Sometimes, when I’m struggling with a larger project, a smaller idea will worm its way into my head and give me a palate cleanser. It helps me to refocus and just get in a little bit of writing practice without worrying about it having to go somewhere or be something. This one came about when I was doing some dusting and I found the gremlin figure I made last year, added to some uncertainty I’d been feeling regarding my progress and goals. It was a good way to help me reassess and feel a little more confident again.
He’s there again. The Gremlin. Sitting on my shoulder and whispering in my ear.
“You can’t do this.”
“You’re no good at this.”
“You’re going to fail.”
He sits there, smirking. His pin-sharp claws digging into my flesh. He knows I can’t ignore him, however hard I try.
It’s mostly my own fault, of course, bringing him to life in the first place. It wasn’t so bad when he existed only in my mind. He seemed to do less damage then, confined only to an idea or a feeling. I could beat him better then.
It started as a joke. A careless post online, a mindless doodle. So well received, so many likes. People commenting back on how they identified with what I’d shared. It made sense to actually turn the concept into something tangible.
I made him one morning, out of bits and pieces that I had lying around. Clay and wire and paint and glue. Not much bigger than a tennis ball in the end. Purple skin and amber eyes, black whiskers sprouting from his cheeks. I bent his limbs, reinforced with wire, and posed him. Sat him on my desk and took a photo.
“Behold! My Anxiety Gremlin,” I announced, posting the image for my friends and followers to see.
“This is exactly what I imagine when I’m feeling nervous or unsure of myself. When self-doubt and uncertainty strikes.”
More likes. More comments. Yet more feelings of connection.
Then I sat him on a bookshelf and forgot about him.
It wasn’t obvious at first, the emotions started small and reasonably easy to ignore. Eventually, I was waking up with a heavy knot in my stomach every day. A feeling of nausea and cold dread that followed me around wherever I went. I did myself no favours by mainlining coffee and staying up too late. The anxiety I thought I’d left behind me had returned.
I was busy. Focused. Or at least that’s what I tell myself now. I had a deadline to meet, articles to write, an online presence to maintain. Even though I’d known for a while the system was toxic, and only served to feed my paranoia and jealousy. My usual self-care had fallen out of the window, I thought of nothing but my work. Of course he took advantage.
I thought he was a dream at first. Assumed I had fallen asleep at the keyboard and imagined it all. I was writing, hunched over and intense – my physiotherapist would have been appalled to see my posture. He stood in front of me, watching. He bared his yellowed and splintered teeth, flashed a mocking grin.
“You’re hopeless,” he hissed at me, still leering. “You know you haven’t got any talent. Everyone will laugh at you. Poke fun at you behind your back. Your writing is tired and boring. A child could write better stories than you.”
I jerked my head up in surprise. Disbelieving what my own eyes saw. I started to speak but he just laughed. A nasty, spiteful, giggling laugh, before leaping off the desk and disappearing. I tried to follow where he had gone, but he moved too quickly for me. Confused, I looked up to his usual spot on the bookshelf. There he was. Rigid and inanimate. Clearly I must have imagined our exchange. Hallucinated through stress and tiredness.
I sometimes wish I’d smashed him there and then.
He returned the next day when I was tired and demotivated. Criticised my lack of progress. I slapped him with my ruler and sent him sprawling onto the floor. He picked himself up and shook his fist. Shrieked at me that I would regret that. Instead of returning to his bookshelf spot, he wriggled underneath the sofa and vanished.
Day after day he would come to me. Sometimes saying only a few mean words, sometimes unleashing a tirade of filth. Always he would tell me how useless I was. How I was wasting all my time.
Every time I saw him I would swipe at him, but he was always too quick for me. He would skitter up the back of my office chair, and dig his nails in my shoulder. I would try to remove him, to knock him off, but his claws were well-rooted in my skin. I soon learned it was easier to leave him sitting there and do my best to ignore him.
He would read what I wrote from his vantage point and whisper criticisms until I was overcome with doubt. Only after I had deleted what I’d written and shut down my computer would he take a different approach.
“You don’t need to prove yourself to anyone,” he would tell me.
“Why do you care about what people think?”
“If you don’t do it now, you’ll never do it. You’ll have to live with the regret.”
It didn’t seemed to matter what I did. If I wrote or didn’t write, he would always have something nasty to say.
The more often he came, the longer he stayed. I tried ignoring him, reproaching him, pleading with him. Even feeding him at one point. That was very much a mistake.
I put him in a box one morning, only to find he had chewed his way out by noon. Bigger boxes would yield similar results. I could have bought him a cage, but it felt like too much trouble. I was certain he would get out eventually.
Until, at last, when I was almost at the brink of giving up completely, I realised something.
“You need me, don’t you?” I asked him one morning. “You would have no purpose without me.”
He scowled and growled and screwed up his eyes into small slits, but I knew I was on to something.
“I can’t just ignore you, that much is clear, and I can’t seem to keep you locked up for long. You know that regardless of how often you come and whatever you say, I’m not going to stop doing what I love. Besides, if I don’t keep on doing it, you will have no reason to be.
Oh, sure, you’ll spend a few days reproaching me, or telling me how worthless I am, but in time you’ll get bored of that. Eventually the Black Dog might take over instead, and even you’re afraid of him.”
He hissed at me and chattered his teeth. Annoyed that I’d finally figured out his game.
“Work with me?” I asked him. “I’m never going to be fully confident in my work, the Black Dog and the Imposter Syndrome Demons take good care of that, but you could help inspire me. Motivate me. You know damn well that every time I post something, send my work out into the world, I am crippled with nerves and self-doubt, even if I’ve been told it’s good. I’m never going to be free of you, but I’m so, so sick of having to fight you.
What do you even get out of it, you little shit?”
He watched me warily, clearly weighing up his options. He wasn’t used to me approaching him head-on like this. I’d smacked him before, sure, but he could tell this time was different. I’d got him over a barrel. He had no choice.
We came to an agreement, my Gremlin and I.
He still sits on my shoulder and makes comments on my work, and sometimes he takes it too far, but mostly we understand each other. How the process has to work. I don’t have to see him as a threat any more. He knows I can kick him up the arse. Granted, he’s annoying, but he also keeps me going straight. I need the nerves to remind me not to get cocky. To remember that I’m still learning and honing my craft.
Every time he gives me doubt, he also gives me something I can focus on. A subtle nod in a new direction. A feeling I can overcome.
I still hate the little bastard. But I can work with him.
He’s sitting there again right now.
“You’re ridiculous. Useless. Why do you even bother?”