Thursday, 10 June 2021

EVERYTHING YOU SHOULD KNOW BEFORE YOU BLOG | IN COLLABORATION WITH MARTIN BAKER OF GUM ON MY SHOE

I saw another mental health blogger post about ten things you should know before starting therapy (you can read Cara Lisette’s post on her blog) and it inspired me to begin thinking about all the things I’d like to tell someone before they started to blog…

You should make the effort to remember how it started

I enjoyed writing when I was younger and would put together short stories about horses going on adventures; but when the abuse started, the writing stopped. I was so used to writing about the things that were in my mind and, for so many reasons, I couldn’t tell anyone what was happening to me. So, I worried that if I picked up a pen and a journal, I’d write out the entire secret and the whole world would know, and the already horrible situation would be magnified by the opinions of others.

Having quit writing for a few years, I didn’t immediately think of it as a coping skill when my mental health deteriorated in 2009, but it finally occurred to me when I was sectioned under the 1983 Mental Health Act and admitted to a psychiatric hospital for the first time. I remember looking around and seeing all these older inpatients muttering seemingly to themselves, crying, screaming, punching walls, slamming doors… and I realised that if I didn’t start talking about what had happened to me and got help for it, I would be in the exact same place years down the line.

Even though it was two years since the abuse ‘finished,’ I felt that I couldn’t find the words to do justice to all those horrible memories. I mean, what word would accurately describe all the damage he had caused? So, I borrowed a pen and some paper from the staff office and decided to just begin by writing down all my thoughts and feelings and then see where I ended up!

It turned out, that writing became my favourite way of communicating with psychiatric staff – even when I was discharged from hospital and under the care of a Community Treatment Team. I would write about my week and take it in to my weekly appointments with a Community Psychiatric Nurse (CPN) and to monthly reviews with the Psychiatrist who would use my writing as a basis for their decisions around my treatment e.g. whether to increase my medication or if I needed to be referred to the Crisis Team… Doing that, really taught me just how powerful writing can be – that it can completely influence a person’s behaviour and attitude in their relationship with you. So, I kind of think that I shouldn’t have been so surprised when blogging was instantly therapeutic!

After coming around from a coma after a suicide attempt left me on life support, I was transferred to a specialist psychiatric hospital where the average length of admission was stated at being 12 – 18 months. Even knowing that statistic, I was pretty confident that wouldn’t happen to me because I was sure that one of two things would happen: I’d either ‘succeed’ with a suicide attempt, or the staff would get fed up with me and I’d be discharged! And the conviction that one of these would be my reality, was so fierce that it didn’t fade until almost one year of being in the hospital; at which point I came to accept I was an inpatient and realised that if I didn’t put the effort in to get better then it wasn’t going to happen – people/professionals can throw all this help and support at you, but will it actually help if you don’t cooperate?

So, I came to the decision to use my passion for writing as a form of communicating parts of the abuse with the ward staff (particularly my Key Nurse and the Speciality Doctor) in the hope that it would provide them with a better understanding of the motivation and influence behind so many of my actions. On agreeing with my Key Nurse that I would do this writing, I got the sensation that this was a huge step forward in my mental health recovery and recognising this, I decided that I wanted to have somewhere to start documenting the journey and so, I’m NOT Disordered was born!

I remember going to my hospital bedroom to find my laptop sat on the bed and with no real rhyme or reason, I picked it up, googled ‘blog,’ and created an account with Blogger. I didn’t put a whole lot of thought into starting to blog nor even into creating the title! I think this was mostly because I didn’t hold a whole lot of expectations or faith in my blog’s potential. I didn’t imagine it would become such a huge part of my life or that it would still be a part of my life over eight years later!

