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My Child, the Chupacabra

We tried to understand, to reason with Eve, but half the time what she was campaigning for with her roaring and writhing didn't even make sense.
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It all started with namaste.

My husband is a lapsed Catholic. I am an atheist who occasionally bends agnostic. Struggling with what sweet ritual to do with our almost-three year old just before bed, we started saying namaste and bowing slightly, and she would return it, pronouncing it lahmaste.

It went well for awhile. Then one night our sweet Eve turned on us. "Take back those lahmastes!" she spat, glowering and making a throwing motion.

"That's not nice, Eve," we said. But we didn't pay it too much mind. She's a spitfire, we thought, then we did the dishes and went to bed laughing about it.

The next day, though, the namaste-hater reappeared, and this time she was vicious.

"I will not put on shorts! I. WILL. NOT!" Eve screamed with an intensity that surely could be heard down the block. Not putting on one's shorts would have been fine if we didn't have somewhere to be, but we did -- the airport, as a matter of fact. So as calmly and nicely as a therapist, I told her she had to get dressed. And she lost it. There was shrieking, flailing, thrashing -- the likes of which I'd never seen from her, or anyone else. It went on for over an hour and there was just no calming her.

"I don't want to wear shorts! I don't want to wear shorts! I don't want to wear shorts!" she repeated close to 167 times. She chanted it till she was breathless and hiccuping, long after I told her it didn't have to be shorts, it just had to be something.

Marty and I looked at each other flummoxed; we had no idea what to do, except hope (not pray, really) that it was some sort of kooky anomaly.

We should be so lucky. The next day? Same thing. This time Eve went rabid after I carried her up the stairs instead of letting her walk up on her own. Had I known she wanted to walk, I'd have let her. Because, who cares? But half way up the stairs, when she realized she was being toted up there and that's not what she wanted, the damage was done. She was deeply, deeply offended, as if I had bought her a huge ice cream cone then hurled it across the street.

"No, no, no, no, NO!" she shrieked at very high decibel levels, and again left her body and was replaced by the devil. In the course of the windmilling, a night stand came down and so did a lamp. There was actual growling. We picked up the tiny tornado and put her in her crib so she wouldn't injure herself. Delirious with anger, she tried repeatedly to launch herself out, but we stood by, keeping her in.

Who the hell was this? And where was Eve?

After that, Marty and I feared the evenings, when the three of us were together. And then it started to happen first thing in the morning, too, and then pretty soon, she was unleashing it intermittently all day long. Eve reserved the fits for just us at first, then she expanded to include her babysitters and grandparents. And one never knew when an eruption was coming; 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. was filled with invisible land mines. And it would happen fast; she could go from happy toddler laughing to Lucifer toddler jack-knifing in mere seconds. Life sucked.

We tried to understand, to reason with Eve, but half the time what she was campaigning for with her roaring and writhing didn't even make sense. One time, she insisted that I get her out of her car seat -- not Marty. But she knew I was away running errands. Another rampage came when she insisted that Marty wash her hair, but she was knew he was still at work. A few times, she regaled us with her fury when we wouldn't let her put a pee-soaked diaper back on. We tried to explain, calmly and nicely, why we couldn't or wouldn't provide these things, but she was hearing none of it. Instead she just wanted to tear us limb from limb.

The cornerstone of most of the tantrums was an obsession with getting us to go back and redo a series of events that hadn't unfolded to her liking. To her, this equaled the annulment of what had gone before. "Put me back in the tub so I can get wet again and when I get out you can NOT dry my legs!" she demanded on a continuous loop one night. We said no. She continued collapsing to the floor in body-filling grief and hate, a marionette whose strings kept getting sliced.

Very quickly, Marty and I transformed from busy, fulfilled people charmed by our sassy, verbal, mildly contrarian tot, to worn out, tense, pissed-off, limping husks, our insides gutted, our brains confused.

The advice all around us was to stay calm, to avoid taking it personally, and to just try to remember that this is a tiny child with a still-developing brain. That sounds great and all, until you're in the thick of the furor, getting thrashed and trashed daily by a violent gnome that lives in your house, a gnome to whom you refuse to give the upper hand. Then you are frustrated and you are mad, and it becomes a Sisyphean task to calm yourself. I came to think of our kid as Eve of Destruction.

And Marty. Poor Marty. He can take a beating. He is a husband, experienced in being yelled at by ladyfolk. But just like those Bobo dolls from the 60s, he always came back up smiling. Not so when Eve started her rampages. If Marty had to ride the tide of one for an hour, afterward he seemed shaken and depressed. He'd just go to bed, head held low. Nothing I said or did would return him to regular upbeat-guy status. This was bad.

I had lost Eve and now Marty was slipping away, too.

In the throes of it, I posted a message on Facebook looking for advice from friends, but also to see how common this was. Folks had great suggestions, but not many could actually relate. "Uh-oh," I thought, envisioning all manner of unfortunate diagnoses. Obsessive-compulsive disorder? Bipolar disorder? Tourette's? A bad case of ADHD? All of the above?

