Guest Blog: Mary-Ann Toop and Creating Concordia’s World

Guest Blog: Mary-Ann Toop and Creating Concordia’s World

When Mary-Ann offered to write a blog I went to meet her and was introduced to the fascinating creations that formed such an important part of her recovery. So much of Mary-Ann’s story resonates strongly with me. She attributes her recovery from severe depression to walking Maisy, morning writing (including affirmations, which I know made a huge difference), counselling and creativity. The blog is long, there is so much we had to leave out (yes!), but it is so worth a read. Her message of recovery is strong.


I was absolutely delighted to be invited by Sue to write this guest blog as my own experience of deep depression, which began a few years ago, left me desperately wanting to use my own experience, my personal journey to recovery, to help others.

My Story

Writing with Valentina, a Wood Nymph

Writing with Valentina, a Wood Nymph

I won’t bore you with the causes of my depression since this would take more words that there is space in this blog. Suffice to say that a series of highly stressful events, ill health and bereavement resulted in me sinking into the bottomless black hole that is depression. In the process I lost my career of almost 30 years, my marriage fell apart and I almost lost my daughter to the deadly disease too.

I’m one of the fortunate ones. I didn’t attempt suicide but I thought about it and planned it. Often. I felt useless, worthless and honestly believed that the world would be a better place without me in it.

How I escaped that dark route I’ll never know, but I am still here. What’s more, I’m well, more than well. I’m still very happily married, I still have three amazing adult children and I’ve learned to truly value and enjoy life.

My experience is proof that this deadly disease can be beaten.

I know some of you might be thinking, ah, but I bet she just went through a bad patch and her life is all sorted now. In the last three months I’ve buried my Dad after losing him to Alzheimer’s, organised his funeral and wake all on my own because there was no one else in my family either close enough or well enough to help and of course I’ve been looking after Mum and sorting out Dads legal and financial affairs. In the midst of all that I’ve changed jobs too. So I can honestly say that no, my life is a long way from stress-free.

It often feels as though life continues in its relentless pursuit to find ways to tear me down again, but each time it tries, I just feel stronger for having survived the latest crisis.

What I tried and didn’t try

So what methods did I try to evade the torment that I came to nickname The Ugly Thoughts Gremlin?

When I first became unwell I was also suffering constant chronic pain that was aggravated by working for too many hours in front of a PC. I had already had a disc replacement in my neck and the return of the inescapable nerve pain panicked me. My workplace provided a special chair and IT equipment, but nothing seemed to help. When my spine consultant advised that I was heading for a further double disc replacement my mood plummeted.

I desperately wanted to run away, to escape my chaotic stressful life and the pain for a while, so my GP signed me off work. The initial week, became two, then three, then a month, then two. The pain gradually subsided with regular physical activity but I knew it would return once I was sat back at my PC. I then began to experience extreme anxiety at the very thought of returning to my high-stress job. Before I realised it, I’d been off work for six months. I couldn’t see a way out. So I quit! Then the real problems began.

My GP wanted me to take antidepressants. I was prescribed them but couldn’t bring myself to take them. I already had prior knowledge of the downsides of some of the drugs. Reading the detailed information of my prescribed medication put me off entirely.

I paid for private counselling, but that made me feel worse, not better. Talking about their problems helps some people. For me, it simply bought all my very real problems out into the open, made them more real and even more terrifying than they already were.

My GP referred me to ITalk counselling but the same thing happened. Whilst the young woman was very nice, her responses were very obviously scripted and gave me absolutely no confidence whatsoever.

I thought I’d hit rock bottom when my youngest, my beautiful precious school-aged daughter, was diagnosed with depression too. She’d frequently suffered from severe pains and physical ailments necessitating countless doctor and hospital appointments over a three year period. They had various theories and tried her on numerous prescriptions. It was an old, Doc Martin type GP that realised what was wrong. My daughter’s formal diagnosis came as a real shock. I had been completely unaware that in addition to various physical pains, she was also suffering from hallucinations. These had become so severe and horrific that she was unable to tell what was real and what wasn’t any longer. Bless her, she had of course been trying to protect me, she hadn’t wanted to add to add to my long list of problems. Her diagnosis left me feeling as if I had completely failed her as a mother. I was supposed to recognise when something was wrong with my child, wasn’t I?

