Pity the woman whose memory loss meant she woke up thinking she was a teenager again. But isn’t that what happens to us all, every morning, for a few precious seconds?
A woman in Manchester went to sleep aged 32 and woke up aged 15. She did. Naomi Jacobs has written a book, Forgotten Girl, about the time she went to bed – her final exams for a psychology degree approaching; in the middle of a break-up with the father of her son; worrying about the success of her business – and in the night was struck with transient global amnesia (TGA), a form of memory loss brought on by stress. She woke up believing she was a teenager – and I can imagine it completely. That 20 seconds when you’re neither sleeping nor awake, and you’re not a person yet, and your bed is the size of France. The people you meet there, funny little guys, who walk through ceilings and tell you very important secrets you forget in daylight, all of this. It curdles into morning and you are wearing a Pixies T-shirt that just covers your arse and despite everything it feels 17 years ago and who the hell is that little boy wanting breakfast.
But doesn’t something similar happen to most of us, most days? There should be a many-syllabled German word for it, the feeling that you are a child in an adult’s sagging skin. Walking around Topshop on an air-conditioned afternoon, I hold dresses up to the mirror and wonder: “Is this what a mother would wear?” Is this the lunch of a 34-year-old? Should I have an opinion on Europe? I forget, how do you be a person like me?
To feel 15 inside and to wake up old – to look down at your feet, feet like badly carved hams; to stand and ache, your shoulders clicking in time to the alarm from a mobile phone the size of a credit card – would hurt more than all the body-swap romcoms put together. Like a prince trapped in the body of a frog, cursed by witches, you would close your eyes and hope the bedroom would stop being beige and your mouth stop tasting of pubs.
If the 34-year-old me woke up as a 15-year-old, some of the changes would delight me. I don’t care what people think of me any more = good / They don’t think anything of me = bad. I haven’t fulfilled my dreams = bad / I have an imposing bosom = good. The world is ending = bad / You can carry your whole CD collection on your phone = good. But the shock for that 15 year old would come with my quiet normalness. At what point did I just… give in to life? It’s as if I went to sleep 15 and woke up 34.
Even as a 34-year-old I feel some latent guilt at the safety of the choices I can’t remember making. I settled down. Fifteen-year-old me, suspended from school for having pink hair, waiting angrily for something to rebel against, would have our head in her hands to see that now we’re, well, just some mum. At the sight of us today pushing a buggy down Lovers Walk to the big Tesco, at the sight of our comfortable shoes and handbag of Ella’s Kitchen pouches. All I have left is not being officially married and occasionally crossing the road before the green man appears. It’s embarrassing. Being so predictable.
If I woke up as a 15-year-old, I like to think I would pluck my eyebrows to nothing and stake my claim on a flaccid life, a train ticket, a rousing speech. More likely, though, I’d get the bus to Topshop and wonder: “Is this what a mother would wear?”
Part of me thinks that we always wake up 15 years old. That transient global amnesia has much in common with a casual dream, when we become something else to protect us from real life. And in those 20 seconds, as the furniture takes shape and we dissolve into wakefulness, we rearrange ourselves into the people we’re meant to have become. We quickly remember how to walk in these bodies. We quickly remember how to act like we’re old.
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