My mind is awake long before the alarm chimes. I am far from prepared to face another day, impending doom already settling in. I know I must wake my daughter right away in order for her to make it to school on time and for me to make it work on time, but I know as soon as she wakes up, the cyclical battles will begin again. Slowly, I walk to her door, stalling along the way, allowing myself just a few more minutes of peace. I quietly creep into her room and tears flood my eyes as I see her angelic face, peacefully asleep. Just as I know the day looms in front of me, her sense of peace and calm will be wiped away as quickly as her eyes blink open. For a moment, I stare at her beautiful silhouette, reminding myself how lucky I am to be her mom. She is the sweetest, kindest, funniest person. Sadly, most days her strengths are hidden behind the mask of mental illness.
My daughter has debilitating anxiety. From the moment she wakes up until the moment she falls asleep, her mind and body battle the beast of anxiety. This has been her life for the past 8 years, unable to remember what it felt like to live free of anxiety. As with most mental health issues, the intensity of her anxiety ebbs and flows over time. For most children, getting ready for the day may not be enjoyable but it happens routinely. In our family, there are tears, tantrums, screaming, begging, and fierce battles all before we leave the house at 8:00 am. When she was 7 years old, we were able to manage morning routines with slightly more success. Now, at 12 years old, mornings are all out hell.
While your child may groggily walk to the kitchen to prepare a bowl of cereal, my daughter cries and begs not to go to school while she eats her breakfast. While your child lazily gets themselves dressed and styled for the day, my daughter cries and yells from the bedroom that nothing fits or the material feels weird. Clothes get put on and pulled off so many times that I lose count. While your child styles their hair or applies makeup, my daughter sees nothing but sadness in the mirror, refusing to put forth the effort to improve her sullen appearance. Most days, the anxiety takes over as we prepare to walk out the door, leading to begging and pleading to stay home. Nothing I say or do reduces the immense beast from clinging to her every thought.
This chaos is taking place while my husband and I are attempting to prepare ourselves for the workday. Our senses no longer enjoy the smell of freshly brewed coffee or the sound of the morning news. Instead, sadness, crying, and frustration engulf our senses. My husband and I work jobs demanding that we arrive on time, prepared for the day ahead. He, a high school administrator, me, a teacher. Our ten-year-old son also prepares for the day. I walk a tightrope of balance between recognizing that my daughter’s challenges are real while trying to shelter him from the hideous routine our family faces each morning. I plaster on a smile when talking with him, encourage him to get ready in our bathroom in order to avoid the meltdowns of his older sister, and I close the door of the guest room, allowing him time on his video games before school, simply to offer him some respite from the noise.
Once we are finally in the car, on days we convince my daughter to get in the car and head to school, I know that our battles are far from over. Arriving at school just ups the anxiety as she knows she is expected to leave the car and enter school. Having held myself together for the past one and a half hours, the tears now start to fall. Sadly, I have learned to never apply my makeup prior to dropping my daughter off at school. I now apply it in the parking lot of work once my tears have stopped (for the moment). As the time ticks quickly away for my workday to begin, I do all that I can to help calm my daughter’s mounting fears about the school day. Some days, she meets a teacher and walks in immediately, while other days I spend 20 minutes in the drop off loop, while still others, I have to call my husband for reinforcement and support so that I can make it to work before the students arrive.
Two hours after I wake up, I am safely at work. I know that this is just one hurdle I have managed to stumble through during my day. There will be more. My phone will blow up with messages from both my daughter and her school, expressing either her anxiety or asking what they should do in certain situations. Evenings may be a bit more relaxed than the morning but there will be blowups and meltdowns as the stress of the school day wanes and the fear of tomorrow rises. We will walk around our home on eggshells waiting for the anxiety to erupt. I will crawl into bed, exhausted mentally, emotionally, and physically, knowing I will wake up in 8 hours and do the whole thing over again.
This is the life of a mother of a child with debilitating anxiety leading to school refusal. Yes, we are actively helping our daughter. Yes, she sees a therapist and psychiatrist regularly. No, our daughter is not a brat, spoiled, or definite. She is ill. She has anxiety. Trust me, I wish I could simply say, “Calm down. You are fine. Go to school.” It doesn’t work like that. Fortunately, my daughter’s school finally sees our reality and is actively working to ease her transition into school. After years of searching, we have found an incredible therapist. Everyone reading this with a child who wakes for the day, prepares themselves to head off to school, and leaves the house with little resistance, do not take the simplicity of your morning task lightly. Some of us may never know the ease of which you are blessed.