No one is too far away to be cared for, or to care.
by Marty Baker
“I never know how Fran is doing, not really. She can seem so fragile, so close to the edge, so hurt and hurting … and then the next moment we are laughing, or mad at each other. I’m learning not to be scared, not to worry, but instead to care. So many people are scared shitless for her. They can’t deal with her, can’t cope at all. Perhaps I should be like that. Am I a danger to Fran because I am so calm? Perhaps I am being naive. Or perhaps it makes me precisely who she needs.”
Those words are from my diary, written in the summer of 2011, a few months after meeting my best friend Fran Houston online for the first time. Fran lives with bipolar disorder, chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia. We are on opposite sides of the Atlantic: Fran on the east coast of the United States, me in the northeast of England. We’ve only met face to face once (so far!) but despite the geographic distance Fran considers me her primary support and carer. Like many friends these days we message each other constantly and get together for voice and webcam calls almost every day. As we like to say, no one is too far away to be cared for, or to care.
I’ve never for a moment regretted “getting involved”, but I’d be lying if I said things are always easy. In the past four years Fran’s moved through mania, debilitating depression, pain and fatigue, with suicidal thinking an almost constant companion. Our greatest challenge came in 2013 when she spent three months traveling in Europe with her elderly parents. The trip proved far more demanding than we’d anticipated and brought Fran to the point of mental and physical collapse, far from her network of friends and healthcare professionals. Despite our vigilance the combination of stress, anxiety, insomnia and exhaustion triggered a mixed episode of depression, hypomania and suicidal thinking. It was hard going, but with a change in medication sanctioned by her psychiatrist and a renewed commitment to self-care, Fran was able to complete the trip. We learned a lot.
As the quote from my diary shows, I’ve sometimes questioned how equipped I am to support her. Fran was manic when we met: I mostly found myself able to remain calm and focused but there were others, including many who’d known her far longer, who were scared and worried about her behaviour. Maybe I was too calm? But even when it was benign – and it was not always benign – Fran found other people’s “energy of worry” unhelpful in the extreme. (One of the first things Fran ever said to me was, “Don’t worry about me. Care about me.”)
I got things wrong many times. It took me a while, for example, to recognise the dangers of Fran’s manic schemes and projects. Even now, four years down the line, I mess up now and again. Who doesn’t? But I have come to recognise that positive, supportive and vigilant care is far healthier – for both of us – than any amount of fear-based worrying. What Fran needs more than anything else is for me to be her friend.
Why is this so important? Well or ill, we all need support and companionship, but those living with mental illness often find friends in short supply. Changes in mood, energy and behaviour can strain relationships to breaking point, leaving people alone precisely when they need help most. Fran once expressed her experience of social isolation with characteristic insight, “why is everyone.. so so so afraid.. in the guise of concern.. I am a love.. simple.. and kind.. like most.. mentally ill.. and.. everyone is so so so alarmed..”
Calm, caring support is never more important than when Fran is suicidal. She’s told me many times that she wouldn’t be alive without my support. I take her words at face value. Three months after we first met, I wrote to a mutual friend: “I was online with Fran last night. When I called, her first words were that she wanted to die. I know they are not just words; I understand to some degree how real and ever-present a choice it is for her. She should terrify me. I wonder how it can be that she does not. She says it is because I trust her. I guess that is true.” It’s not that I trust Fran never to try and harm herself, or imagine that our friendship guarantees her safety. She’s never attempted suicide, but she knows what to do and I take any hint that she’s thinking about ending her life very seriously. But I trust her to not hide her suicidal feelings from me, and to be honest with me about them. Ultimately, I trust her to allow me to help her stay alive.
The impacts of illness on her life and our friendship rise and fall like the tides – although rather less predictably! As her friend my role is to help her keep as well, and to live as richly, as possible.
People sometimes ask why I spend so much time online with Fran, and devote time and energy to learning about bipolar disorder and mental illness. My starting point is that we’re friends, and friends care for and look out for each other. If I help Fran move through her days then she helps me move through mine. The past four years have expanded my life, knowledge and awareness immensely. There’s a line in the movie Young Guns. “If you’ve got three or four good pals, why then you’ve got yourself a tribe, and there ain’t nothing stronger then that.” With Fran, and the wider community of like-minded – and like-hearted – folk seeking to counter the stigma of mental illness, I feel I’ve found myself a tribe. It’s good to be here.
* * *
Certified in Mental Health First Aid, Martin Baker (“Call me Marty”) is committed to developing his skills and knowledge in the mental health arena. He took the internationally recognised Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) course in July 2014. Recent training includes ‘Beating Bipolar’, a web-based interactive course developed by Cardiff University, and eSuicideTALK, part of the most used and widely recognized suicide prevention-intervention training in the world.
Marty is a former member of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society and a current member of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), The National Association for Mental Health (Mind), and Bipolar UK. He is a registered Champion of the Time to Change anti-stigma campaign launched jointly by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, and a member of Stigma Fighters. Marty is married and lives in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the northeast of England.
Marty and his best friend Fran Houston are currently seeking a literary agent for their non-fiction book about how to be a good friend when your friend lives with mental illness.
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