Personal reflections · Psychology and mental illness

Thoughts on Being an Adult with Imaginary Friends (The Gilbert Post)

I wasn’t the type of kid who liked dolls or toys. I wanted everything to be as real as possible. Play-food annoyed me, because it looked tempting, but I couldn’t eat it. I spent time in the real kitchen at an early age because I wanted to experience what I was making. If I read about something, I wanted to try it. This was amusing when I tried to blindfold myself and climb around the local playground after reading a book about Louis Braille.

If I was playing with other kids, we’d play at stories, but it had to be as realistic as possible.  This is what I thought about when I watched this TEDx talk my friend Andrew gave, which was released on YouTube last week. He talks about why adults should have more imaginary friends.  I think in many cases, adults may need imaginary friends more than children. Imaginary friends help us cope, and give us companions to help us find solutions.

The transition into personal responsibility and independence has, for me, been challenging and even antagonistic at times.  So it was that I didn’t have a plush toy with a name until I was 21.  One of my friends gave me an orange plush octopus this spring. I named him Gilbert, after one of my favorite authors, G. K. Chesterton, who is called Gilbert in the Sandman comics. Gilbert is super soft and huggable. I imagine that he has logical analyses for my philosophical questions, like his namesake. When I feel alone or fragile, I hold Gilbert and he makes me feel better.

The person who most inspired me to value my imagination is a fictional character. Sara Crewe from A Little Princess keeps her doll, Emily, when she loses her riches. Sometimes when she’s alone, she talks to Emily about her problems. One night, she comes to her cold attic, deprived of food and exhausted from work, and tells Emily that she thinks she’ll die.

I’ve read this part of the book so many times, I can quote whole lines from it: “You are nothing but a doll!” Sara cries, all in a moment breaking her grasp on her most crucial weapon, her imagination. Then she gets angry, and yells at the doll, and knocks her to the floor, making Emily’s sawdust-stuffed face lose its shape.  This was shocking behavior for Sara. She never cries, never loses her temper, and is a leader because she never makes herself disagreeable. The scene is jarring, but Sara hasn’t broken character; her character is breaking.

She picks Emily up and straightens her dress. “You can’t help being a doll,” she says. “Perhaps you do your sawdust best.”

About a month ago, my friend David suggested to me that virtual realities would make people happier. I asked if we’d demand reality, saying a system of mere games might be one to rebel against. He wrote to me, “I think in the future we will think very differently about ‘artificial’ lives.”  At first, this idea sounded, to draw on the most cliché example, like The Matrix. I want what is real, and only what is real. I don’t want to live in a world of play-food.

So I did some research on game theory and game compulsion (often mistakenly called “game addiction”). I found out that the people who are most likely to lose themselves in gaming are working with the same false dichotomy I’d set up: reality vs. virtual reality. The only difference was that I was clinging to reality, while others cling to virtual reality, deeming it more worthwhile than reality.

Another example is dreaming. Our brains need to sort out our experiences, and healthy thinkers problem-solve in their sleep. The experiences I have in my dreams might be more important to my personal story than my next mundane task. For that matter, daydreaming, or my personal ambitions and goals, are another form of unreality that impacts reality. In the same way, the imaginary conversations I have, and the dialogues I write and rewrite in my stories, are important.

A false dichotomy means there are more than two options, or the two options don’t conflict. In this case, the difference between virtual reality and reality is so unclear, the most unreasonable thing to do is try and divide them. Sane, logical, imaginative, and creative people live in realities that value a cycle of the two. We have ideas, and make them into things we can share. We have experiences and interactions, and process them as dreams.

I have to accept virtual reality and imaginary friends, because they belong in reality. I track my productivity and emotional satisfactions every day, and I added a new question to my evaluations: Am I willing to play the game, or am I stealing clues from myself by questioning reality?  I’m getting better at participating in the world of both the imaginary and the so-called real. Gilbert the plush octopus approves.