“Nothing is more dangerous to reason than the flights of the imagination” – David Hume.
I have a very vivid imagination. I used it as a child to disappear into stories and books. I loved reading, because it meant I could switch off reality and enter another world. I trained myself to be able to pick up a book and enter its world in the words within seconds of reading the first page. That skill came back to bite me. My imagination became too quick for me to control. When I was ten, I read a Tess Gerritsen novel. The first scene was violent, graphic and too much for me. My imagination kicked in instantly and uncontrollably, recreating the scene extremely accurately in my head. It caused an enormous panic attack and for several years after that I refused to read anything even remotely disturbing, for fear that I might once again fall victim to my own imagination.
I used to create worlds for myself. I gave my imagination free rein to put whatever it wanted in there. I found that I didn’t have to think too hard to come up with a story of my own; I could concentrate on being whoever I wanted to be and my imagination would fill in the blanks. I piloted spaceships through galaxies, visited alien planets, magical worlds, wielded swords, galloped through forests and wore the most amazing outfits. These little fantasies started to escape into my everyday life. Instead of completing my maths homework, I was solving a code to save the world. I wasn’t riding a scruffy pony in a manege at a riding school, I was concluding my Olympic dressage test with a perfect passage. My entire life became a fantasy because I was bored with the mundane.
Eventually, I stopped pretending that I was someone else. I started to be me. It wasn’t a conscious decision; I just couldn’t be bothered to think up another world when I could just watch a film and have it all laid out for me. My imagination didn’t die, though. It lay dormant at the back of my mind, waiting.
In October 2004, when I was nine, the Big Event happened. I woke up in the middle of the night with a stomach ache, my mother gave me some Calpol, I went to the toilet, I threw up. It was all my imagination needed. In my mind, throwing up was the worst thing that could have happened to me. I hated the feeling of being out of control; throwing up represented a loss of control. My imagination seized the opportunity to start pointing out to me all the things that could cause me to throw up. I shouldn’t take medicine, because it would make me throw up. I shouldn’t wake up in the middle of the night, because that meant I would throw up. I shouldn’t go to the toilet- wait, that’s not practical, alright you can’t go to the toilet on your own because you might throw up.
I was nine. I was behaving like a baby. It took six months before I could be in a bathroom on my own. To this day, the toilet lid must be down if I am in the bathroom and not using it. I stayed up later and later so I would be tired enough to sleep through the night. I still have issues with taking medication. The last time I had to take liquid medicine, it took two and a half hours before I could psych myself up to taking one spoonful (I was fourteen).
Eventually, it seemed like it had all petered out. I was being normal again, walking to and from school by myself, going places, visiting friends.
Then, in early 2006, when I was ten, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. I understood that it was serious, but it was treatable. She was going to be fine. She underwent chemotherapy…and reacted. Badly. Chemo made her throw up almost uncontrollably. Within days of this being established, I was a nervous wreck. Medicine makes you sick. I then realised that my grandmother had had breast cancer, Mum had had breast cancer and, oh my God, I was going to get breast cancer. That would mean chemotherapy, which meant I would throw up. And I didn’t know when cancer would strike. All I knew was that it was affecting each generation at a progressively younger age. Which meant that I could get it in my twenties, if my maths was correct (it probably wasn’t, it was Apocalyptic Maths; always exaggerated).
My imagination snatched up the snowball of fear and rolled it straight down the hill of insanity. I jumped from ‘medicine might make you sick’ to ‘anything and everything could make you sick’. It was ten times worse if I was actually ill, even though I never threw up, the fear was that much less controllable because the threat was that much closer. I became afraid of everything. I stopped going out because of the fear that I might throw up and not be at home to deal with it. I refused to go anywhere without my parents, in case I threw up and they weren’t around to help me. Even on days when I felt a little bit better, I refused to leave the house because my imagination would kick in. Things like ‘You feel fine now, but what if you were suddenly to throw up when you reach that building?’ ‘What if you saw something that made you throw up?’ ‘What if you caught a bug off someone and you threw up?’ I failed to recognise that what I thought were symptoms of me being about to throw up were actually symptoms of me having a panic attack. If ever there was a bug going around school, I was terrified. I would hold my breath around anyone who might be sick. I would leave rooms if someone wasn’t feeling well. I became the loner who sat in the library at school and didn’t talk to anyone. At home, I stayed in my room and distracted myself from the ever present fear by reading or surfing the internet for hours.
