Wednesday, January 2, 2008

How I Got My Brain Damage

In honor of my blog’s new name and look, I thought I would share another story from my sister-filled childhood.


There are some childhood behaviors in which I am pretty sure almost every set of siblings engage. Growing up in a family of all girls, there wasn’t as much of the beating each other to a pulp that my boyfriend and his brother are so familiar with. However, we definitely found cruel ways to torture each other. My older sister jumped out and scared me constantly, even making me wet myself once or twice. I paid her back by stealing from her like it was my job, her clothes, her makeup, and even her money, slyly siphoning a couple dollars in change from a huge jar in her bedroom on an almost daily basis throughout my entire junior high career. She figured it all out, of course, and screamed at me, and threatened me, and even shook me around a little bit, but it never really came to blows. Most sisters don’t really beat the shit out of each other like the boys do, at least my sisters and I never really felt compelled to move beyond the minor smacking and hair-pulling. In retrospect, however, the things we did could have easily caused much more damage than the occasional sibling throwdown.

My mom was a nurse on the maternity ward at the biggest hospital in my hometown. She worked the nightshift and spent most of my adolescence completely sleep-deprived. So, while we were pretty good kids, well-behaved in almost every way, we also knew that there were certain things my mom was completely unaware of. Because we were raised by a single working mother, there were certain expectations of us, and we probably spent more time alone than most kids our age. By the time I was ten, I was completely comfortable cooking, cleaning, walking the dog, etc. My little sister is two years younger, and we basically ran the household together whenever we had to. My mom didn’t really have much of a choice, so we did it. Dr. Spock may balk, but honestly, I think it was good for us in a lot of ways. It made us very independent and very confident in ourselves. I promise, I’m not scarred at all.

Following childbirth, many women are prone to passing out. This was the reason that all of the nurses on the ward where my mom worked had these fabulous inventions called ammonia capsules taped to their nametags or to the shoulders of their uniforms. If you’re unfamiliar, basically, an ammonia capsule is today’s version of smelling salts. It is a white paper capsule wrapped in tightly woven gauze and is about the size of the lid to a Bic pen. All a nurse has to do if a patient loses consciousness is bend it with her fingers until it makes a little snapping noise. It turns pink and gets kind of cold, and the shocking smell it emits, especially when placed right beneath the nose, is enough to send anyone running the other direction, even someone who was recently unconscious.

The ammonia capsules were pure evil. And they were everywhere. Laundry was one of my chores, and when I spied several sets of my mom’s pink scrubs in the hamper, I knew I’d hit the jackpot. I would carefully peel back the tape, remove the ammonia capsule from the soft flowery material of my mom’s scrub top, and then I would tuck it into my hiding place. I had an old coffee mug discreetly hidden behind the huge box of Tide with Bleach, and that is where I kept my booty (and of course when ammonia and bleach are mixed it creates something horrible like toxic nerve gas, so this was really smart on my part) I would wait a couple of weeks until I accumulated eight or ten of them, sometimes coming across some extras lying innocently on my mom’s nightstand, and then I would spend a few quiet evenings in my bedroom plotting my attack, or "doing homework" as I called it.

The best was to wait until my sister was sleeping and then snap one quickly, waving it silently beneath her tiny, freckled nostrils. She would awake with a scream, swinging her arms; I learned quickly to duck at the same time I snapped the capsule. Then I would wait until she fell back to sleep, and I would attack again. Sadly, I think my poor sister spent many of her formative years trying not to fall asleep. While all of the other kids were sleeping ten hours a night through their all-important growth spurts, poor little third-grade Courtney was drinking coffee and reading Stephen King in an effort to keep her eyes open. That may explain why I am over six feet while she stands five inches below.

The sleeping trick was fun, but it was also kind of obvious, plus she was getting really crabby, and I felt like she may be on the edge of telling on me. I had to find a new schtick. I’m proud to say that I tried and succeeded at several variations of the ammonia capsule game.

I was known for my prowess in jumping out from the dark bathroom into the hallway with a freshly snapped capsule as she was walking by. A quick hand to the face, and it was over.

