We’re having a problem with dirt lately. Every morning, when my child wakes up to go to school, she can’t make her bed. Instead, she will spend 30 minutes swiping at invisible, nonexistent dirt in her sheets. She’d spend all day doing that if she could. I cap it at 30 minutes.
She’ll sit on the potty for hours if you let her, as if she’s glued to it. Convinced she hasn’t gotten every last ounce of refuse from her body. She can’t put her shoes on. The seam in her sock is too much for her little foot to bear. Her backpack is crooked. She got one less marshmallow than her sister in her Lucky Charms. She needs her headband to keep her hair back, but not actually touch her head.
It’s a treacherous world in which we all live. A world defined by the intense anxiety of a child who doesn’t understand what anxiety even means.
“My tummy feels different,” she’ll say.
“My ears hear you, mommy, but my brain tells them they didn’t.”
I have to take these cues, and put them all together, each day, each moment, as if I’m solving a mystery. And I have to do it in a way in which she doesn’t feel judged or different. She is so incredibly sensitive and perceptive to mood. She knows there’s something off, but she doesn’t want there to be.
“It’s not a big deal to other people,” she once wailed, “but it’s a big deal to me. And I don’t know why!”
She’s as ticked off at her brain chemistry as anyone else. She wants desperately for the little things that paralyze her not to matter. But she can’t seem to get there.
She can’t make choices. She will falter and stall, caught in this uncomfortable sea of indecision indefinitely, until I bully her into a choice, or make one for her. Once she does choose, though, once she’s leapt off that cliff, it’s fine. It’s as if the cliff had never been there.
She’s afraid of death. Fascinated by it. I get at least one death question a day, whether it’s how Pocahontas died, or if anyone I know died that day, or if there are still people alive at 100, there is always a question. The other week, she made me promise to e-mail the scientists to see if they’d come up with a way to bring her back to the Earth, just as she is now, once she dies.
She will sit at the table doing homework for hours, but not moving forward at all. Instead, she’s writing and erasing and 0 over and over again because it’s not perfectly round. I have to promise her we’ll come back to it later if she’ll move on. We never go back to it later, and she’s okay with that. She’s forgotten it. She doesn’t remember the anguish or trepidation she felt over the non-perfect zero.
Anxiety disorders affect one in eight children and are more likely to occur in girls than boys. Right now, scientists believe that these mental illnesses are complex and could result from any combination of genetic, environmental, developmental and psychological factors. Which means they really just don’t know. Not so comforting to a mom who just had to coax her daughter out from under a table to get her to walk into her first grade’s open house.
Researchers in British Columbia conducted a study in which they found that 85 percent of kindergartener parents who answered “yes” to the questions “Is your child more shy or anxious than other children his or her age?” or “Is your child more worried than other children his or her age?” had children that would go on to develop anxiety disorders.
The researchers said these parents often suffered anxiety themselves, and were more attuned to the children’s symptoms—which in the 6-year-old age set can include stomach aches, difficulty sleeping, or unwillingness to go to social events without a parent.
My daughter is an identical twin. As a unit, the girls go everywhere. They are fine without me. But the other weekend—when their father and I finally did our first “separate” days, where he took the one and I took the other—my little girl clawed and scratched me, bit me and pleaded with me, cried and screamed hysterically. She was so afraid to do something without her twin, it was heartbreaking. Through distraction and tiny steps forward, I was able to finally convince her to just do one activity at the museum before we went home. After we made it inside and started our day, she was fine. She just needs to break her brain out of the circular pattern of fear. And she can’t. And I’m trying to help her, but it’s hard.
I, too, suffer from anxiety, though in the real world, I’d never let you know about it. I’ve bitten my nails since I was 2. I always forced myself to do things I didn’t want to do, tortured myself quietly over grades or other things that could be perfect, but were not.
And so my strategy so far with my daughter has been a combination of “I know what you are going through; I cried every day in first grade” and “I know this is really hard for you, but you have got to suck it up and keep going. Things happen in life and you have to do them, no matter what your tummy tells you. I’ll be here for you no matter what.”
In essence, I’m making her face her fears every day, and she’s so strong that so far she actually can do it. With my help, she can overcome them, if only briefly.
Still, it’s a grueling battle that requires full-on mommy armor from sun-up to sun-down and I am exhausted.
I’ve tried to seek professional help twice now. The first therapist suggested PANDAS, a strep-based anxiety wave, where the tithers in the brain malfunction a few months after a physical illness. Then, eventually, she said my daughter was perfectly normal and everything would be okay.
The second therapist I saw told me that everyone goes through this, and I only think I’m special because I don’t see inside their houses. I showed her the wounds on my neck where my child had clung to me in crazed despairing separation anxiety. She shrugged. I haven’t been back.
Recognizing that your child may be facing something beyond themselves is hard for any parent. We all want our children to have the easiest lives possible, even as we love them exactly as they are. For now, I will keep plodding along on this path, trying to separate my child’s fears from her person in her own mind, so that someday she will be able to do it for herself. So that she might look the dragons in their faces and say, “no, not today.”
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