Parenting in the shadow of PTSD

By Christie Tate

An eerie hush falls over our section of the humid, indoor water park. A mother to my right mouths, “Someone’s drowning.”

The lifeguard drags the young girl in a neon orange two-piece to the concrete shore, and I scan the sidelines for her parents. But there is no one to claim her, and she disappears behind a water slide, her bony shoulders still rising and falling as she struggles to catch her breath.

“Why were you screaming in my ear, Mommy?” I’d been holding my five-year-old too tightly since he’d first dipped his toe into the kiddie pool, which was hours before we saw the young girl rescued. Both my children hate being around me and water—I’m the overly cautious parent whose grip leaves marks and whose urgent, borderline hysteria ruins all the fun.

I touch my neck with a shaky hand. My throat aches. I had screamed, unable to contain my terror and my knowledge: it only takes 11 seconds to drown. It could happen right here, under the fake jungle scenery, next to the over-priced ice cream parlor, with dozens of parents an arm’s length away.

“I’m sorry I yelled in your ear, Honey.” He rolls his eyes and asks if we can ride the lazy river again. I take a deep breath and check the life jacket I make him wear, and remind myself it’s 2016.

In 1987, twenty four years before my first child was born, my best friend’s family invited me to vacation with them in Hawaii. It was the summer before high school started; we had a pocket of days in the lush beauty of Hawaii where we could be young girls marveling at the black-sand beaches, snapping pictures of waterfalls on the drive to a volcano, and donning leis as we poked at poi during a luau.

On our fourth day there, we all rented boogie boards to play in the surf of a beach nestled under a lookout point at the end of a highway. We didn’t see the “No Trespassing” sign. We thought that having the beach to ourselves was a serendipitous stroke of luck. We didn’t know that we would need a lifeguard. We never would have believed that anything dangerous or life-threatening would befall us under that perfect blue bowl of sky.    

But danger rushed toward us in the form of foamy, white-capped waves. My best friend and I found her dad face down in the water, and there was no one to call out to except her seventeen-year-old brother, who was struggling his way to the shore. We pumped her dad’s chest with our thirteen-year-old palms, begging him to come back to life. We prayed for the water to stop pouring out of his mouth and nose. We couldn’t save him. As I ran to find help, I convinced myself he wasn’t gone forever. I didn’t believe that someone could die on a beach this beautiful in a place that smelled like lilacs and salt water.

After Hawaii, my parents did all the right things. They sent me to therapy, let me sleep on the floor in their bedroom for the rest of the summer, and told me stories of their own grief I’d never heard before. When I couldn’t sleep, they sat up with me, past The Tonight Show, and long after David Letterman signed off. In those first few months, all I wanted to do was talk about what had happened. I was terrified people would forget, leaving me alone with my memories, my unspeakable terror, and my galloping heartbeat.

Once, my high school counselor tried to engage me in a discussion about PTSD, but I cut her off. PTSD was for Vietnam vets and Holocaust survivors. My experience ranked nowhere near those tragedies.

In college, I suppressed my feelings about Hawaii under my 4.0 grade-point average and a string of self-destructive romances with boys who liked marijuana more than they liked me. While I was never big on beach vacations, I managed to join friends on Spring Break trips to Padre Island. No one knew why I stayed so far from the shore or sometimes had to go inside to get away from the menacing sound of the pounding surf.

Still, I never thought of myself as someone with PTSD.

Then I had children and the panicky feelings intensified and became impossible to repress. 

The memories of that long ago day on the beach in Hawaii came back when I bathed my vulnerable, floppy, two-month-old daughter. And when the pediatrician handed me a Swimming Safety Checklist for my toddler. And when we talk about a summer road trip to the hot springs.

On sweltering summer days when the temperature soars above 90, our nanny will text to ask if she can take the kids to the splash pad, the one next to the big kid pool, that plunges to an unthinkable six-feet deep. “No,” I say, always, manufacturing an excuse, like ear infections or stomach bugs. Anything to mask the real reason: what if one of the kids falls in when the nanny isn’t looking, and the lifeguard is busy applying sunscreen? Even when our neighbors set up a plastic kiddie pool, I race home early from work so I can be there when the kids get in just in case. And I attend every single swim lesson, even that time I had a fever of 102, because what if the teacher turns his back? No one can keep my kids safe like I can; no one else knows how fragile the scrim between life and death is.

“You can’t hold them back,” my therapist says. And more importantly, “you don’t want to pass your fears onto them.” My husband agrees, and so do most of my friends and acquaintances brave enough to suggest how I should parent in the face of my abject terror. I agree with them, really I do. But they are not like me. They don’t lie awake picturing perfectly benign bodies of water swallowing up everyone they love. They don’t have a battery of breathing and visualization exercises to help them cope through the summer months, when swimming is trotted out every day as something fun to do. 

To manage my panic, I research summer camps with limited swimming activities and avoid playdates that could revolve around a pool or body of water. I plan our family trips on dry land; I book hotels without pools. With the greatest reluctance, I agreed to this water park adventure because my kid deserves a chance to enjoy water recreationally. It was also a way to counteract the guilt I feel about robbing him of the pleasure of an uncomplicated relationship to water.  

My son and I ride the lazy river three more times at the water park. I practice letting my grip slacken. I make it ten seconds, then fifteen. I can’t do much more than that. As we towel off, he asks me if we can come back soon. I nod and promise we will, grateful that I haven’t sullied his experience. 

Walking out, I see the young girl with the neon suit. I want to grab the mother by the shoulders and yell in her face: “You almost lost her! You can’t take your eyes off her!” I want to offload some of my fear.

Of course, I say nothing as we pass them by.

Christie is a lawyer and writer, who helicopters over her two children in her spare time. She’s working currently working on a memoir about her experiences in group therapy and pulling out her woman card every chance she gets.

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