During two days of the week, I have the good fortune of being able to hang out with my infant godson while his parental units (and my best friends) are at work. We have an insanely good time together. For someone who cannot speak, he’s insanely expressive and fun to be around.
His likes include the Grateful Dead, me making a gagging noise, and the sight of his mom brushing her teeth. His dislikes include not being held, sleeping, and the musical stylings of Pitbull. The last of these I am currently trying to rectify by playing "Fireball" over and over and over again. This is either working or it is, in fact, some heretofore undiscovered form of child abuse. I make the music more palatable by dancing to it for his amusement. I am the gold-bikini-wearing Leia to his Jabba.
Recently, his parents have begun sleep-training the guy. That’s because when you’re born, sleep isn’t something you’re born magically knowing how to do. New babies asleep in their cribs will wake up wailing after just a few minutes because the transition from one stage of sleep to the next is confusing and strange and new — like everything else they experience.
It’s natural when you hear a baby cry to want to run to its aid. That's because babies are adorable and, for the most part, easy to soothe. They want to be held and cooed to. They want to be fed or changed. They want to feel comfortable and safe. They look to adults to make them feel that way, and in some cruel twist of biology, adults in turn have to learn how to ease back on soothing their wee ones so that they might learn how to soothe themselves.
According to my mother, I didn’t have a hard time sleeping. Anytime, anywhere, for any reason, I would, could, and did sleep. My mother boasts about being able to bring me everywhere. They carried me around, my parents, in this old-school wicker bassinet. They took me on a helicopter. I was unfazed. They took me to fancy restaurants (for my parents, this probably means "places with candles") and I rested. When I wasn’t sleeping, I was gazing around bug-eyed (I’ve been an OG bug-eyed chick from Day One) at my surroundings, contemplative and made wondrous by all I could survey.
Or maybe I was just quietly brewing a poop. I was, after all, a baby. I did not as of yet have glasses and so, was incapable of deep, ponderous introspection.
“So you never had to, like, teach me to sleep?” I asked my mom when she was in town this past weekend visiting. My mom thought it about for a while. “Well, you did get a terrible case of the three-month screamies.” If you would like to use the Three-Month Screamies as the name of your next ambient noise band, please by all means, feel free. Obviously this phase had scarred my mother, or at least left an impression if it was something now, over 30 years later, she still had a name for. My mom has long theorized that the Screamies were actually infant panic attacks. I don’t know if that’s a thing, but I can picture my poor mom, standing over her normally sleep-obsessed and placid firstborn in a hot panic as I screamed and screamed as though being struck by a searing, pointed iron.
I asked my mom about soothing. Because watching my godson learn to sleep, watching him go through the necessary ouch of learning how to comfort himself, I had one niggling thought: I never learned how to soothe myself. Let me be explicit: I am not being that person pointing at my parents, blaming them for anything. I think it’s something I was born not knowing how to do, and something I never picked up.
“You know,” my mom said, with an embarrassed smile, “I think in terms of soothing you, there were times when I just fed you until you went to sleep.” This is shocking to no one. Food is comfort, food is the quickest way toward feeling something other than things that hurt. Until the food itself hurts. It’s true for me to this day. If I eat until I feel sick and sleepy, I am no longer sad about anything. I am sad about how my body feels, I feel calmly reconciled to a kind of sleepy pain I am familiar with, one that doesn’t scare me.
My self-soothing circuit is warped, and in more ways than one. I never sought out hugs, I never had a blanket or a toy that I couldn’t be parted from, for me there was food, and there was self-flagellation. While other kids were soothing themselves to sleep, sucking on thumbs, rubbing ears, or telling stories to themselves, I was quiet in the dark, heart racing as I thought about all the bad things that could happen, as I scoured my heart and soul for every possible thing I’d ever done wrong. Guilt and fear were familiar companions and, strange as it sounds, perseverating upon all the moments I could recall that inspired them was my safety blanket.
That, and, you know, as many Oreos as I could fit in my mouth, keeping my jaw perfectly still as saliva flooded my gullet and they dissolved into a rich, creamy paste.
It’s one thing to realize that you don’t know how to make yourself feel better, to feel good. It’s another thing to try and change that when you’re 31. Carefully, tentatively, I am trying to find things that bring me comfort without causing me pain or sadness. At night in bed, I have started absentmindedly twiddling my hair. I make up elaborate stories, I hum to myself. It’s a tricky balance. Because I’ve found stuff that works, and some of it has made me realize just how lonely I have been and for just how long.
I watch TV and I am suddenly brushing my cheek with my knuckles and I am pining. I am wrapping my arms around myself in bed and wishing for someone else to be doing the squeezing. “Girl,” I mutter, “you gots to get laid.” Which, while true, is also not quite the point. In the past, I spurned hugs and kisses, I stepped back a step when talking to people, desperate for my own space. I did not think myself a person worthy of attention or comfort or an embrace. Now, by giving them to myself (giggity), I realize how much I need them.
It’s a good revelation, I guess, but it’s also a sad one because it naturally leads to thinking about every single person I’ve ever pushed away. It is tempting to run through their names in an anxious litany upon sleeping, but I will try not to. I will sit with this feeling of loneliness instead. I will feel it all the way through, and I will learn that I can survive it.