We were halfway through Tomie dePaola’s story of St. Christopher, and it was too late to shut the book—my four-year-old was already riveted. I turned the page, and the still-pagan Christopher ran smack into the devil.
There he was, claws, tail, and pot-belly, and not looking particularly terrifying, but the devil is something of a trigger for me.
Too Much Reality
Years ago, before I got my OCD diagnosis, I spent months convinced that any room on campus that had been tainted by sexual sin put me on the radar of spirits who’d been invited in by whatever unspeakable act had gone on in there, and waited like fleas to pounce on the next warm-blooded creature to enter the room. I contacted an exorcist, but he didn’t suggest that this was anything less than nightmarishly real.
Room by room, the campus shrunk until even the chapel felt unsafe. I had a panic attack once, and experienced a phenomenon I found out later is called derealization—when the person in front of you suddenly looks, maybe like a very good copy of a human, but definitely not human. Something indescribable is profoundly wrong—first, I saw an unfamiliar presence in my boyfriend’s face; later on, it happened when I was looking in the mirror. I thought a demon was toying with me.
Derealization is just the brain’s way last-ditch way of trying to protect you. It yanks you as hard as it can out of reality when reality has become too much to process.
Is the Devil Real?
I’ve learned a lot since. I was exhibiting pretty much every hallmark of OCD, and it’s easier to detach now. Still, there’s a part of my brain that doesn’t know those months are behind me, and too much conversation about demons, their power—the simple fact that they exist—tends to bring on the disturbing suspicion that I’m being watched.
Anyway, in the storybook, the devil sees a cross on a hilltop, and falls to the ground in agony. All is well. St Christopher finds Christ. I wasn’t off the hook with my son, though.
We read a lot of fantasy together. Ghosts, monsters, dragons…he knows those aren’t real. Alligators, on the other hand, absolutely are real, but don’t worry, they don’t live around here. They live in swamps far away—no, not with swamp monsters; those are just pretend.
“Mama, is the devil real?”
I froze. Kids always know when you’re not being straight with them. They’re much better than adults at picking up on the signals that there’s more to the story than they’re being told. You can’t grow up seeing your mother’s face freeze up every time the devil is mentioned, I thought. I can talk about Christ without batting an eye; if the devil’s name always makes me act strange, you can guess which one he’s going learn to focus on. I wished I could tell him that the devil is pretend too, but I couldn’t.
But really, my son wasn’t asking whether the devil is real or not. He was asking the same question I ask everyday: “Am I safe?”
Just what kind of a world do we live in, anyway? OCD and scrupulosity make you feel unsafe. Anxiety tells you that you are unsafe.
Your mother’s unexplained fear makes you feel unsafe, too.
Jesus’ own name says otherwise, though. ”God Saves.” Maybe we weren’t always safe, but we are now.
He Doesn’t Live Around Here
So I focused on the question he was really asking. Yes, I said, the devil is real. He is an angel who didn’t love God. So God made a place called Hell, and that’s where all of the bad angels are—but we’re safe. God loves us, and he’s more powerful than the devil. The devil is afraid of the cross, because the cross is how Jesus shows us he loves us.
Actually, it felt a lot like saying, “Alligators are real, but here’s why we don’t have to worry about them.” There sure are a lot of frightening things on the planet, but our neighborhood—our own little sphere of reality—is safe.
It’s not easy to talk yourself down from a panic attack with sheer logic. I used to try that, and it’s usually fruitless. But the Good News is more than just logic. It’s love. It’s a Person. Back then, when the world was swarming with demons, I did know that I was safe. I just didn’t feel safe. And knowledge is little comfort in the face of a feeling that big. A person is a comfort, though.
My heart is beating too hard right now. I’m not surprised. I’ve definitely got some low-level derealization going on; my surroundings seem distant, somehow unreal. I don’t like seeing myself in the mirror when I’m this way. It’s familiar to me—my brain is trying to cope with memories it hasn’t finished processing. This time, at least, I can remember that I am not alone. My son and I can both rest assured that yes, the devil is real, but he doesn’t live around here.