I'm sort of hesitating as I'm talking to you because it's such a new thought that I'm not sure I've got to the end of it, much less decided what to make of it.
I'm just going to sort of dump it all on you, if that's alright with you.
I was reading something someone had written about women and friendship. It was a beautiful post about sisterhood and support and encouragement and the sort of connection that only women can have. About the special bond that is found in a group of female friends.
You know what came into my head?
'That's not true.'
Where did that come from?
God. Help me a bit, will you? Because it came from somewhere deep inside me, back through the years and comes from somewhere that I thought I'd sorted out, even if not forgotten about. I read the article with narrowed eyes and looked at the pictures of smiling women with their arms around each other and you know what? I don't believe it. All that perfect-friendship stuff. I looked at those pictures with a suspicion and cynicism that shocked me.
Until the last few years, I've never had a close female friend. As I was growing up, I had a few female 'friends', but those friendships weren't what they should have been. They were full of hurt and betrayal and unhappiness and they took from me a lot of confidence. In later years I've had some friends who I still value, but they've somehow stopped short of true intimacy. There's been a holding back; a superficiality. I think it comes from them, but maybe it's been me. I don't know.
This is a minefield. God, I don't know what you're doing here. This is a big thing for me. Here are some things that are flooding through my mind at the moment:
I've always said, 'It takes me a long time to get to know someone.' That's because I'm so wary.
I've always said, 'Men are more straightforward than women.' I've always done better with boyfriends than girlfriends. From late teens onwards I usually had a boyfriend, but after a few very painful friendships, no special friend of my own sex.
I worry for my small daughters about friendships in the playground. I so want them to find a true and trustworthy friend to do life with, and I long for them to find it way, way before I did. Already, at the ripe old age of seven, Elizabeth's experienced girls who've said they were her friend and then hurt her badly, and it presses all my buttons. Makes me anxious. Makes me want to scoop her up and tell her not to worry, it'll be OK. I wonder if that's why she plays with the boys more than the girls?
The thing is, I do know what friendship is, now. It's taken me this long. I'm in my early forties and I have a friend who is a true and beautiful gift from God. She is a woman the author of that article had in mind as she celebrated friendship. She accepts me as I am. I don't have to tidy my house when she comes round. I don't worry if my mascara smudges when I'm talking to her. I trust her implicitly. She keeps my secrets, she holds me when I cry and eats cheesecake with me until we both feel sick. She knows me. She comforts me, inspires me, encourages me and talks sense to me when I don't have any of my own. I don't have to put up barriers. She sees me as I am and she still wants to be with me.
We do this for each other. It's not all one way. She accepts my friendship; she values it. She doesn't throw it back at me or look at it with contempt.
She is my friend. The friend I didn't have when I was seven, or eleven, or twenty, or thirty. I've never been solitary, don't get me wrong, but I've never trusted as I do now. I've never received so much, or given so much.
So I read the article about the miracle of women and the power that we have to build each other up and until recently I have only seen the power we have to bring each other down. When I walk into a roomful of women I am immediately intimidated. I assume that they're looking at me and criticising what I'm wearing, my make up, my face, my words. They're noticing every flaw that I've tried so hard to hide, physical and emotional. My bad hair day, the spot on my chin, the fact that my jeans are a bit tighter than they were last month, my confusion and diffidence. They look at me when I walk in and they talk about me when I leave. I don't think about it any more, because I realise that I've come to expect it. Something inside me is programmed to believe that other women do this to me. To each other.
I am afraid of women. Women can destroy each other's confidence with a look, a remark, an expression. Sometimes, the wounds go very deep indeed.
One day, she'd be my friend, the next, she wouldn't talk to me. On the way to school I would never know which today would be. On the off days she'd tell other girls mean things about me. On the good days, she'd link arms with me and all would be well. I just let it happen. It doesn't do much for my self esteem that I just let it happen.
She would tell me that I was fat and ungainly and she'd tell me who I should avoid standing next to as they were so much slimmer/prettier than me that it made me look worse. She told me I'd never get anywhere, be anyone. She criticised the way I walked and the way I laughed. She chose a seat at lunchtime at a table without space for me, so I'd be standing there with my tray of food, but nowhere to sit. She laughed at me.
Another she, a grown-up she, years later, told me that someone had said things about me but wouldn't tell me who, or what, but it wasn't nice, and it wasn't true either. I looked around at the people I shared the lecture room with in a different way because of her. I didn't trust anyone, and until then I'd been having a nice time. I thought I had friends. She told me that I had no integrity, that there was something wrong with my character. That there was something wrong with me.
