All it takes is some creative thinking and a little technology. I live 3,000 miles apart from my best friend, Fran, who lives with bipolar disorder. We have grown our transatlantic friendship to the point where I am Fran’s primary caregiver.
Here are five ways you can be there for your friend or loved one, whether they live in the next city or on the other side of the world.
1. Keep the Channels Open
Communication is the basis of any successful relationship. There are many ways to stay in touch, and each has its special character. Early in our friendship, Fran and I used email a lot. Later, we added chat, voice, and video calls into our repertoire. Letters and cards add a physical dimension to our “virtual” connection. Texts (SMS messages) are a backup if we find ourselves without internet access. Think about what might work for you.
How comfortable are you with using technology?
What devices do you have (cell phone, smartphone, tablet, laptop, or computer)?
How easily can you get online? Think about cost, bandwidth, or data allowance, and how reliable your internet service provider and WiFi signals are.
It’s not all about the technology. A friend of mine is hard of hearing and finds instant-messaging much easier than phone or video calls. Another friend hates messaging and prefers the telephone.
2. Find your Frequency
When possible, we connect at the same time every day. Bipolar is a condition characterized by change and instability. Our calls give structure and routine to Fran’s day and help her manage her symptoms. If that sounds too much, no problem! Find what works for you and your friend: once a day, every few days, or weekly (note: less frequent than that, and it becomes hard to provide ongoing support and stay vigilant).
3. Do What You Can—It’s More Than You Think
When you live apart, there are things you can’t do. You can’t call around for coffee, accompany your friend to appointments, go to a movie, or give them a hug…. Or can you?
Fran and I often meet online for coffee, whether we are at home or out and about. I recently joined her at a lovely café in Ajijic, Mexico, when she was on vacation. I’ve not met Fran’s psychiatrist, but I summarize her physical, mental, and emotional status in an email ahead of each appointment. And the hugs? There’s no app (yet!) that can take the place of an in-person embrace or a hand to hold. But it can be deeply meaningful and real to be with someone online when they—or you—are in need of company.
Whatever skills and experience you can offer, there will be a way to do it online. If you’re not sure what your friend needs, ask. I help Fran plan events and trips, resolve issues with her technology, and proofread important letters and emails (especially when she is manic). I also help Fran stay vigilant for unhealthy shifts in mood or behavior. We watch television, movies, and sports together, and I read to her when she is too tired to focus on anything else.
4. Connect. Connect. Connect.
Technology does more than keep you and your friend in touch. It connects you to the wider mental health community. Sites like bpHope.com provide information about bipolar symptoms, treatments, and wellness strategies. They also connect you with people who understand what you’re going through because they’re living it, too. I’ve found the vast majority of groups, organizations, and individuals to be incredibly supportive. Observing how people support each other on social media has taught me so much about compassionate listening and how to respond appropriately when someone is having a rough time. And if your friend is ever in crisis, or you need help yourself, you are never far away from advice or a crisis support line (the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255)
5. Any Time, Any Place (Even in the Middle of the Night)
Dark thoughts, including self-harm and suicide, are exacerbated by the exhaustion, hopelessness, and confusion that comes from sleep deprivation. Such thoughts can be particularly hard to handle in the lonely hours of the night when the people your friend might look to—local friends, family members, even a partner—may be unavailable or sleeping soundly.
This is where being in a different time zone can be a blessing. I’m five hours ahead of Fran and can keep her company in my early morning if she is struggling through the night. Even if you’re in the same time zone, the Internet makes it easy to chat or call no matter where you are or what you are doing.
I’ve focused on support when you live far apart, but these ideas are just as relevant if you live in the same country or even on the same street. Do you use technology to keep in touch with someone with bipolar disorder, or do you have friends and family who support you online? What works best for you?
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