Monday, 31 October 2016

Three Thousand Miles. Three Hundred Minutes.

The following is excerpted from High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder, by Martin Baker and Fran Houston (Nordland Publishing, 2016).

Three Thousand Miles. Three Hundred Minutes.

According to one online calculator, Fran’s home on the north-east coast of the United States lies just over 3,050 miles (4,910 km) from mine in the north-east of England. For most of the year, we are five time zones (300 minutes) apart, so that when it is nine o’clock in the morning for Fran it is two o’clock in the afternoon for me.

The time difference reduces to four hours for two weeks in spring, and one week in autumn, because our countries switch between normal time and daylight saving time on different dates. The UK enters daylight saving time (British Summer Time, BST) at one o’clock in the morning on the last Sunday in March, and returns to normal time (Greenwich Mean Time, GMT) at one o’clock in the morning on the last Sunday in October. The US enters daylight saving time (for Fran this is Eastern Daylight Time, EDT) at two o’clock in the morning on the second Sunday in March. She returns to Eastern Standard Time (EST) at two o’clock in the morning on the first Sunday in November.

Fran loves to travel. Since we became friends, her local time has varied from six hours behind mine when she was in Panama, to one hour ahead of mine during a trip to mainland Europe. We have been in the same time zone on three occasions: twice when Fran was crossing the Atlantic, and the day we met in person in Southampton, England. Whether measured in miles or in minutes, distance places certain restrictions on how we conduct our friendship. In other respects, it enhances our relationship or is largely irrelevant.

When Distance Is Inhibiting

The most obvious consequence of us living so far apart is that we cannot meet in person. There are many ways for us to connect online, but we are massively dependent on technology. A power cut or Internet outage can distance us in a moment, and far more effectively than the miles that lie between us. When this happens, we rely on text messages to keep in touch. International telephone tariffs are too expensive for us to make more than the briefest of calls. Intermittent interruptions are no less frustrating. For months, my Internet signal would drop at random intervals during our video calls. I researched potential fixes and bought a new router, but there was little improvement until I had cause to replace my ageing computer. The problem ceased immediately.

Vacations are always challenging. We usually manage to keep in touch, albeit less frequently than usual. One notable exception was when I vacationed on Loch Fyne, in Scotland. I had anticipated poor Internet coverage and took devices that operated on three different mobile phone networks, but there was scarcely any signal at all. Some people relish the opportunity to disconnect from the online realm while away, but I found the experience frustrating and stressful. As we describe in chapter 9, Fran’s trip to Europe in the summer of 2013 was an immense challenge. Access to the Internet was patchy and far more expensive for Fran than when she is at home. We mostly relied on instant messaging to keep in touch. Voice calls were possible, but infrequent. We managed one short video call in more than three months.

Even when the technology works, there are times when nothing can compensate for the lack of physical presence. I cannot offer Fran the kind of practical help I would if we lived closer. I cannot accompany her to appointments, drive her to the launderette, shovel snow from her driveway, or help with repairs around the house. Physical expressions of support and comfort are also denied us, such as the pressure of a hand held, or the hug that says, “I am here.” There have been occasions when the miles between us have been hard to dismiss.

In October 2012, Hurricane Sandy bore down on the East Coast of America. Fran lived alone and was naturally anxious as the region prepared for the hurricane’s arrival. It caused no significant damage where Fran lived, but for several days afterwards, she was unable to contact family in the more affected inland areas. I helped her track down information and emergency numbers but as I wrote in my diary, “I feel so very far from Fran right now.”

The following February, Fran hunkered down to await the arrival of what had been dubbed Winter Storm Nemo. Of greatest concern to us was the risk to Fran’s electrical supply and telecommunications. There had been a power outage across the region only days before. A prolonged blackout would leave her without light, heating, refrigeration, and Internet access; it might mean abandoning her home altogether to stay in one of the local emergency centres. She was as prepared as she could be, but anxious to be facing it alone. The storm passed without significant disruption, but brought record-breaking snowfall to the area.

On occasion, my sense of helplessness has been compounded by technical difficulties. The following account is from October 2012. I was on vacation in the English Lake District at the time.

