A little known phenomena… You can be old when you are young. I was young. Not yet 21. Third year University. Survived the crashing onset of depression come out of the blue. Arriving one day a great cloak of stillness. Leaching color from daylight. Literally one hour the sun shone, the next it poured its guts out and everything was irrevocably altered. Survived by a series of bad fixes and defaults. Not the same person. Possibly destroyed still standing. I took a room in the university town dorms because it felt like I might not die if I could keep pretending I was coping.
Standing on a chair in the small room I inspected the early blemish of cellulite on my thin thighs. I imagined swinging from tied bedsheets. It felt like a relief. The air was hot because the university paid the heat so everyone cranked it up. You could dry socks and bras on the radiators and they’d smell clean and comforting. We’d go out in the rain and get soaked as an excuse to press them against the hot metal and see steam escape from the close knit wool. Filling the room with steam.
My room had a pitch ceiling and a view of the canal. I had a double futon without its base on the floor with my childhood clown duvet. I collected things from outside charity shops that people left in plastic bags. Rationalizing it was only stealing if I wasn’t in need. But I lived off $10 a week which wasn’t near enough. So I needed the solace of a plastic Wendy house and a one eyed Hello Kitty very much. I made creations out of what I found. A chair from an old rocking horse. A mobile from doll parts. A desk from a broken piano stand. A kids record player that didn’t work but I could use as a nightlight.
The clothes I found were a jarring mix of 1950s green chiffon baby-doll gowns smelling of lily of the valley talcum powder and unwanted acid wash dirty jeans from 13 year old boys. Well fitting was a foreign concept. I was hollow from hardly eating and sleeping. Subsisting on almond biscuits and pouches of tobacco, my lungs defiantly strong from bicycling miles uphill. Muscles dotted my arms and my breasts had shrunk to fit the ratty girls leotards with gym badges that still smelt of competitiveness. I was a good scrounger. I had no shame to my poverty. Only an urge to smoke from my windowsill and watch the turgid water in the canal scurry downstream to a mix-tape made by someone who just wanted to get their leg over.
The girl in room 4D lived opposite. There was glass at the top of her door. Once I used my Jerry rigged chair with a sad painted horse head, to peak into her room. It was a gross invasion. She’d left clothes cartwheeled across the cheap carpet. A Chekov play. A cut Coca-Cola bottle filled with paper water blossoms. Balls of foil socks and chocolate wrappers. Purple Lurex panties on her grey radiator, twin of mine. She had black curly hair like my family does and brown eyes. She didn’t wear bras and she did wear Doc Martins and cheap paisley dresses over t-shirts. She dressed like Courtney Love right down to the violet eyeliner. Her name was Morag. I found her irresistible.
When we weren’t at university we hung out in the communal kitchen or bathrooms playing house. She liked to cook. I had always known how to iron like a professional. She’d bake strange cakes, drizzled in ripe fruit that upset your stomach. We’d cram them in and wash them down with strong tea. I’ve never drink tea with milk before or afterwards but I did with her. I’d iron her clothes until they looked new and she’d sit on them to muss them up. “Courtney wears her clothes creased,” she’d observe.
Fresh from high school, the most she’d done was steal a lip-gloss from Woolworths and let a boy with a black eye who she felt sorry for, french kiss her. She said his tongue tasted of fish and felt like a live eel. When she menstruated even her blood smelt clean. She’d got B’s throughout school and above average attendance. Her babysitter hadn’t anally raped her. Her mother didn’t make her kneel on broken glass, she didn’t come from a long line of emotional derelicts. She was as normal as flowers in springtime. She hadn’t even heard of BDSM or American Psycho. She didn’t like the feeling of hurting herself with something sharp.
I could have taught her to blow a perfect smoke ring. Used the old trick or massaging her aching feet as a prelude to something. Eaten hash browns with her at the local cinema watching Betty Blue. I could have told her what it was like when four boys under 12 asked me to enact scenes they’d seen in their fathers porno msg. And what they did when I said no. But I wanted to shield her, the girl in room 4D from being old when you’re not.
When we lay on her bed after class and I’d finished reading Prince Caspian, she held my hand shyly and asked me what it was like growing up in the city. Did you really climb out of your window and go clubbing? Her eyes were wide and her mouth was full like a velvet sofa. I couldn’t tell her why I burned so hot so young. What horrors I ran from. How much I knew long before anyone should. I didn’t want to dirty her future with my past. Yeah, what about that? Naughty teenager! I made light of what wasn’t light. How can a kid not yet 21 have a past long enough and airless enough to be dragged down by it? Yet many do. Even as they smile as they hand out your McOrder and walk home in the rain, to save bus-fare. How they may feel dirty, for not being whole, or the bluntness of life may be too sharp to bear waking up to.
I put her clothes to rinse with the tenderness of a good mother. I slept in my own room. Not yet 21. I felt old enough to have birthed her. I was a lesbian who still slept with boys to keep from losing hope. She married her first a year after graduation. I didn’t go to the wedding. I felt by then I’d been alive three lifetimes. Being near her made me notice my stink; day old fish. She was unblemished and kind like a child. I expect she looked up to me. Thought me ‘worldly’ though she didn’t understand the irony. Some scars are invisible. Sometimes you make chairs out of rocking horses because you’re trying to keep busy from dying. It was all-wrong to feel old when the rest of the world would have seen my baby-fat-face and declared me not-much-beyond-child. Inside I was turning 100. Her innocence a shocking reminder of how trauma ages you, even before you have the words.
(Sometimes I watch young women now, laughing. All I remember was wading through dark water. Clinical depression usually strikes around 18 although the signs are there long before and trauma acts as an ON switch. The first response is often secrecy. Like an eating disorder, teens and young-adults bury themselves in denial and sometimes drugs, to get away from the shame of not understanding why they woke up one day irrevocably changed. It’s not true medication always helps, or that therapy does. Clinical depression is like a raging hormone, it doesn’t let up just because you sip chamomile or jog 5 miles daily. There are things that help and things that hinder, but what we as a society are yet to fathom, is depression is like a cancer. Some people get it. Some people do not. It’s not because of something you did and it isn’t a personality flaw. I spent my life running from it, denying it, working-around-it. High-functioning or not, the shame others instill in you, including family, creates a life-long scar. The next time someone irritates you because they’re not happy, consider this before you tell them to ‘snap out of it’ or quietly condemn them for not being stronger. Would anyone choose to feel 100 at 20? )