Having this lack of hope in the beginning of my blog has meant that I’ve been really pleasantly surprised and so grateful to find that I can still remember the moment I’m NOT Disordered was born. I mean, you’d think that not predicting any sense of significance would mean I wouldn’t have absorbed any memories of those early days. So, I’ve been really lucky in that respect, and that feeling of privilege is a real motivation in wanting potential bloggers to remember the creation of their blog so that whether it becomes successful or not, they have something special to refer to when thinking about it.

All your initial ideas on your blog’s aesthetics will matter

I won’t lie and say that I put a whole lot of thought into much of the aesthetic elements of I’m NOT Disordered when I first started blogging. I didn’t consider a ton of options for the title, I didn’t research layout designs of popular blogs to inspire my own, and I definitely didn’t put any thought into creating a logo or some sort of colour scheme.

Firstly, the blog title: I didn’t draw out a mind map of possible titles for my blog (even though this is something I would advise potential bloggers do when they’re first starting out!), but I did put thought into ‘I’m NOT Disordered.’ I wanted to use the title as an opportunity to really get across everything I wanted my blog to stand for in those few words, so I concentrated on the aspect of wanting to use blogging to raise awareness of the fact that mental health shouldn’t define someone.

Then, it might seem quite insignificant but the ‘NOT’ is actually in capitals for a reason: I wanted to illustrate that the phrase should have a lot of strength to it. That it was meaningful and should be taken seriously as opposed to it being just a flippant statement. I hoped that in putting attention on that part of the title, it might emphasise the passion and strength behind the words, and that could set a tone for the rest of my blog. Recognising the importance of the blog’s title, meant that I didn’t feel the need to hash out ideas; I was convinced my immediate idea of ‘I’m NOT Disordered’ was perfect!

Having that confidence has meant that over the years, I’ve not once doubted that decision or considered changing it. I’ve always felt reassured that every interpretation of the title still matched my hopes and intentions for it. I’ve also never received negative comments about it – in fact, if anything, I’ve had a lot of compliments on it!

Unlike the blog title, in terms of the layout and overall design, there were no immediate thoughts or inclinations to do anything in particular. I think a large part of the reason for this was that I had very little knowledge and skill set in that sort of area of technology. I remember asking one of the inpatients I was friends with if she would do the design side of, I’m NOT Disordered for me and it instantly felt like a weight was lifted because it meant I could just concentrate on the writing. Which was probably another reason for my lack of interest in the aesthetics; I was too focused on enjoying the process around creating the content and held more importance to that than I did to the layout of my blog.

Setting the content as my priority meant that I made absolutely no effort to learn how to do the design bits for myself. Sometimes, I realised this wasn’t good; especially where I wanted a change to be made but she couldn’t do it straight away. But still, it wasn’t until her discharge began being planned and I found myself with the very abrupt realisation that how on earth would I’m NOT Disordered continue to increase in popularity if no design updates were made and it became ‘behind’ the standards and trends of newer blogs?

And so, I taught myself! Well, I obviously googled bits here and there(!), but not being a fan of instructions in any sense, I mostly learnt about designing my blog through trial and error. And all the stress and screams of fury seemed to slowly become worthwhile as I watched my blog’s appearance improve and saw it begin to reflect aspects of blogs I was inspired by. I felt so proud that those changes came from me and me alone; it meant that if someone gave positive feedback, I felt totally able to take the credit, and if there were negative comments, I knew that I was responsible and could accept constructive criticism.

Having struggled with change so much throughout my mental health journey, deciding to make even the slightest change with I’m NOT Disordered has felt like an important moment in my blog’s journey. Having this hesitation in changing things lent itself to decisions around the blog’s logo and the colour scheme…

I had started blogging with a logo of a wreath of flowers and a selfie of me in the middle, and I kind of liked the idea of keeping that general setup. So, the other two or three logos I’ve had since that first one, have always been designed around a circle of flowers, but I decided to feature text in the centre rather than my face! I think that a reason for this was that my blog was beginning to feel like a bit of a ‘business’ and so a selfie logo felt a bit too personal and unprofessional.

