Archive | December, 2013

That question: So, what do you do?

19 Dec

Difficult question (2)

I was at a party last tweek when, out of the blue, I was asked That Question. You know the one. The one you avoid answering (or even avoid being asked) if you don’t currently have paid work or if you’re working in a job you’re not especially proud of.

So, what do you do?

A pleasant, friendly enquiry, not unexpected at a social gathering, meaning, “What’s your job? How do you earn a crust? What useful function do you serve in the economy?”  It seems such a harmless question when you have a job, income and place in society in the conventional sense. But not all of us do.

My response? In this case, I trotted out the old “portfolio career” cover story. I mentioned a bit of this and a bit of that, brushing the enquiry aside with as few details as possible and then quickly asking about the other person, so as to change the focus onto them. Luckily, he was a talker. I’d side-stepped the need to disclose anything about my current status (which I would describe to myself or family and close friends as convalescence or sick leave). I learned a lot more about the guy I was chatting to.

Then, on Monday evening when participating in a hobby, that same question popped out again. Except, this time, it came with added emphasis, including a reference to the fact that I used to wear a suit to work:

So, you used to be a high-powered executive* What do you do now?

*(His words, not mine!)

This caught me off guard. I realised just how much of a gulf there was between what this guy (mistakenly) perceived my old job to bes and what I’d actually done that day. In fact, I’d let the gas man in to take a reading and written out 4 Christmas cards. Oh, and I’d opened a card from my mother containing a pDifficult questionostal order (which had felt a bit weird at my age). But that’s how I’d spent my day. My plan for the following day was to buy stamps. Hardly a high-powered executive.

How did I respond? Surprised, I went for a transparent dodge. It left the questioner in no doubt that I was avoiding answering, and left me wishing I’d had a bit more practice at lying. He stepped away, I stepped away, and we both pretended we were just getting on with our hobby.

In both cases, I’d succeeded in concealing the truth of my situation. In both cases, I’d put distance between myself and the other person. In both cases, I felt I’d had a lucky escape.

During a recession, it’s probably more socially acceptable to be “between jobs”. But on the other hand it’s probably a less good time to ask the question. What do you say when asked “So, what do you do?” Here are some options, including suggestions by the lovely twitter people, for how to respond.


  • .Respond with a vague job description

I end up saying I’m now freelance, which is a total lie. – James (@polarbear3127)

“I’m a consultant” suitably vague? -Lexx Clarke (@LexxClarke)

Some retired people say the R word proved offputting to others so they may dress something up into ‘consultancy’ to ward off any negative reactions, especially when dating. – Roslyn Byfield (@RosylynByfield)

Ah, the portfolio career. This was the option I took at the party last Friday. It’s a delicate balance. I mumble about this (which I used to do) and that (which I’ve also done) and the other (which I’ve done a bit of in the past). I’m always hoping the questioner doesn’t do this, that or the other and therefore see through my story. I try to make this, that and the other all sound pretty dull, so the questioner doesn’t enquire further. But then, at the same time, I try to make it sound a little interesting so they don’t think I’m a total waste of time to chat to.

I think that probably I should sit down and write out a fake portfolio for my portfolio career (which did once exist but now doesn’t), so I can reel it off as needed. And also so I remember what I’ve said to people!


  • Lie

I lie to taxi drivers and the women on the check out because I am so mortified. I know I don’t look ill, either. – Velveteen Rabbit (@velveteen85)

A Sufi master once said to me, “Ask a man no questions, for you may force him to lie.” That is true. If you put someone on the spot in a social situation by asking them a direct question like this, you may create distance by forcing them to fend you off with a lie.

Personally, I’m a terrible liar. If I’m going to lie, I know I’ll need warning and time to practice. When surprised, my lies are unconvincing – as they were on Monday. And I do believe that, if you’re going to lie, you really should take the trouble to lie convincingly. It’s only polite to put the questioner at ease rather than embarrass them with a bad lie.

I rarely ask people a direct question like “What do you do?” It’s not that I’m not fascinated and curious about what other people do. I am! It’s just that I’d rather let people tell their own story, in their own time. That way they reveal what they’re comfortable with you knowing. I’m not sure if people think I’m dreadfully self-centred for not asking what they do. Or perhaps, when engaged in a hobby, it just doesn’t matter.