Once, I held a little capsule in my hands and cupped them together. I told her I had caught a butterfly and she absolutely must see it. She bought it, and she actually gagged. I couldn’t have been happier.

Courtney was a smart kid, though, and eventually she caught on to me and found my Cup’o’ Capsules. She got pretty good with the ammonia capsule games herself and we spent two solid years torturing each other with these little medical marvels.

Eventually my mom found out. It was funny, because by the time she caught on, the thrill of the game had totally worn off, and neither of us had touched an ammonia capsule for almost a year. I think she must have found my stale stash collecting dust in the laundry room. She sat us down and proceeded with a very somber lecture about how the ammonia capsules were not toys and were very dangerous, and multiple exposures could cause permanent damage to a person’s nasal passage and even to her brain. She told us she was disappointed in us, and needed to be able to count on us to take care of each other. We apologized to her and promised that we wouldn’t play with the dreaded ammonia capsules ever again. And we kept to our word. Mostly. There was still the occasional ammonia attack as we grew up. I think it’s because nothing we’d encountered before or since could bring such a look of shock and horror and disgust to someone’s face. When you hold the ammonia capsule in your hand, you hold a lot of power.

After my mom’s lecture, and throughout my life I have been plagued with occasional scary thoughts about the damage my sister and I inflicted on each other’s brain function. In fact, I’m pretty sure that the reason I can’t do math and she can’t spell to save her life is very closely related to overexposure to ammonia during childhood. I’d be willing to bet it’s right up there with lead paint, and my college algebra professor would probably second that. Before the ammonia torture, I’m pretty sure we were both MENSA-bound, and now we must settle for this mediocrity that we’re left with, struggling desperately to function in mainstream society.

I’m sure that if Social Services knew what we were up to, my mom could have gotten in a lot of trouble. I mean, her children were chasing each other through the house armed with abrasive chemicals; I think they tend to frown on that. I definitely do not know any other brothers and sisters who did anything that ridiculous as kids, and I'm positive my sister would freak if she caught her two little ones into something like that. But you know what? It is one of my favorite, most hilarious memories of growing up with my sister, and we still laugh about it all the time.

We are so deranged. It must be all of that ammonia.

11 comments:

katieo said...

Love the new name, I am very much a middle sister too.

What a fun read! I'm reminiscing about my own sister ridiculousness. Although I can't share anything because how could one possibly top the ammonia? too funny.

ThickChick said...

Okay, I'm dying to know... How does one do the ammonia snapping without smelling it themselves? I'm sure you perfected this art too. =)

My brothers tortured me quite a bit, but it centered mostly around farts or saliva. Ick. A punch or kick to the groin was always my one and only defense.

Aaah, childhood.

Cara said...

Katie- I am sure that any family with three girls has just as many crazy stories. We just took it a little too far sometimes :)

ThickChick-
Ok, so these things were amazing. You could really only smell them when you got them up close to your face, but when you did, it was SO strong. Whatever the paper on the outside was kept it concentrated in one spot. It didn't get on your hands either. I have no idea how they worked. I have a nurse friend, though. Maybe I will have her track one down for me for oldtime's sake.

I always longed for a brother!!

Maggie said...

Hilarious! My two older sisters and I were never quite this creative while torturing each other. :)

Sarah said...

Sister's don't beat each other with their fists, but I have had utensils (including knives) thrown at me, been kicked in the head with Doc Martens and I myself have thrown rocks.

Sisters also call each other nasty names.

I'm a middle child too! However my younger sibling is a brother, and it was all good fun beating him up until he turned 12 and was suddenly alot bigger than me.

Cara said...

So awesome. All of these sibling stories.
Maggie- Being one of three girls is such a trip, isn't it? To this day, there is still such a specific dynamic when we are all together. We always just naturally fall into our roles whenever we see each other.

Sarah- thanks for stopping by! Hilarious. A Doc Marten to the head could definitely do more brain damage than sniffing ammonia.

katieo said...

For the record. I am in the middle of 6 kids. 4th sister, 5th sibling. I know, I know, you didn't really need to know that.

