Wednesday, 21 September 2022

A Few Thoughts on Taking My Own Advice

This post was inspired by a recent conversation with my friend Brynn. I was talking about the piece I was working on at the time; a collection of articles on self-care. She asked, “Do you take your own advice?” I paused before answering. “Sometimes! You know, that’s such a great question. No one has ever asked me that before.” I knew it deserved more than a fleeting response, and resolved to explore it further. This article is my reply to Brynn, and anyone else who’s ever wondered if people who share their wisdom publically ever take their own advice.

What Kind of Advice Are We Talking About?

I’ll start by saying I don’t consider myself in the advice business. I’m wary of offering advice to anyone unless it’s been specifically asked for. For the purpose of this article I’m going to use the term as a shorthand for “ideas, suggestions, wisdom, and guidance.” I’ll focus on the contents of our book High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder and this blog, because that’s the context in which Brynn asked her question. First published in 2016, High Tide, Low Tide is not a how-to book. Its approach is descriptive rather than prescriptive. Fran and I wrote it hoping the lessons we’d learned and the insights we’d gained would help other people; specifically people wanting to support a friend living with mental illness. As we state in the introduction:

We hope our book will inform and inspire you. There are no steps you have to follow, or things that are guaranteed to work under all circumstances. Illness, especially mental illness, does not work that way. What works is having a framework of trust and commitment, and a menu of approaches, suggestions, and options you and your friend can explore together.

Our blog is an extension of that endeavour, albeit broader in scope and more responsive to events and new ideas. What we share, we believe in. It’s also truthful. I touched on this in a Q&A article titled Write without Fear, Edit without Mercy: Eight Questions for the Honest Blogger. Question five asked “Do You Always Tell the Truth in Your Blogging?”

I choose what I want to blog about, and what I want to share or say on that topic. There may be — and indeed are — things I choose not to write about or include, but if I write it, it’s true.

So, that’s the “advice” I’m taking about. The question remains. Do I take that advice myself? The answer I gave Brynn is still the most honest and accurate: sometimes. There’s a great deal in our book and on our blog which I refer back to and use; some rarely, others much more frequently. There are also things I hardly, if ever, use anymore. There are a few reasons, but the most fundamental is relevance. Everything we’ve shared was true and valid at the time, but situations and people change. We learn new solutions to old problems, and face challenges we’ve not previously faced.

Advice That’s No Longer Relevant

High Tide, Low Tide is based on the first four years of my friendship with Fran. For much of that time she was living through extremes of mania or depression, with suicidal thinking never far below the surface. Distance notwithstanding, I was at her side through it all, supporting her on a day-by-day, often hour-by-hour, basis. I didn’t always get things right, and neither did Fran, but we remained committed to each other and to making our friendship work. Our book was written to share what we learned in our journey together through those times.

Depression and suicidality still raise their heads from time to time, and we remain vigilant for red flag changes in symptoms or behaviour that might herald a return to more serious episodes, but Fran’s health is far more balanced these days. In particular, she’s been free of mania for some time. This was devastatingly traumatic in the early part of our friendship. These are wholly welcome and healthy changes, but they’ve inevitably led to shifts in the balance of our mutually supportive friendship. We no longer meditate together, for example, or read to each other as often as we used to. We still connect every day, but Fran is much less likely to need me outside our regular call times.

The net result is that much of the advice — the ideas and strategies — I learned and used on a regular basis are less relevant than they used to be. The advice itself remains valid, though, and I wouldn’t hesitate to turn to it again should the situation arise.

Bad Advice

The mention of valid advice invites me to consider its opposite: invalid or bad advice. I don’t believe any advice can be completely correct or universally applicable, and it’s certainly possible to employ sound advice inappropriately or out of context. Other people may disagree with my advice, opinions, or suggestions, but I can’t think of anything Fran or I have written that I’d disavow or refute.

I remain open to revising or clarifying what I’ve previously written. Someone recently questioned something I wrote a few years ago in an open letter to my father. I was grateful for the challenge, which led to a new article exploring emotional vulnerability and weakness, but I decided not to withdraw or change the original content.

There have certainly been times when I’ve ignored my own advice or followed it in ways that were clumsy or ineffective. It was important to me and Fran that we included examples of us “getting it wrong” in our book. The last thing we wanted was to give the impression we always knew what to do or say. I’ve shared several such examples on our blog, covering topics such as honesty and openness, codependency, and anger. These “bad examples” can be useful in themselves, reminding me what not to do in the future.

Advice I Still Refer to and Use

Having talked about the advice I no longer use, let’s look at what’s still relevant and useful. The principles of healthy relationships are valid no matter what’s going on for me or the people in my life, and I turn to chapter one of our book (“The Caring Friendship: Key Skills and Attitudes”) to remind myself of the basics. These include trust, openness, honesty, and a commitment to keep the channels of connection open. We’ve added new insights over the years, finding new ways to enhance our friendship, such as spending quiet time together. Everything we’ve learned about growing and maintaining a successful long-distance friendship also remains relevant; not only to me and Fran but also my other friendships.

Our book includes little about my needs beyond my role as a supportive friend. This imbalance initially carried across into our blog, but I’ve begun exploring my wellbeing and mental health in such posts as THIS BOY GETS SAD TOO, Return to Down: How My Baseline Mood Has Slipped from Positive to Low, Flatness and Disinclination, and How International Men’s Day Inspired My First Doctor’s Appointment in 30 Years. I return to them when I’m low, flat, or depressed. They help me gauge where I am compared to where I was when I wrote those articles. I turn to the range of self-care posts I’ve written to remind me of strategies that have helped me in the past.

I’ve recently begun a series of articles collecting posts on themes including self-care, open letters, and pieces written to mark mental health awareness days and events. I wanted to make it easier for people to find related content. They also make it easier for me to locate content I want to refer back to and use in my own life.

As I’ve grown in experience and confidence as a blogger, I’ve begun sharing content for other bloggers, especially those working in the mental health space. I’ve shared blog prompts, image prompts, my blogging workflow, and how to handle blogging setbacks. I refer to these myself when I’m stuck with my writing.

