My daughter came home at age 1 and is now 11, nearly 12. Her journey includes scary words like “incomplete attachment,” sensory integration disorder, asthma and severe allergies, but the one that rules our world is anxiety. No, that’s not right. I mean ANXIETY. Her anxiety rules every minute of her life. Not only is she on medication and in therapy, but most aspects of our life (meals, activities, vacations, shopping, playdates, school, etc.) are planned around her anxiety. We (she and I) spend hours everyday talking through seemingly small issues (which stuffed animal should I hug while going to sleep? Should I stop homework right now to eat?) which are made monumental by anxiety. There are no molehills in her life, only mountains. For a very long time I struggled to understand her anxiety….
I was doing all the right things!
I read all the books!
I was parenting in a connected way!
And I had given so much up….
WHY WASN’T SHE ANY BETTER?
As she got older, somewhere around age 9 or 10, she was no longer was a tiny girl afraid of the world that I continually tried to make her feel safe in, she was becoming a young lady who was aware that not everyone felt the way she felt. Yes, she started worrying about worrying. She started crying about “having problems” and needing to hide them from everyone. It was like we all lived in this pressure cooker and someone just turned up the heat. “Why do I have problems?” was a constant wail in my house.
A tangent: I have always lived around adults who co-exist with mental illness. Depression, anxiety, bipolar depression, etc. I learned long ago, that mental illness does not define a person. At it’s best, it is a co-existing condition. At it’s worst….well, let’s not go there right now. I have learned that the people I know who endure lifelong mental illness have all those wonderful little quirks that everyone else has (favorite TV show and ice cream flavor, morning person or night owl, etc.) and that their illness, that one little part of their body that doesn’t quite make the right balance of chemicals, is practically a separate entity that lives within them. Somedays, the mental illness drives, sometimes it is the person who does the driving. It is almost like the proverbial angel and devil on your shoulders we grew up seeing in cartoons. Except it isn’t an angel and a devil, it is the beast of mental illness. And that beast can be a shape shifter and can change in magnitude and it can either be quiet and content or raging and in control.
Back to my daughter, about the time she started worrying about worrying, I began to struggle with how to help her understand what is going on in her brain, how to help her have control. I began to be able to “see” in anxious moments that my smart, funny, wordy kid changed into this whiney, fidgety toddler who struggled with everything. We read all the books. I drew all the pictures. We stalked about the saber tooth tiger and fight or flight. None of it connected. One day, in desperation, I said, “I can see your Anxiety Beast on your shoulder, and he is really angry right now. We need to quiet him down.” It stopped her cold. We talked more about her Anxiety Beast. It helped her to be able to understand it: the Beast isn’t her. She is that wonderful, witty, smart, wordy kid who can draw or write anything. The Beast, truly a sudden spurt of chemicals in her brain, was not her. It was inside her, but not her true nature.
We now talk about the Beast all the time. I can now say: “Hmmmm……it seems to me that the Beast is starting to whisper in your ear that you can’t do this. What can we do to quiet him down? 100 jumping jacks? some swinging? a snack?” When her Beast is raging, I can talk about her and the Beast. I can separate them. I can talk about how her early deprived life hatched the Beast. I can yell at the Beast and tell him to let me daughter go, and so can she. And when the Beast is quiet, I can talk about how small he is on her shoulder and that he looks pretty peaceful snoozing. She fights me a lot less when I am trying to help her head off a spiral now that I can talk about “the Beast” rather than her. She doesn’t hear “you are bad and out of control.” Together we are a team working against him.
We are far from having the Beast caged and under control, but now that we have acknowledged his existence, we have a tool to help tame him. It has really helped me to be able to simultaneously support the warrior girl I love so much while battling the Beast I so want to vanquish. It helps me as a parent to separate my emotions. And it helps my daughter to feel less crazy and out of control. Now we can be out in the world together and see someone else struggling and quietly whisper to each other “I think his Beast needs some lunch right now!” It has also helped within our family to be able to talk about anxiety and to be able to communicate efficiently in the moment “I think we need to put that on hold until we get the Beast under control.” She has drawn pictures of him (it is a him according to my daughter) and she is working on Beast management with her therapist.
I know the notion of creating a separate personae for anxiety may not work for everyone, but I hope maybe it will help some folks get their creative juices flowing on ways to help manage their kids’ issues.