A child’s cry in a midnight-quiet house has the precision-strike ability to rouse one from even the deepest of dreams.
Unless, of course, one was already having trouble sleeping thanks to midnight-quiet anxieties. Then, the clear bell of the child’s voice merely elicits a sigh of resignation. And a quickly uttered prayer: Please don’t let there be vomit.
I shuffled — is there any other way to traverse a pitch black hallway? — and staggered to the yelling child’s upstairs bedroom to find, blessedly, no sickness. No fever. No tears, even, come to think of it.
He was sitting criss-cross-applesauce in the center of his bed, staring at his ceiling. And because I’ve seen too many scary movies to willingly follow his line of sight, I tried to problem-solve from the doorway.
“Babe, what’s wrong?” I whispered.
He pointed to his face. This meant nothing to me.
“Are you hurt?”
“No, Mom!” This time he pointed to his face aggressively, like I was a midnight dunce for not understanding. He wiped his up-tilted nose with his palm and looked at the dark stripe it left behind.
Ahhh. What we had here was a nosebleed. No ghosts on the ceiling and even better, no vomit. I thought we’d clearly won the best option for midnight terrors.
“Oh gosh, no biggie! Let’s stuff a tissue up there and get back to sleep!”
If I’d been paying attention, I’d have seen the fear in his eyes and trod a bit more tenderly through his nightmare scenario. Because for whatever reason, nosebleeds are scary for my boy. Like, break-down-crying-and-choke-on-your-snot-because-your-head’s-tilted-so-far-backwards scary. But I wasn’t paying attention, so I did what I usually do when confronted with someone else’s fear: downplay.
“Babe, this is no big deal. It’s not bad, it’s just the dry air. Please stop crying.”
Those last three words might as well have been an incantation to invite more tears. His inconsolability gave me a minute to think, and my thoughts landed on a recently rerun episode of “The Daily” podcast.
The show featured 9-year-old girl Ella, who lives with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Ella recounted her various and extreme fears for the host — vomiting (a fear it seems we have in common but for different reasons), tornadoes, house fires, etc. — while her mother described the paralyzing effects these threats created. Ella hid in bathrooms, panicked during tornado drills, refused participation, anything to avoid her fears. She whispered to herself “I’m NOT going to get sick, I’m NOT going to get sick, I’m NOT.”
But then Ella went to a face-your-fears camp. There, counselors and therapists gave her the tools she needed to start learning she could be OK even in the midst of her biggest anxieties. What seemed counterintuitive to Ella and her mother was eventually just what Ella needed to start taking charge of her feelings. And the most prominent tool seemed to be an ability to acknowledge and accept.
As in, “I AM going to get sick, I AM going to get sick, I AM.” By stepping into some challenging immersion scenarios (one involving the poor counselors eating vomit-flavored trick jelly beans and gagging to great effect), Ella was able to internalize that even in the midst of her fear, she could still be OK.
And isn’t that one of the lessons I’ve tried to teach my kids? If someone doesn’t like you, you can be OK. If you make a mistake, you can be OK. If you get embarrassed, lose your temper, fail a test, spill your drink — you can still be OK. It’s a direct counter to the feelings of panic that accompany such daily normalities as these. Yes, bad things happen, and accidents are regular. And you? You are a miracle of resilience. As my mama says: This too shall pass.
It always does. Even when we’re adults, and we lose a job, break a heart, fall apart — this too shall pass, and we can still be OK with time and patience and love. With effort. It’s a powerful lesson that starts with mundane moments such as lost toys and hurt feelings. Or nosebleeds.
I watched my nosebleeding boy and remembered that this scenario is a fearful one for him. A nosebleed causes him stress, worry and anxiety. Not unusual reactions to blood pouring from one’s face. Not paralyzing reactions, such as Ella’s, but fearful nonetheless. Remembering Ella, I thought about what was maybe going through my son’s mind just about then: “I DON’T want a nosebleed, I DON’T want a nosebleed, I DON’T.”
So I said the opposite, in acknowledgment of the truth.
“You have a nosebleed. It will bleed for a while. There’s no telling when it’ll stop. We have plenty of tissue though. You can cry if it makes you feel better. And I’m here. Even while it’s bleeding, you are OK.”
Through snorts and nods, I was made to understand that I would be in this for the long haul. Which, in the middle of the night, feels like an unending sort of doom. An unrestful purgatory.
“I WILL be tired tomorrow, I WILL be tired tomorrow, I WILL,” I told myself. And then, “I will be tired tomorrow, and I can be OK while I’m tired.”
Wouldn’t you know it, that nose-faucet turned off at some point in the night, like it always does. My boy fell back asleep, and I was, indeed, tired the next day.
But using Morgan Freeman’s words to Kevin Costner in “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” I gave myself a firm talking-to the next morning: “You whine like a mule, but you are still alive.”
Yep. We are still alive. Even when life is hard, kids are vexing, and anxieties lie in wait, we are still OK.
SARAH COYNE is a parenting columnist for the Globe. Her email address is email@example.com.