Voices | Bella English

Toast to female friends

By Bella English
June 22, 2009
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When I graduated from college, the unemployment rate was about as high as it is now. I took the only job I was offered. The pay was a joke, and the newspaper was in a sleepy town. But I am grateful to this day for that job, because I met one of my best friends in the world there. Thirty years later, we remain close.

We’ve been together through bad boyfriends, bad jobs, good spouses, good jobs, moves, miscarriages, babies, health issues, kid issues, politics, funerals, you name it. Though we haven’t lived in the same city in years, we write, we call, we e-mail, we all but send carrier pigeons.

Girlfriends can make casseroles or margaritas when needed. They pass along maternity and baby clothes, along with bushels of advice. They’ll tell you if you’re being ridiculous, but they’ll also back you 100 percent when you need it. And they’ll tell you - nicely - that yes, those pants do make your butt look big.

You see this sisterhood in book groups, at spas, in restaurants and offices. They may be jogging in a pack or leaning their heads together over coffee. You can hear them giggling in a dressing room. In bars, they’re the ones having the most fun. In Europe, they walk arm-in-arm.

When I say I couldn’t live without my friends, I exaggerate. But not much. According to a UCLA study, friendships between women are not only good for our mental health, but they help us live longer. The science: When women are stressed, they release oxytocin, which helps us seek and maintain friendships with other women. Instead of the male “flight or fight’’ response to stress, women who have other women to rely on have a “tend and befriend’’ response.

Studies have shown that our friendships are good for our hearts, our blood pressure, even our cholesterol levels. Friendships may be the reason women live longer than men, whose testosterone reduces the effects of oxytocin.

In lay terms: You meet your friend for coffee and tell her about something really upsetting your kid has done. She listens, gives you advice, tells you about something really upsetting her kid has done. You relax. Your heartbeat and blood pressure return to normal. The two of you share a laugh.

Dr. Jacqueline Olds is a consulting psychiatrist at McLean Hospital who has written books on loneliness. Moreover, she’s seen patients for 32 years. Aside from genetics, she says, the two most important factors in longevity are exercise and a network of friends. “All of us on a regular basis lose our sense of proportion about things and fall into a valley of despair,’’ Olds says. “A good friend you can compare notes with can make all the difference in the world in pulling you up from that valley and giving you your sense of proportion back.’’

I think women get better at friendship with age. Maybe all those years together form layers warmer than any down comforter, or maybe we’re finally wise enough to realize that the hour we carve out for a friend has such a big payoff. Maybe we need friends more at a time when many of us are juggling both teenagers and elderly parents. Others of us have been freed up for friend time by the empty nest syndrome.

As she was battling cancer, one of my close friends remarked that in one sense the past year had been one of her best; she’d seen more of her friends than ever. Not long before she died this month, Sarah wrote in a website her friends had set up for her: “I probably had a better week this week than anyone! Picture having a Jan gourmet dinner and chocolate cake appear at your door . . . Imagine getting calls from two of your best friends in the world to see if you had time for tea or coffee . . . Visualize Suzanne hand-delivering ingredients and recipe for a wonderful meal Friday . . . Tomorrow: a mother/daughter party planned by Patty. It’s weeks like this that make me feel everyone should try cancer. At least for a week!’’

Her birthday came four days after she died. Instead of the party we had planned, her friends met at a pub. We set her framed photo at the head of the table, toasted her and told our favorite Sarah stories. I could just hear her saying: “OK, girlfriends. I’m still with you, and I always will be. Now, who wants dessert?’’