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.
And because you're a MSFV reader, I will send you 3 STORMRISE bookmarks if you take advantage of the Amazon deal to purchase STORMRISE and any other 2 books. Or, yanno, 3 copies of STORMRISE. Because DRAGONS and CHRISTMAS go together so well. ;) Simply forward your Amazon receipt (or send a screen shot) to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brothers, Will and Mikey, live together in an apartment. Will supplements his income by removing ‘marked’ electronics from select stores and selling them. This is younger Mikey’s first venture.
We're there!" Mikey hit the back of the seat.
Will shut off the car and turned to Mikey. He put his index finger over his lips. "Shhhh. From now on, until we're back home, no talking unless absolutely necessary. Understand?" Will whispered.
Mikey nodded and mimicked Will's finger.
Will continued in a hushed tone. “You only do what I say. When I say it’s time to leave, we leave. Don’t touch anything not marked with an ‘X’. You bring the smaller boxes near the front of the store to the back near the receiving window. Got all that?”
Mikey nodded and smiled. “I’ll be real good.”
Will put a black knit hat over Mikey's light brown hair. He pulled another over his hair, though his was a darker brown. "And keep your gloves on."
Will's blue eyes met Mikey's gray ones until Mikey's head bobbed again.
"Good. Let's go." Will mouthed the words, making no sound.
They exited the car, heading for the delivery window. On the way to the delivery window, Will stopped at the alarm box.
In front of the box holding the wiring to the alarm system, Will flexed his shoulders loosening his muscles under his leather jacket. He clasped his hands and thrust them out in front of him, fingers facing him, until the knuckles cracked. Satisfied, he took out his picks from an inner pocket in his jacket.
Opening the locked box in seconds with his picks, he cut all the wires.
TITLE: In Jake's Shoes GENRE: Adult contemporary southern
Jake and Mack: members of a Mortuary Affairs Unit in Afghanistan. They’re discussing the recent suicide of a member of their unit. Jake recalls a classmate’s suicide 10 years earlier.
I walk over to a desk and straighten an already evenly stacked set of DD forms. A coffee mug holds a handful of pens, so I pick one up, click it once, twice, then place it on top of the stack of forms.
“I knew a guy who killed himself, Mack…when I was a kid.”
“No s***. How old were you?
“Jesus! How’d he, you know, how’d he do it?”
“Drank some drain cleaner.”
“That’s brutal, man.”
“Yeah, well, it was a long time ago.”
“Why’d he do it? Did he leave a note or anything?”
“No. But he was really mixed-up, and his family was messed up. Old man on drugs. Beat him and his mom. I think he figured things would never change or get better.”
“You sound like maybe you were tight with this guy.”
“Yeah, I guess I was. He was in my fifth-grade class.” I reach down to smooth the black plastic on the body bag.
Mack is quiet for a moment. I look up at him and then turn away.
He reaches out and touches my shoulder.
“Climbing inside that thing is still nuts, Jake. You scare the shit outta me sometimes. Know what I mean?” Mack turns and walks over to a table where we all play cards in-between recoveries. He picks up a deck and starts thumbing through it.
Suddenly, Sergeant Danbury sticks his head inside the tent flap.
“Get the unit together, girls. And grab your gear. We got a recovery site.”
Officially, Riley, the dog, belonged to Seth’s roommate, Brandon, but Seth was the one who loved her and took care of her. When Brandon moved out, he left Riley behind.
Seth opened the door to a young woman, dressed in jeans and a blue hoodie. Her dark hair was pulled back from her face, with a curly pony tail bobbing behind. His roommate search prospects suddenly looked brighter. Her sharp, dark eyes took him in and he felt analyzed and categorized on the spot. An engaging smile spread across her face and Seth couldn’t help but return it.
“Seth Woo? My name’s Catrina Gomez. I’m a friend of Brandon’s”
“Sorry, Brandon’s not here. He moved out a couple days ago. Can I help you?”
“Maybe.” She craned her neck slightly, as if to see into his apartment. Seth instinctively inched the door closed a bit more.
“What’s this about?”
“Brandon left a few things here and he said I could have them. That brown suede chair he’s always despised?” Seth nodded. He knew it. “And some dishes with moons and suns on them. We bought them together at the LACMA gift shop. And, oh yeah, he said I could have his dog.”
Seth peered at the interloper. “What do you mean?”
“The dog. Riley. Brandon doesn’t want her so he gave her to me.”
The woman whistled and called the dog’s name, and the little traitor came running, whimpering and scratching at the door, until Seth had to let Benedict Riley out. The dog covered Catrina’s face in sloppy kisses and wagged her tail so hard, Seth was sure he’d have welts on his legs.
Obviously, these two knew each other.
“Ms. Gomez, you can send movers for the chair and I don’t give a damn about the dishes, but Riley is my dog. Brandon left her with me.”
TITLE: Getting Away With It GENRE: YA Contemporary
Karma and Kevin are two gifted 9th graders in special ed who desperately want to get into a high school program where they would flourish but who are waitlisted.
She’s making me talk on the phone.
Laying in my bed, I texted Karma about Witkowski. Apparently, I could not text fast enough for her liking. She made me phone her. Do people even talk on the phone anymore? I’m not sure I have observed this in anyone my age.
“Hi Karma,” I said. “How are you?” Greeting technique courtesy of my old social group. Mastered that like a boss.