  • Deflect with a reference to personal issues

“I’ve had some family issues” is a good short term cover, and also technically not a lie as you are in your family … – ZaFoosBoootla (@dav0lah)

An alternative could be, “Ooh, I’ve been off this past week. Women’s problems.” I’d imagine that would probably curtail someone’s curiosity.


  • A defensive response that keeps people at a distance

Ask them to ask you an easier question. Meliora Rose (@meliorarose)

 I hate that question, and need to find a suitable sarcastic answer. Sure someone will come up with one … – Martin (@msmithbass)

I always answer, “what do you mean, what do I *do*??!” Sometimes it makes them realise the rudeness & stupidity of the question – PWX (@flossiepie)

On the one hand, this response means you keep private what you want to keep private. On the other, it creates distance rather than intimacy. It doesn’t help develop friendships or potential work contacts. It just says “no”.


  • Humour

Just tell them “I kill people with my mind.” Government pay is great! – My System (@JazzyJ1112)

Replying “for business or for pleasure?” normally gets a laugh, so then you can change the subject! come to the woods (@cometothewoods)

I spend most of my time drugged up to the eyeballs in a psychiatric ward, just out for the day. Now, where’s the hors d’ouerves? – Martin (@msmithbass )

You put the swirls in cats eyes marbles … Design new chocolates … Taste tester for mouthwash … The voice on the lottery show “I read, I write, I cook, I dance …” Sally Price (@saspist)

You’re an activist! Now people will avoid you for new reasons! – Verity Allan (@verityallan)

“I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.” – FWT (@FWT4)

The most popular response was humour. Always a winner.


  • Avoidance 

My personal favourite and, it appears, popular with others too as a means for not having to give a vague job description, lie or deflect the question with sarcasm or humour. Just keep away from social situations where you might meet new people. That’s one I employed to good effect for a long time after coming out of hospital: I stuck to socialising with people I knew well.

I was speaking to a guy last Friday who’d isolated himself from other people since the 1980s. That’s when he’d lost his job and got his diagnosis. Ever since then, he’d kept himself to himself. He went to the gym, worked out, left – without making eye contact with anyone (except at the day centre we both attend). All for fear of being asked, “So, what do you do?” He was too ashamed he wasn’t working.

I suggested we sit down together, work out some lies, then go out and practice them on people! Thirty years is too long for a lovely guy like him to steer clear of people. Perhaps, if we each have our own convincing cover story to throw people off the scent, we might be more comfortable with meeting new people. Until then, we’ll both continue in our small social circles.


  • Honesty

During the twitter conversation that led to the writing of this blog post, no one said they’d come clean and say they weren’t working at the moment due to mental illness. It could be a bit like marching into a nursery school in the 1980s and announcing you had HIV/Aids. That would have guaranteed a frosty reception.

Times are changing, but people who feel comfortable saying they’re not working due to mental ill health still seem in the minority, and understandably so: there’s still a huge amount of prejudice and discrimination against people with mental ill health. I long for the day when I can talk about my convalescence from mental ill health in the same way as people do about their experiences of physical illness. But we’re not there yet.

So, in the meantime, I think it’s time to polish off my portfolio career patter and practice those lies so that next time I’m not caught off guard.



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Tweet chats part 3: Troubleshooting

17 Dec

Twitter cup cakes

Following parts 1 and 2, here is the third instalment of my introduction to tweet chats. Most tweet chats are great fun and informative, though occasionally you can run into problems. Here’s some advice, just in case things start to go wrong.


  • The tweet chat is too fast – I can’t keep up!

    Tweet chats are meant to be enjoyable, so don’t worry about missing things. Popular chats can move very fast. Just follow the topics or lines of conversation that interest you, and chip in when you can. You can always catch up later by reading the transcript.

  • I’m a bit lost / I don’t understand!

    Lurk for a bit to try to tune in, but don’t be afraid to speak up and ask for help. Generally, tweeps are a friendly bunch who really enjoy helping others. And, if you have a question about what’s going on, there are bound to be others thinking the same thing.

  • Someone’s arguing with me!

