Dear Santa

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Please and thank you.

If anyone else would like to own this fabulous creation, you can buy it here.  This fantastic retailer (I ordered this item at 1007 on Thursday, it arrived via standard mail – free delivery – at 1041 on Friday) are also registered with EasyFundraising, so your purchase can raise a free-to-you donation for a charity who are registered with them (I highly recommend Equine Partners CIC, but feel free to make your own choice).

End of PSA.

Wordless Wednesday: it’s here

Yes, I’m still processing this, but receiving confirmation that I passed my courses and am now a certified professional has helped.  Opening this envelope was a very proud moment.

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The perfect fit

I’ve been having a problem shared by many women: none of my bras are fitting correctly.  It’s been a shamefully long time since I’ve invested a decent amount of time and money into this crucial piece of daily kit, so I set out on the quest which is only rivalled by the search for the perfect pair of jeans.  I ultimately visited three shops, here’s the tale of my labours…

Bra stop the first: Marks and Spencer
I entered a local branch of Britain’s stalwart retailer on a rainy Sunday with an action plan.  As a reasonably clued-up girl, I had made a guess as to how my size has changed, and went on what turned out to be a disappointing hunt.  I’ve worn a 36D for a long time (before you all have an attack of the vapours, I haven’t worn this size because I like it – I’ve had it checked regularly, and have genuinely felt comfortable in it until recently), but was curious about the fact that I may finally fit into a 34, which I knew would probably mean going up a cup size (given that I’ve changed shape, but not deflated, as it were).

I hunted around the (horribly-merchandised) lingerie department and quickly figured out that M&S design bras in two categories: pretty, but for those who only need to support the weight of two peas on their chest; ugly, and in suitable sizes to conveniently double as headgear.  I should have given up at this point, but I knew I owed my bust a favour, so I sighed and gritted my teeth.  I fished through for a selection of bras in a variety of sizes (because, hey, my guess may have been wrong) and headed for the fitting room.

I hovered awkwardly in the doorway for a moment whilst the woman behind the desk at the back of the corridor busied herself with something else, before she – without even looking up – told me to just go in, that they don’t help with fit any more.  I almost fell over in shock, and again very nearly dropped the mic (bras) and walked away.  Instead, I saw myself to a fitting room, closed the door and organised myself.

Then, dearest retailer, I was confronted by something I really didn’t expect to see: I had selected some bras which are sold in pairs, and it wasn’t until I got to the fitting room that I noticed they were tagged together.  Like this:

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I twizzled everything around to figure out the mechanics: should I try them on like this?  I quickly realised this was physically impossible.  Should I ring the bell provided for assistance?  I soon decided none would be forthcoming, given the frosty reception I had previously received.  I chose to break the rules and snapped the plastic.  Something not all people can do.  I tried every bra I had selected on.  Some – in the size I had guessed – were a reasonable fit.  They were comfortable, even.  They weren’t the type of bras you’d see strut down a runway, or in a fashion spread, but I was also going for day-to-day practicality rather than sexbomb on this occasion, so I was willing to ignore that fact.

What I wasn’t willing to ignore was the complete lack of customer service I was receiving from a high street retailer.  And shops wonder why the internet is winning!  I got dressed, having completed my research, hung the bras up on the rail by the fitting room entrance and walked away, vowing never to darken the door of Marks and Spencer for so much as a pair of socks ever again (which is a shame, because their thermal socks helped me survive last winter and their socks with the fluffy padded ankles and toes get me through the rest of the year).

Customer service: -5/5
Fit: 3/5
Value for money: 1/5 (due to poor service)

Bra stop the second: Leia
Unfortunately, the town I was in that fateful Sunday has very few decent options when it comes to bras (as demonstrated by the above!) so I had to persist with my old no-longer-faithfuls for another week, before I had the opportunity to seek out another shopping experience.  I decided that department stores weren’t the way to go – I needed real help from experts in order to feel satisfied and shell out for some decent goods.

Having prepared myself via means of caffeination, I headed to a shop I hadn’t tried before.  Oh happy day, I did not have to ask for help, assistance was volunteered by a member of staff (remember, I work in retail, I am admittedly a picky customer).  She whizzed me straight to the fitting room, asked what I was looking for, what size I was wearing and took a look at me.  She agreed that I needed a smaller band size, but her guess was that I’d require a 34F, not an E.  I was shocked, but decided that it wouldn’t hurt to try.

