You may have seen Instagram Dad Jonathan Joly sharing the ins and outs of life with four children with his family’s almost 2 million YouTube subscribers or talking about affirming his daughter’s gender identity on Instagram with a name-day celebration. His memoir All My Friends Are Invisible has been called “a starkly elegant account” in the UK Sunday Times where Joly resides, and is now debuting in North America.
This extraordinary and beautifully-told childhood memoir is not only an important, thought-provoking and exhilarating read, it provides hope and community for all those who have ever felt ‘other’, and proves how vital it is to provide children with the safe space to be themselves, the absence of which can have dire consequences.
Here’s an excerpt:
In the summer of 2019, when all the excitement of having my fourth child with my wife Anna was settling down and life was getting back to normal, I started having night sweats. This went on for weeks. I would wake up every night completely soaked. I bought an electric fan to put beside my bed, but it didn’t help at all. Nothing helped. It got to the point where I was laying out another pair of pyjamas and some towels for when I would wake in the night. It was very disruptive, and the lack of sleep was starting to affect my work.
I booked an appointment with a doctor who submitted me for blood tests and a physical observation. Apparently, there was nothing wrong with me. In my final appointment with this doctor, he started asking probing questions.
‘Tell me, Jonathan, was there anything in your past that might explain how you feel now? Have you ever had any mental health issues or stress as a child?’
At first, I said no, because I think I genuinely believed there hadn’t been, but then I said:
‘Well actually, yes, there was this one thing . . . I went to a school for children with emotional problems. Does that count?’
I left his office with a prescription for antidepressants. I was hopeful that this was the answer to the night sweats issue, but I was also confused. It was as if I had been watching a television show for years and somebody had just told me that I had started the show in the middle and I had missed out on the whole beginning. Did I have mental health problems? Was I depressed?
I sat in my car outside the local drug store holding the prescription in my hand and trying to make sense of this. I wanted to get better, I wanted to get some sleep, but I also needed to know how I had got to this point. As I stared at the paper, reading the words over and over again, my mind racing through my life’s memories, looking for meaning, I started to feel the same pressure building inside me that I had felt three years earlier during a panic attack at the airport. It was happening again; my heart was racing, pounding; sweat was creeping from my hairline. But this time it was different, I knew what was happening and I wasn’t afraid. I was returning to the imaginary world of Dondie I had spent so much time in as a child with imaginary friends like Giselle who offered me the emotional support the real world lacked.
Rather than feeling the helpless cold sense of impending death, I was feeling the warmth of a rebirthing. This wasn’t the end of me, this was the beginning of something else . . . so I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and leaned back into my seat, and as I did, I felt the air around me change, every hair on my body stood up, my breathing became more regular, my heartbeat slowed down . . .
I opened my eyes and found myself looking straight up at the sky above me, the trees swaying in the wind and coming into my line of vision, in and out, like metronome rods, keeping time. I was back in Domdie, but it wasn’t like last time. There was a feeling of energy and life; something was stirring here.
I sat up and took a deep breath, and as the air filled my body, I felt calm and excited to be there, even though I still didn’t know why I was back. Without fear, I started to walk. I reached a wooded area densely packed with tall thin trees. As I passed through, I laid my hand on the tree trunks, but instead of feeling the texture of bark I got a pulse of energy flowing from my hand to my heart to my head. Just like last time, I was given a memory: I was five years old and hiding under my bed in the room I shared with my brother. Giselle was next to me, trying to cheer me up. She was always there for me, helping me to survive.
With each tree I passed and touched, I was given another memory. This time I was seven years old, and I was talking to my mam about wanting to leave this world; I was broken and I couldn’t see a way to fix my shattered young life. I started to run, touching every tree I could to open more and more memories. I was crying, I was laughing, I was running, I was unlocking the past I had forgotten.
I kept running until I ran out of the wooded area and into a large open space. For as far as I could see into the distance there was nothing, except . . . was that the swing? I walked to it and, taking the rope in my hand, lowered myself onto the seat. I looked over at Giselle who was suddenly sitting on the seat next to me. She stepped up, readying herself to swing forward.
‘Are you ready?’ she asked
I stood up, copying her, readying myself to swing. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘I am.’
We both smiled at each other for a moment and then in perfect sync we jumped forward to let the swing’s momentum lift us out of Domdie and back into my car, parked outside the drug store. I was still holding the prescription in my hand, but my mind was no longer searching for meaning. The adrenalin rush had faded away. I looked over at Giselle who was sitting beside me.
I turned the ignition. ‘Let’s go home.’
And now I know this: for the past thirty years, I hadn’t been lying to others about who I was – I’d been lying to myself. I had hidden my true self under so many layers of personalities that the real me was never able to surface, never able to be heard due to a fear my childhood had instilled in me.
You see, I was born a boy, but on the inside, I was a girl. I wanted to wear my sisters’ dresses, I wanted to play with girls, I wanted to be a girl. And while I fancied girls, I never thought of myself as gay or bisexual or trans (not that I knew what these words meant when I was younger). And how I dealt with that, and how people dealt with that, was very difficult.
It was especially hard for my parents. I don’t hold anything against them anymore for their actions during the years I lived with them. To me as a child, Mam and Dad were more than just people, they were my everything, despite the problems we had.
At the same time, parents are of course just people, and people are flawed, so the relationship between them and their children can sometimes be destructive. If you’re lucky, when you’re a kid you find a means to cope. For me, that meant escaping to Domdie. And it was there that I was able to learn to forgive and to heal. Without my invisible friends or Domdie, I don’t think I would have made it this far.
Projecting a personality that others could relate to was something I was unable to do before I became a teenager, and it was also because of that, that I ended up in Domdie. I created a place deep inside me, where I could live out my true identity. And this is the knowledge that I now know: that Giselle came back into my life to help me make my peace with those years, and to help others.
Giselle wasn’t just a friend I’d made up, she was me. She was my inner voice, she brought me comfort when life got too hard to endure. As you will discover, she entered my world when I was three years old, and throughout my childhood, she visited me whenever I was frightened, felt lost or found my reality too difficult. She was the person I could hide behind. And she was different to the other invisible friends, who you will also meet, because she was the only one I could truly be myself with. Sometimes I would let her take over completely, and I would be the one hiding on the inside.
Even though I am no longer disconnected from this world, the world you know, for the first time in my life I am connected to both worlds. The connection to Giselle and my other invisible friends is stronger now than at any other time in my life; I visit them in Domdie and they visit me here.
I know for most people this will all sound crazy, and maybe I am crazy, but if being crazy is what it takes to survive, then I will happily accept that burden.
Perhaps you also have an invisible connection to someone or something to guide you through your disconnected moments or give you a place to escape or hide from your enemies. If so, this book is for you, this story is your story, and I hope it helps you. If you’ve never needed a place to escape to, let me tell you what it’s like, and show you how I am alive and happy today.