The curse of imagination: fear, obsession, and hope

How an Instagram post triggered me into obsessing about losing my child—and how I came out the other side.

Content warning: child harm, intrusive thoughts. 
A woman with streaks of blue lightning across her face and body; imagination, inspiration

A vivid imagination is a two-edged sword made sharp with use. The same gift that makes my writing so cinematographic allows me to picture my lost keys, for example, in literally any location, (unhelpfully) independent of memory or fact.

It also imagines unspeakable things as if I’ve actually seen them.

Comic book author Ben Hatke’s 4½ year-old daughter died from injuries in an accident last month, and from the instant I read about it, I couldn’t stop picturing it. The images came unbidden, intrusive, intensifying.

Not images of little lost Ida. But of my own child.

What it would be like to see my 3½ year-old baby covered in blood and tears and glass, crying for Mommy and Daddy because she thinks we can help her—but we can’t. To see her hooked up to tubes and machines, her tiny body in a too-big bed, slipping further and further away until we have to let her go to show her one final act of love.

It’s not real.

It’s not my daughter.

It’s not her story.

But that’s the curse of the blessing of imagination: to see and feel what’s not real as if it were. As if it were her life ended so violently, my heart senselessly ripped away, our family devastated.


I saw this horror over and over through the weeks, every time a little more graphic, a little more terrifying, until the fear spilled out into real life.

I hugged Mackenzie tighter, trying to memorize her face in case I never saw it again. I didn’t want to put her in the car or have her more than a held hand away outside the house. I lay in bed before falling asleep, watching the movie of this fictional disaster in my mind’s eye, living the numb sickness of the moment again and again.

Last Friday, I finally put words around my nightmare in a Wal-Mart parking lot. The obsession had spiraled out of my control, no longer a world I was choosing to enter but one that ambushed me in quiet moments when I wasn’t even thinking about my daughter. I typed out the pain and fear between huge sobs, trying to exorcise the demon.

But the next morning, there it was. The blood and glass and tears. Writing it out hadn’t helped. I despaired into the pages of my journal, now terrified of my own terror, wondering if I was in enough psychic danger to tell someone, to need help.

Then a small voice reminded me, “You have other ways to get things out of your head.”

I laid down the pen, closed my eyes overflowing with tears, and laid my head on my desk.

The same imagination that had been tormenting me brought me quickly to a familiar meadow and a familiar face. Warmth that had nothing to do with sunlight filtered through me, making my tears come harder. He said nothing, but held out his cupped hands and waited.

I reached up to the forehead of my spirit-self, pinched slightly, then tugged. A thick rope of black ichor extruded from my mind, becoming bloody as it plopped into my hand in a gooey, deflated ball. I turned the object over in my palms, its tarry surface covered in viscera, and realized what it was: the idea of my daughter being violently killed.

I dropped the diseased thought into the waiting hands before me. He wrapped his fingers around it and squeezed. There was a pale flash of light, then nothing. I looked down at his hands and mine to find them clean, with no trace of black or red.

I opened my hot eyes in the darkened office and drew a deep breath, then another. I realized I felt different. Lighter. Cleaner. Peaceful.

Unsure, I tentatively probed my mind for the nightmarish vision, like prodding the gap where a tooth has been pulled, afraid it would rush forward as it always had. But it was gone. Even actively trying to picture the scene, I found nothing.

The thought was gone. The haunting was over. The evil thing, banished. My mind was my own again.

Side profile of a woman with gold synapse lines streaking out of her head

I didn’t want to share this story. I was (and still am) worried about it hurting someone more than it helps anyone. It’s an upsetting story. It’s triggering. It’s painful.

And yet, it’s also hopeful.

I learned two things from this awful experience, things I believe someone needs to hear.

The first is that I didn’t know how much I loved my daughter until I imagined her being stolen from me.

I never wanted children (someday I’ll tell you how I ended up with one), and since she arrived, I’ve glibly said of course I can imagine life without her and waxed rosy about pre-baby life. I admit, at times, I’ve wished she’d never been born. I’ve always felt deficient in maternal love, especially when I see my mama friends coo over babies.

But this? This unwanted, violent perhaps? At the same time it crushed my heart, it showed me that, although I may wish for a simpler time when I had more freedom and money—that I may sometimes yearn for life without her—I couldn’t bear to lose her now that I do have her.

Motherly love is not instant. That’s a myth. You don’t automatically fall in irretrievable love with your child. It’s taken me three and a half years and a mental crisis to get there.

But here I am.

The second thing I learned is that I’m better at cleaning my mind than I thought I was.

For two decades, I suffered with depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, and a hyperactive sense of badness that made it impossible for me to let go of negative thoughts. It’s been a slow process of overcoming in the last five years, primarily through metacognitionnoticing what I’m thinking, holding the thought out and examining it, then deciding what to do with it.

Extracting the obsessive images from my mind when I was utterly abandoned to feelings of despair showed me that it’s still possible to capture my thoughts and deal with them when I’m in the thick of it. That it works.

This incident was a major victory for me. But it’s the first time I’ve done it so easily—it’s taken years of failing and trying again, building on tiny wins and then falling behind. It’s a practice, a muscle developed over time.

You aren’t at the mercy of darkness.

You may have battles, but you’re not required to bow to it. Your mind is yours. And you can take it back—one thought at a time.


My imagination showed me hell.

I’m sure your imagination has, too.

But don’t close it off. It’s a blessing, not a curse.

