friendship

How do you feel today?

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They say you should do something scary every day. I’m not sure. Although I do know that I need the occasional exhilaration of putting myself in an uncomfortable position and overcoming my nerves to make me feel fully alive. Such opportunities came along a bit too frequently when I was a chief executive. But these days I probably don’t scare myself often enough.

Today is the annual Time To Change #TimeToTalk day. Last night, the choir I recently joined held an open mike session. And I decided to terrify myself at the last minute by offering to do a turn.

Although I can follow a tune and love to sing, I am not like the other wonderful acts that got up and entertained us. I have no special musical talent. But I can talk about stuff.

So I found myself standing there and explaining to a packed pub why I had decided to join the choir. Which is that singing with other people is really good for me. Since school choir days, I have yearned to sing again in a choir. I am full of wonder at being part of something greater than myself. I love having to concentrate really hard in order to follow the music. It moves me when a piece we have faltered over suddenly comes together in glorious harmony. Singing with others of a much higher standard helps me to raise my own game. It feels visceral yet sublime.

And I told them about my history of anxiety and depression, and the impact it has had on me, off and on, over 45 years since I was 15. I talked about stigma, including self stigma. And I told them them that I knew I wasn’t alone, because at least 1:4 people in that pub were like me, possibly more. I told about the research of the positive impact of singing on mental well-being.

And then I asked them to join me and celebrate Time to Talk Day by talking to someone else about mental health.

How did it go? Well, I was nervous of course. But they were lovely. I got clapped and cheered. There were a few tears. And some lovely conversations later. I shouldn’t really have expected anything else. The choir is amazing and our conductor MJ is not only a multi-talented musician. She is also an inspiring, compassionate leader. She gets the best from all of us, as singers but also humans.

If you have experienced mental illness but feel shy about telling people in case they judge you, maybe you could do something scary today? Please think about taking the plunge and talking to someone about it, what you do to cope but also how it is only one thing about you. Talk to a colleague, a friend or just someone you happen to bump into. Use Time to Talk Day as your excuse. And ask them about their own mental health. Listen really carefully to what they say. I think you will be pleasantly surprised by your conversation.

And how do I feel today? I think you can probably guess :):):)

January can be a wicked month

Whether you call it Seasonal Affective Disorder, the winter blues, even depression, January can be a wicked month for those of us who have problems maintaining our mood. The combination of miserable weather, not enough light, post-holiday flatness and getting back on the treadmill can feel pretty grim.

So what to do? Reading breezy articles in lifestyle magazines might lead you to believe that the answers to your woes lie in spending money you almost certainly don’t have on new clothes, visits to spas, holidays or even a home makeover.

Such advice can make people like us feel even worse. As can admonishments to start a new you via a radical change to your diet, new hobbies or an unrealistic exercise regime. When we are feeling low, stuff like this plays into the isolation and hopelessness that already beset us. We know we probably should do these things, but we can’t because we believe we are hateful and lazy and useless and undeserving and anyway, there isn’t any point because nothing will ever get any better.

From my somewhat extensive experience of Januaries past, I offer an alternative list, proven, on the occasions when I have actually taken my own advice, to work.

  1. Stop being mean to and about yourself. You deserve kindness. Start thinking of yourself in a kinder way. When you find yourself putting yourself down and focusing on your deficits, turn this on its head and make a list of your assets instead. Practice being proud of who you are.
  2. Walk places, if possible every day. Walking is proven to lift our mood. It releases endorphins. And it’s free. The first ten minutes may be hard going but after that it will feel a bit easier. The rhythm of walking is soothing. It strengthens the heartbeat. And even if you find meditation impossible in the more usual way, walking will help calm any troubling thoughts.
  3. Tidy something small. Start by making your bed. Do the washing up. Put out some rubbish. Creating order in our surroundings helps to us to create order in our minds.
  4. Whatever you are doing today, do it to the best of your ability. Even if it something you hate, like cleaning or filling in forms. And at the end of the task, take pride in what you have achieved. Tell yourself you did well. And remember to praise yourself not for the outcome, but for the effort you put in to achieving it.
  5. Force yourself to talk to someone else. It may feel easier to hide away, but this is statistically proven to make things worse. Humans need contact with other humans. Parties and large groups can feel overwhelming unless you are at your best. Instead, arrange to have a cup of tea with a friend. Or pop round to see a neighbour. Ask how they are. And when they ask you, answer them honestly. If you are really isolated, think seriously about calling a helpline.

If you are feeling desperate, please, please seek help. Try this wonderful app created by Grassroots, a charity I am deeply grateful to be associated with as a trustee. Or call Samaritans,  who are there 24/7 to listen, without judging. They really can help. I know, as I’ve tried them myself in the past.

January can be a horrid month for many of us. But we can get through, if we are kind to ourselves and reach out.

Because, as the advert says, we’re worth it.

 

Blessings

books

Books that have inspired me this year by @Suzypuss @jamestitcombe and @molly_speaks

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 :mrgreen: :😎💃❤

 

Nine lessons and three carols

Cuddles and William declare an uneasy Christmas truce

Cuddles and William: an uneasy Christmas truce

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.

