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The World in My Head
I use my imagination to escape
Natasha Santos

“Tasha, what did he do to you?” my aunt asks me in the middle of the night. This is the second night in a row that she has roused me from my sleep. Her eyes are bloodshot and downcast; she’s tired and guilty.

“I don’t know,” I tell her with big wide eyes and whispers. I know what she’s talking about, but I’ve been sworn to secrecy. My uncle has made me promise that I wouldn’t tell a soul what we’d been doing. “Promises are supposed to be kept,” he’d told me.

“Do you want a sip?” My aunt offers me some of the beer she’s been cradling. I take a sip; it’s sour and too cold. I don’t like it. “Now, what did he do to you,” she repeats. I guess she feels the drink has loosened me up. It hasn’t: I’m frustrated and ashamed and scared that Uncle Tony will find out I told and be mad.

“I don’t know,” I say, as I start crying. And I didn’t know, there were no words in my vocabulary to explain the way his fingers have been exploring my body for the past several weeks. I don’t know how to explain the way my body responded and how I could never help that I was often alone with him. I don’t know how to make her understand that it wasn’t really all my fault and that I’m sorry and that I will never do it again. She surely won’t listen if I tell her what’s been going on.

No One to Trust

She eventually gives up and sends me to bed. She goes back into the bedroom that she shares with Uncle Tony and I hear the bed squeaking a few minutes later.

I stay up listening to their sounds and thinking my thoughts. I can’t sleep because my head is too full of thoughts and feelings that I can’t express. There’s no one around to talk to and no one that I would trust to hold some of these feelings if there were. So I just lie there and let my imagination take over and take me out of myself. I imagine that I’m a beautiful princess and that I have to save myself from the evil witch who wants to kill me so that she can become royalty.

I imagine that I have to go on this long journey to run away from the witch to my parents who will protect me with their magical powers. I just have to follow the yellow brick road (I had just read Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz) and dodge the witch and her evil helpers. I use my wits and my powers to outsmart the witch every time.

The world that I imagine is so intricate and busy and scary and happy and wonderful that I forget that I’m on the couch in the living room with my aunt and uncle and their sounds.

A Perfect World

I first noticed my habit of transporting myself to other worlds in my mind that night at my aunt’s house. I felt special and smart that I could create these worlds in my head.

When I was younger it was all about the television shows I watched and books I read. Shows like the Power Rangers and Generation O were fuel for my imagination. I would pretend that I was one of the characters in the show and live in their worlds even after the half hour was over. Fighting the bad guys, saving the day and still making it home in time to be tucked into bed by my loving parents. I wanted those things, but they didn’t exist for me anywhere but in my mind.

I couldn’t control my mother’s behavior or my father’s absence, but I could control my mind. My characters and fantasies existed as a safe haven. This was my escape from my mother’s neglect, my uncle’s hands and my teacher’s looks of apathy or disgust. In my imagination I was strong and wise and loved by all. No one could challenge me and no one could make me less than I was with looks or disregard or slaps in the face. It was perfect.

Escaping in My Head

Later it became my escape from my foster mother, Diane. When you were being punished for some small infraction of her rules (this happened often—I was once put on punishment for a month because I forgot to brush my teeth) you would have to spend the day or days standing in the hallway.

Her kids, who were never on punishment, would often walk by and make snide comments that you couldn’t answer back to because you weren’t allowed to talk. There wasn’t much to do but stand there and think, and figure out a way to deal with the situation. Standing there for hours on end really got me into the habit of using my mind to escape.

image by YC-Art Dept

As I grew older I became more and more conscious of my imagination. By the 7th grade I had moved out of Diane’s house and into another foster home where I was alone most of the time. My foster family was never there, and I didn’t mesh well with the kids in my new school, so I didn’t have any friends.

I was using my imagination constantly as a source of entertainment and comfort. While the other kids were being mean to me and my family was being… my family, I went inside myself to get out of it.

Soon, though, people in school started to say that I mumbled to myself and that I was crazy. My mother started asking me if I saw people or heard voices. Up until that point I had thought that what I did was normal, that everyone did it and no one minded. I was wrong in a big way.

Soon psychiatrists were asking me if I heard voices or saw people, and the kids in school found more ammo to shoot at me. My mind was betraying me big time but I wasn’t ready to part with my imaginary worlds. So I didn’t stop, just toned it down. I made myself more aware of other people and tried not to mumble to myself in public.

Thinking About the Future

I’ve been thinking about it all lately, probably because I’ve just turned 18 and am trying out this new phase in my life while still making sense of my childhood. I have all these thoughts and questions about what I need to be a successful adult, or at least one that doesn’t end up on welfare with 20 kids and a drug habit.

I am worried that this habit of escaping reality could lead to bigger problems. Now I escape with my imagination, but what will I do when 10 years of adulthood have jaded my imagination and creativity and I begin looking for other ways of dealing? Will I turn to drugs? Will my imagination turn off and my mind turn to depression?

A lot of the adults I know are too bored with life and their work to do anything creative or use their imaginations for something other than balancing a checkbook. Then there are those adults you see on the train talking to themselves and making everyone around them uncomfortable. I don’t want to run from myself, and I don’t want people to think I’m crazy and run away from me. I want people to want to be around me. I want to be able to stay around my real self.

Is this a Bad Habit?

I brought this up one day with Rachel, my therapist, because I was wondering how destructive my habit really was. We have weekly sessions where we talk about anything under the sun. Well, anything I want to, anyway.

Rachel was surprisingly supportive of my imagination getaways. I told her about how I developed my habit of mentally escaping and that I wanted to stop it. I didn’t tell her about the “thinking aloud,” though, or my fear of not being able to handle reality when I’m older.

“Well, from what you’re telling me, I think that this habit you have is positive and I don’t think that you need to be too concerned about giving it up—from what you’re telling me.” It was clear that she knew there was more to the story. But I wasn’t ready to tell her everything yet. I don’t agree that I can keep this habit up the way I’ve been doing it. In the future, I’ll have to find some other way of coping that I haven’t figured out yet.

A Better Way to Deal

After we talked, I looked back at the times when I was too young and too powerless. I never want to be so young and powerless again that I need to go inside of myself to hide from reality. I want to be strong and confident enough to face things myself.

I’m still worried that if I don’t give up the pretend world in my head then I will never become a productive adult, one who can take care of herself and live life on her own terms. And I think that my mind has also gotten tired of creating alternate realities for itself.

In the past, when I had a bad memory or an ugly thought, I wouldn’t allow myself to feel it or take the time to understand what had happened to me. I just looked through my mental Rolodex and found something else to think about. But that is not completely okay with me anymore. Sometimes I can get so lost in my mind that I forget where I am. I make sporadic movements and mumble to myself, like that crazy person on the train.

I hope there is a way for me to deal with some of my past memories without only using my mind haven. Somebody suggested writing out my experiences, or talking about them. I’m not ready to speak about a lot of things. But when I am, I hope I can find someone receptive and open to hear me.

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