I'll Keep You Safe, Mom

Photo by Vince Fleming on Unsplash

Photo by Vince Fleming on Unsplash

I stood in the hallway and tentatively pushed the bathroom door open, holding my breath as I peered into the darkness, waiting for it to bump into something solid, a person perhaps. I reached out and quickly flicked the light on and noticed the shower curtain was shut. My heart rate jumped, but I kept my exterior calm, cool, and collected. I’m an adult, after all. I’m not supposed to be frightened by empty spaces. I slid the curtain all the way open so that I could see that no one was there, but fully expected a man with a chainsaw to be waiting for me. When I turned around I startled; my seven-year-old was standing there watching. 

“What are you doing, mom?” he asked. 

I could see a glimmer of fear in his eyes. His intuitive little self must have picked up on my anxiety because he followed up with, “Stay close to me. I feel scared.” 

I fell into a sort of ritual, begging the universe, “Please keep my mom safe, my dad safe, my sister safe, and me safe. Let us live long, happy, healthy lives.” If I didn’t say it in my head all throughout the day, and precisely the same way, as if I had to close up any loopholes, I knew that something terrible would happen and that it would be my fault for forgetting to think the mantra.

“There’s nothing to be scared of,” I told him. “I’m right here.”

I tried to believe my words, as I looked over my shoulder as we exited the bathroom, ensuring all was still safe, and remembering how useless those words were to me when I was a child. Telling someone they have nothing to be scared of when their brain is clearly telling them they do have something to be scared of isn’t very comforting. I put my arm around his shoulders in response to my thoughts, “I’ll keep you safe,” I told him. 

He looked like he believed me. 

Anxiety, depression, and PTSD go hand-in-hand. 7.7 million Americans over the age of 18 have PTSD, but children can also be affected. 40 million adults suffer from some form of anxiety disorder. And 16 million adults in the U.S. have suffered at least one major depressive episode (with 350 million people worldwide experiencing depression) in their lifetime. 

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been afraid.

I've been afraid of the dark; afraid of what could be lurking just out of sight; afraid of the unknown; and, morbidly, afraid of a violent and painful death that I knew must exist in those shadows. 

When I was a young child, younger than my son is now, my then-married parents took my sister and me to play some putt-putt golf where there were big animal statues throughout the course. Naturally, I wanted to play on them. To deter me, my dad joked, “Don’t walk on the grass. There are dead people buried under there, and they will grab your legs if you climb on the animals.” 

My mom got onto him, and I recoiled in fear, toeing the line of the sidewalk to ensure my limbs weren’t going to be torn off by golf-loving zombies. 

My childhood was sprinkled with dire warnings: Don’t talk to strangers, don’t follow unknown men asking if I could help them find their puppy, and don’t befriend a toothless, dirty man who slept under the baseball field bleachers when you aren’t even a teenager yet (“But why can’t I be friends with him, mom?” I asked my mother, as I waved at that man. She thought I was a kidnapping waiting to happen). 

I had several close calls in the days of running barefoot through my small town neighborhood which drilled home the message that my parents were right — the world wasn’t a safe place. 

One such occasion, I was running around the backroads by my dad’s house in the country with another little girl, both of us maybe 11 years old. We came upon a dilapidated building that looked like a cozy house at one point in its history, but had become windowless and covered in overgrowth. An old van was parked outside with the back hatch opened. Who would be inside a place like this? We crept around the bushes to see if anyone was around when suddenly there was an older, unshaven man carrying some materials and loading them into the vehicle. The little girl with me stood up and walked over to him. 

“What are you doing?” she asked him. 

I stood up too but kept my distance. I’d been warned about strange men and vans and little girls. 

“I’m just loading up my car. Can you girls help me? This stuff is too heavy for me to carry all by myself," he said. 

My intuition more than flickered; panic flooded my body as I heard the other girl say, “Sure!” 

He walked inside ahead of us, and she skipped along to follow him. I grabbed her arm and urgently whispered, “We need to get out of here.” 

She must have seen the fear in my eyes because we both took off running towards my house. As we sprinted down the dirt road, through the grass, and slipping in between the barbed wire fence of my dad’s property, we heard a vehicle barreling down the road behind us. We ducked behind the brush and trees that littered the field behind the house, making ourselves invisible, and we watched that van skid around the corner, rocks flying, and then it was out of sight. 

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As I grew into my teen years, my brain continued to operate in hyper-vigilance. I was afraid to go to school after watching the non-stop coverage of the Columbine school shooting. I feared leaving my mom’s side because god knows a creeper was waiting to steal me away just like Morgan Nick was taken from an innocent space like a baseball field in Arkansas, where I grew up and spent much of my childhood. My parents had split up, and I was afraid one of them was going to die. 