The same imagination that takes you out when left unchecked also gives you the power to obliterate damaging thoughts and to find soul-deep revelation on the other side of struggle.

It has the power to set you free.


“Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ….” 1 Corinthians 10:5 KJV

“Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” 1 Peter 5:7 NIV

“For God did not give us a spirit of timidity or cowardice or fear, but [He has given us a spirit] of power and of love and of sound judgment and personal discipline [abilities that result in a calm, well-balanced mind and self-control].” 2 Timothy 1:7 AMP

“So we are convinced that every detail of our lives is continually woven together to fit into God’s perfect plan of bringing good into our lives….” Romans 8:28 TPT

The State of the Ellie: October 2019

Waiting on immigration (still), the Long Walk, werewolf toddler, body squish, and the lightning round.

The top-of-my-head update was awesome last time, so I’m doing it again. I admit this one is a bit janky, though. September was overflowing with busyness; October is shaping up to be more so; and I have eleventy-billion things clamoring for my attention right now. It makes it tough to focus. Also, 400 words died in a tragic misclicking accident, but this is already late, so apologies for the clunkiness. Onward!


Nope. Still don’t know when we’re leaving.

Immigration and the Florida Move (which sounds like a terrible island-rock band) are ongoing but without updates. A piece of paper here, a list of forms there. But no matter how many times people ask me when we’re going (or if we’re still going at all), my answer doesn’t change. I don’t know because it’s not up to me. Arabic has a great word for this that runs through my brain whenever the question comes up: inshallah, meaning “if God wills it.” I’m thinking of having it tattooed on my forehead.

In practical terms, we’re waiting for a letter with a special number that unlocks the online application process, which should speed things up. Math tells us we’re still looking at 6-14 weeks before we have the visa in hand, though. Woof.

And it was the best long walk ever.

Lino and his band of ruffians did their incredible Road to Recovery event a couple of weeks ago, and it was far and away the most successful year ever. New people marched the 148-kilometer distance, new Legion branches supported, there were tanks(!), and at current, the total raised for Operation: Leave the Streets Behind is over $60,000 and climbing—every cent of which goes to veterans facing homelessness.

I’m so wildly proud of my husband for the work he does with this organization. For the past six years, he’s put in countless hours of work to ensure that veterans and first responders are taken care of the way they should be. He never falters in his kindness, never fails to be cheerful despite blisters and sunburn and exhausted limbs. It’s his passion, a godly calling, and it shows.

If you’d like to donate to the cause, the page is up until November when the team presents a big ol’ cheque to the Legion. Click here to contribute!

Mackenzie is in a season of transition, not unlike that of a werewolf.

All month long, Mackenzie’s been riding some sort of emotional rollercoaster, the design of which is a secret even after she’s passed through the loops and dives. She’s alternately intensely clingy and intensely independent; she’s napping again but fighting bedtime; she’s more kind than ever and more manipulative, too; she’s creating extensive stories in her imagination that are sometimes delightful, sometimes horrific.

It’s a lot. For her and for me. There’s been a lot of snuggles and quiet talks and tears and discipline. Not saying who got what, but we’re navigating it together, one day at a time.

And every once in a while, she says or does something big kids do, and it reminds me that she’s only little for a little while. That, for better or worse, we’ll only be here once. It helps me to be patient; it makes her a bit concerned about why mommy is crying. It’s bittersweet, the quintessence of parenting.

On the upside, we’re watching Hilda together, and she loves it. Sharing things you love with your kid is the best.

My body is squishy again, and I’m not sure how I feel about it.

Between an ever-busier schedule and the carb-heavy diet our budget allows, my body isn’t gaining back its muscle and tone the way I’d hoped. The scale hasn’t shifted beyond normal fluctuations, and my clothes fit fine, but when I’m sitting on the couch, walking around without pants (don’t judge me, you do it, too), and getting ready in the morning, I notice softness where things were firm not long ago. And it makes me feel weird.

Last August, God asked me to trust that I wouldn’t fall back into disordered eating if worked out and tracked food to take care of my body. And I did. And it went great! (I should write a thing about this.) But after a break and this returning squish, I’m wondering if the challenge in my healing was not last year when I began, but now when I think I’ve arrived, that I’m “over it.” It may be.

Fortunately, my spiritual muscles haven’t softened, and I’m confident in Him to hold my worries for me so I don’t have to sweat it. (Well, beyond actual sweat. Still gotta get those gains.) I’m also actively choosing to embrace my body, no matter how squishy, for the bizarrely wonderful creation it is. I love my little godpod.

The lightning round

  • I learned so much about myself with the podcasting fast early in the month. The reset what super good for my brain. More about that in this giant post.
  • I decided to do Inktober this year for reasons I don’t understand. It’s way out of my area of expertise, and I’m bending the rules a bit, but it’s fun. Join me?
  • I made my first tres leches cake with a friend, and it came out pretty good! We definitely learned a lot about milk.
  • Lino went off coffee last month due to tummy issues and switched to tea, but I cannot for the life of me remember to make it for him. I hate tea. But I hate not being able to get in the bathroom more, so I shall persevere.
  • I volunteered to organize a staycation version of our church‘s women’s retreat this weekend! I am super excited! I have no idea what I’m doing! It’s going to be great!
  • I’m taking a class about the biblical concept of renewing your mind, through a neuropsychology lens, and it is blowing my mind. Definitely more on this later.

Now you! Tell me what’s been going on in your world this past month? What’s been good? Not so good? Let’s chat in the comments.