Life

This song means a great deal to me. I remember it playing when I was out with a friend in the early days of our friendship. We both knew the words by heart and sang along together. The lyrics express the rawness of being there for someone who is really struggling — and the fear you might not be there or know what to do when it matters most.

The song was inspired by a meeting singer Isaac Slade had with a teenager struggling with drug addiction. In an interview, Slade explained: “Here I was, a protected suburbanite, and he was just seventeen and had all these problems. And no one could write a manual on how to save him.” I’m reminded of something Fran wrote years ago about wellness and recovery:

It’s as if your body/mind is a spaceship and you are creating the owner’s manual. You are the only one who gets to make those choices. You can then share this manual with others who can support you in your process.

We wrote High Tide Low Tide to help others write and share their manuals. There is no more important work. As Fran again writes, unconsciously evoking this song, “Stick around. It may not be easy but you can help someone make a life worth living. Maybe even save a life.”


5. Take Me Home

Came to you with a broken faith
Gave me more than a hand to hold
Caught before I hit the ground
Tell me I’m safe, you’ve got me now

Jess Glynne — Take Me Home

Jess Glynne wrote Take Me Home about a time when she was at a very low point. She’s written, “I was reminded of who I was as a person by someone who cared so much and wouldn’t let me break.” The song “is about being grateful and taking advice from the people who care, and who are there for you when you are in need.”

For me, it’s a raw and very real account of someone reaching out for help, and finding someone willing and able to offer the help they need. The challenge is not to be taken lightly: “Could you take care of a broken soul?”

Supporting a friend is most often about helping them help themselves, or sitting with them until they’re ready to take the next step. But sometimes, we’re called on to prevent further harm, and reassure our loved ones they’ll be okay. The line “[you] caught [me] before I hit the ground, tell me I’m safe, you’ve got me now” captures this perfectly.


6. I Will Be Your Friend

I know that lately
Things haven’t been so good
I always said
If I could ever help you, I would

Sade — I Will Be Your Friend

This has been a favourite of mine for many years. It’s perhaps the first “how to be there for a friend” song I came across. There’s a simple warmth and honesty in the lyrics — and in the singer’s performance — that feels like being hugged; like being held close against whatever it is that’s hurting. Sometimes, that’s what we need.


7. Monsters

I see your monsters
I see your pain
Tell me your problems
I’ll chase them away

I’ll be your lighthouse
I’ll make it okay
When I see your monsters
I’ll stand there so brave
And chase them all away

Katie Sky — Monsters

With its talk about chasing monsters, this song might come across as light and unrealistic, but it rings very true to me beneath the surface. Sometimes, we’re aware of our friends’ pain and want to help, but we know we can’t fix things from the outside. All we can do is let them know we’re here. The line “I’ll be your lighthouse” reminds me of a quotation by Anne Lamott:

Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.

Another important aspect of supportive friendships is expressed in the line “I will be here like you were for me.” The healthiest relationships are founded on mutual support, encouragement, and care.


8. Fight For It

Don’t tell me that you’re gonna run away from it now
You’re gonna stand here and fight for it
Don’t tell me that you can’t
And that you’re gonna back down
You’re gonna stand here and fight for it

Lucy Spraggan — Fight For It

I’m no advocate of “tough love” but occasionally something more than gentle encouragement is needed. Fran and I write about this in our book:

Challenge arises naturally between us, as it does in any relationship based on honesty. If something does not feel right, we let the other person know, even if they might initially be hurt or distressed to hear it. This degree of emotional maturity is very important.

Lucy Spraggan’s Fight for It expresses this perfectly. She challenges her friend to stand and fight for herself, when it would be easier to run away and hide. Most importantly, she lets her friend know she will be there too, fighting alongside her. That commitment to stay in the ring and not turn away when help is needed most, is the raw, dirty, bloody truth of what it means to be there for another human being. There have been times in the past when I’ve failed to be there for people who had a right to expect better of me. This song reminds me why I vowed to do better and be better from now on. As Lucy Spraggan sings, “I’m gonna stand here and fight with you.”