I tried hard to get inside Eve's head. Maybe, I thought, this is her reaction to all the change going on. Her beloved babysitter was cutting back her hours and new babysitters were starting. The school year was ending at Eve's pre-pre-school, where she had frolicked three days a week for the last nine months, and a summer of uncertainty was getting under way. "You're going to summer camp," we told her, but she has no idea what "summer" or "camp" are. (Not overnight camp, of course -- just day camp, around the corner.) On top of all that, Eve's good buddy's mom was getting ready to have a baby, taking the buddy off the grid for awhile, and also probably highlighting for super-nurturing and social Eve the fact that she has no siblings and none are coming.

Or maybe it's a growth spurt, someone suggested. Or the fact that her daily naps are starting to dwindle to three-times-a-week naps, and she's just plain wiped. A few people suggested that maybe it had to do with her being adopted, but we quickly dismissed that. We've had Eve since she was two days old, were at the hospital when she was born; she has always been attached to us, which rules out attachment disorder.

Maybe she's just ... mean? Mean and crazy?

Take notes, someone told us, so you can see patterns. I did, and started to realize that about 65 percent of the terrible triggers lay in the realm of small transitions, namely getting dressed and getting out of the tub. But the remaining 35 percent were wild cards; they could be about anything, really -- anything the creature formerly known as Eve suddenly decides is repugnant.

Some friends suggested attempting to deactivate the fury by getting Eve into a sensory deprivation chamber of sorts. I tried it. Mid-fit, I put Eve into her crib, dimmed the lights, closed the door and just hung out next to her while she flipped about hitting her head and belting out nonsensical demands from the diaphragm. If I engaged her on the demands, she just got madder, so I mostly stayed quiet, a supportive presence. When she wasn't feverishly catapulting herself about, I put a hand on her leg. This worked. Eventually she calmed down, the Eve we knew re-inhabited the body, and we were able to go on about our day. This turned out to be an effective but time-consuming reset button, taking up to an hour at times. But it was all we had in the arsenal.

In rare moments of clarity, even Eve seemed to understand the inanity of it all. During sensory-deprivation re-inhabitation one time, she squeaked through tears, "Why won't you let me jump out of the crib?" I told her it was for her safety, so she wouldn't get hurt. When I asked, "Why do you want to jump out of the crib so badly?" she gave me a look that said, "Yeah -- why do I want that?" It was as if she was coming out of a spell, not recognizing the her of five minutes ago.

My mom, who raised five kids, declared the whole thing just a phase that would probably last a month, which I doubted. She also suggested ignoring Eve. "If one of you kids started behaving like that, I wouldn't have had time to pay any attention to it. You'd have been thrashing alone. And you would have gotten the message."

Mom also diagnosed Eve as simply trying to get attention. But my mom is in Florida, 1,000 miles from us in the D.C. area, and not actually witnessing the fits. Attention-seeking didn't ring true for us. It felt more like a control thing. How much stupid shit can I get Mom and Dad to do? How far can I push them? Where do they stand in the hierarchy of power compared to where I stand?

Although, I don't think it was completely calculated, either. When Eve was really far gone, I could see in her eyes that some mysterious switch had flipped and suddenly whatever illogical thing she was demanding seemed quintessential to her well-being. If she didn't achieve the odd necessity she was pursuing with her every fiber, her world was going to break right open and hemorrhage all over and drown us all. This was the element that made us think we'd be seeing a child psychologist soon.

To stave that off, I began overthinking and overstrategizing everything I did with Eve. The goal: to keep the peace, while at the same time not giving in and letting her establish alpha-dog status. I started announcing all my moves around transitions, and I'd take her silence as implied buy-in. Here we go, we're getting out of the tub now, you dig? In a second, I'm going to lift you, and first I'll dry your hair, then your face, got that? At the same time, I made sure to offer her at least two choices on most matters, so as to give her the illusion of control (not: do you want to get dressed? But: we're getting dressed; do you want this outfit or that one? I kept carrots dangling on a stick at all times (if you get out of the bath and get your jammies on, and you are nice the whole time, I have new Dora stickers for you).

Sometimes this worked and sometimes it didn't; when Beelzebub really got hold of our daughter, she no longer cared about Fruit Roll-Ups and stickers; she cared only about kicking our asses.

One day about a month into all this, I braved going alone with Eve to a birthday party. There, I fell into a conversation with a woman I know who has a boy Eve's age, and she reported to me the exact same thing. I mean exact, down to the triggers that sent her little guy thrashing, and the level of fear she and her husband now had of being alone with their son. And then she told me that every parent in her playgroup is reporting the same thing about their almost-three year olds. Every one of them!

My conscious mind fell back into a La-Z-Boy just then, put one hand in its pants and downed a 22.-oz. Sapporo. Eve is not alone, I thought. Eve is ok. Either that, or that entire play group is crazy. But I doubt that. It seems more likely that Eve is ok. A-ok.

And magically, uncannily, right after that, our giggly, funny daughter started to spend a bit more time with us, and conversely, the gnashing chupacabra was showing up less. And the intensity of the ragings was scaling back bit by bit, too. The first time Eve made it through an entire day without trying to rip our heads off, Marty and I practically wept with gratitude. Pretty soon, Eve's moments of upset were back where they had been at the start of all this: so small, so basic, so normal that we could just talk her out of them, or distract her with something shiny.

In total, the scourge lasted about a month and a half, up and leaving us about as quickly as it had descended. As much as I hate to admit it, Mom was right: it was a phase. The worst phase imaginable. But still, just a phase.

"Namaste," we said to Eve the other night.

"Lahmaste," she said, adding, "You're silly."