Some mornings Nora would wake up, and the little girl would be there. She would always be curled up in the darkest corner of the room, concealed behind the curtains. Her un-natural white skin, her bare feet, and a part of her burgundy-red dress would be clearly visible in the early morning light.

She looked wicked, and the very fact of her presence in the room seemed uncanny. But at the same time, Nora felt a compelling desire, almost a necessity, to look at her.

The child was always silent, Nora never heard the sound of her voice.

After a while, Nora would usually choose to ignore the intruder, closing her eyes again and pretending to be asleep. Then, as she would reopen her eyes, the corner would be finally empty, with nothing to suggest that the little one had ever existed.

Sometimes, as she walked through the Parisian winter, Nora wondered where the little girl could be hiding during the day. She worked at a school, teaching English to children, usually half-asleep herself.

I was Nora’s therapist, and the only person who knew about the little scary girl.

As Nora told me her secret about the little girl, I asked whether she knew how the child was feeling.

—Scared… and very lonely.

Nora thought that the little scary girl wanted to be let out of the room. These feelings of loneliness and fear were far too familiar to her: she had grown up surrounded by parents too busy with their own struggles, leaving her without any emotional support. After school, she would usually stay upstairs, doing her homework in her room and hearing her parents’ argue. She knew something was not quite right between them. Not sure whether it was her father’s drinking or something else… She just intuited that something bad, really bad, was going to happen, and felt she was probably responsible for her family’s misfortune.

When her mother would finally call her for supper, Nora would feel a huge relief, but then her heart would sink: she was finally freed from that room, although nothing good was awaiting her downstairs. Her worst fear was to have her parents announce their decision to split.

As Nora was sharing with me her old fears, her level of despair was such that I could feel a painful knot in my stomach. And the little scary girl was there again, with me in the room, curled up on the edge of the chair, which suddenly looked too big for her frail body.

Years ago, Nora had left the little Scottish town where she was born, and her country altogether. Her departure had been abrupt, no planning nor goodbyes had been needed. As soon as she got admitted to a college, she packed and escaped from the house where she had been lonely and anxious for years.

She had little or no contact with her parents, and had never discussed with them those darks moments of their shared past, when she had been fearing they would divorce.

Putting miles between her and that “wicked” place (as she called her parent’s home) did not make the anxiety disappear. The old feelings persisted and made her dizzy at times: for several days in a row, she would lock herself in her Parisian one-bedroom flat. The worst days were those with the scary little girl. She would appear in the morning after a bad night. Nora’s nightmares had repetitive themes—doors shut tight with uncanny noises behind, and creepy creatures trying to burst out and get her. Scared to death by her own cupboards, and especially, by the ones in the kitchen, which might hide anything or anybody, Nora would stay safe in her bed, unable to make it through the tiny corridor to the bathroom. The wicked girl could be hiding in the wardrobe, between her clothes; Nora would wear the same outfit for days, too terrified to open that closet.

—I want her to go away.

I had never seen Nora so upset. The little girl was there again and looked even sicker then usual, she reported.

—What do you think she wants?

It took Nora some efforts to visualize the girl, in order to ask her what she was looking for.

“Bringing” the little one into the room with us helped Nora realize that this “phantom” was her younger self, whom she had left behind.

The needs of this child—her desperate wish for warmth, security and connection—had been overlooked for years, and had brought an unbearable distress to the adult Nora.

“Sick, ugly, and wicked” were the exact terms in which Nora used to think about herself. She was not able to feel any compassion or warmth towards that hurt part of her self.

Once Nora was able to look at the scary girl with more understanding and compassion, the little one was finally freed from her dark solitary place. And with time, she eventually left Nora’s bedroom completely.

How many of us keep this kind of scary and scared girl or boy in a closet?

In my practice I see many impressively functional adults whose realities are silently haunted by these phantom children. These scattered parts of their personalities are locked away, often back in their original homes where, as children, their emotional needs were not properly met.

In therapy, whenever we manage to get in touch with the emotional pains of this often terrified child, we help the adult to integrate these parts and to let go some old fears and hurts.

With some modelling from me, and a lot of patience and tenacity, Nora eventually learned how to better take care of herself, and also accept this care from others.

In our last sessions together, Nora shared her new dream to have a family of her own, possibly with a child that would never be left alone with his fears. And I trust her on this.

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, Therapy & Technology, Child & Adolescent Therapy