Other shes weren't there when I needed them, let me down at key moments, didn't turn up, drifted away, moved away.
I could name names, Lord, but there's no reason to; you know the people I mean. From my childhood and adulthood. I'm sure they didn't know the impact they were having. I'm glad that they didn't.
So we women do have power indeed. Oh, we do. A fearsome power. We can crush. We may not do it with our muscles but the devastation is complete.
A group of girls in the playground; is there anything more lethal than that? A couple of girls took my daughter's woolly hat on a cold day and threw it in a puddle. A girl told her that her new coat made her look silly. A girl told her that she was too tall to be a girl so she must be a boy. The girls that are friends one day and the next they won't let her play.
She went to play with the boys. More straightforward, see? Only now at seven the boys start to do that thing where they don't want to play with girls, even tall ones. She must try again with the girls. New term, new school, new friends.
Oh God, hold her close. It's so complicated and I don't have the skills to help her. I'm terrified that the only stuff I can impart won't help at all but will make things worse. Keep the mean girls away from her, will you? Don't let them wound her. And don't, please don't, let her insecurities grow and overflow so that she becomes a mean girl. Bring her a friend, or (is it too much to ask?) a couple of friends that she can trust, have fun with, grow up with, will you? Please, please, don't have her wait until she's forty to find a woman who is a soulmate.
Someone who will bring out the best in her, not diminish her.
I realise that even though I'm supposed to have dealt with all this, there's still a gaping wound that needs healing. I can feel tears behind my eyes even as I'm talking to you, now.
Today I was reading of the bond that a woman can have with another woman and finally, I know what that's about. I assumed that such friendships were for other people - not for me, but now I know that it's not true. I can trust someone who is trustworthy. I know that she wants what is good for me. We're not in competition. She lifts me up. She prays for me. She isn't afraid to tell me that I'm wrong, that I need to think differently. She's right there with me.
She loves me. She loves you.
God, I bet there are so many people out there like me. Who haven't experienced the joyful, wonderful feminine sisterhood, but the darker side of women. The cold and hurting side. The bit that chips away and undermines and leaves you defensive and wary.
Lord, I know that it's not too late. I know that you can heal and make new. Father, will you reach down into the depths of me and mend the bits that are broken? Is that what you're doing? And maybe one day I can help someone else. Women should stick together, shouldn't they? Not pull each other apart and walk on the pieces.
Thankyou for my friends, Lord God. For soulmates and sisters to celebrate and grieve with. Who walk alongside, accepting and supporting, passing tissues and eating cheesecake.
Father, for the girls that are now women whose names we both know; may their lives now be so much happier that the bitterness and nastiness that spilled over and soaked me through is no more. I'm supposed to pray for them, aren't I? It's hard to hand them over to you, Lord, but I know that they are your daughters too. Bless them. Next time I say that I'll try to do it without the gritted teeth.
Help me to open my hands and drop the memories that I realise that I've never thrown away. The remembered misery and fear and the knot in my stomach. The loneliness and mistrust. The wariness. The feeling that other women are not potential friends, but threats. Help me to leave it with you.
To forgive. Even if I have to keep on forgiving. I didn't realise until this morning that I hadn't.
As the healing power of a God-given friendship starts to seep into my consciousness, help me to let it go to all those places where the cynicism and suspicion still linger. Melt the parts of me that are cold and wake me up to the miracle of restoration that you are doing in me. I don't have to accept that part of me was damaged when I was a child. I don't have to tell the story of the bullies and the spiralling self-esteem and finish it with a shrug, and a 'That's how I am.' I don't have to settle for wounds that won't heal.
I've only just realised that. Only just. And I'm supposed to be all grown up.
So, Father. I know that we women do indeed have power. Power to change the lives of those around us. Lord, let me only bless other women and not harm them. How many women, like me, assume that they are nothing more than the sum of their negative experiences? How many women lick the wounds inflicted when friendships hurt and fail and then hide them away without realising that healing is possible?
Help me to reach out, to touch, to support and encourage, not discourage, undermine or damage. I want to make a positive difference.
I've been hurt and you're putting me back together.
Oh. Lord, I've got a postscript. School run, this evening. I was walking to school and I slipped in my headphones (as I do; it's not too far, about two-and-a-half songs) and pressed 'shuffle'. You chose a song for me.
'Rise up women of the Truth
Stand and sing to broken hearts
Who can know the healing power
Of our awesome King of Love?' *
Lord, I've been hurt and you're putting me back together again.
I know the healing power of our awesome King of Love. And I shall sing.
*(Shout to the North and the South, Martin Smith, 1995 Curious? Music UK)
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