Michael Landon had the courage to publically draw back the shameful yellow curtains surrounding the misery and persecution of being a bed-wetter, and for that he will always be a hero to me.
Now I’m stepping forward myself, to unconceal an even deeper tragedy, surrounded by even more secrecy – the electroshock “therapy” administered to possibly millions of American children of my generation by the dreaded “Enuresis Device.” If you want to know why an entire generation of Baby Boomers went so far wrong, this would be a good place to start the inquiry – the unspeakable torture of innocent but damp little postwar lambs like myself.
First, a few medical facts to ground us in reality: Learning not to urinate while sleeping requires the biological development of three distinct body functions: 1) the ability to sense when the bladder is full, 2) the ability to voluntarily control the sphincter muscle governing release of the bladder, and 3) the development of the hormone that naturally inhibits diuresis of urine to the bladder after sundown. According to the American College of Pediatrics these three biological events converge by age 6 for the average girl, and by age 7 for the average boy.
But even by age 10, about 5% of the “normal” population of children has not yet developed the ability to sleep dry. Function #3 is underappreciated as a contributing factor to bed-wetting. In the wild, darkness normally triggers a reduction in urine production, but in our advanced technological culture, children are seldom exposed to darkness. Ha! Never thought of that before, did you? And you thought night lights were just for damaging immature retinal cells, didn’t you?
But to return to my own personal tragedy, my father was one of the countless WWII vets who saw the ad in the back of Popular Mechanics that promised to send details on how to cure bedwetting for “$1 plus one first class stamp” (Google “USPS” for explanation of “first class stamp”).
In return for said remittance, dad received back a purple on white copy (Google “spirit duplicator” or “Ditto” for explanation of purple on white copies) of plans for the Enuresis Device, later to be marketed commercially as the “Nite-Dry,” or the “Dri-Nite” or somesuch. A quick trip to the hardware store for parts, and a few minutes work with common tools found in every kitchen’s junk drawer, and the diabolical device was assembled.
The components (in order) were a rubber sheet, to be placed down over the mattress, a piece of copper window screen, a sprinkling of ordinary table salt, a dry cotton sheet, a second piece of copper window screen, a large drycell battery, a loud buzzer, wire, and a couple of battery clips.
The battery was connected through the buzzer to the two copper screens, which were separated by a dry cotton sheet, which did not pass electricity. But as little as a tablespoonful of water was enough to dissolve the salt, making the water electrically conductive, which completed the circuit to set off the loud buzzer, and coincidentally delivered an electric shock to whatever tender flesh happened to be in contact with the top screen. Like my willy. Because the last line of the instructions were that “for maximum effectiveness, the child should not wear pyjama bottoms until fully cured.”
That last line should read again until comprehension is complete, and the full horror of this fiendish device is upon you. I not only had to head off to Beddy-Bye Land sans culottes, but then I had to try to go to sleep with the tenderest of my tender skin pressed against bare window screening, in full dread of what would happen next.
I’m convinced this is when my chronic insomnia first developed, because not long after I fell asleep, just when I was getting into serious REM time, the inevitable would happen. I’d be having a lovely dream about swimming in warm tropical waters, and then a loud BUZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ and a sharp electrical shock would wake me and I’d leap from the bed, doing a Yowie, yowie, YOWIE! dance. Lights would go on, and Dad would fly in and drag me off to the bathroom, at which point I would become pee shy and refuse to produce.
Eventually, however, the device, no doubt derived from a captured Nazi military weapon, did its promised magic, and I learned to get through the night without an “accident.” Dad was so proud of me when that finally happened. So proud.
That is, until he discovered that when I got myself up to pee during the night, I was using the kitchen trash can for the purpose.
Illustration and text © 2010 by David “Dry as a Bone” Kinne