I didn’t know what anxiety was until I witnessed a panic attack in the raw. And when it’s your son and you have no idea how to help him, it’s terrifying.
It happened for our youngest when he was in the 3rd grade. He went from this independent kid who never wanted help with his seat belt as a toddler, to never leaving my side and calling out my name at home every 10 minutes to make sure I was still there.
He text me 72 times from a sleepover before we both gave in from exhaustion and I picked him up.
No matter how hard he tried to fight it, anxiety won. Every time.
I always knew he was more observant than the average kid. On family vacations, he checked to make sure his parents and brother were buckled up on roller coasters. He begged me to remove my sunglasses from my head so I didn’t lose them on the teacups ride at Disney. He worried he had wasted our money if he didn’t eat his kids’ meal of chicken fingers and fries.
He had a heart of gold, and a goldmine of never-ending worries.
If he teased me and I teased back that he hurt my feelings, he would apologize 6 times and needed reassured that I wasn’t really wounded. He would say, ‘Are you sure? You really aren’t upset, right? You know I’m kidding, right?’ It was a cycle that we endured because the worries would grow if we didn’t give him closure.
He worried that his favorite team wouldn’t win on game day, only to have them lose and he couldn’t get past the defeat. He would ask both his father and I if it ‘was going to be okay‘ that they didn’t get the W. We would tell him yes, that you can’t win every game. He would ask when he would ‘get over it.‘ We would promise that he would be fine in due time. That you can’t win them all.
He would ask us to swear that life would go back to normal. We promised, would pinky-swear and promise again.
The panic attacks were heartbreaking.
A change in his routine one day triggered one of his worst ever. A new bus driver had picked him up that morning, took a new route, got stuck in traffic and caused him to be late to school. Our son did not feel in control.
I answered the phone at work to hear him sobbing in the background. He was in the counselor’s office after arriving at school, and I knew he needed to hear my voice.
Through gasps for air, he did his best to explain that he had no idea why it happened, just that he wanted off that bus. I was proud that he stayed calm long enough to walk up the aisle and tell the driver his name and this statement:
‘I have anxiety, and I’m having a panic attack.’
The substitute driver radioed the school to have help standing by and told an older student to hand my son a cell phone.
He had called. I wasn’t at my desk at the time, and missed it.
Our son didn’t ride the school bus for the next 6 months.
We would try each day to free him from the grip of anxiety, but with every step forward, it was 3 steps back. One day, he felt brave enough to get back on the bus. His father was following behind the bus as he left for work, and two stops later, my son went to his driver and said he needs to exit. He jumped in my husband’s car and said he just can’t do it. The look in his eyes spoke volumes. He could not get past the fear.
The fear of having a panic attack.
It became bigger than the panic attack itself. He didn’t want to be alone when it happened. For the next 6 months, he wasn’t alone physically, yet he was alone emotionally. My independent son had vanished, replaced by a boy who couldn’t be dropped off for baseball practice because he needed to see me in the bleachers.
I was the only parent watching.
He text me multiple times each morning (as his father drove him to school) to verify that I wouldn’t forget to pick him up. (He couldn’t reason that I knew to be there.) Each day, he would ask that I be in the carpool line 5 minutes early, to pad the remote chance that I wouldn’t make it in time. He was eventually asking me to arrive 25 minutes before the dismissal bell.
He turned down social invites and birthday parties.
We tried rewards. Bribes. Anything that would give him his childhood back. He asked when he could go back to ‘normal.’ I didn’t have the answer. The only thing I knew was anxiety ruled every decision he made.
And I despised it.
(The tools my son learned over the next two years that gave him the confidence to overcome his panic attacks have been compiled in my ‘Raising the Blinds on Anxiety’ Workbook for Kids. It’s the book I wish we had during his lowest moments.) Get it HERE.
And read more on how we handled anxiety on the side of the highway HERE. Emotional moment.