9. Sober

Momma, I’m so sorry, I’m not sober anymore
And daddy, please, forgive me for the drinks spilled on the floor
To the ones who never left me, we’ve been down this road before
I’m so sorry, I’m not sober anymore

Demi Lovato — Sober

Most of the songs I’ve included express things I’ve learned first-hand about caring for others, but this one is different. I have no personal experience of alcohol or drug addiction, nor of supporting someone through these conditions. Like Suzanne Vega’s Luka, Love The Way You Lie by Eminem, and Pink’s Perfect, this song drags me outside my comfort zone. It provides a small insight into the life of someone who fears being judged and abandoned for what they perceive as failure and weakness. I’m grateful for that insight. A month after the song’s release in June 2018, Demi Lovato was hospitalized due to an overdose.


10. Keep Holding On

You’re not alone, together we stand
I’ll be by your side, you know, I’ll take your hand
When it gets cold and it feels like the end
There’s no place to go, you know, I won’t give in

Keep holding on
‘Cause you know we’ll make it through
We’ll make it through
Just stay strong

Avril Lavigne — Keep Holding On

I don’t know if there’s a backstory, but this song was used as the musical theme for the 2006 film Eragon. (The video I linked includes clips from the movie Bridge To Terabithia). I’m a big fan of Avril Lavigne which is reason enough for me to include it, but in addition, the song captures the essence of a close, caring relationship. Throughout the lyrics, the use of “we” resonates strongly. That’s what caring means to me: a mutual connection and commitment.


11. Avant Gardener

The paramedic thinks I’m clever cos I play guitar
I think she’s clever cos she stops people dying

Gordi — Avant Gardener (song by Courtney Barnett)

This song is based on a true event. Its writer Courtney Barnett decided to do some gardening one day but started having trouble breathing and ended up in hospital. The lyrics shine a light on what it might mean to live with a chronic physical health condition, but it’s the simple, almost naive, exchange between singer and paramedic that stands out for me. It’s easy to applaud those in the caring and health care professions, but this past year has taught us just how vital — and undervalued — those roles are. The song reminds me we owe a great deal to those who, literally, stop people dying.


12. Don’t Give Up

Don’t give up ’cause you have friends
Don’t give up you’re not the only one
Don’t give up no reason to be ashamed
Don’t give up you still have us
Don’t give up now we’re proud of who you are

Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush — Don’t Give Up

Written by Peter Gabriel, Don’t Give Up was inspired by the Depression-era photography of Dorothea Lane. The lyrics describe the despair of someone brought to the edge by circumstances outside his control, and the response of someone who cares for him deeply but perhaps doesn’t know how best to help.

Some of the “Don’t give up” lines work better for me than others. It’s not always enough — or helpful — to be told you have friends, that you’re not alone, that there are people who care and would be devastated to lose you. But one line gets me every time: “Don’t give up now, we’re proud of who you are.” No matter what has happened or what we are going through, simply making it from one day to the next is courage, and courage deserves to be acknowledged. It is the antidote to the stigma that labels mental illness, despair, and suicide as weakness and failure.


In this article I’ve shared some of the songs and lyrics that remind me what caring is all about. What artists, songs, quotations, or writers inspire you? Fran and I would love to hear from you!

 

Photo by Genessa Panainte on Unsplash

 

Wednesday, 23 June 2021

Why Little Things Are Big Things When It Comes to Our Relationships

But you keep my old scarf from that very first week. Cos it reminds you of innocence and it smells like me.

(Elisabeth Wagner Rose / Taylor Alison Swift. “All Too Well.”)

I recently met up with a friend I’d not seen in person since last August. As we rediscovered how to do face-to-face after so long relying on chat, voice, and video calls, I was reminded how important the little things can be. Our choice of coffee shop and table, the small gifts, familiar actions, and the recalling of past times we’ve spent together, all reassured us our friendship’s still going strong.

And that’s what this post is about. The little acts, customs, and traditions we cherish in our friendships and relationships. They’re not memories as such, but they provide the framework upon which our memories are strung, like beads on a friendship bracelet or fairy lights on a tree. As my friend reminded me, “It’s the little things that count the most.”

