There isn’t a time in your memory when you clearly remember starting or stopping the bedwetting. But there are plenty of times that you recall waking up to the shock of the cold sheets, the shame, the quiet stuffing of wet underpants, of making beds quickly, hoping it would dry before anyone found out, praying it did not smell. Sometimes you would shower if it was your assigned shower day (you rotated with your siblings to keep the water bill down), but it was a decision based on your own immature nose. Sometimes it was so strong you snuck to the bathroom immediately without any siblings hearing, smelling, or seeing. Since you shared a room during all of childhood, this was no easy task. It could be in the dead of night, the house still and dark. Or early dawn with the delicate sun splintering through the blinds. If it was pungent enough, a parent would discover it, sniff it out, and pull the sheets back in dismay. They never said outright they were bothered by it, but you knew it was an inconvenience at the very least. Your family could not afford to have a bedwetter in the house.
The ways you tried to deal with it were myriad. Diapers, for one, which at first were easy enough to pass off in the shopping cart, pretending there was a baby sibling or cousin. You grew out of these quickly, as diapers are meant for small babies, sized by the pound. Not designed for you, they cut into your fleshy thighs and butt.
Your mother special-ordered diapers that arrived in bulk shipment to the house. The brown box was outrageously large, as if it came with screaming red arrows declaring to the neighborhood: BEDWETTER. They were stored in the garage, where you would extract the embarrassing nightwear and shove them into a drawer, careful to not rip them (as you’d made the mistake of doing a few times, the filling turning to cottage cheese). Waking up with wet butt cheeks was not fun, but it was better than wet cheeks and wet sheets. There was still a need to rinse off the smell of urine that soaked onto the skin, and you learned the fine art of tightly winding the soiled diaper, using the tape to seal it together, hoping to trap in the smell. There was no Diaper Genie for elementary aged kids, and certainly your family couldn’t afford it if there was.
Having to pack diapers due to custody sharing, plus a few spare in case you woke in the night with a wet one, was also mortifying, along with the crunching sound that was hard to ignore, the flatness it gave your seven and eight and nine and ten and twelve-year-old butt.
Wakey, wakey, eggs n bakey
Amazingly, you still said yes to sleepovers. These invitations came few and far between, so you really latched onto any invitation. Sometimes you’d stay the whole night, waking up in the morning to revel in sugary breakfast options: cereals and donuts and juice from concentrate. You’d will yourself to not wet the bed, be extra strict about your water intake past 6pm (earlier than the usual 7), sometimes doing all you could to stay up late late late, encouraging friends to watch just one more movie, play one more game. Mostly, though, you called a parent to escape, whispering or saying nothing, hoping they could catch the telepathy you were sending through the phone line, eyes hard on the dial pad. You’d blame your parents, though you were the one who called, under the guise of having to check in, and some half-baked excuse about how your dad needed you home, or got upset with you, and you’d wait awkwardly while everyone got into PJs for your daddy’s rescue headlights to shine into the window.
Angela was a neighbor who lived across the park, and an invitation to sleepover offered a day off from everything. Her mother drove you to the video store to browse movies to rent. She was appalled you’d never seen Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, so it was decided. You hopped back into her boat-like Chevy and cruised home for the fancy pizza-movie-soda sleepover. A new home, a new bed. A new chance to be normal.
You camped in the living room, floor to ceiling windows that they don’t bother putting curtains on, blankets and princess-colored comforters lining the carpet. But your eyes burned trying to stay awake, panic in your throat that you might leak urine again. You were silly to think you could have a day off from this, a reprieve. You woke in the morning as Ang’s father walked past you to the kitchen to brew coffee. You pulled the blanket over your head as you weighed options: pretend to sleep forever and just die there; pretend Ang had put your hand in warm water as a prank; blame it on one of her two little sisters; pretend it was dry, fold it up like a good little helper, and carry on with the day. You went with the latter.
Unfortunately, Ang’s mom was an early riser too and was eager to help you clean up last night’s party. She grabbed the stack of folded blankets from your shaking hands. Here, you said, I’ll put them away. She said, Thanks so much, what a great guest you are.
You feel like this could be true— a good guest. Even a good daughter. The more you help, the less of a burden you are. Taking the initiative, as your father has told you. But you didn’t look her in the eye. How good was her sense of smell? Would your urine be an heirloom for whomever used that blanket next? Likely, they’d just throw it away and buy another.
Relieved you are not caught in the moment, you wondered if Ang’s mom pities you. You don’t think so because she let you eat as much cereal and donuts as you want in their sun-filled home with the wood castle in the backyard, the place where their father makes it snow with a machine each Christmas.
Only you can prevent…!
Even riskier than a local sleepover, you agreed to an overnight camping trip. Megan was a good friend who once had a party at a park near your dad’s house and her mother brought a portable potty that fit in her SUV. Smart, but gross thinking about the collective waste of children sloshing around.
