Tonight, I tucked the toddler I nanny into her brand new big girl bed, as the sun set outside. We curled up in her reading corner, read four books by lamplight- and then another two- before she crawled into bed with her doll and the tattered blanket she's dragged around since birth, wriggling down into the pillow mountain and the zoo of stuffed toys. I turned off main lamp and kissed her good night, before turning on my heels and leaving her in the dark.
"Stop!" she called, before I made to the door.
I paused for a moment, turning around to see her clutching her beloved doll, fear in her deep blue eyes.
"I a wittle bit scared of dark".
The last few- six, to be specific- months have been hard. She turned two, and the nightmares started. She'd wake crying and yelling out, but is unable to articulate what the dreams are about.
Instead of placating her fears and leaving her to fret herself to sleep- or worse, to stay up worrying in the dark- I motioned for her to move over. I turned the lamp back on, and crawled into the mountain of pillows and stuffed toys she had sunk down into, wedging the side rail out for more room.
"You know what? Sometimes I am too".
Her big blue eyes were wide, wider than I'd ever seen them.
"Big girls get scared too?"
"Yeah baby, big girls get scared too". I nodded.
She thought about this for a moment. "I no know that. Big girls dus so bave".
"Even grown ups get scared sometime. Want to hold hands for a little while? Until you're feeling brave again?"
She nodded and squeezed my hand tight, curling under her covers. She squeezed her eyes shut and the warm yellow lamplight made her look even younger than her two and a half years. Her chubby cheeks were pink and her ringlets were everywhere and her lips didn't quite close.
That's the thing about anxiety. You don't know when it will show up, an uninvited guest to the party.
As a child, the darkness was overwhelming. Some nights, it still is. For the first four and a half years of my life, I shared a bedroom with my older brothers, the three of us squashed in together. Jack on the top bunk, Nathan on the bottom, and me on a mattress in the corner because every night, without fail, I'd fall off the bed and onto to the carpet with a thud. Nathan, thirteen months my senior, had the same queasy feeling about the dark, but unlike me, fell asleep the second his head hit the pillow. It was like he had an off switch, something I never felt was fair.
Every night we'd crawl into our respective beds and the light would be turned down as dull as it could go, before I started my night time ritual of tossing and turning and laying this way and that, needing a drink of water and in turn, needing to get up to go to the bathroom.
Every night, I'd request one more story. I didn't care who read it. I'd ask for another blanket, or less blankets, or another toy to cuddle. I'd ask someone to stay with me, or I'd ask to stay with them. But eventually, the sound of my brothers' deep breathing would lull me to sleep.
Things got progressively worse when I was moved into my own little blue bedroom. In the daylight, it was my sanctuary. A boy-free zone in my house full of brothers, with my own reading corner full of our Golden Books and the doll cradle Dad built for my first birthday and a pretty pink fairy patterned quilt on the bed I tried not to fall out of. It held my basket of dress ups and so many blank notebooks for me to fill with my tales of make believe.
In the dark, it wasn't so nice.
The dark was lonely and too quiet and the things that looked so friendly in the daytime looked scary at night time. The sound of my brothers' deep breathing had lulled me to sleep for four and a half years, and my own shallow breaths were all my room had to offer.
So, once the light was turned down to a dull glow and my parents retreated back down the stairs, I'd haul my pretty pink fairy covered quilt off the bed and, hugging the knitted clown gifted to me at birth, make the ten small steps down the hallway to my big brothers' room. It wasn't any less scary in their room, but there were other people to keep me safe.
Some nights, I'd take the corner where my mattress used to be, but others I'd curl up at their feet. Usually Nathan's, but if I could heave my quilt up to the top bunk, I'd squeeze beside Jack.
Before going to bed, one of my parents would scoop me up and place me in my own bed.
This nightly ritual continued for six months, in which my parents reconsidered their decision to relocate me. They began to wonder if it had been the best idea, and if it would make everything easier to drag my mattress back into my brothers' room and wait until I was older.
Sometime very soon after turning five and starting kindergarten, I stopped. I learned how to cope with the darkness. The soundtrack to my favourite films filled the darkness with something I didn't know I needed, and it didn't seem so lonely. I still tossed and turned and needed water and trips to the bathroom and the occasional extra blanket (I still wanted the extra story too, but hiding my favourite books and a torch under the covers gave me a thrill) but the dark wasn't so scary.
At five, I didn't let anxiety take over.
At thirteen, I did.
I was diagnosed with epilepsy three days after my thirteenth birthday- a real smack in the face as I entered my teenage years.
During the day, I'd hide away in my little blue bedroom, a sanctuary away from brothers and the noise that followed my family. But at night, the darkness was too much.
Some nights during my thirteenth year, when the dark became too hard, I dragged my quilt- blue and patterned with frangipanis- and pillow into my big brothers' room. The bunks had been long replaced with two single beds, making the room smaller, but I'd still curl up in the corner, their breathing lulling me to sleep. On the very worst nights, like a cat, I'd curl up at the foot of Jack's bed, my six foot four inch tall brother subconsciously moving his feet to give me space.
Similarly to when I was first moved into the little blue bedroom at the end of the hall, my father would carry me back to my bed before he went to sleep for the night.
This didn't last very long. I kept my night time wanderings up for maybe two weeks, before they stopped as suddenly as they'd started. Aside from one particularly rough night during my fourteenth year, I haven't dragged my blankets down the hall since.
The darkness overwhelmed me to the point where I could no longer see the light. I stopped seeking comfort in my brothers, because I didn't know how to anymore. I sunk away from my family, and it took a very long time for me to return.
I'm twenty two now, and while some days are a struggle, I'm not in the dark place I once was. I have Sad Days. I have bad days. Sometimes, I have more Sad Days than I have good days. But I am not alone, something my thirteen year old self couldn't comprehend. I'm surrounded by my family and friends- the same family and friends that I had tried so hard to push away during the Worst Times- creating an intricate web of support, even during the Worst Times.
I'm also accompanied by a tiny blonde partner in crime who spews wisdom so beyond her two and a half years that she often floors me. Last Thursday, she looked at me with seriousness in her big blue eyes and said "broken crayons still work". I'm constantly in awe of this tiny human, filled with knowledge and curiosity and a zest for life like I've never seen.
She twirls through life, seeing the magic in every situation. She is a wonderful source of entertainment and wonder and lights up every room. Her imagination is one like I've never seen, and her creativity is on a completely different level. She is a ray of sunshine, in every sense. Until she isn't, and that's where I have to step in.
Tonight, I held her hand until she fell asleep. One chubby, sweaty hand- clinging onto the last of her baby fat, as she enters her childhood- clutched mine and the other wrapped tightly around her blanket and her doll. I held her hand until her breathing settled from short gasps to long, even breaths, just moments away from dreamland. I held her hand in mine and used the other to push her ringlets off her forehead.
Change is unsettling, and the dark is confronting.
But my girl is not alone. I am not alone.
You are not alone.