The Original “Fear Factor”

A few weeks ago I read that putting iodine and alcohol on cuts and scrapes is a home remedy that doesn’t actually work. In fact, these substances can be quite caustic on raw, broken skin and nerves, and therefore shouldn’t be used on wounds at all.

This major scientific discovery has come a few years too late for me. My mother used both alcohol and iodine in equal and copious amounts on my four siblings and me in our time. But I couldn’t resist showing the article to my mother, who sniffed and said, “So? You’re still alive, aren’t you?”

I thought back to the time when I was four years old, playing in the backyard while my pet rooster Charlie pecked busily nearby. Despite repeated warnings from my nanny, I tried to get Charlie to eat grain from my hand. Now I know that roosters can be quite aggressive – another discovery that came too late. But you have to understand: Charlie was my pet. I had watched him grow from a fluffy yellow ball of feathers to a handsome young rooster. We had always had an amicable relationship. So I was totally unprepared for the hissing, angry beast that suddenly flew into my face, clawing and scratching.

I don’t remember the actual attack. I do remember my nanny shrieking curses at Charlie and my mother scolding and dragging me into the house. I had my eyes shut tight, a reflex which had probably saved them, but which also prevented me from seeing my mother brandishing the iodine until I felt her dousing my face with it. I don’t think I started crying until then. At one point I finally opened my eyes and saw myself in the mirror. My face was covered with blood and iodine.

I thought I was going to die.

So, in response to Mom’s question: yes, I’m still alive. So are all my brothers and sisters, but it’s a miracle we’ve lived to tell the tale of our childhood. We all learned how to treat our own cuts and scrapes fairly early in life, how to clean up our own blood quickly and quietly, without fussing, crying, or getting squeamish. We knew that at the first whiff of blood, Mom would appear, vampire-like, with either the dreaded green bottle (alcohol) or the dreaded brown bottle (iodine). What Mom didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her, and more important, it wouldn’t hurt us. That is, unless we died of gangrene or blood poisoning. But we figured that if infection resulting from our inept first-aid measures didn’t kill us, the pain from Mom’s vigorous scrubbing of the wound with her favourite antiseptics would, and we all agreed that blood poisoning was the easier way to go.

Sometimes when I’m at the pharmacy I find myself looking wistfully at all the fancy first-aid products that have been invented. Kids these days definitely have it easy. The no-sting antiseptics, soothing ointments and multi-coloured bandages that are available today seem to come with the moms to match. You know the type. “Come on honey, take this itty-bitty pill for Mommy,” they coax.

My mother would stand over you and say just two words. “SWALLOW IT.” And you would. You wouldn’t dare gag, either.

She took the same no-nonsense approach when it came to toothpaste. Now that I’m an adult, I rather like the sharp, stinging sensation of minty-fresh toothpaste in my mouth, but it’s not so pleasant when you’re a kid. Candy-flavoured toothpaste had been invented by then, but my mother saw no reason to buy two kinds of toothpaste. In this situation, one word sufficed. “BRUSH.”

 And brush we did.

The truth is, my childhood was the original “Fear Factor.” The only difference was that there was no prize money waiting at the end. If there were, I’d be a millionaire by now, because there were challenges to be met at every turn.

Take dinner for example – for most people, a nice, relaxing meal. But if you’ve ever had a Filipino friend, chances are you know that we eat some pretty weird food. Most foods that I disliked as a child I’ve actually grown to enjoy, but to a little kid, Filipino dishes can be intimidating, to say the least. (You try choking down blood stew, or whole fish with all the bones still in it, or squid cooked in its own ink.)

But even more intimidating was – you guessed it – my mother, looking at you across the table. She didn’t have to say a word in this case, but you knew what she was thinking. “EAT IT OR ELSE.”

Did I eat it? You bet I did.

Just like the contestants on Fear Factor, I also had to deal with gross and slimy animals – and I’m no longer talking about the ones that sometimes ended up on my dinner plate. I’m talking about toads. Live toads. I hate them and they are one thing I have not learned to like. Behind our house was a grassy field where toads abounded. At night they came hopping out onto our street – you could see entire families of them in the pools of light from the street lamps. I never went outside at night –except when we were coming home late from a party or from my grandmother’s, and I was the one who had to get out of the car to open the gate so my dad could drive in. I felt faint and sick every time I did it. If I hadn’t been so scared and disgusted I’d have noticed that the horrible creatures hopped away from and not towards me as I approached. Anyway, my biggest fear – that one would hop onto me – never did materialize. Still, I would rather have gotten out of the car to face a pride of lions than those toads.

I may not have won any prize money for facing up to these challenges, but I have realized a few things that will probably go a longer way than any amount of riches.

First, what doesn’t kill you does indeed make you strong. My mom learned her mothering techniques from her mother, and they are the strongest women I know. I don’t know if I’m as strong as they are, but I do know that if I have to do something difficult, all I have to do is imagine my mom saying “DO IT” – and I take a deep breath and go for it.

Second, my mom’s love may be tough at times, but it is real. If she is hard on me it’s only because she loves me and believes in me. I’m sure this is true for all mothers. So the next time your mom pushes you, don’t fight her, because chances are she is pushing you in the right direction.

Third, I’ve learned that all things eventually come full circle. Mom cut her hand while working in the garden the other day, and she asked me to help her clean it up. I went for the no-sting antiseptic – yes, this is what we use now. It lives in the medicine cabinet right beside the bottle of alcohol. Although she hardly uses alcohol anymore, I guess Mom thinks her household wouldn’t be complete without it.

I couldn’t resist saying, “I’ll get the alcohol.”

Mom said, “No! This….isn’t a wound for alcohol.”

I raised an eyebrow. “What exactly is the kind of wound for alcohol?”

She smirked. “Your wounds.”

Today we’re changing her dressings, and I say to her, “You know, if I were really evil, I’d have replaced this no-sting stuff with alcohol.”

“You wouldn’t,” she says, pretending to be horrified. She’s right, I wouldn’t, no matter how sweet the revenge would be.

Then I start grinning. At least I can enjoy the idea for a while.


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