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Book Review: High Tide, Low Tide by Martin Baker and Fran Houston

Hi guys! I know it’s a rare occurrence to get a blog post from me nowadays, but the truth is I’m trying hard to get more of a work/life balance, which means less time in front of screens outside of work, so recently I’ve really been trying to just enjoy my reading for the sake of enjoying it, rather than blogging. (Also, my time management still seems to be lacking … )

Having said that, Martin was kind enough to notice me as a publisher in the mental health publishing industry and wanted to know my thoughts on his book High Tide, Low Tide, and so here they are!

 

 

How Can You Be a Good Friend, When Your Friend Lives with Mental Illness?

We all want to be there for our friends, but when your friend lives with mental illness it can be hard to know what to do, especially if you live far apart. Transatlantic best friends Martin Baker and Fran Houston share what they’ve learned about growing a supportive, mutually rewarding friendship between a “well one” and an “ill one.”

“High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder” offers no-nonsense advice from the caring friend’s point of view, original approaches and practical tips, illustrated with real-life conversations and examples.

 

Perceptive, informative, interesting, educational, touching, and valuable, this book stresses the importance of a support system for those who struggle with mental health difficulties. I can’t stress enough, having my own lived experience with mental ill health in the family, how important and effective it can be to have a strong support system around you. What’s interesting is that Martin was able to provide this for his friend, despite the fact that he lives a long way away from her.

I was genuinely impressed – and I admit, a little bit surprised – by this book. I’m always really wary of self-help type books that aren’t written by industry experts in case the author accidentally gets something wrong. But everything I read was right on the mark. The book is insightful and very emotionally intelligent, without patronising the reader or the people the reader is looking to support. It gives brilliant advice, and not just tangible step-by-step goals, but emotional, mental and friendship advice too.

High Tide, Low Tide is so unique in that it caters towards friends, rather than just partners or family. It also comes from a unique angle in that Marty provides support for Fran despite living in the UK, whereas she’s in the US. It’s a nice proof that anyone has the capacity to be as helpful a friend as their own life allows or has space for. In that way I think it fills a gap in the market.

The book is very insightful. It makes you come to realisations about the human psyche and the dynamics of friendship that you never knew you always knew – until you read it in Marty’s words. For example, he talks about how setting certain boundaries is vital, how not to fall into co-dependency, and that just because a friend really wants your help or asks for your help, doesn’t mean you have any obligation to do it. I was relieved to read this, because Marty admits himself that he and Fran talk twice daily, that he has a very, very big part in her life despite their living oceans apart. He knows her friends, medical professionals, and knows about her daily routine and wellness plan. I like the fact that Marty doesn’t expect you to have such an intense involvement in your own friends’ lives, because I know I certainly found it to be quite full-on.

I will say that if you read this book, don’t be put off if you can’t do as much as Marty is able to do for Fran. Even at one point he is able to put her thought and behaviour patterns into quite elaborate analogies. He refers to the variables in Fran’s life as ‘sine waves’ and is able to help her understand herself and her life using this analogy. While it’s so useful for readers to be given this analogy so that they can use it in their own lives, I would advise readers not to feel out of their depth if they can’t give this level of insight to their own friends. It’s quite in-depth and I think this is where Marty goes above and beyond, probably above and beyond what some people can manage.

I did wonder from time to time about Marty’s role in Fran’s life. At one point he puts it upon himself to remind her, during a manic phase, that she shouldn’t be driving recklessly or smoking in a wooden house. I found this to be such a fascinating dynamic because, in my own therapy sessions with my sisters, I’ve been told over and over again not to ‘parent’ my sisters. Our relationship should be adult > adult not parent > child. And I gave it some thought and wondered whether mental illness changes this concept at all. Is it okay for Marty to sometimes become the ‘parent’ figure (in my own perception – he doesn’t use this terminology himself. He might not even see it the same way I do.) I think in this case, yes, and here’s why: because Fran tells him to ‘care, not to worry’. And I think that’s what stops him being the ‘parent’ figure. He just cares about her safety, as her friend. Is he not worrying about her or bossing her about, he’s just looking out for her as a friend.

I was also pleasantly surprised that the book didn’t leave any stone unturned and yet it’s not unbearably long or dense. It’s easy to read, accessible, and very well written and edited. It covers some important points that I knew I wanted to see going into it – especially the concept of self-care for the person providing the support. It’s absolutely vital for people who support others with mental health difficulties to look after themselves too. I speak from experience: unless you look after yourself too, you burn out and actually risk your own mental wellbeing.

