Crisis Poltergeist

I am awesome in a crisis. I mean, stellar. I act fast and think faster. Here, I’ll show you:

On a cold morning in the fall of 2006, just after Carter turned 4, I put him in the shower and washed him. When he was clean, I wrapped him in a towel and set him on the bed before I got in myself. I heard him cough several times and thought he would need a nebulizer treatment soon, so I rushed through my soaping and rinsing. As I was finishing up, Carter came into the bathroom, clutching at his chest, unable to speak, blue around his eyes and lips, tears streaming down his face.

Before that day, Carter’s asthma had been little more than a minor annoyance. His asthma flared when he had respiratory viruses or his environmental allergies were at their worst, but never anything like this. We had never had an emergency.

So I got out of the shower and sprang into action. Keep in mind, I was completely naked and dripping wet. I ran down the hall to get the nebulizer (I remember blowing the dust off of it; it had been that long since we’d used it), put the medicine in the cup, turned the machine on, and put the mask over Carter’s face. In his panic, Carter pulled the curtains off the window above the loveseat in our bedroom. I called 911 on our land line and gave the 911 operator concise directions to our house while repeatedly putting the mask back on Carter’s face and speaking to him in soothing tones. He couldn’t breathe, so of course he didn’t want something over his face. I used my cell phone to call Brian at work. I had the 911 operator in my right ear, Brian in my left, and was speaking low and calm to keep Carter from panicking.

When I was done talking to the 911 operator, I needed to unlock the front door so the paramedics could get in. I couldn’t leave Carter alone, of course, so I unplugged the nebulizer, scooped up Carter and the machine, and went down the hall. By this time, Carter was wearing underpants and I was wearing underpants, a bra, and my bathrobe. I have no memory of putting anything at all on either one of us.

By the time the paramedics arrived, Carter was extremely pale but no longer blue around his eyes and lips, and was no longer using his auxiliary muscles to breathe. We went to the hospital and after a few hours of continuous albuterol he was fine to go home.

Carter was, of course, very frightened by this incident. He told me the story of that day over and over again in the weeks that followed as he tried to make sense of the event. I listened to him describing the event to his preschool teacher and was amazed when he said, “I was really scared but Mommy wasn’t scared at all so I thought I would be OK.” Yeah, we’ll be coming back to that whole “Mommy wasn’t scared” business.

Not quite convinced? Here’s another one (of many; life with Carter has brought many, many crises) from just a few months ago.

Carter and I left his therapist’s office on a Thursday afternoon. He was not particularly symptomatic or volatile at that time so I was not nearly as on my guard as I should have been. I should always be alert to a potential crisis, but it’s virtually impossible to keep oneself constantly at a high level of readiness. I know that people do that (soldiers, for example), but I don’t have any idea how they survive.

We left the therapist’s office and I knew that Carter was mad. I was hoping to get home fast and avoid a full-blown rage. We pulled into rush hour traffic on the freeway that runs through town. We were in the inside lane going 65 mph, with 4 lanes of traffic between our car and the shoulder, when Carter decided that he was furious and was going to jump out of the car. He was in the backseat on the passenger side. By the time he announced his intention, he had unbuckled and was reaching for the door handle. I held onto the wheel with my left hand, reached into the backseat with my right and grabbed a big handful of Carter’s shirt. I said, low and firm, “I will not let you do that.” I  had pulled all the way over to the far right lane and was preparing to pull onto the shoulder when Carter got back in his booster seat and re-buckled his seatbelt.

Before you congratulate me on how well I handled those emergencies, you need to know that it was not me. Really. I could hear me in the background of my mind, screaming and shrieking and in a complete fucking panic.  When I picked up the phone after I put the neb mask on Carter, he pulled it away from his face and, unable to talk, whispered to me, “Call 911,” tears just streaming down his face. And I, tucked away in the back of my mind, inaudible to anyone but me, was screaming, “Oh my God, my baby, my baby! God, don’t let my baby die!”, and in the meantime, the not-me that was on the outside was handling everything, calm and firm and efficient and seriously weird.

