Max’s Marathon Week 14: TWO WEEKS TO GO! More fundraising, more loveliness, more food…

Another weekend, another fine display of generosity…

On Saturday, I did a second supermarket collection for Mind to bump up my sponsorship total; this time outside Waitrose in Gerrards Cross. The night before, @Afrofilmviewer (whose OH is a lucky woman…) spontaneously stopped by and cooked a delicious lentil curry. In added spontaneity, we drank three bottles of wine with it. Happily, @DuchessOChutney was up from London the next morning, and met me for a Fego breakfast of pancakes, French toast and some hangover-taming black coffee. “It’s brilliant! It’s full of olds and they’re playing Bryan Adams!” she texted as I was arriving. Also: “OMG THE CLOTHES SHOPS HERE ARE TERRIFYING AND AMAZING. There’s a shop that looks like it’s been vomited up by the Italian Mafia.” (It’s called Gita. Gerrards Cross is also popular with wealthy Chinese women whose style icon appears to be Bet Lynch from Corrie. Lady in the long silver leopard-print coat with the hot-pink shellac nails, may God bless you and keep you…).

My hunch that the shoppers here might be a tougher crowd than last week’s seemed disappointingly accurate at first.

“Who are you?” a silver-haired man in a suit asked me abruptly, within minutes, as though I’d approached him and not the other way round. For tone of voice, think somewhere between a grumpy boss meeting the new intern and Francis Urquhart talking to a muddy Spaniel.

The branded t-shirt and collecting tin would be a giveaway, you’d have thought, but there we are. I explained what I was collecting for.

“Is it in this country? It’s not going abroad?”

“No,” I said, once I’d picked my jaw up from the floor.

“OK, you can have 50p.”

“And you can take it back and go and choke on it you awful little man.”

I didn’t actually say that, obviously. But it’s probably just as well I’m too dyspraxic to work in retail because if I had to listen to people like that all the time I might do. Another man went out of his way to donate to me and praise Mind, then decided to let me know he Did Not Approve of a lady nearby selling the Big Issue. “You know what that is? It’s pyramid selling! You know how pyramid selling works, do you?” (“Gosh, no sir, I don’t! Please explain it to me!”)  

I inwardly sighed, and looked at my watch. At this rate, it was going to be a very long four hours…

After that, though, all changed, and everyone I met was super, super kind and lovely. People crossed the street, gave coins to their kids, wished me luck, told me stories, and reminisced about fundraisers they’d done themselves. A man said: “You helped my son, so I’ll help you.” A lady thanked me with a wobble in her voice. Another just touched my arm and looked at me. The day had started with bright sunshine, but by mid-afternoon it’d disappeared. As the wind picked up, so did my donations, as people enquired after my health (physical, not mental, but possibly both…), warning me not to freeze. A very nice lady named Soo-Ray bought me a coffee as I was shivering and we chatted for a while. I’d worked out I could go home when it was 4pm, I’d completely frozen my tits off or my tin was full, whichever came first. Only, I couldn’t then decide how full was full or how cold was too cold. A man bought me a tea “(You look so cold and lonely!”) and seemed to be working up to a meet-cute but was either too shy or too married to continue. By then, I was too cold to speak in sentences, so that worked out alright. As I was signing out at the front desk, a man who’d already donated, and who looked a bit like a bearded Stephen Mangan, spotted me and stuck in an additional fiver.

I had a very special chat with a man who told me he’d run the very first London Marathon back in 1982, in just over three hours. He talked about technique, warning me against the classic mistake of starting too fast, and so on. His lovely wife was with him, wearing a lovely bright pair of running shoes.

The pattern of the day mirrored my experience of university, where I spent freshers dinner listening to someone enthuse about clubbing on the Kings Road and his gap-year shooting bison in South Africa, thinking “Shit, if they’re all like this, I’m going home.” Luckily they weren’t all Like That, I didn’t go home, and over the next three years, and beyond, Durham introduced me to some of the loveliest people you could ever meet, often most memorably in situations I didn’t expect. Sometimes, it bears remembering that getting over yourself for a moment and giving things a chance is the best thing you’ll ever do…

I raised over £200 in five hours (and £28 more than last week). Special thanks to the Waitrose staff for being especially welcoming and attentive, and letting me use their loos and canteen when I needed to.

On Sunday morning I was tired from being out for dinner and the cats were being pains in the bum so running didn’t happen until after 10, and breakfast was lunch. But Penn was lovely and twee in the spring sunshine and I had Lady Grey by the Mystery Jets twice at the top of the same hill.

Two weeks to go means I’m officially tapering, and the longer runs are getting shorter. On the 22nd (two days before Marathon Day) I’m seeing my parents again for the first time in four months. And the week of the Marathon itself is a very bittersweet anniversary (to be explained…). From now until then I’m basically going to be a puddle of emotion on legs, so bear with me if you will….

I’m 80% of the way to my fundraising target. THIS IS GREAT. Please, please sponsor me and help me smash it, and help Mind help more people with mental health problems. My minimum target is £1,750. and I’d LOVE to get to £2,000.

If it helps, here are some of the groovy things your money will do… 

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Are you looking for a writer or social media person interested in mental health? Read on…

Hello, friends and internet strangers. I know I’ve been asking rather a lot of you all lately, what with my Marathon fundraising and all the banging on about running and power-ballads. But I’d be honoured if you could read and possibly help with the following….