I was presented with a bra which matched my brief, tried it on and…well, hello glass slipper!  The bra fitted perfectly.  The sales assistant returned to check the fit for me, made sure I was properly in the bra and comfortable, then asked if I needed anything else.  I was slightly reeling from the experience of suddenly jumping two cup sizes, so I decided that I needed to go and take stock of my underwear drawer before making too many purchases.

Having bought the bra I tried on, I went to another shop for different items…and swiftly returned to Leia, having realised that my underwear drawer would require a total overhaul.  I tried on a different bra (as I had additional requirements!) and again, a sales assistant helped me to fit it and made sure it was the right one.

Sadly, the “fun” and “glamorous” end of the shop’s range wasn’t really pushing my buttons this time, so I stuck with a nude t-shirt bra (to add to the black t-shirt bra I’d previously purchased) and was on my way.  But I’ll be keeping an eye on what they have in stock, and was quick to recommend the store to a friend who is a similar size to me…

Customer service: 5/5
Fit: 6/5
Value for money: 4/5

Bra stop the third: Victoria’s Secret
VS cops a LOT of flak on both sides of the pond, but I’ve had some great experiences in there.  First pro of VS: it’s fun – it’s not short on colour, sparkle, glamour and atmosphere.  Yes, it’s like shopping in a nightclub (though without the sticky floor and dry ice), it’s very very dark.  But it’s well-staffed and, although the merchandising could be better, once you know what you’re doing, it’s straightforward (just frustrating that they rarely have all colourways in stock in all sizes).

Having been re-sized, I knew the VS range wasn’t going to fit me very well any more (they generally only stock to a D cup, with some ranges going to DD or DDD), but I was desperate for something fun, so thought I’d try a few bras on.  I repeated my M&S smash and grab, not being too fussy about colour at first, I was just trying for fit.  As I knew the cups would likely be too small, I avoided anything with too much padding or push up (which made me a little sad – I’ve had some great push ups from VS, even though it’s not something I really need) and headed for the fitting room.

The fitting room was well-staffed, I was shown to a room and left in peace, with the offer of help if I needed it.  I worked my way through my selection, trying the different styles.  Unsurprisingly, two of the five gave me some definite “four boob” (where there’s too much breast for the cup and you spill over the tops), but some of the roomier styles weren’t as bad as they might have been.  It was tempting to go back up to a 36 and see what happened, but I decided not to tease myself, and returned to the shop floor armed with my findings to have another look.

I returned to the fitting room, figured out which of my choices felt best and decided to get the opinion of the sales assistant, partly to see whether they confirmed what I knew or tried something else!  The girl who helped agreed with my assessment (and commented that she liked the colour of the one I’d chosen).  It’s tough – the cynic in me thinks she was upselling, as I know the bra could’ve fitted a touch better, but when all you’re dealing with is the range you have available…was she in a position to know any better?  Possibly not.

Customer service: 3/5 (this would actually be a 4/5 for the store staff, but see below for what drags the company as a whole down)
Fit: 1/5 (sad but true)
Value for money: -1/5 (VS, who are you trying to kid with your “charge the same number in Sterling as you do in Dollars” strategy?)

I wanted to go through the good points first, but now it’s time to throw some constructive criticism at VS – I would really love the people in charge to listen to this, because I think this store is good, but it could be so much better (and, get this, more profitable) if those in charge listened.