I’d been looking forward to meeting Fran on webcam tonight but the call kept dropping. We switched to voice but even that wouldn’t work. Chat was OK, but it took a while for me to get past my frustrations. Fran was very calm and sensible, but it wasn’t really what I wanted to hear. I was pretty grouchy! Then she said there’d just been an earthquake! I couldn’t believe it! I chatted with her until well after one o’clock in the morning. I felt helpless and didn’t know what to do or say that could possibly help. Fran was shaken and worried about people who might be affected. Then she dismissed me so I could go to bed. She didn’t have the energy to handle my distress as well as hers.

The magnitude 4.6 earthquake struck the state of Maine at 7:12 p.m. local time (twelve minutes past midnight in the UK). The epicentre lay twenty miles (thirty-two kilometers) to the west of Portland. It hurt that Fran didn’t want me to stay on with her, but I could be of little practical help and she needed to handle things in her own way.

When Distance Is Enhancing

It might seem as though a five hour time difference would make it difficult for us to connect, but our lives mesh well. On a typical day we talk briefly in the morning and meet twice later for video calls, usually at two o’clock in the afternoon and six o’clock in the evening for Fran (seven and eleven o’clock in the evening for me). This regular scheduling provides stability and structure, which are otherwise lacking in a life governed by illness. In our experience, a live video call is every bit as real as a face-to-face conversation. Meeting on webcam in our homes allows us to focus on what we are saying to each other with little in the way of external distractions. The experience is further enhanced by us having access to online services such as search engines, social media, music, video, and shared documents during a call. These are generally unavailable when friends meet socially face-to-face.

Our Internet friendship has one further advantage: an historical record that means we can revisit many of our conversations months, or even years, after they took place. E-mail is the most obvious record, but social networking sites also retain posts, comments, and instant messages. These archives have been invaluable in writing this book, enabling us to include examples of our conversation throughout the course of our friendship. We use them in a similar way ourselves when we want to recall approaches and situations we found beneficial—or troublesome—in the past. They supplement other notes and journals, such as my personal diary and the collection of notebooks Fran filled during one prolonged episode of mania. The ability to revisit conversations and shared experiences adds value to a relationship. One friend expressed it to me in this way: “Thank you for sharing all of these thoughts with me, Marty. I like that I have them to keep. I consider them boosters: little joys that help me to feel more upbeat.”

Learning to handle physical separation in my friendship with Fran has benefited my life generally. The most dangerous and insidious separations are internal. Emotional withdrawal, embarrassment, insecurity, anxiety, depression, and the fear—real or imagined—of rejection can all isolate people, no matter the nature of their relationships or how close they live to one another. Fran and I have had to find ways to mitigate the impact of living so far apart. We have learned to accept the limitations of our situation and focus on the possible. We exploit the many channels of communication open to us. Communication builds trust, respect, and resilience. If one channel fails (whether for technical or personal reasons) there is usually another we can turn to. We work hard to restore broken connections and continue where we left off. These skills and approaches translate directly to other situations and other relationships.

When Distance Is Irrelevant

When I am on a voice or video call, exchanging instant messages, or interacting on a social networking site, it makes little difference where in the world the other person is physically located. I can message Fran on the other side of the world as easily as I message my son upstairs in his bedroom. I edit her letters and e-mail messages—and we have co-written this book—as readily as if we lived in the same town, or were sitting together in the same room. It would be easier to investigate issues with Fran’s computer or mobile phone if I could call round in person, but with the right technology, some imagination, and plenty of patience there is little we cannot work around. Of course, most of the time we are not editing documents, diagnosing technical glitches, or writing books together. We are doing what friends do the world over, whether they meet online or in their local coffee shop. We hang out. We talk. We listen and support each other. We share our thoughts, problems, and ideas. We care.

