I heard him scream, and rushed out of the bedroom.
He was writhing on the floor, clawing at his neck, and the kids were backed far away from him in fear and confusion. It only took a moment to notice the rope on the floor, and put two and two together to realize what had happened.
"Marcellus, it's not on you! You're fine!" I darted over to him, falling down to his side and pulling his shoulders and head into my body. He kicked and flopped a few times as if to stand, but finally stopped and simply panted and gasped into me. "It's okay, you're okay..." I soothed him, as I stood him up.
I turned to hustle him into the bedroom, but I heard a timid, "Mom?" behind us.
I felt torn in half. They all needed me at the same time. I hesitated, looking between them and him.
"I... I'll be right back. Sit on the couch. I'll be right back. You're not in trouble. I need to talk to you, but right now I have to talk to daddy. I'll be right back. You're not in trouble."
And the door shut behind us. I pulled his head into my chest, settling down to sit with him. He sobbed and whimpered, curling his body around me with his upper half in my lap, his face buried.
"It's okay. Do you hear my heart? Listen to my heart. My heart is here, with you. It's real. I'm real. You're real. My heart is beating for you..." I said, repeating the usual way I grounded him. "Listen to my heart. We're alive, and we're together."
"I'm sorry..." he cried, at last able to speak.
"You don't need to be sorry."
"I'm going to talk to them, don't worry. Just calm down. Here, do you want up on the bed?"
We stood up again, and I sat him on the edge of the bed.
"Do you want your teddy bear?"
He nodded, sniffling. I took it from his nightstand, and handed it to him. I gave him a hug, squishing it between us.
"There, now it smells like me, right?" He nodded again, holding it close and rocking.
"Okay, I'm going to go talk to the kids. Will you be all right? Or do you want me to stay a little longer?"
"I'm... You'll be right back, right?"
I took his hand and squeezed it tight. "You know I will," I said, kissing it. He gave me a small smile, one that a child gives when they're worried but wants to trust you.
I quietly closed the door behind me, and went into the living room. Josie and Vinny were huddle together on the couch, and it was easy to tell they had been talking.
"Mom...?" Josie ventured. The sight and sound of even her feel a lack of confidence nearly broke my heart, and told me just how scared they were.
"Make room for me," I said, sitting between them.
"Is... is daddy okay?" Vinny asked.
"Yes, he's going to be fine..." I took a deep breath.... but then sighed. "This... this is probably our fault for not... I mean... Well..."
I looked between them, their eyes wide.
"What... just happened is... Daddy had... He had what's called a panic attack. It's what happens when you get really scared, so scared that your brain just... breaks. Temporarily!" I added quickly, seeing their eyes flash with alarm. "It's just a temporary thing! But, for a few moments, you go... uh, you go kind of... I mean, wild. Like you don't know what to do but you're afraid you might die."
"Daddy thought we were gonna kill him!?" Josie squeaked.
I shook my head. "No, no, it's not that simple. He couldn't think of anything at all, just that he was so scared. It's like..."
I grasped for a way to make them understand. I tried to think of what happens when I have my own issues but... I just shut down, I don't go through a classic, stereotypical episode like he does.
Oh, dear. I'll have to explain myself to them too, won't I? I wasn't expecting this load of heavy parenting today. I'm not prepared... But, it has to be now.
"We should have told you, but I guess we didn't think it'd be a problem so soon. You can't... You can't put things around daddy's neck. You can hug him, but, ropes, strings, necklaces... things like that, he can't have them around his neck. It scares him very, very badly. It makes him have a panic attack like that."
I sat back and they each took up a leg.
"Well... The thing is, daddy - and-and mommy too - we've been through some... very, very bad things. Things that we don't like to ever think about, but that sometimes we are suddenly forced to think about through certain words or actions. Which then give us panic attacks."
"So... you'll... you'll go like that too?"
"Well, no. Mommy does it differently. I... I guess you could say I pass out, but I'm still awake. It's called shutting down. So, where daddy's brain makes him act out like that, mine makes me hide in myself. Daddy's brain tries to make him fight it out, mine tries to make me run away to the only place it thinks I'll be safe."
"What... what makes you run away?"
"The only things that would be something you'd do would be some specific, very bad words, but you're too young to know them right now."
I could see them thinking over what I was saying.
"Do you understand?"
"But... now what do we do?" asked Vinny, his eyes looking so large and so sad, reminding me so much of his father.
"Well, daddy needs to calm–"
"Wait! What do we do every time?" Josie interrupted me. "I want to help!"
I smiled. Our wonderful children. They were so sweet, so loving, and so smart. I felt proud and happy, despite the circumstances.
"Well, the thing to do is to help us calm down. You're too small right now to do what mommy just did, but, you might be able to help me help daddy now. We'll go see him and love him. He has to be brought back to the real world, and reminded that we are here for him in the real world."
They were both paying rapt attention to me, eager to help.
"Daddy likes to be smothered and cuddled a lot when this happens. Think you guys can help me do that?"
They nodded eagerly, and jumped down off the couch.
I stood up, taking both their hands. "Okay, let's go–"
"Wait, mom! What about you?" Josie interjected again.
"We'll talk about it with daddy later. Right now he's waiting for us."
They led the way back across the hall to the bedroom door, pulling me.
I knocked gently on the door. "Marcellus? Can the kids and I come in?"
"Uhm... Just... Just you..." came the weak reply.
The kids looked up at me, losing heart. "It will be okay," I assured them.
I entered, closing the door and crossing the room to sit next to him on the bed. He was rocking harder.
"You don't want the kids?"
He shook his head aggressively, eyes squeezed shut. "They... How can they see me like this?" I could see he was starting to cry again.
"But Marcellus, you're their father–"
"Exactly!! I'm... I should be put together good. And be strong! And... be... a big... be a big person for them!!"
"Marcellus..." I held him again. "This doesn't make you smaller or weaker. This won't lower you in their eyes. You're still their dad, they love you so much, and they're worried about you."
"I know, but it's okay. They love you. And... they need to know you're not perfect. That none of us is perfect. I talked to them about what's going on. I even told them about how I get sometimes. They want to be with you, and support you. They... They were really enthusiastic about learning how to help you."
"Yeah, they were clambering all over me and asking questions. They dragged me over to our bedroom door. They want to help you."
"I..." He looked up at me, his eyes large, dark, wet... trusting, loving.
I kissed his forehead. "It will be okay. Can I tell them you're ready?"
After a moment, he nodded. I called them into the room, and they bounded over as quickly as possible. He yelped as they toppled us over, squirming over him and snuggling up to him, kissing him all over his face.
Laughing, I laid on top of all three, looping a kid under each arm, and pushing our faces together into his. "Well daddy, how are you feeling now?" I asked, with Josie and Vinny giggling and snickering at how silly we must have appeared with our faces smushed like this.
His eyes were large with surprise and delight, I could see tears forming from how touched he was. He sniffed and gave a few coughing chuckles, before finally giving in to a burst of laughter.