  1. We do not feel like Xtina in Burlesque in your dressing rooms, we feel like we forgot to pay our electricity bill and it’s December. We want to see ourselves in your products, so that we know what we look like!  We cannot do that when we feel like we’re wearing filter category four sunglasses.  Yes, you have a brand; no, we don’t actually want to get dressed in the dark
  2. Repeat after me: big breasts deserve pretty bras. More cup and back sizes = more customers = more sales.  If you even think about charging more for sizes above a 34C, we will turn tail and run, and we will take the lovely A and B cup ladies with us because, guess what?  Stores like Leia stock everything from a AA to a…well, I don’t know, but I definitely heard mention of K cups when I was in there.  Leave the chicken fillet-filled B cups for your Christmas meat market show and give the high street the E+ cups it needs
  3. Linked to the above: cut it out with the security tag obsession. I admitted that your bras don’t fit me all that well, but the tags hinder things even further.  I was thisclose to asking your lovely staff to take them off, but I honestly thought they’d say no, so didn’t bother.  This too, will be making you lose sales (see a pattern, here?)
  4. This is the most important point, so please listen carefully: IT IS 2015. Stop insulting the UK and crippling your staff by failing to allow them to order stock in, and not allowing us to shop online (in fact, not even having your range online in UK prices is a heinous crime too).  Get yourselves a UK distribution centre STAT.  How you’ve survived this long with a placeholder website is beyond me.  Why you aren’t keeping your costs low and your profits high by offering online shopping is also mind-bogglingly stupid.  The UK loves VS, as do all of the tourists who visit us.  You’re an aspirational, cool, sexy brand with masses of appeal.  And you’re sticking a machine gun to your foot on a daily basis

Marks and Spencer, this advice is for you:

  1. Hire a new Head of Lingerie who has run a successful store before. Give your staff products they can be proud of and the confidence to fit and sell them.  Jump on the VS bandwagon and take the advice I have given them (well, you already have a website, so you’re ahead there.  One less thing to do).  Alternatively:
  2. Stop selling bras. I mean it when I say I’m not buying another sock from you.  I will find fluffy socks somewhere else.  And no-VPL pants (because, damn, they are good, but I will hunt down some other ones now).  Admittedly, I may continue to buy the odd bottle of Prosecco or a sandwich.  But you really can forget the rest, unless you seriously change.  My experience was utterly diabolical and, like many British women, I have been buying your bras since I first needed one

After two arduous shopping trips and one long blog post, I feel relieved.  Anyone care to share their own experiences?  If there’s anything else you’d like to know, please go ahead and ask – as you can probably now tell, this is a topic I’m not shy about!

Adopting

There’s an increasing Americanisation of the UK, with us taking on many of their “holiday” traditions these days (that can stop, by the way – we don’t need Halloween or Black Friday, thanks), but I’m trying to bring something else into commonplace.  My favourite American custom is that of encouraging people to have a nice day, rather than just saying goodbye.

As a long-serving (suffering?) service industry professional, I’ve seen retail and food outlets adopt what many super-reserved Brits regard as being an over-the-top friendliness.  To greet customers or be the ones to initiate conversation is seen here as a combination of nosy and pushy salesperson-type behaviour.  When Starbucks began asking customers for their name when ordering drinks, they were met with stern opposition (and not just from the mocking Twitterati, who take delight in exposing spelling mistakes) at this supposed over-familiarity (side note: take it from a former-barista, this policy is saving lives – nothing more frustrating than the umpteenth customer asking if the stone-cold latte on the end of the bar is theirs, and then proceeding to take the extra hot triple decaf wet soya latte which clearly isn’t theirs instead).  No, the American custom I’m on a mission to expand within the UK is that of encouraging people to have a nice day.

Rather than leaving my customer sign off as, “thank you, goodbye”, I try my best to encourage people to have a good day.  It often surprises them.  They tend to say, “thank you” or at the very least smile in response.  It visibly lifts them.  And occasionally, I get the biggest win of all: they return the phrase.  Sometimes, it’s an unconscious, “you too”, but on other occasions it’s clearly heartfelt.  And that makes me smile, put my shoulders back, and glide back into the retail fray with a better attitude.

I don’t save lives, I sell merchandise.  I’m not a member of the emergency services who works unsociable hours, I work in a shop and often work unsociable hours (we won’t discuss my rota for December here, in case some kind of miracle occurs and I escape it, but let’s just say it’s far from good).  I’m no hero, and I can be on the receiving end of some abuse.  So when people are nice, or grateful, and happy, it’s noticed.

I do it as a customer too – partly because I know what it’s like to be the poor person behind the counter who has rotting milk in their hair, or the one on the till whose feet hurt and has been wearing an enforced smile for several hours, and faces a stock take once the shutters come down – and I feel sad when it isn’t a part of that worker’s culture, when it’s me who delivers that line to them (always, always earnestly), who has to try and make them feel better.

But it’s worth it if I change one person’s outlook.  And it’s definitely worth it when one of my customers smiles and tells me to have a great day.  Because now, I just might.

