Tonight my seven-year-old son went to bed suffering from a cold. He stayed home from school today, and felt better this evening. But by bedtime, he wasn’t feeling so well, and then it started.
He became increasingly irritable, then short-tempered, and when I asked him what was wrong, he couldn’t answer. I tried soothing him by rubbing his back and speaking quietly, but he was having none of it. I told him I loved him, turned out his light, and left the room. And that’s when his smoldering frustration ignited into a veritable tantrum.
By the time I was downstairs, I could hear him throwing his pillows off his bed and opening his door only to slam it closed, just in case I didn’t already understand how angry he was.
This emotionally out of control behavior is not representative of my typically otherwise sweet, sensitive boy. Then again, I guess it sort of is, because this volatility emerges every so often.
These reactions began in earnest during his radiation treatment for brain cancer this past summer. Everyday for 30 days, he received anesthesia in preparation for the radiation. And sometimes, not every time, but often enough, he awakened with aggressive frustration and anger. I soon learned that anesthesia can have this effect on kids.
At first, it was startling, and I admit quite upsetting. But then, I decided to change my attitude about his behavior. I decided to consciously parent as I have learned to do, and just let his reactions be what they were. No judgment. No attachment. No reaction.
Sometimes, I just sat in the rocking chair in the corner of the hospital room and read or knitted or listened to a podcast while he lay in the hospital bed, blankets pulled over his head, and murmuring (not so quietly) the likes of, “I hate the hospital,” and “this is the worst day ever.”
When he would occasionally yell at me to get out of the room, I decided to oblige him and do just that. I calmly walked into the hall and stood outside the sliding glass door. When nurses came by to check on him, I just told them I was giving him space and that this emotional storm would blow over in about 20 minutes. Which it always did.
When it was over, when my son returned from that dark and angry place, he predictably fell into a guilt-ridden, sometimes even shame-soaked heap of tears and expressions of, “I love you, Mommy. I’m so, so sorry. I didn’t mean those things.”
There was such a defined beginning and end to these episodes, it quickly became clear to me that they were occurring for a myriad reasons. Whether is was the anesthesia; the interruptive nature of the radiation schedule; the understandably challenging abruptness of having to awaken out of a deep sleep and being sensorily assaulted by bright lights, noise, discomfort, and pain, my son’s behavior was a reflection of his disconnection. He had separated for a time from his true self—his joyful, amiable, loving inner source.
This amount of upset was as sharp and disjointed as a broken glass vase, shattered into pointy shards, scattered across the floor. It was really hard to hold, there were so many sharp pieces. So I learned to do so from a slight distance, all the while breathing into my own sense of calm and connectedness. And when my son was ready, when he reconnected to his loving wholeheartedness, he met me there, in the field of oneness and joy.
And so, back to tonight. As I was moving about the kitchen, I could hear my son slowly coming down the stairs and then shuffling into the kitchen. By the time I was sitting on the couch (about to put the first bite of food of the night into my mouth), he was standing in the doorway. I called to him and casually asked, “Hey, what’s up?”
He immediately fell into a torrent of tears, telling me he was sorry, that he didn’t mean what he said, and that he felt miserable with his cold. I called him to me, he curled up in my lap, and buried his head in my shoulder. As he kept apologizing, I just repeated, “It’s okay. I understand. No worries.” Then, as I’ve explained to him before many times, I told him, “I love you. I’m never angry with you. I will always be here waiting for you. I will always be here ready when you are. I understand you have these emotions and sometimes don’t know what to do with them. Let’s keep trying to use words when we’re mad. I want you to talk to me. It’s safe to express yourself. Maybe instead of yelling at me and throwing stuff around your room, you could say something like, ‘Mommy, I’m really frustrated and angry right now, and I don’t even know what to say.’” I explained that feeling frustrated and cranky is normal and understandable and okay.
We sat and hugged. And then he sat up and still with tears in his eyes, asked if I would put some essential oils on his feet and head so he could sleep. So that’s what we did. I took him back to his room, he straightened up the mess he made, we put more essential oils on his feet and head, turned on some sleepy music, and that was that.
Franciscan priest, teacher, and modern-day mystic, Richard Rohr tells us, “Love only exists inside of freedom.” A truly loving relationship is one in which we are free to express ourselves to another in joy and anger without the fear of punishment, either corporal or emotional. Our decision to be vulnerable, to fully self-express, is based on our ability to trust that others will respond to these interactions impersonally. We need to know that they won’t hold us prisoners to our feelings of guilt and shame that can result from their inability to detach, and then project onto us their own feelings of lack and unworthiness.
This is not to say we should ever sanction hurting or abusing others in the name of free expression. Intentional cruelty or emotional torture is never acceptable. But in truly loving relationships, we must be committed to always up-leveling our energy, as we meander through what is often dark labyrinthian suffering and eventually emerge into the light and dance into joy.
This is life. We stand open-armed to hold and witness another’s pain and then extend and invite their love. This is oneness. This is conscious connected living.
My sweet, loving, intuitive, sensitive son continues to teach me and invites me to show up in the world with the deep knowing that we are called to be free, to connect, to be vulnerable, and to love. That’s all. And that’s everything.