Last night as I waited for my husband to come home from teaching a night class, somebody rattled my doorknob and rang the doorbell. The puppies galloped to the door, woofing and panting and barking, sounding a lot bigger than they really are. I thought maybe it was Chris at the door. He likes to get the dogs hyped up when he comes home by doing things like that. Still, it was dark so I checked through the window before opening the door and didn’t see anybody standing there. Nervous, I went around shutting all the windows in the house. Just in case.
I grew up afraid. I remember being scared to look in the mirror when I was alone in a room. I was afraid that I’d see a big, beefy-red face, a grinning lunatic, his hands closing around my throat as he throttled the breath out of me. I remember looking up, realizing I was alone in a room, and panicking, running screaming through the house. “Mom! Mom!”
Apparently, I wasn’t always a paragon of fear. My mother says that I changed from a happy-go-lucky little girl to a scaredy-cat about the time I turned four years old. The change was so dramatic, she thought maybe some of the teen boys on the block had molested me.
The fears changed as I grew older. When I was nine, I read one of those Chick Tracts about a guy who was possessed by demons.
God, that tract scared the bejesus outta me!
That night, I couldn’t sleep, shivering in the top bunk of my bed in my room where I was alone, very very very very alone and very very very very very afraid.
And…..I couldn’t sleep for months. Somehow, the idea that Satan could possess me—could be that intimately connected with me, could enter my body and spirit, could make me do things I didn’t want to do, could put me in danger, could (worst of all) make me desire to go to hell and then actually end up there!!!—took hold of my imagination at the deepest possible level and turned my life into a living hell for well over a year.
And this began my life-long intimate introduction to fear. Stomach-clenching, sweat-inducing, pure raw unadulterated fear, the kind you would feel if you were a young woman, alone in an alley in the middle of the night, facing three knife-wielding men who plan to have their way with you.
The terror would begin after lunch. Because after lunch, the day was a downhill march towards nightfall. To bedtime. To the time when I had to go to my room, alone, and face the horde of demons who occupied my stuffed animals, the dolls who sat innocently at the table in my dollhouse, the books on my shelves.
This was no monster in the closet. Unlike the monster in the closet, who disappeared when the light turned on, this was real. Demons were there, you just couldn’t see them. The Bible said so. And all the reassurances in the world that God would keep me safe, that the blood of Jesus would protect me from this Evil that stalked me and watched me and drooled over me, night and day, just waiting for the chance to devour me alive, didn’t make me feel safe. Not one teensy, tiny little bit. The only thing that made me feel safe was the presence of another person. Somehow Satan seemed less real if somebody else was in the room.
But my brothers didn’t want to sleep in my room every night and they didn’t want me to sleep in their room every night. And my parents didn’t want me to sleep in their room either. (As a kid, I didn’t get that. As a married adult, I kinda do.)
And to be fair, I don’t think I shared the magnitude of the terror that gripped me with any of them. I was too frightened to utter the words out loud: “Satan spends every night in my bedroom, waiting for his chance to possess me.”
So I didn’t have people around to save me. Between me and the hordes of hell, I had a paper-thin prayer that I said over and over and over, trying to keep myself safe. The mantra went like this: Dear-Jesus-let-every-single-thing-in-this-room-worship-you-and-only-you-keep-Satan-away-from-me-protect-me-Jesus-protect-me-Jesus-protectmeprotectmeprotectmepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasekeepmesafe…
The prayer was a lifeline between the time I had to turn out my light (9 p.m.) and the time my parents turned out their light (around 11 p.m.). That lifeline kept me afloat until their light went out. And then you know what saved me? Books. Books saved me.
I would creep out of bed and get a book, a safe book, a children’s book, one that wouldn’t contain demons or violence or anything unsafe. I would huddle in the very back of my closet, bathed in the harsh light of the light bulb. Or, better yet (because it made me feel less sequestered from the people I needed to be near me in order to feel safe), I would gently ease open my bedroom door and sit on the cold cement floor of the entryway just outside my bedroom.
I would read and read and read and read and read andreadandreadandreadandread (that reading was like praying, better than praying actually because it put me in a safe world with people, real people, and I wasn’t alone anymore). I would read and read until I was so exhausted (1 or 2 or 3 a.m.)—really, until I had inhabited another world long enough that I knew I could keep Satan at bay—that I could crawl back into bed and go to sleep.
And I would wake up at 6 a.m., to my father tickling my toes, and the cycle would begin all over again. Safe, only in the morning hours.
I will never know this for sure, but I am certain my fierce need to be a writer began sometime in the dim, dark hours of those many nights when I faced my fears by submerging myself in the worlds of children’s literature.
I love books because books saved me, literally.
I have said in the past that writing is prayer to me, for a lot of reasons which I won’t go into here. But it’s true that reading is a sort of prayer for me as well. This may be hard for people to understand, but not, perhaps, if they hear my story.
Books are what saved me. Music saved my husband from the fears he battled with as a teenager—specifically, the music of Bob Marley. I’m curious what your fears were and what saved you.