By Cassandra Marcella Metzger
My parents are dead. I have no children. I am not married or, at the moment, dating anyone. Chronic pain from fibromyalgia is my constant companion.
Why go on?
I mean, really — why continue struggling? For whom am I persevering? My life often feels so gripped by the vise of pain, and at times I don’t feel I have much to offer anyone.
And what on earth is there to celebrate on ’Valentine’s Day? Just keep my head down and hold my breath until all this lovey-dovey stuff blows over, right? Wrong!
Long before Galentine’s Day even became a thing, I celebrated my girlfriends on Valentine’s Day. My girlfriends are my lifeline — and my safety net, my ballasts and my cheerleaders. And frankly, my connective tissue to a meaningful existence.
So I use the holiday to express my deep appreciation and love for the fabulous women who’ve been such a blessing to me. When the fog of my illness obscures my thinking, they remind me what to try. They help me muster the wherewithal to alter how I cope. And their interest in my well-being makes the pain seem less gripping and less suffocating.
Such unconditional support, acceptance and acknowledgment is essential when you have a poorly understood and invisible illness. Without my posse of gal-mates, I am not sure I would be here today.
They are the ones who can immediately discern from the sound of my voice that I’m having
a bad day. Or who notice in a Zoom call that my eyes are glassy. One has been my friend since the age of 9. She arrived three weeks after classes started in my grammar school — foreign and intriguing with a Dublin accent. She was exotic and exciting and different. Now she is empathic, essential and familiar. And she checks in on me every day, sometimes twice a day.
I have my own “group” from Vassar where I went to college. One traveled from out of state to help me pack for a difficult move; her effort and time meant the world to me. Despite the pandemic, another flew in to simply be with me while I was mourning the loss of my father. Sometimes silent companionship is all I need. Like Job’s friends did for him: “They sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.”
Another keeps me moving, making dates with me so we can exercise together virtually. And another made it possible for me to make a final visit to a family home in Vermont before it was sold. She picked me up at the train station with a car full of groceries so we could quarantine safely while there. Then, when we were leaving, as I was saying goodbye to a place I’d called home for 32 years, without words she felt my sadness and distress. Discerning my immune system might be suppressed, she offered to drive me eight hours back home to Washington, D.C., in her car so I’d stay well and safe.
And a coterie of amazing women where I live envelop me with generosity and warmth. I love living in D.C. because I meet amazing people from all over the world and always learn new things from them. My friend from Mallorca included me in her traditional Christmas Eve dinner. My Puerto Rican friend ordered up a delicious New Year’s Eve dinner and brought two bottles of champagne and silly hats! I have two friends, both from Lebanon, who pick me up on Saturday mornings to get the best coffee in the city and go for hikes. There’s the girlfriend who offered to cohabitate with me in a home she’d subsidize; she’d even figured out a plan for her cats, which I’m allergic to. I’m blessed with a circle of people who check in on me with texts and calls, and who know when I don’t reply that I’m incapacitated. And there are the friends who reliably make me laugh — which is the best medicine of all.
During the pandemic, virtual gatherings shifted not just the means of support, but in many ways increased my circle of friendship.
I attended an all-girls high school and organized monthly Zoom reunions last year. Our class had only about 45 young women, and they’ve grown to embody our motto: actions, not words. Reconnecting with these exceptional women offered valued reconnection in a way that would not have even occurred to us during normal times. Spending easy time with them on those Sunday afternoons grounded me — to my past, to myself and to them.
As the world was shutting down last March, my father died on my birthday. I was able to be with him those last days, but missed his burial, which nearly broke me. I would have broken but convened a virtual meeting with some of my best friends to advise and support me, including a judge, an acupuncturist, a yoga teacher, a fundraiser and a bookkeeper. While it sounds like the beginning of a joke, the truth is, they’re all impressive in their own rights and simply extraordinary as friends.
Studies show that emotional connection and support improves the perception of chronic pain and how we cope and adapt. When I first got ill over 20 years ago, such research didn’t exist. Studies show that chronic pain patients who report high social support levels experience less distress and less severe pain, with higher levels of support associated with better adjustment.
No question that is true for me. I feel seen; I am seen. And because of that, I am less distressed and less troubled by the pain.
Eight years ago, three of my friends gave me a plaque that now hangs in my closet, so I see it every day. It says, “Friendship isn’t a big thing, it’s a million little things. A true friend is someone who thinks that you are a good egg even though they know you’re slightly cracked … Remember, we all stumble, every one of us. That’s why it’s a comfort to go hand in hand. Good friends are hard to find, harder to leave and impossible to forget. One loyal friend is worth ten thousand relatives.”
You may feel you are too extensively cracked and too broken for any relationships, for any love, for any Valentine’s Day celebration. I beg to differ. My relationships with the women in my life are a critical part of my wellness. They’ve deepened significantly over the two decades I’ve been sick, and I no longer take them for granted. I may sometimes feel I have nothing to offer in friendship, but even on my worst days I can lend an ear, crack a joke, or offer an expert binge-watch recommendation.
I look forward to when we can all live in a communal home like these Chinese girlfriends plan to, or how these girlfriends decided to live together in a gorgeous forest cabin, or these others together in a bestie row of mini-houses. I don’t care how we live together, just so long as none of us ends up alone in a trailer park eating cat food.
There’s truly no better time to celebrate our love for each other than on Valentine’s Day, or Galentine’s Day, with my heartfelt gals.
Cassandra is an “escape artist extraordinaire” and founder of Premier Wellness Travel. She is also a writer and a certified yoga therapist.