For as long as I can remember I’ve been a prolific dreamer.
As a child, daydreaming became my escape from the pain I experienced in the real world, where medical intervention, insensitive doctors and school bullies posed a constant threat to my sense of self.
Every summer we packed ourselves into my parents’ red Volvo and drove south to our holiday house, a six-hour drive. It was a long and tedious journey accompanied by leg cramp and the occasional sibling squabble. Mostly, however, I sat quietly in the backseat, looking out of the window and daydreaming. That was my entertainment.
More than simply allowing my thoughts to wander, I purposefully created stories in my head; romantic stories; heroic stories; sad stories; happy stories.
I was always the main character, except that in my made-up world, I was born perfect. Not only did I not have a birth defect, I was a stunning beauty with big blue eyes and long, smooth, blond hair that glimmered like gold in the sun.
But far from being a helpless Disney Princess, who’s rescued by the handsome prince, I was the brave one. I was the action hero.
In my daydreams, I was everything I was not in the real world, and as soon as life got tough, I would escape into my dream world for solace and company. The daydreams were my closely guarded secret and they were my first attempt at storytelling.
My nighttime dreams, in contrast, were often filled with fear of death, danger and pain, not surprisingly so since they were largely shaped by my actual experiences.
Sometimes I dreamed of white-coated doctors trying to kill me with the dreaded gas mask they forced on me in the operating theatre; in other dreams I found myself separated from everyone I knew and loved and left wandering an infinite white space of nothingness while panic assaulted me.
Some of my dreams were like full-length feature films with multiple characters and an intricate storyline, worthy of a Hollywood scriptwriter.
When I was about nine years old, I had a nightmare that terrorised me so profoundly that I still remember it clearly, some thirty-odd years later.
Dressed in my pyjamas, I was lying face up on an operating table. A huge lamp hung above me, its white light so bright it blinded me and I could only hear the murmur of voices in the room. I tried to turn away from the light but my head, arms and legs were all tied to the table. I was stuck. Just then, someone moved the lamp slightly to the side so that I could see.
Hovering above me were a half dozen doctors in green scrubs and with their faces partly obscured by surgical masks. Only, they were not human, but aliens with enormous heads balancing on their tall, slim frames. And they were all staring at me. One of them held a butcher’s knife in his hand, another a gigantic syringe, and a third a hammer and nails. I opened my mouth to scream, but no sound came. I was going to die and there was nothing I could do to save myself.
As I woke up, soaked in sweat and freezing, I struggled to shake off the dream. Lying awake, fear slowly gave way to curiosity about the story itself. At school that day I kept returning to the dream, which remained fresh in my mind and when I got home in the afternoon I decided to write the dream down; make a story of it.
My dad was a journalist and kept a typewriter in a corner of our dining/TV room. I vaguely knew how to use it so I sat down on the swirling chair in front of it, slipped a blank sheet of paper into the machine and began to type.
I’d barely got more than a paragraph down when my 12-year old brother walked in. He looked over my shoulder to see what I was doing.
“Ha ha, ‘the Eliens’,” he cried. “You can’t even spell, silly!”
It’s one of those things that older brothers do, I suppose – winding their little sisters up – and had I not already been insecure in myself, I might just have shrugged off his criticism and continued to type.
But instead, I was overcome with humiliation, shame and doubt. Who was I to think I could write? I was a reader, not a writer. Writers have talent. And they know how to spell.
I ripped the sheet out of the typewriter and tore it to pieces. It would be a long time before I tried to write another story.