Some people are no good at peeing. They have a shy bladder or a weak stream. Not me though. I’ve always been great at it. By the age of 6 I could pee in my sleep. And I did, every night until I got to be around 13.
I’m not here to look back in angst or reflect on the psychological burden of my bladder’s nightly betrayal. I never awoke to find myself covered in piss and shook my fist at the sky, lamenting “Why me!?”
Being a chronic bedwetter never bothered me all that much. I only knew it was a problem because of the way my parents reacted, especially my dad. My mom was more like me, confident that this was a slight inconvenience I would eventually outgrow. My dad, on the other hand, didn’t just feel frustration or confusion over my condition. He felt guilt. My inability to wake up on a dry mattress is something I inherited from him. He had been a bedwetter in his youth too. I suspect for him that maybe it did cause some angst. For him, maybe it was a psychological burden and one that he refused to let bear down upon his own son.
Back when I was waking up every morning in urine-soaked sheets, I had a routine. I would peel my damp bedding back and hang it over the foot of my bed so it could air out. Then, at night I’d crawl back under the same sheets, now dried by the breeze of a ceiling fan, without thinking twice. And once a week I would get clean linens on my bed.
Some people are disgusted by that schedule, appalled that my parents would let me sleep in soiled bedsheets most nights but can you really blame them? To launder and change the sheets every single night for 8 years is asking a lot. I think the weekly renewal was a fair compromise and, again, it never bothered me in the least. Eating brussels sprouts and doing homework, these were things that hurt my quality of life. The fact that my days began in a small puddle didn’t even register.
I wasn’t ostracized or bullied either because nobody knew. I did a fine job keeping my bedwetting confidential. I can only remember one time when someone found out. I was 11 years old and my mom's friend came to visit us with her family. She had a son my age named Alex. We became quick friends over our shared appreciation of legos and pokemon cards. One day while they were staying with us Alex discovered my damp bedsheets and came to find me in another room.
“Ryan!” he said with urgency, “I think someone peed in your bed.”
Wow. What a friend, right? I’ve never been given the benefit of such a tiny sliver of doubt in my life. Keeping two and two miles apart from one another, he refused to realize that I’d been the one who peed in my bed. Nope, he was there to sound the alarm so that we might catch this mysterious empty-bladdered culprit who was truly responsible. After all, who knows where they might strike next? No mattress was safe.
I wasn’t sure what to say to Alex but before I could say anything his mom whisked him away, presumably to explain my bedwetting problem. It was never mentioned again between us.
Ironically, peeing the bed was hardly as traumatic as enduring the measures my dad took to try and cure me. He bought books, multiple hardcover books, about how to fix your child’s bedwetting. I assume these texts inspired the various treatment options we tried over the years.
First was the alarm system. As it turns out, my dad was not the most determined parent who ever tried to rid their child of this habit. That title belongs to somebody, somewhere who actually invented a device that startles a small boy or girl the moment they start peeing in their sleep. Whereas before I would pee all over myself while snoozing peacefully, I could now trade that for an experience where I’m confused, half-awake and covered in urine. I guess this was a step in the right direction.
The device consisted of a plastic speaker that attached to the the shoulder of my t-shirts with velcro. It had a wire coming out of it, which ran down my torso, under my shirt like I was trying to tape a confession, and clipped onto my underwear with two metal contacts; one on the outside of the fabric and one on the inside. When the material separating them got wet, it would complete the circuit and trigger an awful buzzing noise from the speaker. That was meant to be my cue to stop dreaming, stop peeing and go find a toilet so I could empty my bladder in the manner society would prefer.
This gadget taught me a few things. Unfortunately, “how not to wet the bed” wasn’t one of its lessons. It taught me about electrical circuits, conductivity and that I am a very heavy sleeper. Most nights the alarm’s whiny buzz would wake my dad from all the way down the hall before I even noticed it. I’d remain deep in the throes of a weird dream where I’m being chased by a swarm of bees until my dad woke me, standing over my bed in his boxers going “Ryan, get up. You peed yourself 10 minutes ago.” At his insistence I would stumble half-asleep to the bathroom to “keep going” but it was all a charade. By then I was empty, having left it all on the vinyl cover that encased my twin size mattress.
After spending some time back at the drawing board, my dad came up with a new plan. He had begun setting an alarm for himself at 3am to wake up, come pull me out of bed and escort me to the bathroom. He thought that by enforcing these mandatory nocturnal trips to the toilet, my body would eventually be conditioned to wake up in the middle of the night for a pee break all on it’s own. The problem was I would sleep walk through the whole process, never becoming fully conscious. The next day my dad would ask and I'd have no recollection of any of it.
So, to verify I was awake he started giving me a password before bed. He’d pop his head into the bathroom as I was brushing my teeth and say “Tonight’s password is hot sauce.” Then when it came time for our 3am appointment I would be required to recite the phrase as proof that my brain was on-line.