Another aspect of the blog’s aesthetics which has sort of stuck through the years of re-designing has been the colour scheme. I don’t know why exactly, but purple was quite a central colour in the blogs palette from the beginning and that left me with a sense that it might be a bit of a trademark? As in perhaps ‘purple’ comes to mind in hearing ‘I’m NOT Disordered’? Sort of like my red hair!

Making changes and having the aesthetics of my blog naturally evolve over the years, I’ve come to learn that actually, those original decisions have remained relevant and inspirational over eight years later! And I think that through this fact, I’ve learnt a lot about being proud of where you come from. Where your beginning was. I think it kind of recognises that no matter what my blog looks like, I’ll always remember – and hold dear – how it started.

There’ll be times when you’ll struggle to find inspiration

In all honesty, this is something I didn’t really learn until the last two years maybe (six and seven years into my blogging career), but I think that’s actually why I needed to include it in this blog post; because I’d be concerned someone felt as though they breezed through ideas for content for their blog and then were suddenly faced with this fact – the exact way I was…

In starting I’m NOT Disordered as a psychiatric inpatient; it was very obvious that my content would be inspired by the daily events and occurrences on the ward. With the hospital’s healthcare organisation declaring that the average length of admission to the ward I was on was 12 – 18 months, and I had barely been there six months at the time of creating I’m NOT Disordered, I figured I would have plenty of inspiration to fuel an almost constant stream of content for it!

My one challenge regarding inspiration of content during the years I blogged whilst in hospital was keeping some sort of control over how much information I shared. I especially struggled to maintain discretion when referring to any particular staff, but otherwise I just seemed to blurt everything out in my blog posts. One time, one of the ward managers actually said, “I was going to say something, but it’ll just end up on your blog!” And I remember feeling a bit indignant at the thought that maybe he – and other staff – thought of my blog as something really negative and unhelpful when, in fact, it was the exact opposite. But that made me wonder if even though it was the opposite for me, maybe it wasn’t for anyone else? Maybe no one else benefited from I’m NOT Disordered?

It was actually this concern, which inspired me to reach out to organisations and other individuals and offer them the opportunity at creating content for my blog. Initially, I worried that extending the invitation to produce a guest piece or to collaborate on something, would be a bit presumptuous and as though I was saying that working with me and I’m NOT Disordered would be some sort of ‘achievement.’ But actually, I view collaborations as a rewarding experience for me and my blog; it’s honestly been an honour and a privilege to have worked with every single one of the people and organisations I have.

A huge part of that appreciation for collaborations has been that it’s really enabled me to be even more creative with finding inspiration for blog content. I love hearing of an organisation or person’s work and then me being able to put the effort in to make their work appropriate and applicable to be featured on a mental health blog. I really enjoy when a collaboration has readers surprised and confused as to how it’s relevant to my typical content because it allows me the opportunity to raise awareness of the enormously huge and widely spread impact and influence mental health can have in life.

During those almost two years from me starting to blog to being discharged from hospital, I remained pretty much unchallenged in creating content. Which meant that when my discharge from the psychiatric hospital came up in December 2014, I had no idea as to where to look for content inspiration. This new, challenging confusion was a big reason for me to consider closing I’m NOT Disordered down because I was sceptical that I would be able to create content whilst being a person in recovery and living in the community. I wondered ‘how would my life be any different to the lives of so many other people?’

I mean, when I started blogging, I was very aware that I had found a bit of a niche in the mental health blogging industry because there were really only three well-known blogs in that field. The first was written by a Police Officer who talked about his interest in mental health and the call outs related to it. Another was by an ex-service user who focused on talking about her experience of one hospitalisation. Third, was by a psychiatric nurse who had struggled with her own mental health. As far as I knew, at that point, there wasn’t a blog by a psychiatric inpatient. Whilst this is something, I’m really grateful because I wonder whether my blog would have been so popular if that niche hadn’t been there; there was also a drawback to it. And it was around the thoughts of content; because how could I continue to provide niche content when I was no longer in that position? And if I couldn’t, surely that would leave my blog more crowded by those which were starting to pop up and were managed by community service users?

