For people quarantining away from their loved ones right now, this feels like a brave new world of indefinite being away. Of course, the socially responsible thing to do is to stay away from each other at this point, but that doesn’t make the time away from each other any easier. For some people though, “long-distance” means…the longest distance physically possible. Alex McNeill, 34, worked as an expedition leader (aka the most intense kind of arctic tour guide) for Antarctica tourism company Quark Expeditions for eight years, where he spent months at a time with 6,000 miles between him and his wife, with only payphone booths or letter writing (via a Russian radio officer to relay messages). And they made it work!
McNeill, who is from Toronto, met his wife, Verity, (who hails from Perth, Australia) on a trip he was leading, in 2010, and they’ve been in a long-distance relationship for almost ten years, after getting married in 2015. McNeill would be away for six to nine months out of the year, working in Antarctica, while Verity worked as a Physio-Therapist in Neurosurgery and Trauma wards. They got married in 2015, and now live in Toronto.
Fun fact: the antipode of Toronto (aka the exact opposite point on the earth) is about 100 miles off the coast of Perth, meaning it’s quite literally impossible to have come from two places further away from each other. Yet, they’ve made it work! Read on for more tips on how you can make your relationship work, even if being quarantined away from each other a five-minute drive away feels like the antipodes of the earth rn.
How long were you away from each other each year?
Up to six months at a time, and for a maximum of nine months per year.
Now, more than ever, couples are feeling the strain of being away from one another. What tips or advice do you have for couples in that position, given your experience in being away from your loved ones regularly?
I truly believe “distance makes the heart grow fonder,” and being away from Verity gave me time to reflect on how much I loved her and appreciated her. It made me realize how lucky I was to have her in my life. I also feel that separation either solidifies a couple or exposes vulnerabilities. It puts relationships to the test and those that endure come out stronger.
As someone who lectured on the subject of polar history, I also found historical context reassuring. In the early 20th century, explorers used to set off on expeditions for years without any meaningful contact with their loved ones, so for me, being apart for mere months and at least having some way to connect for short calls or sending emails, was a pure luxury compared to how my predecessors managed.
What would you do to stay in touch? Phone sex? Texting? Is cell service even an option down there? Letter-writing?
In the early stages of our relationship, I could only call once every 10-20 days (depending on the length of our expeditions), using a payphone booth in a small Argentinean community, so phone sex wasn’t really an option.
We were able to send letters via email, and in some cases on the Russian research vessels we used at that time, we would have to type out our letter and then give it to a Russian Radio Officer to input into his system and send. When a response was received, he would print it and deliver it to your cabin. That was a difficult system to manage. When voice communication became more accessible, just hearing Verity’s voice was enough for me.
How would you deal with any jealousy on either end of the relationship? Was there much jealousy?
There is definitely plenty of room for jealousy when you are so far away. However, you need to trust each other implicitly. Jealousy can sew negative thoughts and lead to unfounded suspicion that could jeopardize your relationship unnecessarily.
Since the situation with coronavirus is ever-changing and it seems like the end date for social distancing is moving further and further away, any tidbits or pieces of advice or wisdom on how that contextualize or remind us that in the long run, six months away from people (at MOST) is not even that bad?
It’s amazing what we are capable of. Humans are extremely adaptable and situations which in the past we may have thought insurmountable, become realistic. This is a trying time for everyone and we will come out of it stronger.
When I first went to Antarctica, I was lonely, deathly sea-sick, tired, claustrophobic, and homesick — with no hope of escaping. I was literally on a ship, heading further and further away from civilization with no option to get off. I had no connection with my loved ones, no outlet, and I had to work in the most adverse conditions I could have ever imagined. It was horrible but I survived. I look back on that situation now and I think about how this will be much easier. I am not sea sick, I have the internet and good cell service, I have my wife, I am in my home with my things. This situation brings its own challenges but in the end they will be character-building.
For those looking for inspiration I suggest reading some of the early tales from the Heroic Age of Exploration. Books like Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing, or Mawson’s Will by Lennard Bickel will illuminate the experiences of the early explorers and show the true limits of our capacity to overcome great hardship.
Anything else you want to share about your tips or experience having already dealt with isolation when it’s a very new thing for most of us?
It is amazing what you can do with a small amount of space. Through working on ships you learn how to optimize personal space. I always enjoyed making the most of the small cabins or bunks that were assigned to me. My apartment now (although still small) is palatial compared to the small ships cabins that I lived in over the years.
Make the most of the space you have. Consider the experiences of sailors, those serving in the military, or astronauts for example. Read, watch or research the incredible conditions many amongst us choose to live in as part of their jobs.
We have now embarked on a new adventure, one that is extremely important and one that we must rise to for everyone around us. Our individual missions; to survive through months of isolation and limited social contact. And like any journey, we shouldn’t disembark until the captain tells us it is safe to do so.
Answers have been lightly edited for clarity.