BFFs? Reflections on school friends

Waking up on Saturday of 8th week I felt sick for two reasons: first, I had a hideous hangover from the previous night’s end of term celebrations; secondly, I’d just received some stomach-churning news about one of my best friends from school.

She had been in a serious motorcycle accident and broken an absurd amount of bones, including her neck; if she’d landed millimetres differently she could have been paralysed or even killed.

The shock of learning about the accident was enough to jolt me out of the self-congratulatory haze that so often accompanies the end of term. It was gut-wrenching to consider that my friend – a girl who has been a significant part of my life since I was eleven years old – had been going through unimaginable physical and emotional trauma whilst I had been worrying about essay word counts, job interviews and whether my college were going to win the netball league. 

It’s all too easy to get sucked into the void that is the Oxford Bubble, and to forget that the people we have known for far longer than our time here still have their own lives, thoughts and experiences, even if we neglect them some of the time, convinced of the pre-eminent importance of our own lives.

But can we ever truly forget them? In many ways, the friends that we make as children and teenagers are an inescapable part of ourselves. They inscribe themselves on our bodies in ways we might not even realise: in our reactions, our sense of humour, our stories.

A 2013 study by a group of psychology researchers from the University of Virginia found that our capacity for empathy for people that we are familiar with grows to such an extent that we essentially consider our friends to be a part of ourselves. They monitored the brain activity of 22 different participants while they were under threat of receiving mild electrical shocks to themselves, or to a friend or stranger.

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The researchers discovered that the brain activity of a person in danger is basically identical to that of a person whose friend is in danger. “It’s essentially a breakdown of self and other; our self comes to include the people we become close to,” said James Coan, a director of the study. “If a friend is under threat, it becomes the same as if we ourselves are under threat. We can understand the pain or difficulty they may be going through in the same way we understand our own pain.” When we grow close to people over time, they become a part of who we are; when they are in danger, so are we. 

This might explain my own visceral reaction to hearing about my friend’s accident. It’s only in such moments as discovering that my bestie is in intensive care that I can really understand the impact that my long-term friends have had on my everyday life. In the five years since I left school, my friends have become doctors, musicians, and mothers (whilst I continue to rack up student debt at an ever-increasing rate). Each one has their own unique life and varied experiences, but they’ll always be intertwined with my life and the person I am.

For many people, your school friends are the ones who supported you after your first heartbreak, the only people who won’t ever get bored of your hilarious gap year stories because they were there too, the ones who held your hair back as you retched into a brand new Cath Kidston teapot on your 16th birthday: these are the little things that layer up to make your palimpsest personality. 

We’re told that it’s unhealthy to live in the past or to dwell on our school days – and it’s true – but on hearing that my Year 11 BFF (who I hadn’t seen since Christmas, or spoken to in weeks) is stuck in hospital for the foreseeable future, I realised that my school friends are just as much a part of my present as they are my past.

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Maybe we won’t be Best Friends Forever, and maybe in another 5 years we won’t even speak – how can anyone predict that? What I do know is that, like any of my school friends, she is a part of me – and that I’ll be spending a fair amount of the vac in hospital with her.