- In November, my friend Sally took me to The Church of St Mary the Virgin, Putney and reminded me about The Levellers. As she read aloud from Thomas Rainsborough’s famous quote, I felt a shiver. “For really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he.“ After this terrible year, surely we can remember this, and act accordingly?
- History shows that, when times are hard, false prophets can persuade those who are suffering to blame the “other” rather than the ones who are the true source of their misery. And cause them to use their precious vote in ways that challenge more liberal values. But if we merely condemn such choices, we have no hope of turning the ugly tide lapping our shores. After the results of Brexit and the US presidency, I have come to realise that we need to judge less and listen much more so that we can understand why people are so angry with the established order.
- This year we lost far too many extraordinary people, including the wonderful Jo Cox MP. She wasn’t afraid to work with those on the opposite side of the political divide nor to challenge orthodox views. I have concluded that members of political parties who spend all their time arguing or blaming one another rather than seeking common cause, as Jo did, are a major part of why so many are mistrustful of politicians.
- This month, the government announced that, as a society, we are not doing enough to prevent suicide. And that there will be league tables published soon to show which areas are lagging most. As one who devotes time to volunteer in suicide prevention, I find this extraordinary. We can do a great deal to reduce the incidence of suicide by tackling stigma, offering education and training and supporting voluntary services such as the Samaritans. But ignoring the main reasons for the rise in the rate of suicide is dishonest. Benefit sanctions, fitness to work assessments and cuts in social care support are causing hunger, homelessness, and shame from being a burden amongst the most vulnerable of our fellow citizens. And for a growing number, the only options at night are a tent, a homeless shelter or a shop doorway. No wonder that life feels increasingly unbearable to some.
- And while the government congratulates itself on low rates of unemployment, zero hours contracts and minimum wages are directly causing the rise in reliance on food banks, payday loans and other expensive credit. It is not refugees or so-called benefit scroungers we need to fear. It is people who “create value” (what a meaningless and loathsome phrase) from the misery of others. The Mike Ashleys and Philip Greens of this world. And the Rupert Murdochs and Paul Dacres who would have us believe that fear of the other, rather than compassion for our fellow citizens, is what should drive us. But I realise that grumbling to those who already agree with me is not enough. I’m going to do better in 2017.
- I have been learning how to apply the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) to use in my practice as a coach. I could bore for Europe on this subject, but suffice to say, it has been a revelation. And the greatest insight of all has been finally appreciating at a very personal level what Carl Rogers meant in 1961 when he said: “What I am is good enough, if I would only be it openly.”
- I have also been learning how to be a Samaritan. I will be writing more about this next year. All I need say for now is that I gain as least as much as I give, and that the training and support for volunteers is absolutely wonderful. And with all that I mention above, and at this time of year, Samaritans are needed more than ever.
- This year, we lost so many wonderful people, including Twitter friends @GrangerKate and @GraceAndGloryDan. I would like to thank Zoe, courageous mother of Adam Bojelian. Adam sadly died last year. And Zoe reminded me that people who are bereaved value nothing more than being given the kindness of time to talk about the person they have lost.
- Finally, I have learned that people like pictures of cats. So here is William, my personal pet therapist, to wish you peace at Christmas. And may those who are lost, lonely or grieving find kindness among strangers as well as friends.
To keep depression at bay, it helps to count one’s blessings. My Twitter friends are a very big blessing. Here are some thank you messages for 2015:
- To campaigning journalists @andymcnicoll and @shaunlintern for supporting underdogs including mental health care and people with learning disabilities. Please never stop.
- To Adam and Zoe Bojelian who lost their dear son @Adsthepoet in March 2015 but keep his legacy alive via Twitter. You are in our thoughts as you face a first Christmas without your wise, beautiful boy. We will never forget him and what he taught us.
- To @JamesTitcombe who lost his baby son and has courageously campaigned for greater openness over mistakes in the NHS, despite some vile online abuse. I treasure my copy of Joshua’s Story. And I thank James for all he continues to do to make the NHS safer for patients and their families.
- To all who bravely act as patient representatives, such as the indomitable @allyc375, and remind regulators, commissioners, managers and clinicians what the NHS is actually for. Only they know the cost of speaking up. Go Ally, @anyadei @ianmcallaghan @DavidGilbert43 and others who’ve earned the right to call themselves patient leaders.
- And to @HSJEditor for taking a risk and running the first HSJ list of patient leaders. Thank you Alastair. I think it was a game-changer.
