Irrational Fear and Other Invisible Monsters
I walked into my son's room quietly, feeling guilty about turning on the light.
"Hey, it's time for school. How did you sleep?"
I feel like I'm waiting for test results as my groggy son takes his time to answer me.
"I'm not sure I slept much at all."
His words land like a punch in the gut. It is the second night in a row where panic attacks have kept him from sleeping - my second morning this week of wondering, 'Should I just let him sleep?' But he's had more than ten absences this semester from days he left school early with a migraine after trying to push past it and days I sent him back to bed because a full night of sleepless anxiety has left him shaking and weeping. And those ten days of me extending grace to my smart, hard-working son whose brain taunts him with imagined threats mean that now I can't excuse his absences without a doctor's note anymore.
Part of me wishes the school knew how inconsequential unexcused absences felt to me in the wake of my son's deteriorating mental health. But, they are one more thing that makes me feel like I am failing - one more thing I can't control.
"Since you missed the first half of the day yesterday, why don't you try to go to school this morning? And when you're too exhausted to continue, or you fall asleep in class, give me a call, and I'll pick you up. But at least you won't be missing the same classes two days in a row."
He complies. But ten minutes later, I find him crying on the bathroom floor because he can't quit vomiting. Some days he has me pick him up from school because his anxiety puking is creating too much of a distraction for the other students.
Today he has a presentation to give. He tells me how, on top of all of his irrational panic, there is the worry that his anxiety will cause him to perform poorly. I look at the fear in my son's eyes, and I can't tell him that there's no monster under the bed. This fear is justified. His anxiety will impact his presentation. It will go worse than if he were doing well today. His grades will suffer. But they will also suffer if I let him stay home. And it's not just this presentation. His reputation has suffered this year. He worries that he is no longer thought of as the eager to please, over-achieving kid. He sees himself as delinquent - the student who is always asking for special accommodations and taking up his teachers' time double-checking his missing assignments. I want to tell him that he is wrong. But I'm afraid this bogeyman of imagined judgment may turn out to be quite real.
Having lost a son to cancer, I've never liked the blogs and articles that talk about how much better it would be to have cancer than whatever "fill in the blank illness" the author wishes got the same attention and concern that cancer patients get. I've resented those articles for years. But this morning, wondering how my anxious wreck of a son did on his presentation and how he was managing the rest of his day riddled with profound fear exacerbated by a lack of sleep, I found myself composing in my head an article a lot like the ones I hate.
I keep thinking about the differences between my teenage son's chronic mental health issues and the battle with cancer that turned my world upside down and left me grieving the loss of my beautiful son. And I don't want to tell you that either battle is easier or harder. We don't get to pick our pain, and I wouldn't wish either struggle on any family, but here are some of the significant differences.
With cancer, we had a team. We had a whole group of physicians, nurses, and specialists who dedicated themselves tirelessly to saving my son. We had a team of friends and family who rallied around us, showing us extra love and support when we were dragging.
Anxiety is different. My son sees a wonderful therapist. And I talk to my friends about how hard this has been. And they care, truly, but it's not the same feeling as having a community link arms with you to fight this thing together. Fighting cancer can make you feel like the most loved and supported person on the planet, counting your blessings through all the really crummy moments because you can't deny how wonderfully everyone has cared for you. Fighting mental illness feels lonely.
With cancer, we had a plan. And when the plan failed, we made new plans. And when those plans failed, we were presented with choices and outcomes and strategies. And while not one of those plans was enough to save my son's life, I still really liked having the plans.
With anxiety, I have no plan. No timeline. I have to fight all my urges to try something new, institute stricter rules, ask about meds, think about changing schools, as if I could "fix" my son's anxiety by working a little harder at it. I've learned my grasping for a plan of attack is reactionary and tends to take its toll on the slow, hard work my son is doing to learn to manage his anxiety and continue to process hard emotions and heal from them.
I hated when my young son lost his hair from chemotherapy and when his eye turned in from nerve damage. I despised the physical signs of cancer's presence in his body. Now, I'd give anything for my teenage son to have a physically visible symptom of his internal struggle, so he didn't have to make so many excuses for himself all the time, always wondering if his teachers believe him.