The stress of trying to put a normal face on while distancing myself from everything that excited my rampaging imagination was exhausting. I began to feel ill all the time. A permanent feeling of unease surrounded me. Needless to say, the ever present nausea did not help my feelings of panic. I started to dread being bored, because that meant that my imagination would take over and start feeding me terrifying thoughts. I slept with one hand on a book and the other on my bedroom light in case I woke up. I stopped doing my schoolwork because if I finished all my homework in the evenings, I would have nothing to do and my imagination would take over.
I would like to stop and say that if any of my teachers ever end up reading this: I’m sorry. I was not a lazy child. I didn’t mean to annoy you by failing to hand in any work that was set, ever. I was genuinely too frightened to do it, and too scared to think rationally about the fact that I was not doing anything because of the fear that I might inadvertently cause something bad to happen to myself if I wrote that essay. If you follow that.
I believed that bad things and good things happened to people in equal amounts. If I was good and did all the things I was supposed to do (homework, music practice, seeing friends), something bad would happen to me. If I was bad (upsetting my parents, not doing my homework, being lazy), I could control what bad things happened to me (being yelled at, arguing, feeling lonely) and the bad thing that was worst of all (throwing up) wouldn’t happen. Which was a good thing, so my quota of good things and bad things was always equal.
I had ‘safe’ numbers. Four was safe. Eight was safe. Sixteen was safe. Three was definitely not. Or nine. Even numbers were better than odd numbers, but only when the numbers weren’t too high, because then all the numbers became bad.
I didn’t understand why I felt like this. I had been a perfectly normal child. In fact, I was one of those children that everyone secretly hates, because I did everything. I was top of the class (I have the certificate), I played sports, I took part in two extra-curricular activities every day, weekends included. And overnight, that changed. No one noticed anything, because I moved to another county for Year 6 (my mother’s job) and no one knew me. My mother’s illness took up most of my family life for the next year and a half; it was only to be expected that I became a little subdued. Also, I became damn good at hiding everything. I put my earlier training into practice and ‘became’ a healthy person.
Unfortunately, the world I had so carefully built for myself came crashing down in Year 11. GCSE year. I had been getting worse and worse at completing homework and revision just wasn’t happening. I wanted to revise, I really did, but every time I opened a book I was engulfed by panic. The only thing that calmed me down was to put the revision away and distract myself with a film. As my exams drew nearer, the panic grew more and more uncontrollable. I had still never heard of panic disorder, and I thought I was just an awful person with no self-control. I didn’t want to tell anyone about it in case they dismissed it, or worse, confirmed that I was a horrible person. The majority of my time during the summer term of Year 11 was spent in the sick room because I thought I was going to be sick. I started throwing tantrums and refusing to go to school. If ever something in lessons was difficult to understand, I broke down in tears. My emotional defences and ability to be rational about things were completely worn down. I had spent so long thinking irrationally that I had no energy left over to deal with problems that weren’t related to panicking and the only thing I could do was cry.
My imagination had taken over my life. It was an unstoppable, uncontrollable force that manifested itself as a deceptively quiet voice in the back of my mind that pointed out all the things that could go wrong in my life. I think the imagination is linked to the fight-or-flight response; if we had no ability to imagine the consequences of danger, we wouldn’t react to potential dangers and the fight-or-flight response wouldn’t exist.
I agree with Hume’s quote all the way at the top of the page. My ability to be rational and therefore normal was bulldozed by my imagination. It swept sense out of the window and held me prisoner for six years. I couldn’t even tell anyone about my fears because my imagination had me convinced that I would throw up if I told someone because I would be tempting fate.
I’m not saying that imagination is bad. I’m saying that it has the potential to get out of control, and that is something that more people should be aware of. Did you know that the David Hume quote is the closest I could find to a negative imagination quote? Too much of anything can poison you, and with something as powerful and unique as the imagination, it only takes a tiny dose of fear to set it on the wrong path.
If you read this far, congratulations! Have a cup of tea to restore your strength! I will be back with something a little more lighthearted (I hope!).