By Allie Stein Fahlsing, MSW, RP
Taking myself back to my 9-year-old self where the excitement of being invited over to a friend’s house for a sleepover was through the roof. It was during these sleepovers where I could eat junk food that my parents never allowed in the house, probably skip brushing my teeth, and of course stay up way past my bedtime with my friend. It was these fun things that over and over again led me to accept any and all invitations for sleepovers.
However, it was a completely different experience for my parents. In their eyes, I was like clockwork, each invitation I would beg them to let me have a sleepover. Each and every time they would hesitantly say yes (for reasons I will explain later), I would jump with joy and share the great news with my friend. Come the evening for the sleepover, we would pack my bag with pajamas, a stuffed animal, my tooth brush, and a sleeping bag. My parents would drop me off and every time hope that they wouldn’t hear from me (or my friend’s parents) until the morning.
My 9-year-old self would go through the day and evening with my friend and their family having a blast. We would paint each other nails, eat pizza and ice cream, and end the evening watching a movie. It was at that time that I would crawl into my sleeping bag and almost immediately break into tears. Often times I would hide myself under my pillow or deep into my sleeping bag, because I didn’t want my friend to know that I was crying. Scenarios would run through my head about what could happen to me, what if I don’t wake up in the morning, or what if something bad happens to my family while I was not home. The thoughts and feelings in my body became so unbearable that the crying would get louder and louder until my friend ran to get one of her parents.
It was no surprise to my parents when they got the call to come pick me up. They would try and talk me out of coming home over the phone and repeatedly tell me that everything was alright. However, I would still beg them to come pick me up and so they did.
As I now know, my brain was flooded with scared thoughts and my body was overwhelmed with scared feelings. The moment I crawled in my sleeping bag, my heart rate would speed up, my breath become shallow, and I felt knots develop in my stomach. For quite some time, my parents continuously rescued me from having these big feelings and body sensation when they would pick me up in the middle of the night. By rescuing me, I learned that I could not handle these big feelings.
Now picture that same girl begging her parents to go to a sleepover that was at friend’s cottage, 4 hours away. My not-so-fully developed brain didn’t care about all the times I cried in my sleeping bag and had my parents come get me. I did not want to miss out on the sleepover of the summer! Maybe I convinced them that I was older and more mature than the last sleepover I went to (two weeks earlier). I wish I could tell you how, but I did somehow convince my parents to let me go to that sleepover.
I’m sure you can all guess that two weeks of maturity and age did not change my ability to handle my feelings of scared. So, this time, my parents were faced with a new challenge. I cried on the phone and begged them to pick me up. Driving 4 hours to pick me up was not an option for them, so there was no way to rescue me from my scared feelings.
My parents had to dig deep in their tool box and find a way to support me through these intense feelings of scared (without being able to come get me). I remember so clearly, scooting myself deep into my sleeping bag as I spoke to my mom on the phone. On one had I was so worried about what my friends were thinking of me and on the other hand so focused on not being able to make it through the night without seeing my parents.
I heard my mom take deep breaths through the phone and begin what I know now to be called progressive muscle relaxation (PMR). I tried so hard to follow her lead, but it felt so overwhelming that I just kept saying, “this is not working, I just want to come home.” She continued to stay calm and walk me through the PMR. She said, “squeeze your toes as tight as you could, hold, and let them go. Now, move to your thighs. Squeeze as tight as you can and let them go, move to your tummy. Squeeze!! Let go.” The PMR ended there for me (see link below for full PMR script). I had woken up the next morning with the phone right by my ear. I had made it through the night for the first time. While that was not the last time I had to be guided using the PMR in order to fall asleep in my sleeping bag, I did begin to recognize that I could handle feeling scared. Having the ability to recognize that I could guide myself through the PMR allowed me to be able to enjoy all parts of having a sleepover.
To this day, I continue to use the PMR to calm down my mind and body when the energy in my body feels overwhelming.