I mentioned changes in my friendships have made some advice less relevant than it used to be. I haven’t always found these transitions easy but I’ve taken the opportunity to explore how I handle them. Some of the articles I’ve written about that remain very relevant to me. I return to such posts as What My Mantra Means to Me: Healthy Boundaries, Supportive Disengagement: How to Be There for Your Friend When They Need Space, Spokesfriends and Insular Groups: What Kind of Support Network Do You Have?, and Too Small for Comfort: When Life Closes In On You from time to time, especially when I’m feeling disconnected or adrift.

(As Yet) Unpublished Advice

I’ve focused on our book and blog, but that’s not the sum total of my “personal wisdom.” I often turn to things I’ve discussed in chat messages, written in my personal diary, or jotted down in private notes on my phone. Some or these are too personal or raw to share publically. Others fall under the category of things I’m unlikely to blog about, as I’ve described previously.

I’m wary of writing if I have little or no experience of the subject under discussion, unless I’m presenting the insights, opinions, and accounts of others who do. [...] I mostly discuss mental illness from the perspective of a supportive friend, although in the past couple of years I’ve begun sharing aspects of my mental health.

There are topics I’d like to write about but haven’t yet found a way to approach them as I’d wish to. These include my perspective as a caring friend when someone I know has taken an overdose or harmed themself. I can’t imagine ever writing about abuse, addiction, rape, or trauma. Those are too far beyond my lived experience for me to do them justice.

I may share some of this currently unpublished content in the future. Likely candidates include more on healthy boundaries, expectations, acceptance, and letting go.

Bringing It All Together

High Tide, Low Tide represents our collected wisdom at a particular point in our friendship. It remains valid, honest, and useful — to us and to others — but it no longer fully reflects our situation, or the totality of my experience as a supportive friend. Our blog enables us to share new insights and as we grow as friends and as individuals. Where past advice and ideas fail to meet my needs, I’m open to returning to basics and allowing the present moment to inform my decisions and approach.

Do I take my own advice? Yes, definitely, and often! I’m careful in selecting which advice is most relevant to my present situation, however. In that I follow Fran’s suggestion in the Epilogue to our book.

How do I help my friend? What should I try? What works? So many choices. So many possibilities. To me this book is less of a memoir than a menu. You would never order and eat everything on the menu if you went for a meal. You would choose. Something familiar, perhaps. Or something new. Use our book like that. Choose something. A bit of this. A bit of that. And let that something ease another’s pain.

I’ll close with a quotation that came my way whilst writing this article. It’s a perfect reminder that advice — however loosely defined — is not always what we need. Sometimes we need to be in the moment, listening to ourselves and one another, open to what’s actually going on.

The best way to help someone is not to give them advice, but to listen to them. (Jordan B. Peterson)

That sounds like pretty good advice to me!

Over to You

In this article I’ve explored my relationship to the advice Fran and I have published in our book and on our blog. What are your thoughts on this topic? Do you take your own advice? Do you find it easier to give advice than to take it? Whose advice do you trust? What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever given or received?

We’d love to hear from you, either in the comments below or via our contact page.

 

Photo by Christopher Jolly at Unsplash.

 

Wednesday, 14 September 2022

Because You're Worth it! A Curated List of Self-care Posts

self care is hard. it is not just face masks and bath bombs. it is crying, getting out of bed, sticking to your goals, allowing yourself to open up to others, not staying at home, getting rid of negative ppl. don’t believe social media’s false definition of self care. it is more. (@soignevenus / twitter)

In the third in our series of themed posts, I’ve selected articles from our backlist which cover various aspects of self-care. The World Health Organization defines self-care as “the ability of individuals, families, and communities to promote health, prevent disease, maintain health, and to cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a healthcare provider.” I prefer the longer but far more accessible description by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

Self-care means taking the time to do things that help you live well and improve both your physical health and mental health. When it comes to your mental health, self-care can help you manage stress, lower your risk of illness, and increase your energy. Even small acts of self-care in your daily life can have a big impact. Self-care looks different for everyone, and it is important to find what you need and enjoy. It may take trial and error to discover what works best for you. In addition, although self-care is not a cure for mental illnesses, understanding what causes or triggers your mild symptoms and what coping techniques work for you can help manage your mental health.

Some of the posts I’ve included are general in nature, others are written very much from the author’s perspective and experience. I’ve separated them into six categories. Scroll through them all or click a link to jump to the relevant section.

I’ve provided a short excerpt from each post, with a link to the original article. I will update the list as relevant posts are published in the future.


Practical Strategies

Having self-care strategies in place for when you need them can be reassuring in its own right. You know you have a toolkit of techniques to turn to that have worked for you in the past. It’s worthwhile thinking about these when you’re feeling good physically and mentally, so you can pick them up when needed. A Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) offers a useful framework. It encourages us to think about the activities and behaviours that help us stay well, as well as signs that we’re starting to struggle, and techniques to help restore us to balance.

My Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP)

A couple of months ago I attended a Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) Awareness workshop at Newcastle Recovery College Collective (ReCoCo). The two day workshop covered the purpose and structure of Wellness Recovery Action Plans, and invited us to consider drawing up our own.

In this article I’m sharing the WRAP I put together after attending the workshop, with a few changes I’ve made since then and minor edits for privacy. I make no claim that this is “how to do a WRAP” but it works for me. I will update it as my needs and situation change, and as my understanding of WRAP grows.

Read the full post here.

How to Use a Spreadsheet for Wellness and Self-care

I first tried this [a wellness tracker spreadsheet] back in 2013 when Fran took an extended trip around Europe. On that occasion I used a Google Docs spreadsheet and recorded brief notes about what was happening each day, how much exercise (walking) I did, any creative work such as working on our book, any reading I did (what book and for how long), and whether or not I meditated. This time I’m using an Excel spreadsheet to capture the following information on a daily basis: notes, mood, weight, eating, reading, exercise, creativity, water, and vitamins. Let’s look at these in more detail.

Read the full post here.

Vital But Often Overlooked Self-Care Practices to Focus on Today

By Brad Krause

What we do on a daily basis to take care of ourselves is the number one determining factor in our overall mental health. Many of us live under unhealthy amounts of stress, financial burdens, and physical and emotional strain from juggling home and professional duties. When we think about self-care, it’s easy to overlook the basics. Here is what you should focus on today.

