Hello World, I love doing interviews with authors who have written on mental health, especially about their personal experiences living with any mental challenges or supporting someone living with them. It is with such profound feelings that I interview co-authors Martin Baker and Fran Houston. Their book High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder is probably to my soul like none other I have read before in this genre. I will be doing a review of their book in the following days but I wanted the authors to enlighten me and hopefully you my readers and followers some more.
1) The Profile
Let’s start with a brief introduction of yourself, your background, and a tiny bit about your childhood:
I will go first (Martin). I was born in Liverpool in the north-west of England, where I lived until the age of eighteen. I graduated in Pharmacy from the University of Bradford in 1983 and spent the next three years doing postgraduate research at The Parkinson’s Disease Research Centre at King’s College London, before moving to Newcastle upon Tyne in 1987. I’ve lived here ever since. I had very little experience of mental illness until I met Fran online in May 2011. Despite us living three thousand miles apart, I am Fran’s main support and caregiver. Our transatlantic friendship has taught me a lot about living with illness, but more importantly about what it means to be a good friend.
Fran: Me next! I graduated from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, in 1991, and worked as a successful electrical engineer until I was overtaken by illness. I was diagnosed with major depression in 1994 and with bipolar disorder in 2003. I also have chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia. I used to live on Peaks Island in Maine. Inspired by the island’s rich history, I interviewed and photographed long-time residents. The photos and interviews were exhibited locally and also published as For the Love of Peaks: Island Portraits and Stories, a Collection. This led to me appearing on Maine Public Broadcasting Network and National Public Radio to talk about my book and the challenges of living with illness. I was also a columnist with the Island Times. I was still living on Peaks Island when Marty and I met. I moved to Portland, Maine, in 1993. I love Portland and my many friends who love me dearly. I live with a beta fish named Jewells who often makes me laugh and gives me a reason for living.
2) The Soul Journey
Martin, why? I mean, I have heard of a sibling who tried to help and even gave up, but I have never read of a friend of someone living with bipolar disorder.
That is really why we wrote our book, because there is nothing else out there specifically for friends. Each chapter starts with a question. The final chapter asks exactly what you just asked: “Why do you do it?” There isn’t one single answer. Our friendship enriches my life as much as it enriches Fran’s. I have gained so much in the time we have been friends. I believe I am a better person because of it. Ultimately, Fran is my best friend, and that’s what best friends do—they look out for each other.
Fran, did you feel guilty at any point for your mental health and the impact it was having on your friendship? If yes what did you think or do, if no please explain for us.
This is a great question, Marie! I do wonder how Marty is doing when I’m not well but I never feel guilty about it with him. Not in my mania or in my depression. I have felt guilty about it with some others. Safety and guilt go together for me. I feel safe with Marty, that’s why I don’t feel guilty. With other people, I profusely apologized for myself and my behavior when I was manic, but I also expected them to be responsible for their behavior.
Martin, can you tell us how your wife and son appreciate your having a friend like Fran, who could need you at any hour?
My family has been incredibly supportive, both of my friendship with Fran and the book we have brought out together. My wife contributed a piece to the book, and it is through my son that Fran and I found a publisher! More generally, they are very supportive of the help I am able to give to Fran and others, and the other work I do these days in the mental health arena, such as online work and volunteering with the UK anti-stigma charity Time to Change.
Do you two think the distance is helping your friendship stay alive or killing it slowly?
In some ways living 3,000 miles apart limits our friendship. Fran can’t invite me round for a meal, say, or meet me in town for a coffee. I can’t help her with chores, fetch groceries, or give her a ride to appointments like I would if we lived in the same city. On the other hand, we get to share a great deal just as easily as if we lived close together. Social media and instant messaging mean we are never really out of touch. We meet on webcam almost every day. We talk (a lot!), watch movies and read books together. In some ways it enhances our relationship. As long as there’s an internet signal we can connect, no matter what time of day it is, where we might be (at home, out about town, on vacation etc.) or what we might be doing.
Do you have any candid advice to friends of people with a bipolar disorder diagnosis? I will appreciate advice from each of you.
Martin: The key advice I’d offer is to keep the channels of communication open. For us that means daily chat conversations and Skype calls. That might be too much for some people, but however you “do the talking thing,” be someone your friend knows will be there for them no matter what happens. (And yes, that might include taking a phone call or responding to a message in the middle of the night.) Be someone your friend can trust not to turn away when things get rough. How do you do that? We sum it up as “Be who you are. Do what you can. Embrace the journey.” Don’t try and be someone you are not. You don’t have to do everything. Find your role in your friend’s support team and make it yours. There will be some bad times for sure, but also lots of good times. Share it all.
Fran: Three things come to mind. Commit yourself to your own self-care, keep healthy boundaries, and have understanding and empathy. Self-care means remembering to take care of your needs as well as your friend’s. Like taking some time off if you need it, or having someone to talk to or support you when things are hard. Keeping healthy boundaries is linked with self-care. What happens sometimes is friends get all enmeshed with the bipolar person. Someone manic can be interesting and exciting, but it can be toxic if you are not careful. Healthy boundaries means being aware of what is going on and not doing things you don’t want to do just to keep them happy. It’s ok to say no. Don’t go down the drain with your bipolar friend! Understanding and empathy means listening to your friend, to what is happening with them, and not trying to fix things or do everything….
Stop by on Wednesday for Part 2 of this exciting and yet so soulful interview