My daughter has a new friend, Heather, and Julie has just invited her to the house for the first time. Huge anxiety for Julie! It is a long time since she had a friend round.
Some people who only known my daughter slightly might be a little bit surprised at her choice of friend. Julie is a seventeen-year-old grade A student, who hopes to study at university eventually; Heather has a serious learning disability, and would like to find work in catering. On the face of it, they seem an unlikely friendship. Is Julie just being kind? Can these two possibly have anything in common?
Julie is not just being kind and this is a real friendship. It is around friendships with people her own age that Julie’s disability becomes most evident. Unable to attend mainstream school, she met Heather in the learning unit where they study. Julie may look like a normal seventeen year old, but she is officially a vulnerable young person. Both girls struggle with tasks that most of their peers mastered years before: catching a bus, buying a coffee, visiting a friend, to name three examples.
Friends are very thin on the ground; attempts to keep alive old friendships have met with mixed success. It is not that her old friends mean to be unkind, but they have moved on in that way that teenagers (should) do. Julie has been ill for over three years, has been in and out of hospital, and takes heavy medication. She is not at all interested in sex, the drugs having switched that bit off for now, she dislikes vampire movies because she cannot be quite certain that they are fictional, she falls asleep by nine. She struggles to keep up with rapid conversation, cannot drink alcohol or take recreational drugs, hates loud music, and is petrified by crowds. But above all – and this is what sometimes undermines her with other teenagers – until she gets to know you, she is serious, solemn as a judge, guarded. Once she knows you she is funny, creative and generous, but her young contemporaries often move too fast to discover this.
What Julie most craves in a friendship is in short supply at this stage of life: reliability and loyalty. She is naive; she has already been taken advantage of by shrewder students, manipulated and bullied. She needs the companionship of someone who is not too demanding, who likes routine as much as she does, someone who understands that a successful 20-minute bus journey is a triumph. Enter Heather.
The visit to the house went well. The two girls were both very anxious, but when they calmed down, decided they liked it so much they would extend the visit by another half hour. The return match, to Heather’s house, has been planned for the weekend.