Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Writing On The Wall

Last week Greta had a sore throat that wasn't going away, so we went to the doctor to get a strep test.

We've been at the doctor a lot this winter - recurring sore throats that are sometimes strep, sometimes not.   We have spent a lot of time sitting in the exam room, waiting for the results of the strep culture.

Greta was perched on the exam table; the thin paper covering crinkled as she fidgeted nervously.   I was standing in front of her, rubbing her arms to comfort her, when I noticed the posters on the wall of the exam room.   I've been staring at these posters a lot this winter, but for some reason this time I actually read them.  

My eye wandered over bed wetting, ADHD, eyesight problems and immunizations, when a little section in the lower right-hand corner caught my eye.   Generalized Anxiety Disorder in Children and Teens.  I felt a tightening in my gut, a reluctance to read what it said, because somewhere in my heart I knew.
"All children and adolescents experience some anxiety. It is a normal part of growing up. However, when worries and fears do not go away and interfere with a child or adolescent's usual activities, an anxiety disorder may be present. Children of parents with an anxiety disorder are more likely to have an anxiety disorder."
It went on to describe some of the symptoms:
  • many worries about things before they happen
  • many worries about friends, school, or activities
  • constant thoughts and fears about safety of self and/or safety of parents
  • frequent stomach aches, headaches, or other physical complaints
  • muscle aches or tension
  • sleep disturbance
  • feeling as though there is a lump in the throat
  • fatigue

Greta has been experiencing all of these symptoms, to varying degrees.  Lately, though, some of them are getting worse.

She complains of muscle and joint aches in her heel and her knee, and uses these discomforts as reasons to try to avoid activities.    She complains frequently about stomach aches and head aches, and recently she has been talking about a lump in her throat that "feels like it does before I throw up, but I don't need to throw up."    She is full of "what-if" questions, and most of them are geared toward disaster scenarios.   She has been having increased trouble falling asleep, because of fears and anxieties about scary monsters, school, activities, or what will happen if she misses the bus or forgets her homework.

Reading the poster, I could no longer deny what I knew in my heart was happening:   she's struggling with anxiety. 

Steve and I have done a lot of research over the past few days.   We are talking to her pediatrician and getting professional help with what I have discovered is a very common problem among young children and adolescents.   

I have my own fears to conquer, too.    Children with untreated anxiety have alarmingly high rates of substance abuse, eating disorders and self-destructive behaviors as they enter their teens and early adulthood.  Greta has already been dealt a biological card which increases her risk for alcoholism; add anxiety to this mix and you create fertile ground for addiction.

Even more difficult to digest was all the information on children of alcoholics.  Children of an active alcoholic are put at an increased risk for anxiety disorders, especially in their formative years, between the ages of 1 and 5.

I got sober just before Greta turned 5.

I started to fold in on myself, desperate to look away, to not see what I was reading.   I did this to her, I started to think.   She got alcoholism and anxiety from my genes, and my drinking in her formative years has made everything worse.  

Immediately on the heels of this thought, though, came that gentle Inner Voice, the one that I don't control, who sounds a lot like me but who, somehow, isn't me.   

You don't have that kind of power, Ellie, it whispered in my ear.   Don't hijack this situation and make it all about you.  If you lose yourself in regret and guilt you are of no use to anybody.

But I don't want to know this, I thought.  I desperately want this not to be true.   

Don't you see? it replied.  You went through what you did and when you did so you could help her.  You could have lived your whole life never understanding your own anxiety, drinking your way around it, making it worse every step of the way, and never breaking through to the other side. 

Gratitude pushed aside fear and guilt.   I can help her, I thought, because I know how she feels.   I know how to give voice to her problem, how to advocate for her and help her advocate for herself.   I have tools I can show her.    I can't change the past, but I will do everything I can to help today, now.

