Unfinished Q&A: some answers

Corporate

A talk, on Zoom. Ran out of time to answer all the questions I received. So I wrote down the ones I missed, and I’m sharing the answers here in hope they are useful. NOTE: I’m not a professional, this is just a personal response.

Q. I always put others first, how would you recommend I take the first steps to look after my well being?

A. You could try thinking about your own inner 4-year-old, and ask yourself every so often if what you are doing suits her/him. The key is to build up a clearer sense of what your own instinct is, from one moment to the next – something that many dutiful people bury for years.

Q. What do you think about letting your experiences define you?

A. Things that have happened to me did happen to me. I can’t change that. I can only change how I respond to it. These days, instead of thinking that I’m a fundamentally broken person, useless because I had a breakdown, I think that my breakdown was like being caught in a thunderstorm: it wasn’t my fault, any more than the weather.

Q. I lost my mother to suicide and often think of suicide, without doing anything. Is thinking about suicide often a problem?

A. First of all, I’m very sorry to hear that. It must have been incredibly difficult, and I’m sure it still is. As for you, it’s not a bad thing to think of suicide, provided that you don’t act on it. It’s hardly surprising, given what you have experienced. But if you are thinking that way more often than previously, it’s a good idea to talk to somebody as there may be other things going on in your life that need to be addressed. (NOTE: I’m not a professional, this is just my suggestion.)

Q. How do you cope with the ups and down at work?

A. Better than I did, but not always well! It’s difficult. But accepting that it’s difficult is half the battle. How could it not be difficult, sometimes? One thing I do is try not to take the ups any more seriously than the downs.

Mental, physical… you can’t keep them apart

About therapy

Years ago, when I was training as an executive coach (did I mention that before?) I was also training in theatrical impro.

Naturally, I was very excited to learn about the work of Fritz Perls, the therapist who used theatrical techniques he had learned as a young man.

In Gestalt sessions, Perls would not look into patients’ past or future but encouraged them to be entirely present, so that they might notice what he called the “civil war of inner conflicts”.

Rather wonderfully, you can watch Perls at work on YouTube.

“I disregard most of the content of what the patient says,” he explains in this video (below), “and concentrate most on the non-verbal level.”

I recommend that you watch all the way through, because his introductory remarks are helpful.

When you get to 4mins 20sec, you’ll see the first moment where he draws attention to a seeming conflict between 1) what a patient says and 2) what she does:

Do you ever do what Gloria did? I certainly do.

In my next post, I’ll share another thing Perls did which I subsequently used, often to tremendous laughter, in corporate workshops that were not “therapy” but straightforward impro.

It turned out to be incredibly valuable to me in psychiatric hospital. But that’s another story!

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Mental Health in Law Firms

Corporate, My story

If you run a law firm, or run the HR team, you might find it helpful to hear about what seems to have gone down well at Slaughter and May, Linklaters, Freshfields and many other firms in the City and outside London.

My next talk is at another Magic Circle firm. I thought it might help drum up attendance if I recorded a 1m video for the people there. If you’d like me to talk at your firm, I’m sure I could do something similar.

For a bit more detail, try this video:

Thank you for watching.

JP

International Men’s Day: Join Me

Events, My story
Highly professional video by JP Flintoff

Tuesday 19 November is International Men’s Day.

When I first started thinking what to do with my own experience of breakdown and recovery, I thought about publishing my drawings as a book, with the title:

How To Stop Your Man Falling Apart (and what to do if it’s happened already)

I haven’t published the pictures yet, under that title or any other. But I’ve shown them to hundreds of people, who seemed to find them interesting and helpful.

I am going to talk about my experience online on Tuesday. If you’d like to join me, you’d be very welcome.

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What more can companies do?

Corporate

Every company says it cares about employee well-being. But if nobody would say the opposite, the statement is hollow.

So the real test is not what they say but what they do.

Too often, internal talks and training about well-being attract the same people again and again. Others, who perhaps need this most, stay away. I’ve lost count of the number of HR people who’ve told me this, and fret about how to attract a wider audience.

Well, if the people in charge don’t show up that sends a pretty clear message: it’s not important.

It says: we don’t want to hear about that stuff.

