Recovery is not linear. That is something I learned in early sobriety when I was struggling to manage my anxiety without the crutch of alcohol. It is also something I remind myself of daily, for both myself and my daughter.
This is a sensitive subject. Almost more sensitive than my sobriety. Being alcohol free has almost become trendy in our culture today — something completely different from the 2004 world I got sober in. While mental health is much more visible today, it is still not as easily discussed as a physical ailment or struggle like a broken leg or Type 1 diabetes.
I have anxiety and depression. I am treated with medication and regular therapy. These tools help me live a successful life. They do not ensure a life without tribulations, but they do give me a good starting place to cope with what life gives me.
My 6-year-old daughter is now struggling with anxiety of her own. Early on, she showed signs of separation anxiety; she struggled to let me leave when she was 3, and she was diagnosed with sensory issues at an early age. She participated in Early Intervention as a toddler and eventually graduated to occupational therapy, which she engaged in from ages 3 to 5. Therapy helped her when she struggled to regulate her own body when she felt uncomfortable or out of control. Therapy helped her to try new foods when she was afraid of the texture. Therapy helped her cope with discomfort.
But then school started, and she seemed to be doing really well. She loved kindergarten and thrived in the classroom. She continued to eat and try new things. She wore clothing that used to “rub her the wrong way” without complaint. She had friends, joined Girl Scouts, danced, cheered, and played soccer throughout the year. So we stopped our weekly OT visits. She missed playing with her therapist but seemed OK with the alternatives in her new schedule.
But something happened during the summer between kindergarten and 1st grade. She began to feel more clingy; she never wanted to be away from me. It made her nervous. When 1st grade started, I hoped the schedule of the school day would help her regain her confidence in herself and her assurance with the world around her. And it did, at first. Until it didn’t.
In my town, 1st grade is in a different school with a different drop-off routine. The day is about an hour longer than kindergarten, and there are fewer opportunities for recess and play. Every day around 7:30 a.m., an hour before school starts, my daughter begins to fixate on what can go wrong in her day. Her belly begins to hurt. Her legs hurt. Her head hurts. Nothing feels right, and she can’t possibly go to school. And I miss all of this because I am already at work. So my mother, who takes care of my children while my husband and I work, gets the brunt of my daughter’s anxiety. But I feel it, too.
In the drop-off line, she cries. She can’t catch her breath. And she can’t think positively. She tailspins into a panic attack, and her 6-year-old mind and body can’t see a way out. It kills me. I feel responsible. I feel like it’s my fault, and I begin to fixate on all the things I did or should have done to prevent her from ever feeling like this. I feel guilty that I work so far from home and am unable to bring her to school in the morning. I feel guilty that she inherited this anxiety from me. I feel guilty that I am not able to stop myself from getting angry when she refuses to accept any of my (very well-intentioned, but not always helpful) suggestions for coping with being nervous.
And this is the thing: Once she gets to school, things are good. Her teacher describes her as sweet and fun and social. She thrives in a classroom. But she struggles to remember that when her anxiety takes hold. So I do what I learned in early sobriety. I ask for help.
I email her teacher and the school nurse. I set her up with the school social work intern — the school psychologist is overextended, so this intern is a godsend. I make an appointment with her pediatrician and get referrals. I learn that they are booking evaluations anywhere from 6-12 months from now and feel discouraged. I am even more thankful now for the social work intern at school; she will be our bridge until one of the four places I’ve called calls me back with an appointment. I ask my own psychiatrist what to do. She suggests Diane Albers’ book, “A Little Spot of Anxiety.” I order the boxed set of multiple emotions and the gift set with actual emotion spot stuffies. These books are wonderful — they offer meaningful and accessible strategies for children and describe emotions in a way my high-school-English-teacher brain could not.
I read the books to her. We learn coping strategies. We practice different exercises. We pick out her outfit the night before. We listen to meditations before bed. We do yoga stretches in the morning to ensure our muscles feel good. We take her temp, check her throat, and take three deep breaths to determine whether we are really sick, or if it is just our head telling us that to trick us in the morning. I give her time checks for when I will be leaving. I hug her and kiss her multiple times before I leave for work. And she feels better.
Until she doesn’t. And it starts again. And I remind myself that recovery from anything, whether it’s alcohol, drugs, bad relationships, broken bones, or even anxiety, is not linear. There is no straight path to wellness. There is only a path with various detours, some helpful, some tricky, some downright difficult, but all part of the journey.
I regularly feel guilt about my daughter’s anxiety. I cry about it often. I struggle not to take it personally and feel responsible. And like her and her battle with and recovery from anxiety, my own is not linear. There are some days when I am ready to take on the world and some days when I want to hide in bed. Like her, I do my own temperature check to determine what is necessary. I take care of my mental health in the same way I take care of my Type 1 diabetes — with hard work, persistence, and the loving kindness that is necessary.
I hope to show her that she is bigger, better, and more powerful than her anxiety. I hope she knows that she is not her anxiety, and that while it is part of her, it is something that can lead to growth and the development of skills that will help her cope with whatever life brings her. I hope she knows that she is loved and that she has the most wonderful team of educators, doctors, friends, coaches, mentors, and family members ready to help her up when anxiety tries to push her down.