I met Fran Houston on Facebook in May 2011, on the page of a mutual friend who was going through a really rough time. This person had shared suicidal thoughts and feelings an hour or so before, but had since gone offline—or at least had stopped responding to people’s comments, well-meaning suggestions, and pleas to let them know she was okay.
I could easily have clicked away. I had no personal experience of feeling suicidal, or supporting someone who was. No one would have known if I’d moved on, but I chose to stay. I had little to enough offer, but posted what I had.
“Flooding light and love into your world.”
Almost immediately, someone called Fran Houston responded with a comment of her own.
“Sometimes even too much love can be overwhelming.”
Her words brought me up short. Looking back, I’m surprised her challenge didn’t evoke a defensive ego response from me. I could easily have felt upset, aggressive, or angry. Instead, I was intrigued. I wanted to know more.
Fran and I exchanged a few more comments on our friend’s Facebook page, then friended and continued our conversation in chat.
'Don’t worry about me. Care for me'
I learned Fran was no stranger to suicidal thinking. It had been her more-or-less constant companion for many years.
Although their situations and diagnoses differed, she could relate to what our mutual friend was going through, what might help and what definitely would not. (Early in our friendship Fran told me something I have never forgotten: “Don’t worry about me. Care for me.”) She knew how protective and stabilising a compassionate response can be, and how anxious worrying from others can drain someone of the energy and focus they need to keep themselves safe.
As Fran said recently: When I am in suicidal thinking it is about teasing out what’s behind it, what’s causing it ... and having someone you can talk frankly to, who’s not freaking out, who’s not rushing you off to the hospital, is really critical.
Much later, I learned just how ridiculous my original words had seemed to Fran.
At the time I was quite manic and I saw all of these comments … people saying go to the health food store and get this supplement, and I was furious. I was upset about how people were responding to her. And then when I saw Marty it was just like OMG! We ended up chatting because he was curious about why I would say what I did and what was going on. We became friends from right there.
Fran contacted our mutual friend the next day.
I found her. I called her. We talked for a few days after that. That’s what you do. … But a lot of people aren’t equipped, aren’t brave enough to go within themselves to find the words that make the difference, that make the switch away from the edge. It’s not like it’s not coming back again, cos that’s what we deal with all the time. That’s what I deal with all the time.
I was relieved to discover our friend was okay. Well, not okay (as Fran would tell me, “She is so not OK. I know. She has a long way to go.”), but she was alive. I gained a new best friend that night—and learned two important lessons. There is no need to fear talking about suicide and suicidal thinking, and it makes a difference how you respond.
'with modern technology and the internet, no one is too far away to be cared for, or to care.'
In the almost six years since that night, I’ve learned a lot more. I’ve learned about Fran’s medical conditions: bipolar disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome, and fibromyalgia. Not just the text book definitions, but how they manifest for Fran personally (each of her conditions is episodic in nature, so at any point in time one or more of her symptoms might be active while others are less pronounced) and how they impact almost every aspect of her life.
I’ve learned most of this by being with Fran as her friend, as she’s moved through some really challenging times, including prolonged periods of mania, depression, pain, and debilitating fatigue. I’ve also taken a number of online and classroom courses, including the internationally recognised Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) and Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) workshops. I recommend these to anyone wanting to expand their skills and gain insight into what many people live with on a day-to-day basis.
I’ve discovered how rewarding—indeed transformational—a mutually supportive friendship can be, and how relationships such as ours can flourish regardless of distance. (Fran and I live 3,000 miles apart: me in the UK, she in the USA.) As we like to say: with modern technology and the Internet, no one is too far away to be cared for, or to care.
As I’ve grown in awareness and self-confidence, I’ve also opened up to others. Online and face-to-face, I’ve talked about our friendship and been privileged to hear other people’s stories in return, whether they live with mental illness themselves or care for someone who does.
'mental illness doesn’t change what friendship is all about'
I have made many new friends, and gained a deeper awareness of what it means to be human than I’ve ever have before. I’ve learned that courage and success are not always what our culture teaches. Sometimes courage is getting up in the morning and making the commute to work, when all you want to do is curl up in bed and hide. Sometimes success is taking the shower you haven’t been able to take for days. Or making a tuna fish sandwich. Or still being here.
Any genuine, caring relationship is going to run into difficulties from time to time, and ours is no exception. Mental illness doesn’t make things easier, but if approached with openness and commitment it need not be the obstacle to connection it might seem. On the contrary, my friendship with Fran has helped me develop skills, qualities, and strategies which benefit my life generally, and all my other relationships.
One friend expressed it perfectly. “Your journey as friends reminds us that mental illness doesn’t change what friendship is all about: being there for those we love.”
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 Fran’s primary support and lifeline.