Heartbreak is not what happens in the blindness of the final conversation, or the recriminations that come before or after. It is not in the bargaining - with yourself and them - or in the loud, public displays of sorrow.
Heartbreak is what happens in the silence of a Sunday morning. In the un-dented pillow, the faded scent of another’s laundry powder. In an empty drawer.
These were all things I found out last January when, aged 33, my relationship of five years came abruptly to an end. The specifics of why don’t matter here, except to say that we lived together, we were in love, and I thought we always would be. I had not factored a world without him in it. He was the man in all the photos I had pictured of the milestones of our future - when I dared to let myself look.
What does matter is the life-affirming, powerful, loyal, fearless and wise women who gathered up my pain as if it was their own, so that I did not have to carry the load of it by myself. A core group of friends who, without ever being asked, wove themselves together into an invisible safety net that just appeared when I was two inches from rock bottom.
These women were like a wall I kept throwing myself against, hoping it would hurt enough to numb the pain - only to find out that it was cushioned, and that no harm could possibly come of me as long as it was them I threw myself against.
Crumpled into a snotty, heaving, hyperventilating mess in the back of an Uber home from my 'final' conversation with my ex, I called one of these women. Meg and I have been friends since the first day of primary school. We were the only two children refusing to let go of our mother’s hands, both clinging onto their legs, willing them to not make us go in. Our mums got us to hold hands, and we have been clinging on to one other ever since.
Meg talked me down for the entire journey home. That weekend, she came over to my mum’s house, where I was camping out. She texted me every day. She called. She left voice notes. She arranged small gatherings with only people she knew I’d feel safe to cry in front of. She made fun plans for the weeks ahead, so I did not worry about who I was going to go on holiday with. She did not ask me if I was ok, because she knew the answer. She did not wait to be asked to be needed. She just knew in her bones that she was.
Then there was Geri. Wonderful Geri. The fire to my-oh-so-sensible-sometimes earth. Friends since we were two in nursery, where instead of deciding which one of us got to be Maid Marian (it was the late 80s) at fancy dress time - we just got into the costume together like co-joined twins clad in cheap green chiffon. She sent me mantras and made me laugh from my belly when I physically didn’t think it possible. She let me cry and talk myself in circles as we stomped through the mud on Hampstead Heath. She awaited every stupid update from every stupid man I dated like it was a live unfolding news scandal, on which her every happiness depended.
She stayed with me the night before my birthday so I had someone to wake up and celebrate with. When I finally felt strong enough to move back to the flat I had shared with my ex, she turned up with a bottle of Prosecco in one hand, and some witches sage to cleanse the negative spirits in the other. Together that night, me, Geri and Meg put the world to rights over wine, lasagne and 30-something years of shared consciousness.
I can't forget Anita who, among hand-holding and WhatsApp support, sent a break-up care package to my office. It included a book in which to lose myself, more sage, a beautiful red lipstick to ‘remind me of who I am’, a journal to remind me what I’m grateful for - and snacks. To remind me that snacks are who I am.
And my colleague Catriona, who patiently walked beside me through St James’s park one lunchtime as I (very inappropriately) balled my eyes out. After that day, in a year that involved a huge amount of change and new responsibility for both of us, she developed nifty little ways of checking in without actually asking me if I was ok, knowing that work was the last place I would want to be visibly unsettled.
Now, over a year since my breakup, I look back and it is these women (and so, so many others) that loom large. I see friends who held me as I wept in a pool in Croatia, or on a rooftop at sunset in Mexico, all the while my Instagram sparkled with envy-inducing images of me in bikinis, hiking up mountains, or posing in gym kit. The heartbreak diet might be bad for the soul, but it’s good for the midriff. Good friends can see beyond the filter. They are not remotely fooled by your outward displays of ‘okayness’.
Women often refer to their friends as 'cheerleaders'. I’ve sniffed at that word before, feeling it was too trite, too goddamn cheery. But now? Now I see it. Cheerleaders do not just shout encouragement from the side lines. They use their will, their bodies, their spirit to change the entire mood of the game even in the face of adversity. They are agile, endlessly resilient, adapting themselves to whatever may come their - or their teammate's - way. So yes, good friends are your ultimate cheerleaders; there when you tumble, and when it’s your turn to shine on the top of the pyramid.
Friendship is sometimes in the saying, but as you get older, it is more often in the doing. Thanks for everything you did, girls. I will never, ever forget it.
Every day this week, to celebrate International Women's Day, we're sharing another story of the power of female friendship.
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