Full disclosure: This post was written with the complete permission of my son. He has read it and approved its publishing. That said, we’ve chosen to publish it anonymously. This is Part 1 of a 5-part series. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5.
Our son was about three years old when we noticed he was different. He was extremely intelligent. But, with this came what we viewed merely as “quirkiness.” For example, he struggled to go with the flow. We couldn’t just jump in the car for a birthday party on a Saturday morning. He needed advance notice. We mitigated stressful moments with a calendar. By age 4, he managed and interpreted a calendar independently. Kinda bizarre, huh? But after all, he was super smart.
We dine out a lot. The simple act of ordering dinner overwhelmed him. It was crippling. We mitigated this by rehearsing in the car. “Tell the server, ‘Cheeseburger, only meat and cheese, please.'” He repeated it in the car and again at the table before ordering, which worked well. However, any deviation sent him into a frenzy. All it took was an unanticipated, “How would you like that cooked?” to paralyze him. He’s 9 now, and this still happens occasionally. A little odd, but not too crazy, right? He’s just…different.
It Was a Progression
Those are two examples, but there are several more. Maybe we should have seen it coming. We weren’t totally oblivious though. We were finding ways to help him, however unconventional they may be. But then there was last year. Our straight-A student earned a 6/100 on a test. It was one of those math speed drills. He told us he got stuck on the 7th problem and spent the rest of the time trying to think about it. We said, “Next time, skip it and move on.” That tip amounted to putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound. His academic battles became more apparent. It wasn’t just tests anymore. A simple opinion question for homework — the kind of question most kids love because literally, any answer is acceptable — could take him 3 hours. Honestly, it was infuriating. I swear it seemed like he was taking 3 hours on purpose because truly, how could anyone take 3 hours on this question unintentionally? We punished him for “being difficult” and not making the effort. But we didn’t know. Hand to God, we. did. not. know. As more anger built up inside us, we all sought therapy. He loved his therapist and looked forward to their sessions. We were hopeful. She told us what we already knew: extremely intelligent, a little anxious. That was reassuring for us because it seemed like we could get results in therapy. Plus, in these stressful times of COVID and hurricanes, who wouldn’t be a little anxious?
My husband and I are very educated, incidentally with experience working with kids and mental health. And yet, we were very hesitant to label him. We could say he seemed anxious, but we didn’t like saying he had anxiety. I know, I know. I have anxiety. My husband has anxiety. Perhaps part of us didn’t want to believe our child might struggle in similar ways. I feel like “anxiety” is a term so frequently thrown around these days though. I know how this sounds. But we didn’t want the label. We know anxiety is very real. We know it affects children. As I said, we are educated professionals. But somehow, maybe our kid was exempt. We’re good parents who do the right things, don’t we? We were active participants in counseling. We didn’t know being good parents wasn’t enough.
The Day Things Fell Apart
The single worst day of my life began with a thump. My kid gets so antsy sometimes that he makes random noises. He and my youngest used to share a room. But my youngest said he made too much noise and disturbed his sleep. They separated. So there’s that thumping again. And I holler, “Enough with the noise!” Thumping continues. So, I go in there, and he’s hitting his head hard against his bedpost — I’d never seen him do this before. He’d always stopped when I yelled down the hall. I didn’t know where the noise came from, but as long as it stopped, I didn’t care — and tears are streaming down his face. I sat on his bed, asked what was wrong, and the earth split in two, the breath left my chest, and my heart shattered.
“I’ve been trying to kill myself at night, but I keep waking up in the morning.”