Did I say I was going to post on here once a week last time I wrote? Gotcha! No, seriously, I’m trying. This was supposed to be the slow month of the fall, and instead, it’s been a whirlwind of disasters. I know I mentioned that we had made some changes, and I was feeling more than a little optimistic about them, but.
We’re working on things, one week, one day, one hour at a time. One meltdown over homework at a time. One refusal to cooperate at a time. One follicle of grey hair randomly sprouting from Todd’s beard at a time. One glass of wine at a time… you get the idea. It’s a process, as is everything in life, especially with kids, especially with kids who are so far off the normal chessboard you aren’t even sure what game you’re playing anymore.
Having said all of that, I want to take the time I have right now to talk about a word that gets thrown around like f*@#ing confetti, but rarely given the consideration it deserves – especially when it comes to kids: ANXIETY.
Did you here the dum-dum-duhhhhhh music in your head just then? That melodramatic forboding beat that practically screams at you to run or take cover? Well, pretend you did anyway. Okay, here goes.
I have mentioned in the past, here and there, my own struggles with anxiety. When I say I struggle with anxiety, I don’t mean I get a little hyped up before a big test, or I get a knot in my chest every now and then when thinking about certain things – for some people, that is their level and that is completely okay. Me? Not so much. I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder years ago. I tried meds, I didn’t like them. I deal. If that means every now and again I sneak out of bed to have a 2-hour panic attack on my back porch at 3am, so be it. This shit crosses into every corner of my life.
Take school for example: I freak out over every. single. little. thing. in my head. All day, every day, without stop. 1 page paper due tomorrow that Kaleb could write in his sleep? I revise and proof read 87 times and then have nightmares about it. Huge final project that is due in December? I’ve spent so much time worrying over this thing since August, Todd is about ready to wrap a roll of duct tape around my head.
So, there’s that. That’s school, for me. And school for me is a big deal. I work hard, I stress out, but I do well, and even with the stress, I largely enjoy the entire process. You know what I don’t enjoy?
Watching my kids struggle with this shit every day.
The big A word is a baseline for me. I worry about my crap, Todd’s crap, the dogs, the dragon, even the hamster hits the radar on the regular. But the biggest thing? The thing that completely unties me? Those boys. Those wild, intelligent, funny, absurd human beings that I am supposed to somehow help turn into respectable (whatever that means), responsible, thoughtful, caring men. It seems like a pretty daunting freaking task when I can’t even get the little hellions to brush their teeth without turning into some B-level horror film character with all the screaming and the flying hair.
And yet. That’s the job. That’s the goal. And it’s doable. I mean, it must be, right? People do it every day. But it’s hard.
The thing is, in our case anyway, it’s made about a million times harder by the little monsters that live inside the heads of my monsters. The ones that tell them they aren’t good enough. They aren’t smart enough, kind enough, social enough. The ones that tell them they’re too loud, they talk too much, they have too much energy. The ones that tell them people don’t like them because of who they are and they must change.
FUCK THAT NOISE.
This isn’t a joke. This isn’t a drill. This is a real-life thing that is happening inside the minds of my kids – and other kids just like them – every single day. The constant struggle to meet the expectations of people who don’t even know them. The weight of judgment and laughter and name-calling and just downright shittiness is more than they can take.
I’m going to be super candid here. The last 12 months in our house has been nothing short of hell. Confidence has plummeted. Self-esteem has been flushed down the drain. The light has dimmed in those big beautiful eyes. There’s a sadness and an anger that is rooted so deeply in my children’s souls you can see it.
They’re miserable, and we don’t know what the hell to do about it. Where does it come from? All the negative self talk? Did they hear it from us? Eh, maybe, sometimes. Consistently, not really. Honestly, Todd and I both have a bit of egomaniacal streak, and neither of us is big on putting ourselves down. Am I critical of myself? Yes… didn’t I just admit to that? But do I say negative things about myself out loud? No, not really. So, what then? Where does it come from?
YouTube videos? Just too much technology access? Okay, cut it all out. Surgically remove the damn problem and lock everything with a screen up. Well, now they’re negative and they’re furious. That’s fun. Do I think that there is too much of a dependency on screentime? Yes. Without a question. We use it as a reward system. They use it to have “downtime”. The schools use it to teach and train and reward – it’s everywhere, and it’s becoming toxic. But watching too many episodes of Skylanders is not going to make my kid hate himself.
But being told consistently by other people that he isn’t good enough, sure as hell will.
Allowing other kids to call him names because he’s different, or new, or too abrasive and doesn’t know how to be any other way sure as hell will.
Not working to reinforce the knowledge that they are smart and kind, and funny, and wonderful people every single day sure as hell will.
My kids have both been diagnosed with anxiety disorders. They both struggle every single day with not feeling like they are enough and it is driving me to the brink of my own sanity.