Read the full post here.

Practical Self-Care Tips to Help You Crush Life as an Introvert

By Melissa Howard

You’re easily drained from social gatherings. Working with people leaves you depleted, and by the afternoon you can’t wait to get home and curl up with a book. You love your kids to death but crave those few minutes that allow you to decompress once they go to bed. As an introvert, there’s nothing wrong with that, and in fact, you should plan on all that and more. Keep reading for tips to help you to take better care of your mind, body, and soul so that you can live the life you’re meant to live.

Read the full post here.


Making a Difference to Your Day

We all have bad days and rough times. Sometimes it’s enough to take a deep breath and wait things out until the situation changes or our mood improves on its own. At other times, we may want to be a little more proactive and take steps to shift things in a more positive or healthy direction. The following articles describe a number of techniques that can help.

Ten Ways to Turn a Bad Day Around

There’s nothing inherently wrong with having a bad day. It’s natural, I would even say healthy, for our mood to fluctuate in response to whatever is going on around us. On the other hand, no one wants to stay stuck in a rut.

Here are ten techniques I use when I’m having a rough day. Several of them feature in my Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP).

It’s worth saying these are not fixes or solutions for anxiety, depression, or other mental health conditions although they might form part of a person’s wellness toolbox. They help me weather the ups and downs of life and I offer them on that basis.

Read the full post here.

Nine Ways I Distract Myself When I’m Feeling Down

No matter who we are, there are times when we’re not feeling good. It helps to have strategies in place for handling times like this. A personalised Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) can be helpful. In other posts, I’ve described how to turn a bad day around, how to be kind to myself, and things I’m grateful for. In this article I’m going to describe the strategies I use to distract myself while I wait for my thoughts or mood to shift. Just about anything can serve as a distraction technique if you’re able to immerse yourself sufficiently in it.

Read the full post here.

Up-Blips of Emotion: Exploring the Strange Things That Make My Weird Little Heart Happy

Those [things] all bring me pleasure, but I wouldn’t say they make me happy. They’re things I can consciously choose or decide to do. My happy moments are far fewer in number and much less frequent. They are also unplanned. Unpredictability is an important aspect of true happiness for me. To misappropriate the words of Tolkien’s Oxford contemporary C. S. Lewis, happiness for me means being surprised by joy. Unexpected feedback on my blog posts or books, especially where it’s clear they’ve had a significant impact on the reader; news of a friend’s achievements or success; unanticipated hugs; crowd karaoke — these are a few of my favourite happy things. (That last one is a few year’s old now, but it’s still the first thing I think of when I think of happy!)

Read the full post here.


Kindness and Gratitude

Kindness and gratitude can feel like things we owe other people. Being kind to others and grateful for what they do for us is important, of course, but we can be so focused outside ourselves that we forget we deserve kindness and gratitude too. Gratitude offers the chance to think about the things that bring value into our lives; they’re not always the most obvious. It’s possible to find reason to be grateful in almost any situation — even other people’s ingratitude!

Sixteen Ways to Be Kind

We are sometimes called upon to provide long-term help or caregiving for friends, family members, or loved ones, but small acts of kindness are no less important and can make a huge difference to a person’s life, including ours. Here are sixteen ideas to bring more kindness into our lives and the lives of those around us.

Read the full post here.

10 Ways I Was Kind to Myself This Week

The theme for this year’s [2020] Mental Health Awareness Week (MHAW) is kindness. In a recent article I described sixteen ways we can bring more kindness into our lives, including being kind to ourselves. I’d like to share a few ways I’ve been kind to myself in the past week.

Read the full post here.

Seven Things I’m Grateful for This Week (And One Extra Special One at the End)

I was inspired to write this post when the topic of gratitude came up twice for me in as many days. The first was when I was discussing journaling and gifting with my friend Brynn. It reminded me of the gratitude journal I was gifted a couple of years ago. I used to carry it with me everywhere and wrote in it regularly, but it’s sat on my desk for a while now, unused and rarely opened.

The second was when I opened Spotify to play some music on one of my evening walks and noticed a podcast on radical gratitude by my friend and fellow blogger Liz Kay.

To be honest, I wasn’t feeling much in the mood for gratitude at the time. I’ve been flat, low, and empty for a while now and had considered exploring that in a blog post. It seemed churlish, however, to reject the invitation to think more positively. So here, in no particular order, are seven things I’m grateful for this week.

Read the full post here.

11 Things I’m Grateful For This Week

I’ve been experiencing a good deal of stress lately one way or another, and I thought it might help to focus on what’s been going well, and things I am grateful for. This blog post is the result and, yes, it did help.

Read the full post here.

Thank You Anyway: The Gift of Ingratitude

We can be grateful for what we perceive as other people’s ingratitude, because it grants us the opportunity to look at ourselves and explore what’s going on for us when we reach out to help someone.

We can also model good gratitude in how we treat others. When done properly, with grace, gratitude is more than reimbursement for a gift or service. It acknowledges our connection with the other person, and the care their help and support represents for us. Remember that it doesn’t have to be expressed in words alone. Trust, openness, and honesty are expressions of gratitude too.

Read the full post here.


Music and Lyrics

Our musical tastes are intensely personal but for many of us music is a vital part of our self-care, whether we think of it like that or not. We often turn to music that matches our mood, be that happy or sad, outward-looking or introspective. Music can also help us shift how we’re feeling, remind us of times when things were other than they are right now, and put us in touch with what’s most important to us.

Ten Anthems for Comfort, Celebration, Inspiration, and Healing

A few years ago Fran and I took Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly online workshop. One of the exercises invited us to select one or more arena anthems: songs “that will inspire you to stay brave when the gremlins start getting to you or when you start to doubt your ability to stay vulnerable through the tough parts.” Whether you know me personally or not I hope they move and inspire you too.

Read the full post here.

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.

Read the full post here.


Out and About

Exercise and the natural world are often cited as important elements of self-care. The opportunities to be active and experience nature vary greatly. Not everyone has ready access to wilderness trails, woodland walks, or miles of pristine shoreline to explore; or the fitness, energy, or inclination to do so. Being “out and about” means different things to different people, but with a little thought and creativity there are opportunities to engage with the outside world if we wish to, virtually if not in person.

