When I was in first grade, I loved to play with Barbies. I had quite a few of them – not an exorbitant number, but enough that I could rarely interact with all of them at once. Every day, I eagerly awaited the time when I would arrive home from school and set them up on the sunroom floor to resume their lives. You see, I never had imaginary friends. I never needed them when I had my Barbies.
The “stories” my dolls would act out often lasted for weeks, sometimes even months. Each day I would pick up exactly where I’d left off the day before, creating and resolving conflicts and exploring relationship dynamics. I was only six or seven years old and clearly unaware of how sophisticated my thought processes were. But I was the God of my Barbies, I decided how they thought and moved and interacted.
Their fates weren’t quite predestined, however. I almost never thought ahead to where the story was going. I simply created characters and allowed them to influence each other until the action just sort of unfolded on its own. Sometimes this turned into a pair of twins (portrayed by my Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen dolls) being kidnapped and thrown into the back of my brother’s toy truck and having to find their way back home alone. Other times it became a mermaid who suddenly lost her fins and was forced to live among humans against her will. My scenarios involved time travel, adoption, magic, death, dating, rivalry, and a million other popular plot points. But it seemed as though with every new combination, every new character, the story was exciting and fresh and bold.
This wasn’t the first clue that my imagination was overactive, either. Before I could read, I often flipped through picture books and told my own story based on the images I saw. And even after reading became the love of my life, I spent a good deal of my time bringing piles of my mom’s catalogs into the living room and doing the same thing (my pride and joy was a Land’s End sale catalog that I named “The Fugitive” and used to tell a story about a wrongfully accused teenage boy on the run from the police). Throughout the early years of my existence, I never felt bored or unstimulated because my head was full of exciting adventures that didn’t require anyone but me.
I was a pretty solitary kid, only letting others join me if they had something to contribute to my world. In first grade, my best friend Libby and I shared a love of storytelling and continued the same “game” of Barbies for a year and a half. In third grade, I commanded my friends in a military game every day at recess. My social imagination carried all the way through middle school, when my good friend Michelle and I would pass a notebook back and forth in algebra class until we had created a dramatic and ridiculous tale of two best friends forced apart by geography. There was something special about the friendships I had that bolstered my creativity and made me into an even more inventive person.
It wasn’t all perfect, though. Middle school, a trying test of anyone’s confidence, was especially hard on me when everyone had suddenly outgrown the activities I still loved. I wasn’t totally grounded in reality, so I often came across as shy, aloof, or self-centered. I had been so busy occupying space in my own head that I became socially awkward and immature.
For a while, my imagination comforted me. I would lay in bed at night and imagine scenarios where I was confident and likable. I would sit down at the computer and type a tale loosely based on my current problem, but I’d keep going until I’d ended it the way I wanted, until I ended up with the guy or had the confidence to sing on stage or became famous. And then I wouldn’t care so much that the guy was still in love with my best friend because I could just imagine that he liked me instead. And it wouldn’t matter that I wasn’t confident or talented enough to be a famous actress because I could imagine what it would feel like and that would make me happy. And so I could continue to live in my own head where everything was perfect and things always turned out for the best.
The problem is, that’s not living.
Here I am, eight years later. Although I did my best to grow up in high school and college, I still prefer the inner world to the outer. Life is full of constant disappointments and fears and failures, but I can imagine my life any way I want. In my head I am charming and desirable, always balancing a plethora of suitors and friends, even though in the real world I am socially inept and have never even been kissed. In my head I have pursued and succeeded in the arts, in writing and acting and music, despite the fact that in the real world I am studying math. In my head I am beautiful and happy. In the real world I am depressed, afraid, and dangerously self-deprecating.
Perhaps my struggles with perfectionism, OCD, and ultimately anorexia finds their roots in my internal utopia. It is endlessly frustrating to compare the imperfections of life to the idealistic world inside my imagination. In my head there is no need to accept harsh realities, because every situation can be manipulated and fixed until it is exactly the way I want it. I have complete and total control over people, events, and feelings.
Life is absolutely not like that. I have little to no control over the actions and reactions of the people around me. I can’t magically erase my fears or remove obstacles that block my path. Things are not perfect, and they don’t always end happily. And that sucks. But it’s also the way life is. Having a perfect relationship in my imagination doesn’t bring me any closer to finding love in the real world, just like deciding that I want my body to run on 300 calories a day doesn’t mean that I’ll actually be able to survive that way.
I have lived for almost 21 years, and the most exciting and rewarding things that have happened to me took place inside my imagination.
The world awaits.