Content warning: child harm, intrusive thoughts.
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.
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 metacognition—noticing 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
2 thoughts on “The curse of imagination: fear, obsession, and hope”
Intrusive thoughts ruined my life beyond the depression and general anxiety, and medication was my first breath of air without them.
I still remember pulling the black web from my spirit-self's heart into that barge in my meadow for nature to cleanse and being able to slowly move forward, lighter. Religious or not, spiritual or not, I need to remember this tool <3
Love to all of you <3