The best and most potent of these are personal. Not necessarily intimate, but particular to the friendship or relationship. They work precisely because they are repeated, or recalled repeatedly. The repetition reinforces the sense of belonging to the connection you share. The great thing is they can be almost anything as long as they’re meaningful to you. Here are a few of mine.

Many couples have an “our song” but there’s nothing to say friends can’t too. Fran and I have one, and several other friends and I have a song or two linked to specific moments and memories.

Fran and I had an “our tree” for many years until they cut it down a few months ago. It stood not far from where I live. Every time I left the house I’d send her a photo of our tree. It began as a simple way for me to show Fran what the weather was like here, but it became a part of our shared daily life. When the tree was felled, we both felt the loss intensely.

In-jokes are common amongst families, especially between siblings, but friends have them too. My friend Aimee and I share a few that would mean little to anyone else, but cement our friendship every time we recall them (which we do on a regular basis!)

There’s a social media meme that reads, “A morning text doesn’t only mean ‘good morning.’ It also means ‘I think about you when I wake up.’” Good morning messages reinforce the connection and remind you you’re still present in each other’s lives.

I chat online with friends every day, and each friendship has developed unique catch-phrases and ways of communicating. Most of my friends would recognise particular phrases and greetings that, whether they realise it or not, are unique to the two of us.

Watching shows and movies together is fun, but it’s all the more significant when they become the equivalent of an “our song.” Fran and I watched every episode of Gilmore Girls a few years ago, all of Downton Abbey, and recently finished the sixteen seasons of Grey’s Anatomy. These shows are part of our DNA now. Set in Alaska, the comedy-drama Northern Exposure is likewise part of the DNA I share with my friend Jen.

I mentioned gifts earlier. Whether it’s a favourite bar of chocolate, cat treats, the Anam Cara pendant I still wear around my neck, or the “3000 miles, 300 minutes, 3 years” key ring I had made to mark the third anniversary of my friendship with Fran, personal and commemorative gifts help cement our connections. My key chain only carries one key but there are lots of fobs — including a “Coffee Cures All of Our Ills” one from Aimee, who knows me well!

It’s worth saying that these little-big things don’t always last forever. Friendships and connections change, and what was deeply significant in the past may lose its relevance or become stale and redundant. Such changes serve as red flags, alerting you to potential changes in your relationship’s health and integrity. It can be hard to relinquish something that brought comfort and delight, but where the connection itself is sound, remind yourself that one little-big token can be exchanged for another.

Each little-big thing we share began somewhere. A few days ago I met my friend Louise in person for the very first time. We’ll see which new moments stand the test of time (I have a couple of candidates in mind) but first times such as this are a great place to start!

What little-big things do you value in your friendships and relationships? How much do they mean to you and how do you feel if they change or drop away? How good are you at making new ones? We’d love to hear from you!

 

Wednesday, 16 June 2021

THIS BOY GETS SAD TOO

And I might be okay but I’m not fine at all.

(Elisabeth Wagner Rose / Taylor Alison Swift. “All Too Well.”)

I wrote recently that I’ve never felt part of any group or collective, even those to which I’ve felt the strongest of attractions. As painful as that’s been, does it really matter? So what if I don’t belong to the tribe of writers and poets I’ve met in the past few years? There’s no lasting harm in discovering I’m not a performance artist! Some exclusions, however, are more perilous. Being excluded from my local recovery college for having no lived experience of mental illness was completely justified, but it left me feeling permanently estranged. If I began displaying symptoms of mental ill-health I’d almost certainly play it down. Not from shame, but because I’d be afraid people would think I was faking it, or exaggerating things in order to “join the club.” The irony is, even with a diagnosis I’d probably still feel I had no legitimate right to be there.

I feel a fraud, even admitting this. What right do I have to talk about mental health issues when I’m fine — certainly compared to many of my friends. Except I’m not fine, not all the time. The following lines are from my diary, written a few weeks ago. I’d ventured out to one of my favourite coffee shops for the first time since covid restrictions were lifted.