I fell into a sort of ritual, begging the universe, “Please keep my mom safe, my dad safe, my sister safe, and me safe. Let us live long, happy, healthy lives.” If I didn’t say it in my head all throughout the day, and precisely the same way, as if I had to close up any loopholes, I knew that something terrible would happen and that it would be my fault for forgetting to think the mantra.

One evening I laid on the couch in my father’s house. He worked late into the night. My sister was almost four years older than me and liked to scare me as often as possible (it was quite a simple thing to achieve). The curtainless windows left me feeling exposed to the darkness outside, so I tucked my head down and tried to become a chameleon with the turquoise fabric beneath my trembling body. I would lie there for hours once night fell, unmoving, refusing to eat or use the restroom until my dad was home. 

My sister often chose movies like Scream or Nightmare on Elm Street (shiver.. *looks over shoulder as I type this*), knowing full well that I was petrified. If I walked into another room, she would turn the movie louder so that I could still hear it from wherever I was in the house. She probably never knew the extent of damage done by her antics, as we were both kids trying to make sense of the cards we were dealt — we lived separately most of our childhood. 

As we were watching a movie around midnight that night, she suddenly said, “Someone’s looking at you in the window.”

“No, they aren’t!” I shouted and glanced at the dark window involuntarily. 

To my horror, there was a face with a huge Jack-Nicholson-in-The-Shining smile looking right at me. A scream was locked deep in my soul, unable to escape, when finally my thinking brain told me that it was just my dad home from work trying to be funny. They laughed and laughed. I laughed with them, mostly from relief that it wasn't a serial killer.

My dad slept with a gun by his head, always on the alert. The words, “Wait here. I’ll be right back,” echo through my mind when I think of that gun. Just like in Scream, where one character said “I’ll be right back” was a classic horror movie someone’s-about-to-get-stabbed-to-death phrase. I would hold my breath, frozen in fear, until he returned. He usually came back with a story of someone walking through the cornfield across from our house or a dirt-flinging possum that he feared was a bad guy trying to cut off his sense of sight. His fear seemed warranted, and it seeped into my bones. 

But it didn’t fully grab hold of my psyche until that day my mom got off the phone and looked at me. “You can’t go to your dads for a while. Someone tried to kill him.” Terror choked me. Someone had tried to shoot him in the face (the bullets went into his seat instead while he struggled in his truck, trapped inside by a seatbelt). An actual hired killer tried to destroy my already broken family. 

From then on, I knew my fears were rational. 

I knew the scary movies were all based on some form of truth. They played to people’s deepest fears for a reason. Before the shooting, my fears might have been more irrational, egged on by the constant drip of warnings in the news and from those who took care of me. After the shooting, those fears felt completely valid. It was just a matter of time before it happened again, right? 

When I was 19, I decided to drop out of college and get a job. I struggled to survive on my own, how to pay bills, how to get myself to a class that I wasn’t sure I even wanted to take when I could just stay in my cozy bed instead. I found a job that seemed interesting: 911 Police Dispatcher.

I excelled at it. I could compartmentalize the suicidal callers, the domestic “disturbances,” the car wrecks. I could empathize when a woman whispered into my ear, fearful that someone might hear her. I could take over for those with lesser barricades around their heart, who were overcome after they listened helplessly to someone being stabbed to death directly into their earpiece. I was good at composure around people — nerves of steel, quick thinking in a crisis, and a steady hand when it felt like the world was falling to shit right in my lap. 

How often in our lives do we wish that help was on the way, but it never arrived? Our silent cries for help are often turned inward due to social and self-stigma surrounding this idea that if we struggle, something must be wrong with us.

But then I would leave my shift. I was always on the alert walking to my car in the parking garage, immediately locking the door, starting the engine, and driving away before even buckling myself in. I preferred my hypervigilance over being attacked. When I would get home, I sprinted through the night trying to outrun my fears, getting inside, locking the door, and turning on every light in the house. If anything was going to teach me that the world was unsafe, it was listening to its destruction 8-12 hours a day. I always refrained from telling people, “You are safe,” when they weren’t. “I’m right here,” was my common phrase, “I know you’re scared. Help is on the way.” 

Help is on the way. How often in our lives do we wish that help was on the way, but it never arrived? Our silent cries for help are often turned inward due to social and self-stigma surrounding this idea that if we struggle, something must be wrong with us. And many times when we do voice our suffering, we are dismissed, ignored, ridiculed, or left feeling more hopeless than before. 

How often have we been left stranded in our fears, anxieties, and depressions, told to suck it up, stop complaining, or that “you’re fine?” We aren’t an educated culture when it comes to helping people cope with mental health issues and illnesses. The stigma is real and powerful and will require a collective shift in priorities, advocacy, and dollars before that stigma is reduced.  

