Anxiety, first and foremost

Just getting through the day takes more energy than you and I can imagine.

I say this all the time. To parents to explain why their child is melting down at home. To teachers to justify a reduced workload, even for a gifted child working above grade level. To counselors who insist that a child who walks docilely through the halls in the morning must be capable of better behavior every afternoon. To administrators who do not realize how hard a “high-functioning” student is working to make it through classes unnoticed.

This week Sam and I met with one of her therapists to talk about school. Her IEP meeting is next week and she needs to participate in it.  I thought I knew what her days are like, but I never appreciated the rich variety of anxiety-inducing experiences.

  1. Reveille: Sam needs to be awake by 6:30, and I usually serve as her human alarm clock. Waking up when it’s dark is so difficult for her (nothing unusual about that), and she worries. She worries that she will always have to live with me, because she can’t rouse herself. She worries that she won’t be able to keep a job, because she assumes every job in the world starts at an early hour. By 7:00 a.m. she is already a loser.
  2. The morning commute: She gets on the bus and worries about traffic. If the roads are snowy or there is a crash or the NFL draft is in town (as happened last year), she will arrive late to first period. If she arrives late to first period, she will get a detention. She worries particularly about detentions, because students are only notified about detentions once a week, in Friday homeroom. She worries about not serving a detention because she did not realize she had a detention. Promising her that teachers are instructed to delay attendance-taking when traffic jams occur does not reassure Sam. Once she arrived late to class because she was in the bathroom, and all week she worried about whether she’d been punished. She had not, but all week she worried.
  3. Math class: Sam wants to go to the resource room to do her work, but the teacher tells her, “The group needs you!” Sam describes the physical environment as five kids sitting at a four by two foot table. She has no room to open both her textbook and her notebook. She recalls the time in fifth grade that her aide chastised her for putting her materials on someone else’s desk. Sam does not want to be accused of invading someone’s space again, but with her organizational and perceptual challenges, confining herself to a small part of a communal space is agonizingly difficult. Then the math teacher wants her to explain her solutions to the other group members. Sometimes she does not know how to explain. Sometimes she “sees” the solution without using the process. Sometimes she takes so long to verbalize her process that she and her peers all grow impatient. Why can’t she just go to the resource room, sit at a desk, and do her work? (I remind her that helping and receiving help are important aspects of learning, but understanding math concepts is far down her list of concerns.)
  4. Resource: Without explaining why, the resource teacher asks Sam to complete a life skills survey. (I suspect it is for the IEP meeting.) Sam does not have experience using a fire extinguisher. She cannot list the dangers of owning credit cards. She wonders if she needs to learn these skills because I will be dead before she reaches twenty.
  5. Spanish: The Spanish teacher, a kind, experienced teacher, seems to evoke the highest level of anxiety. She forbids water, hard candy and gum in her class. No exceptions. If she catches a student violating  her edict, she will call home and assign a detention. Once again, Sam has been threatened with this tenth circle of Hell, designed specifically for gum-chewers, laggards, and those who ride the elevator without an elevator pass. Detention. “¡Chicle!” (gum) bellows the teacher as she points to the garbage can. (I doubt the teacher has ever raised her voice, but anxiety exaggerates the sensory experience.) Sam worries that she will forget she is sucking on a hard candy one day, will be caught, will be assigned a detention, and will be chastised both at home and school for her transgression. Has she ever brought candy, gum or water to class by accident? No, but it could happen.
  6. English: Students are supposed to work independently for twenty minutes on a few passages from Macbeth. Sam concludes that she, alone in the class, did not pay close enough attention during the first act. The other students are bent over their papers, so they obviously absorbed the material and understand Shakespeare’s metaphors perfectly. She, alone, wears the mantle of failure.
  7. Passing time: The substitute social worker sees her in the hall. “How are you doing with blurting out? Have you blurted out anything this week?” So helpful.
  8. College meeting: Instead of study hall, Sam’s grade convenes in the auditorium to learn about college applications. An admissions representative from a highly selective university distributes three essays, all by real applicants. Kelly, a girl from Missouri, has written that she wants to be a hermit and live in northern Scotland or the Canadian forest when she finishes college. She will bake cupcakes for her friends occasionally, but she does not want to live among crowds of people. “How many of you think it’s weird that Kelly wants to be a hermit?” coaxes the presenter. Most of the students raise their hands. Sam likes Kelly’s plan, though she knows she should not. Kelly is rejected from the university on the basis of her essay. This university, the admissions counselor explains, looks for students with strong interpersonal skills who will thrive in a collaborative environment. Jill earns the acceptance letter. She has completed four hundred hours of community service, her test scores are excellent, and English is not her first language.
  9. Reverse commute: Sam comes home. The bus is packed and she stands the whole way.

Listening to this, I’m exhausted. I want to curl up under a blanket and, maybe, never come out.