Unfortunately – or fortunately depending on how you look at it – recovery isn’t linear and so me being discharged from the psychiatric hospital didn’t mean that I would have no bad days, no hallucinations, and no thoughts of self-harm or suicidal ideation. Initially, the fact that things didn’t stay all bright and happy was something I was very reluctant to talk about on I’m NOT Disordered out of concern for the chance that doing so may rob readers of hope. I worried it might leave someone thinking that there’s no point in engaging in therapies or taking medication if ‘recovery’ doesn’t make everything permanently perfect. Developing a sort of ‘why-bother?’ kind of attitude… Over a short time though, professionals reassured me that it was normal to have ‘bumps’ in your recovery journey and so I realised that if I didn’t blog about recovery not being a straight line, so many people might feel like they’ve failed in their recovery. In creating I’m NOT Disordered; I have a huge opportunity to raise awareness of some really important aspects and experiences and I kind of feel like it’d be almost wrong to not use that platform to help others.

After deciding to include blog posts about any bumps in my recovery, I still found that I was occasionally needing to actively hunt down inspiration for some of my content. And I began viewing creating content as a more creative task and having always loved being creative (since tearing up catalogues with my Nana and making collages out of my favourite toys) it meant that having to source inspiration actually felt more like being assigned a really nice task than facing some sort of difficult challenge!

Your priorities might change

Even with me not having any real expectations in creating I’m NOT Disordered, I immediately had priorities for the beginning of my blogging journey…

The first priority I can remember establishing when I started blogging in 2013 was to create an outlet for myself. Being a psychiatric inpatient and on a ward, which specialised in Personality Disorders, the environment was mostly extremely volatile and unsettled. There was always someone arguing with staff. Always someone slamming doors or stotting their head of the wall. It was so noisy and there were so many instances where inpatients really clashed with one another and having been a part of some of those instances, I had learnt that nothing productive ever came from responding to someone who was screaming in your face, or who was being rude, or expressing an opinion and behaving in a way which I didn’t support or agree with.

But, of course, in biting my tongue in these heated moments, all of my frustration and argument was internalised, and I began to feel like I would just explode at the slightest of issues! So, I thought that in blogging I would have a space where I could really let my passion run wild, and an outlet for all my thoughts and experiences. I thought it would be a healthy, therapeutic way to be honest and open without really causing a complete imbalance in my environment.

When I started to feel a bit braver with, I’m NOT Disordered, I developed a new priority which was all about using my blogging in a way that could benefit others. Initially, this was through wanting to improve the knowledge of mental health among my loved ones. Prior to the hospitalisation in which I started blogging, I had kept the majority of my mental illness and my experiences of self-harm and suicide attempts a secret from my friends. After being told that the average admission to this hospital was 12 – 18 months, I realised I needed to be honest and put together a post on Facebook which proved to be very popular and I was relieved to see the comments on it were full of support. So, knowing that pretty much everyone in my life knew about my mental illness, I recognised that this didn’t automatically mean that they understood any element of it; and how could they if I didn’t talk about it?

Having my blog benefit others in some way has remained a priority over eight years later! And honestly, I’m not sure you should even be blogging if you don’t want your readers to benefit from it in some way. My priorities for my readers are still around educating them because so many people are being misinformed about mental illness through different media channels or through stigmatised comments from others. But, since talking more about the abuse I experienced when I was younger, I’ve come to learn/realise that my blog can also benefit readers through reassuring them that they are not alone in their own experiences of trauma. And this holds true to my blogging about the help and support I’ve received with my self-harm and suicidal thoughts and attempts. My readers seeing that someone else has struggled with those aspects of mental illness can encourage them to reach out and ask for help too.

