Monday, April 5, 2010

Praying for the Burn

Finn put his hand on the hot stove last night, and burned his fingers.   He's okay - lots of ice, hugs and kisses and a good night's sleep and he didn't even mention it this morning.

The stove is one of those issues Finn liked to push.    He knows he isn't supposed to touch it, he knows (forgive the pun) it's a hot button for me.

"It is hot now?" he'll ask, again and again, when he's trying to get my goat.    "It doesn't look hot, so can I touch it here?" he'll say, putting his fingernail on the very corner of the glass.     Each and every time I'll get mad, and say those things Moms say:   I'm not going to tell you again, don't touch it, if you burn yourself it will really hurt, stop it, stop it, stop it.    Like running into the road, it is one of those things I always react strongly to; the stakes are too high to let him learn the lesson on his own.

Last night Steve cooked some popcorn the old fashioned way, in oil in a pot on the stove.   Mere minutes after Steve removed the pot, Finn put his hand on the still-hot burner.     He screamed instantly, cupped his hand and looked at me with wide, terrified eyes.  "IT HURTS MOMMA!  IT HURTS! IT HURTS! IT HURTS SO MUCH!"

We immediately stuck his hand in a bag of ice water, and about five minutes later we could see, with a lot of relief, that it wasn't too bad.   He was going to be okay.

I cradled him on my lap, soothing him.   I didn't lecture, I didn't say I told you so.    His sobs began to subside, and he leaned his head on my chest and said, "I'm sorry, Momma.   I fahgot that one time that you said not to touch it.   I won't do it again."

And he won't.   Once burned, twice shy, as they say.

I realized he just didn't believe us, that he could get seriously hurt.  The stove issue became kind of a game of action/reaction.    He enjoyed provoking a reaction in me, and forgot the message I was trying to drum into his head.     I have told him hundreds of times to stop, and I could have told him one hundred more.  He wasn't going to stop until he burned himself.    All I can do is be thankful it wasn't worse.  

It may seem like I can make anything about recovery, but this example struck home  for me.    I've been there - in that space where people were telling me over and over again to just stop, that I was going to get seriously hurt.    I didn't listen, or I pretended to listen.    I didn't stop until I got good and scared myself.    It was too easy to believe that everyone else was over-reacting, that I was fine, that I knew what I was doing.    Without consciously realizing it, it also became a form of rebellion:   nobody tells me what to do

Like Finn, I just kept waving my hand over the hot stove, testing limits, trying to prove to myself that somehow I was different, that the hot stove may burn others but it wasn't going to burn me.   Terminal uniqueness - that is what they call this phenomenon in recovery.    Not me, I'm different.  

With addiction, the lines are even fuzzier.   As my drinking got worse, I would burn my hand on the proverbial stove.    I would find some way to justify the hurt, the burn, and I would keep right on going.    I would look everywhere but directly at the source of my pain.   Kind of like touching a hot stove and being angry at the stove for burning me, I just wouldn't see that if I stopped touching it, I wouldn't get burned.   I invested all of my energies away from me, from my accountability:   if you had my life, you'd drink, too. 

When someone is actively struggling with addiction, burning themselves over and over, it's a difficult predicament.   Warnings, getting angry, offering cautionary tales - all too often these simply don't work.

Most of the time, all I can do is be there, suit up and show up, when it finally happens.   When the burn comes and this time, for whatever reason, someone has had enough.   All I can do is be present when they hit bottom.  There isn't room for I told you so.    There is only room for action, for showing someone: there is a better way to live.   I'm not saying it is easier, but it is simpler.   

It's an odd feeling, watching someone suffering, and praying: please burn yourself badly, not so badly you can't heal, but badly enough to get your attention.  Badly enough to hit bottom.  Badly enough to get some help.

It is a hard thing to reconcile, this powerlessness thing.    I can't make someone see that they are in pain because they are drinking when they think they are drinking because they are in pain.    I can say to them:  I've been there, you don't have to keep doing this.   But I can't make them hear it. 

I can share my story, show them where my own burn scars are, show them that I'm healing.

But I can't make them look.


  1. Don't we all have nightmare moments like this and then sometimes it becomes true. EEK!

  2. What a beautiful way you describe "terminal uniqueness"...never heard the term but completely relate.

  3. I love this example. I was told so many times by so many different people to watch out! Be careful! Alcoholism runs in the family! Look what happened the last time you drank! (and the time before that, and the time before that...) I never listened or believed. I had to get burned, first.

  4. I'd never thought of it this way, but I love the analogy. Sometimes I think I was as incapable of hearing those warnings as my daughter is of imagining the pain of a burn that hasn't happened yet. I am glad Finn escaped relatively, um, unscathed.