    It’s fine to disagree on a tweet chat, and often controversial topics are chosen to generate heated debate! But keep it to a discussion, not an argument. If you don’t want tweets from a particular tweep, block them and ignore them in the tweet chat. Simples.

  • I’m being harassed, intimidated or abused!

    Sometimes people can get passionate about a topic they care about. Sometimes misunderstandings can occur, given the brief nature of the tweet. Sometimes a tweep or two will be downright nasty. If you feel you’ve been harassed, intimidated or abused in a tweet chat, here are some options to consider:

    1. Take a screen shot of the offending tweets. This provides a record for later.
    2. Save the offending tweets using a service like Storify – ditto.
    3. Block and report the offending tweeter using the button on the screen. If enough people do this, it can result in their account being suspended temporarily. And, at the very least, you won’t have to see their nasty tweets any more.
    4. Send a direct message (DM) to the tweet chat organiser. They may be able to take action at the time or (more likely) afterwards. (You’ll both need to be following each other to be able to send a DM.)
    5. Email the tweet chat organiser with copies of the offending tweets.
    6. If warranted, report the matter to your local police. You’ll need copies of the offending tweets as evidence.
    7. If the offending tweets are from a professional (such as a doctor, nurse or solicitor) whose conduct online is governed by a code of professional conduct (like one of these), consider reporting them to their governing body. You’ll need evidence for this.
  • Someone’s spamming the hashtag / trying to derail the tweet chat!

    Sometimes someone will spam the hashtag or try to derail the tweet chat for their own purposes (eg to push their own agenda or promote a product). Consider whether any of the measures above may be appropriate (other than calling the police). Or just ignore the tweep.


Here are some suggestions received earlier:

  • If in doubt … pause. – Ian Hulatt (twitter @IanHulattRCN)
  • Enlist someone to back you up in helping lead the chat to greet people, catch important questions or take over if you have technical problems. – Nedra Weinreich (twitter @Nedra)

If you have some personal favourite top tips for tweet chats or have comments on mine, let me know by adding them to the comments below – or tweet me!


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Merry mental health Christmas !

7 Dec
My photo of Santa with baubles

My photo of Santa with baubles

.Update small

Scroll down for Christmas 2014 ideas



With Christmas just 3 weeks away, here are some gift ideas on a mental health theme. They might be gifts for a friend or family member who’s managing a mental health problem themselves. Or perhaps that’s you and you want to help others understand the issues a bit more, or need ideas for gifts on a budget.

If you have more suggestions, please tweet me or add them to the comments below. Here are some suggestions I’ve received from the lovely twitter people so far (and here are lots of interesting book recommendations too).

The following gift ideas are covered:

  • Christmas cards from mental health charities
  • Subscriptions and memberships
  • Different ways to make charitable donations
  • Gift voucher ideas
  • Free and low cost gift ideas with a mental health theme if you’re on a budget or prefer to do stuff rather than buy stuff (my favourite way of giving gifts)
  • General well being and quirky gift ideas


Christmas cards:

  • Rethink Mental Illness  – £3 pack of 8 cards (plus £1 postage)
  • Sane – Packs of 10 ranging from £2.95 to £3.95, with free postage for orders over £15

Here’s a website (Combined Charities Christmas Shops) which sells Christmas cards and goodies for all sorts of different charities.


Subscriptions & memberships:

Why not give a magazine subscription or membership of a mental health charity to spread mental health awareness?

