Augustine is recovering from HFM, otherwise known as the dreaded hand, foot, and mouth disease. He has spent a few nights sitting up in his crib, wobbling out of exhaustion and whimpering out of discomfort. As I would go in to hold him, feeling him twist and hearing him cry in frustration my heart broke for him. But I couldn’t cure HFM through my wishing, just like he couldn’t through his efforts. I had to quiet my fears, and listen to wisdom in order to provide my boy comfort. When my own temperature spiked into a fever and the blisters formed in my own throat, too, I knew for certain that this would be a stretching experience not soon forgotten. I was not expecting it to go as figurative as it has, however.
Hand, foot, and mouth disease is a spreading sort of skin condition that creates countless blistering bumps (among other things). These blisters do what blisters will, but they also dry out and peel off as the body heals. I was told this, and expected something similar to a peeling sunburn. Instead, I was surprised to find the shedding to be hard, thick, and almost sharp, like dragon scales.
Immediately I thought of Eustace Scrubb in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, one of the books in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. Eustace is a spoiled, whiny child who wanders away from the Dawn Treader’s crew on an enchanted island. He finds a horde of treasure, places a bracelet upon his arm, and falls asleep. Upon waking, he discovers that he has turned into a dragon. This literally transformative experience is figurative as well, of course. He realizes his monstrous behaviors and attitudes. He wants help from the crew, is even able to make them see him for him, but they cannot fix it. While still in his scales, he does manage to become helpful and contrite. But he is terrified, and during a mysterious scene he tries and tries to remove the dragon skin. He sheds it multiple times only to find it still remains. He is eventually transformed back into a boy, but not as he expected. We’ll come back to that in a bit.
Reflecting on Scrubb’s experience made me think of my own efforts this year. So much has shifted, literally and figuratively for me as well. Motherhood has both toughened my resolve and softened my harsh edges. You see, my own dragon skin is this deep-seated need for control. It has manifested itself differently over my lifetime, and to varying extremes. The tricky thing about a control issue is that in order to “fix” it, I can’t overdo. I can’t take control of a control issue, because that is the control issue controlling me. Confusing, right?
Control comes from this place of fear. It is the illusion that if I am in charge, nothing can go wrong. And if it does, at least it is my fault. It is understandable. Fixable. Controllable. Illusion probably is too innocent of a word. Just like Eustace’s transformation was not just a trick of smoke and mirrors but of actual, physical flesh, my control issue is a vicious lie that I tell myself on repeat without even knowing it most of the time.
In the past, it reached a crescendo through anorexia. That happened at a time of transition and identity shift; graduating from high school while my parents separated and my brother moved out while not having any definite plans of my own for the future. Recovery from anorexia, that ugly arm of control, took years and treatment, medication, counseling, supportive relationships, and divine intervention. But recovery from the eating disorder wasn’t deliverance from control.
To understand the difference between recovery and deliverance, it’s time to look at Eustace’s transformation:
Part 3 from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader:
“Then the lion said — but I don’t know if it spoke — You will have to let me undress you. I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it.
“The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was jut the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. You know — if you’ve ever picked the scab of a sore place. It hurts like billy-oh but it is such fun to see it coming away.”
“I know exactly what you mean,” said Edmund.
“Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off – just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt – and there it was lying on the grass, only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there was I smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me – I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on — and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again. . . .”
While recovery from anorexia was a huge transformation, over the last 10 years I have quietly slipped back into my scales of control. Like before, this dangerous suit of armor has proven ineffective when ambushed. Parenting is another transitional cannonball into the realm of the unknown and uncontrollable. In most ways it has been delightful. Unexpected smiles, milestones, snuggles and slobbery kisses are joys on a level I never before knew. But in other ways, it is so hard. I chose to breastfeed, but not knowing exactly how much he was eating, if it was enough, was mental anguish for me. His sleep regression was another painful reminder of how much I cannot control in my life anymore. These are good challenges, but they have all offered a choice. Will I pick at my dragon skin myself, owning that I have an issue and working through it partially so that I see some evidence of growth? Or will I let a bigger change be effected?
When I went back to work in February after maternity leave, a few other chaotic factors sort of imploded, and I found myself in Eustace’s shoes, painfully aware that I could not remove my own scales. I will not go back to an eating disorder. I will not go back to smoking cigarettes to numb it all. I had to go beyond myself. I saw Aslan on the beach, if you will, and I knew it was time for more than myself. Because more than myself is counting on me now. So I went back to counseling. And I went back to anxiety medication.
Eustace didn’t need to DO so much as he needed to be still. He needed to reflect, recognize the areas for change, but also his own limitations. As I continue to grow as a person, a professional, and a mom, I see my own efforts to peel my dragon skin. But there are cases when in order for a thing to be done thoroughly, it needs more than I can rush through under the frenzied guise of control. My scales are still peeling. I don’t know if or when they’ll leave me forever. But letting go of knowing is definitely part of letting go of control.
Augustine has let go of trying to stay awake through his illness and is sleeping peacefully in his crib as I write this. Soon I will go in, wake him up, and embrace the unpredictable chaos of spending my day with an 8 month old who is recovering from HFM and leaving literal scales in his renewed energy wake. And I will trust that by doing what I can, and accepting help for what is beyond me right now, I am losing my scales, too.