For years, when my husband went away on business, I counted the hours until his return. This practice was not as romantic as it might sound. I just wanted to know exactly how long I would have to remain suspended in a state of DEFCON 3: ears perking at any noise; stomach roiling; mind cycling through dreadful what-if scenarios, like a tape stuck on a loop. The reason for all this drama? Until recently I was afraid of being alone in a house at night.
I knew this worry was irrational—borderline absurd, even. For one thing, I am an adult. Adults fret about taxes and the Middle East, not the bogeyman. Also, as the mother of two young children, I am almost never actually alone; for me alone roughly translates to "without other grown-ups present." What’s more, I live in a leafy community filled with graceful 100-year-old colonials, where the big event of the year is a rubber-duck race in the town park. It’s not Utopia, of course, but neither is it teeming with tabloid-worthy crime.
And yet from the time that Christopher’s car pulled out of our drive way to the moment he arrived back on our doorstep, I would be on high alert. I spent my daylight hours dreading nightfall. Once the sun set, my imagination kicked into overdrive. While I cheerfully made dinner for my kids, shepherded them down dark hallways, and shooed away monsters under the bed, I was haunted. A rogue’s gallery of evildoers flashed through my mind, each of them taking turns huddling in the shrubs on the front lawn or crouching behind the trash cans out back.
Those nights lasted an eternity. I turned on every lamp on the first floor. I kept a small emergency kit—cell and landline phones, plus a flashlight—right by the sofa, where I perched, half-frozen, like a sentry. I couldn’t watch anything with the merest hint of violence: no C.S.I., thank you very much. Instead I stayed glued to reruns of old shows like Family Ties. (Never have I found laugh tracks more appealing.) In the morning, I would be wiped out. Still, I would perform this ritual the next evening, too, in the somewhat superstitious belief that these small measures kept the demons at bay.
I can pinpoint the moment when I started thinking of a house as a cage rather than a safe haven: It was when I turned the last page of Richard Peck’s teen novel Are You in the House Alone? A fifth grader, I was forbidden to read it; my mother, correctly, thought I was too young. But she had also told me I wasn’t allowed to read Forever..., by Judy Blume, and that hadn’t scarred me (much, anyway), so I took her warnings with a grain of salt. Mistake! In the book, an adolescent girl is menaced by obscene notes and phone calls before being assaulted—horrors I had never dreamed of. But since I had gone against my mother’s wishes and read the book, I felt I couldn’t tell anyone about the fears that had taken up permanent residence in my brain.
Starting that school year, my parents had permitted me to let myself in the house and stay alone until they got back from work. (A “latchkey kid,” in the feverish parlance of headline writers.) Every afternoon, I approached my unassuming home in suburban Cleveland with the same caution and trepidation as a rookie cop on a drug bust. Backyard? Clear. Anyone under the porch? Clear. OK, open the back door on a count of three. Once inside, all it took was an unexpected clank—damn those old radiators—and I would sprint over and hit the panic button on our security system. After half-a-dozen episodes in about three months, the police informed my mother that we would be fined if I ever pressed that button without cause again. (Barely a week later, to my quiet relief, I found myself making lanyards in a well-supervised after-school program.)
As the years went by, my worry didn’t abate; I just learned to hide it better. I was so busy in high school that I was hardly ever home, period—alone or not. In college, I lived in an overcrowded dorm. And then I moved to New York City. Some of my midwestern relatives, heavily influenced by certain Martin Scorsese movies, were concerned about my welfare: All those muggers roaming the streets! But I was elated at the prospect of living in an apartment, with people above me, below me, and on either side. After all, most horror movies are set in single-family homes where no one can hear you scream. In my Brooklyn apartment, I could tell when my neighbor sneezed or blew his nose; I may be the only person to have ever genuinely cherished such sounds.
Five years ago, however, Christopher and I decided we could no longer cram our family into a one-bedroom rental. Nor could we afford a sufficiently large place in the city. The suburbs were inevitable. As the real estate agent squired us from one four-bedroom, two-bath to the next, that old familiar chill washed over me. Promises of Jacuzzi tubs and stainless-steel appliances took a backseat to my real concerns: Was the street too isolated? Were the windows too accessible? We ended up selecting a midcentury modern on a busy corner, one situated unusually close to the neighbor’s house. Still, when we signed the papers and moved in, I nearly burst with pride. I had scored a small victory over my darker thoughts.
I was happy in my new house. As long as I had company, that is. Anytime Christopher had to leave—even for 24 hours—I would dragoon someone into staying with me. It was embarrassing to feel so dependent. Plus, I was envious of my friends who relished their time alone (“Yay for me time!” one pal posted giddily on Facebook), as it offered ample opportunities for late-night wine swilling and assorted other guilty pleasures. For these reasons, I decided to try to shake off the bogeyman for good.
My children had been terrible sleepers as babies, until I reluctantly adopted the cry-it-out method. Last May, as my husband’s five-day business trip approached, I figured I would give myself the same cold-turkey treatment. I set some rules: The phones had to stay on their chargers. No more than one light on per floor. I had to sleep in my bed, not on the sofa. Most crucially, every time I heard a strange noise, I had to rationally deduce its probable cause, not stew over worst-case scenarios.
The first night was hell: I kept my ears peeled for creaks. I rearranged the items on my nightstand so they formed a less ominous shadow on the ceiling and was almost relieved when my son called out for a cup of water; it gave me an excuse to get out of bed. The second night was worse: An infernal beeping at 2 A.M., courtesy of a dying smoke-detector battery, nearly gave me a coronary. The phone rang in the middle of the night. Capping it all was a nerve-jangling thunderstorm. But I managed to explain the noises away without allowing myself to fall back on Freddy Krueger nightmare visions.
Then the third night came and, incredibly, it was...OK.
Nothing much happened, and that was the joy of it: I tucked in the kids. I ate a sleeve of Girl Scout cookies. I drank a glass of wine. I abandoned TV Land for The Sopranos—even managing to watch the one where Pussy gets whacked. Yes, I had a few twinges of worry. (Rome wasn’t built in a day and all that.) I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I loved my evening alone, but, hey, it wasn’t awful. Now that I knew I was capable of chasing away my fears with cold, hard logic, the dark wasn’t quite so threatening.
And when my son awoke in the middle of the night, crying about evil creatures chasing him through his dreams, I told him everyone was safe and he could go back to sleep. I always say that. But this time I believed it, too.
While I cheerfully made dinner and shooed away monsters under the bed, I was haunted. A rogue’s gallery of evildoers flashed through my mind, crouching behind the trash cans out back.
Noelle Howey is a deputy editor of Real Simple and the author of the memoir Dress Codes ($16, bn.com). She has also written for the Daily Beast, the New York Times, and Salon. She lives in New Jersey.