When Sam started kindergarten, he wouldn’t sit on the rug. Our elementary school favors spotted rugs, with giant polka dots scattered over it, and each child sits on a dot. Two years ago, just getting Sam into the classroom was more than we could handle some days, and the only way he’d sit with the class was at the desk right next to the rug. He couldn’t sit with them. He needed the illusion of safety that came with a desk between him and everyone else. It was months before he relaxed enough to sit on the rug with his classmates.
Looking back now, it’s hard to describe what it’s like to have a child with separation anxiety disorder. He was terrified to be without me. Terrified to try new things, afraid to meet new people. Didn’t like eye contact, never talked to other adults. When he was at home, he was the happiest, busiest little boy. Social and funny, sweet and tender, but when we’d go out… he was glued to my side, reluctant to smile or connect with anyone else. His fight/flight/freeze reactions were extreme – if he couldn’t escape, he’d freeze. And if that didn’t work – he’d rage. He was terrified, a lot of the time, and I still don’t really have the words to describe what that was like.
I can’t describe anxiety as it was for Sam. I can only share what it was like for me, as his mother. I can tell you that childhood anxiety is unbelievable common, one website calls it the most common mental health problem facing children today. The good news is that it’s treatable, and early intervention can make a huge difference. We’re incredibly fortunate that we had the resources to get Sam the help he needed. An amazing teacher, who held my hand and wrestled my son, and showed me a path to get through. A pediatrician who was open and honest about her own children’s struggles, and how she felt, as a mother, about getting help. And a therapist who made all the difference for him.
Yesterday, Sam sat on the rug. Which is still something that I don’t take for granted. It was Sam’s Author’s Tea, a celebration in the first grade classroom. In a room full of strangers, crowded with moms and dads, siblings and grandparents, my son got up, sat on a chair with everyone looking at him, and read out loud from a book that he’d written. He was comfortable and relaxed, laughing along with the crowd when one of the toddlers broke into applause in the middle of the reading. He was gorgeous and brave and I’ll never, ever forget how beautiful it was to see my boy, my little guy, being himself, in front of so many people. The road to get there was so long, and there were many, many days when I blamed myself, searching for things I had done wrong as a mom because if I could change it, then he’d get better. There were stacks and stacks of books I had read, searching for answers, and hours of conferences and discussions. Yesterday, Sam was like every other kid in the classroom. I’m grateful for all that led to this point, and in awe of how far he’s come.