That stigma is two-fold once people become parents. Postpartum Depression is common, debilitating to some, and most people are left to figure out how to cope on their own. Many parents don’t know how to recognize Postpartum Depression in mothers or fathers or partners, and untold amounts are forced into the shadows by very rational fears relating to the stigma of suffering from any form of a mental health condition as a parent. 

When I became a mother, my first unsure moments with my son were in the hospital bed. I was holding him while he slept, both of us exhausted from the birth. When the nurse walked in, she walked over quickly and picked the baby up.

“You could have killed him! He couldn’t breathe laying like that. Did you see that deep breath he just took?!” 

I felt like a child being shamed for an accident, a failure before I even had the chance to succeed. I was heartbroken that I missed the memo that a baby’s chin couldn’t rest on their chest. I was shocked and afraid to touch him. I almost killed my less than 24 hours old baby according to a health professional. Wasn't parenting and keeping a tiny human alive supposed to come naturally? No, not always. Some things are intuitive, and others you don't know until someone tells you (hopefully in a less shame-y way than that nurse told me). 

I was vulnerable, young, and determined never to put my kid at risk again. I became meticulous in making sure his airways were always clear. He wasn’t your “typical” baby, and we learned about safe cosleeping practices from a pamphlet that appeared to have been slipped into my hospital goodie bag. It worked for us,  although I lost sleep, constantly checking that he was breathing, that I wasn’t somehow harming him. 

As the months continued, so did the isolation that often comes with parenthood, especially with one who stays at home. Soon, I became comfortable in my routines with my baby, after much research into all the ways that I needed to prevent every kind of tragedy. I started to recognize my anxieties and worked hard to keep them in check so that my son would have the space to learn and grow at his own pace, without as many “be careful" obstructions from me. I suffered mostly in the confines of my mind, trying to appear like I had it all together. Parents often carry the guilt and weight of the world, as we are responsible for a piece of an entire future generation. 

I’m 30 now. The big 3-0. I decided this birthday that I needed to get my mental shit together (is that even possible? I’m not so sure). 

I’ve always avoided those memories that bring me the most fear and pain, but I see them crop up at inopportune times, in the form of triggers. 

Sometimes I’m afraid. Sometimes I’m angry. Sometimes I’m sad for a little too long. Sometimes I’m checked out. My son, now seven, sees these emotions, as well as other things like empathy, compassion, unconditional love, and acceptance. I can’t break down the stigma surrounding mental health if I’m not vulnerable about my struggles, especially with a person who sees me every single day.

If I’m open with my kids, they’ll know that it’s okay to be open and vulnerable about what’s happening in their heart space and minds. If I’m open with you, especially as a parent, hopefully, you will know that you aren’t alone, that we need each other, people, healthy relationships, and open communication. We aren’t a species meant to exist in isolation. 

One day, as my son and I strolled through the library, looking for storybooks to read at bedtime, just as we have done every week for the past seven years, I came across one that told the story of a mother struggling with PTSD and what that might look like to a child. I began the story with a little of my own struggle. 

“This is the story of a mama who has PTSD, meaning sometimes things or memories make her feel afraid or unsure or sad.” 

“Just like you!” he shouted, a smile on his face realizing the connection. 

As I read it to my son, I could see the questions form in his eyes. One line in the story said that someone who has PTSD might not want to talk about why they suffer. My son looked at me and asked why I get scared or feel sad when I think of certain things. 

“We can talk about it sometime, maybe when you’re older,” I said gently. 

His eyes lit up. “That’s just like the story said, mom!” 

The story continued talking about things like anxiety, triggers, reactions, and feeling sad. Such a simple story opened a child’s eyes up to the struggles of someone else, struggles that he might never know about had I not shared. He reached over and hugged me. "I'll keep you safe, mom,” he told me. 

This was what living was all about; being vulnerable and being loved unconditionally.

As I laid in bed with my seven-year-old and three-year-old, listening to their breathing become heavy and rhythmic, I prepared myself to get up and go downstairs. I touched my cell phone screen, lighting up the room. I looked into the corners even though I had clearly seen the room was only occupied by the three of us just ten minutes earlier before I turned the lights out. 

“Just breathe. You are safe. You are safe.”

You are safe. Those words carry so much power even though they don’t change anything about my physical space. 

It’s still dark. It’s still night time. My kids were still asleep. As the Christmas poem says, “Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.” 

Those were the words I wanted to hear when my dad was almost gunned down at his own house. Those were the words I wanted to hear when my body was violated by a man who held immense power, a badge and a gun, a supposed friend. Those were the words I wanted to hear every time I stepped out of my house into the dark night. Those were the words I am giving to my son. “You are safe. I’ve got you.” 

The fear never goes away. No one is truly fearless — courageous, maybe brave, but not fearless. I know he will continue to carry his fears with him, just as I do mine, but I’ll walk beside him, whisper in his ear, even if I’m far away, “You are safe. I’ve got you.” 


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