After much soul-searching about my life’s future direction over the past year-and-a-bit I have decided I’d like to use my copywriting, journalism and/or social media skills more directly in a mental health setting. Over the last ten years I’ve written about everything from social policy to couture latex (a story best served with wine). But I believe I do my best for others when I bring lived experience as well as skills to my work. Mental health, always a subject close to my heart, has grown ever-closer to it in recent years. This idea has come to me like the person you end up marrying after you’ve been friends for years and you realise it’s been staring you in the face all the time (I don’t know why I picked that analogy, I’m more likely to climb a mountain with the England football team in the near future than get married, but anyway….).

I wanted to announce this here first, rather than scattergunning mental health organisations with standard begging letters, or trying to shoehorn my freelance portfolio into application forms asking for “At least three years’ experience in a similar role, preferably within a similar organisation,” because it’s easier to show what I can do outside those boundaries. I feel that looking for advertised jobs or tenders with large, branded firms or mental health charities – wonderful as they are – isn’t the only way, or necessarily the best way, to find work. The best evidence that I use words and social media is not on my CV or in speculative emails or “competency frameworks” but here in front of you, and in my published writing, over at my work website. And at @shakeandcrawl and @MaxineFrances), in my 35,000+ tweets since 2011 – plenty are about TV or cute animals, but plenty are about mental health. Sometimes both.

There’s no hiding that the path to here hasn’t been easy or pleasant. Bluntly, a lot of my adult life reads like an answer to the interview question: “Tell us about a time you overcame something difficult.” At 21, during my second undergraduate year, I was identified as dyspraxic. After graduating, I trained as a magazine journalist at Cardiff, and applied for lots of big-brand jobs I nearly-but-not-quite got. I stayed in a largely-admin-based graduate job that wasn’t a great fit for as long as I could, then used the experience to train businesses in supporting people with dyspraxia, alongside writing features for various national papers and magazines. I’ve given dyspraxia talks and training everywhere from youth clubs to boardrooms, and am a trustee of The Dyspraxia Foundation. The anxiety and depression that’s affected me throughout my life is largely because of my dyspraxia being unrecognised for so long, and is pretty manageable by playing to my strengths as far as possible.

My own experiences first got me engaged with mental health. I started blogging about it as a student, in amongst my musings on theatre, politics, boys, girls and other studenty concerns of the day. But seeing friends struggle with depression – and some, very tragically, lose that struggle – has turned me from an armchair advocate into an active one. Five years ago, one of my dearest friends took his own life. It was just six months into my full-time freelancing career, and my burgeoning business struggled to recover. When a second friend did the same at the end of 2014 and it triggered another mental health dip I couldn’t figuratively or literally afford, I took up running and started fundraising for mental health. I also set up a small dedicated mental health blog to smooth those difficult few months, including a widely-shared post on how to talk to someone dealing with suicide. I’ve run, vlogged, guest-blogged and blogged some more. By the end of April, I will have run the London Marathon and raised over £2,000 for Mind. 

There may be people I know reading this and wondering whether it’s such a good idea. Whether that by taking my work in this direction, I’m letting myself be defined by my mental health – or by other people’s – when I should just try to brick it all up and forget about it. But you can’t stop feelings by trying to ignore them, any more than you can fix a leaking roof by trying to ignore rain. I can’t help what I feel. I can help what I do with it, and whether I let it tear me up or make the best use of it by supporting others: especially those who live with mental health problems without the benefit of a supportive family, a marketable skill, or having the Arts Council read their writing.

What exactly happens next obviously depends who I can connect with. I’m looking at either returning to a salaried job or staying self-employed but working with a small number of rolling clients rather than the mostly one-off, word-of-mouth writing and proofreading jobs I do now. My ultimate wish (which is about as likely as a lottery win) would be doing regular journalism again, including but not necessarily limited to mental health writing. Outside traditional journalism, the most obvious organisations I’d fit into are seemingly charities/CICs, or communications agencies with a lot of mental health clients (for copywriting in particular, most big organisations employ agencies rather than a single person in-house). I once turned down an interview for a staff job with an agency because I wasn’t clear on what it involved, and at the time I didn’t feel able to ask the right questions in the right way. Five years on – despite some very difficult times – I’m more confident, experienced and open. I look forward to whatever that may bring. I’ve had a five years a Lib Dem press officer wouldn’t envy. But, like him, I can make a good blog post out of a bad situation.

A few other details….

  • I don’t have the means to retrain as an anything (and it’s highly unlikely anyone will fund me to do it as I’m over 30 and have a postgraduate qualification already), so please bear that in mind if making any suggestions. I think I might like to do a counselling training one day if I have money and time, but not right now. Ditto volunteering. I’m looking into doing a bit with a particular organisation, but I can’t apply until the end of the year, as they have a rule for volunteers who’ve known people die by suicide that they won’t take you until at least two years since the most recent. I can understand why, and I’m sure many related organisations have something similar.
  • This isn’t just about guilt over the deaths of friends. I have felt that, of course, as anyone does on some level when someone they know takes their lives. But it’s not the defining factor. There’s a paint chart of feelings involved in situations like these, and public words are only the half of it. Reducing it to just guilt is too crass.
  • Words and I were made for each other; Numbers and I don’t and never will get on. The careers lady at school told me I wouldn’t get into a good university because of my Maths GCSE. I got into eight of them (and, somehow, scored a high 2:1 in a compulsory stats module…), but work involving Maths and spreadsheets is generally best avoided. Much the same goes for high-level admin although this depends on the situation  – I’m happy to discuss in more detail if you want to.
  • I’m based in South Bucks, just outside London, at the moment but will consider relocating, including internationally, if the opportunity’s there. What I do is more important than where.

If you think you can help in any way (whether it’s with a specific opportunity or advice on where best to find them), please comment below or email me. If you think there might be someone in your circle who could help, even if it’s a really long shot, please pass this along; I’d be very happy to hear from them. Thank you.