The Nightmare Force Field

My parents, Mary Jo and Lou, moved to Georgia in 1990. They rented a home in Dunwoody not far from Montgomery Elementary School; that is where I went to school until second grade. It was in first grade that I went on a field trip to a puppet show.

Demonic, Woolen Hell-Beast!

Demonic, Woolen Hell-Beast!

Before the show I had no strong opinions on puppets. They seemed a benign amusement.

After the show I wanted all puppets collected by the government, ritually burned, and the ground salted.

I can remember the show now as clearly as if looking at the far horizon on a day absent clouds. The setting was in medieval times. There were knights fighting dragons, and a damsel to be rescued. So far, standard little kid story-telling with colorful cloth hand sacks. Then came the dungeon scene.

Why was there a dungeon scene in a play for children? No idea. Apparently the director felt an emotional gut punch was necessary, and subjected us to watch the torture of some poor, prisoner puppet. The rest of the show has since faded into obscurity in my mind, but the visual of a tattered puppet chained to a grimy stone wall remains a vivid memory.

I do not remember what happened when I got home that day, but I do remember waking up screaming. The night terrors had arrived. After five days with little to no sleep for myself and my mom, she came up with a brilliant idea.

I arrived home from school, and mom said she had a surprise for me. Taking my hand, she walked me into my bedroom. It looked almost how I left it - a messy collection of clothes, toys, and books. But there was something new above my bed: a ring of Christmas lights.

She let me plug the lights into the socket, and the room was awash in a colorful array of blues, greens, and reds. Then mom explained that this was my nightmare force field. When the force field was on, no bad, scary thoughts could get past the force field. Remember, I was six. Perfectly conditioned by evolution to believe everything mom and dad told me, and, as a human, susceptible to a placebo.

Combining absolute trust in my lifegiver with a well-studied psychological treatment meant that I slept like a baby.

Looking back, my mother was probably more relieved than I was. Her baby could finally sleep soundly, which meant that she had a chance to get some quality sleep herself!

I think this is where my interest in how people think got started. My mom was not a psychologist nor a sleep therapist. She was a sleep-deprived carpenter with a staple gun.

She changed my environment, told me a white lie, and gave me the power to turn my force field on or off. She did all the work, but she gave me the agency to use the force field when I felt I needed it. That agency, not the lights, is what allowed me to block out my nightmares.

Mom did not fix my night terrors. She build support structures around me, and then let me use them to fix my problem.

It’s brilliant parenting.