Last night Steve and Greta went to a father/daughter square dance with her Brownie troop.   She had been withdrawing all afternoon, drawing into herself, complaining of a stomach ache.   She lasted about 20 mins at the square dance before complaining about knee pain that didn't exist, and then tearfully retreating into the corner, telling Steve she wanted to leave but couldn't, because she was afraid the Emcee of the square dance would be "mad at her".    Steve gently persuaded her to leave, and after she was in bed Steve and I talked about how her withdrawing, feeling overwhelmed and "looked at", her fear of doing the wrong thing and complaints of physical ailments have been increasing, so we resolved to start talking to her about her anxiety. 

This morning Greta, Steve and I sat at the kitchen table and talked.   Finn was in the next room, absorbed in Mario Kart.    Our message was simple:   no matter what you're feeling,  no matter what, you can talk to us and we will listen and try to help.   We will never get upset with you for feeling scared or anxious.  Ever.

We explained anxiety to her, that it is something many people have, and that there are ways to help her feel better.   I told her I have anxiety, too, and explained some of the tools I use to overcome fear.  

We could see her body loosen, her face brighten, as she listened.   She saw that she wasn't alone; the relief that there was a name for what she was feeling was palpable.   Anxiety, she said out loud, trying the word on for size.   That's what that funny feeling in my stomach is?  Like butterflies, except I don't know why I'm nervous?   

The temptation to look away is strong.   And the symptoms could be easy to miss, because Greta is thriving in most ways: socially, academically, physically.   She has many friends, loves sports and is doing very well in school.    Ironically, success in school and activities can be driven by anxiety; a gift from our old friend perfectionism.

A lot of Greta's anxiety revolves around fear of making a mistake, doing poorly in school, failing to meet others' expectations or making someone angry.    A primary difference between a child who is hitting a developmental milestone (worrying appropriately), and someone suffering from anxiety, is the inability to stop the ruminating cycle.  This eventually inteferes with sleep, appetite, sociability and enjoyment of day-to-day activities.  Greta is on the very cusp of this; we have caught it early.

"Making mistakes is part of life," I said to her this morning, as she sat on my lap and we gently rocked back and forth.   "It's what we do about them that matters most.   If we never made mistakes, we'd never learn, we'd never grow."   

She drew a deep breath, and nodded once, twice.  "Okay," she said.

"Want to know something else about people who have anxiety?" I whispered in her ear, as we finished up our talk.  "They are smart, imaginative, creative and they love with their whole heart.   They are amazing friends, and incredible daughters."

"Yeah, that does sound like us," she said, and smiled.


  1. I highly recommend the Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety. It has a CD with some very nice meditations that you could do with Greta. It helped me during a time of almost paralyzing anxiety and I still return to it every so often.

  2. You've just described my youngest daughter in a lot of ways. She's been in treatment (therapy and medication) for anxiety for about 1.5 years. It helps. I too went through the, 'I did this to her' phase, but I also realized that I am the best mom for her, because I know exactly what she is going through and can help her. You are on the right road. If you ever want to talk, I'm here.

  3. This is stunning to me. Your capacity for self-reflection--the conversations with yourself--are unbelievable.

    I don't have this gift and I know it has come from years of work on your end. I can sometimes stop the negative voice, but your gentle re-frames amaze me.

    You, Ellie, are a wonderful wonderful mother and person.

  4. Ann just said everything I was thinking, better than I could have done.

  5. This is my favorite post you've ever written. Everything came full circle and this is how you were meant to help. Well, one of the ways. You do so many helpful things. :)

  6. Oh Ellie... I wish that my parents had had that talk with me when I was Greta's age. You are giving her such powerful tools. I feel for her, and for you (and as you know I have this feeling that my Fynn is following in our footsteps...) and I'm near tears on this one.
    Thank you for sharing... miss you.

  7. this struck a chord with me. my son had major problems with anxiety which ended up with him being unable to leave the house for quite a long period. he is much much better now - there is a light at the end of the tunnel. we too are a family who talk about this stuff and it has been really helpful. good luck!

