I’m 39, and I still have an imaginary friend, and it’s Superman

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I’m 39, and I still have an imaginary friend, and it’s Superman
Art by Jay

Like many Superman fans, I have often wondered what it would be like it BE him. From about the age of five or six I would put underwear over my blue jeans, use clothes pegs to tie a red towel over my shoulders, style my hair into an ‘S’, and traipse around the house, righting wrongs, and demonstrating my feats of strength to patient family members.

A lot has changed since those days. The years which stretch between then and now have seen me grow taller, fatter, and….well there’s nothing left to hang a cow lick from.

But another shift happened soon after. I can’t quite remember if it was one big change, or a gradual one. But after a while, I remember no longer wanting to be him, and instead imagined what it would be like to know him. As a friend.

It may surprise you to learn that a man writing for a website called Video Multiverse was once the target of bullies, but I swear I wasn’t always this cool. A skinny blonde space cadet, I would wander the playground, talking to myself. Staring up at the sky. Laughing at jokes only I could hear. I was, thankfully, so much in my head, that the cruel taunts lobbed at me about the way I looked or acted simply bounced off me. I just didn’t know well enough to be hurt. At least not yet. Instead, my friend and I were flying over the Brazilian rainforest, or buzzing the Statue of Liberty. As I was dropped off at school, he would fly over and wave at me, en route to some natural disaster that needed his attention.

As I grew older, my friend never left. But he acted differently. By now I had received my education on what other children thought of me, and how they chose to express that view. As I cried under my duvet at night, the fights would play again, except this time my friend would intervene. Sometimes he would use his heat vision to carve a protective moat in the concrete of the playground around me, so the bullies were unable to reach me. Other times, he would simply lift me off the ground, the moment that a punch was about to land on my face, and sit me at the top of the school tower, where he and I would watch as the bullies screamed up in frustration, shaking their fists at us.

Later, when the bullying became less physical and more psychological, my friend once again changed the way in which he visited me. We flew together less, and we talked more. He would sit at the end of my dorm bed, red cape politely tucked under him, his bright red boots crossed as he sat and…listened. Nothing more complicated than listen. He would hear the events of the day passed, and all my worries for the day ahead. He always told me that he admired the way I got through it. He told me that I had powers he couldn’t get from our yellow sun. I loved him for that.

As I moved into my later teenage years, he and I saw each other less. I got into football (a mistake from which I will never recover) and found my place in the social hierarchy. I guess he felt he didn’t need to visit me as much, and I guess I thought maybe I had outgrown it.

Things went on like that until I was about 32. My friend and I saw each other mostly through my fandom. I had no reason to think he would visit me again, until I once again came upon a bully.

Being bullied as an adult is a very different experience to being bullied as a child. In my case, it came as a real shock, because by now I was a husband and father, and a successful professional as well.  Gone was the sandy haired runt, so easily intimidated, and in his place was a 6’4 man, no less nerdy or prone to crying at movies, but outwardly, also no longer minded to tolerate power disparity.

This new bully threatened more than playground humiliation. He came for my livelihood, my family’s security, and my very sense of self. His stated intention, almost comic book like, was to ensure that the damage he sought to inflict upon me would be permanent. He boasted of his wealth. His resources. That he had me outmatched by every single measure. I was desperately afraid, and (though I wouldn’t know it until many years later) forced into a deep state of depression and anxiety.

And my friend came to visit me once again.

It occurred to me that we were now the same age. The same height. But he was still taller, and still wiser than me. He told me that he was proud I was in a fight from which most would cower. He told me that he was amazed at my resolve to protect others when there was a chance to just save myself. He told me that in life, very few people have the chance to know for sure if they are the person they hope to be, and that while the outcome of my battle was uncertain, he and I would both always knew who I was, and what I stood for. He told me he was proud of me.

For six months, I fought. And at the end, a few weeks after I went to see Man of Steel, I won.

My friend has stuck around since then and I have come to learn a lot more about him and what he represents. I know now that he is my perception of what strength is. When I was six, we would lift cars. When I was 10, we would scare bullies, and when I was 32, we would stand when it would be easier to fall.

But I have also learned something else about my friend. He is not just my friend, Superman. He is my Mum and Dad, who always made me feel loved, when I was alone at school, and have always caught me, no matter what. He is my brother, loyal and ever present. He is my friend Niall, who always sat with me when I had no other friends in class. He was my friend John, who wouldn’t let me let me face the adult bully alone. He is my wife, who never allowed me to believe the horrible things I said about myself. He is my kids, who say that *I* am their Superman.

He was always them. Hiding in plain sight. Taking the form I needed. Then and now.

Thank you, Supes.

A friend.