Last night we suffered another Chernobyl-grade meltdown.
It always begins innocently enough; a small exchange of words which quickly build into a medium-size misunderstanding which, suddenly, erupts into an all-out screaming fit complete with put-downs, punches, and eventually physical restraint.
Such is life with a passionate, fiery 8-year-old boy we once named Eliot.
Last night, however, was different.
Last night, I witnessed something scarier than any tantrum and more painful than any tiny-fisted punch to the chest.
Last night, for the first time ever, I saw true self-destruction.
The setting was our backyard pool. The spark being a wager the tweens of the house had started to see who could “polar bear it” the longest.
In this instance, to “polar bear it” means to wade into water that is well beyond uncomfortably cold up to your necks and then squat there, waiting for the weaklings to be weeded, or rather, waded out.
In retrospect, we should have seen it coming. After all, one of Eliot’s biggest triggers is being told he’s not old enough or big enough to follow his three older brothers. This is seconded only by a deep-seated aversion to being left out (which, let’s face it, who doesn’t have).
“Eliot, you can’t get in right now!” the well-meaning adults yelled from the balcony. “The older kids all have a bet going to see who can stay in the longest.”
The words “You,” Can’t,” “Old,” and “Kids,” are all fighting words for Eliot; starter fluid for his emotional bonfires.
Was the pool big enough for Eliot to jump in? Absolutely.
Would it have hurt anyone to have him participate in a non-compensatory fashion? Not at all.
Why, then, did we feel the need to restrict access?
I have no clue, but such is the life of imperfect parents.
Sure enough, within seconds of our proclamation, Eliot was totally lit up and literally scaling outside walls to get to the balcony.
“You are all liars!” he screamed, his expression twisted in rage. “You’re nothing but losers, big, FAT LOOO-SERS!” Liars and losers are his favorite go-to slurs when he’s exploding.
Now trembling in his eight-year-old frame and entirely unable to cool down, Eliot ricocheted around us, the source of all his life frustration, like a mosquito drawn to the bug zapper until, finally, “Zap!” I had to physically restrain him, carrying him over my shoulder to his room while everyone around awkwardly watched him scream, scratch and swing punches.
As those more perfect in the art of parenting will undoubtedly notice, I’m not a child psychologist. In moments such as these, I wish dearly that I was.
As is typically the case, the isolation period with Eliot always starts out like a scene cut from The Shining. He bounces off walls physically and emotionally with all internal gages whistling well-past capacity until his tiny frame can’t take it anymore.
Finally, collapsing on the bed, floor, or whatever flat surface is closest, his internal temperature begins to dip and, with it, reasoning slowly comes back online.
It’s normally at this point that Eliot collects himself and we’re able to talk through the blow-up, recognizing the pain points, and soon life is once again bearable if not much better.
Last night, however, something else leaked out at the point of exhaustion.
“I’M A BAD BOY!” Eliot sobbed as rage turned to tears. “Nobody should like me. Nobody should be my friend. I just hurt everyone I’m around!”
“Oh buddy,” I said, my dad-heart swelling to overflow with love and pain.
“You’re not a bad boy,” I tried to reassure him. “You are passionate and yes, you are fiery, but you’re not a bad person.”
“No! no! no!” he shook off my words like a wet dog after a bath; his eyes puffy and red, filled to overflowing with tears streaming down cheeks that, like his soul, was quickly losing their cute pudgy innocence.
“You’re way too young for this buddy,” I thought as I watched the emotional train wreck smoldering before my eyes.
But there was little I could say to stop the pain; little I could do to convince my com-passionate little man that he was perfectly normal in his flaws.
Eventually, the emotional tidal wave receded and the boyhood urge to get out and play returned. Responsive and repentant, we quickly mapped out a game plan for redemption and, as per usual, Eliot played it out to perfection.
He might have regained his freedom, but I could sense that a boulder had been added to the backpack of his tiny soul. How I wished desperately that I had the power to reach in and throw it down the pool drain, but unfortunately such powers far exceed my pay grade.
Calm and recomposed, Eliot bounced out his bedroom door while I stayed glued to his floor in an upright fetal position, wasted from the 20-minute emotional roller coaster ride we had just endured together.
With my back resting against the side of his bunk bed and my knees holding up my chin, I silently prayed Eliot would soon understand lessons that I’m only beginning to grasp at age 40:
- …that we’re all deeply flawed humans, trying to convince ourselves that we’re good enough to be loved most days
- …that when we fail to express ourselves, we repress ourselves which inevitably leads only to friction, discomfort, and self-destruction
- …that we’d all be better off spending more time embracing the best parts of our beautifully complex humanity as opposed to trying in vain to strip them away.
- … that the more we choose to love ourselves, the better off we will be for ourselves, our loved ones, and the entire world
I resigned myself to the fact that, for now, the best I can do is love Eliot through the hugs and punches and remind him that being perfectly imperfect is the best thing he can be.
That, and keep him from killing his older three brothers.
Thanks for reading. My name is David Smurthwaite. I’m a top writer on Medium in Travel, Parenting, Health, & Short Stories. I’m a father of four rapidly-growing boys, and husband to a near-perfect companion, all of whom I’ve enlisted in writing Why We Roam: a book dedicated to helping families have life-changing experiences around the world.
You can follow our family of seven (including our 16-year-old puppy) on Instagram as we live in four countries (Spain, Rwanda, Vietnam, and Colombia) on four continents over the next 12 months.