Amy Silverstein, author of My Glory Was I Had Such Friends, on the importance of ‘showing up’ for a friend

On the occasion of World Friendship Day, the author tells us how friends can positively influence our mental well-being, simply by being around no matter what

In her memoir My Glory Was I Had Such Friends, New York-based author and attorney Amy Silverstein recounts her experience as she waited for a life-saving heart transplant surrounded by an extraordinary group of women. These friends showed up to her hospital room and stayed by her side during her weakest hours. The book will be developed as mini television series by Star Wars director JJ Abrams' Bad Robot Productions.

On the occasion of World Friendship Day, Silverstein tells The National about the importance of friends such as these, how they brought her back from the brink of hopelessness and why they went all out to be there for her.

The women who were by your side when you were awaiting a second heart transplant were friends you had made at different stages in your life. Would you say that lasting friendships are not necessarily those formed early on?

When I was 25, I had my first heart transplant and waited for a donor heart in a hospital for two months. Hardly any friends showed up, even though they were in the same city. And for one of her rare visits, my friend Jill stood at the foot of my hospital bed, wearing a sparkly dress, arm in arm with a boyfriend, and glowing like a wedding cake topper. They left swiftly to go to a party.

When I was 50, nine of my women friends flew across the country (to California) to be by my side as I waited on the precipice of my second transplant. They arrived in sweatpants, giving of themselves completely. As women of about 50 — mothers, professional women, daughters, sisters — time and life had taught them how to bring their best selves to get a trying job done. This simply was not possible at 25. So I believe the capacity to be a better friend expands with age. We are less self-involved in our 30s, 40s and 50s.

Your friends helped you out when you were awaiting a procedure that would impact your physical health. Would you say that having them around also contributed to your mental health?

On a daily basis. I was getting sicker and sicker, and losing hope by the minute. While my friends could not dig up fake optimism, they held me up by reminding me of who I am. Illness takes more than just a physical toll. When days drag on in the hospital, a patient can lose a sense of herself as a capable, valuable, effective person. I felt myself begin to slip away in the face of illness, starting to lose touch with the best parts of who I am. My friends pulled me back and kept me whole by making a point of telling me who I was to them.

If they see me as strong, I can be strong. If they see me as brave, I will be brave. When a friend tells me she is in awe of my resilience, I am motivated to be resilient.

What are some of the most powerful tools in which two people can bond? For instance, conversation — your book mentions the distracting “best talks ever” you had with your friends…

One of the most powerful tools is a simple one, and we can all do it: just show up. In my book, I write about the women who showed up to save my life. I also write about my reluctance to let them be there for me in this very significant, almost intrusive way. But they persisted and as a result, the bond among us is extraordinarily strong.

So don’t be afraid to show up, even when a friend seems uncomfortable with it at first. Be present and pleasant and sensitive. Showing up is the basis for bonds to form, and also for reciprocity. In addition, being open and non-judgemental is a tool for bonding. Listening with open ears instead of judging is key.

What are some ways in which you bonded with these women before your health troubles arose? What experiences did you share that led to their being there — so unconditionally — for you at your time of crisis?   

I have had to ask my friends: “Why did you show up?” and they’ve said: “You’ve been there for us, Amy!”

So what you put in is what you get out. I’ve taken friends for breast biopsies. I’ve shown up when a colicky baby has brought a friend to the edge. I’ve taken late-night calls from friends who wanted to talk something through — yet again — even though we had talked through this issue several times that day.

And I’ve never for one minute made my friends feel that their “common, everyday problems” (as they might call them) were not as important or challenging as my uniquely trying health issues. This kind of reciprocity over time gets banked. It is not forgotten.

What’s your point of view on developing and maintaining long-distance friendships?

There is a chapter where I recount the relationship I have with my friend Valerie, who lives a plane ride away from me. And I found that distance actually imbues friendship with something that is uniquely valuable. With friends who live far, we pay special attention when we talk on the phone, or Skype or FaceTime with them. We carve out a few moments from our day and let go of distractions while focusing on this friend and friendship. And friendships that are based on listening rather than frequent in-person contact can actually be more insightful and unbiased, because appearances cannot mask reality.

Anyone living far from loved ones might try to view the benefits of distance in their relationships instead of just the drawbacks. Distance demands intention and attention. If an effort is made to talk regularly, the time spent can become special rather than an ordinary encounter.

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