My daughter, who’s 11, has a long-standing fear of baths and showers. On the rare occasions when I can coax Sadie into bathing by herself—with the door open and frequent check-ins—the creak of a tree branch bending in a gust of wind or the thump of a cupboard closing is enough to trigger one of her blood-curdling screams.
She’s always been hypersensitive and easily startled by noises that don’t bother most people. But I didn’t understand the real reason for her terror of the bathtub until a recent Sunday evening.
I was watching 60 Minutes in the family room, absorbed in a segment about our mental health system’s failure to provide adequate care for severely mentally ill individuals. Behind me, Sadie lounged in her favorite chair, an over-sized leather recliner, building a Minecraft castle on her iPad. As a man on the show with schizophrenia described the voices in his head that berate him and urge him to hurt himself and others, she looked up from her game.
“Well I hear voices,” she said, staring at the TV. “I hear that stupid, scary guy whenever I’m in the bathtub.”
Because she has bipolar disorder, her announcement rattled me. Like those suffering from schizophrenia, people with bipolar disorder sometimes hear voices. I don’t know if what Sadie described was truly a distinct entity, like the voices experienced by the man on the show, or just a product of her vivid imagination. But either way, it worried me to think of an unfriendly visitor lurking in my daughter’s head.
“What guy?” I asked, turning down the volume on the TV and trying not to sound alarmed. “What does he say?”
“He tells me I’d better stop looking at him,” Sadie answered. “He’s super-skinny. And he hides in the drain.”
She sputtered about his “lifeless eyes” and creepy, gravelly voice, her own eyes growing rounder, her voice revving up like a jet building speed for takeoff. Hoping to diffuse her fear—and my own anxiety—I suggested she draw a picture of him.
After 20 minutes of intense work, here’s what she came up with:
Getting Drain Man out of her head and onto paper seemed to calm her.
“Wow—he does look scary,” I said. “Maybe you should rip him up.”
Just then, my husband came into the room. When Sadie showed him her drawing, he had an even better idea.
“Let’s burn that sucker,” he said.
He went out to the deck to fire up the gas grill. Sadie skipped after him, grinning and clutching the picture. I slipped on a sweater and followed them outside. When her dad gave the order, Sadie dropped the sheet of paper into the shimmying orange flames.
“Bye-bye, Drain Man!” she whooped, hopping up and down and clapping her hands.
In a few seconds, all that was left of her nemesis was a tiny heap of black ashes.