Selin Andrews woke up feeling flat. It wasn’t the first time this week, or even this month she’d felt drained of all her energy. Her mouth felt like sandpaper and her head as though it was filled with cotton wool. As she brushed the length of her long auburn hair in the mirror of her childhood bedroom, she stared at the dark circles that had become a permanent fixture around her hazel eyes, wondering if she could call in sick at work again, preferably without her mum noticing. Unlikely, considering her mum was a lady of leisure these days. Michelle Andrews spent an age dawdling around the house in the mornings, getting ready for lunches at the Ivy or another equally fancy restaurant, with one of her equally fancy friends. It wasn’t that Selin begrudged her mum this social acclaim, Michelle was a lovely mum whom was making the most of every second of her long awaited retirement, and Selin was happy for her, but she was also jealous. It pained her that her own life once so full of vivacity and social engagements, now revolved around whether or not she could summon the energy and the mental courage needed to climb out of bed and inhabit the shower of a morning.
You need to help yourself, Michelle would say, with kindness, though barely managing to disguise her evident frustration. What Michelle didn’t understand, is that Selin was trying to help herself, and she herself was also extremely frustrated. The days she managed to turn up to work despite being wracked with pain was such an achievement, she really felt as though she deserved a medal. Unfortunately nobody was giving out medals for turning up to work. Even when that turning up would cost Selin a whole weekend in bed trying to recoup some of the energy she’d lost doing so. She knew she’d been off sick lots. She knew her colleagues questioned the authenticity of her illness. She knew this, because she too had once been a colleague who rolled her eyes when the serial “sick note” called in yet again. That was until life had struck her with a debilitating illness that nobody could see. Sometimes as she sat here in her childhood bedroom staring at the garish pink wallpaper her mum hadn’t bothered to replace, she wished she’d lost her leg in a car crash. She knew these thoughts were irrational, insane even, but Selin felt with such an injury a modicum of sympathy might have been thrown her way. These days all she got was noncommittal murmurs and the odd poorly concealed eye roll.
Selin grabbed her phone from its charging port on her bedside table. As she tapped it the screen flashed up with a photograph of the family dog. Drew was an eight year old Red Setter that had the greying eyebrows of an old man, he was also her best friend. The knowledge that at twenty-five years of age she had a best friend of the non human variety depressed her greatly. Her phone told her it was six fifty am and that, as expected, she had no new messages. She tapped into Instagram where her life lit up again. People all over the country and some even in other parts of the world, passed by her profile to double tap on a picture or comment on one of the many inspirational quotes she liked to share. She had friends and family following her instalife too, but either rarely bothered to take the half a second it took to double tap her latest upload, and even fewer left comments or slid into her DM’s. But when Selin’s body forbid her from being able to leave the house, it was this virtual world that was helping her stay connected. When her friends had stopped checking in and her world had become small, this online space had opened up to fill a void. It allowed her to connect with people who understood her situation. People whom were going through similar themselves.
It had been four years since Selin had been diagnosed with Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, though the reality was she’d been living with it and many comorbid conditions, for much longer. Her life had once been vibrant and full. Days and nights out with friends scribbled on a calendar which had hung loosely to the kitchen wall in her flat. Her flat. The one she had shared with her ex, James. James had been a good boyfriend for the most part of their relationship, he’d stayed in a lot of nights with her when she wasn’t physically able to drag herself out to socialise. He’d been with her that day in rheumatology when she’d been diagnosed. He’d even seemed positive at first, with a real desire to help her manage this complex condition. Then when she’d been off sick for weeks at a time and he came home to her unable to move from the sofa to their bedroom without his help, he’d started looking at her differently. It had happened gradually, the transition, his blue eyes that had once belied a lust and deep love had started to look at her with pity. Instead of staying in with her on the weekends or planning around her illness, he’d began going out more often with his friends. Coming home later and later, until one night he didn’t come home at all. Selin had been out of her mind. Already prone to anxiety, she’d called all of his friends to find out where he was and when they weren’t forthcoming she’d phoned his family, and the local hospitals.
As she sat now scrolling her newsfeed, double tapping on posts she’d missed from people she followed, she decided that today would be one of those days she fought her body and took it to work. Or at least, she’d give it her best shot. ***
Lacey Rowe had been following Selin’s ChronicallyBored instagram page for some time. She liked seeing the quotes Selin created herself and shared with her audience. Lacey also had fibromyalgia and it had become so bad over the past two years she’d had no choice but to give up her job at a publishing house. Lacey now stayed home day in day out, doing her best to manage her health. She was relentless with routine and tried hard to go to bed at roughly the same time every night, eat consistently healthy foods and had given up her beloved wine in search of cures. A belief that cutting out vices would ease her pain. Lacey no longer worked, but she had responsibilities Selin didn’t have. Lacey had a son. His name was Rafe and he was just about to turn three. Rafe was a well behaved three year old. His cherub face was always smiling and his speech was great for his age, he also never, ever, forgot his manners. In some ways Lacey took all the credit for his upbringing, she knew she’d done a great job and he was teacher’s pet at his preschool too. But she also felt immense guilt. Every time she looked into her son’s chocolate brown eyes and sniffed the sent of his chestnut hair, she felt a stab so acute she wondered if a person could die from such feeling. Lacey’s guilt stemmed from not being able to do all the fun things Rafe’s friends’ parents did. Like host parties in their gardens and offer to help out for stay and play in his preschool class. For starters, living on benefits meant they had very little money left over after necessities were paid for, and secondly, Lacey simply didn’t have the energy or confidence to offer to volunteer her time. She knew the other mums at preschool thought she was odd, possibly even rude. She was neither of those things, but she was unwell. Making small talk was hard for her as brainfog rained over her thoughts and left her forgetting her words. She would constantly stutter and trip over them whenever she attempted conversation with a stranger. That’s why she loved following account’s like Selin’s. They made her feel seen. She knew Selin didn’t have children, but in age there was not much between them and she was pleased to learn they even lived reasonably close to each other. Selin was always tagging Bath as the location in which her photos were taken and Lacey lived about twenty minutes away by train, in a suburb just outside of Bristol.
