He would say this, frequently, throughout our years of raising three children. But it took a long time — as well as some hard times — for it to really sink in. I was convinced that if I followed the instructions in the parenting books, folded in some common sense, and added a dollop of Fun Mom, the child would rise perfectly. They would be kind, empathetic, and of course, stellar students. We would expose them to art, athletics, music and dance. They would pick one of those disciplines and excel.
Yet some children are born knowing their own purpose and path in life. Our middle daughter, Selah, is one of those.
While her sister and brother loved nothing better than to sit in our laps, listening to us read “The Snowy Day” for the hundredth time, Selah would squirm away before Peter even got on his snowsuit. She’d be off chasing the cat’s tail or exploring dandelion fluff, a few yards away on the grass.
My husband and I are readers. He is an appellate lawyer; I studied for a master’s degree in English. However, by 7, Selah had declared that her least favorite place in the world was the public library. Why? Because she just couldn’t stand the feel of paper under her fingers, “all dry and scratchy — yuck!” Throughout her childhood, she would occasionally tell us that the worst torture she could imagine was being forced to file books by the Dewey decimal system.
Around that time, we had a TV channel that screened cooking shows in a continuous loop. Selah would sit there, slack-jawed, watching Giada and Ina Garten. She’d then tear into the kitchen, breathlessly, and exclaim, “Mommy, I want to make an experiment!”
At first, I deflected, knowing that kitchen experiments generally involved me scraping chocolate off the ceiling. But she was irrepressible. The early experiments frequently involved a sauce of some kind and me calling out, “Aaack! You can’t put milk in that . . .” But she would anyway, and the results were, to my surprise, consistently delicious.
I tried enrolling her in cooking classes for kids, but she didn’t last long. While her classmates were making tacos for lunch, she was grilling lamb chops with a cherry marsala wine reduction for dinner. At Thanksgiving, she would sit on the kitchen countertop criticizing my deglazing technique. Eventually, she took over the holiday meals, directing the rest of us like sous chefs. By 14, she was catering cocktail parties.
I had to learn that such children do not require curation, as much as a loving adult who will point their energies in the right direction — kind of like a revved-up Hot Wheels toy car — and watch them go.
But it wasn’t until Selah was 15, and our house was gutted by fire, that I came to appreciate how headstrong children have a natural advantage for overcoming adversity.
Mercifully, we were out of town when an electrical outlet overheated in the middle of the night, setting the couch on fire. But the psychic damage was soul-crushing. The house burned a year to the day from the murder of a close relative. We were already reeling from that loss, when the fire knocked us all completely off course.
About a month after the fire, Selah’s science teacher remarked that a fan in the classroom had overheated the day before. That sent her to the nurse’s office, hyperventilating. The following week, steam from the boilers set off the school’s smoke alarm, sending fire trucks racing to the building. Selah wouldn’t go near the building after that. She was put on home instruction, convinced that the old wiring behind the walls at school was going to combust.
Electrical things in general all triggered panic attacks.
And of course, hot things: stoves, ovens, open flames. Selah abruptly stopped cooking and steered a wide berth around the kitchen. It was heartbreaking to make Christmas dinner alone that year, without Selah to correct my seasoning.
Her post-traumatic stress caused academic problems, too. Because her brain was in a state of hypervigilance, constantly scanning the environment for danger, Selah had trouble absorbing texts and lectures. Exams rolled around just as our family was facing a weighty decision — should we return to the old house, under renovation? Or start fresh elsewhere, away from the bad memories? My husband and son were firmly in the “return” camp, while my elder daughter and I wanted to move on. Selah was undecided. “I don’t know — I don’t feel safe anywhere,” she said. “You guys decide.”
The next evening, I found Selah asleep before dinnertime. When I put my hand on her back, she was ticking, like a metronome — small involuntary tics in the muscles of her right shoulder.
When the ticking turned to twitching, we rushed her to the hospital. Within 30 minutes, she was convulsing — her upper body seizing so hard it took two orderlies to hold her down. The right side of her face drooped. She was transferred to the neurology unit and hooked up to a monitor, a mess of electrodes attached to her scalp.
“Her brain activity is normal,” the neurologist told us the next day. “If she were having a stroke or an epileptic seizure, you’d see the waves going haywire on the monitor.”
“So, what are we dealing with?” I asked. “We think it’s a psychosomatic reaction called conversion disorder,” the neurologist said. “It’s very rare, but sometimes we see it in adolescents at the end of the school year, when things are stressful.” The psychiatrist on the team then turned to me and George. “Has she experienced a stress or trauma recently?”
Selah’s doctors explained that patients with this disorder “convert” acute stress into debilitating physical symptoms — typically seizures, blindness or paralysis. By taking her out of commission, the seizures avoided an overwhelming set of stressors: final exams, the prospect of returning home to a scene of trauma, and the toxic levels of grief in our household.
Selah would stay three nights in the neuropsych ward. Her right side was paralyzed and she couldn’t walk. Her girlfriends came and took funny selfies in her hospital bed to cheer her up. But she was going to miss the Governor’s Ball music festival the next day; Drake, her favorite artist, was headlining. Within minutes of their departure, she suffered her most violent seizure yet. Afterward, my daughter lay prone on the hospital floor, exhausted.
“I hate it. I hate not going to school,” she wailed. “It’s not fair, Mommy. They’re going to the concert, and I’m stuck here.”
“Shhh, honey,” I murmured while smoothing her forehead. “I”m sick of stupid PTSD,” she said, her voice turning from anguished to angry. “I’m not going to let it control my life. I’m going back to school and taking my exams! And I am getting up off this floor and going to see Drake!”
With that, Selah rolled over onto her knees. She leaned on me for a moment, and then stood on both feet. “Come on Mom, let’s take a walk!” she commanded.
It was one of those parenting moments, equally humbling and wondrous, when you realize that you are powerless to save your child from capsizing, but also that she has the grit to right the ship on her own. On doctor’s orders (“anything that relieves her stress”), Selah went to the concert the next day.
Of course, that wasn’t quite the end of her troubles. The seizures began to dissipate — until she returned to her big, boisterous high school that fall. Ultimately, she transferred to a smaller, quieter school.
Then, slowly, she returned to the kitchen. I noticed when she was stressed, Selah would start chopping something. She acquired a boyfriend, a sweet football player with a pedestrian palate. She made him fresh pesto with linguine; he taught her what a first down was.
By the fall of her senior year, Selah was mostly healed. But she knew she couldn’t handle the stress of college, yet. A year of culinary school sounded like a better idea. And so I delivered Selah to the International Culinary Center in Northern California. We laughed as she suited up in a chef’s jacket, kerchief and cap.
Most days, she sends us photos of fancy dishes she’s made in class. But then she texted us a different sort of picture. I filed it a folder marked “Resilience,” along with a video I took of Selah two years ago, marching down a corridor, the ties of her hospital gown flapping behind her.
It was a photo of herself dousing a saucepan with alcohol, a giant flame reaching four feet up toward the ceiling. “Didn’t even flinch,” the caption said.
Tanya Coke is a former defense attorney and distinguished lecturer at John Jay College, and currently the senior program officer for criminal justice at the Ford Foundation. She writes on issues of criminal justice, trauma and resilience.