- To those who’ve grasped one of the most feared conditions and are making life better for those living with it. I mean you, @dementiaboy and @dr_shibley. To you and others like you, thank you for refusing to leave dementia in the too-difficult box.
- To @Liz_ORiordan who is generously sharing her experiences of breast cancer care, which for a breast surgeon is a pretty massive deal. And for some other stuff.
- To @EastLondonGroup, who introduced many of us to a group of previously little known landscape artists from the early 20th Century. Sunday Morning, Farringdon Road has become a landmark of my week.
- And to @penny_thompson, for pointing me to ELG and for always being true to her values.
- To poet @Molly_speaks for painting pictures with words in her lovely new book Underneath the Roses Where I Remembered Everything
- To @HPIAndyCowper, for his excoriating, original analysis of the NHS, and for his support to me in my scribblings.
- To @clare_horton for running the excellent @GuardianHealthCare and even including some of my pieces. This meant so much.
- To @seacolestatue @EAnionwu @trevorsterl @thebestjoan @pauljebb1 @joan_myers and many others for plugging away in the face of seemingly impossible odds. The Mary Seacole Statue will rise in 2016 as a permanent memorial to someone who showed how, if something matters enough, we should never give up.
- To @nhschangeday @PollyannaJones @helenbevan dani_ellie @jez_tong @LydiaBenedetta @cjohnson1903 @WhoseShoes @fwmaternitykhft @DaniG4 @damian_roland and so many others for including me in NHS Change Day 2015. I was meant to be helping you but I gained many times more than I gave.
- To @TimetoChange @suebakerTTC @paulfarmermind @carolinewild @danbeale1 @2gethertrust @NTWNHS @rethink @mindcharity and a whole raft more for being a major part of my life this year, working together to tackle the stigma that still exists within the NHS towards folk who, like me, experience mental illness from time to time but are so much more than our diagnoses. Here’s to you.
- To @nurse_w_glasses @anniecoops @drkimholt @gourmetpenguin @AlysColeKing @DrUmeshPrabhu who show by words AND actions that compassion is alive and kicking amongst health professionals
- To wonderful women leaders such as @SamanthaJNHS @BCHBoss @JackieDanielNHS @ClaireCNWL @CharlotteAugst @KMiddletonCSP @Crouchendtiger7 @DrG_NHS @VictoriBleazard @JaneMCummings @CarolineLucas @juliamanning @TriciaHart26 @clarercgp who stick their heads above the parapet and make the world a better place
- And folk like @NHSConfed_RobW @ChrisCEOHopson @cmo @profchrisham @ProfLAppleby @WesselyS @nhs_dean @NHSE_Paul @ScottDurairaj @stephen_thornton @jhazan @rogerkline who prove that leaders on Twitter don’t have to be women to be fabulous
- To bright, bubbly new leaders like @anna_babic and all those I’ve met via @NHSLeadership, who fill me with hope for the future. And to @Alannobbs @kirsti79 @NoshinaKiani and all the other great folk at the NHS Leadership Academy. You do stunning work.
- To @GrassrootsSP and everyone who works to prevent the long shadow cast by suicide. Thank you.
- To everyone who supported me in my bike ride for @samaritans in the summer. Especially @NurseEiri and @JackieSmith_nmc. They know why.
- To @Suzypuss whose book The Other Side of Silence has inspired me to get on and finish mine.
- To wise owls @johnwalsh88 @TelfordCC @KathEvans2 @gracenglorydan @timmkeogh @RecoveryLetters @profsarahcowley for being beacons when the world feels a bit too hard
- To friends who also experience mental illness from time to time and who share their thoughts and feelings so generously. Thank you @BipolarBlogger @Sectioned @BATKAT88 @annedraya @clareallen @corstejo @schizoaffected @rabbitsoup_zola and many, many others. On a not-so-good day, yours are the tweets I look out for. You bring me hope.
- If I could, I would add everyone else I’ve chatted with on Twitter this year. To everyone I follow and who follows me: Twitter is 97.5% good for my mental health, and that’s because of all of you. Thank you all so much. I wish you all much love for 2016. You rock :😎💃❤
December 2015 will be a lean month for this blog of mine. At last my book has passed the 3/4 mark; writing it feels less like the psychological equivalent of self-flagellation than it did earlier in 2015. I must keep at it before the muse goes again. I’ve also had a piece accepted for Guardian Healthcare, plus a few talks and a couple of other projects on the go. The blog has slipped down the priority order.