The book is into easy-to-read sections, giving an insight into Fran’s life, Marty’s life, and their relationship. It also talks more broadly about bipolar disorder (the different types, with explanations of depression and mania) and other, more universal topics that relate to everyone in terms of mental health.

The book is not prescriptive, which is so valuable. It advises, rather than instructs. Marty often uses the words ‘I recommend’ rather than ‘you should’, and always reminds you that it’s up to you and your friend how you navigate your relationship in unsteady waters and uncharted territory. He’s just giving you some advice that might help for you.

The only thing I think I would change about the book – and it was very hard to think of anything, to be honest – is that I would take out the list of the names of bipolar disorder medications and the long descriptions of what they are. I think there’s always a risk of people reading this sort of thing from anyone other than a medical professional and deciding for themselves what medications they should or shouldn’t have. I’ve even heard of people reading up on medications and then going to the doctor and demanding medicines that really wouldn’t actually work for them personally. I think discussions of medications should be confined to conversations between a psychiatrist and the patient, and if they’re given certain medications, the psychiatrist should be providing them with all this info anyway. I don’t really see any benefit to that section, but that’s genuinely just my opinion.

I was honestly very impressed by this book – and I know what I’m talking about, as a mental health publisher. If you’re supporting someone in your life with bipolar disorder, this book would be invaluable for you. Don’t hesitate to give it a try. It’s a gem of a book.

 

You can hear more from Martin on Twitter at GumOnMyShoeBook 

You can buy a copy of the book here.

This info on the authors is from their publishers’ website:

About the Authors

A successful electrical engineer until illness struck, author and photographer Fran Houston has lived with bipolar disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome, and fibromyalgia for over twenty years. Fran lives in Portland, Maine, and is passionate about making invisible illness visible. Three thousand miles away in the north-east of England, Martin Baker is an ASIST trained Mental Health First Aider and Time to Change Champion. A member of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Mind, and Bipolar UK, Martin is also Fran’s primary support and lifeline.

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Nutters by P.J. Davy

This was one of the books I bought from the Book Sale at the Hull Central Library. I got it at a bargain at £1 – especially since I later found it for sale at W.H Smith at around £8. Definitely couldn’t grumble at that!

I do love finding and reading books by independent publishers. They prove to me time and time again that the indies can publish just as well as the Big Five and bigger companies.

So, today’s review is about this book:

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Nutters by P.J. Davy is published by Snowbooks.

Mental illness is extremely topical – now more than ever, as society tries to find more effective ways to increase awareness and understanding for those who suffer. It’s for this reason that this book caught my eye. It looked to address an important subject but in a light-hearted and comical matter, which made it more appealing. Not to say that I’m not open to reading more serious books on the matter, but that was part of why I was interested in buying the book.

Rufus Waters has had enough of being labelled a loon. Enough of medication and therapy. Enough of the pitying looks and nervous changes of subject. Enough of being stood up and turned down. Enough, in short, of being a nutter.

‘I choose sanity,’ he informs his erstwhile girlfriend, bi-polar Kate. Rufus shrugs off Kate’s misgivings and forges ahead with his plans for the New Improved Rufus Waters. He bins his medication, sacks his glamorous psychiatrist, and quickly acquires both job and new girlfriend in a matter of days.

This promising start is, however, a false dawn. Soon his re-invented self, in his freshly-picked sane world, is falling apart and it takes the wisdom of a drug-addled Latin professor to bring some sense into his world once more.

The strongest attribute of this novel is its wonderful array of interesting and flawed characters. Because, let’s face it, they’re what keep life interesting. Rufus, the main character, is from a middle-class, well-off family, and is a brilliant representation of how mental illness can befall anyone in any circumstance, not just those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. When he first meets his future girlfriend Kate, a girl who comes from a more modest working-class family, he has to fight hard against her stereotypes. They meet at a support group and she gives him a hard time for being there.

‘Depression my arse. What have you ever had to be depressed about? He’s had everything, all his life. Posh school, posh house, shed loads of money. Skiing every year, shouldn’t bloody wonder. Doesn’t even have to get a job.’

Rufus found his voice. ‘Excuse me for not coming from a sink estate and being the product of a lesbian mother and an alcoholic father,’ he said. ‘I suppose you’d prefer that.’

‘It’d make more bloody sense.’

