Monday, October 17, 2011

Relief from suffering and pain and my kids’ vomiting

Have you ever seen a baby vomit? I apologize for the goriness, but Ethan has been vomiting frequently. (More on this in a later blog, but we’re working on figuring out the cause.) Aria vomits too, but not nearly as often.

I was quite traumatized the first time I saw each vomit until I mastered the whole process. But I still worry and stress over the what’s, why’s, who’s, etc. What’s causing it? Why is it happening? How can I make it stop? Who do I turn to for help? And so on. A couple of trips to the pediatrician later, and we now know that Aria’s is nothing to worry about, and we’re still working on figuring out Ethan’s.

As for the process, Aria’s vomit just kind of happens. There’s no prelude or warnings. She vomits, and then looks stunned for half a second. I take her to clean her up and change clothes, and sure enough, she’s laughing and kicking around within seconds.

It’s more or less the same thing with Ethan. Only with him, there’s warning. We run to the sink. He gags and vomits. Sometimes he just gags. He looks as though he’s in pain. He vomits. Maybe a second or third time. He cries. We calm him and soothe him. And then we take him to get cleaned up and changed. And he’s smiling and kicking around again after a few minutes. And that’s pretty much it.

The pain is temporary. Lasts a millisecond with Aria and maybe a few minutes with Ethan. They move on. They’re ready to play again. All smiles.

But not with me. I see the vomit coming. I run for dear life to make sure that minimal damage is done to the house. I’ve had to clean the couches, carpets, my clothing, and their chairs way too many times for my liking at this point. And then there’s the stress of leaving one of them downstairs alone – sometimes in the middle of a feeding - while I take the other upstairs to clean and change. I try to rush to make sure that no one is traumatized or in hysterics because they were left alone while moments before they were enjoying a bottle. And then I think for days about what could have caused the vomit. I speak with the pediatrician and my husband, and we go over all of the scenarios over and over again. To be honest, I don’t even bother calling anymore. I check for temperature sometimes. Nope, no signs of illness. My husband wants to build an excel spreadsheet to pinpoint trends and try to diagnose it. And I pray to God every morning, “Let this be a vomit-free day.”

It totally stresses me out... and they’re playing.

Just to state the obvious: Babies’ brains aren’t as developed as ours; their ego minds haven’t developed at this stage. And so what may seem to be a worrisome event to us is just another blip in time for them. And as a mother who worries – a lot about everything – I am trying to come to some kind of emotional peace with this. I don’t know if I can spend the remainder of my life freaking out all the time about their health. Or perhaps more realistically, I can at least find a way to tone it down. Have some relative peace of mind.

I was thinking about the peace I'm seeking the other day, and I had this gut feeling to Google the word “control” on And sure enough, I found a really great article by Martha Beck, “Get a New Leash on Life” from the August 2002 edition of Oprah Magazine, which I strongly recommend reading.

In it, Beck looks at different kinds of pain and how we can find some solace. She writes that psychologists call my kind of suffering “dirty” pain. In the case of the vomiting, the kids have “clean” pain, which is what we feel when something hurtful happens to us. That blip in time.

She explains, “Dirty pain is the result of our thoughts about how wrong this is, how it proves we-and life- are bad.” Such as the anguish of why the vomit happened, how we can change it, the should’s and could’s. I must confess that I have turned the vomiting in my mind into a really, really big deal. It may in fact be a symptom of something greater – like reflux or a food allergy – but my thoughts and worry around it does not help.

Beck’s article continues, “The two kinds of suffering occupy different sections of the brain: One part simply registers events, while another creates a continuous stream of thoughts about those events. The vast majority of our unhappiness comes from this secondary response – not from painful reality but from painful thoughts about reality.”

When we dwell, discuss, stress about, create stories that may have no basis in reality. Beck tells us that this happens when we try to control – through our thoughts – what we really can’t control.

This doesn’t only apply to physical pain, but also to emotional pain like from a job lay off, a bad breakup, the stress before a surgery or after you’ve already recuperated, the angst when trying to make a big decision, or fretting over a fight with a loved one. The event itself only lasts a few seconds. But the feelings about it will last as long as you let it.

Buddhists, Kabbalists, new age followers, and yogis have been saying for years, suffering ends when we learn to detach from thinking mind. The way to do that is to realize that our thoughts aren’t the truth. It’s what we’ve created, a story we’ve told ourselves. And the way to detach from those thoughts is through presence – such as focusing on your breath, listening to your heartbeat, observing your thoughts, or observing what’s right in front of you. Is there anything wrong at this very moment? Probably not.

Beck goes on to say that even experiences we once feared and hated may become opportunities to awaken our capacity for joy. Because once you become comfortable with uncertainty, the world opens.

Is this was a long way to go from my children’s vomiting? I don't think so. It's these every day events that show us our true selves and also show us where there's work to be done in living life to the fullest. It’s just another example of how we, how I, create thoughts that aren’t necessarily true.

I’m getting better at handling the vomit. I’m taking it as it comes and dealing with it, although still praying to God every morning for vomit-free days. We’re doing everything we can to help Ethan move past it and feel better. And hey, this could be an opportunity to get some new couches. One thing I'm learning for sure is that the world really does open up once you let go of control.

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