Changes on the blog

Some of you may have realised that I’ve been struggling to write recently, which is a strange thing for someone who has a lot of opinions!  I’ve thought long and hard about why I’m struggling and what to do, because there are exciting things coming which I’d like to both share and save for posterity, it’s just that excitement is less forthcoming than it was.

I thought back to why I started blogging, and remembered that initially it was to keep my family informed of my whereabouts.  This was a little more relevant when I was spending four nights here, two nights there, but not so critical now that I’m remaining in one place!  My other problem is that I keep seeing all of the things in my life which I can’t blog about for confidentiality or not-wanting-to-lose-my-job reasons, and I keep seeing a limited pool of what I can share.

So the compromise that I’ll try is to blog weekly, instead of twice per week.  Hopefully, this means I’ll find the time to write a really decent post each week, and won’t be scratching around for topics!  The new world of Kicking On starts here, and I’ll be coming at you on Wednesdays (because who doesn’t need a mid-week distraction?).

Stick with me, and hopefully I’ll be able to continue to share the fun parts as and when they come along!

Sunny Sussex

It’s been three years since I’ve seen a British summer, and I’ve noticed myself lately driving around as I go about my business, as if seeing the countryside and weather for the first time.  A change really is as good as a rest, apparently.

I grew up in a small village, and as a child I found it boring.  As a horsey kid, it shouldn’t have been that way, it should’ve been wonderful.  But my loan pony didn’t live within walking or cycling distance (if he had, I suspect I’d very rarely have been at home), and none of my school friends lived in our village.  The day I passed my driving test was when I won my freedom, and from that point I stopped caring so much about being cut off from other people.

That cut off feeling has returned somewhat during recent years: I sold my car when I moved to London just over four years ago, and promptly used the takings to pay my rent when I quit my job a couple of weeks later.  Some very big mistakes were made that year, ones which I’m still feeling the repercussions of!  So two years ago, when I dropped everything, moved my belongings home and ran away to join the circus, there was no money to have my own car and certainly no money for one.

Upon my return in autumn, I was able to borrow my Mum’s car occasionally, but it was just a means of getting around – my surroundings don’t look very inspiring in winter, unless it snows or there’s a heavy frost.  I spent two winters surrounded by brown and grey, with the odd hint of blue, and two summers in a completely different world, creating a new temporary home for the bulk of my trips, then taking in a huge variety of places on my travels.  I’ve seen red cliffs and black sand, several different types of turtle, a gorgeous pink sunset and some concrete jungles.  But none of it looks like home.

The countryside has bloomed from grey to green, driving along the roads feels like a sweeping rollercoaster of leaves and grasses, with trees reaching out across the lanes, rather than just nakedly poking out of the ground.  The countryside really is rolling around here, and I often feel myself sitting taller in a vain attempt to see over the hedges into fields beyond.  This technique works when you’re on a horse, not so much in a car.

I’ve been to some stunning cities, and there are some great ones near me.  But nothing compares to the emergence of my local summer from the curtain of rain, wind and grey skies of winter.  I swam through our clay-based soil throughout the winter, it’s fantastic to be able to drive with the windows down, sunglasses on and fully-bloomed countryside around me, the comforting hug of home re-born, both in real life and my memories.

Wordless Wednesday: equine therapy

Following my previous explanation of equine assisted learning, something great popped up on one of my Google Alerts.  The below infographic is a fantastic demonstration of what equine therapy is and what it can be used for.  The organisation I volunteer with doesn’t currently offer riding as part of any therapy, but as it grows, it is something which is in the plan, if appropriate for a given participant.

So if you’re still uncertain, take a look at this infographic.  Please feel free to share and let me know what you think!

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Open for business

It’s been a busy couple of weeks for me!  I haven’t had time to write a full blog post today, so I thought I’d give you a peek at the events I helped put on last week.