But I also came by to say I really did laugh so hard at your comment on my blog. Seriously,as soon as I saw "neon-bedecked man" I just lost it...

That girl from Shallotte said...

Cara, I heart you! You can tell a story, my friend!

I happen to be the oldest of three girls. My sister, Jill, the middle sister, is 5'11 to my 5'6. I tormented the hell out of her when we were small. By the time she got taller than me (when I was nine and she was six), I had to move away from the physical torture(locking in toy chests and closets; convincing her that drinking perfume would make her insides smell good) to the verbal (Ha,ha! Your epidermis is showing and I'm telling everyone!).

I'm gonna torment her some more by sending your story and saying, "Ha, ha... your payback was amateur compared to this!"

Seriously brilliant. Keep writing!

Crabby McSlacker said...

Dang, I must be doing that thing again where I leave a comment, hit preview, and then forget to hit publish. I thought I'd already left one here.

Anyway, our family was also three girls, but I was the oldest. However, the middle sister was tougher and generally crankier than I was, and when we did come to physical blows, which happened a lot, I often got the worst of it.

(We get along much better now. But a few decades ago, I would have been very pleased to come across some ammonia capsules).

Great post!

Hilary said...

Love this post. My sister and I (there's only the two of us) could get pretty physical too. I would have loved those capsules! And so true about the perspective of the parent. What I think back on and laugh about for myself, would be upsetting if it had occurred between my own kids.

Kevin said...

Being a middle child with two brothers and three sisters, I know a lot about fighting, especially sibling fighting. Brothers usually don't "beat the shit out of each other". If they do, it is probably a once or twice occurrence in their whole childhood or there is something seriously wrong in the family.

Males have several levels of fighting. The first is play fighting. The second is fighting to win, but in a manner that will not cause injury, other than aching or bruising. There are no hits to the genitals, and the face is usually off limits to prevent serious injury and to avoid telltale signs of fighting, like black eyes. It often takes the form of wrestling. The last level of fighting is all out, and the only restrictions are things like no eye gouging and no hits to the genitals. Some males may break these unspoken rules, but usually only when they are jerks or when they are severely outmatched (even then it is frowned upon and often stops the fight). Of course, all rules go out the window if a male is fighting for his survival or for someone else's survival, such as being attacked by a burglar or mugger.

If a male is not attacking you all out (level one or two fighting), I strongly recommend against hitting or kicking him in the genitals for several reasons I won't get into, but I assure you that it is the best interest of both of you. If you wish to stop the fight, try simply saying "stop" or "I give". If you do not want to fight in the future, talk to the boy and make it clear that you do not want to fight anymore. It would be best to make some concessions to seal the deal, such as not using the hurtful nickname for him that you came up with or not borrowing his bike without asking. If this is successful, try reaching out to him. Most boys adore their sisters, but they often get locked into a pattern of tit for tat retaliation. If you break the cycle, you can improve your relationship dramatically, especially if you are the big sister. If you want to give him affection, like a hug, it is best to do it in private. Do not let his squirming or lack of response deter you. He secretly likes it, and it usually gets better over time. Besides hugs, I recommend stroking him with your hand. The head seems to be primary stroking spot, at least for boys, but the back is good to stroke when you are hugging. Go at a medium pace instead of a quick back and forth motion or a slow, creeping motion. He may also like a chest or belly rub or resting his head on your lap. Try to carefully gauge his reactions to find out what he likes. You will probably have to initiate the affection, especially at the beginning. If he comes to you for affection when he is hurt or sad, it is an excellent sign. Many adolescent boys are starved for affection. They got lots of affection as babies and toddlers, but once boys hit puberty, it is as if romantic affection is the only kind that societal norms will allow them to receive, which can lead to things like obsessing over a girl he finds attractive. It is more than a crush, he thinks of nothing else than being with her and follows her around like a puppy (often to the dismay or alarm of the girl).

If a boyfriend or husband gets a bit out of hand with his play fighting, find the right time and right words to let him know. Most males are surprisingly sensitive. Some are just better at hiding it.