When Gerry was a baby, I signed up for a free parenting class run by our local school district. It was free and I was a new parent so I figured I was supposed to be there.
On the first day, the instructor gave us some homework.
We were to go home and look over a list of attributes and choose the ones that we felt were most important for our kids. Our spouses were supposed to do the same.
The list looked something like this:
Please circle those words that you want for your child (check all that apply):
affectionate talkative sensitive
follower successful quiet
shares easily leader active
even tempered friendly mature
self-confident cheerful eager to learn
independent outgoing happy
I remember sitting with Tim as we looked over the list. He chose words like successful, self-confident, and independent.
I chose just one: happy.
Gerry’s anxiety level always peaks around the third week of school. I know this because it seems to happen just around “Back-to-School” night. Every year since about second grade, I’m hunting down the adjustment counselor to ask her to check in on Gerry for the next few weeks. The excitement of the new school year dies down and his anxiety about school work and friends goes sky high. It manifests itself in difficulty sleeping, stomach aches, headaches and general grouchiness about anything and everything.
Then it calms down after about a week. Every once in a while it flares and we make it through. And then it’s better.
Last year, in fourth grade, it didn’t calm down as quickly. He was really struggling. He couldn’t focus in class, he was daydreaming, and when he’d click back in he was getting upset that he was missing the instruction.
The difficulty sleeping went on longer than usual. As did the pleas to stay home. I asked him what was happening and he said he just got lost in his thoughts and couldn’t turn off his brain, both at school and at home.
Every one told us that fourth grade was the year that all the issues came out. The work gets harder and even the best students start to struggle. And if there was any underlying anxieties or fear of failure…this is the year that we’d see it.
So we scheduled an appointment for a neuropsych evaluation. Not because we suspected any disorder or concrete diagnosis, but because we wanted more information on how he processed information and where his strengths and challenges are.
You see, we’re old hats at all this testing stuff. Having been through it with his two younger brothers and all.
Last January, Gerry sat through a whole day of tests. One right after the other.
The results? A little bit of anxiety here, a little Asperger-y there, a little bit of attentional issues over here, and a big gap in his verbal processing skills and his actual processing speed. Meaning he has ideas in his head going a mile a minute but it’s hard for him to get it out verbally and on paper the way he wants it, leading to huge frustration levels and added pressure to succeed. No actual diagnosis but a clear understanding of where he does well and where he has challenges.
Oh and he needed glasses. Part of the focus issue in the classroom was an actual focus issue. He couldn’t see the board. Of course.
We talked with Gerry about the results of the testing. Well, Tim did. I couldn’t find the right words. They talked about turning emotional problems into intellectual problems and working through them that way. The strategies and accommodations suggested by the psychologist seemed to make sense to Gerry and the spring semester of school ended well.
And then came the last week of August.
It started when we were on vacation. We were renting a house on Cape Cod for a week. I made him bring his summer work with him because of course he hadn’t touched it all summer long.
He worked on it for ten minutes, got angry, and walked away. That night he was up until midnight and then back awake again from 2am until 4am.
His demeanor changed instantly. The grumpiness returned. The back talk.
The unhappy kid.
Last week was the third week of fifth grade. And right on cue, the anxiety reared its ugly head. The who/what/where/why/how questions about school and band and piano came fast and furious. Gerry stopped sleeping. Monday and Tuesday night he was up past 11pm, stuck in that spiral of “I have to go to bed/I can’t get to sleep/I have to get to bed/Now it’s so late I will never get any sleep/I can’t get to sleep”. Crying.
I asked him to try to relax and visualize a place where he felt “happy”. He was quiet a long time.
“The house,” he said. “Just in the house.”
He couldn’t find that place to retreat to to calm him. He had nowhere that made him feel good.
Feeling a bit of sadness come over me, I said good night for the fourth time and left the room.
And I’ll admit it. I was tired too. My sympathy level was not there. I told him he just needed to go to bed. That I was done talking about it.
Ten minutes later, he came back into the room one more time.
“Mom,” he said. “I think I’d like to see a counselor.”
“Okay,” I said slowly. “What made you decide that?”
“I need someone to talk to about why I can’t sleep. Someone like you. But who won’t get mad at me.”
I stopped for a moment. This was big. And as ego-bruising as it was…he was right. He needed someone other than me.
“Of course. I’ll make some calls in the morning.”
Gerry turned back to bed and went right to sleep.
The anxiety piece is the one I struggle with the most as a parent. Both Gerry and Howie get incredibly anxious – it’s about different things and it manifests itself differently but it’s still there. Howie’s behavior changes and he stims more. Gerry hits me with question after question about what is going to happen next and when and with whom and the questions keep coming until he’s up all night thinking about it.
I struggle partly because I can’t make it better.
I mostly struggle because they get this from me.
And because of that…I knew this couldn’t wait any longer. I had to find a way to get my happy kid again.
This morning, I had an intake appointment with a counselor. He seems like a great fit for Gerry and we set up a first appointment for them for next week.
I told Gerry about it this afternoon. “He seems really nice and I think you’ll like him.”
“Oh good,” he said, barely looking up from his iPad.
“Are you feeling okay about this?”
He looked up at me.
“Yes. Thank you. I actually feel really happy.”
I couldn’t wish for anything more.
“Little darling, it’s been a long cold lonely winter
Little darling, it feels like years since it’s been here
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say
It’s all right
Little darling, the smiles returning to the faces
Little darling, it seems like years since it’s been here
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say
It’s all right” – Here Comes The Sun by The Beatles