Before you ask, I am not talking about that kind of “Friends with Benefits”. I know the score; I’ve seen the film. Luckily for my husband there are not too many Justin Timberlake look-a-likes hanging around in Cumbria desperately wanting to be my “mate” (note the deliberate use of air quotation marks to denote the double meaning).
I am talking about those friends who enrich my life, supporting, gossiping and laughing me out of any situation no matter how dire. Put simply, I owe my mental health to them.
A few weeks ago I had a minor medical scare to do with my “lady bits”. In the grand scheme of things it wasn’t a big deal but for some reason I went into a panicky melt-down. I started Googling my symptoms which was a huge mistake because, as any internet hypochondriac will know, all Google searches will eventually lead you to the conclusion that you have a terminal illness. By the time I visited my GP (a lovely and enthusiastic woman clearly not yet jaded by years of malingerers and sick note chasers), I was an emotional wreck. She took one look at me (and my ladybits) and said in a kind voice, “Is everything OK?” and I did the emotional equivalent of a projectile vomit. I reeled off a list of everything that has happened in the past two years – the trauma of losing my sister-in-law, my Grandad, nearly losing my Mum on several occasions, a whopping big MS attack. It all came out in one big messy, snotty splurge in the GP’s room. I registered (between the sobs) that the lovely, fresh Doctor was looking faintly alarmed. She was probably panicking that I would overstay my allotted 5 minutes. However, she did what any good Doctor would do – she gave me a tissue and told me to have a chat with my loved ones (friends, family) about how I felt and failing that, suggested that I self-refer to the local counselling service.
The thing is – she was right. There are very few problems that cannot be solved, or at least, partly surmounted by a good old chat with your friends (and when I say friends I would also include my husband and sister in that category). Over coffee and / or glasses of Shiraz depending on the time of day, I worked out that my emotional meltdown had absolutely nothing to do with my “ladybits” and everything to do with the stress of trying to keep my family safe and functioning during some very dark times. This trivial little illness allowed me to be vulnerable for the first time in a long time – for once I wasn’t the strong one. My friends didn’t give me advice or practical solutions, they gave me what I needed most – a shoulder to cry on and a good giggle. They laughed, supported and gossiped me out of my funk and made me realise that friendship is the best therapy of all.
A close friend of mine has recently undergone several weeks of radiotherapy for a recurrent pituitary tumour. I was honoured when she asked me to go shopping for wigs with her. This is an experience that will live long in the memory. NHS wig voucher in hand, my friend declared a desire to get a “Cheryl Cole”, tried on a “Blanche from the Golden Girls” before wisely opting for a “Jennifer Aniston”. We found ourselves sucking complimentary Murray Mints in a Preston salon being entertained with wig horror stories (the woman who spent £3000 on a natural hair wig and got it cut, horror of horrors, by a normal hairdresser – it never looked right).
I can only imagine what my dear friend has gone through over the past few months and getting fitted for a synthetic wig in case your hair falls out doesn’t immediately spring to mind as anyone’s idea of a “top day out”. But we genuinely had a good laugh. That’s what friends are for – bringing a little bit of joy into the darkest of places.
As a footnote – you will, I am sure, all be delighted to know that all is well with my ladybits according to my gynaecologist. Although it was slightly disconcerting to be asked, “What are you doing for your holidays?” (in a hairdresser type way) whilst he inserted the speculum.