I was so happy to find out that it was normal to have imaginary friends. I learned this information in my college Child Development class one day, when my professor spoke to us at length about the “boy” who kept him company when he was young. My professor was a lonely, only child, but he had an invisible friend with whom he would eat meals and share his toys. “After a few years,” my professor said, “I outgrew the whole thing.”
“Did he just admit to having an imaginary friend?” I asked the girl next to me. She giggled and nodded.
From the time I was young, I was always in the company of invisible beings no one else could see. This family of Friends, both young and old, would play with me, protect me and soothe me. I used to think they were angels who came to save me from the scary men who hurt me. There were many unsafe adults around after my father left us. My Friends also distracted me when I heard gunshots or explosions during the revolution and eight-year war with Iraq.
I depended more and more on my invisible Friends and caught a lot of flak for hanging out with them: people called me divooneh (“crazy”) or khiyal-baf-e ravani (“possessed”). When I was in first grade, I told Babak, a boy I liked, that I had invisible companions. He got scared and told his mom, who told him not to talk to me any more. I realized I had to keep my Friends to myself.
I tried telling my brother about my Friends once, right before my father gave him a beating with a belt. “If you ask for help from my Friends,” I told him, “they’ll take you through the wall, to a place where no one can hurt you. All you have to do is press your thumbs into your eyes and call out. They’ll come get you.”
But it didn’t work. My brother got the beating and then got mad at me for “lying” to him.
“You don’t go anywhere when you do that,” he said. “You just stay here and look crazy.” He didn’t understand.
When I was eleven, my mother moved my brother and me to a small village on the Caspian Sea called Ramsar for safety, but the locals were suspicious of people like us who were from “the big city” (Tehran). My fifth grade teacher there, Ms. Rushanas, used to beat her students for little or no reason. When it was my turn to be punished, I would call on my imaginary friends. They would circle around me, shield me from her blows, and then pull me through the walls, out of class, and into a beautiful forest. Later on, I noticed I had cuts and bruises, but I didn’t feel them, because my Friends also took the pain with them when they went.
But my mother saw the cuts and bruises and was beside herself with rage. This was one of the few times I felt protected by her and thought I didn’t need my imaginary Friends. But I still did.
My mother stormed into Ms. Rushanas’s office and said, “If you touch my daughter again, I am going to kill you, cut you into tiny pieces, and feed them to stray dogs.” That stopped Ms. Rushanas from hurting me directly, but she still found a way to get revenge.
I was dyslexic, though at the time I didn’t know it. All I knew was that reading was becoming more and more scary. When I opened a book, the letters would explode in the air like confetti and I had to slam the cover shut to keep from getting covered in ink. All the words seemed like characters in a cartoon: some of them would hiss at me or yell; others would giggle. I remember how the letter “n,” which in Persian is written with a half circle, would become a full circle and grow a stick underneath it, sort of like a ping-pong paddle. It would then start swatting at me and trying to smack the center of my forehead. I would shut my book with a bang and everyone in class would stare at me.
One day, after an episode like that, Ms. Rushanas lined several students up in front of the room.
“I might not be able to hit you,” she said to me. “But I can hit them.”
She hit every single person in class that day, except me. I was crying the whole way through the ordeal. I kept asking her to stop, but she wouldn’t.
“There’s nothing you can do,” my Friends said. “She’s horrible and no one can stop her.”
A few weeks later, it was National Cleaning Day, a holiday in Iran where people of all ages take time out of their schedules to go to parks, streets, and other outdoor spaces to pick up litter, plant flowers and trees. Ms. Rushanas and the other teachers took us out into the schoolyard and instructed us to gather rocks and move them to the corners of the yard. It was strenuous work, but I, for one, was delighted not to have to do any reading that day. Suddenly, I felt a sharp sensation in my back. I turned around and saw several girls holding rocks as big as grapefruits. Before I could do anything, they started throwing them at me. One hit my chest and another my head.
“Ugly Tehrani,” they said. “We hate you. You have to leave our school and our lives.”
More rocks hit me. I felt a dizzying sensation in my temples and warm blood streaming down my face. Then everything went black.
When I woke up in the hospital, part of my head was shaved, and a bandage covered twenty stitches. I didn’t remember any of the procedure. The doctors and nurses said I had been unconscious for most of the day. I heard my mother crying in the hallway. I didn’t feel that bad. My Friends sat in a ring around my bed, laughing and telling me stories.
“Who are you talking to?” My mother said as she entered the room. I just smiled and said nothing.
After Child Development class, I went to my professor’s office. I told him I appreciated his honesty about his imaginary friend. “But what if you have nine?” I asked him. His face took on a worried expression and his cheerful manner went away. He gave me the card of the school’s counseling office and urged me to make an appointment.
For many years, I was confused. Why was it okay to have one imaginary friend, but crazy to have many? If my professor could have a companion to help him deal with his loneliness, why couldn’t I have those who saved me from the abuse, bullying, neglect, abandonment, and violence of war that I was subjected to as a child?
Many people abandoned me in this life, but my Friends never left, and I never would want to outgrow them or the gifts they have given me. My childhood experiences gave me trauma, but my Friends gave me hope and reason to live. They became incorporated as different parts of me, and they are visible now to all who know me.
I'm a licensed clinical social worker with two decades of experience working in New York City public schools and providing social and emotional support for urban youth, immigrants, and their families. I'm Director of Counseling and founding member of Harvest Collegiate, a progressive public high school in Manhattan, where I also train social workers. In my private practice, I treat adults through a mixture of psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, and Reiki. In my spare time I write literary nonfiction.