It’s been another long stretch since I posted. There have been some unexpected turns at the Uplifted House. In August, the kids returned to school, with Dragon entering the 7th grade, and Peach moving up to the 5th. In September, I returned to work for another year as a teacher’s assistant at the preschool Dragon and Peach each attended as littles.
Dragon’s school year has been mostly fabulous up to now (and let me say, I am shocked… I mean, it IS junior high.) He likes all of his teachers for once, and he even made the honor roll (woohoo!) He also ran cross country for the first time and had a wonderful experience, ending the season with a PR and a great finish in his first 5K. He’s having a blast singing in an extracurricular choir (let’s hear it for donuts every Thursday morning!) Best of all, he has a lovely circle of great friends and is making new ones as well.
But the school year thus far has not been so kind to our little Peach. The anxiety she’s been coping with for the last three years has reached a tipping point.
It started out ok… After a full summer of counseling, a diagnosis of emetophobia (intense fear of vomiting) and exposure therapy (yes, I can make up songs about puke on the fly… can you?) we were feeling fairly confident. The first morning back was tough. Peach got up on time and excited (this alone was a good sign, trust me,) then got dressed and had breakfast. It was when she started to pack her bag that she first said, “I’m feeling shaky.” This is where Mama’s stomach always flip-flops, and I shift into high gear to try and head off the rapid descent down what I call “the rabbit hole.” I used my calmest, most casual tone to reassure her she would be fine, that a few first-day jitters were perfectly normal. As I eased the backpack over her shoulders, I reminded her how well she did in “Middle School 101” camp the week before. I talked about how nice it would be to enjoy the newfound freedom of taking her entire lunch period to play on the playground if she felt like it. I assured her it would be nothing but fun stuff for the first few days… But it quickly became apparent that my words were falling on deaf ears. Her pupils were huge, her breathing was erratic and she kept wiping her palms on her pants. She was slipping from my grasp, falling further down the hole… As Dragon started looking panicked about getting to the bus on time, I badgered him into position in the driveway for a quick “first day of seventh grade” snapshot and a hug, then sent him on his way, assuring him his little sister would be fine, that she would soon follow.
It was time for crisis-mode. I managed to get Peach into the car and we drove to the middle school. It took some doing, and the help of several additional people, but eventually she got into the building. Her new homeroom teacher came and talked with her, and my jaw nearly hit the floor when Peach agreed to go with her. She even had a smile on her face! Even though I was pretty shell-shocked by then (I hadn’t even brushed my teeth yet), it felt incredible to walk out of there knowing she’d gone willingly to class. In the parking lot, I fist-pumped the air and then went to have First Day of School coffee with some friends.
Peach LOVED it. She began coming home each day saying how much fun it was, that school was amazing. I recall texting Guitar Man one morning to say our kids had left for the bus holding hands. I even started going for a run once they were out the door. My heart was full to overflowing.
That bliss lasted a whole week and a half.
Then she caught a bug. It was a vague thing, showing itself as nothing but a fever, but it stuck around for five days. And getting her back into school after that forced me to dig deep and dig in. It was, in a word, awful. The switch had been flipped back once more, and it took a team effort of me, our counselor, and a handful of people from the school to pull it in the other direction again.
We fought the battle hard for a few weeks, and then came the walking pneumonia. It resembled a cold at first, but the barking cough that came with it made me nervous on the tail of a reported case of whooping cough at school. I carted Peach off to our pediatrician, where the nurse practitioner took one listen to her lungs and said, “She’s got pneumonia!” I’ll admit here to a strong feeling of vindication… ongoing anxiety comes with many excuses, and between the school, the counselor, my spouse, and a score of other well-meaning family, friends and colleagues, my worries for my girl lately are often met with doubt. Though many of them nod sympathetically, there are days where I can almost hear the whispers of my recent onset of Munchausen’s. My staunch belief that there is a piece of Peach’s puzzle that we’ve yet to unearth, that there’s something physiological going on, that this is more than just ‘worries’ that we need to medicate and counsel her out of, THIS belief is mostly only heard – really heard – in my own head.
Peach required a 10-day round of amoxicillin, but I was told she could go back to school in just two days. As the kids had that Friday off and the expected day back was on Thursday, I decided to give her another day of rest. I was worn out from all the early morning, pre-work battles to get her to school. We hunkered down and took it easy for a change. Then the following Monday, we were back at it. From there, I will spare you the agonizing details, but we spent over two weeks trying to get her back into school. We tried doing it incrementally, the first day for just 20 minutes… by the time we reached the third day and attempted first bell, it was already spiraling down. A meeting with her teachers, the school staff, Guitar Man and me didn’t get us very far. They offered another staggered start, and I tried it for two days just to show we were making the attempt, but the terror Peach exhibited upon arriving at school was simply too much for either of us to bear any longer.
By mid-October, after juggling all this drama with my job, I decided to accept my boss’ offer of some personal time off, and we officially pulled Peach out of school. The relief in our house was immediately palpable. But now the weight of defeat is sitting pretty heavily on all our shoulders.
I don’t know how many of you have dealt with panic attacks, school refusal, separation anxiety or generalized anxiety in your kids before, but lump them all together and you’re staring at the most challenging thing I’ve faced yet as a parent. It is its own private hell. It’s isolating and terrifying, and it renders you helpless and heartbroken. And that’s just me. I can only imagine what she is feeling… I wonder where my strong, independent, fearless girl has gone, and to what lengths we’ll have to go to get her back…
And so I hold her.
I hold her flailing body when the panic takes over.
I hold her hand at night when she cannot fall asleep without my reassuring presence.
I hold her when she’s raging at her beleaguered brother for some thoughtless remark he’s made.
I hold her in the chair and tell her we’ll get through it together when the ever-piling school assignments are too much for her struggling brain.
I hold her back when she wants to bolt out the door and run somewhere – anywhere she can – to escape this nightmare she’s found herself wandering through, wide awake.
I hold her head and kiss her copper hair again and again as they draw blood from her trembling arm, hoping to identify the attacker that’s taken up residence inside her.
I hold her out of reach from the judgement that falls unjustly upon her little shoulders from nearly every direction, including (shamefully, at times) my own.
And I hold her heart in my hands… every. single. second.