They say a picture is worth a thousand words and this one certainly spoke those thousand words straight to my heart.
It was taken and sent to me by an angel at school camp, an angel disguised as a teachers aide who just gets my daughter. She seems to understand in a deep and profound way what my daughter is experiencing and feeling.
My daughter lives with anxiety and it varies from being barely noticeable, to mildly annoying, to extremely frustrating, to debilitating and that can all occur multiple times day. She is not alone, while the degree or severity does vary greatly many of us experience anxiety. In fact Beyond Blue states that 17% of Australians experienced anxiety in the last 12 months. That is approximately 1 in 6 people. I don’t say Lexi suffers anxiety, she lives with it, there is a difference!!
The start of the school year is particularly challenging. So many unknowns and changes. New rules and expectations to understand and adhere to, new personalities to navigate, different classrooms, teachers, classmates, office staff and seating arrangements. This year my daughter entered high school. She is at a supportive P-12 school so she wasn’t changing schools as such just areas and things are done differently in high school. You can’t always reason this way with anxiety though, it has a mind of its own!! The unknowns grow in her mind like monsters in the dark, getting bigger and scarier with each thought. Reasoning goes out the window, perspective is lost. I know we aren’t alone in this experience and many, many people have it tougher than us, this is just our experience.
Anyway we got through the first week, not without incident or stress but there were a few smiles and even some excitement at the new experiences.
The second week was school camp, 3 days and 2 nights.
The tears and stress started, at least outwardly, on the Friday night. I knew it was going to be a long weekend. I think it is important to say something here, I want to be honest, I am human and while I love and support my daughter I don’t always handle her anxiety well. I am not always proud of my reactions and I often go to bed thankful that tomorrow is another day where I can at least try and do better. Sometimes I stay calm and supportive, I don’t react and provide her with the stable energy she needs but others times I crack, I yell and I push her too hard, sometimes I give in and we just stay home!! Not always my finest moments. Her anxiety seems to bring out the best and the worst in me!!
We eventually got to Monday morning, by now we were both tired and emotional and completely sick of going over the same things again and again. I knew we just had to get out the door, get to school and onto the bus. Lexi decided the only answer was to stay at home and not go to camp.
In her mind the anxiety is winning, the monster is too big and too dark and too scary. She retreats further and further, trying to find safety, trying to find peace. I look in her eyes and I know I can’t reason with her, she has retreated deep within herself. I hold her hands. I get her to look me in the face, the eyes are just too much I know that. We breathe, it is all we can do, this is a dance we have shared many times. If I talk about the fun she will have, the memories she will create, the friends she could make or the fun she has had on previous camps she will retreat again so I just share her breath. In doing that I can help calm her down, I feel her coming back.
Then I don’t speak, I just go about doing what needs to be done to get her ready. I am not sure what she does, probably made a tik tok, listened to Justin Bieber, cuddled the dog or watched Norris Nuts. These are the ways she keeps the monster at bay when a situation she is facing has released him from his lair deep within.
I watch the clock, the moments tick away faster than I would like, faster than I am ready for, sometimes I would love to slow down time just to give me time to catch up, to regroup, but it doesn’t, time stops for no man as they say.
It is time. Time for us to leave because I know if we are late, as tempting as it is to delay the inevitable, the monster will gain strength. Even being 5 minutes late, and to Lexi late is not being early, even 5 minutes will feed the monster. It would be like throwing meat to a hungry lion.
I pick up her bags and say “Let’s go” as lightly and brightly as I can, my tone in total contradiction to the knots in my stomach and the tears prickling behind my tired eyelids. I’ve been here so many times before my body knows what is coming and even though I know I am doing the right thing sometimes I can’t help but feel I am leading my darling little girl into the arms of the monster.
“I’m not going, I can’t go” she yells, not angrily, just desperately. She looks to me for protection and I know to protect her I must push her. I must make her do something that every fibre of her being is screaming at her not to do. She feels she is being led, led by her mother, to danger. This is another part of the dance we are both familiar with and play our parts well. I guide her out the door, she trusts while also resisting. It is a complicated routine this one.
We get to the car and she falls into her seat, probably wishing it would swallow her up. That monster comes along for the ride, he is persistent if nothing else.
She knows the next step in our dance.
She breathes, she just sits and breathes.
I sense her deliberate breathes. Her breath is her lifeline, it leads her away from the monster.
We hold hands, just gently, as I drive. It helps ground her and keep her present and I like to think it reminds her she isn’t alone.
I ask “what can you see?”
She is reluctant at first and then says “My knees………….the car………that tree………..the road……….the blue sky..”
I know I’ve got her now, she is looking outward and noticing things bigger than the fear, the knots in her stomach….the monster.
“What can you hear?” “The radio …… the car……. That bus…” “What can you feel?”
Questions like this keep her here, keep her present.
We chat, I can’t even remember about what. It doesn’t matter, my girl is back, she is calm and somewhat happy, just nervous at this point.
We get to school and the dance kicks in again as we sit in the car and the stress rises. I decide it is time. Time to get out of the car. I take the lead, like in any dance timing is vital. I get out of the car and get her bag. She gets out and joins me, she so wants to walk on her own, to be like the other kids but that isn’t our dance yet, we walk to the meeting area.
Now I don’t claim to know what this walk, what any of this experience feels like for her. She now has a monster at her heels but there are also people watching, in her mind friends and peers and parents and teachers are staring at here, judging her, she is determined not to show what she is feeling. This is the saddest time for me. When I look at her I see she has once again retreated, yet when others look at her they say “Oh she is doing really well, she looks fine” but all I see is a shell. She is not doing fine but she is doing the best she can.
I could go on and on about this experience and the ups and the downs that took place just to get her on the bus but I think you get the picture.
She got on the bus.
Teachers and our angel teacher aid assure me she will be fine. Yes she will be,I know, but fine is different for all of us and her fine includes turmoil and I want more than ‘fine’ for her. We are working on that!!
She gets on the bus and I return to the car. It is my turn to cry, not because I am sad, I can’t really tell you what I am. I know I am tired and in that moment I just wish, for her sake, things could be different.
Then through the day I get this photo and I see it. She is smiling, not a big fake empty smile, not a smile to fit in or for the camera but a smile from within, I see it, I see it in her eyes.
She is doing it, she is participating, she is having fun ….. she did it, she got there. The monster has been silenced for another day.
Now don’t get me wrong, he reared his head quite a few times during camp, he bared his teeth and came for her and when he did she breathed, she shifted focus, she did what she knows to do and when that didn’t work she sought solace with our angel.
She was supported and encouraged by amazing teachers and gorgeous friends. She said no to activities and then came back and asked if she could try again. She was constantly fighting the monster but as the days role on, as we experience new things her arsenal is growing, she is developing more and more tools to use in her fight against the monster and we are getting much better at our dance!
When she got home she was proud of herself and so glad she had done it. She did speak of the struggles but also of the triumphs. This is what I have to stay strong for, to push when she begs me not to, but it is a fine line sometimes. I push sometimes and others times I give in and we sit in defeat for just a while.
This photo may not mean much to anyone looking at it but it spoke a thousand words to me. This time the push was worth it and together we danced around and outsmarted the monster.