The Day I Taught My Son To Save Himself

When I finally realized that my back pain was a result of mind/body illness (TMS) and not a structural abnormality, I began to reflect on my lifetime of maladies. The stomach issues as a child, the headaches throughout my teens and 20’s, the eczema, dizziness, and insomnia that plagued me on and off since forever. I realized all at once that perhaps all of these symptoms, however real and life altering for me, might be rising from the same space: a brain and nervous system in sustained, heightened fight or flight, diverting me from the emotions I knew not how to feel and the fear of being ill. Hmmm. Very interesting.

Once I embraced the possibility of this scenario, things began to change quickly for me. Each time I was stricken by a horrible headache or thrown for a wave by a dizzy spell I thought, “I’m ok. This is just an overwhelming moment in my life and I’m obviously feeling things in my body as well as my heart. There is nothing to be afraid of, and no medicine I need to take to fix this. Let me just acknowledge the reality of the moment, emotionally mentally and physically, and see what happens.”

Inevitably, in every single situation, the pain or symptom faded away. Sometimes it took a few days of journaling and deep introspection, and sometimes I attended to it a few minutes later and it was gone — simply from the acknowledgment of its genesis. But there were no exceptions to the eventual result: I was no longer the victim of chronic pain and conditions. I was no longer afraid.

The story I am here to tell today, however, is not about me alone. It is about my son, Oliver. Similar to me, Oliver is built anxious, vigilant, sensitive, smart. He sees everything around him, and makes meaning out of things he cannot control. This leads to fear and more fear, even when he doesn’t know it. When Oliver was about 4 years old he began to have severe stomach attacks. They would come on from nowhere, and leave just as unpredictably. These were not mild “Mom I don’t feel good” stomach aches. These were screaming, end up in the ER situations. For a while, we did the pediatrician, every test, and even the hospital when necessary. He was scanned, poked, prodded, medicated, and finally (as happens with most chronic illness) dismissed as a hopeless case. 

“We don’t know what’s wrong with him," they said. 

You might think that a mind/body guru like myself would rush right to the solution as I see it. Yet remember that I am, like you, the product of a lifetime of the medical model. And certainly when it came to my precious child, I was not willing to leave anything to chance. But, once we exhausted all that modern medicine had to test, I relented. 

“Fuck.” I thought. My anxious kid has TMS. How the hell do you explain this stuff to a kid?

This brings us to Halloween, Oliver’s 8th year. We had been invited to a Halloween party at a friend’s house. His 4 sibs threw on their costumes and got into the car. Oliver declared that he was not going to wear a costume. I saw no problem with this — he had always experienced anxiety around Halloween for fear of scary masks and pop-up spiders. He wasn’t a fan. I respected his choice, and we piled into the minivan for the 30 minute drive.

About 5 minutes in, it began. “Mommy, my stomach hurts.” About 15 minutes in, the screaming and crying began. By minute 20 there was sheer terror. I let him unbuckle his seatbelt and lay down on the floor of the van, writhing in agony. 

As we pulled up to the house for the party, Oliver moaning in a ball on the floor of the car, I did something that even surprised myself. I said, “OK, everyone out! Oliver and I are going somewhere.” The kids happily ran into the party, and I’m sure Oliver thought that we were once again on the way to the ER. I peeled out of the community and onto the main road. I knew about 5 minutes away was a fancy, brightly lit drug store. I pulled into the parking lot.

“Get out.” I said sternly. He peeked his little head up to look out the window.

“Where are we?” he croaked.

“Get out.” I said.

He stumbled out of the car, doubled over, clutching his stomach in pain. I walked ahead of him, glancing behind me to make sure there were no cars in the parking lot. He struggled to keep up with me, confused as to my stern attitude and what we were doing. “Do I need medicine?” he asked quietly. Oliver hated medicine and often threw up from the taste. 

We entered the florescent lobby of the store. It was almost 8pm and we were the only ones in there, save the bored employee behind the register. Oliver hobbled behind me, crying silently. I searched the shelves for the most expensive, extravagant, shocking purchase I could find. My eyes landed on the Deluxe Box Set of Pokeman cards. It was 50 dollars. I yanked it off the display.

“I’m buying this for you!” I almost shouted.

“WHAT…Why? What…?” he stammered. But I noticed, he straightened up just a tiny bit from the shock. Oliver was the kind of child who didn’t take anything for granted and was way more concerned about money than made sense. “It’s fifty dollars,” he managed.

“I know,” I said without emotion. “I’m buying it for you. Now, follow me.”

He walked after me, a little less doubled over, clutching the Deluxe Box Set. The tears had stopped.

I turned into the candy aisle. “Eat this. Right now,” I said, throwing a pack of his favorite licorice at him.

“What… now? But we didn’t eat dinner yet,” Oliver stuttered as he picked the package up off the floor. “And you haven't paid for it…”

“I don’t care,” I said offhand, “Eat one right now.” I ripped open the plastic. Oliver was now walking totally upright and following me in shock down the aisle. I grabbed a toy car, the kind that races forward when you drag it backwards on a hard floor, and flopped onto the ground. “Pick one! Race me!”

At this point Oliver was eating the licorice. He chose a pick-up truck from the display and plopped down next to me. 

“GO!” I yelled, and we released the cars, careening down the aisle, bumping into the shelves like pinballs. 

I turned to look at my sweet baby. “How’s your stomach?” I asked with a tentative smile.

His little face formed into a combination of surprise and recognition. “It’s fine,” he said quietly. 

“Then RUN!” I shouted, and I chased him down the Greeting Card aisle. “Run!” He zigged around the dish soap display and into Tooth Care. When we got to Bath and Body we stopped to rest. He took a bite of the Twizzler. 

“Are you ready to go to the party?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Oliver. “I don’t feel sick anymore.”

We cleaned up the cars, and paid for the licorice. We never bought the Pokeman cards, Oliver thought they were too expensive. He understood on some level what I did for a living, but now he knew from the proof of his own body. He said to me, “I get it Mommy.”

Oliver is 14 now. He has never again required a doctor’s care for his stomach. When once in a blue moon he gets pain, he comes to me. “I’m having an anxiety stomach ache, Mama,” he says.

“Lay next to me,” I tell him. “Let’s talk about it.”