At first glance she seemed like any other ordinary university student - tall, slim, a slightly harassed look on her face … and, of course, the requisite stack of books and CDs that goes with being a Music student. Her frame was slight, but her height made her look petite rather than anorexic. She wore black trousers that looked tailored, and a baggy jumper that must have belonged to someone else. Her hair was black, short, cut into a kind of bob, and her makeup was simple, almost invisible. As she walked forwards and shook my hand, I got the impression that she was incredibly nervous, yet hiding it behind a mask of bravado. Nobody, on first glance, who clock her fear and timidity. If anything, they would possibly see her as any other woman making her way through a degree.
She sat on the chair opposite me and introduced herself as Monica. Without saying anything else, I knew what her next statement was going to be. Her eyes had a haunted look about them, as if she hadn't slept for weeks, and her hands were shaking as she put everything down on the floor. I looked down at the books, and my heart contracted slightly as I read the top title. The Church of Scientology was embossed in gold letters down the spine of the book, as if to proclaim itself to the world.
"Are you learning about this in Music?" I asked, casually. She looked in the direction of the book, picked it up, and laughed. "No." she replied. "I've never heard of it except in passing, so I thought I'd read up on it and see what it's all about. I'm not joining any cults or anything, I'm just a regular girl reading books that interest me."
My heart released, and my breath flowed more easily. "So you just have a passing interest in this?" I asked, hoping that the answer would be yes. It was. She looked at me strangely for a few seconds, as if to ask herself what on earth I was doing asking her about her religious interests, and then the moment passed.
"So, Monica, what are you here to talk about?"
"I need to talk about my depression and insomnia." she answered, her eyes turning more businesslike. In that instant, I saw the Monica that the world saw - cold, clinical, closed off from society, introverted … almost as if she was hiding from any pain the world could give her. "You see, I'm having trouble sleeping to the point where I have to write stories just to get to sleep. As in physically write them on my laptop … sometimes I write until 4 in the morning, other times I just write a few sentences and then sleep."
"I see. Is this affecting your relationship - I'm assuming you're in one from the ring on your left hand?"
"Yes - I'm engaged - and yes, it's affecting it pretty badly. My partner doesn't really understand why I can't sleep at night when I pretty much fall asleep all day in lectures and then say I'm tired. I have to admit, it doesn't really make sense to me either, but I guess that's just how it is."
"Have you spoken to anyone about it?"
"No, not really. I've learned from experiences with people in my age group throughout my education that if you admit anything to anyone, they'll use it as a weapon against you later on. I just figured it's safer to hide all emotion and feeling from anyone except my partner."
"Why have you been taught that? Who taught you? How were you taught?" I asked, my interest quickened by her words.
"Why? Because people are just horrible like that sometimes. Who? Just about every woman I've ever come into contact with, and some boys as well. How? Well, I used to confide my feelings to them and then they'd spread it around the school, or shout it out there and then, or sometimes they'd write it all over the Internet and tell their friends, who would then tell everyone else. I eventually became a laughing stock at my school to the point where any boy who went out with me was ridiculed extensively and usually broke up with me after a few months, if I was lucky. They also tried to test my strength by bullying me - you know how girls do, by writing horrible things about me over Facebook or texting me horrible messages, or telling my mum that I'd been saying things that everyone knew I hadn't. It got too much and when I was 15 and 17 I had nervous breakdowns and had to go home and rest up for a bit. My teachers did worry about me, but it never really stopped the bullying."
As I listened to her words, I saw a change come over her face. She was genuinely broken over the fact that she had been hurt in so many ways - and for so long. I asked her how long it had gone on for, and she told me that it had been going on for 7 years. She admitted that she hadn't always been the nicest of people in return, but stipulated that in hindsight, she was only ever getting the kinds of comments that she deserved. I asked her for some examples, which she reluctantly gave.
"They called me a bitch, a skanky whore, a tramp … all kinds of names really. One girl in particular, Helen, told me I couldn't really say I was perfect when I was just as bad as the person I was asking after. The girl in question had missed a lecture and I was checking she was OK, and Helen decided to give me half a page of abuse about how I wasn't perfect, how I'd end up with nobody, how she didn't think I was worth the time of day … in the end I just told her to get to know me properly before judging me. But mostly it was bitch, whore, tramp, slut, frigid … petty names that somehow brought my self-esteem down and then sent it through the floor."
I saw tears forming in her eyes as the memories of the taunts and comments came flooding back to her. I couldn't believe that she'd managed to come through it and still have a small smile on her face.
In that instant, I knew that my time with Monica would be valuable and precious. What I didn't know was how little time I would have with her, nor how that time would make me come to realise that she was a truly special being tormented by her past and unable to cope with it.
This is Monica's story, as I knew it and as she told me.