“Mutti, I had a bad dream.”

I ran into my mother and father’s room crying, “Bunny” in tow, holding him by his already de-fleeced ears.

“Ach, Em! You and your bad dreams! You’re going to have to stop this!” Mutti said, as she sleepily rose from the bed and put on her robe.

“But Mutti,” I cried. “I can’t help it!”

“Of course you can,” Mutti replied, walking to the bathroom she and I shared in the house I grew up in. “Here, take this. It’ll help you go back to sleep.”

Instead of comforting me with a hug or holding and rocking me back to sleep, Mutti took my hand (the one that wasn’t clutching Bunny’s ears) and let me into the bathroom.

As she flicked on the lights, which hurt my eyes (it was 3am), Mutti instructed me to sit on the toilet. “Setz dich hin!” she ordered, not even flinching under the blinding fluorescent lights in the pink bathroom.

Turning her back to me, Mutti opened the medicine cabinet and pulled out a bottle. She quickly flicked open the cap and fished out one of the tiny, white pills.

Then, she pulled one of the Dixie cups from the dispenser on the wall and filled it with water. “Here,” she said. “Take this.”

I didn’t dare ask questions about the pill or what it might do, I just knew I had to take it or incur my Mutti’s anger–and possibly a spanking or a slap in the face.

This scene repeated itself many times throughout my childhood, until I reached high school. At that point, I had become rebellious, and wanting to know what Mutti was giving me in the middle of the night was a small piece of the puzzle.

One morning, I pulled the medicine bottle out of the cabinet to see exactly what Mutti was giving me. The word was long and, at the time, difficult to pronounce. But I did recognize the bottle and the name on it as the pill that neither Mutti nor my Omi (my grandmother) would ever travel without.

P-h-e-n-o-b-a-r-b-i-t-o-l

Back then, I had NO idea Mutti was giving me, a child, a barbiturate. Sure, I felt groggy in the morning, but I never connected the pill with the morning grogginess when I was 5 or 10 or 15.

I also didn’t connect the fact that both my mother and grandmother had a prescription for a barbiturate with the fact that they had both been through–and survived–the Holocaust. Obviously, in hindsight, this little white pill was the only thing that calmed my Mutti’s and Omi’s lingering trauma and anxiety from the Holocaust–so they could sleep.

What’s more, I remember my Omi taking these pills during the day as well as at night. 

How much trauma did my Omi live with every day, trauma that she never discussed? Whereas my Mutti talked about her experiences every day, my grandmother never said a word. Did the phenobarbitol help her manage those nightmares and daytime visions of concentration camps and her family being led to their deaths?

Reflecting on this now, as an adult, I have so many questions. Did Mutti and Omi realize the dangers of giving a barbiturate to a child? To anyone for whom it wasn’t prescribed?

And, even more than that, I want to know what demons they were keeping at bay with the medication. I wish I could have hugged them and held them and make them feel better. No white pills required.