Selin’s workplace was situated in central Bath. What was once a Georgian townhouse was now several small office spaces where she worked selling advertising for a local newspaper. The building itself was ornate, complete with sash windows and a boardroom- which had likely once been the lounge of a wealthy bank manager- overlooked the heritage city. Her office was quiet. The desk she manned was one of four, the others inhabited by Janet, a vibrant lady of indeterminable age, Sasha, also twenty-five and already married to a successful entrepreneur and Juliet, Selin’s very stern, and very straight, boss. Selin’s role was mainly administrative, fairly low grade and uncomplicated work for most people. Though Selin wasn’t most people. The moment she’d entered the building earlier that morning, she’d known it had been a mistake. The air was stuffy and emitting a damp smell which played havoc with her senses. The monitor she was working on too bright and the chair she sat on no longer adjusted to support her back. The pain had accosted her body just ten minutes after the start of her shift. As she forced her eyes to focus she felt her phone vibrate in her pocket. Realising it was now almost lunchtime, she decided to wait until then to read the notification, which she doubted was anything other than one of her many shopping apps alerting her to their latest sale. When she finally did walk out onto the cobbled street and pull her phone from her bag she saw instead that is was a direct message from Lacey. Selin had interacted with Lacey tons of times since the launch of her instagram profile and they’d had such a good rapport she felt as though she really knew her, despite the two of them having never met in person. Lacey’s message was about to change that, it read: Time to stop talking about it and plan in a date to meet up. Rafe is at his dad’s this weekend why don’t you come here and we can drink tea and lounge about on the sofa?
Her anxiety addled brain told Selin no way. She couldn’t possibly travel to Bristol on her own. She would have a panic attack or get stuck trying to get off the train. She’d be in so much pain when she arrived that she’d surely need a lie down immediately, and what fun would she be to Lacey then? Lacey had anticipated this would be her reaction and before Selin had even begun typing a reply her phone chimed with a second message: I know you’ll be tired when you get here so I’ll collect you from the station and drop you back whenever you feel like you’ve had enough. No pressure. X
She needed a friend, more than she had ever needed anything in her life. Somebody to complain about the day with and make inappropriate jokes about life with chronic illness. The kind of jokes that healthy people didn’t understand or find funny. She decided that instant that she would go. She still didn’t know if she’d manage the train though and planned to ask her mum to give her a lift instead. Hurriedly, whilst trying to stuff half a tuna baguette into her mouth at the same time, she sent a message back accepting Lacey’s invitation.
When Michelle pulled up outside Lacey’s new build with its overgrown hedge, she noticed the children’s toys stacked neatly to the side of the blue front door. It was weird to her that Selin would have a friend with a child. She was still Michelle’s baby, and her life had been so halted since she became ill that Michelle often wondered if Selin would ever make her a grandmother. Nevertheless she was glad her daughter was making friends, and hoped that the shared experiences would mean Lacey wouldn’t drop her daughter like a hot cake when the going got tough. Because it did, get tough and she’d seen the devastation Selin felt when friendships had inevitably failed. She’d felt the grief of her daughter’s health just as profoundly as Selin herself had. Smiling, she waved her daughter goodbye and drove the thirty minute journey back to Bath with a good feeling deep in her solar plexus.
When Lacey opened the door Selin knew instantly that she’d made the right choice. The petite woman with her dark hair and elfin features drew Selin into a deep hug and told her the kettle was on. Lacey’s house smelt of cinnamon and though a little untidy in places, it wore the coziness of a much older, and well lived in space. Sinking into the soft leather of Lacey’s sofa whilst waiting for the tea to brew the pair struck up a diatribe of conversation that was so easy it felt as though they’d been friends ten years, not ten minutes.
The two women spent the afternoon laughing. They drank copious amounts of tea that had Selin running to Lacey’s downstairs loo every half hour, sitting on the pan with the door ajar so she could continue conversation. They had so much in common it felt bizarre. Lacey opened up about the breakdown of her relationship with Rafe’s father, telling Selin how he’d left her when she was a few months postpartum and suffering severe postnatal depression. Selin told Lacey how James had become more like a carer than a lover. They each took comfort in the other’s life experience and neither felt they were being pitied. In fact their respective health, though relevant to the conversation wasn’t the focal point. They both loved eighties music and neon, fancied the new bloke in Eastenders though neither could remember his name.
When it was time for Selin to leave, Lacey hugged her new friend tightly. A solidarity had formed between the pair and when they agreed to meet again in a fortnight and venture out for lunch, each knew, without discomfort or simmering insecurity, that they’d be there. Being sick had made each woman’s world undoubtedly smaller, but together they were about to take future steps towards growing them. Each were as certain of the friendship’s likelihood for longevity as they were that daffodils would bloom the following spring.