Ironically, it was my deep desire to help my daughter that spurred on my efforts to seek a solution to our problems.

What helped

After some lengthy discussions with my husband, the first thing I did was to encourage my daughter to ‘earn’ a long desired puppy. I created a simple puppy silhouette poster and told her she was to fill it up with her exam revision. From that moment on she never missed another day of school. She studied diligently until her exams, filling every square millimetre of the entire poster in the process. Some of the writing was so tiny it was difficult to discern what it said. Needless to say, she passed all her exams. And she got her much-anticipated puppy. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.



Maisy – isn’t she delightful?
She has been part of the recovery process.


Although my daughter became very focused, she was still far from well. I knew I needed to do something about my own condition too so I became all consumed by the need to find an answer and spent days and weeks researching, to better understand our ailment. By the time my daughter actually got to see a specialist child counsellor, I was well informed on the subject.

The counsellor was amazing. Using her advice coupled with my new found knowledge, both of us began to recover. It was slow progress. At the time a lot of blurring of the personal boundaries between us occurred. Our lives became ridiculously close and intertwined neither one of us able to cope without the other. On several occasions, we even mirrored each other’s physical symptoms.

Six months or so after getting our puppy, I began walking other dogs. As a result, I started spending more and more time outdoors with nature. I can’t stress enough how much the rhythmic walking for two hours a day helped my physical and mental health. There is a great deal of truth in the phrase, ‘stop and smell the roses’. As children we instinctively stop and look at things, examining the strange and unusual world we live in. As adults, we are so caught up in our busy lives that we have neither the time nor inclination. Without really realising what I was doing, my dog walking was encouraging me to live in the moment, to practice what is now widely known as mindfulness.

One piece of knowledge, that proved to be a real turning point for me, was discovering more about how our brain works. I already understood about strengthening the neural pathways, that is I understood how each time we learn something it strengthens that particular pathway through the brain. What I hadn’t appreciated was that each time we repeat a negative line of thought it becomes stronger, more ingrained. Therefore depression is also a learned pathway. With that knowledge, I also began to understand that I could retrain my brain. I read about thinking of my thoughts as being clouds that I could learn to observe, without engaging in emotionally, as they passed through my mind. Cloud watching became an obsession, especially when I was out dog walking. It took a lot of practice but eventually, I found I could choose which thoughts I wished to emotionally engage with. It was a revelation!

As a part of my creative journey, I also discovered something called Morning Pages. I had been journaling the last thing at night for some time; often pouring out my hurt and emotions onto paper. I can honestly say this doesn’t help as it fuelled my bad dreams and insomnia. Morning Pages, on the other hand, get everything out of your head before you start the day. This form of journaling is followed immediately by daily affirmations so it helps to put you in the right frame of mind for the day ahead. Shortly after discovering Morning Pages I had a wonderful bonfire of my old poisonous journals. Very therapeutic stuff! I’ve been writing Morning Pages and daily affirmations for over three years now.

A peaceful night’s sleep can be incredibly elusive when suffering from depression, so I went through a stage of using a recorded meditation most nights to help me sleep better. I still practice meditation occasionally, but it’s become more of a creative tool for me these days.


Both my daughter and I are artistic and creative. I had a deep-seated dream of becoming a self-employed creative. My daughter’s art, which was the one subject that didn’t suffer all through her depression and long absences from school, became a focus for further education.

I longed for the formal art education that she was getting and for a while, I felt as though I was living my dreams through her. It was an unhealthy situation. We needed separation from each other. That separation came when she eventually went off to university. It was a huge wrench for us both and for a while it seemed the Ugly Thoughts Gremlin might haunt us both once more.

Little by little, we have re-built our own separate and creative lives. We are still incredibly close, but we encourage each other’s individual creative endeavours.

My creative journey

Six months after leaving my job I began job hunting. Despite my best endeavours, probably not helped by my illness and low self-esteem, the only jobs I succeeded in securing were very part-time, minimum wage positions. In hindsight, although this all but eliminated any pride I had left, I’m not at all sure I could have coped with anything more.

The positive side of all this was having spare time for the first time since childhood.

I spent hours immersed in creative sewing activities, dreaming of finding the elusive something that I would be able to turn into a creative business venture.

