April 21, 2024

In early 2006, when I was 17, I was admitted to a well-known psychiatric hospital in the United Kingdom, an institution most associated with models and soccer players. I wasn’t one. I was a schoolgirl who suffered from either a brain chemical imbalance or a series of poor life decisions, depending on who you asked. For two months I had to live in a small pink room with fixed furniture and attend every therapy offered. I reviewed my AS levels in the common room while people watched television or cried over dinner.

On my first day there, snow fell furiously across Derbyshire. My parents live on a big hill in a small town, and were stuck in snow. Visiting hours have reversed. I resigned myself to two hours of self-pity, listening to the buzz of reunions from the surrounding rooms. But 30 minutes before the doors closed, in walked my friend, Ruth, who had just gotten her driver’s license the previous month. She carried a week’s supply of the worst gossip magazines of the late noughties and a craft kit for homemade cards. I would not spend the evening alone.

I first met Rut when we were nine years old. I was new to her school, with all the embarrassments that entailed: the tight uniform, the wrong bag, the eagerness to please. Ruth had school shoes from Kickers and a healthy disregard for authority, and I thought she was the coolest person I’d ever met.

During my stay in the hospital, Ruth visited every day. Life as an inpatient was by turns dull and deeply painful. In some ways it seemed like I was stuck in childhood, always under surveillance, living according to a regime beyond my control: psychologists, mealtimes, group sessions. In others, I became an adult overnight, forced into grim self-awareness and deprived of the silliness of the sixth-form common room, Saturday jobs, nights on the town. I existed for visiting hours, when I could return to adolescence. Ruth and I watched DVDs of Sex and the city. We exchanged letters and drawings. She reported school gossip and I listened greedily, hoping for a portal to normalcy. I now think of the kilometers she drove, the winter roads, the school work that awaits her return. We were only teenagers, but I’m not sure that anyone in my life will show me such steadfast kindness again.

Teenage girls are mocked for all sorts of ailments. We learn early that our interests are fewer. Our friendships are often the stuff of satire. Even the best teen movies – Mean Girls, Lady Bird – portrays the relationships between teenage girls as full of drama, a battlefield of crossed alliances and backstabbing. There is reconciliation, but reconciliation only after a failed defection to the other side of the social valley. For the intellectual or the inept, the best to hope for is romantic salvation (10 things i hate about you, She is all that) or iconic carnage (Heathers, Carrie). Don’t get me wrong; I love these films. I dressed up as their characters for Halloween. But even as parodies, they’re nothing like what I remember of teenage friendship.

In the landscape of being a teenage girl – the strange, strange territory of your body, the mediocre boyfriends, the parents engaged in their own adult battles – my friends were the shelter. I wasn’t particularly interested in boys, other than kissing them in movie theaters and talking about them in chemistry. What interested me were the weekends with Ruth and our group of friends, watching wildly inappropriate films, looking around Manchester and buying accessories at Affleck’s Palace. We’ll pick just the right choker, lip gloss, nail polish; and though it might be bought for the gathering that night, the real fun was always in the shopping, the dressing up, the bedrooms where we could be ourselves, together, rather than the parties where we couldn’t.

The protagonist in my second novel, day oneis a teenage girl. day one unfolds in the aftermath of an act of brutality, but it is a novel defined by small love stories. There is the love between parents and children, idols and followers, pets and their owners – and the love between teenage friends. The friendship at the heart of the book carries two girls from elementary school to adulthood, through the trauma inflicted on their hometown and the global investigation that follows. One of the girls has told a catastrophic lie about her role in the attack, and it’s this friendship she returns to time and time again as her ruse begins to crumble. A lot changes in the editing of a novel: characters are merged and cut, time frames are shifted, tens of thousands of words are deleted in one fell swoop. But this friendship fully formed and remained just as it was. The book’s characters are nothing like me and Ruth, but the feeling of the friendship is: this, the person you return to, when everything else goes to shit.

It has been 18 years since I was discharged from the hospital. I left further from death than when I arrived, and with a silent resolution not to return to it, which I had the determination and good fortune to maintain. I also left with a renewed love for Ruth and the teenage friendships I returned to. It didn’t diminish either. I have a familial protection over my oldest friends, whatever missteps they make. One of my favorite songs as a child was Train’s “Drops of Jupiter”. Ruth and I sang it in our parents’ cars and shouted on the bridge: “Your best friend always stands up for you / even when I know you’re wrong!” The song is not a masterpiece – there is also a lyric that refers to soy lattes – but this line has always stuck with me. Whenever I’ve gone to Ruth with a problem – many self-made, and most trivial – she doesn’t always offer absolution, but she does offer acceptance. With a kind of medieval loyalty, she despised each of my enemies.

My other attachment to old friends is more sentimental. I’ve known and loved so many iterations of it, and I can’t separate these iterations from their final, mature outcome. When you meet someone later in life, you tend to meet them after some refinement. In the last few years I’ve been lucky enough to make a group of glorious new friends, women I love to the bone. But I will never quite know what they made. I won’t know the specific smell of their parents’ house or the haircut they had at 14. We may grow old together, but we won’t grow up together. This is why I feel a unique rage when my oldest friends are wronged. When a boss is dismissive, or a partner is unreasonable, they don’t just hurt the adult who can handle it; they also, inexplicably, hurt old, vulnerable versions of that person. They hurt a child who helped you bury your hamster, and a 12-year-old who cried when the Spice Girls released “Goodbye.”

Maintaining old friendships was not always easy. As teenagers there were so many hours to stay away. As adults, the hours are populated by work, partners, pets, children, a whole cacophony of responsibility. It’s harder to hear your friends, and easier to believe you can live without them.

Ruth and I were not always as close as we were during the evenings spent in that hospital room. We are struck by the acute and unremarkable pains of life in your 30s: the reality of aging parents, the silent wars waged in pursuit of children. But we always tried to find our way back to each other. We have walked for miles in parks across London, and talk about The Traitors and heart surgeries and nothing at all. We turned to Oslo pub tabs and stomped around Canterbury buying excess Christmas presents. In Bologna, a waiter insisted we must be a married couple, in love, for the amount of time we spent at his table. In December we traveled to Whitstable, leaving our young sons with their fathers. Ruth drove, long accustomed to ice on the roads. We are now 35 and live on the opposite side of London; there is less time than we want. We walked along the sea and picked out the house where we would live at 90, long widowed and stubbornly glamorous. Evenings will be watched Sex and the cityand terrible gossip magazines on the coffee table.

Day One by Abigail Dean (Hemlock Press, £16.99) will be published on 28 March. Buy a copy for £14.95 from guardianbookshop.com

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