The days and weeks after my dad’s death were all a big blur. I walked around in a fog. We all did. There were extenuating circumstances in my family that made grieving for my dad all the more difficult, and those circumstances caused all of us, but especially the kids, even more stress, pain and heartache.
But then, little by little, we all found our new normal and started to feel better. All of us except Natalie.
Before I start our story, it might be helpful to know that my bachelor’s degree is in psychology and my Master’s degree is in education. I taught elementary school for a decade as a classroom and a gifted-education teacher before deciding to stay home with our kids 6 years ago when we moved to our current home. I’ve worked with a lot of kids, with all kinds of needs, and I was a good teacher. So, when our kids are having issues, I generally feel pretty well equipped to help them. Except for this situation with Natalie. This time, it has felt like someone yanked the rug out from under me.
I know exactly the first time my intuition told me something was “off.” A few weeks after Dad died, Craig and I were woken up in the night by the worst blood-curdling scream I had ever heard. Craig went in to check on Natalie, who was obviously having a bad dream. I got up to follow him, and Natalie raced through the house, sprinted into our room and literally climbed up my body, screaming in a way I had never heard anyone scream before, trying to escape from something…spiders. She climbed up my back onto my shoulders and was pointing at the ground screaming “Mommy! Spiders!! They are everywhere! They are going to get us!” We tried to wake her up and get her back into bed, but everywhere she looked she saw spiders. She was inconsolable. And terrified. This was not your run-of-the-mill bad dream.
And that is how our experience with sleep terrors and sleepwalking began. Natalie has never been as sound a sleeper as her big sister, but she hadn’t ever walked in her sleep and we had never experienced a sleep terror with our kids. So in that moment, I didn’t know that’s what it was. I went back to bed that night thinking it was just a bad dream.
Her sleep terrors got more frequent and lasted longer. It was normal that she would have at least 3 in a week, sometimes more. Sometimes they lasted up to a half hour. Night terrors typically happen in the earlier part of the night, so we were usually still awake when she would have them. A particularly bad one happened once while my in-laws were staying with us for the weekend. The kids watched Wizard of Oz, which they had done many times before, but the story was influencing her sleep terror. When Natalie came downstairs, she was screaming about the Wicked Witch and yelling for Mommy. Only when I would get up to approach her, she thought I was the Wicked Witch. She was hopping up and down like a caged animal, sobbing, screaming every time I tried to approach her, swatting at flying monkeys that only she could see. By this time, Craig and I knew what was going on, and that she probably wouldn’t remember it the next morning, although sometimes she did. I never really got used to seeing her this way, though. Having never seen Natalie have a sleep terror in person, my mother-in-law was in tears when it was over.
Natalie walked in her sleep more nights than she didn’t, sometimes more than once a night. Once when Craig and I were watching TV after the kids went to bed, we heard Natalie in the other room and found her on the stairs. Craig walked her back upstairs and tucked her back in, but later that night when we checked all the doors before we went to bed, we found our front door cracked open about 6 inches. Natalie had opened the door, which is probably what we heard. She could have so easily just started walking down the street. We just stared at each other in horror as the reality of what could have happened to her poured over us. What would have happened if that had been the middle of the night and we hadn’t been there to hear her? So, we installed alarms on the doors.
It was honestly like having a newborn all over again….plus our toddler sleeping in the other room. Even when Natalie was in her bed, it was so very easy to disturb her. The slightest noise or movement would cause her to wake up. Often, it wouldn’t be a sleep terror or sleep walking, she would just get up in the night and come get us to put her back to bed. None of us were getting any sleep.
And then the “tantrums” started. I put that in quotations, because I really don’t know the right word to use for it. I think the term “hairpin trigger” was coined to describe Natalie during these episodes. The slightest little thing could set her off, and she would start raging. After a while, after all the Love and Logic was applied, after all the talking and parenting and praying, using every last tool in our tool belt, it was very obvious to us that Natalie didn’t have much control over what she was doing. And we didn’t know how to help her. As she got a little older, and could verbalize her feelings better, in the middle of a tantrum, she would look at us, scared, and say “Moommmyy…I…I…can’t…I can’t…controlll…myself.” It disturbed her just as much as it did us. To calm her down, the only thing we could do was wrap ourselves around her, enveloping her, spooning her, and laying there until she started breathing regularly and her heart rate would come down.
As time went on, her kindergarten teacher began commenting on how flat her affect was during the day. She wasn’t acting out at school, but she wasn’t behaving like a typical 5-year-old either. She wasn’t really engaging with other kids and she was starting to have problems with her friends. At school she internalized her feelings, but at home, it was a totally different story. She got really upset over very small squabbles and would run home from playing with friends. She was always grouchy. She started crying at the drop of a hat. She would sulk. If we changed our plans or asked her to do something that she didn’t see coming, something as small as asking her to stop her book to help set the table for dinner, she would have a total meltdown. She constantly had dark, dark circles under her eyes.
I’m sure there were many people who saw some of this going on and thought to themselves “Man, that is one bratty kid. What is her problem?”
There were other things, too. She developed tics. She constantly rolled and blinked her eyes and sniffed. She was fidgety all the time. She literally could not sit still. She was clumsy. She was sensitive to noise and to the fabric her clothes were made of. She got sick a lot. During the winter of her kindergarten year, when a virus was going around school and kids were missing 2 or 3 days of school, Natalie couldn’t shake it and ended up with pneumonia. We had to postpone her birthday party in kindergarten because of the stomach flu. It was constant.
