The first two decades were spent pretty much in transit. As a doctor’s daughter we were on the move a fair bit to wherever the next hospital placement would be. From America to Wales and onto South London, my friendships were often short lived in those early years.
I tried to avoid getting too close to too many people, as in the back of my mind I knew that at some point I may have to say goodbye.
So instead I chose to invest all of my time and energy into one or two BEST friends and perhaps two or three other really GOOD friends.
They were the ones who I giggled with at school, passed notes across the desk to, practiced dance and make up routines with at home, went shopping with, cried on their shoulders over various failed relationships and told all my inner secrets to. They provided the fun, the laughter and the drama which most of us I’m sure will have experienced along the way.
Now I’m sure I have mentioned in some of my previous blogs, that I unfortunately lost one of these really good friends, in our last year of university. The effect of that sudden loss, has haunted me to this day.
It further compounded my cautious nature. I constantly avoided becoming too close to people, because the fear of losing someone else or having to yet again say goodbye, was too much to bear.
Thankfully, not long after that, I met my husband, who became my best friend too and slowly through 26 years of marriage, he has helped heal a lot of my wounds and given me the security and the courage to branch out, reconnect and trust in my female friendships again.
I grew to understand that saying goodbye and losing people dear to us was sadly just part of life. Something that didn’t just affect me obviously, but anyone and everyone.
In my married life and through our children I have been fortunate to make some really wonderful girlfriends along the way.
I still have my inner insecurities providing a voice in one ear warning me not to get too close, but I have become a lot better at trying to ignore that voice and live in the here and now. After all, none of us have the luxury of knowing how long a friendship or indeed a life will last.
The power of female friendship cannot be underestimated. Girlfriends come in all shapes and sizes, and we choose to have them in our life to compliment our own personalities – like little missing pieces of a not quite finished jigsaw puzzle.
There will usually be a few fairly obvious stereotypes in each group; The confident, popular, pretty, outgoing one who will always be first on the dance floor and never without a boyfriend. The shy, quiet, understated, sensible one we all go to for advice. The comedienne whose job it is to entertain, leaving us permanently in fits of giggles, the gym bunny whose figure you can only ever dream of and makes you feel guilty every time you reach for that slice of cake and the one who is full of insecurities, and lacking in self confidence, who slots in somewhere in between them all!
So often we hear the phrase ‘friends are the family we choose for ourselves’. But for me, if I’ve learnt one thing along my journey into midlife, it is that there are friends, there is family and then there are friends that become family.
The latter are exceptionally rare to come by. And when they do, hold onto them tight and never let them go. These are the ones that know you inside and out, warts and all, through thick and thin. They will forever support you, lift you up, go to the ends of the earth to be there for you and will always have your back.
I will never forget the opening line of my father’s speech on my wedding day. He told a packed room full of friends and family that he was a very wealthy man – there was an audible gasp in the room at his arrogant opening statement. Thankfully, once they allowed him to get to the end of his sentence, they soon realised they had been too quick to judge.
‘My wealth’, he said, ‘is like a tightly-woven tapestry. It can be measured by the intricately intertwined patterns that represent a life full of good friends and family.’
It took me a few minutes to understand where he was going with that opener, but now, when I look back at my own life so far, I can totally relate to where he was coming from.
The only difference for me is that I like to look at my tapestry as a shawl that has similarly beautiful patterns woven within it.
Some may be faded and in places gone for good. But I know they were there.
And the ones that remain I will take with me and continue to wrap myself in, as I step into the next chapter of my life.
So ladies, forget about diamonds being a girl's best friend. As far as I’m concerned, best friends are more precious than any gemstone that may come your way!
Anyway, he announced he was going, packed his bag, went, had fun, came back, unpacked his bag and got on with his day to day work/life!!!
Well in stark contrast, I announced i was going away for 1 night for a friends 50th birthday today and so far (all before 10am I hasten to add!), i have:
Organised the 4 kids rotas that need doing before i can go, done a food shop, walked and fed the dog, tidied the house, put a load of laundry in, spent hours thinking about what combinations of outfits i'll need for tea/dinner/breakfast (well when i say combinations of outfits i mean same jeans, different tops!) and panicked about the thought of having to share a room with one of my best friends who has never actually shared a room with me.
I'm now fretting that perhaps i snore or sleepwalk, unpack everything i just packed because nothing i packed is either practical or fits me, re pack again with my over 40's comfy clothes instead, sit on the overnight case to try and close it, smash my only pair of glasses whilst in the process, run up to opticians to get a replacement pair of glasses to find it doesn't open til lunchtime, run back, realise i have now locked myself out the house as gave house key to oldest child last night, spend 20 mins ringing doorbell whilst teenagers and husband sleep soundly in their beds, finally get let in by the dog (no she doesn't have super powers, she just went off to bark & lick a few of my broods faces until they finally woke up) and am now collapsed in a heap of exhaustion wondering why i too can't just announce ‘i'm going’ and then go!!!!!