  • £10 – One in Four magazine subscription – Just £10 for 4 glossy magazines a year! “Want real life stories from people who’ve been through it and lived to tell the tale? Want the latest news, views and opinions? One in Four is a glossy full colour quarterly 32-page quarterly magazine written by people with mental health difficulties who lived lived through it and found ways around it.  It’s the perfect guide to getting stuff in your life sorted.”
  • Membership of one of the mental health charities:
    • £6 (unwaged) or £26Mind annual membership“Become a Mind member and we’ll keep you up-to-date with all of the latest mental health news. We’ll let you know about Mind events and groups in your area. And we’ll support you to get your voice heard. A standard one-year membership costs £26. A one-year membership if you are unemployed, receiving benefits, retired or a full-time student costs £6.” Members receive the quarterly Mind Membership News magazine; regular email newsletters; a 10% discount on Mind’s publications; the chance to vote for our trustees and to become a trustee yourself; Mind membership card.
    • £2 monthly or £24Rethink Mental Illness membership“As a member you can help to make a difference and be involved in many different ways. As a member you’ll get an enamel badge & welcome pack, an invitation to our spectacular annual event, National Members’ Day, our quarterly membership magazine Your Voice, opportunities to have your opinions and ideas heard by people who help shape mental health policy & involvement in the governance of Rethink Mental Illness.”
  • £10 – 3 Rethink sleep packs (or £65 for 20 sleep packs)You can probably relate to the experience of a restless night’s sleep and the effect this can have on your mood, emotions and management of day-to-day tasks. You may have even said, ‘all you need is a good night’s sleep’ – more often than not, this advice is true. With your help we can help a person with mental illness at their lowest point; they can be welcomed into a crisis house as an alternative to hospital admission. Here, they are in a calm and safe environment. And now with the introduction of Sleep Packs, we’re hopeful that people will have the best possible start to their recovery. It costs just £3 to fill each Sleep Pack with these simple but crucial items, please give the gift of sleep and help improve someone’s life. Thank you.” Each sleep pack contains an eye mask, ear plugs, lavender essential oil and bubble bath, a sachet of milky drink plus top ten tips for a better night’s sleep.
  • Subscription to a mindfulness site – for example Headspace (you can try for free beforehand)

    The Big Give Challenge #TBGchallenge

    The Big Give Challenge #TBGchallenge


Charitable donations:

One idea for a Christmas present is to make a donation to a mental health charity on someone else’s behalf. You’d then give them a Christmas card which mentions your donation.

  • Buying presents through certain sites means a donation will go to a mental health charity – for instance, Give as You Live (twitter @giveasyoulive) – “Shop online at your favourite stores and raise funds for charity – at no extra cost, just by shopping online!”
  • Sometimes a donation will be doubled – eg through organisations like The Big Give which have pots of matched funding that open at given times (and run out, so you have to get in quickly when you hear they’ve opened!). Here is a list of charities The Big Give currently matches funds for, including ones with a mental health theme in the UK and overseas.
  • Make a one off donation or a regular donation to a mental health charity, such as:
    • Mind
    • Rethink Mental Illness – one off or regular donation
    • Sane“Please give a gift to improve mental health. Each £10 enables one person to receive the precious gift of 30 minutes personal and emotional support, helping them on their journey from crisis to recovery. To thank you for your generosity, SANE will send you a Black Dog Campaign #StopStigma wristband for each donation that you make.”
    • There will also be many local mental health charities you can donate to. Please let me have details if you’d like one added.
    • Here’s one I spotted today: “5 Quid for Life is a small charitable trust which provides financial support to people with mental health problems who have lost their benefits as a result of the UK government’s welfare reforms.” (twitter @5quidforlife) [NB: The organisation says it’s too small to register with the Charities Commission, so I’m not sure about regulation or transparency or the establishment of the trust.]
  • Please bear in mind that, if you are a UK tax payer, your purchase or donation may be increased by HMRC by an extra 25% if you make a gift aid declaration at the time you make your donation.


Gift vouchers:

  • An NHS prescription prepayment certificate – A humorous and serious suggestion from Larlot ‏(twitter @CharmandersFire), as an alternative to an M&S or Boots gift card! If you’re not entitled to free prescriptions, a prescription costs £7.85 per item, but a 3 or 12 month PPC covers all your prescriptions for that period, no matter how many you need. £29.10 for 3 months or £104 for 12 months.
  • Buying a voucher for something that will make a difference. There are lots of shops and online services that offer vouchers for anything from a massage (lots of tweeps recommended this one!), or haircut to a visit somewhere unusual like a bird of prey sanctuary.
  • Home-made gift vouchers. This is something you’ve paid for (or will pay for when it takes place) and write out yourself in a card, such as:
    • a cleaner to visit and help your friend or family member get on top of their cleaning
    • personal trainer to come round for a few sessions, to get your friend and family member started if they’ve put on weight and are having trouble getting motivated or putting together a plan.
  • Personal IOUs (see below).


