When I was three or four years old I used to hold my breath until I would pass out. I don’t remember these incidents so much as the stories my mom tells me later about how they happened. I’d get upset about something: being told no, the injustices of bathtime, a lost binky that can’t be found. My cheeks would puff out, my body go rigid. I’d lock my lips and my eyes would roll back into my head. My lips and fingertips tinged blue. I crumpled to the ground. My mother, or so Daddy always said, freaked out. Strong willed, they called me.
‘Blue breath holding spells’ is well documented early childhood phenomenon. Cynosis is the key indicator—blue fingertips, lips and toes—and the passing out, of course. Experts claim that it is not deliberate, infants and toddlers couldn’t possibly know what they are doing. Doctors advise that parents follow specific guidelines:
- Stay calm. This is your child, flesh of your loins. It might be hard to remember right at this moment, but you do love her very much.
- Lie the child on their side. It is ok to let her lay on the grass.
- Stay with her until she regains consciousness.
- Reassure her with love and kindness.
- Put anything in her mouth or pour a glass of water on her face.
- Tell your wife: “Just leave her, she’ll wake up on her own.”
- Spank her or beat her afterwards for being ‘stubborn and hardheaded.”
Here’s what I don’t remember. It seems a dream: The light rainbows and sparkles at the edge of my vision. My fingers tingle. A rushing sound fills my ears and I dream of the inside hollow of a cheek, maybe my mother’s, where it is humid and fleshy and I nestle in like an infection in the gum, rooted down, inside myself and smile.
My blue breath holding spells started in toddlerhood, teeth gritted, developmentally-advanced resolve far beyond my young years. Pediatricians label these acts beyond a child’s control but what is more controlling, more willful than the stopping of my own breath? Mine were deliberate, leonine acts of defiance. Held in check by the absolute certainty that the world must bend to my desires?
I recall another hazy, maybe memory, of me standing in our front yard, tall pine trees slapping us with dry needles, a musty wind blowing and in the distance, dark thunderheads eating up the afternoon sun. I want only two things: to play outside and be near my father.
Daddy is trimming the hedges while I pull up snatches of grass and when he says time to go inside, an iron resistance, like a tsunami of will—liquid and all powerful—swells within me. My stubby legs go rigid, my tiny bottom drags and I dig my fingers deep into the crumbly, rich Georgia mud. I am not going anywhere until I am damn ready.
Daddy’s rules for raising a ‘stubborn child’
- Use the switch or a belt when she won’t listen.
- Lean the child across a chair or your knees. Make her hold still.
- Make her stand in a corner when the beatings don’t work.
- Understand that her stubbornness comes from no one listening to her.
- Find ways to ignore her even harder.
- Forget that humiliation works but only when she’s older.
Daddy doesn’t believe in coddling a child. He snatches me up by one arm, plants me standing on the grass, whacks my butt and points at the house. I clamp my lips tight and stand unyielding, determined. One long inhale, a plane before takeoff, and then I stop breathing—staring into his shocked, blue eyes.
I see his face redden and can smell the spring rain mingled with the scent of fresh cut grass and moldy earth. He must be yelling because his mouth moves but I hear nothing. I am falling, into the dark calm, the cheek hollow, the muggy quiet.
Sudden thunder explodes. I jolt back to life, scream as a flash of lightening slices the air above us. I jump up, shocked, and run for the safety of the front porch and only then turn, tears flowing, to see my father standing in the rain, hands on his knees, bent double, laughing.
I never hold my breath again.
Jamie Etheridge’s work has been published in X-R-A-Y Lit, (mac)ro(mic), Bending Genres, JMWW Journal, Emerge Literary Journal, Coffin Bell Journal and Inkwell Journal among others. She placed second in the Versification Contest 2021 for Mosh Pit CNF. She tweets at LeScribbler.