Whoever this person is, my crisis poltergeist, I love her. I assume that she is made entirely of adrenaline. She shows up in the situations that I cannot handle – the life-and-death scenarios I described above and in many other, less serious moments when I need to handle something without emotion. And it’s not just me, either. You almost certainly have one, too. It’s implanted by God or evolution or Allah or (in the case of us unusually liberal-thinking Christians) by God through evolution.

However, I have a bone to pick with my crisis poltergeist: she doesn’t show up when Carter’s anxiety gets out of control. She’s with me during his rages and when he’s acutely manic; she’s with me when he’s in a mixed state and everyone, everything, and every dog around him is in danger; she’s with me when he’s suicidal. She shows up at all those times, but when Carter is panicking she abandons me entirely.

WHY does she not think that Carter’s anxiety is worthy of her presence? For some reason, I have a very hard time not participating in his fear. I want to pick him up and cuddle him and make a big fuss. This morning he was screaming and howling over going to school (the school he loves, but this isn’t a rational anxiety), terrified to get in the car, hyperventilating, and saying over and over again, “Don’t make me go Mommy, PLEASE! I can’t do it, Mommy! I can’t go! I’m too scared!” Every cell in my body screams for me to keep him home, but all that would do is communicate the message to him that yes, your fear is based on real things; you CAN’T handle it. Not the message I want to convey. But the crisis poltergeist doesn’t come take over and I’m stuck, all my feelings hovering right behind my face and nothing to hold them back but me. Sad, upset, almost-as-scared-as-Carter me.

I did my best. I got him to school; he cried from home right into his classroom, and I left, in tears myself. Where the hell was my crisis poltergeist? Having drinks on the beach in Mexico, I think, because she was obviously not concerned with us. I did the grocery shopping and struggled through my day, not so much worried about him (I knew his teachers and friends would help him.) as much as distressed and upset by the morning. I was a very anxious child (probably part of the reason that his fear is so upsetting to me now), but he takes it to a whole new level. It’s fundamental; as parents we want to protect our children, and my own terrified child communicates to some ancient part of my brain, emergency! Staying calm and matter-of-fact in spite of my reptilian brain screeching at me to do something! is not an easy task.

Amazingly, the Carter I picked up from school was entirely different from the boy I dropped off this morning. He beamed at me, “Mom, I’m so proud of myself! I was super scared this morning, but I did it! I stayed at school all day!” We drove for a few minutes, then quieter, he said, “Mom, I love you so much. You’re always there if I need to cry or something. I’m glad you’re my mom and Dad is my dad.”

We don’t always get a happy ending like today’s, so we’re soaking this one in and celebrating Carter’s success.

There is no experience more wonderful for me than to see my children feel proud of themselves. Hooray, Carter!

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Crisis Poltergeist

14 thoughts on “Crisis Poltergeist

  1. I have yet to be in a situation like that but I hope mine shows up if I have one. Of course the end is a heart melter.

  2. I think a lot about how we become who we are, you know, the whole nature vs. nurture question.

    Hearing your story (not to mention those that precede it) makes me want to know if you’ve always been this strong, or has the strength you now possess been gifted to you by Carter?

  3. Hurray for the success! Way to go Carter! Since being diagnosed with PTS I realize that my high-alert is having a hard timing turning off. Basically, I am re-training my body on how to relax and not let adrenaline lead it at all times. Can my crisis poltergeist go on vacation with yours for a little while? It’s small – can fit in a duffel.

  4. Again, can’t wait to make the move to WP so I can reply one comment at a time! I’ll make do here for now…

    Jen – if you’re in a situation like that someday, I’m quite certain you’ll handle it fabulously. I neglected to mention in the post that later, when everyone is safe, I lose my shit completely.