High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder is available at: | | | | | | | | Barnes & Noble


Saturday, 15 October 2016

High Tide Low Tide Book Party & Fundraiser

Sunday, November 6, 2016 / 1-5 pm EST

BLUE / 650A Congress St, Portland, Maine /

Join transatlantic best friends Martin Baker and Fran Houston for an afternoon of music, readings and fun, to celebrate their new book, “High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder,” and raise funds for Maine-based mental health nonprofit Family Hope (

“We thank all our friends who have come together to make our book, our event, and our way of looking at mental health a different way of being in the world.” (Martin & Fran)

About the book
We all want to be there for our friends, but when your friend lives with mental illness it can be hard to know what to do, especially if you live far apart. In their new book, “High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder,” Martin and Fran share what they’ve learned about growing a supportive, mutually rewarding friendship between a “well one” and an “ill one,” no matter how far apart you live. Their motto: No one is too far away to be cared for, or to care.

About the Authors
A successful electrical engineer until illness struck, author and photographer Fran Houston has lived with bipolar disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome, and fibromyalgia for over twenty years. Fran lives in Portland, Maine, and is passionate about making invisible illness visible. Three thousand miles away in the north-east of England, Martin Baker is an ASIST trained Mental Health First Aider and Time to Change Champion. A member of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Mind, and Bipolar UK, Martin is also Fran's primary support and lifeline.

Facebook event:


Sunday, 9 October 2016

Mental Health Awareness: It's Everybody's Business

Last week I was honoured to participate as a speaker in the annual “It Takes A Community” forum organised by Maine Behavioral Healthcare. This year’s theme was social media and mental health. It is a topic close to my heart. My best friend Fran Houston and I live 3,000 miles apart, and have recently published a book sharing our experience using social medial and the internet to grow a strong, mutually supportive friendship between, in Fran’s words, a “well one” and an “ill one.”

Amongst other topics, the panel discussed people using social media to share their lived experience, whether as part of their personal response to illness, to help others living with similar conditions, or to participate in the wider movement challenging mental health stigma and discrimination.

Many, Fran included, share openly. Others are quite frankly too busy getting through one day to the next. Many have learned the hard way what it costs to raise their heads above the parapet. Or maybe they feel it is not their responsibility to enlighten a world that seems determined to misunderstand, misrepresent, and mistreat them. I agree it is neither realistic nor fair for society to expect those living with illness to challenge stigma alone, as I expressed in my closing remarks to the ITAC forum:

It isn’t just about sharing the stories of those who have mental illness or are living with that themselves. It’s about the families, the friends, all the rest of us sharing our stories of what that means to us and those who are dealing with this stuff. Because in terms of countering stigma it’s not the responsibility of those living with mental illness to convert the rest of us. We are all in this together. It takes a community. We’ve all got to step up to this.

Yesterday, my wife Pam and I arrived at our holiday cottage in the English Lake District. Talking with Pauline, the lady who owns the cottage, the conversation turned to the book Fran and I have recently published. Pauline was very interested, and there followed a genuine and open conversation during which Pam shared her own experience—described in the book—with stigma and discrimination.

This is what it takes. Connection. Conversation. Courage. The courage to say: “This is how it is for me.” To ask: “How is it for you? How do you feel, hearing my story?”

Why does all this matter? Because mental illness is hard enough to live with, day in day out, without society (which is to say, you and me) piling stigma and discrimination on top. Because people die from that. Because one in four or five (depending on how it is measured) live with mental illness. That means one in four or five of your family (yes really). Your friends. Your workmates or classmates. Your congregation, your fellow commuters on the subway, bus, or train. There is no us and them. There is only us. Be part of the conversation. Make a difference.

As Fran says at the end of our book:

There are many like me who live in invisible institutions of stigma, shame, and silence, the walls build by others from without, or by ourselves from within, Dismantling those walls invites connection. Be the gum on someone’s shoe who has one foot inside and one foot outside. Stick around. It may not be easy but you can help someone make a life worth living. Maybe even save a life. One little bit by one little bit. A smile, a wink, a hello, a listening ear, a helping hand, a friendship all work together to interrupt the grasp of illness.

Be open and honest, with your friend and others you meet. Judge not, for misunderstandings abound. Acceptance, understanding, and kindness can pave another way. Let’s.


World Mental Health Day

The World Health Organisation recognises World Mental Health Day on 10 October every year. This year’s theme set by the World Federation for Mental Health is psychological first aid and the support people can provide to those in distress.