If I’m honest I’m not feeling much in the mood to be “out and about,” but I’ve made an effort. A decent pair of black trousers, my sage green t-shirt, and my tweed jacket. In my lapel is the BOYS GET SAD TOO pin I bought recently. It doesn’t mean the healthy kind of sadness that arises in response to events. I feel that kind sometimes, of course. It means depression, anxiety, stress, mental ill-health of all kinds. Boys — and men — get that way too. I get that way too. The deeper, pervasive malaise I’ve felt for a while is of that kind. It’s becoming endemic. Part of my emotional landscape. Flat, arid, featureless.

Founded by Kyle Stanger, Boys Get Sad Too (BGST) is a fashion brand working for positive change. (“Sometimes it feels like you’re alone. Boys Get Sad Too is here to show you that you’re not.”) I bought the pin to support their endeavours. I didn’t expect its message to resonate as strongly as it does right now.

In my role as a Mental Health First Aider I’ve attended several calls at work recently where the impact of society’s reopening on our mental health was high on the agenda. I heard many first-hand stories of stress, anxiety and other symptoms exacerbated by the drive to get back into the workplace after months of working from home, furlough, or unemployment.

I learned of a survey by the Mental Health Foundation which reported that three-quarters of UK adults have felt so stressed in the past year they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. Almost one third said they’d had suicidal feelings as a result of stress, and 16% had self-harmed. The only positive I can take from these numbers is that so many felt able to admit being overwhelmed or otherwise struggling. Is that what I’ve been feeling, I wondered. Not suicidal or at risk of self-harm, but stressed to the point of being overwhelmed?

As well as the article on belonging, in the past month I’ve written about gratitude and ingratitude, and reviewed a new novel that touches on mental illness, stigma, obsession, and identity. I love writing and it’s important to me, but it’s been intense. That’s in addition to my day job in the IT services industry and navigating everything that’s been going on for me and those I’m closest to. And of course, all this has been set against the backdrop of coronavirus, as society takes the next tentative steps towards post-covid normalcy. News and social media channels are full of strident, often contradictory, messages: vaccinations and variants, hope and warnings, “Let’s go!” and “No not yet!” All this takes its toll.

Another of last week’s calls discussed Wellness Recovery Action Plans. I’ve written about these before, and have a WRAP of my own. Writing is a key item in my WRAP toolbox. My journal and the articles I’ve been writing have helped me explore what’s been going on, but there’s more work to be done. This post is part of that journey. I messaged my friend and fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson of I’m NOT Disordered about it.

“I feel this article is going to be an important one for me, Aimee. Not necessarily a ‘great blog post’ in its own right, but important for me writing it.”

“They’re the best ones, and your thoughts on the importance of the piece will likely show in your writing.”

I hope so, because I owe it to myself to be as honest about my mental health as Aimee, Fran, and so many others I know are about theirs.

Talking with people I trust is another item in my wellness toolbox. I shared my analogy of a dry, arid landscape with Fran on one of our evening calls. I’m going to expand on it here because it captures how I’ve been feeling.

Imagine you’re standing on a hill looking out across the landscape. No matter how your life is going you can see features dotted here and there. Other hills. Mountains. Lakes. Cities. Rivers. The ocean. These are the events in our futures. Holidays. Birthdays. Vacations. Trips. Appointments. They won’t all be things we’re looking forward to but they’re the landmarks we use to measure our progress through life.

Covid descended like a blanket of fog. We lost sight of many of the things that were out there, but had hope they’d still be there when the fog lifted. The fog has been rolling back for some time now. Lockdown has ended, at least here in the UK. Restrictions are being eased. But as I stand on my hill, I’m searching in vain for things to focus on or move towards. For me right now, the landscape is flat, arid, and featureless. Life on the hill feels very small and lonely, but I’m scared to leave it in case what’s out there is worse.

Fran listened without interrupting. Eventually, I stopped talking.

“Are you depressed?”

I thought for a moment.

“Maybe.”

