Will’s anxiety is back. My almost eight-year-old son has been worry-free for over a year and suddenly, as I enter my final month of pregnancy, his worries are back with a vengeance.
Will began struggling with worries in kindergarten. His throat hurt and he worried that he wouldn’t be able to swallow at school. I tried to explain to him that his throat was tight because he was worried, but it didn’t help. He began to carry his water bottle everywhere. He worried about mascots and couldn’t go to baseball games or Chuck E. Cheese birthday parties. I had to force him to go to school, picking him up and carrying him into the car most mornings, handing him off to his teacher and driving away from his cries, shaking. His worries seemed to come out of nowhere, though he had always been a shy child, a toddler who preferred to stay by my side. Like the type 1 diabetes I was diagnosed with at 14 years old, no one could pinpoint the origin of his anxiety. We just knew that one day he was pretty okay, and the next he was not.
We saw a therapist who taught Will how to use behavioral techniques such as deep breathing and locking the worries into a box. I read books, researched, and agonized for months until finally, one day, his worries disappeared. Just as suddenly as they’d arrived, they were gone again and my boy was free — free to go to the movies, free to play at his friend’s houses, free to start first grade at a new school and eventually, free to leave his water bottle behind.
Until this summer, that is. His first attack happened while I wasn’t home. He was eating chicken nuggets with his dad and began to choke. The choking was over quickly, but panic set in. By the time I got home, he was hysterical. Will was crying, asking his dad to perform CPR and telling us he was scared that he was dying. I sat on the couch next to him, smoothing his hair away from his face and telling him he was fine, he was not going to die. But then he had another attack the next day and the day after that. By the third one I wasn’t able to help my child; I was overwhelmed, pregnant, and hormonal, and all I could do was cry. I called my husband at work and asked him to come home; I didn’t know what else to do.
Now that I look back, I can see that the return of Will’s anxiety began slowly. As his school year came to a close, he started breathing heavily at night while we lay in bed cuddling. “What are you doing?” I’d ask and he would mumble, “Nothing.” It was irritating, this hot, heavy panting on my cheek, but I shrugged it off because I didn’t want to see the signs. Will started asking questions too, about the end of school and missing his teacher. As the summer and my pregnancy progressed, the boys and I were faced with a variety of changes: my grandparents moved into town, my sister moved out of town, and with the move, my boys lost their favorite cousins. Our lives, which were usually calm and uneventful, began to change shape.
We are stuck, trapped in our house because Will is afraid he’ll have a panic attack away from home. But we’re really not safe at home either. He can’t fall asleep at night so we’ve returned to familiar methods from when our boys were babies, lying in bed with him until he falls asleep.
I am tired and frustrated. I’ll have a real baby in the house very soon. I don’t have the energy to deal with Will’s worries and that scares me, and sends me into a destructive cycle of unanswerable questions. Will having three children be too much for me? Would I be better able to help him if I wasn’t pregnant, if I wasn’t diabetic? Family members and friends suggest that Will needs a schedule to get back on track. I’m home with the boys all summer and we spend many of our days in our pajamas, leaving the house in the late afternoon only when we are desperate with boredom. I don’t have the energy to create a schedule, to come up with crafty ideas or host playdates because much of my energy is devoted to tracking blood sugars, careful eating, and daily exercise. I am filled with guilt, already torn between my newborn and Will, already negotiating for space and time with my second child, Miles, and my writing, and my marriage.
Dale and I started taking Will to a psychiatrist, and began talking about medication. I feel ashamed to write these words, weak and scared. Drugs for a seven-year-old seem so drastic, like the easy way out. My husband was skeptical and wondered if the medication was there to make our lives easier. Or was our child truly suffering?
Being in the middle of Will’s panic attacks feels like being in the center of a storm. It reminds me of Hurricane Floyd in 1999, which threatened Charleston just a few months after Dale and I were married. A mandatory evacuation was declared for our city. Dale and I were unprepared; we hadn’t bothered to buy the recommended bottles of water, canned goods, and flashlights, and we had nothing. For hours we stared transfixed at the TV, watching as newscasters reported a clogged highway and sold-out hardware stores, and eventually we decided to stay. How bad could it be? As the rest of the world drove onto the highway, Dale and I headed to my parents’ house on Johns Island. The country road was deserted and the wind was blowing dead limbs from the trees. We drove slowly over the bridge, feeling the wind sway our car like a hammock. At my parents’ house, we gathered in the kitchen and together with my mother and father watched the creek water rise and the wind blow. In the middle of the storm we lost electricity. I’d never heard wind so loud. It was the middle of the afternoon, but it was dark and we were alone. I could feel the house moaning against the weight of the storm and struggled to stay calm, my heart beating too fast, my breathing so rapid and tight, I was sure that in deciding to stay, we’d made a fatal mistake.
The electricity came back on after a few hours, and the wind eventually died down. The hurricane missed us and headed toward North Carolina. We were safe. My husband and I got back into our car and drove slowly along the tree limb-covered country road toward home.
We’ve been in the middle of our own storm for weeks. Will’s panic attacks worsened and we no longer wondered if our son was suffering — we knew. We filled his prescription. Maybe my comfort level with the medical community frees me from typical parental concerns, allowing me to say yes to medication. Maybe I’m taking a dangerous risk, just like the risk I took when we decided to stay home and face the hurricane. But maybe I’ve learned that it’s okay to ask for help, maybe I understand that the body has limitations.
After a week on medication I’m beginning to hear the wind die down, I’m beginning to believe the sun will come out and part the clouds and we will pick up the branches on our front yard. There will always be another hurricane in Will’s future, but maybe next time we’ll be prepared. Maybe next time we won’t be so scared.