The most disturbing thing to me, though, were the spiders. Those spiders she dreamed about in that first sleep terror? She started seeing them during the day. We would catch her looking warily past all of us at dinner and ask her what she was looking at. For a long time, she would just say “nothing.” But then finally one day, she asked me if I saw the spiders, too. I honestly thought she was joking, but then I started watching her, the way she would look at the walls when she thought no one was looking at her. She was seeing things that weren’t there. I had her eyes checked. We avoided talking about it thinking it was a ploy for attention. She just kept asking us if we saw them. We waved our hands through the air to prove nothing was there. We mixed up “magic spider spray” to spray in her room at night to scare the spiders away. I bought her a “magic spider broom” she could use to sweep them up if she saw them. Until now, except with doctors, we’ve never really talked about the spiders with anyone. I couldn’t bring myself to talk about what it might mean. She was seeing things that weren’t there.
I seriously began to wonder if our girl was mentally ill.
“Sleep is for suckers,” the saying goes. Bullshit. Lack of sleep was destroying my baby.
For the first couple months of Natalie’s sleep problems, I attributed it all to grief. I started attending the grief support group at our church within weeks after Dad died, and I used what I learned there to help our kids. Although Dad died the day of his initial visit from the Hospice nurse and he didn’t sign the papers, they offered help to our kids anyway. Having a psychology background and having been a teacher, I also knew several things to do on my own that might help. We talked a lot about Dad, we read books about Heaven and did things to remember him. We wrote letters, sent him messages on balloons, and drew pictures. I cried in front of them and let them know it was ok for them to feel whatever they were feeling. They asked questions about death and dying all the time, and we answered them openly and honestly. I had the school counselor check in on the girls. Keep in mind, at this time, Natalie was in kindergarten. She was 5, then 6 years old, so verbalizing her feelings was very difficult for her. Nothing we did seemed to help her.
I needed help, so I began discussing all of it with our pediatrician. At first, I only brought up the sleep terrors and sleep walking. He told me to put her on a sticker chart. Incent her to stay in bed. Ummm…..I was a teacher, remember? We had already sticker charted and positively reinforced her to death and it still wasn’t working. And how do you use a sticker chart for someone who is ASLEEP? On the subject of her tantrums all he had to say to me is that kids her age have tantrums. I already knew this, I worked with kids. He told me kids act differently at home than they do at school….I already knew this, too. When I told him there was more to it, that these tantrums were different, he totally discounted my “mother’s intuition” and told me she would grow out of it.
When I tried to describe what we were going through to friends or Natalie’s teachers, I really think they didn’t believe us, or thought we were completely overreacting…or crazy. She wasn’t a problem child at school. The problem, at first, though was that she wasn’t herself at school either-the little girl she was before Dad died. I was a teacher, I know that kids often hold it together all day and then let down when they get home. But then, by first grade, her teacher was letting me know of small ways Natalie was starting to act out at school. We felt very alone, and very scared.
By this time, it was the summer after kindergarten. Craig came home one day and told me just running wasn’t cutting it anymore and he needed to get serious about his health. He wanted to try this workout he had heard of-Crossfit. He came home from his first week of Crossfit and asked if I knew what it meant to eat Paleo. I had to Google it, and it opened up a whole new world to me. Over the next year, I learned SO MUCH about nutrition. SO MUCH of what I thought I had been doing right for our family was wrong. I also learned all kinds of ways things can go wrong inside our bodies related to the foods we eat. I asked our pediatrician about food and environmental allergy tests for Natalie. She had dark circles under her eyes all the time, and those are often allergy related. He told me food tests were a waste of money and very expensive and wouldn’t order them. She didn’t fit the symptoms anyway, he said. She didn’t fit the symptoms for other allergy tests, either. Her sniffing? Give her some OTC allergy medicine. I researched things related to sleep and asked him about it. Should I try melatonin? What about a sleep study? I knew deep down inside there was something going on in her brain when she was sleeping. He always gave me some wishy-washy answer that really meant “no.” He told me a sleep study would be extreme. I asked if he thought there was something wrong with her since she was always getting sick. He told me some kids are just like that. He didn’t really have a comment when I told him how we’d changed our diet. But he did make me feel like I was crazy for thinking food might be related to any of this.
We tried so many things to help Natalie. She tried talking to the child psychologist in our pediatrician’s office. That wasn’t any help either. We took Natalie to a therapist, which I will talk more about in another post, but that only slightly helped. As I started learning more and more holistic information, I started incorporating those things into our lives. I started using essential oils and detox baths to calm her at night. I added a couple of supplements to Natalie’s diet.
Nothing was really working, but I was NOT going to automatically fill a prescription without getting some answers. I KNEW there was something bigger going on with Natalie. But no one would listen to me. No one was helping us. I had trusted our doctor. He had been great for our kids and I really liked him….up until this. He wasn’t doing anything to help Natalie.
We were all so tired, but obviously no one more so than Natalie. Finally, one night last December, while I was spooning her to get her to relax and calm down after a meltdown, through her sobs, she said to me “I wish I were a different girl. I wish I could get rid of this big hole inside. I hate my life.”
There are no words.
Is that the 7 year-old version of suicidal? How can a 7 year-old feel that way? What is going on in her that is making her feel so terrible? I had my suspicions, but I needed someone to help me. I didn’t want to find someone through a random Google search. But, a couple weeks later at a meeting for a mom’s group I’m in at church, a friend came over to tell me about the naturopathic doctor she had been seeing and how much she loved her. I asked her if this doctor sees children, too, and it turns out she does. I called and made an appointment the very next day.
And that is where Natalie’s story of healing begins.