Rufus raised his eyebrows with some effort. ‘Well, well, who’d have thought it. Nutters can be bigots too…I thought, and this is must prove how mad I am, that a person who knew what it was like to be a nutter from personal experience might possibly have the teeniest bit of insight into what it was like for someone else. But no, how wrong I was. Everywhere I go it’s the same. Priveleged plus posh, plus depressed, equals whingeing failure. Dragged up in a high rise by parents with a combined IQ of room temperature, plus packs of feral children to play with, plus any fucking psychosis you like, equals poor unfortunate deserving of our sympathy. Now I know what they mean by the NHS being a postcode lottery.’

This works so effectively at demonstrating the attitude of many people today. This scene is a microcosm of what happens in society, and what genuinely needs to stop if people are to get the help they need.

Rufus’ friend Teach is another example of this. Once a well-respected and top professor in his field, with a good reputation and strong intellect, Teach has succumbed to the pressures of society and spiralled into pit a of hopelessness, homelessness, drug abuse and depression. Despite this, he continues to talk, and think, like the professor he once was. He talks with an intellectual flair and formality, but his subject matter is far removed, and he often quotes Latin and poetry incorrectly, as though he’s a slightly broken and off-kilter version of his former self. This makes him even more charming and loveable. The contrast between his filthy appearance and his speech is very funny yet very sad all at the same time.

‘In point of fact, I have indeed been aboard that conveyance of the sober and the clean. Naturally, I see the benefits of a brief period of abstaining from recreational drugs and alcohol. I stand before you evidence of the efficacy of that system. However, I am with Monsieur Descartes on this one. Cogito ergo sum – which loosely translates as “I drink, therefore I am.”‘

P.J Davy balances the humour in the book with a stark and sobering depiction of the realities of mental illness. In this way, the author doesn’t cheapen or trivialise the subject matter. Counterbalancing the kind of humour that features in the above quotation, comes brilliantly written passages such as this:

He turned to lean over the rail, the flaking paint on the rusting ironwork gritty beneath his palms. He gazed down at the angry water below. Deep, fast, deadly water. His hands tightened on the rail, his grip whitening his knuckles, his jaw set, his breath held. Then, suddenly, the fight went out of him. As if a switch had been thrown. A plug pulled. He felt such a draining of energy, such a lack of power that his legs could barely support him. He staggered back off the bridge as if under a weight so tremendous it might press him into the ground. He might lie there, suffocating beneath it, too spent, too flimsy, too insubstantial to move.

The writing is therefore honest but makes mental illness more accessible, which is definitely no mean feat.

The third protagonist in the novel, Rufus’ ex-girlfriend Kate, suffers with bi-polar disorder. She has a beautiful singing voice and such a strong passion for the choir in which she performs. When she isn’t feeling low, her zest and energy and enthusiasm for life shines through. The real tragedy with Kate is that often her medication dulls this, and often affects her performance in the choir. She finds herself in a constant battle between staving off the depression which compromises her classical music career and embracing her talents while risking real mental decline.

What is wonderful about Kate is that despite her inner demons, she always remains loyal to her friends and is never afraid to give her opinions to them straight. She wants what’s best for them and often she recognises that this involves tough love and hard truths. But ultimately it comes from love and wishing to the right thing. She understands the limitations that people like her and Rufus face.

The only thing I will say that I wasn’t too impressed with in the case of Kate’s character was the overuse of the word ‘chuffing.’ Kate is originally from Pontefract and so uses this expression a fair bit. Now I live just outside of Pontefract and so have probably come across this expression before. But in this book, whenever Kate is prominent in a particular chapter, the word ‘chuffing’ features up to and probably sometimes more than four times per page. I know different dialects feature different words but I’m just not convinced that, no matter where you’re from, anyone actually uses a regional word so often. It’s almost constant. It even appears mid-way through a particularly energetic sex scene. By the end of it I think I developed a physical tick whenever I read the word. If I never read or hear that word again, I’ll be a very happy woman!

Rufus, Kate and Teach are examples of how many people with mental illness struggle and fight the often doomed battle against their demons by themselves. The stigma attached to their problems and issues puts pressure on them to deal with things alone and ‘pull themselves together’. Kate faces discrimination and bullying at the hands of her peers who see her as a nutter and crazy rather than simply a talented girl who struggles with bi-polar disorder. Rufus faces adversity even from his own mother, who fails to understand his issues and sees him as a failure. Teach’s character, among many others in the book, provides the reader with an insight into what can derail a person’s life, often through no fault of their own.

This book is an entertaining eye-opener and an enjoyable read. The book industry needs more of this kind of book. Thank you to independent publisher Snowbooks and P.J Davy for tackling such a subject so bravely and successfully.

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