The Equine Partners open days were a great success – lots of people came to visit us, there was a huge amount of cake consumed, and our visitors were very generous with their donations in return for said cake.  It’s now onward and upwards to make the most of the summer, getting lots of sessions in and continuing the good work that we do…

Here’s our yard looking busier than it ever has before!  We normally only see one family at a time (all images are clickable to enlarge)

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Kira made some new friends!  I promise she didn’t eat anyone…

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Prince and I were teaching a student and ended up doing a demo I was very proud of!  He tried really hard and gave me some great things

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I did some demo sessions as well, here’s Kira doing some teaching about obstacles and communication

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And finally, we took the opportunity to have a photo shoot – here’s Prince and me posing shamelessly

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Hope to be back on track next week!

Giving and getting

“We want to make sure that you’re getting what you want out if this,” Fran said to me back in January.  It wasn’t a conversation I was expecting, but one which one of the Directors of the charity I volunteer with broached on a windy morning, forcing me to stop and think.  I hadn’t considered what I wanted, beyond the chance to spend time with horses over the winter.  But at that point, it was becoming clear that I might be sticking around for longer, so it made sense that we consider the future.

Let’s take a few steps back, now.  I’ve always been a Girl Who Likes Things: I enjoy spending money; I like trying new food (preferably accompanied by good wine in a comfortable setting where I pay for the privilege of someone else cooking AND clearing up); I take pleasure in going shopping, whether it’s to find the perfect dress, shoes, handbag or pair of jeans; when I go on holiday, I’m happy to pay more in order to stay somewhere nice with good facilities and a breathtaking view.  Essentially, I’m materialistic.  And until even as little as a year ago, that meant (in my terms) that my time was worth money.  Because money buys Things, and Things are what I like.  Plus, I reasoned, I have talent and skills, those are worth paying for, right?

I even went as far as to tell friends and family that I would never work for free.  I didn’t mind working for low wages (if you want to get rich, you do not work at summer camps), but I did need to be paid.

I’m not sure I could tell you exactly what changed, so I think I’ll call it kismet.  It’s probably a combination of things: I found something I deemed “worth it”; I had time on my hands; I had another job which did pay me; I needed what was on offer… I moved the goalposts.  I volunteered.

I didn’t actively expect to “get” anything, partly because I already was: when I first went to see Fran and Jo upon my return to the UK last autumn, they invited me to ride one of their horses for them.  He needed work, I could (and wanted to) ride, it made sense to them.  For me it meant that I didn’t have to pay in order to do something I enjoy doing (my other option at the time would’ve been to go back to the local riding school and pay for lessons on their horses again, given that I don’t have my own horse).  I already thought I was winning.  In fact, the more I showed up, I knew I was winning, because they allowed me to assist on therapy sessions, something that I knew I wanted to ultimately do as my job, and an area in which I needed experience.  I didn’t think I needed any more.

But they wanted to give me more, and they wanted me to tell them what more was.  They wanted to make sure that I was developing, and that was purely out of the kindness of their hearts.  The way they saw it, I was giving them my time and some physical labour, and that meant I was due something in return.  I love this attitude, not because I stand to gain something concrete from it, but because it matches my own – that anyone who is even a millimetre ahead should be supporting those behind them.  Because that’s how we stabilise the future.  We shouldn’t be job-blocking or holding others back or – worst of all – de-motivating them; we should be encouraging and nurturing.

I’ve written before about how I’ve been inspired by some great managers (who sometimes work for not-so-great organisations), those who I thought managed talent well, and who helped the business they work for achieve its goals, but without ignoring the individuals who are there making it happen.  Because it’s not always about what the organisation needs: whether someone is turning up paid or unpaid, we all have different motivations, but as long as you tap into those drivers, you can help a team function effectively even though they ultimately want different things.

I genuinely believe that by protecting the good habits instilled in me by the managers I worked for when I was younger, I will hopefully be able to perpetuate them, and make the working world a better place.  This post may seem a little out of the blue: in fact, it was inspired by a discussion during #CharityHour, whereby a few of us became involved in a debate regarding support or help given to volunteers looking to advance their careers.  On one side was somebody who essentially said, “ain’t nobody got time for that”, and on the other side was me.  The other side said, “but we can’t have volunteers taking up the charity’s resources,” following which I exploded with apoplexy, because volunteers are a resource of any charity and, in fact, they are more than a resource, they are an asset and assets, as any businessperson will tell you, must be protected.