A lack of entitlement to student finance meant I wasn’t able to return to formal education to study art. So instead I put myself through my own home-based education. I had always sewn from a very young age, so spent hours and hours researching and trying out different sewing techniques. When I became fed up with creating my own versions of other people’s designs I challenged myself to create something entirely unique for 30 consecutive days. This proved to be a real turning point and I became more confident and adventurous in my experiments, vowing to always create my own unique work from then on. I began to make and sell a few items, but nothing I did really seemed to make sense. I was still searching.

Then about eighteen months ago, I attended a one day workshop by a mixed media artist I greatly admire, purely for fun. I became captivated by the single fantasy character I had begun creating that day. I grasped at strange clues as to who she was and where she came from. She haunted me until I completed her and christened her Minima.

Minima and Concordia

Minima and Concordia

One day, as I practised a meditation, I discovered a beautiful peaceful place in my head and realised she belonged there. Little by little that strange other world became more complete and detailed in my head and dreams. I found myself creating companions (such as the dragon Concordia) for my first born and devised stories about them in my head. I started to write them down. I created a website and joined a writing group.

Strange as it might seem, I don’t see this as a business venture. My creative adventure is exactly that. I seem to be driven to see what I might discover next, hidden away in my creative brain. My current ambition is to finish writing my fantasy fiction book and to illustrate it with images of my 3D mixed media characters.

My creative endeavours are perhaps somewhat different from the norm, but one thing’s for sure, I don’t just feel normal, I feel good. I’m in a good place and have been for some time. I intend to stay that way!

Mary-Ann can be emailed at or via Concordia’s website – where you will also find her blog (a great read!).

She is also on Facebook & Instagram and her book Minima’s Story will follow soon.

Hidden Wounds

Hidden Wounds

A couple of years ago my local community was rocked by an incident. It is neither my right nor my intention to comment on that incident. Suffice it to say that it had a much greater impact on two people who are much loved and respected by the majority of our community. The impact eventually lead them to bravely reaching out for help. Their wounds were hidden wounds. The ones we can’t see. Written on their minds and in their hearts in indelible ink. These are the sort of wounds we don’t talk about. They may cause a shadow in our eyes or the dulling of our face in conversation. They also cause a heaviness of heart, a drooping of the shoulders and a blunted will that is unable to do every day anything.

Lou says:

“Help for Heroes gave me my Dad back.”

When Louise became worried about her dad’s mental health, it started to affect her own wellbeing. She got in touch with our Hidden Wounds team, and it’s brought their family back together.

Lou and Norman share part of their story here.

If you have hidden wounds be encouraged, there is hope, there is help, you do need to ask for it. The Help for Heroes Hidden Wounds service can be contacted here.

React or Respond to a Challenge?

React or Respond to a Challenge?

We ALL face challenges in life, this is common to the human condition. Some of those challenges are greater than others. We may view barking our shin on a piece of furniture as a low-level challenge and being diagnosed with cancer as a very high-level challenge. What counts, and what makes the difference for us is whether we respond to a challenge or react to it. Let me explain.

Let’s use the barking of our shin on a piece of furniture as our example:

  • If I react to the pain in my shin I may swear, rub my shin, shove the offending piece of furniture away from me, yell at the children for moving the piece of furniture out of position, complain to everyone who will listen about the lump on my leg and how much it hurts, refer back to it often and give the children dark looks for the rest of the day.
  • If I respond to the pain in my shin I may rub it, cry “Ouch!” check my shin and realise it was only bruised, put the piece of furniture back into position, enquire if the children had moved it and discuss how the accident occurred, how it could have been much worse and ask them to ensure furniture is returned to its place whenever it is moved (even if accidentally). Then I’d get on with my day as it has been dealt with and no one else needs to know.

What happened when I responded to my bruised shin is I REFRAMED what had happened to a positive learning experience for the children. When I react negatively to something like this everyone is left feeling miserable, including myself.

Looking at the photo I have used for this post – when you climb to the top of the one pinnacle do you react by climbing down and complaining about it or do you respond by jumping the gap? We may not be able to control what happens to us, but we can control what we do about it.

Respond or React

Respond and jump, react and climb down. You choose.

