How a Recurrent Physical Symptom Gave Me Insight into My Child’s Stress Level
Two years ago, my daughter starting having a mild but irritating rash. I’m changing some of the details for privacy, but a rash is a similar condition. The rash wasn’t so bad, but it caused us a lot of suffering because the itchiness woke her up in the middle of the night. Night after night, this caused a sleepless mayhem and, coupled with the uncertainty about what it was, was quite stressful for all of us. The doctor was unable to determine the cause, but eventually we narrowed in on a likely candidate. The doctor prescribed some terribly expensive medicine, but it turned out we could get much the same thing over the counter for ten bucks. Done.
It worked. Literally within a day. Shouting hurrahs and prancing about the room, we considered the problem eradicated and promptly fell asleep. Six months later, it recurred. Assuming it was the same cause, we gave her the same ten-dollar medicine, and once again experienced the reduction of symptoms overnight. Milder hurrahs, but hurrahs all the same.
A few months later, it came back. To be fair, the condition is highly contagious and easily spreads, so that it’s very easy, once cured, to simply get it again. Feeling a little impotent, and stupid, we gave her the same medicine. It worked for about a day, but within a week the symptom was back in full force. Fists raised in confusion and frustration, we gave up on the medicine and began cleaning the shit out of our house.
Meanwhile, having witnessed the condition a handful of times, including the slight differences each time and the greater context of our lives, I began to notice something. I, for example, am just kind of stressed out about medical things I know nothing about. I feel totally powerless. Fevers and broken arms are a bummer, but I can handle it because we know what to do. You get over it. This particular condition felt intransigent, because we were never one-hundred percent certain what was causing it. Point is, having watched myself go through it a few times, I began asking myself to grow up. I just sat with my daughter more, sighed, and acknowledged that we have bodies that sometimes we don’t fully understand.
I began telling her stories. Having no quick remedy, I simply lay with her at night when the itchiness came up and told her long and rambling stories. This soothed her more than anything else. I put my frustration and lack of sleep aside, plus my anxiety about a cure, and just exuded patience and calm. It worked better than a I thought, and frequently she would fall back asleep for the rest of the night. Hurrah.
Noticing this, I mentioned it to my ex-wife. She and I are committed parents, with lots of love and understanding between us. When the rash first started showing up, we happened to be living in the same house, a community with several other parents, children and adults. Agreeing that something subtle was at play here, we made some changes to ease the transitions and certain conditions of our daughter’s days. Within a week or so, the condition went away on its own. That was informative.
Still, six months later it came up again. I raised my hands to God once again as if to threaten him with the misfortune of my ignorance. To be clear, the condition wasn’t terrible. Like a rash, it didn’t impair my daughter much, and for most of the day it was unnoticeable. It was the late-night moments, when there was nothing else to distract her, that the itching would wake her up, and keep her up. It was the sleeplessness, more than anything else, that was getting to us.
We went to the doctor again. “Something’s weird,” we said. The medicine doesn’t work anymore, and it keeps coming back. Maybe it’s not the same thing. Is it the same thing? What can we do?
I should mention that we lived with sheep at the time. The condition, as we understood it, was transmittable through sheep, and this is why it was entirely possible to “cure” it, and then just get it again the next day. You can’t eradicate acres of sheep. Well, we weren’t going to. Maybe we had to move.
But no! The doctor did a swab test and it turned out to be a bacterial infection. Totally different thing! Totally different medicine! Hurray! My ex-wife and I weren’t so keen on antibiotics, but screw it. We’ll take ‘em. Then we’ll be healthy and normal again. At this point, you might start doubting our competence as parents, but I’m describing all this with hindsight. It was very hard to pin all this together from a handful of isolated incidents spanning a period of what was by then approaching two years. Confusion reigned.
We gave her the antibiotic. I continued telling stories. We rubbed and soothed and not-rubbed. We did all the right stuff. It was excellent and everyone said goodbye, including the bacteria. Probably. Once again, we returned to a healthy sleep life. But, just as before, I took note of the slight differences between each occurrence and began attributing the cause, at least in part, to some level of stress I wasn’t otherwise aware of in my daughter’s life.
I began experimenting with placebos. We often washed the rash with cool water, then applied a mild itch cream to reduce the sensation. This became a sort of midnight routine, as needed, and though I was loathe to continue the use of medicated ointments, I submitted in difficult times. However, here and there, I began telling my daughter that I would “get the cream”, but instead dipped my finger in a common jar of olive oil salve. I didn’t mean to lie to her, and if it persisted I would have just suggested we re-cream and then given her the real stuff, but most of the time this sufficed perfectly.
Slowly, it began to solidify in my mind that the medicine wasn’t exactly the solution, but that the love and calm and patience that I, as a parent, could sidestep into her life during moments of anguish was well worth it. I mean, duh, I already knew that, but when the itching got bad it often caused her to cry and even occasionally to scream. We didn’t want her to rip and tear her flesh to shreds, so we encouraged her not to scratch, but anyone with a really bad itch knows just how difficult this situation is.
Then she got a reaction to the antibiotic. It wasn’t the rush-to-the-emergency-room, my-child-is-about-to-die allergic reaction some children get, but it was an itchy rash that covered, now, her entire body. Excellent. We went to the doctor. It wasn’t chicken pox. Great. It was perfectly normal. Thanks. Nothing really to worry about. Okay. It should be gone in a few days. It was. Thank god.
