9. The Value of Friendship
“It’s your friends that make your world.” -- Author Unknown
My heart is so full. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been fortunate to see many friends and do fun things. My brother and his wife visited from New Zealand and we had a blast. I’ve had friends from NYC and Boulder make special efforts to see me when they’re in town, one even bringing me some badass wigs! And I’ve just spent the long weekend with four of my dearest friends, women who I’ve known for over a decade. I squeezed the trip in just before this week’s treatment, and all these memories are what carry with me through. On that note, things seem to be going a little more smoothly with the new drug this last cycle. Phew!
Being with these kindred spirits, I’m reminded of the value of friendship. It’s easy to overlook when you’re in your routine, and I think being out of mine provides a contrast to see it for what it is. I have the best friends and hope that you do too. I’m talking about friends who love you for you. I’m not just talking about when the chips are down, but ones who grow with you while supporting your growth. Ones who celebrate with you, and commiserate when necessary. I was so very lucky to already have this firmly entrenched in my life before diagnosis, and I believe that it has been one of the most important keys to my success so far.
I met these four women through a book club for cancer survivors after my mother had passed. I wanted to see the other side, to see how people live life after cancer -- an outcome for my mother that I had so desperately hoped for. These women accepted me wholeheartedly, helped to hold my grief, and along with my husband and family, taught me how to move on. From that foundation our friendship flourished, and while others in our club ebbed and flowed, the five of us remained steadfast. Our little group is much like the Okinawans “moai” groups, where females over 70 are the longest-lived population in the world. Long live us!
Over the course of last weekend, I was given great latitude to externally process what’s been going on with me the last six months. So in my musings about life and cancer and what really matters, I asked them all specifically what friendship meant to them. Here’s what they said:
Your best friends see you as you are, they see your true self.
Great friends aren’t tied to the past, but are with you in the present and look forward to what the future might bring. And interestingly, your friends outside of your primary relationship and family, often hold you more simply in the version you are now, without the weight of expectation or past experiences.
True friendship is pure light and pure love.
Needless to say, it was lovely conversation and all left us shaking our heads in amazement at each other. We are so lucky.
For me, an important part of the way I’ve chosen to live my life is a mindset to have those that I love be proud of me, to be proud of who I am now and who I am becoming. I’m not talking about meeting their expectations of me -- there’s a clear distinction -- and I hope that I can properly instill what I mean. It’s about living authentically so that your life experiences are true and these connections are honest. They love you dearly for who you are right now. Why not strive to meet that with integrity?
My husband, Dave, is my dearest friend. He is kind, generous and loyal. In that framework, he also doesn’t put up with my bullshit, which has probably been the most helpful on my life’s journey. Yes, his low tolerance for bullshit absolutely and very gently extends to his wife, and I love him more for it. For a long time, his view of me was a better one than I had of myself, so I used that as the benchmark to aim for. I wanted to be the person that he knew I could be, kept from falling by a safety net of love and connection. Even when I failed miserably. This gaze held so steadily propelled me forward, despite my faltering. His example taught me how not to accept the status quo. He says watching me has been like the layers of an onion being peeled away. Sometimes the layers are subtle, sometimes chunky, but continually moving towards the core. Told you he’s amazing!
My sister and I are two peas in a pod. We have similar emotional processes, she is my staunchest ally. No matter what happens or how badly I mess up, she is right there to love and support me, also giving me nudges when I have to pull myself together. Going through the loss of our mother together, as with my brothers and father, gave me strength that I didn’t have on my own. My favorite quote from my sister growing up: “You have the looks, I have the brains!” delivered with a cheeky grin. Opportunities! We are the perfect whole. It has been a delight to grow up in the midst of my sister’s gaze, who is a great example of confidence and authenticity. She has taught me how to let go of things that aren’t important. I can’t tell you how many times she helped me navigate the throws of adolescence and figuring out boys and relationships. I have other friends who are also like big sisters, they are family. You know who you are!
Don’t get me started on all those in my extended family! What an amazing collection of people I get to spend my life with. For example, my in-laws are exactly the type of people who make sons like Dave.
Friendship also ties in with another of the key factors, “Embracing Social Support” in the “Radical Remission” book I recently read. Did you know that oxytocin, called the “cuddle hormone” is released in large amounts with physical touch? This release improves immune function. I’ve always been a hugger, and my current situation provides many opportunities to ask for or give hugs. In this section of the book, it was also interesting to read that giving others the ability to reciprocate was a big lesson learned by cancer survivors, allowing for the flow to go both ways. People want to help, and giving them the opportunity to help and to accept that help is important. In the end, it was what directed me to pull the trigger on our fundraising campaign. And what a confirming and humbling experience that was! Oh, the value of friendship.
On the flip side, an important part of friendship is also knowing when to end one. Not long before my diagnosis, I made the difficult decision to end a very long friendship that wasn’t working anymore. I mean, like not working for a few years. It was long enough to see the cycles weren’t a blip in a larger pattern, and that it was time for us both to move on. No one wants to be hurtful, which is why it’s sometimes easier to just drop out of the conversation until the hint is realized. It’s a pretty wussy thing to do, and I’d like to encourage you to have a kind and frank conversation if you need to. For my conversation, I worked with a therapist who helped me sort through what was important to say, and what not to say. We even practiced a few times. In hindsight, I’m proud of how I handled it. I was clear, and loving. And now, I hold no animosity, just sweet thoughts of our good times together. It was a big deal, like a divorce. During my diagnosis, Dave asked me if my situation had changed my feelings on it. It hadn’t, it reinforced that in my current state it was exactly what needed to happen.
So we know that being a good friend is defined as a being a good companion, one we’re attached to by affection or esteem. This leads me to the topic of the quality of the friendship that we have with ourselves. I believe that this the key to our ability to be good friend to others, and the foundation which best supports true friendship. I’d like to share an experience I had co-facilitating a three-day mindfulness class offered at work last April. To a group of (mostly) engineers, I asked them to close their eyes and bring to mind their very best friend. That person that sees them as they are and loves them dearly, who has your back and whose back you have. Now, with them clearly pictured, give them a ranking of one to ten. Take a deep breath and release the image. Now, turning inward, rank yourself on the same scale. If you find that you’ve ranked yourself lower, it presents an opportunity for you to work on the friendship that you have with yourself. Of course, it all starts with self-awareness. Are you your own best friend? It just got real, didn’t it?
I will say that self-compassion has been the best outcome of my internal work. The only thing you have to lose is what you don’t need or want anyway. When your self-awareness grows, you might begin to notice how hard you are on yourself. That you’re harder on yourself than you would ever be on that person you love most in this world. An easy way is to start picturing the way your best friend would think about you in that same situation. Is there a discrepancy in the ways they’d treat you in it and the way you’d treat yourself? Try it and see!
Here’s another nugget shared in our friendship conversation last weekend: The journey towards that deeply connected, battery-recharging, shooting-star-awesome friendship, has been one of concurrently cultivating self love, and weeding out those who reflected my unloved self. No longer am I connecting with people from a place of need, but rather with uplifting mutual celebration. My friends and I hold space to go through life challenges together, knowing that we see one another as whole and perfect in our imperfections. Buoyed by love for self and others, we thrive and expand. I can now truly say I know how to be a best friend to myself; my friends beautifully reflect back to me that deep and joyful love.
As for me, I am kinder, more generous and more loyal to myself than ever before. If I’m scared, I hold my own hand before reaching for others. If I see a worried face in the mirror, I give an encouraging smile and a thought that no matter how much shit has hit the fan, how much cancer you have in your body, whatever this journey will show and teach you, I will always be here for you. Me and you, forever.
I’ve come to believe that I can’t adequately love or care for others if I don't do it for myself first. In our society, we think that selflessness is noble... I disagree. Being selfish, putting yourself first when it comes to love and nurturing is the surest way to be able to share it with others. It gives us the perfect opportunity to hone these skills. From experience, I know that I need to forgive myself before I ask for forgiveness from others. I own my mistakes, and it’s been so incredibly liberating to face them, talk about them, and move forward from them. We all strive for perfection and try to be perfect. When I was younger, I used to think that if I behaved well that I'd never have to say I'm sorry. Well, that backfired!
Here's the thing. Most people do their best, most of the time. If we change our framework to believe that others have good intentions, then the real work comes with loving ourselves first, and then reaching out to others from that place. We're more likely to be able to listen well and meet others where they are, share and connect in the way that we'd like and get what we need in return. What triggers us is usually just a reflection of those discrepancies that we might need to work on in ourselves. This is the perhaps the only place for that quote, “it's not you, it's me.”
From my perspective, the fear of facing whatever might come up is far easier that dealing with it's manifestation. Take it from me, the one with the "incurable" diagnosis. So, I will leave you with this question: “Are you your own best friend?”