Which in turn becomes a major block for staff experiencing difficulty. Naturally enough, they assume that nobody wants to know.

Obviously, we’re all busy. The entire management team can’t come along to everything. But it makes a difference if somebody senior attends.

Yesterday, for the first time outside London, I gave a talk about my breakdown. The audience comprised several dozen lawyers at the large East Anglian firm Birketts – plus the firm’s two most senior partners.

At the end, one of those two asked me what else they could do to help normalise conversations about mental health.

I thought about it for a moment, then made a suggestion which elicited lively debate from people around the room. But my suggestion, and the lively debate, aren’t what inspired this post.

What really matters is that the man in charge came along to listen and, in front of all those employees, he asked that question.

Mental Health Awareness Week

My story

Had a bit of a shock just now, but it’s sinking in, and I know I’ll be alright.

Got notified that I’m mentioned by name in The Bookseller online, as part of an event at HarperCollins (the publishing company).

It reads:

Over at HarperCollins, on 14th May author and journalist John-Paul Flintoff will talk at The News Building about how he went from being on top to having a breakdown and spending eight weeks in psychiatric hospital. 

Nothing wrong with that. So far as it goes, it’s correct. But I felt a bit exposed.

Not half as exposed, mind you, as I expect to feel when I go to do the talk, and share the pictures I drew – in hospital and afterwards – potentially with people I have worked with (at The Times and The Sunday Times, because they have been invited too).

Keep reminding myself: it’s not about me.

I’m doing the talk for people who may be feeling some of the distress I was feeling, to give them a chance to avoid the worst – and for others whose relatives may be going through something similar.

Why draw?

My story

What has drawing got to do with mental health? That’s a question I’ve asked myself since being invited to run a lunchtime workshop using drawing during Mental Health Awareness Week.

Apparently a lot of people in the organization in question have asked to do something using art.

And when I gave a talk there in February, using my own drawings, it was very warmly received. So it made sense to the organizers to invite me back to share some thoughts about how drawing had been helpful to me.

My first thoughts:

  1. Drawing is necessarily very immediate, and brings me into the present moment
  2. Drawing gets me away from the tyranny of being verbal
  3. Drawing gives me a sense of agency

1. Drawing is immediate: It’s hard to draw and also be obsessive about regrets (past) and worries (future). I learned that instinctively, unconsciously. Ever since childhood I’ve found drawing to be relaxing.

Obviously, this ceases to be the case if you worry about the drawing itself (“it’s terrible!”). That’s why I like to remind myself that drawing is both a noun and a verb: you don’t have to like the finished artifact to enjoy the activity. I try to let go, in advance, of any need for the artifact to be “good” – as if anybody really knew what good is, anyway.

2. Escaping the tyranny of words: I like words. I’ve used them all my working life, as a journalist and author. I have a couple of degrees in English. I’m very verbal.

But the downside is a tendency to become overwhelmingly analytical and logical. What I’ve learned through my breakdown and subsequent therapy is that I’m also capable of having feelings that are not logical. Drawing helps me to access those. And sometimes by seeing them on paper I’ve been able to recognize that they don’t “make sense”.

In fact, I’d go as far as to say that drawing saved my life. When I was in total despair, I drew some very dark pictures to help myself “see” the self-destructive urges from the outside. They looked bad, repulsive.

3. Drawing gives me agency: By making a mark on paper you apply your mind to shape the physical universe. It might not sound much, but when I felt utterly worthless, and alone, it gave me a teeny tiny boost to see my thoughts “out there”, even if nobody else would ever see them.


The workshop

I don’t know yet how many people will be attending this workshop. But I’m really looking forward to it.

I’ll probably give a short talk at the beginning, along the lines of this post, and explain a bit about who I am.

Then I’ll invite participants to think about what they’re hoping to get out of the session – and tell me!

Then we’ll do a series of very simple drawing exercises, taking about 10 minutes each. I’ll ask people to draw things in front of them (nothing complicated, probably cutlery, salt cellars, or coffee cups), and also draw certain things from memory – but nothing “therapeutic” – I don’t want to scare anybody off!

No experience is necessary, and people who are “bad at drawing” are particularly welcome, because they won’t intimidate anybody else.