There are some physical signs of my son's anxiety, as I've said. When it's bad, his hands tremble, he vomits, his eyes dart rapidly like a scared rabbit's. I guess the difference is that we look at the battle wounds of cancer patients and whisper to each other about their bravery, going out of our way to make special accommodations. When we are able to see the tell-tale signs of raging anxiety, we wonder to ourselves why the afflicted person can't pull themselves together, or we question whose fault it is.
Even as a mother, I assume that when my son isn't showing outward signs of a panic attack that he is generally okay. I'll tell him how glad I am that he's having a great day, and I think sometimes he lets me believe my words are true because he hates for me to worry about him. Other days, he reminds me that his head hurts every day; he has persistent dizziness; he feels anxiety all the time even though some days he can mask it pretty well; he feels mentally cloudy almost all of the time. I forget these symptoms are always with him because some days, when the panic is a 7 instead of a 10, he is able to "pull himself together."
And all the talk of 7 verses 10 is just conjecture because, unlike cancer, I can't measure my son's anxiety. I can't tell you what stage it is and whether it is growing or shrinking. Some days it feels like no big deal, and I wonder if I have been overreacting. Other days I weep with fear that anxiety is completely overtaking him and wonder what he would be capable of accomplishing without this cruel obstacle weighing him down.
I pray. I beg God to set my son free. My desperate prayers remind me of the prayers I've prayed before, except, if I'm honest, my prayers for my son to be healed from cancer were filled with so much more hope than these are. I felt helpless as a cancer mom. I feel so much more helpless as the mother of a teenager with anxiety. Cancer was something we could beat, and even though we didn't, the whole battle was colored with expressions of confidence, faith, courage, persistence, strength, and a sense of overcoming. The battle with anxiety is colored with shame, doubt, and isolation.
I want to fix my son, and I can't. I want God to fix my son, and at least so far, He won't. So I wait. I wait and let him learn about himself and his emotions every time he visits his counselor. I wait and watch him work twice as hard as he should for an outcome only half as good as it would be without the encumbrance of anxiety.
And as I wait, I remember that I'm not alone. Everyone around me is struggling with something. There are so many invisible illnesses that are limiting people's potential. These hidden illnesses demand tremendous grit and perseverance from the people they afflict. These silent sufferers put in gargantuan effort to simply get by in their life. Often they seem pretty average to the rest of us, or maybe a little delinquent. We don't realize that the amount of work it required for them to come off as "fine" is more work than we expect to put into our biggest victories in life. And, assuming they are fine, we quickly dismiss them as "not quite good enough" anytime they don't live up to our high expectations.
I'm tired of praying for God to take my son's anxiety away. It's exhausting. And every morning I'm disappointed again when my son tells me he didn't sleep and I shout a silent accusation at the God I love, "Really God, you couldn't give my son the peace I begged you to give him so he could just fall asleep and have a decent chance at an okay day today?" I need a new prayer.
"God, help me remember that your children who surround me are struggling. Help me consider that they might be depressed, mourning, chronically fatigued, drowning in a relationship issue, betrayed by their body in a thousand different ways, or attacked by their minds in a million others. They may be trying their hardest to be kind and still snap at me. They might not have the energy to rise to my expectations of them. Teach me to love them the way you love them. Teach me to meet them where they're at the way you have met me. Let my passion for my son become compassion for everyone else's sons and daughters... your sons and daughters, God. Help me turn my vision away from myself and actively consider the people around me and all the invisible afflictions they are bravely battling, whether or not anyone can tell."
If you have an invisible monster you face, and it would help you to share about it, I'd love to listen. Please share in the comments.
Amy Noel Green is a Ted Speaker, author, and video game designer. She received international press attention for her work on the video game "That Dragon, Cancer." The video game tells the story of her son Joel who died from cancer at the age of five.
She is the author of the upcoming book, "Dear God, How Could You?" (When Joel died of cancer after years of miracles, Amy questioned God. She shouted her betrayed, angry questions at the God she no longer understood. She buried many miracles with Joel. She buried her relationship with God too, but God’s love for her refused to stay in the grave.) Subscribe for updates on the bottom of her about page, to be notified when her book is published.