I hate the smell of urine. Absolutely, with every ounce of my being, loathe it. The word scorn comes to mind. As does disdain.
T went through a rough phase last summer where his go-to outlet for anger was urination. He’d stand on his bed in the middle of the night and pee designs onto his carpet. He’d get up in the morning and just walk to the corner of his room to relieve himself. He would pee in the wastebasket that was sitting directly beside the toilet. At summer camp, he saturated two full rolls of toilet paper before finishing off all over the floor.
I didn’t know what to do.
“Natural consequences!” They’d say. “Just make him clean it up! He’ll think that is unpleasant and stop.”
As if it were that easy. I remember staring blankly at the caseworker one time, thinking: How in the hell do you expect an 8-year-old to clean pee out of carpet? I don’t even know how to sufficiently clean pee out of carpet!
In fact, I could hardly stand to go in his room last summer, because, no matter what I did, it just smelled. I was actually relieved when he started wetting the bed; at least I knew how to clean that up well. It felt like a breakthrough.
“Don’t worry about it, buddy,” I said over and over. “Everyone has accidents; it’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
But when I got ready to wash his comforter for the third time in a week, Brian wondered aloud why it was only the top sheet and comforter that were ever wet. We looked at each other for a minute before it sunk in: This was intentional, too.
That was ages ago, though. A season of unique struggle that we’d not only survived but that we’d overcome. A season that was in the past. Behind us. Complete.
That’s what I thought, anyway. Until about a month ago. T had a horrible day at school. He’d punched numerous staff and hit another student in the face with a stick. And he was having a horrible night. A broken pencil kind of night. A kicking, screaming, threatening to kill everyone kind of night. By the time he finally went to bed, I was weeping. Overcome, worn out, devastated. I just wept. For him. For me. For all of it.
When I woke up the next morning I still felt like weeping. I still felt exhausted and defeated. I felt awful, but I gave myself a pep talk. Start fresh, I told myself. Make today a good day. Go into T’s room with a positive attitude. Be upbeat. Be happy to see him. I took extra time focusing on my intentions and taking some deep breaths. I stood outside his bedroom door, determined. I reached for the handle, turned the knob, and stepped inside.
And in an instant it hit me. It was like a wall of urine came rushing forward, assaulting my senses and knocking me backward. We’re not talking about a little bit of pee, either. We’re talking about, all-out, full-bladder, morning-urination-soaking-in-the-carpet smell.
I’ll be honest: Even a few weeks removed from the situation I find it truly amazing that T and I both lived to tell about it. (In fact, I had an interview about an hour later, and I somehow managed to say coherent words to the group of people sitting in front of me, which was another small miracle.) Because in that moment, the entire weight of last summer dropped squarely on my head. And as all the stress and anxiety and total lack of know-how came crashing down, I lost it. It was too much. In that instant, as it all came rushing back, I was filled with rage. I was full of rage. He was full of rage. There was a lot of rage happening. And nothing good ever comes from that kind of space.
“I can’t be by you right now!” I yelled. “You need to go in the other room! NOW! Right now!”
And I don’t like to be dramatic, but last summer, during the first battle royale against the urine, one of T’s counselors forwarded me some paperwork she had filled out for the courts. As I was reading it, she referenced the, “…secondary trauma of the foster parent.” Meaning: me. My trauma.
As I read her words, something clicked. My entire existence—the trials, hardships, and all—has still been cushy; I’ve had a middle-class, white girl existence. And so to use the word trauma in her description of me at first seemed over-the-top, and yet strangely comforting and familiar.
Because experiencing someone else’s trauma, carrying it with them, living it day-to-day, is hard. It’s the most trying, exhausting thing I’ve ever done. And it takes a toll. In fact, day by day, it has been kicking my butt. It’s hard to step back and see the progress and growth when you’re in the thick of it. I don’t know how to focus on the positive outcomes in the urine-soaked moments laced with death threats and fuck yous.
And so the wall of urine triggered me. It sent me over the edge. I yelled and cried. T yelled and cried. And yet, somehow, we both made it through the day. I got a job offer as a result of my interview that morning, and T finally memorized 7 times 7. Day by day, we’re still finding ways to speak into each other’s pain. And I hate it. And love it. And I have every emotion in between, too.