This worked just fine until one night, when it didn’t. One moment I was in a deep, dreamless sleep. Then suddenly I wasn’t anymore. I was standing in the bathroom, blinded by harsh vanity lights, positioned over the sink where the faucet was running cold water and my dad was splashing it on my face.
“Ryan, what’s the password? I need to hear you say the password!” he whisper-shouted.
After a few handfuls of water hit my face, I started to realize what was going on here. I’d sleep walked to the bathroom and just now woken up. But my dad wouldn’t believe I was awake until he heard the password. But I could not remember it.
I pleaded, “Dad, I’m awake. I just can’t remember the password!”
This wasn’t enough. To him, these were lies peddled by an empty, barely-conscious shell of his son. He would not be duped.
“Come on, Ry! WAKE UP. WHAT’S THE PASSWORD?”
We remained at this impasse for a full minute. My memory refused to produce the password and my dad refused to back down, getting louder and shaking me. Finally, my mom appeared in the threshold of the bathroom, her eyes squinting from the bright lights.
“Dave!” she scolded, “I really don’t think he knows the password.”
My dad’s body language relaxed, as if he’d been under a spell that was suddenly broken. Defeated and annoyed, he blurted out
“The password was Panda Bear”. And he left.
In the end, I don’t think anything my dad did made a difference. As I moved into my teen years and beyond, the bedwetting became less and less frequent but I can’t say it ceased entirely.
Towards the end of my freshman year of college I still wasn’t a drinker but was becoming more receptive to the idea. My sister Ashley wanted to sway me and arranged an evening at her apartment with a singular purpose; to get me drunk. I had 3 or 4 vodka drinks and, fearing a hangover, I chased them with several glasses of water before going to sleep on her futon. Once again, I woke up in a puddle. Although I have to say, no hangover.
Excessive drinking seems to be the trigger required for me to fall back into my old ways. Several months after the incident at Ashley’s I’d become a full-fledged boozer. One night I was partying with some college friends and we ended up back at their place very late with a case of bud light in front of us. I put away my share before passing out on their couch and woke to find that I’d released a solid pint onto their cushions. Everyone was still asleep so I left a series of post-it notes explaining what had happened and slipped out to go home and shower. In the notes I’d scrawled, I apologized but didn’t suggest a solution or offer any compensation. I just let them know I’d peed on their couch.
This sits high on a list of absolutely cringe-inducing memories from my college years before I’d learned how to be a real person. The only saving grace is that it wasn’t really their couch. This was at an on-campus apartment complex called Appalachian Heights, managed by the college. They were basically bigger, better dorm rooms and they came fully furnished so the couch stayed with the apartment. Maybe that makes it worse. At the time I laughed it off like “Wow, crazy party! Boy, how about this college experience, huh!?” I should have had the cushions professionally cleaned. I should have found them a new couch. I had no money but I should have done something. God, this one haunts me.
Fast forward another couple years to my most recent bedwetting on record. I was still in college and Julie and I had been dating for one year. This was her 21st birthday and she lived in a small apartment complex called Fairfield, filled with a tight-knit community of college kids. On this night they decided to throw an “around the world” party where each participating apartment represented a country and provided a beverage to fit that theme. As the evening progressed, the increasingly drunken mob migrated from one “country” to the next, absorbing each international culture reduced to its most well-known stereotypes.
After the yellowtail wine from Australia, the margaritas from Mexico, the whiskey from Ireland and the white russians which Julie and I provided at her place, I was beyond hammered. It was way too much in both volume and variety. I woke up in Julie’s bathroom at five in the morning and quickly noticed the familiar feeling of saturated clothing around my pelvis. I’d peed all over, not just myself, but her bathroom rug. This one stung because the toilet was right there, a foot away from where I’d passed out. I was so close.
I got up and showered. Then I climbed into bed with Julie and dozed off. A few hours later she woke me up. She’d just been in the bathroom. “Did you... pee on our rug?” she asked. Not knowing my history, she said it like it was a farfetched thing to even suggest. I sighed and owned up to it. “Yeah. Yeah, I did. I’m really sorry.” This time I did the right thing and later that day we went to the laundromat and washed the rug. It looked better than ever when we were done. Pissed on or not, it really needed a cleaning and at least I was a catalyst for that.
This means that Julie's birthday, July 26th, is also the anniversary of the last time I peed the bed/rug. I've got a strong 6-year streak going, my longest ever. Every morning, when I wake up in a dry bed, I set a new personal record. It would be easy to think this is all behind me and that I'll never wet the bed again, but that would be an arrogant assumption. I can't get cocky or complacent, not now. I must stay vigilant because at any given moment, I'm probably only 6 beers and a nap away from starting right back at zero.