1. Presents

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.

2. Cards

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.

5. Worship

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.

6. Food

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.

 

Please do this and please don’t say that

Since coming out about my on-off relationship with depression, I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve asked me stuff and told me things. Some have been extremely helpful, some not so much.

Here’s my handy guide on what not to say to someone like me:

  1. Please don’t ask “So why do you think you get depressed?” If I knew that, I’d fix it. I’m trying to find out, but it’s a work in progress.
  2. Please don’t say “Have you thought about exercise?” You bet I have. And now I’m in recovery, I’d love you to come for a walk or bike ride with me. And see if you can keep up.
  3. Please don’t say things like “When I retire, I’m worried I might get depression like you did. How can I avoid it?” I don’t know! What I do know is that depression isn’t caused by one thing. If you’ve got to this stage in life without experiencing it, chances are you never will. But I can’t make any promises.
  4. Please don’t say “When I get depressed, I always…. (insert favourite pastime/exercise/indulgence.)” Thanks for the information, but you haven’t had depression. Or you wouldn’t say that.
  5. Please don’t say ” Do you think talking/writing about your depression might make it worse/bring it on?” No I don’t. Sure, exploring this stuff is painful. But psychological wounds are like physical ones. They won’t heal if you simply cover them up. They will fester. To heal properly, wounds need sunlight and oxygen. Being open is the antidote to the nasty old stigma which makes people who don’t experience mental illness feel embarrassed about it and people like me who do feel ashamed.
  6. Please don’t say “I never thought of you as the sort of person to get depression. I always thought you were so strong.” Yes. And that’s part of the problem. If you read Tim Cantopher’s Depressive Illness: The Curse of the Strong, it will help to invert your thinking about depression. As it did mine.
  7. If I’m not on medication, please don’t tell me that I should be taking it. If I am, please don’t pass judgement, or ask if I have thought about talking therapies instead. And please don’t call antidepressants “happy pills”. People with physical illnesses such as cancer or heart disease don’t need well-intentioned, uninformed amateurs to opine on their treatment. People with mental illnesses are the same. It is neither good nor bad to take medication. It is just sometimes an essential part of getting better or staying well.
  8. Please don’t say “You seem too jolly/optimistic to get depression.” Again, do read Tim Cantopher. Depression is rarely a permanent state. For me, the stark contrast between how I feel when depressed and my state when well is close to unbearable.

Depression isn’t the same thing as sadness. In my case, it is a combination of self-loathing and emptiness. But we are all different. See my letter to you for further info. It includes the details of the book I mentioned above.

Having listed some Please Don’ts, here is a precis of what I have found, through experience, really helps.

Do please:

  1. Hold my hand when I need it
  2. Be patient
  3. Listen carefully and don’t overreact
  4. Resist judging
  5. Encourage me to seek professional help if I seem to be going round in circles
  6. Tell me you won’t allow me to let this thing define me
  7. Avoid defining me by it yourself
  8. At the same time, allow me to incorporate it into my life.

Like anyone who experiences any form of mental illness, be it lifelong or more fleeting, I am so much more than it. But it is also part of me. I am learning to accept this, as I hope you can too. Not for me, but for the 1:4 people who experience mental illness from time to time. Because this is the only way we will truly eradicate the stigma that so besets us.

Thank you for your kindness in reading this. It means a lot.

Here’s to kindness

My friend Sara said yesterday that I seem to mention kindness a lot in my blogs. She’s right. I’ll explain what kindness means to me.

  1. Kindness is a gift we can each share with other humans, however rich or poor we are. It is remarkable that those with the least material wealth, such as people I know in Pakistan, are often the most generous to strangers as well as family and friends.
  2. Kindness means listening to another person as they seek meaning, understanding and eventually accommodation in bad things that have happened to them.
  3. I used to think kindness was about other people. Recently, I’ve learned that to be truly kind to others, one has to start by being kind to oneself. This is harder than it sounds. And it takes a lot of practice.
  4. Kindness includes going to an event, a leaving do, even a funeral, not because you necessarily want to, but because it would mean a great deal to someone else to have you there.
  5. Kindness is about reaching out to someone who is lonely, low or appears to be in need of help, and not minding if you are rebuffed.
  6. Kindness helps you to offer genuine congratulations to someone who has worked hard to achieve something admirable, even if you aren’t feeling great yourself. You may notice that their positive reaction will make you feel warmer and more contented.
  7. We saw great kindness in Sussex on Saturday, as thousands came to pay their respects to the 11 who died in the Shoreham air crash. By laying flowers on the footbridge, observing a minute’s silence, lighting a little candle or wearing a black armband, people showed love to the bereaved and to one another. Their kindness has made a terrible time feel slightly less terrible.
  8. I’d like to think that in the UK, we might extend our kindness to the desperate people currently queuing at Calais, being smuggled in containers or risking their lives in tiny boats to cross the Mediterranean. The so-called “migrant” crisis is actually a humanitarian crisis. The people fleeing torture, war and starvation from troubled parts of the world are not “benefit – cheats”. They come from all walks of life. They are doing what any of us would do in similar circumstances. And Great Britain is not really “full-up.” Compared with them, we have great riches, including plenty of room and resources. And if helping makes things a little bit less comfortable for some of us for a while, then so what? If we were in a lifeboat, would we prevent another person from climbing in, just because we liked our own space, and leave them to drown? I hope we wouldn’t.
  9. In Buddhism, kindness is named explicitly. But as a matter of fact, kindness is the fundamental feature of all world religions, including humanism. The parable of the Good Samaritan in the Bible, after which Samaritans are named, is about kindness. People who volunteer to help others enrich our world with their kindness.
  10. There are many people who write about kindness. The blog I’d most recommend is by @johnwalsh88. Here is a link to his latest. And here is the philosophy of the author.

