I think I was about 9, my sister 3, when she received the Disney read-a-long book and tape for Sleeping Beauty. Tara listened to it all the time, as kids tend to do. At that age, also as kids tend to do, I loved nothing more than acting goofy to make my parents laugh.
In the story, Maleficent places a curse on Aurora: on her sixteenth birthday she will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and die.
One afternoon, I was goofing on this and did a pretty convincing witch and “cursed” my mother to the fate of Aurora on her 50th birthday. The immediate dread that sunk my stomach is as vivid a childhood memory as any I can recall. I apologized profusely and sought reassurance from mom.
Me: “That won’t really happen, will it?”
Mom, laughing nervously: “I certainly hope not”
I can’t say if I actually spooked her or if she thought my fear was a silly kid thing. I never had the courage to follow up with her. She died when I was 17, so I can’t ask now. Unfortunately, I had already been experiencing anxiety at that age (that started with kindergarten) and I obsessed constantly over what I had said to my mother. Bedtime was the worst. Every night, I lay awake in the dark certain I had condemned my mother to die, feeling scared and shameful, not sleeping.
This continued for years. I honestly think I hadn’t fully shaken it until after her death. As I got older, it wasn’t as bad at night and I didn’t really think the curse would work. I learned to use my love of reading as a coping strategy: I would read late into the night until I literally fell asleep with the book. Thus began a pattern in my life of being unable to sleep if I had worries on my mind (which I always have).
The effects of this traumatic moment remained, to the extent that I recall thinking after she died that finally it was over and I didn’t end up killing my mother after all. Pile on a ton more shame and guilt for having even had this fleeting thought. As an adult, I can see both the silliness of my fears and the way a mind already broken by mental illness would use this as evidence of my being a bad person.
I don’t blame anyone for this incident, but there are lessons in its telling. Highly sensitive, introverted children with anxiety are terribly fragile and need support, reassurance and in many cases, professional help. My parents didn’t know this. And even if they had the tools, I was never able to ask for help.
I avoided this fairy tale my entire life because it triggers negative, shameful feelings. In a twist of fate no one could predict (I certainly hadn’t told her the story), my daughter bought tickets to see a ballet interpretation of Sleeping Beauty on my 50th birthday. We didn’t go, as I didn’t feel strong enough, but we did talk about what happened for the first time.
There is an odd serendipity to the timing and choice of this ballet. I like to think that maybe, somehow, it was my mother reaching out to let me know, finally, that it’s ok. That I wasn’t a bad kid, I didn’t curse her to die, and I shouldn’t carry this shame any further. I will try.
Peace & progress,