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.
Marty can be found on Facebook, Twitter, and his website
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What an amazing post!
Thank you, Kimmie, I am glad my words resonated with you. Was there anything in particular which spoke out to you? ~Marty
Yes Marty, Your compassion!
i don’t need to imagine how much that..your acceptance, willingness, not just to support; but also to arm yourself with information (understanding) and your ‘unconditional’ friendship means to Fran…. I know how much that kind of acceptance means…. and the difference it can make.
Take care, Kimmie
Kimmie – thank you! It did take me a while to recognise that simply “being there with Fran” wasn’t quite enough.. or at least that I could bring more to our friendship and help her more effectively by becoming better informed/aware, both specifically re bipolar, and more generally. We share a lot of things too, for example Fran finds meditation very helpful to her, and we meditate together daily and have taken quite a few online meditation series together (eg the free 21 day ones by Deepak Chopra, but others too).
We also are both interested in NVC (nonviolent communication, also known as compassionate communication), which is helpful in a general sense – it helps us communcate more effectively, with each other and others too.
So another important part of what we are about is recognising that much of the help and support that Fran finds most helpful isn’t specifically “illness-related” – it is the sort of care, support and encouragement that enriches *all* our lives.
Hi Martin, I always knew you were one of the good guys but I really take my hat off to you for what you are doing. I too am the main support and for a long time was the only support for someone 2000 miles away. It’s taken more suicide threats to get mental health support in place for them and has involved lengthy hospital stays. I think your friend is very lucky to have such a wonderful man as yourself as a friend and supporter. All the very best. I’m now going to have a look at the meditation course you mentioned below.
Hi Steph – sorry not to have got back to you before now, I missed the notification that you had commented :/ Sounds like we have a few things in common here. If you are interested, I was on radio last week talking about my friendship with Fran: you can hear it at this link: http://pca.st/Fg4C (my bit starts from 27:00 and runs for just under half an hour).
By way of an update: our book is now published – “High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder” (Nordland Publishing) is available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.