But as I contemplate my 61st Christmas, I’m thinking of lessons learned from the previous 60. Painful and salutory, to me anyway. I’ve jotted them down. I’d welcome hearing yours.
We all know this, but Christmas is about retail. Shops and online sellers expect to do more business in one month than in the other 11 added together. Don’t be a mug. You don’t have to fall prey to them. I have, so many times, and it has never made me happy. Instead, make stuff. If you don’t have time, or your efforts really wouldn’t be appreciated, give to charity in someone’s name. Choose a second-hand book. Put a photo album together. Give away something of yours that you know the other person likes. Or give a promise – a plan for coffee with a friend on a miserable January day gives you both something nice to look forward to and lasts longer than at item bought at vast expense from a retail giant.
Getting all your Christmas cards written and sent is not a competition. If you like doing them, that’s lovely. But telling people yours are all posted can sound boastful, especially if they are having a hard time. Also, try to not to be annoyed at what you perceive as one-upmanship when you get the email from x who is donating money to something for Syria instead of cards this year. Be grateful for their kindness instead.
3. Getting drunk
A bad idea on any day, especially as we get older and alcohol seems only to have negative effects. But on a day so loaded with emotion, it can be disastrous. I once spent Christmas afternoon and evening asleep after overindulging at a neighbour’s Christmas morning do. Steve took the children for a walk on the beach and we had pasta for dinner because I couldn’t face turkey. Eventually I gave up alcohol altogether. You don’t have to be so drastic. But sparkling elderflower or a nice cup of tea will give you a merrier Christmas.
4. Fresh air
Houses got steamy at Christmas with all that cooking and hot air. Plan a walk. It will blow away feelings of resentment or sadness if you have them and lift your mood even if you don’t.
When Tanya Gold told her rabbi she didn’t believe in God, he replied “You think he cares?” I’m unsure about God myself. My mother believes, so when she stays with us at Christmas, I go to church with her. We try a different one each time. We are like Michelin Guide visitors for the Church of England. (Nice sermon, shame about the vicar’s surplice.) This year, she’s with my brother. I will go down to the beach instead and give thanks for nature and human kindness. Worship anything you like. Except money.
In the past I’ve fallen prey to Good Housekeeping Christmas cookery guides and spent many stressful hours producing a groaning table of rich food which no-one really wanted. You don’t have to buy into anyone else’s plans of what to eat at Christmas. Cheese on toast can be nice.
7. Hopes for the day
Spending too much on presents and listening to Alyd Jones on the radio won’t change anything. Only you can do that, by thinking about things that are important to you. As Maya Angelou said, if you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude. I’m working on mine.
8. Hopes for the future
As for the day
9. Everyone else is happy
No they aren’t. And the ones who tell you how happy they are, are probably the unhappiest of all. If you must read articles in Hello about how celebrities spend their Christmases, do it with a massive pinch of salt. The way to happiness is not via designer houses or even another person. It is only when you have learned to love and accept yourself that you can truly be happy and then be in a position, should this arise, to love someone else unselfishly.
Away in a manger
People tend to go on about children at Christmas, and for those yearning for parenthood, this is an added unkindness. All I can say is, if you have babies, yes, they are amazing. But they also bring havoc, anxiety and fear. Imagine being a refugee parent? If you are lucky, they will grow up safely and turn into friends. Being a wise auntie or uncle to real or pretend nieces and nephews brings parental joys without quite so much of the heartache. The real heroes for me are the people who help other people’s children through charities. And by fostering and adoption. Thank you to all such people everywhere; you rock.
Little donkey, or puppy or kitten
Lovely but messy. Unlike a child, you can take them back but you will break their furry little hearts and risk permanent guilt yourself. Offer to help out at an animal shelter. You will then make a better decision about animals in your house.
We got Cuddles, one of our rescue cats, just before Christmas 1999, and almost immediately I went down with flu. She spent her first week with us sleeping on my bed thinking she had come to live with a bedridden elderly lady, which is a pussy-cat ideal billet. When I arose, she was indignant. She died aged 17 in 2012. We still have William to keep us company. Unlike us, he doesn’t miss her at all.
In the bleak midwinter
If you get depression, winter can be peak time. Two years ago, I was coming out of my most sudden, worst ever bout. Christmas was the most casual we have ever had. There were no expectations and so we just had a nice time. I never again want to feel like I did during November and December 2013, but I’m trying to replicate the low-key Christmas that resulted. It was a gift I had not anticipated, all the more precious for it.
If I don’t have a chance to say it again, happy Christmas. May yours be filled with what really matters to those you care about. And to you.