Beauty Everywhere: Engaging with the Natural World

“If you truly love nature, you will find beauty everywhere.” (Laura Ingalls Wilder)

Covid-19 has curtailed many of the activities that brought meaning to our lives. However, for many of us it has provided an opportunity to engage more with our immediate surroundings. Wherever we live and no matter our personal circumstances we can all invite the natural world into our lives.

Read the full post here.

One Step at a Time: Walking for Wellness, Walking for Me

When I’m happy, I walk.
When I’m sad, or lonely or lost.
When I’m hurting, or numb.
When there’s too much to think about
Or nothing on my mind.
I walk.

Walking has played an important role in my life for as long as I can remember. So much so that it was one of the first things I included in the wellness tools section of my Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP). It’s also made its way into my writing more often than I’d realised until I began writing this article. (The idea for this piece came to me whilst, wait for it, walking into work one morning a few weeks ago.)

Read the full post here.


You Don’t Have to Do It on Your Own

Self-care is about respecting and meeting our needs as individuals, but that doesn’t necessarily mean spending lots of time on our own. Some of the most valuable, validating, and enriching times are those we spend with the people who mean most to us. If it honours our needs, interests, and wellbeing, it’s self-care!

10 Ways to Spend Quality Time with Your Friend That Don’t Involve Talking about Mental Health

Sharing quality time reinforces your friendship, builds memories, and reminds you both that you value each other’s company in fine weather as well as in stormy times. Plus, of course, it’s just really good fun! Here in no particular order are ten ways I enjoy spending time with Fran and other friends.

Read the full post here.

It’s Not Just for Kids: Reading Together for Fun and Friendship

The most important sounds we can ever share with another person are our own voices.

The above quotation is from the chapter in our book where we discuss how we make our 3,000 mile, transatlantic, friendship work. We believe there are many kinds of distance that can separate people, and not all are measured in miles or time zones. What keeps our relationship fresh and alive is our willingness to keep the channels of communication open between us, no matter what.

Reading together is one way we honour that commitment, and amongst the most rewarding. Young children — and parents of young children — know this instinctively. And yet as adults we rarely read to one another. When was the last time you read to your adult child, to your partner, or to a friend?

Read the full post here.

How Sharing Quiet Moments Can Deepen Your Friendship

There’s nothing quite like having someone you feel safe enough with to talk openly and honestly about whatever’s going on for you. It can help enormously, whether you’re simply sharing what’s happening, exploring options, or asking for — or offering — assistance and advice. But support and caring aren’t always about doing things or talking things over. Sometimes there is no need for words. Sometimes there is a need for silence.

Read the full post here.


Over to You

If you have any thoughts about the articles we’ve included, or suggestions for self-care topics we might explore in the future, please let us know, either in the comments below or via our contact page.

 

Photo by Avelino Calvar Martinez at Burst.

 

Saturday, 10 September 2022

My illnesses get to be here too

By Fran Houston

I have found when I not only allow but gently accept my feelings — especially the difficult ones — I get to integrate all parts of myself. My illnesses get to be here too. Pushing them into silence only hurts. And when I share these inner experiences I find kindred spirits who long for that same honesty, freedom, and wholeness.

Hiding behind closed doors in our hearts and allowing others to hold the key is the essence of stigma, throwing us into invisible institutions that are more dangerous than the physical ones that existed not so long ago.

Let’s replace silence and stigma with openness, awareness, and kindness.

 

Originally posted on Facebook Aug 23, 2016.

Photo by Ales Maze at Unsplash.

 

Wednesday, 7 September 2022

I'm Weak and What's Wrong With That?

What we don’t need in the midst of struggle is shame for being human.
— Brené Brown

Trigger warning: suicide and suicidality. This is posted as an awareness piece for World Suicide Prevention Day (September 10). Suicide is not a sign of weakness.

Inspiration and Ego

This article was inspired by a friend who questioned something I’d written in an open letter to my father. Here’s what she said:

I did want to briefly comment on something you wrote in your blog post about open letters, in particular the one to your father where you wrote “You never let me see it’s okay to cry and be weak sometimes.”

I question why you put “cry” and “weak” in the same sentence, and it makes me wonder what “weak” means to you, especially since you champion the “fighting stigma” cause. It isn’t “weak” to cry, or to have feelings or emotions — in fact, it’s the opposite. I think that’s important to note, especially when the suicide rates among men are so high — you may want to address that before you send out the wrong message from the one you perhaps intended.

My immediate reaction was to go on the defensive. That’s not what I meant! How could she say that? How could she think that? Did she actually read the whole letter? But then I took a moment to breathe and allowed my instinctive ego response to pass. As it shifted I felt something else: gratitude. My friend had bestowed a valuable gift. She’d offered me the opportunity to look back at what I’d written, consider what those words meant to me at the time, and what they mean to me now.

I invite you to read the letter to my father in full, but the sentence my friend questioned appears in the following paragraph. (Italicised here for emphasis.)

I grew up accepting disability and illness as things you put up with without making a fuss about them. But Dad, that wasn’t enough. I didn’t learn how much it fucking hurts to live in chronic pain. I didn’t learn how someone can rail against the injustice of it all, scream at the universe — and then move past that and take the next step. You never let me see it’s okay to cry and be weak sometimes, and share how you’re feeling when life is really shitty. I have no idea how you felt about your life. Or your death.

I want to explore this further because as my friend said it’s an important topic. I’m grateful to those who have discussed the subject with me and given permission for me to quote from our conversations. Some names have been changed.

It’s Okay to Feel Weak

The following is excerpted from the reply I sent my friend, with minor edits for clarity.

Thank you for the questions about my open letter to my father, and especially the line mentioning crying and being weak. My first thought is, yes, I get what you mean. Maybe what I wrote does give the impression I meant crying (allowing yourself to cry / open up emotionally) is weak. Thinking back to when I wrote the letter four years ago, I think I meant it’s okay to cry, and it’s okay to be weak. In other words, I was talking about two different things, not necessarily saying crying is weak.

That might sound contrived, but I believe the interpretation is justified. In the original sentence I mentioned three things: crying, being weak sometimes, and sharing how you’re feeling. I continued:

Thinking it through, though, I’m uneasy asserting it’s not weak to cry. I don’t think crying is necessarily “weak” or “not weak.” It may take strength or courage in order to cry — especially to allow yourself to cry in front of someone — but I’m not sure how helpful or healthy that message is. To men in particular, but to anyone really.

“It takes strength and courage to cry” may help some people, so they feel okay about opening up emotionally. But for me that message actually increases stigma. It stigmatises being (or feeling) weak. It says to me “crying is okay, because it’s not weak to cry, in fact it’s the opposite.” But what if you do feel weak? I do, sometimes. I say it’s okay to feel weak. It’s okay to feel strong. It’s certainly okay to cry, whether you feel weak or strong doing so.

This insight was new to me. It felt important, though, and I wanted to explore it further.

Crying is Letting Go of Something

I brought it up in chat with another friend, Brynn. I began by explaining I’d been asked about what I wrote in the open letter.

“[My friend] said it sounded as though I thought crying is weak, which might not be a healthy message, for men in particular. I’m interested to know what you think about it.”

“I think it takes strength to cry, in front of others especially. I do that in group therapy and it’s still very hard to do.”

I thought about this for a moment. I wanted to ask about my what’s wrong with weakness? dilemma.

“Thanks, Brynn. I get what you mean. It can take strength to cry. (I would add it takes trust.) But I have a problem because saying that carries an implicit message that being weak is bad. Like, okay maybe crying isn’t weak, but what if it was? What’s wrong with being weak sometimes?

“I think society — and particularly this has been done to men — has taught us that it’s not ok to emote like that. That it’s weak somehow. I guess there’s nothing wrong with being weak if we say crying is a weakness. Personally, I think bottling up one’s emotions is weak. I’ve done it all my life, as a way to avoid my feelings.”

“I understand what you mean about bottling up feelings. I never cried at all until I was in my forties. It might even have been later. I wasn’t consciously bottling things up, and it’s not like I cried in private, because I didn’t. But then, all of a sudden, I could cry, and did. It’s been that way ever since. I don’t cry often but I certainly do sometimes. Thank you for sharing.”

“You’re welcome, Marty. I admire people who show their emotions. I think it takes courage to let go like that, because crying is, in part, letting go of something.”

The idea of crying as letting go made sense to me, but I still felt there was something I’d not fully explored.

I’m Weak, and What’s Wrong With That?

Chatting with Brynn reminded me of a line from a song — “I’m weak, and what’s wrong with that?” A quick search revealed the song was “Weak” by American indie pop trio AJR. (The version I remembered is by Halloran and Kate, featuring May Raya.) The song is about weakness in the context of temptation and addition, but many of the comments left by listeners speak to its wider relevance. Here are a few taken from one AJR version of the song on YouTube.

I’m not crying cause I’m weak I’m crying cause I’ve been strong for so long.

This song makes me so comfortable about my problems. It helped me to realize that admitting your weakness isn’t a failure but something after which I can feel slightly better.

Ironically, this song makes me feel strong.

I love this song because of how even though you may feel weak at times, you are strong in so many different ways.

This song always makes me feel better about myself since I do feel like I am weak.

Every time I hear this song I cry because it reminds me to never give up.

The first comment echoes Brynn’s idea that crying can involve the release or letting go of something. The rest offer hope. We may feel weak at times or in certain areas of our lives, but we can move from feeling weak to feeling stronger, and recognise that we’re strong in other areas. This resonates for me. I feel weak sometimes, and there are certainly areas of my life I’m “weaker” (less proficient) in than others, but I don’t feel defined by those feelings. I don’t feel that I’m a weak person, or a failure. In saying that, I’m aware of a sense of privilege. I’ve never been subject to stigma or discrimination for expressing such feelings. That’s not true for everyone.

No Barrier between You and Your Feelings

A conversation with another friend, Maggie, brought more ideas into the mix. I told her what I was working on. She said it was funny, because she’d shed tears very recently, “and I have indeed subconsciously felt weak.” (She actually said it was ironic, which reminded me of Ironic by Alanis Morissette. The song carries some personal significance for me, although — ironically — it’s more about coincidence than irony.)

She told me she’d recently been there for a close friend who’d been deeply upset. “There she was,” Maggie said. “Just as vulnerable as could be. From my perspective it appeared as though she felt weak about it.” She described giving her friend Zelda space for tears and to talk about what was going on for her. “Zelda,” she said. “You are crying and hurt and full of fear and anxiety right now, but based on what you have told me I think you have displayed great self-control. The tears are not an indication of weakness, although we often experience them that way. In fact, your tears are a release of everything it has taken you to maintain the self-control to be the you that you want to be.”

Here again was the idea of tears as a release. Maggie went on to describe what happened when she met a long-time friend at the airport. “I see her at the luggage claim and she sees me. As soon as we hugged each other I unexpectedly ‘broke down’ (such a funny expression!) and cried and cried and couldn’t stop hugging her. Something I was FEELING brought the tears. It wasn’t sadness, nor fear, nor weakness. It was feeling LOVE. Feeling HAPPY. Such a treat!”

Although the circumstance were very different, this was exactly how it felt for me the first time I cried. The tears came out of nowhere. I was totally unprepared for them and for a time there was no way I could stem the flow. It was like a dam had burst. I suggested to Maggie that like mine, her tears had been a gift. “It’s like there was no barrier between you and your feelings,” I said. “They expressed themselves as tears and you had no resistance to that happening.” “Exactly!” she replied.

Learning Is Always on a Weak to Strong Dimension

I mentioned earlier that I’m weak in certain areas of my life, meaning I lack knowledge, proficiency, skills, or experience. This aspect of weakness was expressed beautifully by my friend Paul.

Weakness is an inherent part of life. For years I’ve been weak with music technology; now I’m strong. Everything is like that. Learning is always on a weak to strong dimension. Weak... nowt learnt. Strong... loads learnt.

I love Paul’s idea of weakness and strength being on a continuum. Learning helps us to move from wherever we might be on that spectrum in the direction of increasing strength. That’s true whether we’re talking about something practical like learning to use technology or more general life skills. Movement isn’t always in one direction, of course. Events and situations can shift us back towards feeling weak or inadequate. True strength — a better word is resilience — isn’t about always being at the “strong end.” It’s about feeling confident in our ability to handle things, no matter where on that weak–strong spectrum we find ourselves.

What’s in a Word?

So, after all these conversations and deliberations, what conclusions have I come to? I’ve never believed crying is a sign of weakness in any pejorative sense of the word. I certainly didn’t intend to equate tears with weakness in the letter to my father. If I was writing that letter now, I would word it differently, to make that distinction clearer. I don’t intend to edit the post, but I will add a note of clarification linking to this article.

I remain convinced that labeling crying as inherently “strong” is at best problematic. It shifts the stigma from crying to weakness. It reinforces the fallacious and dangerous idea that weakness is undesirable, shameful, and — for anyone identifying as a man — unmanly. I believe it’s as okay to feel weak as it is to cry.

What actually is weakness, though? It’s clear that it means different things to different people. There’s nothing problematic in saying that. The same is true of any word we use to label emotional states and behaviour: love, hate, sadness, happiness, good, bad. We use these words as though they have definitive meanings to which we all subscribe. In fact, they mean different things to each of us, largely determined by our culture and lived experience. Mostly, there is sufficient overlap for us to get by. If I tell you I’m sad or in love, you won’t know exactly what the words means to me, but you’ll get the gist.

The problem comes when we use words such as weakness to express value judgments about ourselves and other people. That’s where stigma and discrimination come into play. It’s why my friend asked what weakness means to me, and whether my use of the word challenges or reinforces society’s wider misunderstanding of weakness; a misunderstanding which, sadly and often tragically, deems weakness worthy of shame and denigration. I’m not personally responsible for society’s understanding of weakness or anything else, but as someone writing in the mental health space — and in particular as a man writing in the mental health space — I accept my responsibility to express myself clearly and in ways that counter rather than reinforce unhealthy societal tropes.

Suicide Is NOT Weakness

It’s worth being ultra clear: I do not equate suicide with weakness in any way. People who have attempted or died by suicide are often called weak or selfish. As far as I’m concerned that’s unwarranted, unfair, and simply — patently — untrue. People understand illness and wellness in different ways, but for me, there’s no moral dimension to mental health, up to and including self-harm and suicide. I wish this was far more widely recognised. Fran and I hope this blog, the book we wrote about supporting friends with mental illness, and everything else we do publically and privately, contributes to that vital message.

Weakness as Overwhelm

My personal take on weakness is that it’s the label we use when we feel unequal to the challenges we face. I feel weak when I’m temporarily overwhelmed, confused, or unable to respond effectively to whatever is happening. This is rarely a pleasant experience. An excess of love or gratitude can be disorienting and scary. The first words Fran ever spoke to me were “sometimes even too much love can be overwhelming.” Conveyed kindly, it was an admonition nonetheless. Ultimately, weakness is a feeling; an emotion. As such, I know it will pass. It labels how I feel in the moment. It is not who I am.

You Don’t Have to if You Don’t Want To

I believe passionately that it’s okay to feel weak, to cry on our own or in front of others, and to express ourselves openly and honestly wherever and whenever we feel safe doing so.

But it’s also okay if we don’t. Most of my adult life I was incapable of crying. Now, I cry easily. Neither state was inherently better than the other. I find it helpful to share my feelings and mental health with trusted friends, and publically here on our blog. I applaud others who want to do likewise and feel able to do so. But not everyone is in that situation. For many years I processed things in my diary rather than talk about them. There are still things I choose to journal privately rather than share with friends.

It’s no healthier to cry or talk to other people than to journal or process things in other ways, if those ways work for you. What’s unhealthy is not having the opportunity to process, or feeling inhibited from doing so for fear of being judged poorly.

Resources

If you’ve been affected by the topics discussed here or are concerned for someone you know, our resources page includes links to 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. For World Suicide Prevention Day 2020 we compiled a selection of relevant articles we’ve shared over the past few years. We also have a list of resources relating specifically to men’s mental health.

Over to You

In this article I’ve explored crying, emotional vulnerability, and weakness. What do you think? Do you think I expressed myself poorly in the open letter to my father? Does it give the unhealthy impression that it’s weak to cry? If so, how might I have said it better? More generally, do you believe it’s weak to cry? Strong? What does the word “weakness” mean to you? Is it okay to be weak?

Whatever your thoughts, we’d love to hear from you, either in the comments section or through our contact page.

 

Photo by Vinicius “amnx” Amano at Unsplash.

 

Monday, 5 September 2022

This Isn't a Mindfulness Book, or Is It? A New Book by Sarah Fader

A good friend of ours, mental health writer and advocate Sarah Fader, has a new book out. According to the title, it may — or may not — be a mindfulness book. Intrigued, I caught up with Sarah and asked if she’d tell me a little about her book and why she wanted to write it.

SF: This book is important to me because my mom taught me how to manage my anxiety with mindfulness when I was eighteen. That was over twenty years ago and it stayed with me.

MB: What’s the key message you have for your readers?

SF: I want people to know that mindfulness isn’t just a trendy word. It can help you cope with panic and anxiety, and there are simple ways to incorporate it into your life that you may not have thought of.

This Isn’t a Mindfulness Book, or Is It? My mindfulness journey plus three easy ways to meditate in everyday life is available from Amazon (print and Kindle).

Amazon com | Amazon UK

I found it an interesting read. If you’ve heard of mindfulness but don’t know what it is or if it might be for you, this serves as a short introduction by someone who has used mindfulness to positive effect in their own life for over twenty years. The book is organised as follows:

  • What mindfulness means to me
  • What is mindfulness?
  • How does mindfulness help you?
  • Is mindfulness hard?
  • How can I incorporate mindfulness into my daily life?
  • Three ways to practice mindfulness
  • What does mindfulness mean to you?

So, it is a mindfulness book? I’d say yes. You won’t learn precisely how to do it (there are short examples) but you will have a greater idea of what mindfulness is about, and whether it’s likely to be for you.

About the Author

Sarah Fader is the Co-Founder of Stigma Fighters, a non-profit organization that encourages individuals with mental illness to share their personal stories. She has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Psychology Today, The Atlantic, Quartz, The Huffington Post, and McSweeney’s among others.

Sarah is a native New Yorker who enjoys naps, talking to strangers, and caring for her two small humans and six average-sized cats. Sarah lives with Bipolar type II, OCD ADHD, and PTSD.

Sarah has guested with us previously:

You can read more about her at www.sarahfader.com

 

Wednesday, 31 August 2022

Time to Care: A Curated List of Posts for Mental Health Awareness Days and Events

Trigger warning: some of the linked articles contain references to suicide and suicidal thinking.

In the second in our series of themed posts I’ve selected articles that mark various mental health awareness days and events. Scroll through or click the link to jump to the relevant section.

I’ve provided a short excerpt from each post, with a link to the original article. I will update the list as relevant posts are published in the future. For a list of other awareness days and events check out the calendar at Mental Health UK.


Time to Talk Day

Time to Talk Day is an awareness event observed each year in early February. It was launched in 2014 by Time to Change, a campaign run in England to end mental health stigma and discrimination. Time to Change closed in March 2021 but the event continues; this year’s Time to Talk Day was organised by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness in partnership with Co-Op.

Newcastle Mental Health Day 2016

Within days, I heard about an upcoming mental health awareness event in the centre of Newcastle, to coincide with Time to Change’s annual #TimeToTalk campaign. I signed up as a volunteer before the voice in my head had chance to intervene. As I wrote in my diary, “Fear of engagement has always kept me on the outside, looking in on the arena. It is time to show up for my life.”

Read the full post here.

What Does Having a Conversation about Mental Health Look Like?

Having “a conversation about mental health” might sound daunting, but it simply means allowing someone to talk openly about what’s going on for them. It might be a face-to-face conversation, a phone or video call, or a conversation by e-mail, text (SMS), or instant messaging. Whatever works for you and the other person. Whatever the channel, there are a few things that distinguish a supportive conversation from the normal everyday kind. I find the following reminders helpful.

Read the full post here.

Would You Rather? Time to Talk Day 2020

I have a confession to make. I’d never heard of, let alone played, this “popular game” until I started writing this article. Maybe I don’t get invited to the right kind of parties! To save you the trouble and embarrassment of googling it (as I had to!) the game is played by asking a series of questions of the form “Would you rather [do this] or [do that]?”

Read the full post here.

Thank You for Not Assuming I’m OK

I wrote recently about feeling flat which is something that happens from time to time. Many of my friends live with significant mental health issues and it would be easy for them to dismiss my accounts of when I am feeling low. It is a testament to them and the nature of our friendships that I feel safe sharing how I feel no matter how mild that might be compared to what are often dealing with.

My friend Aimee Wilson blogs at I’m NOT Disordered about her lived experience with serious mental health issues including borderline personality disorder, self-harm, and suicidality. My moods, issues, and problems are mostly trivial in comparison to hers but Aimee has always treated me with respect and empathy. The following exchange is a great example of this. It meant a lot that she did not assume I was okay but checked to be sure.

Read the full post here.

Talk. Listen. Change Lives. Time to Talk Day 2022

In a recent intranet post written for Brew Monday, one of the lead Mental Health First Aiders where I work remarked that starting a conversation can be a game-changer for the person needing support. I agree whole-heartedly but I’d go a step further. It can also be a game-changer for the person holding space for the conversation to take place.

Read the full post here.


World Bipolar Day

World Bipolar Day is celebrated each year on March 30, the birthday of Vincent Van Gogh, who is thought to have lived with a bipolar condition.

The vision of World Bipolar Day is to bring world awareness to bipolar conditions and to eliminate social stigma. Through international collaboration, the goal of World Bipolar Day is to bring the world population information about bipolar conditions that will educate and improve sensitivity towards the condition.

For the past two years, Fran and I have made our books available for free for one week in March to mark World Bipolar Day.

Read the details here: World Bipolar Day 2021 | World Bipolar Day 2022


Mental Health Awareness Week

Hosted every May by the Mental Health Foundation, Mental Health Awareness Week is an annual UK event offering an opportunity to focus on achieving good mental health. There is a different theme each year; the theme for 2022 was loneliness.

Finding My Tribe

Campaigns such as Mental Health Awareness Week and Mental Health Month attract their share of resistance and criticism for not addressing some of the bigger issues. For me their principal value, and why I support them, is that they bring like-minded — and like-hearted — folk together. That has certainly been my experience. It is in such ways that we build connections, relationships, friendships, communities. It is in such ways that we empower ourselves and each other to address wider concerns and “make a sodding difference.”

Read the full post here.

16 Ways to Be Kind

We are sometimes called upon to provide long-term help or caregiving for friends, family members, or loved ones, but small acts of kindness are no less important and can make a huge difference to a person’s life, including ours. As individuals and as a society we have never needed kindness more than we do now, in the midst of a global pandemic. In recognition of this, the Mental Health Foundation chose kindness as the theme for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week (MHAW) which runs from 18–24 May. [...] Here are sixteen ideas to bring more kindness into our lives and the lives of those around us.

Read the full post here.

It’s Not Enough: Exploring Loneliness for Mental Health Awareness Week

The theme for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is loneliness. I can’t always draw on my lived experience when discussing mental health, but loneliness is something I know first-hand. I think that’s true of everyone. We’ve all been lonely at some time in our lives, and yet each of us experiences it in our own way. Keen to elicit some different perspectives, I posted a request on social media for contributions on the theme of “what does loneliness mean to me?” I received some brilliant and heart-moving responses.

Read the full post here.


Mental Health Awareness Month

Founded in 1949 by Mental Health America (then known as the National Association for Mental Health), Mental Health Awareness Month (also referred to as Mental Health Month) has been observed in May ever since in the United States, and is also marked globally.

Here’s my bit

In 2016, Fran posted original content on Facebook every day during May for Mental Health Awareness Month. We collected her 31 contributions into three blog posts.

At the end of April I realized May would be Mental Health Month. I looked forward to seeing loving energy and attention being brought to those of us who struggle. Inside, my heart leapt. It wanted to contribute. It dawned on me that I could use my words and be vulnerable about things I deal with. I hesitated a bit because frankly that is scary and I would have to be brave.

Read the full posts here: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3


World Suicide Prevention Day

Established in 2003 by the International Association for Suicide Prevention in conjunction with the World Health Organisation, World Suicide Prevention Day (WSPD) is observed each year on September 10.

Selected Articles for #WorldSuicidePreventionDay

For World Suicide Prevention Day 2020 we’ve compiled a selection of relevant articles we’ve shared over the past few years.

Read the full post here.

Maybe Even Save a Life: Our Message of Hope for World Suicide Prevention Day

This is a topic very close to our hearts and never far from our thoughts. Suicidal thinking has been part of my friendship with Fran since we met ten years ago. Indeed, it’s how we met, when we each reached out to a young woman who was expressing suicidal thoughts on her social media page. For WSPD 2020, we posted a selection of relevant articles from our blog. This year, we’re sharing an excerpt from the chapter of our book High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder which deals with supporting someone when they’re feeling suicidal. In the spirit of “creating hope through action” we hope it conveys the vital message that each one of us can make a difference to those we care about.

Read the full post here.

I’m Weak and What’s Wrong With That?

This article was inspired by a friend who questioned something I’d written in an open letter to my father. Here’s what she said:

I did want to briefly comment on something you wrote in your blog post about open letters, in particular the one to your father where you wrote “You never let me see it’s okay to cry and be weak sometimes.”

I question why you put “cry” and “weak” in the same sentence, and it makes me wonder what “weak” means to you, especially since you champion the “fighting stigma” cause. It isn’t “weak” to cry, or to have feelings or emotions — in fact, it’s the opposite. I think that’s important to note, especially when the suicide rates among men are so high — you may want to address that before you send out the wrong message from the one you perhaps intended.

My immediate reaction was to go on the defensive. That’s not what I meant! How could she say that? How could she think that? Did she actually read the whole letter? But then I took a moment to breathe and allowed my instinctive ego response to pass. As it shifted I felt something else: gratitude. My friend had bestowed a valuable gift. She’d offered me the opportunity to look back at what I’d written, consider what those words meant to me at the time, and what they mean to me now.

Read the full post here.


World Mental Health Day

Organised by the World Foundation for Mental Health and observed each year on October 10, World Mental Health Day (WMHD) is an opportunity to raise awareness of mental health issues and to mobilize efforts in support of mental health.

World Mental Health Day 2019

I know from personal experience how vital it can be that we feel able to ask for help if we need it, and be present for others. By doing so we contribute to a culture in which we are encouraged to share when we need to, and supported when we do. In the words of a quotation commonly attributed to Mohandas Gandhi, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Read the full post here.

Attending North Tyneside World Mental Health Day Event 2019

Lara from Supporting Stars read three moving poems by local writers, after which it was time for Aimee to give her talk. Almost the entire room was quiet and focused as she shared her lived experience, the success of her blog I’m NOT Disordered, the benefits and pitfalls of social media, and how all of us can play a role in supporting those we care about. The applause Aimee received and the number of people who came to thank her afterwards says a lot about the impact someone speaking plainly and honestly can have. As I told her later, I was a very proud bestie!

Read the full post here.

Mental Health for All in an Uncertain World

Individuals and organisations will mark WMHD in their own way. Here in the UK, mental health charity Mind’s Do one thing campaign invites us to take one small step towards fostering a more inclusive and open attitude to mental health. [...] This blog post is my “one thing.” As I write I’m thinking about what mental health means to me, my role in the workplace and beyond it, the impact coronavirus has had on me and those I care about, and what the future might hold for us all. Two words characterise it all for me: uncertainty and change.

Read the full post here.

Do One Thing (A Day, a Week, a Month, a Year, Now, for You) for World Mental Health Day

This post is my invitation to you — and a reminder to myself — to do one thing to counter stigma, discrimination, and unfairness. Not just on WMHD, though. Not just occasionally, when we think about it or are reminded by some awareness campaign. But regularly, repeatedly, reliably, relentlessly; until anyone and everyone in need has access to the support and care they need.

Read the full post here.


International Men’s Day

Observed on November 19, International Men’s Day celebrates worldwide the positive value men bring to the world, their families and communities. It aims to highlight positive role models and raise awareness of men’s well-being, including mental health.

I’m Having a Good Day: Connection and Conversation Inspired by International Men’s Day 2021

How goes it?

I’m having a good day. Was on an excellent call this morning about men’s mental health and support groups. Got my MHFA Network call this afternoon too.

Great!!

That little exchange is from a chat conversation with my friend Brynn last Thursday lunchtime. I’d been pretty low for a few days, which she knew, but when I sent those words I was feeling much better. Being able to say that to my friend was important in itself, because it reminded me there are good days as well as rubbish ones. So what had made the difference? In a word, connection.

Read the full post here5.

Men and Mental Health: Resources & Heroes

In this article I’ve drawn together some key statistics on men’s mental health; crisis and support lines; organisations, books, podcasts; and awareness days. I’ve also selected a number of articles written by men which we’ve hosted here at Gum on My Shoe, and a few posts of my own where I’ve touched on my mental health. Finally, I’ve briefly profiled four men who inspire me.

Read the full post here.


Other Days and Events

A selection of articles relating to other awareness days and events.

OPENM;NDED Mental Health Event

On Wednesday April 18 I had the pleasure of attending the OPENM;NDED mental health event at The Hancock pub in Newcastle. The event was organised by OPENM;NDED in support of ReCoCo (Recovery College Collective). OPENM;NDED is a group of cross-disciplinary cultural managers, practitioners and researchers brought together through study at Northumbria University. ReCoCo is a joint venture between various organisations in the north east, “by and for service users and carers. ... a place where service users are able to make connections and develop their knowledge and skills in relation to recovery.

Read the full post here.

#LetsTalkFND An Explanation of Functional Neurological Disorder for FND Awareness Day

FND was known as conversion disorder when I was first diagnosed, which is generally labeled as a mental health condition, and usually occurs in conjunction with other mental illnesses. [...] The reality is that FND is right on the boundary between a mental health condition and a neurological one. The precise definition, cause, and treatment are still debated among professionals.

World FND Awareness Month is observed each year in April.

Read the full post by Alison Hayes here.


Over to You

If you have any thoughts about the articles we’ve included, or suggestions for other awareness days we might include, please let us know, either in the comments below or via our contact page.

 

Photo by 2H Media at Unsplash.