Then, as my blog’s popularity grew (initially through word-of-mouth, but now through some features in the media and shares on social media) my priorities changed again. I’m NOT Disordered became a bigger commitment which had a much stronger and more obvious importance in my life than I had originally anticipated it would. And this led me to beginning to view my blogging in a more serious and professional light with my priority becoming partly (because part was still about benefiting my readers) about improving my content and building on my audience statistics.

Initially, I was kind of reluctant to talk about this new priority because I worried that it was actually kind of superficial and shallow to be so passionate and concentrated on the popularity of my blog. I thought that some people might begin to believe that I was blogging for all the ‘wrong’ reasons. That I was doing it for the notoriety and attention. As someone who was – at one point in my mental health journey – labelled an ‘attention seeker’ by so many professionals, I know the damage that label can do. I know the connotations it has, and I know the consequences of using the term wilfully and ignorantly. And knowing these things, means I’m so aware of doing anything that could possibly be interpreted that way.

After a little while – after really learning to acknowledge and accept my priorities – I found the confidence that gave me the ability to provide context and rationale to those who questioned them. I found myself able explain that in striving for an increase in I’m NOT Disordered’s readers, it was actually about the fact that the more people who read my words, the greater the chance that they will help someone in some way. I was also able to talk more about the fact that my statistics – my blog’s popularity – are a huge reason why I secure so many amazing opportunities.

I mean, it’s very obvious that saying ‘I’m a mental health blogger’ or ‘my blog has over nine hundred thousand readers’ make a huge difference when approaching organisations or individuals with the idea of a collaboration. Initially, realising that sometimes I needed to mention the number of readers was kind of upsetting because it inspired the thought in my head that just me and my blog weren’t good or deserving enough. However, that evolved into the realisation that my blog wouldn’t have such a big audience if it was useless – of course I recognise that some readers might not like I’m NOT Disordered and might not come back to it – or if the content was no good!

You’ll risk being vulnerable and open to judgment

When I was going through the abuse, a huge motivation for me keeping quiet and not reporting what was being done to me was the thought, worry, and concern that the second I told someone, I’d be judged. Judged in terms of some people will think I deserved the abuse or even just simply that my abuser hasn’t done anything wrong. Judged in terms of some people accusing me of lying about the entire thing! Isn’t it kind of unbelievable that I’ve gone from not talking about the abuse to anyone, to blogging about it for the whole world to see? It’s one of those times where you look back and then forwards and can’t believe you were the same person in both instances!

Remembering all those pent up, secret thoughts and feelings still makes my head feel all full and overwhelmed. And when I think about how open and honest, I am now, it’s like a weight was lifted and someone added a faucet to my head so that all of those scary, intimidating things were able to escape and to relieve the pressure in my mind.

The turning point – the moment I went from being full of secrets and terrified of judgment, to blogging it all out and having very little regard for how it might shape the way others see me – was when I was in the psychiatric hospital in 2013. I guess that the admission – and a few other things – gave me the notion that the thoughts of others really didn’t scare me. That their opinions of me wouldn’t destroy me, my life, or my mental health. It was like; ‘I’ve literally got nothing to lose at this point!’

Ironically, it isn’t just about the words you blog which could influence some sort of judgment; it’s also about the fact that you’re blogging about those words. You know? It’s not all about readers thinking I deserved the abuse, it’s also about readers questioning my motives as to why I’d share my experience (both in the abuse and in my mental health). I mean, was I just doing it to gain sympathy and attention?

In blogging about the abuse and my mental health, self-harm and suicide attempts, I definitely made myself so vulnerable and open to the judgment, the criticism, and the stigma. Initially, this was actually really risky because at the time, and nasty comments might have been enough to leave me feeling unsafe and unhappy. However, I think that over time – and with the popularity of my blog behind me – I began to develop a thicker skin and whilst I’ve only ever had two or three spiteful comments on my blog, I believe that being slightly robust in blogging, is a good and helpful quality to have.

