I can pretty much suss out how the day is going to be within the first 10 minutes of waking up Dubs.
There are various data points to collect from my daughter, my tousled-haired, sleepy, unit of analysis. Sometimes, she’s immediately teary and clutches her teddy just a little more tightly than usual. I note that. I go, “Ah, here we go.” Or I will remember that the day before was One of Those Days, which often follow on to The Next Morning.
On such occasions, I do everything I can to throw a spanner into the anxiety machine that will otherwise churn up everything in its wake. I’ve learned that my moods influence hers and vice versa. I don’t always succeed in masking my own foibles, and when this happens, our mornings are a powder keg.
The journey to school is a watchful one. I can read her moods pretty well by now. On good days, she almost skips to the train station. There’s giggling and bad jokes and observations about the world, and recaps of Trump’s latest antics on the morning news.
There are other times when I hold her hand all the way. A deep and meaningful pep-talk is warranted, or a long hug, or a quick jaunt to get a morning hot chocolate, or watching a funny YouTube cat video, or just knowing that I need to leave her to enjoy a good book. Still, there is no guarantee that she won’t have a quiet crisis of confidence in the final 20 meters to school. Despite my best laid plans, and all the forecasting in the world, it still happens. And I don’t know how NOT to feel like it’s my personal failure.
On particularly bad days, it’s hard to tell between physical ailments and poor mental health (which technically is still a physical ailment because of what is happening in the brain). Her mental health creates physical symptoms and when she’s sick, her mental health becomes just a bit more wobbly because she’s feeling so poorly. She misses more school than she should and this is a constant source of guilt and concern for me, and admonishment and a lamentable lack of understanding from her school.
So much of the usual parenting advice feels counter-intuitive to me. If she’s not febrile or listless, send her to school, they say. They don’t tell you what to do when your child looks at you with panic in her eyes. Or what you should do when you both went to bed late the night before because you were trying to console a distraught child.
There is a very real mental and physical cost to living with anxiety. It feels a lot like constant, never-ending weather forecasting. I find myself reflecting over the past few days, recounting events, consulting my calendar to remind myself of what’s ahead, and then working out how seemingly disparate events might connect in such a way that a storm is imminent.
After a while, pattern recognition takes over and you know how things align. You learn about cause and effect. It’s all so precarious, though. And the stress of keeping those balls up in the air, of not looking away for one moment…. Occasionally, I slip up. Maybe more than occasionally. I am a mess, sometimes. And I am told to allow myself these times, but they still seem unforgivable because of our precarious circumstances. I wish I was more organised, more resilient, more hardy, more everything. I try and wrangle work, study, deadlines, life, health issues, my own stress. When I slip up, all hell breaks loose and the anxiety monster comes out for a romp. He runs roughshod over my poor girl and this is when we lose time.
I mean this literally. We lose motherfucking time. On the worst days, nothing seems to alleviate the anxiety better than just lying in bed and talking. She cries, we talk, we cuddle, I try and make her laugh (we do laugh a lot, she and I, even when we’re despairing). I rub her back, she goes to sleep. Sleep is the inevitable end to these sessions. Deep, long sleep in a dark room, at whatever time of the day she needs it. I look at her still, tear-stained face and want to weep. Not with sorrow, but with envy (and its close cousin – guilt). I want to sleep, too. I want to go to sleep and wake up on a day when I don’t need to be vigilant. I want to weave whatever mystical, primal magic mothers are supposed to have and leach away all the fear she has inside of her and cast it to the wind. I want to take her place and give her respite. I want to slay her demons, imagined and tangible.
During these times, no homework gets done, which makes her more anxious when she wakes up. If she wakes up later at night, dinner is sometimes served at 9pm, which makes going back to sleep a bit of a challenge. So, the next morning is already in jeopardy. See how this works? She often falls into bed in her school clothes. No shower. No dinner. The number of times I’ve pulled shoes and socks off feet, taken hair out of pony tails… It’s almost an unwholesome rest, because I know it only ever comes at the end of significant pain. In addition to time, these days (and oh, there have been so many over the years), cost us money. I am not working when I am caring for her. I need to pay the rent. But I also need to rest in order to be functioning the next morning, always remembering those juggling balls. I hate that it feels like my caring responsibilities are in constant conflict with my jobs and study and looking after myself. I am not doing justice to any of my duties
Today was a bad day, I guess. It’s been a week of bad days. I’m exhausted.
We get help, of course. Mercer is our anchor. Dubs sees a great therapist once every two weeks. I used to as well until life and expenses got in the way. Our friends are wonderful, supportive and understanding. And I guess being in our line of work, Mercer and I try to be on top of the literature and the ways we can help both Dubs, and us, as a family.
To end this post on a more positive note, I give you Dub’s 2015 Eureka Awards video, ‘Anxiety in Kids’.
And last year’s episiode of SBS’ The Feed, where we appeared in a special about childrens’ anxiety.
And here are some things we tried that have helped:
- tummy breathing ala Dub’s instructions in the above video (really works well)
- loveys or special confidence boosting items ( we have a ton of them!)
- role play – act out situations that make you anxious to limit fear of the unknown and to practice assertiveness.
- trial runs – visiting places that make you anxious and exploring those locations in a safe and supported manner. In Year 1, we visited school during the holidays to work on her school and separation anxiety, ticking off each item off a checklist as we went.
Some of the resources from therapy over the years: