They'll Be There for You: The Joy of Good Friends
What would you guess is the top lifestyle predictor of how long you'll live? Diet? Exercise? Marital status? Nope. How often you see a doctor? Quitting smoking? Getting the flu shot? Nope. What heads the list is no surprise to me.
It's as life enhancing as the world's most devoted family, brilliant doctors and countless hard hours in therapy. More instrumental in raising my spirits and my blood count than anything I've read or ingested.
It is being rescued by women who showed up to say "I am here for you" dozens of times, and then proved it in dozens of ways.
No one I know thrived this past year. We've all felt cheated and deprived and scared. That fickle finger of fate wagged at everyone and everything we hold dear. Yet my friends showed up, challenging the test of time, over and over and over again. My nurturers and cheerleaders expanded to include the children of my friends…and the friends of my children.
COVID-19 and my cancer turned the writers in my weekly Zoom class into dear ones sending poetry and orchids and loving notes. I made myself small, and hid under the silver lining they embodied, and rode out the storm.
My Friends and I Shared Life's Firsts
Three of my friends and I share Brooklyn roots. We played Hit the Penny, remember each other's grandmas and talked on the phone in the not-at-all-private foyer for hours, its cord stretching out from the kitchen wall.
We shopped for white pleated skirts and pink angora sweaters, crushed on Troy Donahue and cried together for the entire weekend when JFK was assassinated. We shared all of life's firsts…cigarettes and tampons, loves and losses, achievements and challenges. We are each other's pride and joy.
All of my through-thick-and-thin girlfriends, whether we met by way of husbands or kids or work or the neighborhood, offer shoulders, lend ears and give validation that is intuitive and intimate.
One of them knit the indescribably soft blanket I snoozed under during each round of chemotherapy and supplied loads of Ruth Bader Ginsburg items to inspire me daily. Another makes honest-to-God healing chicken soup, which she delivered in six freezable plastic containers, each complete with noodles and a matzoh ball.
Another sends high-end skin potions I've come to believe are my birthright. One did my entire grocery/drug store shopping FOR MONTHS. And then there are the bearers of slippers and brownies and cashmere sweats and the loving cards that motivated a really weary me to run to the front door at 2 o'clock each day to check for the mail.
I can't forget those on rotation who accompany me on three-mile walks in the park. Too much? Am I bragging? Wouldn't you?
A Greater Survival Benefit Than a Spouse or Family Member
I love when the facts bolster my truth. In the developed world, everywhere, women live an average of six to eight years longer than men. Six to eight years…hmmm.
A study of 3,000 nurses with breast cancer found women with no close friends were four times as likely to die from the disease as women with 10 or more friends. The data suggests friendships may have an even greater survival benefit than a spouse or a family member, no matter if friends live near or far.
It shows that spending time with them releases a whole cascade of neurotransmitters. Increasing your trust. Lowering your cortisol levels. Generating dopamine. That feeling you're having these days each time you reconnect with another treasured bond? Definitely not all in your head.
I'm pretty sure if I were blindfolded and inhaled, I could identify the friend in front of me. Or what kind of day they're having by how they answer my hello. We order dressing on the side and scoop out our bagels and share desserts. We talk about how often we go to the bathroom…and how showering became a thing this past year. That's intimacy.
How could I have gotten through this life without their recommendations for nail hardeners or a gynecologist or restaurants or what to watch on Netflix?
Our memories include finding joy sharing our most embarrassing moments (wearing two different shoes, wetting your pants, ok…down and dirty…shoplifting…ugh). Friends transform our stupidest mistakes into laughs and our hardest moments into badges of courage. And I am happiest when I live up to the standards of these women I most admire.
Oh, a few holding up my safety net are men: the little boy who rode his bike to my house the summer we moved into a new development in 1960 who morphed into the best hugging husband of my oldest friend; another really witty, mushy-hearted man who, from California, continues to refer to me as his brave warrior princess and it gets to me every time and my daughter's godfather who has accompanied me to 100 Broadway shows and seriously upped my fashion game and bought me my most gorgeous birthday gifts for over half a century. God, I'm so lucky.
The Difference Friends Can Make
A few years back, a study on friendship was done at the University of Virginia. Students were taken to the base of a steep hill and fitted with a weighted backpack. They were then asked to estimate the steepness of the hill. Some participants stood next to friends during the exercise; some were alone. The students who stood with friends gave lower estimates of the steepness of the hill. The longer friends had known each other, the less steep the hill appeared. Exactly!
And we're not alone with this often-undervalued gift. Female baboons who have a core of female friends — at least three stable relationships, which is the magic number — show lower levels of stress, live longer and have more surviving offspring.
As writer Alice Adams said, "I think women know how to be friends. That's what saves our lives." I feel like I'm at the mike, accepting an Academy Award and watching the eyerolls in the audience as I go on and on listing those who got me to this moment.
The thing is, I know you understand… you've got your precious, sacred, loyal buddies, too. I hope you all have three.
Marcia Byalick is an award winning essayist, reporter, author and memoir writing teacher. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Newsday, various women’s magazines and elsewhere, including anthologies. She shared the photo at the top which includes her (back row, right) and her friends at a recent gathering.