Imaginary Friends For Grownups

I only ever had one imaginary friend, but she was awesome. Full disclosure: I didn't get my imaginary friend until I was way too old for it to be socially acceptable. Granted, there's no real age where it's socially acceptable to have an imaginary friend, but I was WAY too old. I was 14 and about to start high school. "Lizzie Maguire" was on television (I was too old to be watching that, too, and yet); I liked how she had a little cartoon who thought things out for her and gave her advice. Also, I thought it would adorably quirky to have an imaginary friend. I thought that telling people I had an imaginary friend would make them think I was cute. I'm very lucky that, of all the people I told, no one acted on what must have been a very visceral impulse to call some kind of authority.

My imaginary friend was a "pixie" named Zuzu. This was 2004, and pixies (not just the Kim Deal kind) were huge. Zuzu had pink hair, wore shiny black pants, and had a pixie haircut (because she was a pixie, so, obviously). At the time, I was very into the Sears Rockstar Look. This is still a look, and 14-year-old girls still really like it, which I know because I am a middle school teacher, and because I go to Sears a lot. The Sears Rockstar Look involves a lot of pink-and-black, dark-colored glitter, silver studs fastened onto items of clothing with reckless abandon, and images of musical instruments rendered in screen-printed metallics. Think about what Avril Lavigne wore at the beginning of her career, dial it up about ten notches, remove any semblance of class, and you come pretty close to this look. Zuzu exemplified everything about the Sears Rockstar Look. She even smelled like "smoky bubblegum" (an actual scent I asked for for my birthday once), and had PIERCINGS.

Children who are the appropriate age for imaginary friends have them because they are bored and uncommonly creative. Psychologists say that about 37 percent of children create invisible friends, and that having an invisible friend is really just a sign of advanced imagination. Some kids create a friend to help them cope with difficulty or trauma, but they don't tend to be lonely or troubled (as I thought they'd be, because I am a person who always assumes the worst when psychological anomalies present themselves). 

I didn't know that I invented Zuzu to cope with trauma. Initially, I don't think I did. But I was a bipolar teenager, prone to nasty middle-of-the-night  panic attacks, and I didn't know what to do when they hit. I got under all my covers and sobbed dramatically, but that always did little to numb the pain of it all. (Who knows what triggered me back then. I wish I had written more about my adolescent panic attacks in my diary, because I can't remember the root cause of any of them. I imagine, though, that they were not unlike the panic attacks I experience as an adult: rooted in a deep sense that I am inherently flawed, broken, and bad.) I felt very stuck in those moments, unsure of how to pick myself up.

At some point, while panicking alone, I decided to talk to Zuzu. It's not like I really SAW this little person sitting on the soap dispenser while I reenacted the Rita Wilson chick movie scene from “Sleepless In Seattle.” I think I was in problem-solving mode. I thought, “I wish there was someone I could talk to.” And then I thought, “This is why you have an imaginary friend, right?” 

I’m not going to pretend that talking to a (tiny) person who was clearly not real pulled me out of a crippling depression. It’s not like I lost my mind enough to believe for a moment that I was talking to an actual PERSON. Adults struggle with suspension of disbelief, which is why therapy is so expensive. But I’ll be honest: talking to Zuzu didn’t hurt.

Last week, I hit my own emotional rock bottom. I am always so surprised when this happens to me as an adult. I’ve spent almost 30 years trying to become exactly the kind of person I want to be. I have autonomy these days: I don’t have to go to Republican dinner parties, or take calculus, or eat not cookies for dinner if I don’t want to. (Read: I’m an adult and I regularly eat cookies for dinner, because that is what being an adult MEANS.) I am in functional, healthy relationships; I do work I enjoy and believe in; sometimes people pay me to tell jokes on stage; I can draw pictures of lesbians having sex to critical acclaim. All of these things should ensure that I don’t hit rock bottom. I mean, I guess I could hit rock bottom if someone very close to me died, or if I got terminally ill. But those things didn’t happen to me. So shouldn’t I have been OK?