In the 35 years that Sara and I have been friends, she has led by example and taught me a great deal about kindness. Everyone who knows her will understand what I mean. I will be forever grateful to her for this.

This will be my last blog for a while.  I’ve a book to finish and blogging, while good practice, is too easy a distraction.

I’ll be back. Meanwhile, let’s put pressure on our government. Let’s no longer feel ashamed of images of drowned people on the shores of seas close to our green and pleasant land.

Here’s to kindness. In the end, it is all that we have to give.

 

Sussex will never be the same. But we stand together

Saturday 22 August 2015, lunchtime. I’m looking forward to football – Brighton and Hove Albion v Blackburn Rovers. We got back from holiday last night. Steve has gone to Storrington via the A27 near Shoreham Airport to collect William from his cattery. They should have been home an hour ago. I notice via Twitter that there has been an incident at the air show affecting the A27. Slight anxiety till husband and cat return.

At 2.15 I set off on my bike to the Amex. The air is warm and still, the roads empty. At the stadium, we learn that kick – off will be delayed as the A27 at Lancing is shut both ways. Several thousand spectators fail to arrive. We win, not especially well. People keep checking their phones for news.The atmosphere is muted. Son, 28, hugs me spontaneously.

It is only the next day, as estimates of the number who may have been killed keep rising that the enormity of that Saturday moment really begins to sink in.

As I go about my Sunday, I think of those anxiously awaiting news. The names of two 23 year olds are released as the first to have lost their lives.They were semi-pro footballers at Worthing United, en route to a match in Loxwood. One was an Albion employee, both were Albion fans. Tony Bloom, our chairman, loses his composure as he pays tribute to two lovely boys. There will be many mothers like me feeling guilty for being thankful we have no-one missing.

Monday 24 August. On the Today programme, John Humphrys allows his exasperation at the dissembling of an aviation authority representative to get the better of him. He refers to the German Wings incident and talks of “Mad people getting into the cockpit”. A gratuitous, stigmatising link. I recall an appearance myself on Today earlier this year to challenge the German Wings coverage.

A planned day out with a friend to celebrate our 60th birthdays starts with an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum. The poignancy of the loss of young lives catches me unawares.

Much later on my way home, I check the BBC website. There are now six named dead or missing, at least five more to come. The A27 will remain closed all week. The West Sussex Coroner calls for patience; the scene of devastation is beyond comprehension, and identifying the bodies is painstaking work.

Tuesday 25 August. The national media has moved on. But Radio Sussex and our local paper The Argus continue to dedicate much space to the incident. The reporting is beautiful in its sensitivity and as far from sensationalist as you could hope. Careful attention is paid to those already known to be lost, those waiting for news, the ones involved in the clear up and local people who are just shocked and stunned. MP Tim Loughton does what leaders should in times of crisis and is present, calm and thoughtful in his comments. The police, ambulance, fire and rescue teams and volunteer helpers are heroic. The NHS is doing what it does best, saving lives, or trying to. News of the pilot isn’t good but people pray for him. There is no finger pointing. But there are understandable queries about whether vintage planes should be used in air displays over built up areas. The Shoreham Airshow as we know it may be no more.

We all have mental health. Events such as these don’t cause mental illness. But they affect our wellbeing in many ways. It’s wonderful to see Sussex Partnership and the rest of the NHS offering advice and help to those who need it.

And I’m pleased to see my friend Daniel from Brighton, Hove and District Samaritans speaking about voluntary support, including Samaritan volunteers who have been making themselves available to talk to distressed folk paying tribute to the dead. I can think of no-one better placed in such circumstances.

Thursday 29 August. This morning, two days after posting the original version of this blog, I get a call from Radio Sussex. They are doing a programme on Saturday lunchtime live from Shoreham Footbridge to pay tribute to all those who have died, been hurt, have helped in the clear-up or been otherwise affected in any way. Presenter Neil Pringle has suggested they ask me to appear in the programme. I couldn’t be more honoured. I will do my best to say things that will help people.

These are troubling times. Sussex has been dealt a body blow. How can we all help one another? By standing together, being patient, thankful, hopeful, and relentlessly kind.