When your world falls apart, a best friend can carry you through like no one else can. Actress Karen Tan and her best friend have proven that throughout their three-decade long friendship
From left: Theresa Tan and Karen Tan
Theatre actress Karen Tan, 51; and Theresa Tan, 50, who runs a writing and PR business, met in Saint Anthony’s Secondary School when they were just teenagers. While they certainly knew each other back then, they were not close. “Let’s just say that we weren’t friends then. She was very popular, while I was not,” laughs Theresa.
Their paths crossed again in junior college, when heartbreak over several episodes of youthful romance gone wrong cemented their friendship for life. Here, they share how their unique bond has been the bedrock of their adult lives as they offered support, encouragement and trust to each other.
A SHAKY START
“We knew each other when we were 13 or 14, but we really only became friends in university,” explains Karen. “In school it was like that; if you’re friends, you’re friends – but if you’re not, then you’re just not. There’s no forcing it.”
Their friendship found its stride only when they were a little bit older. “We were 18 when we actually became firm friends, because we happened to be dating these two guys who knew each other,” says Theresa. “It was because of our issues with them that we started to confide in and commiserate with each other.”
“We have quite different personalities, but I guess we complement each other”— Theresa Tan
They found in each other respite, a shared eagerness to moan, and talk about anything and everything under the sun.
“We started off very much like two teenagers who were in each other’s faces all the time. We used to cut classes together, and go on these stupid diets together,” Theresa remembers. “I remember going on this tau sar pau diet with her, where we would only eat steamed red bean buns and drink teh O.”
“That’s how stupid we were. We really thought we were fat. You know when you’re young and you’re silly, but you have that someone that allows you to be silly?” Karen adds. “I felt if I had someone who was there for me through all the unimportant stuff, then when it truly came down to the tough things I had to deal with, they’d be there for me too. Theresa was that person for me.”
Over the years, their friendship continued to provide the core of what they sought from adulthood – shared sensibilities, laughter and a sense of connection. Despite work commitments, marriage and even a period of separation, they maintained their bond and worked to nurture it.
“Karen got married and moved away to England for about seven years, so to keep in touch I would fax her. I was working as an arts reviewer at a local magazine then, and I would write my reviews and fax them to her,” Theresa reminisces.
“The thing about us is that we always just pick up where we left off when it comes to our friendship. Even if we haven’t seen each other in a while, the conversation just continues on as normal, even when her last text to me was a year and a half ago,” she explains.
Karen agrees, and adds that she probably couldn’t cope if they had the type of relationship where they had to see each other every day. “We’ve been friends for 33 years – but I’m always very conscious about how I use terms like ‘best friend’ or ‘BFF’ (Best Friends Forever) to describe things. It’s not that I no longer consider Theresa my best friend, but because it’s a term that’s so overused, people seem to think that we spend all our time together,” says an exasperated Karen.
“We do go through periods where we don’t see each other, and I actually think it’s a healthy friendship this way. We pop up in each other’s lives when it’s necessary to be there, then at other times, it is okay to give each other space.”
TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS
Perhaps the greatest test of their friendship was when Theresa was struck down by multiple tragedies. First, her mother passed away of breast cancer at 64; then shortly after, her father departed the world. Add to that, Theresa herself was also diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS, or Stage 0 breast cancer) in 2010.
“Strangely, through all of these tough times, Karen would be the first person I would call. When I felt the first pangs of pain in my chest, I called you,” Theresa confesses, gesturing towards her friend.
“I suppose I felt like I could reach out to her because she’s very practical. She’s not going to go ‘There, there, it’s going to be alright’. She’s not that sort of person; she’s going to say, ‘Go to a doctor now!’ and sometimes you need a friend who is decisive like that.” Theresa adds how Karen’s wisdom and reassurance have seen her through tough times: “I feel like when she’s here, things are going to be okay.”
For Karen, seeing her friend wrestle with such a consuming disease was painful. “Theresa was the first person I knew really well to have been struck ill, and it made me realise I did not want to lose her, remembers Karen.
“I felt that it was unfair that she had to get breast cancer, when she was always the one who was eating properly and exercising. I remember after she had her mastectomy, how difficult it was for her to even walk out of the house for a little stroll. I could not fathom what it was like not to be able to walk from your doorstep to the end of the road and back,” says the actress.
“Meanwhile, I’m just an actor, and people think ‘Wow!’ They ask me things like ‘How do you learn your lines?’ and I’m there thinking, ‘It’s my flipping job’.”
“We pop up in each other’s lives when it’s necessary to be there, then at other times, it is okay to give each other space.” – Karen Tan
FRIENDS FOR LIFE
For many women like Karen and Theresa, friends are our primary partners through life. Some even rank them above their husbands. It’s our friends who move us out of bad relationships, into new adventures, through marriages, births and sometimes even death and illnesses. The silver lining in the dark cloud of Theresa’s brush with cancer was Karen and her iron-clad friendship.
Theresa is actually surprised by how well they got along. “We have quite different personalities, but I guess we complement each other and that’s why we’ve been friends for so long. The thing I admire about Karen is that she’s very true to herself. She’s like ‘This is me. Whether you like it or not, too bad.’ I’m more introverted,” she says.
Karen, meanwhile, admires her friend’s resolve. “Theresa can look back on hardship and say ‘Yes, that happened but it’s alright’. She has a personality from a completely different era. People like to say they’ll do things – write a book, run 50 runs in a year, bake a ridiculously elaborate cake – but Theresa will actually do those things.”
Some of a woman’s foundational relationships through life are probably with her girlfriends, but, as Karen says, there’s often no meaningful way to recognise the fundamental roles that women play for each other.
“A woman would know how another woman feels – about love, children, work, their bodies – and a friendship that is based on such an understanding, coupled with mutual respect, is probably one of the best things any woman could ever have,” says Karen. “Personally, I think every woman needs a Theresa in their life!”
Why Do Women Need Friends?
“As females there are certain life experiences we go though, and various physical and emotional needs that just require another woman who can relate to them,” explains US-based friendship coach and sociologist Dr Jan Yager. Friendships also give us a sense of connection and relatability, adds clinical psychologist Samantha Clarke, which have been identified as fundamental for well-being. Here are some other reasons why friends are the key to a healthy life:
Being socially connected maintains your brain
Neuroscience research has shown that people with large social networks have a lower risk of developing dementia, while loneliness was associated with more than double the risk of developing late-life memory loss.
Good friends may even help us lose more weight
As social creatures, our tendency is to mimic the actions of those around us. Research shows we subconsciously mirror our friends’ eating habits and their exercise patterns. This makes it more likely that we’ll eat healthily and exercise more when our friends do.
Social relationships have long-term health benefits
Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA) found that having strong social bonds throughout life influences our wellbeing, and reduces health risks such as heart disease, stroke and cancer.
Having reliable friends means you’ll live longer
People with strong social connections have an increased likelihood of survival compared to those with weaker social relationships. The converse is also true. Social isolation is very bad for your health, and can take years off your life expectancy.
TEXT: NATALYA MOLOK & ELLIE JACOBS/BAUERSYNDICATION.COM.AU / ART DIRECTION: CHRISTINA LIM / PHOTOS: DARREN CHANG/SPHM, ASSISTED BY SHERMAN SEE-THO / HAIR: ALIKA WARUPPTI/SALON KATTO USING REDKEN PROFESSIONAL / MAKEUP: AUDREY WEE