A special friend of mine Sophie Personne, author of Your Other Half (a book about relationships I reviewed here) had a pretty awful year in 2017. Sophie has worked hard turning the negatives of 2017 into positives. She shares some great lessons in her talks and workshops and you can learn more here.

It doesn’t matter what challenges we face, we have the choice to react or respond. Which would you choose?




I received this post about worry the other day and thought you may appreciate it too. Worry is a form of anxiety.

“Worrying never got me anywhere before. So why should it now? There were many times when I could have died but didn’t. There were many times when I made plans, but they didn’t work out. And there were many times when I said to hell with it but things worked out anyway.

We think we have control, but our control is very limited. We can control our attitude and behavior to an extent, but we have far less control of outcomes. Of what other people will do, what nature will do, what opportunities will be available to us, etc.

Our insecurity comes from fear. Fear that our needs won’t be met. Fear that we don’t matter. Fear that things aren’t as we think they are. We’re insecure because we care. We’re insecure because we’re not able to let go and be present in the moment.

But how often do our fears come true? Not very often, right? Go with the odds. Odds are that the vast majority of your fears (me: worries or anxieties) won’t come true. And the ones that do, may not be as bad as you imagine them to be.

Allow one day’s problems to be enough. Worrying about tomorrow won’t make it better. And you might ruin your last day worrying about a day that’s not going to come. We should consider each day as possibly our last because one day it will be. Ask yourself: If today was my last day, what are some things I would want to do? And what are some things I should avoid?”

This last paragraph is a great one!



A lot has been written about entrepreneurs, psychosis, and psychopaths especially more recently in the context of corporate and national leadership and success.

What traits differentiate someone who is a psychopath from an entrepreneur? And what about this other word we hear about – psychosis; where does that fit in? If I go into business for myself do I have to become a psychopath to be successful?

Let’s look at these three individually and then have a look at the links or similarities, where and why.



An entrepreneur by definition is a person who starts a business (sees an opportunity or potential), invests their time taking on financial risk in the hope of a making a return. In the entertainment industry, an entrepreneur sees talent (opportunity and potential), invests time and money (the risk) in hope of a reward – financial and making the talent into a “star”. As another example in the third or charity sector, a person sees a need (the opportunity), invests time and effort raising awareness (and support funding) and reaps the reward of resolving /meeting the need and the satisfaction of having done so.

Characteristic Traits of Entrepreneurs

According to Ruchira Agrawal, CEO of Inner Veda Communications, the characteristics of an entrepreneur can be summarised as follows (I have shortened her article published in Monster):

  1. Motivated: Enthusiastic, optimistic, future-oriented, believe they’ll be successful; risk their resources in pursuit of profit, high energy levels, sometimes impatient, always think about their business and how to increase market share.
  2. Creative and Persuasive: Have the creative capacity to recognize and pursue opportunities; possess strong selling skills, persuasive and persistent.
  3. Versatile:  Will wear several different hats, including salesman, telephonist, secretary, book-keeper and so on.
  4. Superb Business Skills: Able to set up the internal systems, procedures, and processes to operate the business. Focus on cash flow, sales and revenue; rely on their business skills, know-how, and contacts.
  5. Risk Tolerant
  6. Drive: Proactive to everything, a doer, willing to take the reins.
  7. Vision: To decide where your business should go.
  8. Flexible and Open-Minded: Facing a lot of unknowns, ready to tweak any initial plans and strategies.
  9. Decisive: No room for procrastination or indecision.



Psychosis is a mental disorder where the affected person perceives and/or interprets events differently, their thought processes and emotional well-being are impaired and they lose contact with reality. A notable point about psychosis is that our main source of information about it tends to be the media. We hear and read stories of the behavior of people having a psychotic episode who have injured or killed other people. Then there are the films based on mentally ill people like Psycho and Silence of the Lambs. The truth is that people having a psychotic episode are more likely to be the victim of violent crime than the perpetrator.

Looking at statistics the charity Mind refers to a report that suggests that only 0.7% of the population was affected by a psychotic disorder in the last year and 7.7% of people may be affected by bipolar disorder, antisocial personality disorder and borderline personality disorder in their lifetime – of these 25% recover completely after the first episode. It is important to remember that early treatment enhances the chance of a full recovery but affected people usually have no idea they are actually very ill.