This is a dangerous mindset. When you’re sad and you start to believe that you haven’t got the right to feel sad, you end up feeling worse. The general malaise spirals into a self-hate avalanche. You start to talk to yourself, quietly in your own head: “What are you DOING? Why are you SAD? Stop being sad. You’re selfish. You’re greedy. No one would love you if they knew how much you sat around being SAD. You’re a bad person for this. Pick yourself up! Get over this sadness! WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?” And then you eat Dominos in your bed alone and feel worse about yourself. And then there are CRUMBS in your bed, so good luck sleeping. 

A lot of adults I know engage in this kind of self-talk. What’s so bizarre about it is that it really does take on this other-person-talking-to-you-like-a-jerk tone. I know a lot of adults who literally say to themselves, “You have got to stop this behavior because if you don’t you’re going to fail and everyone is going to see you fail and you don’t want that, do you?” This voice has its own timbre and register, and you think it’s there to help you and protect you from yourself. Really, it’s just a bully. Smart bullies know how to make you think they’re abusing you because you need to be abused in order to keep yourself in check. What I’m trying to say is that most adults I know spend a great deal of time engaging with an imaginary frenemy.

My friend Willa (not imaginary) came over for lunch on Monday afternoon. I didn’t want to have Willa over for lunch, because I was an emotional train wreck and I didn’t feel like I could be “on”* for her. But I also didn’t want to cancel, because I didn’t want Willa to be mad at me, so I reluctantly heated up some soup. It was lucky I had so much leftover soup; I didn’t feel like cooking.

Willa showed up and sat down at my kitchen table, and before I even had a chance to try to pretend to be “on,” she started to cry. She was going through a difficult time, she said. She started to talk about how she had fallen back into thought patterns she had worked for years to expunge; she told me about how much she was blaming herself, and how much guilt she was feeling.

Willa is an insanely special person. Everyone who meets her falls in love with her, pretty much immediately. She makes these off-the-cuff comments that come from left of left field; everything she touches is imbued with surprise. She wears bohemian cotton dance pants and cowboy skirts and high-waisted men’s shorts from the thrift shop. She reads James Baldwin and quotes him in everyday conversation, but not in a pretentious way. She listens to the radio constantly and sends e-mails with the pieces she loves the most imbedded in the message section. Time floats away around Willa; I have truly not met anyone like her. When I heard her talk about the mean stories she was telling herself about herself, I felt practically defensive. I wanted to grab her by the shoulders and make her understand how totally wonderful she was. (That was only partially because Willa has great shoulders, and I wanted to touch them.) I wanted to make her understand that everyone experiences moments of sadness, and that this one would pass, and that nothing about what was going on right now in her life was her fault. That it was OK to be miserable for a little while. That if something needed to change, it could change; but that the change did not mandate her own self-ridicule. 

It is so much easier to say all that to another person.

After Willa left, I remembered Zuzu, and how I had “talked to her" during my high school panic attacks. I guess it was easier for me to imagine the nice things I needed to hear for myself when I was pretending someone else was saying them. Or, it was easier to think of the things I needed to hear when I could think of myself as this separate person; one I wasn’t stuck inside. From the outside, looking in at sad, sad, grown-up Sophie, I could find the words: “It’s OK that you’re feeling this way right now. Sometimes you just have to go through sadness. When you’re ready, let’s figure out what we can do to make you feel better. But take your time."

I couldn’t say it to myself, but I could get Zuzu to say it. That was her job. After the bottom-scraping period passed (because they pass; they always pass), I pictured my decade-and-change-old invisible friend and said, “Hey. Let’s get you a new outfit. A Respectable A-Line Dress is the new Black And Pink."




* "On”: “Hiii-eeeee! Oh my god it is SO good to see you. Look at that dress! THAT IS SOME DRESS! What?! WHAT EVEN IS THAT DRESS?! You look like if a Pre-“Heathers” Winona Rider morphed with a Pre-Carwreck Princess Diana. Very nineties, but in all the right ways."