Have you ever wondered why, when you’re home alone and it’s dark outside, your body is so on edge that the slightest creak of the garden gate or the screech of a faraway cat fight sends your spine shivering and the hairs on the back of your neck standing to attention?

Any wise person will tell you that it’s instinct. We are conditioned to feel fear. We are inherently capable of detecting the tiniest clues that someone or something might be stalking us as prey. But there is something that no wise person will tell you; no sane, completely rational individual will warn you what it is that you’re really sensing. By telling you my experience, I am admitting to myself and everyone who reads this that I am not a sane or rational person. I might have once been… but when you have seen what I have seen, felt what I have felt, I would challenge you not to at least change your perspective a little bit. I bet you’d be as mad as me.

Let me just be clear here, before I pour my heart out to you, a random stranger. This will not be a story that involves serial killers, blood, screaming banshees or ghosts and ghouls. This is a tale of something far, far more sinister. I know you’re thinking now, “Oh, just get on with it,” but trust me – it is difficult for me to know how to begin writing about the most life-altering experience I have ever known, so please don’t judge me, and please heed this warning: if you are prone to insomnia, self-awareness issues or random anxiety attacks, you should probably stop reading here. Please.

Tree building dark

Once upon a time, in a dozy little town called Haverhill (in England), there lived a young girl of twelve years. This girl lived with her mother, her stepfather and her baby sister in one of the nicer areas of this slightly deprived town. This girl walked to and from school in the mornings and evenings and never encountered any danger; this girl was trusted enough to have a curfew of 8pm and to have a mobile phone. Her life was fairly easy – school subjects (other than Physical Education) came naturally, she had a close circle of friends and despite a few arguments a week with her stepfather, she had a good relationship with her family unit. From a young age, she was interested in all things creepy – not in an emo way, not in a weirdo-psycho-this-girl-might-turn-out-to-be-a-serial-killer way, but just as a natural part of curiosity about the darker side of the world. She read Stephen King novels, true crime and crime fiction, she watched CSI and Criminal Minds, and began watching horror films such as The Exorcism, The Omen and The Shining. She was open-minded – she figured she understood the difference between possession and mental illness, between psychopaths and psychotics. All this at twelve years old. Should have known that knowledge of this sort isn’t good for a twelve year old mind.

One night, after a nightly routine of Criminal Minds and Wikipedia articles about serial killers, she went to bed with a book by a well-known crime fiction writer. She wasn’t really enjoying this one because she had already worked out who the killer was; there was no suspense, she wasn’t waiting to see if she was right because it was just too obvious. After a few pages, she gave up and drifted off into a gentle sleep. Now, this young girl was not prone to nightmares; she generally slept soundly through until morning. But tonight, her sleep was restless; her mind was clouded by darkness as she tossed and turned. I don’t know if you could call this a nightmare because there were no images, nothing was happening, just darkness. Then, she felt as if she were falling. She woke as she crashed into a pool of murky, icy water. As she struggled to get her bearings, she found that she could not discern where the surface of the water was; there was no light to guide her, she couldn’t see anything.

Suddenly, a face appeared right in front of her. It was her own face. Confused, she wondered if she was somehow looking in a mirror. The face replied to her inner thoughts out loud. No, this is not a mirror. This is you now. You don’t exist inside your mind anymore – that’s why you can see me in front of you. With that, the girl stopped thinking. She stopped thrashing for the surface, she stopped gasping for air. She just…stopped. The face floated above the water, and a body materialised beneath it. The entity…the girl, in most respects…dropped into the water but swam for shore. As she looked back, she could see her pale self, frozen in time, hovering just beneath the murky surface of that black lake. Walking away from the water, the girl encountered a tree. The tree was old, and there was moss growing on it. The moss appeared to glow in the dim, blue-ish light from what she now realised was a very low moon.

Looking past the tree, the girl saw a vague silhouette of a huge building through the fog. She gingerly crept towards the building, worried about what she might find. All at once, the fog cleared, as if someone had lifted it like a blanket. The sun was peeping through some thin clouds and the girl could see that she was looking at nothing other than a hospital. Now more than puzzled, the girl kept walking towards this hospital that appeared to have risen out of the darkness. She didn’t stop to think about the fact that she was awake and fully aware. This was not a dream. This was something else entirely. Once at the entrance, she stepped up to the reception desk and said hello to the receptionist. The receptionist ignored her. She tried again, and again she received no response. So, the girl decided to go for a wander around the hospital, to see if she could ask someone where she was.

Every room she encountered had a child in it; one had a cast on his arm, one was watching TV with one eye covered by a gauze, another was hooked up to some sort of IV. Just as she was beginning to get frustrated that no one would speak to her, she thought she heard her mother’s voice. Walking towards the sound, she realised something was wrong. Her mother was crying and saying her name. Then she heard her stepfather murmuring quietly. Guided by the voices of her parents, the girl arrived at the door to room number 14. Now worried that something must have happened to her baby sister and her mother was crying because the girl wasn’t there, she burst into the room…and stopped dead in her tracks.

The girl lying in the bed wasn't her baby sister.

The lifeless, limp body stretched out on that clean, cold mattress was the spitting image of herself. But it couldn’t be her. Were her parents hiding something? Did she have a twin that no one ever told her about? Stepping closer, oblivious to the fact her parents had not acknowledged her presence, she observed a telltale scar over her right eye; the result of a fall as a toddler. This child in the bed was HER. How was this possible? Was she, in fact, dreaming? She pinched herself. Ouch. No movement from the girl in the bed. She reached out to touch the limp arm and felt a shock of…electricity? The girl in the bed was cold and grey but in that moment that the girl touched her mirror image, the skin turned pink and warm. How strange. The girl stepped back and watched for a moment. The heart rate monitor attached to the patient was bleeping and the bleeping was getting more frequent. Faster. Faster. And as the sound rose and quickened, the girl felt a magnetism towards that body in the bed like nothing she had ever felt before.

She found herself lifted from the floor and gliding slowly towards that lifeless image of herself surrounded by tubes and wires and machines. All of a sudden, it was dark again. This time, the girl was not in the water; she was nowhere. She was nothing. Then she became aware of a cacophonous symphony of electrical buzzes, beeps and alarms coming from somewhere near her head. And then she could hear her mother shouting. She opened her eyes. She was in a hospital room, exactly like the one she was in before the darkness came again. But this time, she was on her back on something soft and there was a man standing over her. She glanced to her left and there were her parents, with the weirdest facial expressions. Maybe fear, mixed with relief?

Closing her eyes again, the girl took a moment to gather her thoughts. She tried to remember before the hospital room. She remembered the glowing moss. She remembered the freezing water. She remembered the strange conversation she had with herself. She remembered being frustrated at the pathetic storyline in the book she was reading before she fell asleep. Opening her eyes once more, she asked her mother, in barely more than a whisper, why she was in a hospital. Her mother explained that she had suffered some sort of blood clot in her head. She asked her mother why she had been dropped into some dark lake, was that a dream? The doctor said that it is most widely believed that patients suffering unconsciousness through brain injury cannot dream. So she wondered, what happened then…?

To this day, I am unsure of what happened to that twelve-year-old girl that turned into the twenty-year-old me. Was it an out-of-body experience? Do those exist? Was the doctor wrong about unconscious people being able to dream? I did tell you this story wasn’t about monsters or murderers. I think that the hairs on the back of our neck not only know when we are in danger but that they also sense the presence of our own souls. My experience, whatever it was, has left me with the knowledge that we are our own guardian angels, that our souls exist outside of ourselves, and that sometimes they get lost. I was lucky that mine found me again.