The Kindness of Strangers

635999257015757101-206990663_FacebookFriends.jpgI met my soulmates online. Not through a dating site but through a Facebook group spawned from a Guardian column. I can hear the eye rolling and screaming “internet friendships aren’t real!” from here. But they were real enough for me to travel 200 miles in 2012 to meet 30 women I’d never encountered anywhere but online. My mum called them my imaginary friends but those women gave me the glue to hold myself together after her death.

It all happened completely by accident. In early 2012 I turned 30 and decided to overhaul my beauty “routine.” I use the word routine loosely because at the time my twice daily ritual involved washing my face with soap and using whatever cheap moisturiser I could pick up at the supermarket. My makeup skills were nonexistent and this was before the ubiquity of YouTube tutorials. One Friday night I Googled “How to apply flicky eyeliner” and found this Guardian piece by Sali Hughes. A bit more digging and I found a Facebook group called Sali Hughes: Get The Look. Little did I know that group of women would change my life.

There’s a feeling that the anonymity of the internet can bring out the worst in people, you can say things online that you would never dare to say to someone’s face but I found that posting under an alias, as I did on the Facebook group, allowed me to be more honest than I would be in person. I could openly talk about my mental health battles, relationship woes and embarrassing topics without fear of judgement. The group was the first place I posted about my mum’s terminal cancer diagnosis when I was still raw and weeping. I received private messages almost immediately from supportive women and the transition from virtual to “real” friend began.

I found myself checking in on the group every day and the friendly faces became a constant source of support and humour during the most horrific period of my life. Like any community things constantly evolve and I became a member of spin off groups where friendships deepened. The GTL Facebook group closed in 2013, moving to a proper online forum which made following threads and topics a lot easier. Facebook is a great and easy tool to use on the go but near impossible to search for a thread on a group with 5000+ members across the world posting throughout the day.

The first meet up I attended in 2012 was truly the beginning of some amazing friendships. To anyone who tells me that these aren’t “real” friends I will remind them that I have drunk with these women, danced with them, held their babies, met their partners, slept in their homes. I spent my first motherless Mother’s Day travelling back from a weekend in the Lake District with a group of these friends and one in particular held me as I quietly cried at the radio dedications to mothers who were very much alive. After mum passed away in 2013 I received sympathy cards from all over the country and the most amazingly generous gifts, including a spa day and a Tiffany necklace, the result of a whip-round from the women I’d met and some I was still to meet. One of the friends I made online came to mum’s funeral, an act of kindness I will never forget. In the years that followed when my sanity was hanging by a thread these women offered me emotional and practical support. When PTSD nightmares disturbed my sleep and my waking hours were spent in a fog of disordered thoughts I always found someone willing to listen to my ramblings. Sometimes I just needed to rant at the world (there’s a “Can We Have a Fuck Off Thread?” on the forum that I hang out on a lot) and sometimes I wanted to celebrate the small achievements like going outside when anxiety had rendered me housebound for days on end. The group were there for me through it all.

Of course, this being the internet it’s not all sunshine and rainbows, utopia doesn’t exist online. You simply cannot have a space with a large group of humans where everyone agrees with each other. There have been fights and flounces and I’ve even been guilty of both. But if you ever feel your faith in humanity slipping, join the Sali Hughes Beauty Forum and search for Carey Lander or Sarcoma UK. Carey, a talented musician and member of Camera Obscura was a SHB forum member, close friend of Sali and was given a terminal cancer diagnosis in 2015 at the age of 33. She wanted to leave a legacy by raising money for a woefully underfunded rare cancer, setting up a fundraising page which eventually totalled over £100,000. The forum rallied with prize draws, members selling valuable items for the charity and the forum’s fundraising efforts were in the thousands. On the day of Carey’s funeral forum members posted on a selfies thread wearing Carey’s signature red lip and animal print. Over 200 faces flooded the site, including many members who’d never posted pictures of themselves before. It was incredibly moving and I often find myself scrolling through, reading the messages and feeling proud to be part of such a group.

The main criticism I get when I tell people I met some of the Best Humans Ever TM on a beauty group is that we must be a bunch of vacuous twats. Firstly, don’t talk shit about my friends. Secondly, the women I have encountered have been some of the cleverest, funniest, most talented people you will ever (or never) meet. Beauty may be in the name of the forum but it’s so much more than that. I see acts of kindness on a daily basis and my social media streams are full of pictures of friendships forged online. Some of the women I speak to almost daily I may never meet in “real life” due to geography or circumstance but that doesn’t make them any less important to me.

