Wednesday, March 29, 2017

My Princess

I jest about our firstborn, "The Princess," and her antics. I occasionally exaggerate as if she's a little over the top, a little dramatic, and a little privileged.
Despite stretching the truth occasionally, oftentimes it's all true. I started this blog when she was twelve years old. Anyone who survived the teenage years and stumble through the hormone-ridden ages with your own kids knows the truth. They're a little over the top, a little dramatic, and a little privileged.
They're also wonderful creatures, full of insight and personality. They're funny, witty, charming and quirky. As they learn about life and the world around them they form their own unique opinions and viewpoints, and it's intriguing to watch them develop into young adults. 
Last summer something changed with Kahley. While at camp, her texts took on a different tone. Nearly every time we communicated, she felt negatively about her life, circumstances at the horse barn, and with camp in general. Our girl loves summer camp. Loooooovvvvves it. So why was her "happy place" resulting in such negative energy?
My gut sent warning signals to my brain, but I put them on hold. "We're going to Madison in a week for Student Orientation and Registration. I'll assess then," I assured myself.
On the drive to campus, she gushed about her campers. How wonderful they are, how they keep her motivated during the toughest times at camp, and how their smiles make the effort of running the horse program and being an in-cabin counselor worthwhile. 

I breathed a sigh of relief, happy to hear my girl shine through and the negativity at bay. I told myself she's fine, and that she just had a few bad weeks. Everything was fine.

Stressed about what to wear the morning of the program, Kahley finally decided upon a white tank top and cute pair of shorts. At lunch, she splashed a little soy sauce on her top. When she inspected it more closely and saw that it was stained more than she originally thought, she got extremely, unusually upset and nearly broke down in tears. I assured her it would be OK as she brought more outfits than she could possibly wear, and she could just change when we returned to the hotel before walking down to the second floor for the orientation. In the car ride back, she leaned forward, pressed against her straining seatbelt, tapping incessantly on the dashboard. I took note of her behavior, asking her to sit back and relax. "NO. I CAN'T!" she retorted. 

It was at that point that I knew something was very, very wrong with my daughter. My sweet girl, full of life and promise and youth, never snapped at me like that. In my mama bear gut, I knew I could no longer ignore that she was off kilter, and just not right. 

We made it through the rest of orientation without incident, and a week later she came home on her night off. She said she needed to fill out some health forms for college...immediately. I challenged her, saying they surely didn't need to be completed until the week before she arrived on campus. But she had her mind set, and insisted they needed to be done that night.

She sat next to Mr. Musky on the couch, and he tried to help her. She lashed out at him, and he became defensive. I didn't intervene - they could work it out together. Their interaction escalated to yelling, and they fought with one another. Again, I took note. She abruptly shut the laptop down and asked me to drive her back to camp. 

Disturbed by the scene with her dad, I pulled the Jeep off the side of the road, put it in park, and twisted in my seat to stare into my girl's pool of bewildered blue eyes. I said, "Kahley, you are a smart girl. I'm smart, too. We both know that college forms are not that big of a deal. What is going on with you?"

She broke down. Wracked with sobs, she started hyperventilating and eeked out a scary revelation: "Mom, something is so...wrong with me! I am so scared. My heart races all the time. I can't catch my breath. It feels like something is lodged in my throat 24/7. I haven't slept well since camp started. Everything is awful. Everything. I can't control it, I'm so afraid, and I don't know what to do!"

I was terrified. As calmly as possible, I spoke in an even voice while I stroked her hair and wiped the tears from her cheeks. "Honey, I don't know how to help you. But I will find someone who will. Will you see someone?" I pulled her into my arms and rocked her back and forth.

Through her tears and sobs she nodded yes - she'd do whatever it takes to feel better.

That was nine months ago. I'd love to say that she's all better and it was just a bit of drama in the life of a teenager becoming a young adult, but that's not true. A few weeks later, our sweet girl was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder. 

You know what? I just googled it again, for the thousandth time, and re-read the entire Wikipedia entry describing the condition. And while I'd love to tell you that I completely understand it, and all the science behind it makes sense, I can't. Because it doesn't. It's not like a broken leg - the bone is broken, there's a procedure or treatment to heal it, and it's all fixed up. With anxiety, it doesn't work that way.

Here's how I can break it down for you in layman's terms, as I understand it, from the help of a local therapist I saw in November to better understand what she's going through: Kahley's brain does not process emotion properly. Normal life events cause extreme duress and worry for her. Her brain focuses on the more dominant emotions of negativity and frustration. Happy-go-lucky, go-with-the flow are not in her wheelhouse. She fidgets, worries, over analyzes, and stresses to an unhealthy degree. Don't get me wrong - she still smiles, feels happiness, and gets excited about things, but the negative emotions prevail. Hourly. Occasionally the anxiety escalates and spirals into full blown panic attacks. I've witnessed two of them, and it's terrifying. She can hardly breathe, her muscles are rock solid, her eyes glaze into a million-mile stare, and she's incommunicable. When the anxiety rages through her and she's in full blown fight-or-flight mode, the only thing I can do is quietly encourage her to breathe. Once her breathing returns to a normal level, she may (or may not) be able to communicate about what happened before she panicked. 

