I published this article in my November newsletter, but the message is important enough that I want to share it here as well.
Our 12-year-old daughter clung to the armrest in the back seat of our rented SUV, eyes wild, voice at a fevered pitch.
"I can't stay here," she said. "I'm not getting out of this car. You have to take me with you!"
Eric and I were attempting to leave for our much-anticipated get-away in Cape May NJ, while Molly stayed with my parents, whose home is just 3 hours from there. We already knew there would be a struggle, but this was unlike any behavior we'd seen from our daughter. To say that it was unsettling is an understatement.
Anxiety had begun to rear its head a couple years earlier, which led to some helpful visits to a counselor. Eric and I were able to go to London for 8 days this past May without incident; Molly didn't succumb to her recurrent fears that something "bad" would happen while she was separated from me. (Me, specifically.)
Summertime lulled me into complacence; it seemed the anxiety had gone away. Silly me; it wasn't the anxiety that had left, but rather the circumstances that triggered it. As soon as our fall schedule started up again--ballet classes, chorus, and our weekly Nashville Symphony Chorus rehearsals, which mean someone else has to pick up Molly from ballet on Mondays--the Worry Monster returned with a vengeance.
I can see it in her eyes--her "worry face", I call it. She may seem to have things under control, and then, suddenly, when faced with having to get out of the car to go into her ballet class, she goes into a full-blown panic. "I can't. I can't go in. I can't. I'm not going in there."
It's terrifying and heartbreaking to watch. And, for a time, it made me feel helpless.
The Anxiety Monster won the Cape May round--we brought her with us. From a treating-anxiety standpoint, it was absolutely the wrong thing to do. Every time you give in to the Worry Monster, the anxiety grows stronger. More resistant. But we had no choice. There was no way we could leave her with my elderly parents in that state, and there was no way I would've been able to enjoy myself at the beach, knowing how she was struggling.
Anxiety 1, Molly 0.
There were a couple more lost battles once we got home--ballet classes that were successfully avoided. I didn't feel well equipped, and to top it off, Molly's counselor stopped accepting our insurance. I hate that that sort of thing factors into decisions about care, but it is what it is. So we were in a between-place of trying to find a new counselor while figuring out how to help Molly on our own.
Then a dear friend sent me a copy of Raising Worry-Free Girls by Sissy Goff. It's a life-changing little book that has given me the tools I need to help my daughter wrestle her Worry Monster to the ground.
"WM", she calls him. It's helpful for children to give anxiety a name, so that it's something they can externally battle (instead of trying to battle something inside their heads). Now, when Molly starts asking anxiety-induced questions ("seeking reassurances", it's called), I know to say, "What is WM trying to tell you right now?" I've taught her to "square breathe" in order to calm down her amygdala. (We've changed it to "heart breathing", since Molly has decided she'd rather trace a heart shape onto her leg instead of a square shape, and that's perfectly fine.) I'm encouraging her to sass-talk WM when he starts speaking lies to her. I've informed her that, when I drop her off at chorus on Tuesday mornings, I'm not going to answer any questions that WM may want her to ask. And when I drop her off at ballet, I don't always tell her where I'm going (because WM wants her to know exactly how far away I am at all times, and freaks out if I'm what he thinks is "too far").
One really important thing I've learned is that I've had to teach her to expect worry to come--so that she is prepared for it and doesn't go into panic mode. "If WM jumps out from behind a tree," I said, "he'll startle you and you'll freak out. But if you know he's up ahead, you can prepare for him, and then when he jumps out you can slam him to the ground."
By acknowledging that worry might be up ahead, Molly can begin to use the tools I've been teaching her to keep herself from becoming anxious and ultimately succumbing to full-blown panic. I can remind her to use those tools and continue teaching her new ones, but the important part is that she is the one who has to do the work. She has to face WM's tricks and use her tools and her strength and her bravery to vanquish him.
Yesterday was a strong, brave day.
I dropped her off at chorus rehearsal, and she didn't ask for a single reassurance before getting out of the car. When she later discovered that her dear friend wasn't there (whose presence she'd been counting on to help her stay calm), she didn't become anxious. In the afternoon, she came into my office to show me that she'd changed her earrings -- something she'd been avoiding for 2 weeks because she'd been traumatized by some pain and bleeding the last time. And, finally, she got out of the car cheerfully at ballet that evening, even though I'd only told her that I'd be at "one of my writing haunts" while she was in class, instead of telling her exactly which coffee shop I'd chosen.
Molly 4, Anxiety 0.
I am so proud of her. And I told her so.
She was proud of herself, too, which is so important. She needs to believe that she is capable...and brave...and stronger than the Worry Monster. This is an ongoing journey, and there will be set-backs. But every victory makes her stronger.
I am weary, dear readers. But I'm also hopeful. This child is the light of my life--she's joy incarnate. In a family of introverts, her extroversion is like a pulsar. Her imagination is boundless, and so is her energy. She plays hard and loves fiercely and thinks deeply. It's so hard to watch her struggling with anxiety, which is the antithesis of everything God made her.
I'm sharing this because I know she's not alone. And I'm not alone. And anxiety isn't a bad word; we don't have to whisper it behind cupped hands or pretend it isn't there. We don't have to hide our struggles. There's help, and there's hope.
When I find myself lamenting that my creative well has run dry, or that the thought of sitting down and writing even a single paragraph seems exhausting to me, or that my brain seems to sometimes shut down, I have to remind myself what I'm walking through right now. So much of my mental energy is being directed toward this battle--not so I can fight it (I can't--Molly has to fight her own battle), but so that I can continually guide and redirect and advocate for her. It's an honor to be in this place--an honor to be her mom--but I'm not going to pretend this is easy.
And when I make a mistake? Lose my patience? Offer a reassurance when I should've let her face the Scary Thing? I crucify myself. And, yes, I need to work on that. If I can't give myself grace when I screw up, I'm no good to anyone. Least of all myself.
If you or a child you love is fighting this fight--take heart. There's hope. There's help. Get some.