I think that one aspect of this vulnerability and judgement that is really important to remember, is recognising your responsibility in any difficult, upsetting situations that arise. Firstly, it’s so incredibly ‘easy’ to say that someone’s actions made you feel or act in a certain way rather than examine why you’ve responded the way you have to someone else’s wrongdoing. And in blogging, it’s very easy to have some sort of insult thrown at you and go on the defensive… A huge controversy in blogging is around whether what you choose to put out there on your blog or on social media is kind of ‘asking for trouble.’ It’s sad, but true that talking about your mental health or expressing an opinion in any way(!), has the ability to open you up to criticisms and personal, hurtful insults. And who takes the blame for that? Is it on the blogger? Did they make themselves vulnerable? Or should the bully or troll be held accountable? Do they deserve some sort of consequence for being spiteful?

 

AND HERE’S WHAT MARTIN BAKER OF GUM ON MY SHOE THINKS…

I’m grateful to Aimee for inviting me to contribute to this article. In some ways the best lessons are those we learn for ourselves, but here are a few things I wish someone had told me before I began on my blogging journey.

You may not find your niche at the first attempt

You may not find your niche at the first attempt My current and most successful blog is Gum on My Shoe (www.gumonmyshoe.com) which I began in 2013 with my best friend and co-author Fran Houston. Before that, I had two blogs that never got anywhere. The first was a home for my poetry (my Collected Poems 1977–1984 is available on Amazon). The second was meant to be a forum for my more or less random musings. Neither blog lasted long, because I had no real aims and little idea of my target audience. Gum on My Shoe was and is different. It sprang from a desire to share our experience of mental illness and supportive friendships, and serves as a platform for our books and other content. The lesson here is don’t worry too much if your first, or even your second, blog doesn’t work out the way you hoped. Give yourself permission to start again. You’ll know when it feels right.

You will wonder why you started (but don’t stop!)

As with anything creative there will be times when you find blogging hard. It’s not all glamorous and there’s a lot to learn, remember, and work at if you want it to be successful (however you measure success). I’ve written about some of the things I struggle with before [link]. https://www.gumonmyshoe.com/2020/06/when-blogging-is-hard-and-what-to-do.html

There have definitely been times when I’ve wondered if the hard work was worth it, and seriously considered giving up on it. It’s so valuable to have a good support team at times like these. Having Fran, Aimee, and other friends on board helps me keep going when I’m struggling with ideas, motivation, or a lack of confidence. It’s okay to pause your blog, of course, if you need to step away for any reason, or stop altogether if blogging no longer serves you, but having a supportive team will help you make those decisions consciously, rather than giving up because things are tough.

Keep a notebook (or app) handy!

Blogging ideas come at the most random of moments, and if you’re anything like me you’ll forget the best of them unless you jot them down straight away. Keep a notebook and pen with you at all times, or use a note-keeping app on your phone or tablet. I use Google Keep because it’s quick and simple, and synchs seamlessly across all my devices, but use whatever works for you. It’s a good idea to date your entries so you can find them afterwards and relate them to whatever was going on at the time.

You will change people’s lives

This might seem an odd thing to include, for a couple of reasons. Maybe the whole point of your blog is to change people’s lives in some way, so you hardly need reminding! Or maybe what you write about seems unlikely to change anyone’s life. My first two blogs definitely fell into the latter category; Gum on My Shoe into the former, because Fran and I hope we can help people by sharing our experiences and story. In either case, it’s something you cannot really appreciate until it happens. And it will happen. No matter how “serious” or “light” the topic you write about, no matter what genre you blog in, if you write with integrity and passion, your words will move and affect people. The day you receive that first blog comment, or email, or social media message telling you how much your words meant to someone, will be a big day. I wish someone had prepared me in advance. Savour those moments, whether they are rare or frequent, because they are what blogging is all about.

You can follow Martin on Twitter: https://twitter.com/GumOnMyShoeBook

And read his blog: www.gumonmyshoe.com