“You know how I am, Kevin. So spill. Tell me what is happening!”
I told her the story of Witkowski.
Karma screamed in my ear. “Oh my God, Kevin. This is great!”
I pulled the phone away and rubbed my ear. Loud sounds suck. Cautiously, I put the phone close to my ear again.
“Please don’t yell in my ear.”
“I’m sorry, Kevin. I’m just excited. I am number 6 now.”
“And I am number 7.”
“That’s true! What do you think the odds are of us getting in now?”
I stopped and sipped a straw full of chocolate milk from my bedside table. “Probably the same as getting on the moon.” I wondered when a travel schedule to the moon would be a reality, the same way there are train schedules all over the U.S. That would be fun to memorize. Karma became very quiet. I needed to fill the quiet somehow. “You know, there’s a list of all the people who got in to D’Ascoyne and the first 10 on the waitlist. It’s posted on the Arrington Public School website. You never know. Maybe other people will move. Or die.”
Liam, an Irish boxer, has asked Deirdre to marry him after being away for four years on a boxing tour. This is something she has dreamed about for years.
“I can’t marry you, or anyone, not now. Clare’s always wanted to be a doctor. Mom and Dad told her they couldn’t afford the tuition, so I promised Clare that I’d get a job. My wages could help send her to college, and then to medical school, where she is now. I can’t break that promise.”
“Is that all, love? I’ve a wee bit saved that I thought we could use to buy a house in Queens or Brooklyn, but we can always rent an apartment for a few years instead, and give those few coins to Clare. So, now that we’ve settled all that, when should we get married?”
“Oh, Liam, if only it was that easy.”
“It is, love.”
“You don’t know the worst of it yet. I didn’t either, until tonight. Tonight, I looked across the ring and saw my sister, Fanny. She was with a man. A married man!”
“And how would you know that, love?”
“I saw his wedding band. On the third finger of his left hand, that’s how, Liam O’Mara. Do you think I go around making crazy guesses like that? She’s brought disgrace to the whole family. Your mom would never allow you to marry someone whose sister is no better than a common woman, and Mr. Donovan wouldn’t want to hire someone who had a sister-in-law like that. Someone who could bring disgrace to the New York Athletic Club, would he? She’s always only cared about herself. I hate her!”
Cerine belongs to a genetically engineered species of sea women, living in post-apocalyptic times. She, her mother, and a young woman are conversing in their underwater village.
Cerene swam up behind her mother, listening to the murmured exchanges between the women.
“No snook today?” Raissa, a silver-haired woman asked.
Her mother shook her head. “Not today, chéri.” Now in her year of training, Cerine knew the snook were difficult to catch. They were ever cautious about approaching bait, much more so than many of the other fish species they hunted.
“But I know you enjoy kelp,” Alyse said, handing the woman a large bundle. Alyse’s other hand rested on her protruding belly.
“When will your baby join us?” Cerine asked the young woman.
“Mid-October.” Alyse smiled in that way expectant mothers so often did when speaking of their unborn child. “Her name will be Mae.”
“It’s a lovely name,” Cerine said. “And I’m sure she’ll have your beautiful golden hair.”
Alyse’s smiled broadened. “I hope so. My firstborn was a red-head, but you probably know that.” She nodded toward a group of younger girls playing catch-the-conch in the distance. Waving locks of auburn framed the face of Alyse’s daughter. Cerine remembered the girl, though she couldn’t recall her name off-hand.
“Isn’t it wonderful she’s having two?” Cerine’s mother interjected, handing another sea woman two cod. “I wish I could have, but. . .”
Thérèse didn’t finish, but Cerine knew the story. The second embryo hadn’t taken and Queen Genevieve didn’t allow additional chances. Embryos were as precious as diamonds had once been on land. Probably more so. Without them, the sea women would cease to exist. Their small community would dwindle into nothingness, becoming merely an insignificant blip in the history of the earth.
“Just a few more years, and it will be your turn,” Alyse reminded Cerine.
Cerine tried produce the appropriate pleased expression, but her face wouldn’t cooperate.
Middle-aged single women Veronica and her BFF Roberta are discussing men, marriage, and the lack of good men to marry.
“Well, I wouldn’t say I was desperate,” Roberta said, “but at our age, the ocean is drying up. There’s not as many fish in the sea as there were ten years ago. Now all that’s left are the cranky old crabs and bottom feeders. You landed the last good catch.”
“I didn’t land him,” I said. “That sounds like I plotted to ‘get my man’, like in a Jane Austen novel or something. Riley and I just fell for each other; neither of us was even fishing. So you’re in a dating dry spell, no biggie. The next round of divorces should be clearing, and soon, your dating pond will be well stocked with good catches again.”
Roberta sighed. “I know, it’s just, well, forty-five is a hard age. I always thought I’d be married and have 2.5 kids by now...”
“You hate kids,” I said.
“...driving them to soccer in the minivan...” she continued.
“You hate minivans,” I said.
“...and at the point in my marriage where my husband and I are comfortable, even a bit bored, but content with life,” she finished.
“You hate being bored and really really hate boring sex. And you’ve been married. Twice. They didn’t work out. I think you enjoyed the weddings more than the marriages.”
“Of course I did,” she said, with a shake of her pretty red hair. “What woman doesn’t want to wear a fabulous dress and be the center of attention at a celebration just for her?”