The campground was a long drive away, though everything seems far when you’re a kid. You sat in the dark by the warm lull of the fire, smoke seeping into your young skin. By marshmallow roasting time, you’d eaten dinner and that dreaded bedtime approached. Suddenly, you could not risk it. Where would you rinse off if you peed yourself? In a small tent, surely everyone would smell it. You had the mom call your dad, as Megan sat by the fire, crying, sobbing so melodramatically you realized she liked you more than you’d thought. Her dad consoled her with a bag of M&Ms. While you waited for your daddy to drive the hour (two?) to get you, you had nothing to do but wait in that awkward space. You asked for some M&Ms too.
Her dad gave you a look. He did not give you any.
Among the other strategies you tried to stop bed wetting included a contraption called the Wee-Alert, an uncomfortable metal and plastic sheet to sleep on. When you peed on it (wee) it would wake you up (alert). The alarm worked. But not on you. Instead, it woke up your sister, snoozing dryly on the top bunk, shoving your shoulder until you woke up to her irritated face and another wet set of pajamas. You’d have to take the puddle of piss sliding around the stiff sheet over to the bathroom, careful not to spill along the way and dump it out. It seeped onto the sheets anyway.
At one point, your frustrated, divorced parents tried a few doctors. One urologist diagnosed you with nocturnal enuresis: nighttime bedwetting. Insightful. You knew this already of course, and his advice was: she’ll grow out of it eventually. Anyone else in your family have it? It’s usually genetic.
Another specialist placed you on a steel table in a huge room not unlike what you’d always imagined an autopsy room to feel like. Or how aliens would one day inevitably dissect your body. The light shined onto your crotch as an assistant slid a catheter in and filled you up with an ink to see if your organ was unusually small and underdeveloped. The screen bloomed with the image of your broken bladder.
Tell us when you feel your bladder is full. When it becomes painful, the specialist said.
You hold and hold and hold. Liquid forms in your eyes. You hold.
Your daughter can hold a lot of liquid, he informed them.
You hold. You beam with pride. A good patient.
It was true. You held onto pee like you were scared to let it go, worried to bother people by telling them you had to use the bathroom. Once, in first grade, you were too scared to raise a hand and say the embarrassing phrase: bathroom please. So you held it, squeezing your legs together tightly, pressing feet to floor, eyes watering, willing the urine to just dissolve back to wherever it came from. It was painful. You wondered if the encasing of your bladder would burst, a ruptured bladder, spilling all over circle time.
You’re so in the habit of holding your bladder, you hardly notice when you have to pee. You can go hours without using the toilet. A sense of accomplishment really. In school you never used your two allotted bathroom passes in school so you could turn them in for extra credit. Good bladder, good girl.
Soon, this led to infections. UTIs and bladder and kidney. One night you awoke in stark throbbing pain. The emergency room doctors ran test after test. Just a bladder infection, they said, shaking their head. They thought maybe it was something else, something more exciting. Kidney stones or a bursting appendix. You were put on antibiotics over and over and over, like daily Flintstone vitamins you’d see on commercials at Ang’s house.
The class had transitioned to story time on the carpet, but you were sitting on a chair, afraid to move, knowing one tiny motion would set the whole thing loose. By the time you finally got to the bathroom, you’d already left a puddle behind on the chair, praying it would miraculously get caught up in the evaporation cycle we were singing about. It did not.
Your emergency contact card had the neighbor’s information. The blonde stay-at-home mom with the long legs came to collect your stinky soiled clothes. You’ve never felt more ugly in your whole life. There was a plastic baggie with your name written on it. Spare clothes in case of an accident. You brought a fresh pair of backup pants the next day.
When you did eventually go to the bathroom, emptying your bladder by pushing on your stomach, trying to ring it dry, timing it to avoid another person hearing you urinate, the sound of your liquid hitting the toilet bowl water.
You repeated this ritual the last second before you hopped into bed. Squeeze, squeeze, squeeze like a lemon you hate.
And yet you continued wearing diapers for several years.
Your mother tried bribing you with seltzer water. It was a calorie-free option because she did not want to exacerbate the other issue of your body (fatness). At the time, a liter of these bubbles set the house back almost $3 and the ‘flavor’ was considered a treat to your mother, who only allowed bulk brown rice and the chunky off-brand peanut butter. If you went an entire week and reported back dry diapers, you could luxuriate in this refined beverage, all to yourself. The only thing you did not have to share with your three siblings. It even had your name written on it with permanent marker. It happened a few times, this prized seltzer water, but it would go flat by the time you could get it all down.
You’d never heard of the place, let alone your suburban teachers when they asked why a permission slip for an upcoming trip to a museum hadn’t been signed. Well, who is taking care of you, they asked. You covered for your mother because you knew she could get into, like, huge trouble for being gone for so long, and so far away, so you let your sister, the crafty one, forge your mother’s signature. When she was finally back in town, she told you about the leeches that covered her body when she emerged from the river, the frostbite she got on her nose and toes while she trekked the Himalayas, the blood that a toothless crone sucked from her stomach to cure something deep within her body. You said, I want to go with you next time. She’d been twice already. You thought, this lady could suck the bedwetting right out of me.