Mason didn’t want to go to a birthday party of a friend he’s known for literally his entire life last month because he was convinced everyone there was going to hate him. He’s known these people all of his life! They’ve never been anything but kind, considerate and generous to him, and he was in such a state of affairs on the way to the party that I had to pull over out of fear he was going to hyperventilate. Did he have a good time at the party? Not at first, no. He sat outside the party room on the floor, and twice I had to take him outside because his heart was racing so bad I thought he was going to have a panic attack. In the end, after I pushed, and pulled, and coddled, and coerced, he joined the fray and had an absolute blast. But it wasn’t as natural for him as it used to be, not by a long shot. Exactly one week later we had his 9th birthday party. Instead of baking the cupcakes or cleaning my house, I spent that morning locked in his room with him while he ran through all of the reasons why nobody was going to show up to his party.
This is what Anxiety looks like
There were 23 kids at my house that night, I kid you not (a pun! Ha!). He had kids from schools he doesn’t go to anymore, new kids from the new school, neighborhood kids and the same kid whose birthday party he’d gone to the weekend before. And out of all that, the chaos and the noise and the sheer madness of it all here’s what I learned about my kid: He chose the outcasts this year. He’s the new kid on campus, new school and all that. He was terrified he wasn’t going to make any friends. One kid who came to his party had never been invited to a friend’s birthday party before. Another one had never been brave enough to attend. Another one told me that Mason was the first friend he’s had in his whole life. I had to lock myself in the bathroom to cry that night because the kids he picked as his friends were kids who he thought needed friends. He picked other kids like him.
Kaleb has had the worst year imaginable. It’s been one issue after another, and to watch the self-confidence slide out of him so easily is heartbreaking. Here’s the thing: Kaleb is a smart kid. I know, Newsflash! right? But seriously. I don’t just mean he spent the summer reading college textbooks on physics and calculus for fun (which he did much to my bewilderment). He’s a lot smarter when it comes to people than people themselves give him credit for. If he doesn’t like you, there’s a reason for it. If he doesn’t respond to or respect you, you’ve given him cause. He is a tough nut to crack, but he doesn’t walk into situations expecting not to like people. Actually, he doesn’t walk into situations thinking about people beyond what random and fascinating stuff is floating through his head that he can possibly share with someone he hasn’t already shared it with.
Kaleb reads situations better than he’s ever been given due credit by, with the exception of a handful of well-loved and deeply missed teachers at his elementary school, and his family. But he’s also, well… he can also be a jerk. The key distinction here is this: He doesn’t mean to be mean. He isn’t trying to make people feel bad. He isn’t intentionally judgemental. That doesn’t mean he isn’t sometimes mean, or make people feel bad, or come off as judgy, because he can – especially to people who don’t know him. And the thing is, he can’t help it. I mean he legitimately cannot help the words flying out of his mouth. The ability isn’t there. NO mouth filter. There’s never been one – not since he started talking – the thoughts come into his head, and the words go flying out of his mouth.
That means when his Dad says something about well, basically anything these days, and Kaleb’s pubescent, hormone, filterless brain has feelings about this, his mouth lets those feelings fly. It’s hard. It’s hard to deal with, for him, for us, for teachers, for peers – it’s a problem. But there’s no clear-cut solution to the problem because it’s a part of of his basic make-up and the only way to help him grow a mouth filter is to address the problem directly, and positively. That kid, hell both kids, eat up negativity like I used to munch on Flintstone vitamins. Don’t actually know what the hell it’s doing to you, but damn is it tasty.
My kids are getting messages daily that they aren’t enough and I am absolutely sick of it. Their grades aren’t good enough. Their behavior isn’t spotless. They’re too mouthy, too loud, too much.
It’s a never-ending loop, and I’m hitting the panic button. I’m hitting the desperate point. Because I cannot, I will not allow the expectations of the world to break their spirit. Does Mason need to do his school work? Of course he does! And preferably with enough care that someone can actually read what he’s written. Does Kaleb need to learn appropriate behavior when it comes to interacting with others – especially those on a different academic level than himself? Hell yes! Does he need to understand the necessity of following directions by people in positions of authority? Aboslutely. Does he need to learn to follow orders without asking questions? Absol-fucking-lutely NOT.
Asking questions is how you learn. Asking questions can help keep you safe in unfamiliar situations. And asking questions is a staple of not just children with autism, not just children with anxiety, but children in general. If a kid asks you why he has to do something and you cannot provide him with an adequate explanation, perhaps you should reevaluate why you’re having the kid do it. Is that easy when an almost-12-year-old is shouting “But just tell me why!” at the top of his damn lungs when you’ve got about 100 other damn things to be doing and this is just so not what you need right now? No. Actually, it’s hard as hell. And completely necessary – because if he’s that upset, there’s a reason for it. A reason that should be explored. Not ignored.
My kids suffer from anxiety on a level that I have exactly zero personal experience with. Their little minds and hearts and spirits are in pain and I don’t know how to fix it, but I’m damn sure going to try. Because holy shit if I’m going to stand by and let the world suck the muchness out of those boys. I’d like them to keep their muchness, thank you very much.
So is this…
This was supposed to be a brief touch on some shit that’s been bothering me lately and turned into a full-blown rant, so if you’re still with me, thanks for sticking through. If you have had any experience with kids and anxiety, or have struggled with it in any way, please don’t hesitate to reach out. Whether to commiserate, laugh, cry, or offer advice, my door is open. This is becoming increasingly more common, yet the conversations aren’t happening that should be. I’d like to change that.