Have you ever contemplated the many wonderful qualities of trees? They cradle generations of baby birds and they let us breathe. They can withstand hurricane winds, floods, and freezing winters. They even grow out of thin air—poetry aside, they absorb carbon dioxide and turn that carbon into their bark and limbs and leaves. They are even strong enough to shelter a scared little girl.
As a child, I often found refuge in trees. When I was eight and we moved to the big city, I was overwhelmed, had no friends, and was bored stiff by academics that were a year to two behind my last school, so I retreated into trees.
Our little town abutted the Adirondack mountains, and our family had gone to the woods often and easily. The trees embodied many happy family memories and I felt at home among them.
So when we moved away, and nothing felt like home anymore, trees became my refuge. In the house we moved to, a prickly, stunted pine grew against the front wall of the house, dense with gnarled branches, and I loved it. I spent many afternoons curled up in its scratchy limbs, watching the world go on around me, unable to be seen, or so I imagined. If my mom knew where I was, she afforded me the illusion of being undiscovered.
When I moved into my college dorm freshman year, one of the first things I did when I got some time to myself was to walk straight out the dorm building and up the side of the mountain—my selection of a college at the base of a mountain was no coincidence—to find my next tree guardian.
I hid in other places too, and in other ways, but trees were always the best. Except for one place. My imagination.
Soon after we moved to the city, I started making up stories in my mind. Over the years, these became so elaborate and familiar that they were often more real to me than real life.
I wasn’t interested in fantasies that had anything to do with my real life, a life I wanted to distance myself from. My stories were mostly alternate reality scenarios, as in, “what if this historical event had happened differently, how would that have played out?” What fiction writers now call “world building.”
Often I played no role in the stories, with everyone from the protagonist to supporting characters being entirely fictional, and the best ones would provide months or years of entertainment, spinning elaborate webs of internally-consistent narratives for no one’s amusement but my own.
The few times I have shared this with someone, they invariably ask me why I don’t turn my stories into books. For one very simple reason: they are incredibly boring.
Mind-numbingly dull, they were exactly what I needed. I would play the same scenes over and over, often with little or no variation, dozens of times, watching one character explaining their thoughts or actions to another character, or describing what they were feeling, or explaining why someone else did or said what they just did or said. Over and over and over.
In these worlds of flat characters with no hidden motivations, who always acted predictably, social situations were for once not a mystery and I felt at ease in these worlds. It was a kind of personalized tutoring in social skills, except that real people aren’t that straightforward, so that particular value was limited.
Yet whenever I would self-reflectively gawp in amazement at the amount of time I was willing to live in worlds that don’t exist, with people who don’t exist, that is how I justified it so that I could once again ignore how I would slip further and further into them as I struggled with depression as an adult, how I would spend hours and weeks and months during my worst depressive periods lying in bed, living in my head, hiding like I did as a girl, only without the tree.
And my imagination was infinitely more alluring than a tree—I didn’t need to go anywhere to get there.
I have known for a while now that these imaginary worlds are simply a more refined and subtle form of the hiding behaviors I exhibited as a child, which went well beyond trees to cardboard boxes in my bedroom, crawling under tables at school, walking home along less-used streets and abandoned alleys as a teenager, and shutting myself up in my own house as an adult.
During my one traumatic foray into the cliched madness of everyone’s-happy-all-the-time (sing it with me!) hell that was Girl Scout summer camp, I took a game of hide and seek too far and hid so expertly in my bunk that the counselors called out a search party for me in earnest and I still kept them on pins and needles until the fear in their voices was stronger than mine.
Although these imaginary worlds have provided a sort of buffer zone that has allowed me to get by in the world I struggled to make sense out of, they are also holding me back.
From the ability to be happy. I’ve been noticing that even though I have thought of them as a refuge, and even though I crave that refuge sometimes, I don’t actually feel better when I spend time there. Rather, it reinforces the feeling that everything is blasé, so that I actually can’t feel much happiness or excitement, even when good things happen. And when I’m listing even a little toward depression, they feed the depression and trap me there, coaxing me to stay to finish a narrative that has no ending, all the while making me feel worse and worse.
After visiting my childhood home and having a good cry (okay, several) and a lot of good talks with people I trust, the wounds of that move, and all I lost, are finally healing. And with that healing, I no longer feel the need for the coping mechanisms those wounds created.
I am ready to stop hiding.
This is scary and new and uncomfortable and intriguing and strange and hopeful all at once.
When I first told my priest and spiritual father about my stories several years ago, his gut reaction was essentially: “Wow, if only you spent that much time and effort in prayer.”
That has stuck with me, and, well, what if I did spend that much time and effort in prayer? I don’t have to become a nun to spend my life in prayer, and he wasn’t suggesting that. Rather, St. Paul exhorts all Christians to “pray without ceasing.”
This has been growing in me over the last couple of years, and although it is still in the very early stages, it is rooted enough that I have tasted a glimmer of what more could feel like and I want that to expand.
The wonderful and seductive thing about my worlds is that no matter where I am, or what I am doing, my imagination is just a thought away. But so is prayer.
The wonderful and enticing thing about prayer is that it connects me more deeply with the real world, not dreamed-up scenarios. It connects me with the Source of Life, not a time suck. It develops in me the capacity for unlimited joy and love, not constrained by my highly developed, but inherently limited, imagination.
To be clear, I am not in any way suggesting that imagination is a bad thing, nor was my priest suggesting that, nor does the Orthodox Church. The problem is in using my God given imagination as a way to escape from the life He gave me.
I recently Declared My Independence from the fears, doubts, shame, hurts, defense mechanisms, and now the imaginary worlds, that have kept me mired in the mud for so long. This is my Second Chance Life, and I want to nurture what is good in it so that it may grow, and I may really, truly, love my life.
Every few years since I was a teenager, I’ve tried to stop myself from retreating into my imagination by force of willpower, and it has never had more than moderate, temporary success. This time feels fundamentally different, however. Since the wounds that caused this behavior have finally healed, I don’t feel the need for it anymore.
Still, it will take time to weaken the neural pathways that bypass conscious thought to connect me (seemingly-)automatically to my stories when I am uncomfortable, like a well worn track in the woods (to the gingerbread cottage of lies).
But this time when I go down that path, I won’t beat myself up emotionally over it, I’ll just jump back on the right path, reinforcing new neural pathways to connect me with the Source of Life.
So far it has been about two weeks, and I’ve noticed my thoughts going to those worlds plenty of times, but with little interest and no real conviction. When I notice those thoughts, instead of trying to get rid of them, which I know from experience doesn’t work, instead I focus on a beautiful prayer or psalm line that floods my heart with peace.
That is something I have no desire to escape from.