My 7-year-old daughter struggles from time to time with anxiety. Just like me she is outwardly sociable, funny, warm, and charming, so when anxiety hits the difference is instantly noticeable. Unlike me, she has not yet learnt to mask it. As a matter of fact, I hope she never learns how to do that. I remember being about her age when I first thought to myself I needed to hide my anxious feelings. Whatever had happened prior to that I don’t recall, but I remember knowing that the feelings I had inside tearing me apart would not be welcome in the outside world, even to my immediate family. I learned to hide them from everyone and continued to do that for decades. Sometimes I still do.
K’s anxiety manifests itself in different ways. Often with a stomach twisting and churning which she describes as a ‘stomach ache’. You can imagine how quickly that gets her to the school office and a call made to me to collect her. Which is what happened this week on Tuesday. I knew she wasn’t poorly as I had dropped her to school that day the picture of health. I told the office I would collect her but pre-warned them that it might be anxiety and that was worth flagging with her new Year 3 teacher. As suspected, I collected her and her mood instantly lifted. We came home, she got into her fluffy reindeer onesie, and we watched films and chilled out. It did us both good to have that day off. She ate and drank as normal and never once complained of any stomach ache.
Until the next morning. My sociable, warm, charming daughter woke up a shadow of herself. I assessed she was not poorly so the conversation turned to the cause of her stomach churning.
“I don’t want to go to school Mummy,” she said, “and I don’t know why.”
What do you say to that? I sat on my bed with her cradled in my lap and wanted to do what I do when anxiety cripples me: shut the world out. I am much better than I was, after years of counselling and self-help; but just over five years ago I would spend days in bed with the duvet over my head too paralysed to move and it would happen often enough to be defined as ‘regular’. It may well have been my coping mechanism for years but it wasn’t a gift I wanted to give my daughter. I am learning new ways, better ways; and I wanted to give her those.
“I know this is hard baby girl,” I said, “but you have to go to school. I wouldn’t send you if you were poorly; but you are not poorly. You are worried about something and we need to find a way for you to deal with that worry without hiding from it.”
She understood. I explained I would talk to her teacher, I would call the office, I would get her Dad on stand-by for a call and he would collect her straight away; if she was brave and went in for as long as she could.
I can’t even begin to describe how awful that walk to school was. It physically hurt. My usual warm, funny child was like a ghost. She managed one weak smile on the eight-minute journey, which those who know her will testify is as like K as night is like day. Her sunshine was gone. I spoke to her teacher at the classroom door and he said he would look out for her. She had mentioned some of the maths being harder this term and getting answers wrong, which she doesn’t like, so I shared that with him. K had said she wanted somewhere quiet to have time out when she felt overwhelmed and a toy to cuddle; and he confirmed that was achievable. I hugged her tight; kissed every inch of her face; told her she was my hero and that Daddy was ready to collect her whenever it got too much. She walked through the door and into someone else’s care. I watched the empty space she had left and turned on my heel with tears rolling down my face.
I rang just before 11 am when I arrived in London for my meeting. The receptionist had to find the teacher supervising break-time. The message back was that K was settled and not to worry. She never called her Dad and she came home to me having made a paper Worry Monster with a front pocket that she could fill with her anxieties to help her process them. The rest of the week wasn’t plain sailing but we got through it and every day got a little better and a little better until the weekend came and I had my little girl back.
“You have learnt something so very important this week,” I told her, “you have learnt something most adults struggle to do, including Mummy. You have done something when it was hard. You did not give up. You did not let anxiety decide your life.”
‘Hero’ may be an over-used noun; but in this context, there is no better. She is a person to be noted for courageous acts. I watched my little girl face a crippling fear. A fear I couldn’t take away. A fear I couldn’t make better. A fear I couldn’t face for her. All I could do is steer and encourage. And that never felt like enough.
Reflecting upon it now, I see the magnitude of what we achieved together. I thought I was teaching her resilience; but she was also teaching it to me. I faced the fear of steering her to do something incredibly difficult but necessary. I did it without forcing her to mask how she felt and without masking what I felt about it either. We did it by sharing, talking, encouraging. I see what power we have together when we adopt this model to face individual or collective fears. What at the start of this experience felt like me administering ‘tough love’ to the person I care about most in the whole word has become a guide to expressing love at a depth greater than I had previously known. And that’s something I can use to achieve my life mission of touching as many people’s lives as positively as I can …..