Some worries are too disturbing to discuss with just anyone. Tell them to casual acquaintances, and they either flee from you or try to have you committed. You have to be careful how much you share with your spouse or roommate, because it can quickly get overwhelming. ("Honey, would you like some sweetener for your coffee?" "I don't know, dear. On one hand, I'm terrified to add more carcinogens to my diet. On the other hand, it was probably made with the exploitation of third world countries, either in labor or the destruction of their environment, so I probably deserve to die. Do you think I'm a bad enough person that I should use two packets?")
When I was little, I had an imaginary friend to talk to about these things. I would lay awake at night and whisper to him about my grade school fears: Did my teacher hate me, or did she spit all over herself when she shouted around everyone? Was that a fire siren off in the distance, or an air raid siren screaming the arrival of alien invaders who were going to conquer the earth and deliver a slow, lingering death to everyone by force-feeding them packet after packet of artificial sweeteners? Should I invest in another pack of Garbage Pail Kid trading cards to up my cool factor or should I get out of the GPK market before it turned bear? (I still remember when the Vanilla Ice market crashed -- one girl at my school had invested her entire allowance in albums, posters and autographed photos. She lost everything -- social status, circle of friends, chance at getting a date for Prom -- it was a disaster.)
Imaginary friends make good confidants when you're little, but of course that can't go on forever. It's not that I have a problem with people seeing me talk to someone who isn't there -- I just stick some wire into a raisin and stuff it in my ear. Then I can point to the raisin and tell people it's a headset and I'm on the phone with my therapist. (No one has ever seemed surprised at that explanation.)
No, the problem with my imaginary friend is that he got accepted into a better college than I did. He now has a successful psychiatric practice in Neptune, California, and I'm no longer allowed to say so much as, "How's it going?" to him without letting his secretary swipe my credit card first.
Since I can't afford his rates, I was forced to find a partner for some do-it-yourself therapy. My friend Audie has a lot of the same morbidly terrifying worries I do. We get together, listen to each other for a while, and then take turns prescribing solutions based on the best advice at our disposal, cobbled together from medical sources, religious tenets, self-help books, traditional curandero folk healing, infomercials and the backs of cereal boxes.
One or the other of us will say something like: "I realized that every bite I ate was making my backside larger and larger. None of my pants fit any more. I know that alligators don't stop growing -- what if that happens to me? My backside will become so large I won't be able to fit through the door and leave the house, just like that guy in the Enquirer. What if my butt becomes so large it literally falls off? I couldn't find the cat this morning. What if I sat on it and haven't realized it yet? What if that happens to my husband? Will I be a widow or a murderer?"
The other will respond along the lines of: "You sound depressed. Lack of sunlight in the winter can be a big problem -- try getting out in the sun for twenty minutes a day. Evil spirits don't like sunlight. Or vitamins. Try eating a bowl of Total -- you'd have to eat forty bowls of Count Chocula to get the same amount of exorcism as you do in one bowl of Total. Oh, and try a combination of primal scream and aroma therapy -- find a flower that smells particularly nice and shout obscenities at it."
Me (or her): "If I wanted to eat the forty bowls of Count Chocula anyway, do you think that would be okay?"
Her (or me): "Sure. Sounds like you need to make a little more time for yourself anyway."
Take that, you snooty imaginary, so-called "friend".
Comments to Alex.Queen@gmail.com.
This article first appeared in the Feb 27, 2005 issue of the Manteca (Calif.) Bulletin.