Anxiety gripped Froggy this morning.
Ten minutes before it was time to leave for school, he perched himself on the side of my bathtub, hugging his knees, head down, breathing big, deliberate breaths. He didn’t ask for a hug. He knew I wouldn’t – no, couldn’t. Shouldn’t. It would just make it worse, feed the emotions. Time to head downstairs to put on coats, he slithered under my bed. I repeated that it was time to go, and he reluctantly fought his way back out. I heard him bump down the stairs on his bottom, one painstaking step at a time, as if he couldn’t bring himself to think beyond the next step. But that one step right in front of him, maybe he could sit on that one next. Maybe that was doable. He put on his coat and grabbed his backpack, resigned to the inevitability that he would have to go to school. I cupped his chin in my hands and lifted his eyes to mine and told him, again, how very much I love him and how proud I am of his bravery, for doing this very hard thing. And I turned him over to his big brother, who took his hand and headed for school, this big brother who, five minutes ago, was yelling at Froggy as brothers sometimes do, but was now supporting his little brother with such tender, unspoken care. I watched Froggy walk away, anxiety still gripping him, wondering if this ever gets easier, wondering why doing the right thing sometimes feels so very wrong.
These are the hard days.
You see, Froggy has an anxiety disorder.
He’s not worried about going to school. He’s not afraid. Those are almost the right words – the ones we used for months, in fact – but that implies that there is something about which Froggy should be worried or afraid. There’s not. Sure, we’ve had some bumps in the road, but school is a safe place, a fun place, a place he usually loves when he’s there. The right word is “anxiety,” that fear and worry that is disproportionate to any actual risk. Froggy has anxiety about school. (And about being alone anywhere in the house, especially at night.)
When we discovered that Froggy has an anxiety disorder, there was, more than any other emotion, tremendous relief that washed over me. It explained so much about what had been going on for over a year, but especially in the previous four months. And, as I always do, I started researching and emailing and making phone calls. I was going to figure out how to best tackle it. There had to be a plan.
And there was a plan, a plan that has allowed for far more good days than hard ones. But as I was making new connections and establishing new routines, I was, also, feeling stuck. I knew I wanted to – needed to – write about this.
When I started sharing my writing more widely, I knew there would come a time when the story I needed to tell would collide with someone else’s story, and I know that I need to be very careful about telling others’ stories. Because their stories belong to them.
But when that story belongs to your child and you write about mothering and your stories are inextricably intertwined, what do you do?
I thought about how I teach my children to be truth tellers and to listen for people’s stories and about the beauty in realizing we’re not alone in our struggles, in finding connection. I thought about how I freely talk about Froggy’s stutter and the boys’ speech delays and an infinite number of other parenting challenges. I remembered turning to Mister one evening and saying to him, “We have a child with a mental illness. Are you okay with that?” and how he looked at me, utterly perplexed, and answered, “Of course, I am.”
And I realized that what had been holding me back is stigma. The stigma still surrounding mental illness.
It’s a stigma that hasn’t led me to a place of “This is bad! How did this happen? No one can ever know!” but rather to a place of “Well, maybe this is just best left private.”
What if the person I don’t tell is the person who has a piece of advice that is the key to helping Froggy talk the next step in effectively managing this illness? What if the person I don’t tell is the very person who is desperately waiting to learn that she and her child aren’t alone?
And, let’s be honest, people already know something: Froggy invites friends to have lunch with him in the guidance counselor’s office each week. Neighbors have witnessed the ugly mornings when it’s a fight to get Froggy to school. Family has seen the panic that grips him when he’s faced with the possibility of being in part of the house by himself. I’ve shared with friends how Froggy had debilitating stomachaches for weeks after a brutal GI bug tore through the family. His teacher has witnessed his perfectionism. His classmates watch him get out of his seat without permission, touch the post-it note on the teacher’s desk, and slip into the bathroom for a few minutes.
I’d rather people really know than speculate about what they almost know.
Froggy gave me permission to tell people that he has “some anxiety,” as he refers to it. When he gave me permission, he was dancing half naked in my bedroom, singing. He told me I should tell you that, too.
Here’s the thing about Froggy: If there is anyone who could single-handed destroy every iota of stigma associated with mental illness, it’s Froggy. He is kind and generous, an excellent student and a better son. People are drawn to him – teachers, sales associates, family, and friends. He’s goofy and joyful and just a delight to parent. He has fully embraced the fact that he has an anxiety disorder. When I was planning to hold off on telling his classroom teacher what was going on, assuming she’d rather wait and receive a plan for action along with the news, Froggy had other plans. He woke up one morning and asked to be reminded of the “e word.” (He obviously hasn’t mastered yet how to spell “anxiety.”) He then went to school, marched right up to his teacher, said, “I want you to know I have some anxiety,” hung up his backpack, and sat down to start his school work. This kiddo embodies brave. And for him, there is no stigma.
There is a relatively new campaign called “This Is My Brave,” which seeks to talk openly about mental illness and share stories of those with or those who love someone with mental illness in the hopes of breaking down the stigma of these diseases. I share their hope that “[o]ne day we will live in a world where we won’t have to call it “brave” when talking about mental illness. We’ll just call it talking.”
So that’s what I plan to do: keep talking. And I pray that this is the right choice for Froggy, for me, for the rest of our family, and for those who live with mental illness.
Friends, meet Froggy. He is my brave.