Someone suffering a psychotic episode may show some of the following symptoms:

Hallucinations Sight, hear, feel, smell or taste
Delusions – an unshakeable belief in something that is not true Muddled thoughts; confused, disturbed thoughts, strong beliefs not shared with others or based on reality (such as being watched, or a conspiracy to harm them), paranoia
Changes in behavior Hyper-focus, social withdrawal, lack of functioning in everyday tasks, lack of personal hygiene, not eating regularly, altered sleep patterns, not going to work. Emotionless, flat. Short fuse, get angry. Anxious
Lack of insight and self-awareness Jumbled or rapid speech making conversation difficult. Not in touch with reality

 Types of Psychosis

  • Bipolar disorder (formerly called manic-depressive disorder) – Bipolar 1 Disorder, Bipolar 2 Disorder, Cyclothymia
  • Schizophrenia, Schizophreniform Disorder, schizoaffective Disorder
  • Borderline Personality Disorder
  • Mixed Affective Disorder
  • Delusional Disorder
  • Post-natal Psychosis – extreme post-natal depression


The word psychopath is not one usually used in psychology. It is certainly used in the judicial system and in the media. It is a mental disorder, more specifically an antisocial personality disorder (hence the term sociopath). It may be sub-clinical (as in un-diagnosed) or clinical (diagnosed). It is a chronic (persisting for a long time or constantly recurring) mental disorder showing abnormal and/or violent social behavior. Psychopaths seek opportunities for personal satisfaction (the end justifies the means and the fall out is irrelevant).

Symptoms of psychopathic behavior revolve around three key behaviors – boldness, disinhibition, and meanness. Examples of each of these are included in the following table.

Motivated Flexible Driven
Decisive Vision Risk tolerant
Persuasive High risk taking Paranoia
High Energy Not in touch with reality Social withdrawal
Delusions Hyper-focused Emotionless, flat
Egotistical Lack insight and self-awareness Lack empathy
Low anxiety Have issues with “truth” Aggressive
Disregard for the rights of others Above the law No guilt or remorse

  Key: Entrepreneur Psychotic


 This table is where the behaviors get interesting due to their overlap into the behaviors of both entrepreneurs (blue) and those suffering a psychotic episode (red).

Stress is usually found at the route of psychosis. So it is important for an entrepreneur to remain grounded and remember to take enough time off for rest and recuperation.


BOOK REVIEW: ACHIEVING SELF COMPASSION – Giving yourself the gifts of happiness and inner peace

BOOK REVIEW: ACHIEVING SELF COMPASSION – Giving yourself the gifts of happiness and inner peace

By Nate Terrell 2015

ISBN: 978-1-5049-4901-9(sc)

ISBN: 978-1-5049-4904-0 (e)

In his introduction, Nate Terrell writes “Our ability to meet the needs of others is largely contingent on our ability to treat ourselves with compassion. Our subsequent sense of happiness, inner peace and wholeness frees us to give to other people without depleting ourselves.”  (Author’s emphasis.) This is THE key to a happy and fulfilled life. So often we grow up or raise our children to give to others first believing that is right and then cannot understand why they suffer “donor fatigue,” burn out or worse.

By denying ourselves self-care we drain our tank. So it should not be a surprise that burnout happens and we suffer a variety of symptoms: dissatisfaction with our life, stress, depression, sadness, anger, emotional avoidance, misery, relationship issues, insecurity, loss of self-esteem and self-confidence and stagnation in our personal development.

Looking after ourselves is not selfish. It is vital to our wellbeing. How can we care for others if we do not care for ourselves? Giving to others, the needy does not replenish us, it drains us. The emphasis we are encouraged to reflect is the reverse of what we actually need. But why, what does self-compassion do for us? Why do we need it? Self-compassion validates who we are, giving us positive energy for life (not just mere existence); it is an emotional boost that enables us to weather life’s storms and be resilient (bouncing forwards after a challenge or crisis). Self-compassion empowers us to change ourselves, to grow and personally develop as individuals. It also enables us to let go of what we cannot change, to accept it and release it. Now, who doesn’t want this or need this in their life?