The other side reared up at my suggestion that volunteers at the very least be promised a reference, stating that they had known organisations whereby one person were responsible for hundreds of volunteers.  My response was that the responsibility should then be divided – provide training, I said, make sure people can do this; our saying within the horsemanship community is, “find a way or make one”.  Anything is possible (insert more cat-skinning related clichés here).  The sticking point for many – and I have worked for at least two enormous companies who have this rule – is good old arse-covering: in the UK, it is illegal to give a negative reference for an employee or volunteer.  As a referee, you have three choices – give a positive reference, a neutral reference, or decline (and the final option tells the person requesting one that, if you could, you’d be giving a bad one).

So big companies permit only neutral references – the standard is that you will confirm dates of employment and sickness record, but won’t comment on an individual’s performance.  Johnny who turns up early for every shift, stays late and is your top seller whose jokes, patter and warmth your customers adore gets the same reference as Bob, who shows up five minutes late, nips out for cigarettes every hour, looks unkempt and is borderline rude.  In my mind, to go the extra mile for Johnny – who has gone several hundred extra miles for you – is not hard.  To provide training and regulation for those who will be giving references (to ensure that your arse is covered) is also not hard.  To give you another equestrian analogy (because they work, as horses are mirrors): “Never knock the curiosity out of a young horse” – Tom Dorrance.  We remember those who snub us on our slow and steady climb.  We mirror their habits.  Let’s breed positive qualities.

I am hopeful that, one day, I will create my ideal world: the one where I get to do a job that I adore (full-time, paid), and develop those around me in a way I would like to see things progress.  I once heard a riding instructor say that they are delighted when their students enter the same classes as them at competitions and beat them, because that’s how it should be – the next generation should ultimately improve on the previous one.  It’s called progress, and without it, nothing changes.  But without a little help – a leg up, a “thank you”, and an opportunity – it can’t happen.  I want to see positive strides, but they can’t happen without my support, so I will give anything that I am able to, whenever I am able to give it.

Reasons to stay alive – book review

This could be a very short blog post, because my thoughts on this book are simple: it’s excellent.  Published a mere three months ago, the buzz about this book turned into a roar very quickly.  The internet collectively cried, “Someone described how I really feel,” and how.  The author, Matt Haig, suffered a breakdown in his early 20s, eventually turning to reading and writing in order to overcome his new state of mind (I’m not convinced that depression is something which we can “cure”).  Initially, Haig published a handful of fiction books, some of which received a good deal of positive attention.  It is Reasons, however, which has catapulted him to a different level.

As someone interested in learning more about depression, I was looking for an autobiographical account of it, and there are many currently available.  However, my reading habits over the last few years could probably best be described as erratic: when I left young adult fiction behind, I wasn’t sure where to go with proper, grown up books, so my tendency is to buy something which sounds exciting, but this hasn’t been all that effective.  I’ve got more books than I’d like to think about sat around having lost me after about 40 pages – if I don’t finish a book within 48 hours of picking it up, odds on I won’t go back to it.  So when selecting my book from this category, I took the recommendation of a few friends who raved about it before purchasing.

I was pleasantly surprised: it’s an incredibly clever book, as no chapter is more than about eight pages long.  It’s a book written by a depression-sufferer for fellow sufferers, contained within manageable chunks in an engaging style.  There are lows – of course – and there is hope.  There is practical advice (in a gentle way, a “this worked for me, you could try it, I have no proof, but you could also leave it and try your own thing” style), and there are true accounts of the author’s experiences.  It is a brave person who opens their brain like this, showing the world what it’s really like: that it’s a mess in there, and you have no idea how to untangle it.  Not only do you not have the practical resources, but you also don’t have the energy, because whatever has short-circuited in your brain is demanding all of your body’s physical energy in order to try and fix that problem before you can address the emotional ones.

It’s a book everyone should read, whether you are depressed, have been depressed, or know someone who is (or may be – statistically, given the amount of people we all connect with, you either currently know someone who is suffering in silence, or will know someone in the future who faces this problem), you should read this book.  Because there is help for supporters too, it is useful to see this perspective, as it is something many people are not able to articulate.

One of my favourite lines came about half way through the book, and it’s worth noting even if we’re not discussing mental health issues: “Normal is subjective.  There are seven billion versions of normal on this planet.”  If we all began by taking a minute to let that sink in, the world would already be a more comfortable place.  Take 48 hours to consume this book, and things could improve enormously.