The Boy Who Can't Wake Up

Like a character in a fairy tale, her son is lost in asleep from which he can’t awaken. But this is real life, and his mother won’t rest until she breaks the spell

by Martha Ann Overland
boy sleeping image
Photograph: Elinor Carucci; Angel’s Hair, 2008, Courtesy of Sasha Wolff Gallery

My son has several theories as to why doctors always take so much of his blood. He favors the explanation that they are selling it. And he thinks that if they are going to take nine vials at a time, he should get a cut of the money.

“That seems fair,” I said as we walked out of the children’s hospital, past the kids parked in wheelchairs and the toddlers with blank stares cradled in their parents’ arms. “But if that is true, why did they want your urine?”

“That threw me, too,” he said, theatrically dropping his voice to a whisper. “Those doctors are sick.”

But those doctors are not sick. My son is.

It seems that Aaron has always had a headache. Even when he was six years old, his head hurt. The pain would last a few days, which over time became weeks, then months. When the headaches got worse, he stopped eating. By the time he was a teenager, the pain was so bad, he was frequently hospitalized.

For much of Aaron’s life, we lived in Asia, where my now ex-husband and I worked as journalists. So this is where we started our medical journey. Doctors in Bangkok injected Aaron with a metallic dye and scanned his brain. Technicians in Singapore attached wires to his head and his heart. Traditional Vietnamese doctors used acupuncture and fire cupping to open his meridians. During frequent trips back to see specialists in America, they took more blood.

Aaron stoically endured each medical test, even the spinal tap. He asked for only one thing. Sleep. If I would promise he could go back to bed, Aaron would stick out his arm, let the nurse tighten the strap and wait for the needle.

Each doctor had a different diagnosis—from stress to migraines to autoimmune disorders—depending on whether the specialist was a psychiatrist, a neurologist or an immunologist. We left each visit with sacks of uppers and downers, vessel dilators and channel blockers, antibiotics and steroids. I believed that every new diagnosis and every new pill held the answer, if not the cure.

They never did.

Often the medicines made him worse. One night in our house in Hanoi, when Aaron was 14, I found him splayed out on the stairs. I had given him several new medications before putting him to bed. Now he couldn’t remember how to use his arms and legs, which he thought was terribly funny.

Aaron told me he saw blue elephants, marching in pairs out of the light. “Don’t you see them?” he asked, pointing. “They are so pretty.” Then he opened his mouth wide. “Uk ma, I ca swa ma ton!” he said, laughing. (Look, Mom, I can swallow my tongue!) A moment later, he was gagging and terrified. He believed he really had swallowed his tongue.

I was just as terrified, and I tried to get him to vomit the pills. Then I typed the name of the newest medication into Google. Apparently, to “quiet” his cerebral cortex, the neurologist in Bangkok had prescribed Rohypnol, the so-called date rape drug banned in the United States. I had roofied my own son.

Not all medicines were useless, however. There were nights when the headaches were so bad that Aaron would wake and go wandering. Sometimes it was like having a newborn baby nearly the size of a grown man. I was sleeping only a few hours each night. Just as I would get him back to bed, the neighbor’s dogs would start barking. Their miserable cries set off mine. My curses out the window, in Vietnamese and English, soon had the rest of the neighborhood creatures yowling. So in my nightgown I climbed onto a garden chair and aimed well, flinging meatballs stuffed with Aaron’s Valium over the fence. I was a wild-eyed American in her bathrobe, bringing peace to a Vietnamese neighborhood, one pill at a time.

On bad mornings, nothing could wake him. I thought the same thing you are thinking. What kid doesn’t say he’s too tired to go to school? So I tried tough love. Mornings became a battle. On days he made it to school, Aaron fell asleep in class and snored through his exams, which humiliated him. The international school in Hanoi said it had a waiting list of normal children and made clear that it could do better. Aaron curled up into a ball and entered adolescence as a bear cub in hibernation.

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Lisa Caldwell09.16.2013

I loved the writing of Martha Ann Overland and her story about her son The Boy Who Can't Wake Up. Her writing is so heartfelt and her commitment to him is strong and moving. Thank you MORE for publishing great writings like this

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