There was no judgment in Fran’s question. She asked the way she might if I’d described having a sore stomach or a headache. It reminded me of a conversation with Aimee a few weeks ago. On that occasion, I was feeling physically unwell, but Aimee asked something I’d not thought about before.

“Which do you struggle to cope with most? When you are poorly mentally or physically?”

It’s not an easy question to answer. I’m fortunate in having had pretty good mental and physical health all my life. I discussed my experience of illness in our book High Tide, Low Tide:

Looking back, I see I squandered many opportunities to develop a compassionate understanding of illness and its impact. My stoic attitude helped me deal with my own [occasional] ill health, but left me incapable of responding with compassion to the needs of others. I mistakenly believed that caring for someone meant making their pain and hurt go away. It would be many years before I learned to open my heart and simply be there for those I care about. I am still learning.

I believe I have learned to be there for people who are struggling or in need. My friend Jen gave me a great compliment recently when she said “You’re different, Marty. Not many people understand people with mental illness.” Right now, though, I’m being invited me to extend the same compassion and understanding to myself. This wasn’t the first time Fran has suggested I might be going through a period of depression. Others have suggested similarly in the past. I trust my friends. I’m aware I have strong emotional responses to events which can affect me for long periods, and I’ve been anxious several times in the past year. Even so, admitting I’m struggling mentally is new for me and it’s scary.

Returning to Aimee’s question, I’m much more likely to tell someone if I’m unwell physically, than if I’m feeling low, stressed, or anxious. In my article Faking Fine: Why We Fib About How We Are, I described how even Fran was surprised to learn there are things I choose not to share with her.

I have my own reasons for faking fine, although Fran found this hard to believe when I pointed it out to her. She assumed I rarely needed to, or would have anything I needed to fake. I understand why she might think this. I don’t live with illness the way Fran and many of my friends do. There are no serious traumas or crises in my past or present. Fran knows me so well that she can often tell if there’s something up with me, whether I mention it or not. But not always.

It’s valid — even healthy — to not share everything with everyone all the time, but keeping health issues to myself is definitely unhealthy. I’m getting better at being open and honest about it, but there’s still a long way to go. So, what am I going to do about all this? I mentioned my Wellness Recovery Action Plan. Most of the tools and strategies in there are geared towards navigating emotional difficulties. They are arguably less relevant for mental health concerns. So one thing I intend to do is review my WRAP and update it where necessary.

Something my friend Jen said is relevant here. We were talking about how she handles her health issues and she said, “The thing is, I help people when I need help. I’m going to call this one of my superpowers.” I realised I’m that way too. I’m more comfortable being there for other people than dealing with my own issues. That might partly be an avoidance strategy on my part, but being there for people is definitely good for my wellbeing. I gain a lot from the kind of genuine exchanges that underpin any mutually supportive relationship.

That’s important because it goes right back to where I started this discussion — my sense of separation and non-belonging. I’ve considered myself a mental health ally since meeting Fran ten years ago. My left wrist is adorned with nine silicone bands, almost all of which are from mental health organisations or events. I have a collection of mental health t-shirts and wear them proudly, even though I know wearing t-shirts is not enough. My BGST badge is the first mental health item I’ve bought that feels like it’s for me.

Maybe accepting and owning the reality of my mental health story — past, present, and future — will help me find the connection that’s eluded me for so long. Not specifically with or within the mental health community. After all, the most fundamental commonality we share is our humanity. My friend Jen summed it up perfectly: “You’re a human, Marty. We struggle. And it sucks but it’s ok.”

 


Boys Get Sad Too

The following information is from the BGST website.

Boys Get Sad Too aim to raise awareness for the huge percentage of people that struggle with Mental Health issues with conversation provoking designs. The more people talking about the issue the better chance we have of making sure more people are able to see that things can get better with the right support and mindset.

Boys Get Sad Too is not just a clothing brand. It is a community of like-minded people who want to see a positive change in the world. We are official supporters of CALM (The Campaign Against Living Miserably) charity who we donate 10% of our profits to, and we actively work to try and raise awareness for the struggles that men face.

Sometimes it feels like you’re alone. Boys Get Sad Too is here to show you that you’re not.