Mental health books, CDs and DVDs:

Lots of interesting books recommended as Christmas gifts by some of the lovely twitter people are included here. What are your ideas for a good mental health book gift? That might be:

  • A biography or life story of someone living with a mental health problem or who’s got through adversity – either to help the recipient understand more about your (or someone they know’s) mental health problems, or to provide inspiration from someone who’s overcome adversity
  • A book on a practical skill they’ve said they want to learn
  • A self-help book that you think the person might find useful or inspiring (though that’s probably a delicate balance – I once received a Jane Fonda work out video and, whilst I did have a few pounds to lose, it wasn’t necessarily the present I wanted to receive! It might be best to keep the self-help books to ones you’ve discussed with your friend or family member and which they’ve shown an interest in reading)

    Science Museum: Mind maps - stories from psychology

    Science Museum: Mind maps – stories from psychology

  • An uplifting arts book
  • Something on their hobby or special interest


Free and low cost gift ideas:

  • Personal IOUs: Give an IOU slip or card for something you can do (a skill you have) that your friend or family member will value. For instance, an IOU offering/promising:
    • for them to come round for tea and cake, or a Sunday roast
    • to do their washing up 5 times
    • to help them go shopping / choose a new mobile phone contract /change utility provider
    • to take their dog for a walk
    • to knit them a jazzy scarf
    • to go out to a free event or venue, such as a city farm, park, festival, museum, talk or event (such as this one from Dr Tom Werner, Mind Maps: stories from psychology, on at the Science Museum in London)

    Be imaginative! The thought you put into choosing what to offer to make the IOU personal, and the time it will take you to fulfill your promise, is what shows you care. And take responsibility for setting a time and date and organising the whole thing to make sure it does go ahead!

  • Challenge yourself by signing up yourself and a friend to a fundraising event with one of the mental health charities. There are lots of ways to get involved (or you can organise something yourself,) and it can be a fun way to get out and do something unusual and possibly get fit! Here are some ideas from the Mental Health Foundation.
  • Simple hand-made crafts. Don’t worry about them being perfect as it’s the personal touch and the time and effort you’ve put in that counts. For example:
    • Hand-made Christmas cards. You can often buy packs of 10 blank cards and envelopes in pound shops that you can decorate yourself with a bit of glue, glitter and imagination.
    • Hand-decorating a Christmas bauble. You could even make a different one each year, so a little collection grows.
    • Hand-made sweets or edible Christmas decorations strung with ribbon to hang on the tree.
  • Free e-books. There are thousands of books available free of charge and you can download them onto any computer (you don’t need a Kindle or other e-book reader). These might be about a specific diagnosis, a real life story or general well being. You could download these for your friend or family member, or send or give them a link to suitable ones. You’ll have done the research or running around, which will be appreciated.
  • Plants. If you’ve got a window box, garden or allotment, you can often dig up the odd plant or two to give away as an inexpensive gift.


General well being and quirky gift ideas:

  • Give the gift of comedy, such as these DVD suggestions from Seaneen Molloy (twitter @Brain_Opera) or tickets to a live stand up show. Some places have open mic nights which are free – and you never know, the acts could be really good!Dopamine earrings
  • Dopamine molecule earrings (recommended by twitter psychiatrist @Dopamine_Diva)
  • My favourite: lavender bath soak!
  • Socks. You can never go wrong with socks.
  • A SAD (seasonal affective disorder) light box or sunrise wake up clock


Hopefully that’ll have given you a few ideas for gifts with a mental health theme. Feel free to leave your comments and suggestions below – or tweet me!

Finally, some tips for good gift giving:

  • ‘Tis the season to be jolly. Don’t leave it till the last minute so you’re stressed and rushing. Enjoy the pleasure of getting gifts for people. Either gather together gifts slowly over time – or go out one afternoon and get everything in one go then be done with it.
  • The “perfect” gift. It’s not important to get the “perfect” gifts for every one. What matters is you’ve thought of that person and got them something, no matter how small or how little it cost to buy.
  • Children. When buying for related children, remember they won’t know how much you spent: just make sure you give the same number and same size gifts!
  • Your time, thought and attention are the best gifts you can give.



Update smallUpdated ideas from the lovely twitter people for Christmas 2014!