  8. this age is so difficult! my son is almost the exact same age as Greta, and he is struggling with very similar issues, only his are regarding his self esteem rather than anxiety. parenting never does get easier, does it? good luck with your girl. :)

  9. Ellie, you are such a good mom! It took me years and years to figure out what was going on in my mind. Unfortunately, my mom didn't know how to help me. I still deal with anxiety today, but it is such a help to know that the issues I stress about are not as big as they originally seem, in my mind. I can now calm myself down, to a certain extent, and it eventually passes. Of course, it also helps that my husband is awesome, and knows how to help me!

  10. yeah so, I'm crying again :)
    This is just so full of redepmtion. They way you calmed yourself, and Greta. The way you know how because of all that you are. Such grace. Thank you for sharing your stories, it helps us so much. Greta is just SO blessed to have YOU.

  11. Greta is blessed to have you as a Mum. One of my break through moments in therapy was when I realised just how angry and let down I felt by my parents that they had never got me the help I so desperately needed as a teenager, and here I was over a decade later still struggling with the exact same issues of anxiety and depression. Greta will never have to feel that.

  12. Thank you for writing about this. My oldest daughter suffers from anxiety so severe that she can induce vomiting psychosomatically. I have known for years that she inherited her anxiety from me, and as we moved forward into this year of big changes, it may finally be time to get her diagnosed properly.

    You are a phenomenal mother, and an amazing writer. And exactly who Greta needs.. instinctually aware of how her mind works in stressful situations, with an insight to calm her that others won't have. I agree with Ann's comments. I learn so much from you.

  13. Anxiety and alcoholism are words I hear all the time lately. They go hand-in-hand for many of us. More than that, our society is filled with reasons to be anxious!

    I just loved how you wrote and helped me to see that if you (her mom) were to take the blame for your daughter's anxiety problem, that would just be an ego issue. Brilliant and moving. I cried many tears as I read.

    One of the discussions that we have in our family (filled with psychologists and anthropologists) is that when you have a family with a history of alcoholics, it IS passed on much like a disease from one generation to the next BUT... and this is a big BUT... there is another element that solidifies your child into that life. That one element is choices. Once a young person in a family of alcoholics sees that they have limited choices, it can seal the deal.

    This is why so often you see siblings who share genetic predispositions and yet have different life outcomes. The reason? Different viewpoints on their ability to make choices.

    You are clearly giving your daughter the experience to make choices. Good for you.


  14. My son(10) struggles with anxiety and has been on meds for almost a year now. It kills me to realize that my genes and my alcoholism is what did this to him, but we do not regret the past and I just think of what my sponsor always tells me, " God's in charge and I'm o.k"

  15. I've been following for several years, but don't do much commenting. I've recently come across a book that has been very helpful understanding myself and my kids. Elaine Aron's The Highly Sensitive Child: Helping Our Children Thrive When the World Overwhelms Them. You should look at it, you can preview it on Amazon.

  16. Thanks, amysue! I will definitely check that book out. I really appreciate the suggestion!


  17. I'm the product of an alcoholic father and a mother with intense anxiety and depression. I really struggled throughout my teens and early twenties with my own anxiety....and if I'm being honest, throughout my childhood as well.

    I still, to some extent, struggle with some of these issues but I've really begun to own what anxiety I come by honestly.

    I don't think the prognosis needs to be dire for any child with anxiety. And I think that parents, mothers especially, need to give themselves a break.

    Caring, supporting, and loving your children through their anxiety, and helping them to develop sound coping mechanisms will allow them to flourish.

  18. congratulation on being one brave mother.
    i find it brave that you were able to quit you alcohol addiction.i also find it very brave that you once again have faced a strong fear, and helped your daughter in a difficult situation. Wishing you good luck with maintaining that genuine connection you have with your daughter, throughout your lives. You are an inspiration. Thank you

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  20. I love this blog. my husband is addict and ive recently started my own recovery in Al Anon and through a therapist. He is active right now in his disease and it's very stressful. This blog is everything. Please keep posting