“Mommy! I need help!” Emma said last night at 3:30AM. Her cheeks damp with tears, her face conveyed the discomfort she felt.
“Here Em, try to yawn. Go like this,” I said opening my mouth wide and moving my lower jaw from side to side. We’ve been over this, countless times in the past week. It was the same dialogue, just a different day, different hour of the night. I became aware of the pressure in my own head, making my ears pop. The air pressure outside must have changed during the night I thought.
Emma has become hypersensitive to any slight change in air pressure. She tries to pop her ears by holding her nose and blowing, turning her face red until the pressure is alleviated. Sometimes her method seems to even work. One of us taught her to do this on an airplane once, I can no longer remember when or which one of us. But it served its purpose and now she’s convinced it will help any time she feels any pressure. The problem is, it also appears to cause the uncomfortable sensation and exacerbates the pressure when we are firmly on land and not flying in an airplane. Explaining this to Emma has not proven helpful. She cannot understand the subtleties of the situation. When in an airplane hold your nose and blow out, when on land try to yawn.
“Mommy! Mommy!” Emma cried. Her eyes searched mine, panic rising.
“I know baby, come here,” I said. I tried to massage her ears by pulling gently on the lobes. I pretended to yawn hoping this would produce a yawn from her. It did not. Emma does not yawn in response to seeing someone else yawn the way most of us neuro-typicals do. When I yawn, Emma watches me and continues doing whatever it is she was doing before I yawned. I found my mind going off on a tangent about what this means, mirror neurons and the like.
“Mommy! I need help?” Emma said this last as though it were a question. As though she were asking – Do you need help? Instead of what she means, a demand for some assistance, a plea to have her mother make the pain go away. Except I cannot make the pain go away, I can only try to get her to yawn. I tried again.
“Do this Em,” I pretended to yawn, only this time I actually did yawn.
Emma watched me intently. She opened her mouth and breathed out. She could not make the connection. She wasn’t able to make her ears pop, she was unable to reduce the pressure even if only momentarily. Emma held her nose and breath, pushing her cheeks out, like a trumpet player.
“There. That’s better,” she said. A second later she was at it again, crying and requesting help.
I stroked her head and tried to talk in a soothing tone. “It’ll be okay, Em,” I said, unsure what else to say or do.
Emma nodded her head. “You have to yawn,” she said.
“That’s right Em. Try to yawn,” I agreed. I waited a few seconds then asked, “Is it better now?”
“Yes. Better,” she said. “Time to go to sleep. It’s okay,” she said, snuggling down under the sheets.
“Yes. Good idea. Try to sleep,” I said.
As I write this I am aware of the continued pressure in my head. I wonder if I have this feeling all the time, but just shut it out. Now I too am hyper aware of the sensation. Not painful exactly, but uncomfortable. I imagine what it would feel like if I didn’t know it was due to the changing weather, the fluctuating air pressure. I do not panic when I feel it because I know it will go away of its own accord and it’s not intolerable. But what if I couldn’t understand what it was? What if I couldn’t understand the explanations given to me? What if it was just something that happened, seemingly arbitrarily, with no remedy?
Would I panic? Would I cry out for help?
Yes. I would.