    Nichole – Both, plus one other thing. Yes, I was always kind of a take charge person. Even as an anxious, awkward kid with few friends, I was the one who got the hurt kid to the office, and certainly Carter has taught me a great deal about how to manage a crisis. But more than either of those things, my life has prepared me for Carter. I’ve witnessed car accidents, helped a couple of friends through the losses of their children, and many other things that taught me to set myself aside for a time. The other important lesson, though, is never set yourself aside for too long! I always have to find the space to cry or scream or whatever or else I’ll eventually fall apart. And sometimes I fall apart anyway.

    Erin – That is so true! With our SN kids, the lows are so my lower and the highs happen so much less often that I really cling to them to keep myself sane.

    Tiffany – I don’t know how long it’s been since the episode that caused your PTS, but I had it pretty bad after Carter’s first two years. I’m still more reactive than is probably “normal,” but I’m massively improved. Hang in there! You send your crisis poltergeist down to Mexico to have drinks and give mine a boot in the ass because I need her here!.

  5. You are truly amazing in a crisis. Ever since when I was 12 or so and my sister and I set the kitchen on fire and I abandoned her in a ring of fire to go save my sleeping brother I have always worried that I might not shine in a crisis. I have a fear I’ll be one of those people who can’t remember 911 or whose hands are shaking too much to dial it. I’m so impressed Carter had the presence of mind to tell you to call! I love the pair of photos. And to have Carter express so unequivocally that you did the right thing by insisting he go to school. Something to treasure, for sure.

  6. I know exactly what you mean, as I have been in a few crisis situations in which I “watched” myself handle the situation calmly and rationally. I reassured others, calmed fears, and dealt with emergency personnel, all in this “other” state.

    A medical crisis? My “other” is there to guide me through.

    A purely emotional crisis? Those I get to handle all by myself, and I often feel that the “real” me is not quite as competent as that “other” version.

    Love you, strong woman!

  7. Maybe you share the crisis poltergeist with Carter? ‘Cause it sounds like she went to school with him, not Mexico.

    Incredible stories. You all take care of each other so well.

  8. “Crisis poltergeist” – I love that!

    TOTALLY get you in the I-am-stellar-in-a-crisis syndrome.

    I am legendary in my friend circle for that. When faced with a crisis, time seems to slow down for me, as I think clearly, concisely, methodically and solve the problem.

    I have been faced with five larger scenarios that tested me: three involved personal physical danger (twice held up by gunpoint and once threatened with rape) and I successfully talked myself out of each one.

    Two (just in the last two months) involved issues with my horses. My 4-day old colt almost died in my arms this past April. Six weeks in the equine hospital, two surgeries and $16,000 later, he’s doing great.

    The other scenario just happened a few days ago: my colt’s big sister got caught on the ground next to a fence and gate and must have been there for almost an hour. When I discovered her, the look on her face startled me more than any of the previous scenarios, including a gun stuck in my face.

    Going back in my house, I grabbed the tubes of Banamine and Bute (two medicines horse owners have on hand for emergencies), my emergency equine book, and my cell phone and dialing my vet. I even had my son get an umbrella to stand and shade her eyes since she was laying in full Florida sun.

    This young filly was “checked out” – blank stare – emotionally GONE inside herself. The look on her face was jarring. It was preparation to die.

    After struggling hard to free her (ever try to move a 1,000 pound anything?) it took another few minutes for her to “come back” to reality. She finally got up, looked at me with a face that said “What are YOU lookin’ at?” and walked off, appearing fine.

    That one was really emotional – I never want to see a look like that on a horse’s face ever again.

    Glad to know there is another “Cool, Calm and Collected in a Crisis” chick out there. Nice to meet ya’! And so glad your son was all right.

  9. Mine is OK.

    My crisis poltergeist.

    She’s too much like me, though.

    She’ll tell me what to do, and make people listen.

    But she still shits in her pants when things happen.

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