I am passionate about mental health, so when I was invited by Men Tell Health to share my story I leapt at the chance. I hope it will interest and inspire others. I am a carer for someone who lives with mental illness. My situation is a bit unusual in that I am three thousand miles from the person I support.
My name is Martin and I live in Newcastle upon Tyne in the north-east of England. My best friend Fran lives in Portland, Maine, on the east coast of the United States. Fran lives with bipolar disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS/ME), and fibromyalgia.
Despite being on the opposite side of the Atlantic, I am her primary carer and life-line. We met on Facebook in 2011 and have been friends ever since. In those four years Fran has moved through episodes of mania, depression, and debilitating fatigue. She deals with suicidal thinking, even when relatively stable.
She has local friends and a great team of professionals (doctor, psychiatrist, care coordinator, and other therapists), but I’m the one in most direct contact with her; the person she relies on to be there, day or night. We use email, social media, chat, voice and video calls to connect as much as we choose or need to. We like to say the internet means no one is too far away to be cared for, or to care. Technology is certainly important, but the most crucial factor in our relationship is trust. I trust myself to be there for Fran. She trusts me to help her stay as well as possible, and to be there even when things are not going well. Ultimately, she trusts me to help her stay alive.
Being a carer covers many roles; the two key ones are being a good listener and being a balancer. Listening well isn’t as easy as it sounds! It can be hard to resist leaping in and trying to fix things. It’s important, though, because mostly Fran doesn’t need me to fix anything, even if I could. What she needs is someone to listen while she talks things out. My role is to hold a space in which she feels safe to be herself, no matter what’s going on for her, without feeling judged, or that she needs to justify herself or explain.
Fran recently wrote to a friend about the early days of our friendship. “Marty didn’t try to change me. He didn’t try to fix me. He simply was there, listening, being a friend. He believed in me when I couldn’t believe in myself. One thing he said was that he wouldn’t go away no matter what I said or did. That gave me permission to be open with him. Without that safe container it’s much harder to share with people because boundaries are unclear.”
My perspective as the “well one” means I can help balance what Fran refers to as her “stinking thinking” and behaviour. I also flag up anything which suggests she’s slipping into depression, mania, or a fatigue crash. Ongoing vigilance is vitally important, and it’s something that’s hard for other friends or professionals to do. It requires someone Fran is with on a day-to-day basis, so that potentially unhealthy shifts are spotted before they can get out of hand.
Of course, the distance means there are some things I can’t do. I can’t accompany Fran to appointments or bring something round for her to eat if she’s not feeling up to cooking for herself. I can’t give her a hug when she’s down, or meet up with her for coffee or a meal. But there’s a great deal I can do.
Structure is important to Fran’s self-care. We connect at regular times throughout the day, which provide a stabilising framework for her other activities. I also help her plan and organise tasks, and monitor progress toward her goals. This has included big things like planning a four-month trip to Europe and helping her find a new place to live, but also encompasses smaller, day-to-day, tasks.
Fran often asks me to proof-read and edit things she’s written. This is especially important during periods of mania when her thinking, speaking, and writing can become highly “creative” and difficult to follow. Meditation and mindfulness have proven valuable to both of us. Having a “meditation buddy” helps Fran explore such techniques, and I’ve found meditation a positive influence in my own life.
That’s not to say things are always easy. I get it wrong from time to time, and like all friends we squabble and get angry at each other sometimes. Fran’s illnesses don’t make that more of a problem than it would otherwise be, but they don’t help. She sometimes says, “I don’t know how you put up with me,” but I don’t think of it like that. Fran is my friend. She’s not something I “put up with.”
I asked her if she’d like to say something about my role in her life. She said: “Marty, you were able to connect with me at a time when most people could only see the illness. It’s no exaggeration to say I would not be alive today without your caring support.” It’s hard to know for sure how literally true that is, but I take her words at face value. It is a sobering realisation and something I take very seriously.
Before we met I had little knowledge of mental illness. I’ve done all I can to educate myself. There’s a great deal of information out there, including online and classroom courses. I have taken the Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) and Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) workshops in recent years. These are both great courses and have helped me a lot.
I’ve learned a great deal in the past four years, and acquired skills which help me support Fran to the best of my ability. What may be less obvious is that my life and my other relationships have also benefited enormously. Ours is a mutually supportive friendship. I am a better person, and my life is immeasurably richer, for the experience.
We sincerely hope our story will resonate with and help others. That’s really what it’s all about. We can all make a difference in the lives of others, whether we are in a carer role or not.
You can find more about Martin and Fran's story at www.gumonmyshoe.com