Bedwetting is normal for kids age three as they potty train and learn how to use their bodies. Four-year-olds, excited by dry diapers, graduate to pick out cool superheroes or Barbies on their patterned Pull-Ups. It becomes a problem, however, if the child is over age six, if it occurs twice or more in a week and persists longer than three months. It’s more common with boys, and less common the older one gets. Five percent of ten-year-olds do it. Most doctors tell parents to relax, the kid will grow out of it. But within the ‘growing out of it’ stage, there are, in a great year, 359 wet diapers to deal with, a wall calendar with only a pathetic few Xs to track the dry nights. It’s stressful while you’re growing out of it, holding onto the humiliation deep within your cells.
You’d get sent to school each year, dressed in a new outfit, hair curled from overnight pink foam rollers, feeling excited, maybe even confident, until you had to hand over the Calamine-lotion-pink nurse’s cardstock stating: chronic urinarytract infections (UTIs)!! Your private privates becoming public privates.
You were already the fat kid in town and had bizarre skin conditions like impetigo, a bacterial infection characterized by honey-colored crust, keratosis pilaris or as kiddos call it, chicken skin, and warts like a child-witch. Your parents were the only ones in town divorced, and later, when your dad croaked, the only single-parent Chilean family. To say you were alone, or as kids would later pity-vote you, most unique, was a gross understatement. Everyone got voted something that year: best dressed, smile, personality. You were none of these.
Was something wrong with your brain? Were you just a really deep sleeper? Perhaps. There’s footage of you dead asleep, not even a flicker in the eyelids, as your siblings and father danced around your still body to the Supremes on his record player. They kept turning it up to see your capacity and never reached it, for fear of upsetting the neighbors. When you hear of your sound-sleepness, you feel like Sleeping Beauty. A good girl. You swell with specialness. Then you remember the princess’s perfect hair and presumably dry dress as she slept for days and months and no longer feel worthy of the self-made comparison.
Was it genetic? You think your paternal grandfather begrudgingly admitted he wet the bed as a very young boy, but quickly outgrew it and it was no big deal. You wanted to be nothing like this asshole. You’d later speculate he was sexually abused.
Was it related to sexual trauma? At the time, your parents did not know. Neither did you. It would take the death of your father, the death of your grandmother three months later, the death of your grandfather a month after, and a family member telling you that she was abused for the memories to push forward incessantly enough so that you could no longer ignore it. Maybe you understood by thirteen or fifteen, but by that time you had, in fact, outgrown bed wetting, perhaps puberty or losing a father signaling to the body that you had to finally become an adult and stop messing around with this monstrous habit.
Only a handful of times did you deal with both blood and urine.
What doctors said was true. You outgrew it. At least the urine part of it. But when you got your first period this was now the thing that woke you at night. The painful cramps which nothing relieved. The blood-soaked underwear and sheets. Though practically odorless, this was much harder to hide.
Your subconscious really did you a solid, blocking out your first assault for years. But then the night terrors came raging back, those sweat-soaked sheets. Sometimes he held a knife, glittering in the moon-washed room. Or he could just be standing over you, watching you blissfully dozing, your vulnerable cheeks flushing with sweet sleep-warmth. Sometimes you wake with a start, as if you shouldn’t have fallen asleep at all. The cold wet is the first thing you feel: drool. You remember the Mapuche mythology of the Colo Colo, the serpent that feeds on saliva from people who are sleeping and wonder how much it’s fed on you.
You dream of aliens abducting you, languidly waiting in their flying saucers in the sky for you to shut your little eyes, the terror of their experiments and prodding playing on a loop in your brain. You’d wake with a start, expecting them to be peeping at you with their black peepers, reaching out a Mars-y elongated grey finger, a burst of light, and then you’d never see your own bed ever again.
You’ve been a stomach sleeper your whole life, a hard habit to break. No matter how many pillows you buy, the memory foam mattress, the tricks you try to fall asleep on your back or side, you wake up, cheek pressed to the sheets, your stomach cradled by the mattress in a lulling coo of comfort. The pain is so bad it shocks your entire system awake, your back pulsates. It hurts to breathe. You turn the lights on.
Not real death, not yet anyway. Perhaps it’s a recurring dream, or as one energy worker called it, a lucid dream, that you are being called to be a light worker. Your hands pulse open-close, open-close, a Morse code, your palms hot with energy, almost every night, at almost exactly the same time. It’s a strange feeling, this in-between world, like you’re being pulled yet falling yet floating. It feels scary and fake yet too real to bear. You say out loud against the thrum of blood in your eardrums in the dark bed: Am I dead? Am I still alive? I don’t want to die.
But you kind of do. Because you are still there, in your bed, alone and dry.
Christina Berke is a teacher and a Libra. Previous work appears in Literary Orphans, Cleaver, and The Hunger. She is currently working on an intergenerational memoir about mothers and daughters, and her Chilean grandmother’s friendship with President Salvador Allende during the 1973 military coup. More at http://www.christinaberke.com.