I write this with her permission. For months none of us knew what to say around her, or how to behave. When we only get to see her for a few days at a time, the last thing I wanted to do is talk about something negative with our limited time together. Our family relationships were changing due to her being away at school, and the changing dynamic increased her anxiety around us. I felt the anxiety was contributing negatively to her relationships, and was fairly certain she didn't even realize it. If I brought it up, it would make her feel worse. But ignoring it felt completely wrong. It was a proverbial Catch 22.

We finally discussed it over Thanksgiving break. That was a difficult conversation - for both of us - but we muddled through. Once we started talking freely about her disorder, things got easier - for me. She still struggles with it, but she knows I'm trying to understand, I want to help when and where I can, and I will always listen with an open mind. I don't profess to know or understand what she's going through, but I am willing to learn. And I will be her unwavering advocate forever. 

The more we both talk about it, the more we realize that she's not alone. I have friends with kids going through the same stuff, but never would have known if I hadn't talked about Kahley's issues first. She's found multiple friends on campus with similar challenges. Talking about mental health must no longer be taboo. How are the millions of people who battle it daily going to get better? We talk openly about all kinds of health issues. Cardiovascular health. Preventative health. Cancer screenings. Heck - get a sewing circle together and they'll talk about their vaginas for hours. But WHY must mental health still carry a stigma in this day and age? For the uneducated comments like, "She just needs to get over it," or "Tell her to relax," I say this: If someone has cancer, you'd show compassion. If someone has pneumonia, you'd offer to run them an errand. Do the same for the person battling mental illness. They didn't ask for it, nor did anyone suffering from a physical ailment. They want to get better, just like anyone else does. The difference is there's no cure or treatment that eradicates it. They have to live with the mental illness for the rest of their lives, maintaining vigilance about learning cognitive behavioral therapy and taking medication to address the symptoms.

Think of a speech you delivered to a large group of people. Or an important meeting you facilitated, or an interview for your dream job. A pit of anxiety grows in your gut. You lose sleep leading up to the event. You wake up that day nauseous with anticipation. As you walk into the room, your palms sweat, your heart rate picks up, the sweat stains grow under your armpits, and a lump of nervousness rises in your chest. Your voice cracks, and you tell yourself to pull your shit together. Your confidence waivers, and you wish for a meteor to strike down so you don't have to go through with it. But you muscle ahead, and at the end of it you reward yourself and the return of your normal heart rate with a cup of tea or a glass of wine or a chocolate cookie.

For the person with GAD, those feelings persist every single day. Every moment is a battle to go forth, despite feeling anxious. Imagine never fully coming down from that fight-or-flight feeling. That's how my princess feels every day, to some degree. Every day.   

It's hard to understand, especially when we think the person can control it. THEY CAN'T!! As much as they'd like to turn off the worry and negativity, it's impossible for them. 

Recently on a Friday afternoon, Kahley contacted me worse than ever. Scared shitless, I ran through a series of questions with her to ensure she was safe, then asked, "What can I do to help?"

I'm finding that's the best question I can ask. In the heat of the moment, everything is bad, and I can't convince her otherwise. But asking what I can do to help shows I love her, and will do what it takes. That day, it involved making two phone calls for her. I did, and got results that helped. It didn't make it go away, but it helped. 

When I hung up the phone, Mr. Musky was in the room with me, and I lost it. I sobbed while he held me close. I looked up at him, and said, "If I feel this helpless and frustrated, how does our poor girl feel? 1000 times worse? 1,000,000 times worse?" With tears welling in his eyes too, he speechlessly hugged me harder.

That's the hardest part. How horrible we know she feels on the inside. 

You know what gives me hope? 
She does. In spite of this all, she fights every single day. She sees medical professionals who are helping her. She maintains logic. She KNOWS that how she's feeling is not right, and she clings to that knowledge. She WANTS to be healthy and happy, and she's determined to fight through this to get to the place where she knows she belongs. 
She's got a family who loves her unconditionally. Were the past few months tough? Sure. But in the end, we are a family who will see her through. 
She has a boyfriend who loves her for her, patiently reassuring her every day. He is her rock - her daily go-to in moments of stress. 
He listens to her worries. He talks her down the anxiety ladder multiple times a day. He reassures her with love, kindness and genuine care.
For that, I am forever grateful for him and his tender heart. He is a true gem.
She managed her anxiety at the beginning of first semester to make friends who have never known her without it. 
They'll rush to her side when she needs help, and they celebrate both good and bad times with her.
She's got a support group who will not let her fail.
People are amazing, and Kahley has some awesome ones in her life. Coming next week - how we both focused on health and well being over Spring Break, how my princess teaches me every day, and a discount for an AMAZING local business. 


1 comment:

  1. She is such a cutie and I wish her all the best for her future and the upcoming life. And I just loved your article about your little princess. Good to see so much love.