I was always an anxious child. A perfectionist bordering on obsessive, rigid and unyielding. The clothing in my closet was, and still is, organized by style (i.e. dresses, skirts, pants), further subcategorized by sleeve length, and finally broken down by color. My idea of playing with Barbie was to set them up in elaborate scenes for display. A fun day for me often included rearranging my bedroom furniture and refolding the clothing in the dresser drawers. No need for spankings or groundings as a punishment for any rare misbehavior. Simply tell me you're disappointed and send me to my room to mentally berate myself for a few hours, and relive every mistake I've ever made. (I'm still upset with myself for the time I pulled a chair out from under Carrie Strehlau in the fifth grade, causing her to fall on the floor. Sorry, Carrie.)
TL;DR: I'm a typical Virgo. In the days of my childhood, however, anxiety, depression, and suicide weren't openly discussed. They were words whispered behind closed doors; family secrets hidden away. This compulsive need I have to organize, clean, and arrive at least 15 minutes early everywhere in life were just some of the ways I learned to deal with and cover for my anxiety and depression.
Both anxiety and depression run amok in my family. So it really shouldn't have come as a surprise when my daughter began displaying symptoms as well. I just never expected it to show up so severely at such an early age.
My loving daughter has never really been an easy child. She is bright, creative, intelligent, kind, and extremely empathetic. She is also sensitive, stubborn, and often overly cautious. During her first few months her colic was so severe I was convinced I was not cut out for motherhood. The neighbors who witnessed her crying, thanks to the combination of an unusually hot October, no air conditioning, and open windows, probably also questioned my ability. I am amazed that child services never showed up on our doorstep. Her extreme crying every day from sunset to about nine or ten in the evening made me a virtual hermit, and the Baby Blues nearly crossed the line into post-partum depression. I only escaped the house if I was grocery shopping or going to work. Thank God for a supportive and understanding husband. Not once did he make me feel guilty as I thrust a wailing, red-faced infant into his arms and retreated to our bedroom to muffle her cries by putting a pillow over my head. He encouraged me to get out and connect with other mommies with babies our daughter's age, many of whom we are still friends with so many years later.
After the colic miraculously stopped, her SPD symptoms began. Bright lights, seams on clothing, low-pitched noises. You never knew what would set her off. Once we were in Long's Drugstore, and she was having a tantrum because the flickering florescent lighting was bothering her. In a case of the WORST UNSOLICITED ADVICE EVER, some woman suggested that throwing ice water in her face would stop a tantrum flat. In retrospect maybe I should've taken my frustrations out on this unsuspecting know-it-all, whose kids probably hate her and never call her on her birthday. Instead it was one of many times that I went home and locked myself in the bathroom to cry. Another time, at the Children's Museum in Memphis while in town visiting family, she was so overwhelmed by the sights and sounds and crowds that she bit down on my shoulder and broke the skin, leaving a perfect bloody imprint of her teeth. And this was through layers of winter clothing and a puffy winter coat.
Clearly, something was wrong. My husband and I were smart enough to listen to our parental instincts and realized we were out of our depths. We sought help. Luckily, Maui has an amazing program here called Imua, and we qualified for free occupational therapy until Irie aged out of the program at five. We took all that we learned in therapy and applied it to life as needed. We seemed to be dealing well with things on our own since then. We'd learned to overcompensate for her sensory issues in a million small ways. Role playing, if we have an appointment with a new doctor or dentist. Code words, for when a playdate is too overwhelming to handle. Earplugs, sleep masks, seamless clothing. Arriving early, wherever, whenever. Or sometimes just flat out skipping an event on those days that we just aren't feeling up to it. Lately, though, it doesn't seem to be enough.
I actually spent 40 minutes sitting in my car in the school parking lot one day this week trying to convince a hysterical child to get out and go to class.
How do you handle an overwrought child when you're barely holding back the tears yourself? It is a true Catch-22. I understand her so well, because I have the same struggles myself. And she has these struggles because they are, most likely, genetic. My Mini-Me in so many ways, good and bad.
I know some of her triggers for this particular meltdown and, in general, this increase in meltdowns lately. A new school. A boy with a crush who thinks bullying is a great way to get attention. A couple of mean girls. Worrying about the embarrassment of having someone see her cry. Dealing with a Mom who is often not feeling well due to fibromyalgia and thyroid disease, and who just wants to sleep, all the while promising to play "later."
My own triggers- being unable to help her. Watching her cry uncontrollably when she tells me her brain is broken. Wishing she could just power through. Wishing I could protect her from the world. Feeling like this is my fault because she obviously inherited this from me, and learned this behavior from me.
In the end, I call it a day and agree to take her home with me. We shut all the curtains and turn on the air conditioning. We get our fluffiest pillows, cuddliest blankets, and put on our softest pajamas. We nap for two hours, mentally and physically exhausted, and vow that next week will be better.
As before, we recognize that we need help to cope. My husband and I took her to her pediatrician, who then referred us to a psychologist for an evaluation. We've talked to Irie, told her she is loved and supported. We've promised to get through this together, as a family. We will deal as best we can as we go down this long road. We count down the days until our first therapy appointment. We try to redirect our frantic brains from all of the bad what-ifs of the world. We remind ourselves that it WILL get better.
Having a child... your heart no longer resides within your own body. It is out walking around in the world with your angel, forced to endure every harsh word, every perceived hurt, every disappointment. But on a good day you also get to experience each happy moment, cherish every smile, witness every proud accomplishment, hold tight to every hug. And feel your heart swell with hope.