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.
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