A few weeks ago, my daughter’s best friend came down with a rash, a different rash, but one that is also highly contagious. We wiped toilet seats and told them not to share clothes, which, of course, they normally do. It’s the middle of winter, but given a few minutes they’re naked little piglets or running about in each other’s swimsuits. Nah, nah, nah, we said, none of that.
Nevertheless, about a week ago my daughter wakes me in the middle of the night. She’s itchy. Dammit, I think, blaming my daughter’s friend, her mother, and all the naked little piglets in the world. Someday, I will have my revenge. Then we get up, wash the itchy spot, put the cream on, the real cream, tell a long story about sea turtles, and go back to bed.
The next morning, I texted my friend. “Can you tell me about the so-and-so rash. We woke up feeling itchy.” Ten minutes later, her response: “It’s not itchy. Just a waxy, bumpy rash.” Well, you can’t get off that easy. Somehow, it’s your fault.
Later that morning, before school, I sit down with my daughter. “You were feeling itchy last night. Can you tell me what’s going on?”
“Well…” she fidgeted around. She couldn’t really think of anything. She was as bright and cheerful as ever. Outside the context of this story, my daughter is one of the most cheerful children on the face of the planet. She has two loving parents, a whole heap of good friends and about five-hundred aunts, uncles, grandmas and grandpas. We’re fairly slow and easy people, not too dumb, not too smart, rich or poor. There’s a lot of time in her life to just be a kid. Still, something’s up.
I blamed her mom. She’s messing something up, while I do all the right stuff again, isn’t she? Come on, spill it. I’m being facetious, but recently when her mother and I have transitioned between care she has not had much time to hang out. We’ve talked at length about this, agreeing that every time we switch, we’ll give an hour just to the three of us so that our daughter has an opportunity to let go of one parent and move into the space of another. If you’re beginning to wonder if our divorce has anything to do with our daughter’s condition, you’re right, but by and large it’s a very loving and good situation and all of this is out in the open. And, frankly, all the married parents we know face the same problems.
Point is, I asked my daughter whether she wasn’t somehow disappointed that her mother hadn’t had the time to stay and connect the last few times she dropped her off. “Mmm,” she said, crinkling her eyes, and kind of blowing me off. I believed her.
“What about the move?” I asked. Fact is, the weekend before, her mother and she had moved into a new house. We no longer live in community together, and haven’t for over a year. The constant moving is admittedly stressful too, but more or less I believe my daughter feels held in it all, again, because she has such a community of loving parents, adults and friends around her.
The day before, she and her mother had arrived with beaming faces and told me some hilarious stories about the move, how in the middle of the night one of the pipes was leaking and they had to get up to turn it off, and blah, blah, blah. My ex-wife wasn’t able to stay, she said, she had a lot to do with the move, so we said goodbye. My daughter didn’t resist. She was nothing but cheerful. I took her at face value, we had dinner, played a board game, then had a story and went to bed.
So, it completely surprised me when she woke up in the night with the itchy rash. Now that I had ruled out the friend’s rash, and having witnessed the last two years of recurrent symptoms, I searched my mind for some sort of stress that I hadn’t picked up on.
“Last night,” I said, “you told me the pipe was leaking and – what was it? – a piece of glass broke?”
“Yeah…” she answered, dropping her face slightly and scraping her toes on the floor.
“You know, some people think moving is stressful. Last night, you told me about everything as if it was funny and no big deal. Was it…maybe a little scary…at night?”
Bam. She turned and looked right at me with wide open eyes. I could tell that was it before she even said a word. We talked for a few more moments, then made a plan for how we would call Mom after the school day and check in. I asked her if she would come to me, or Mom, if she felt uncomfortable about something. She said she would, but that she hadn’t been quite able to put it into words before. It wasn’t that she was hiding anything, it’s just that she needed me to spell it out a little. Now that I had, her whole energy shifted. Mine too.
Later, as we walked to school, I was thinking about how wonderful I am and whether I deserved some sort of prize. I had slowly pieced the picture together, ruled out the medical conditions, forgone unnecessary medication, and solved the mystery. I already suspected that the following night would not be an issue (it wasn’t, and it didn’t recur after that). Two years of itchy rash, and this time I nipped it in the bud by simply being present with my daughter. Then it hit me.
Holy shit, itchy rash, you son of a bitch. You’re not a problem at all. You’re actually… (pretend I’m shaking my head as I finally realize the murderer isn’t the countess, the countess is the murderer!). Holy balls.
For two years, I’ve been chasing the conditions and causes of this itchy rash and suddenly it dawned on me what a strange gift it is. I’m a devoted and loving father. My daughter is a bright and cheerful child. Our life is pretty rad and rosy. Yet, problems exist. Stuff comes up. I’m not perfect. She’s not perfect. Sometimes, things slip by. This stupid itchy rash is actually, in most cases, a physical manifestation of the interior stress my daughter doesn’t know how to express or process. Holy shit. What a magnificent error!
From now on, I’m going to be the attentive and loving father I’ve always been – but when something slips between my fingers, I have an incredibly useful diagnostic tool here. What a blessing that this invisible stress – whether that’s because it’s truly invisible or I’m just an idiot – shows itself as an itchy rash! It could just remain invisible, invisibly fucking everything up while I whistle polite tunes to myself. Nah, nah, nah, buster. This rash makes it so that you can’t ignore your daughter’s inner anguish, even when she herself is incapable of speaking, behaving, or recognizing it. Holy moly. Blessed itchy rash, you glorious son of a bitch.