In “Achieving Self Compassion” Nate details in short chapters how we can achieve self-compassion for ourselves. How we can continually top up our tank to have enough to share. He does not use complicated, difficult or academic language; he uses the language we use daily. You do not always need help to achieve self-compassion. The beauty of this book is #changeonething and do it for yourself! Across ten chapters the author gives us different routes to achieving self-compassion, different routes to re-filling our tanks. We can do this for ourselves. It is not selfish, it is imminently sensible.

Whilst reading the book (most of it twice) I found some pointers resonated more loudly than others. The ones that resonate are the ones I need to work on. For example, I have developed a pretty good sense of self over the years, what I am good at or not, so tuning into my authentic self and listening to the still small voice within is fairly easy for me (Chapter 8). On the other hand, I do have to work on accepting/believing I have intrinsic worth and am inherently worthy, so chapter 3 is one I shall re-read. It reminds me of other work I have done which I may benefit by re-revisiting using the recommended strategies at the end of that chapter.

An addition I think would be useful is an associated workbook associated that connects to the “Try These Strategies for Size” at the end of each chapter. Yes, Nate is really practical with his suggestions here. Okay, create your own – grab a notebook, write down the strategies, think about and record what you should do and can change to be more self-compassionate. I still think a guided workbook would be useful, it creates accountability and a permanent record of our growth, our change, our development in self—compassion; a record we can refer back to (and is less likely to be tossed out than a notebook). It will be a reminder of the self- development we have done and of what we have achieved. Nate – there’s another book here!

Achieving Self Compassion can be purchased here.





We all have mental health and there is no health without mental health. As part of Mental Health Awareness Week 2017, I have presented a series of articles covering a variety of mental health subjects to increase our knowledge.  These have so far covered:

  1. What is Mental Health?”
  2. The Impact of Mental Ill-Health
  3. When is a mental health problem a problem
  4. Balancing the Risks around Mental Ill Health
  5. Stress
  6. Anxiety

The final article in the series, this one, looks at depression.  We may all have a down day, but what is depression and how do I gauge that this is a down day (or few days) and that is depression? Do remember the third article in the series about “When is a problem a problem? (Answer: When it’s a problem).

Thoughts and reading around depression have led me to a formula:

S + A + T = D

In this formula, S is stress, A = anxiety, T = time and D = depression. If we live with stress we can develop anxiety and over a period of time, these can turn into depression. As a rule of thumb, depression is identified when we have suffered the symptoms for at least two weeks. The symptoms to look for include:

  • Persistent sadness
  • Numbness, a lack of feeling
  • Mood swings, anger to complacency
  • Feelings of hopelessness and helplessness
  • Affects ability to study, concentrate and enjoy relationships/ socializing
  • Global thinking, for example, everything is always against me or I am always wrong
  • Anxiety and guilt
  • Loss of libido
  • Self-criticism, pessimism
  • Unexplained aches and pains
  • Fatigue and sleep issues (insomnia, poor quality of sleep or sleeping too much)
  • Appetite issues (either undereating or overeating)

Depression affects up to 10% of people in England in their lifetime. It can re-occur, if you have been depressed once you can go back there (but as you are more aware of it should be able to get help sooner). Depression can co-occur with other health and mental health issues. As an example, it is probably not a surprise to realize that someone diagnosed with a long-term chronic medical condition (let’s say fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome or cystic fibrosis) may also become depressed. Or a person diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder may go on to develop depression also.

Depression in the Workplace

 Depression in the workplace may be challenging to recognize but the cost to the individual, the company, and the economy is significant. 1 in 6 employees may have enough symptoms to be diagnosed with a mental health condition at any one time. Stress, anxiety, and depression are the most commonly recognized mental health issues at work. The HR specialists tell me that a middle manager being signed off due to a mental health issue may cost the company in excess of £30 000.

Depression in the workplace may present as a combination of all or some of the following:

  • Decreased productivity
  • Morale problems
  • Lack of co-operation
  • Safety problems (risk-taking behavior including driving at speed and not using PPE)
  • Timekeeping issues
  • Absenteeism – call in sick when not
  • Presenteeism – going to work when ill, or being there but not actually doing work
  • Frequent complaints of being tired all the time
  • Alcohol and/or other drug use

It goes without being said, but I’ll say it anyway, that if the symptoms described affect you perhaps it is time to write them down and go for a chat with your GP.