Anxiety is a b*%#ch. Seriously. Many of us get anxious, but to have an anxiety disorder, to love and support someone with an anxiety disorder, is utterly exhausting (on both sides).
A few days ago our eldest son embarked on the trip of a lifetime. At 22 years of age, he has a trip to Cuba with classmates, a 3 week adventure in the UK with his brother, and 3 and a half months away from home on a ski leadership training course under his belt. Each one brought with it a unique set of anxiety symptoms. Each demanded support from us as parents that was far reaching and exhausting, but which we were more than willing to attempt to provide. And each experience has helped to further hone and develop our son's own skills and strategies for dealing with his anxiety.
The morning of his departure was met with a racing heart; I could feel it pounding through his chest as I hugged him; words of "I can't do this" spilled out of his mouth. For the first time ever, I suggested he take an Attivan. I felt terrible about offering it ("here, have some drugs"), but it was 4 a.m. and the time for departing was nearly upon us. It was impulsive on my part, but much to my surprise, yielded very positive results. The bulk of his travel day was manageable and he arrived to his destination with very few anxiety based obstacles.
He had the luck of being able to travel from Munich to the ski resort in Austria with his ski coach, but once he settled into his own room, he found himself stuck there. These last 72 hours have been filled with numerous video chats and phone calls to home. Requests to come home, tears, irrational fears and what-if's pour from his lips. Feeling as though we are in an entirely different universe, we try to talk him through these intense anxiety attacks--"breathe with me, come on you can do this...in-2-3-4 and out-2-3-4...let's slow it down, nice and slow...in-2-3-4 and out-2-3-4...slower now, there you go...you got this....keep breathing"--and on it goes.
There is only so much we can do from so far away. My heart aches for my boy--I am both so proud of him for continuing to try to overcome this debilitating anxiety and so pained for what he must endure as part of his experience. It is hard as a parent to see that this thing that was an obstacle and so misunderstood in my child as a toddler-school aged-and then young adult, is not really going away. While the panic and tears are no longer about the innocent and simple aspects of childhood: costumes of Halloween or a first job interview, they still show up for other, more adult based, events: world travel, finances, and, well, for all the other job interviews!
My husband and I recognize and acknowledge that our son has made great strides and we know he will continue to. As a teacher, I can always recognize which of my students would have been my own kid and it moves me in my connection with them. The qualities of a relationship with any young person struggling with anxiety: respect, compassion, understanding and empathy. I celebrate the baby steps, those almost undetectable signs of progress, as they happen. And it's okay if you could do it yesterday and you can't today. One day, all today's obstacles will, in hindsight, seem to be the easy stuff. It's the supported persistence, trusting your supports, and the ongoing honing, development and practicing of strategies and skills for kicking anxiety's butt that continues to be the hard part.
Tomorrow the ski week intensive starts, and I know with another good-night's sleep, the arrival of familiar faces, the addition of structure and regular, intensive physical exercise to his day, he is going to rise out of this. That's how I'm envisioning it at least. Breathe-in-2-3-4 and out-2-3-4.