Did I change my beauty routine? Yes, I thankfully don’t wash my face with Dove soap anymore. I sometimes splurge more money on a lipstick than I used to spend in a year on supermarket moisturiser but that’s my choice. What I do with my face and body is and will always be for me, not for anyone else. Do I have any regrets? Well, despite it leading me to the best friends I could ask for, I never did master that flicky eyeliner…

Disclaimer: In this cynical, cynical world we inhabit I would like to point out this is not some kind of ad or puff piece. I have never met Sali Hughes or been asked to write this. I just really love these women and wanted to celebrate them.

Dear CC

broken-heartI am so sorry I didn’t say goodbye properly. I found out you were really sick on Friday and by Saturday night you were gone. I wrote a short message that didn’t even begin to explain how much I wanted the news about your failing health to be an ugly rumour. I needed to tell you how much you meant to me and how much you will be missed. You were my first real friend. Two doors down the street and born three weeks apart, it was almost inevitable that we would be buddies, especially given how close our parents were. Inseparable during their pregnancies, our mothers were delighted to give birth to two daughters in the same month that would grow up together.

We weren’t just friends, we were family. We called each other’s mothers “Mum” and became the sisters we both craved so much (I was big sister, you were little sis). We spent weekdays together at nursery, then school and at weekends had sleepovers at each other’s homes. You had a Christmas stocking and an Easter egg to look forward to every year at my house. I put more time and effort into our friendship than I have with any subsequent romantic relationship. Although we looked so different we always dressed alike and I laugh now looking back at pictures of your long slim body in the same outfits as my short round frame.

I still remember the day 26 years ago when I broke your heart (your words, you always had a flair for the dramatic). I told you I was moving house. Not very far away but enough of a distance to move school and for everything to change. We both wept and vowed to be friends forever, in a way that only nine year olds can. I promised to phone every day and write letters every week to tell you what I was up to. You told me that no one would ever replace me. We continued to have sleepovers, although they went from weekly to monthly and eventually stopped altogether.

Neither of us wanted to admit we’d outgrown each other. When we met up things seemed strained and we couldn’t just pick up a conversation where we’d left off, there was so much explanation of “who’s who” in stories that it was too much effort. Also, the differences in our personalities became more apparent as we got older; you loved a party and I loved staying in with a book, you looked like a model and loved fashion, I looked like a hobbit and was sporting hand me downs (from my brother).

We went years without speaking and I regret not making more of an effort. There were times I would see you on a bus or on the street and I would hide behind a book or scarf to avoid your gaze. Your life always seemed so fabulous and glamourous. You travelled for a living and I was stuck in the same city in a dead end job. I thought being around you would make me feel like a lesser human.

I thought of you often and when I joined Facebook in 2009 you were one of my first friends, just like when we were born. You ended up amassing 10 times as many friends as me and I do admit to the odd pang of jealousy. We exchanged the occasional message, particularly in times of crisis. When your dad passed away I had to let you know I was there if you needed to chat and you were one of the first people I heard from when my mum was diagnosed with cancer. I will never forget the kindness of you coming to mum’s funeral when you didn’t even live in the same country as us anymore.

I was speaking to dad about you just over a week ago. We were both wondering aloud how you were, you had been uncharacteristically quiet on social media and I hoped it was because you were loved up and enjoying life offline. I didn’t know you were fighting for your life. When I found out on Friday night what was happening I wanted to give you the biggest hug. I wanted to kiss your forehead the way our mums did when we were sleeping over at each other’s houses. Or I wanted to make you laugh, you had a bloody ridiculous snorting laugh and I can’t believe I’ll never hear it again. I also can’t believe I am referring to you in the past tense. I am so sorry.

Love always, BS (Big Sister)

Love You Too…

It’s amazing how three little words can change your life. I spent my whole life taking love for granted. It was something I didn’t have to go looking for, it was always just there. I had an enthusiastically loving mother, she would say the words every day. She would text, email, write notes and make up songs. Love oozed from her pores. As a child it mortified me. I would wipe away her cheek kisses and mumble “love you too” in a mocking tone.  When I reached my twenties and thirties I would often cringe at her public displays of affection. Luckily my nephew and niece were born and mum had new children to worship and smother with kisses.Read More »