I'm sure i will have a lovely time away, after all there is nothing quite like quality time with a load of girlfriends, laughing and eating and drinking and reminiscing, but i'm already thinking about the long list of things i have to do tomorrow and am sure i will be receiving dozens of whats app messages throughout the weekend from my kids and husband asking what’s for dinner, can I give them a lift and where is the clean underwear, without ever realising i'm not actually there!
Time to turn my phone to silent.
It's definitely a dogs, mans, kids life!
And in an instant I was transported back to a year previously when Georgina, (not her real name – we do not have the luxury of using our real names here), had come to my house unannounced and late one night and given it to me with shaking hands and a look in her eyes that I knew only too well.
“If anything happens to me, this is my Will. Please keep it safe for me and make sure that my children are looked after”.
Just those words.
That was all she said.
And that was all she needed to say.
And that look.
That haunted look of terror and pleading.
And I knew.
And I knew on a visceral level exactly the narrative and the story between that look and those few words.
And I knew because a few years before that, I had been that woman.
I had turned up unannounced and late one night at my friend Lucy’s house and handed her a similar piece of paper outlining how I would like my home and money to be used for the care of my children, which child was to get what particular keepsake and where I was to be buried. She was absolutely horrified and begged me not to speak like that.
But I had to. I had to know that should I die at my husband’s hand, my children would be safe, financially at least, and that there might be some shred of stability left for them. Somehow this action of having my fears witnessed and responded to in a concrete way brought me some degree of comfort and relief.
To go to that place of ‘knowing’; knowing that there is a real chance or even a possibility that your life will be ended by an act of violence is a dark, cold wilderness that I would not wish on anyone.
It is bone on bone, blade on flesh pain and it chills to the marrow. It leaves a footprint stamped on your very soul that never truly goesaway. Ever.
There is something exquisitely painful and specific about being hurt by someone who is supposed to love you, or to have loved you once or was supposed to be your ‘safe place’. That the perpetrator could be the man that you married,in love, and built a home with,in love, and shared a bed with, in love, and bore children to, in love, leaves one breathless with pain. Quite literally unable to draw breath.
There is a surreal place where wild terror tips into numbness. Like a breaker tripping an overloaded circuit. When everything has been ripped from you and all that you hold dear and sacred and of worth is gone, a numb void remains. It’s as if you’ve been hollowed out with a large cold metal spoon. If you know this place, you will fully understand the paradox of being both alive and dead at the same time. Your heart still beats but your blood is as cold as ice.
Once a woman has experienced violence or aggression from her partner, the risk of her being murdered by him goes up significantly if she leaves or takes steps to leave him.
Figures from the 2017 Femicide Census show that over half of women killed by a former intimate partner were killed within the first month of separation while almost 90% of women killed by a former intimate partner were killed within the first year of separation.
These are real figures.
Of real cases.
Of real women.
Real figures of real cases of real women who died because they dared to leave. Or tried to leave.
This is our reality.
Not just empty fears or dramatic notions. This is what drives women like Georgina and me to sit down in the cold light of day and plan for when we are no longer around to protect our children.This is what it feels like to have everything taken from us in life until all that is left is the hope that our voices will be heard in death.
This is part of the sticky web of abuse that traps us and keeps us bound. This is part of the answer to the blissfully unaware and jarring ‘Well, why didn’t she just leave him?’ question. In my case the children found a letter their father had written outlining in a ‘fairytale’ format how he would shoot me between the eyes and nail my head to the wall like a wall-mounted bear’s head as an example to others what happens to people who ‘f*cked with him’ or ‘p*ssed him off’.
When a partner who has shown violence and aggression threatens you with promises that he will destroy you, that he will kill you, that you will not survive him, that you will die… you had better believe him.
There is no salve to soothe this wound. There is no relief from the fear that takes root and resides deep, deep inside us.
There is instead a hypervigilance that comes with the territory of surviving. And occasionally I catch the eye of another woman and see it on her too. That ‘here but not quite here’ look of another who has faced the unthinkable and who has visited that icy cold wilderness. There are legions of us. Survivors who have one eye constantly on the door.
We adapt and we try to keep on living. We push through. We press on.
For the longest time, (and still occasionally now on bad days), my routine was to check that my brakes were working whenever I got into my car: mirror, signal, manoeuvre, test the brakes. I figured such was his expertise in operating from the shadows and keeping the abuse well-hidden that this would be the most obvious way he would kill me.
We adapt and we try to keep on living
We get the kids up for breakfast in the morning, feed them, dress them, bundle them into the car for the school run, (Mirror, signal, manoeuvre, test the brakes). We go to the supermarket and load up our cars with bags of food for our family and drive home, (Mirror, signal, manoeuvre, test the brakes), ready to cook and clean and whatever else needs doing to keep our ship afloat. We go to work, to friends, to the gym... to wherever (Mirror, signal, manoeuvre, test the brakes), and all the while, behind the façade of normality, the scars and wounds run deep and burn and throb.
My God do they burn. Especially in the dead of night when the respite of sleep evades, and every shadow and noise become a threat.
There are truly monsters living under our beds.
(Orli is amongst other things a writer and a poet. She writes because she can. And because she believes that this is how light is created. And this is how we heal.)