I couldn’t breathe. I tried to get air into my lungs with large gasps of trapped in the car, stuck in traffic oxygen. However, no matter how deeply I breathed, the weight of emotion on my chest stopped my lungs from expanding. I remembered feeling a similar way, years ago, as an unwilling participant in a swimming pool game that pitted my stronger sibling against my weaker self. The “game” was a bit brutal, the rules simple: hold your opponent under water until they can’t hold their breath any longer and panic sets in. Panic induces motion. Push, strike out, writhe in protest, walk, run from the weight of the hand or emotion keeping you submerged. Do whatever it takes to get the message across that I need air, NOW!
This time the opponent wasn’t a blood relation, enjoying a summers, sunny day, of childish entertainment. This days unexpected attack came from a school Administrator informing me on my cell phone, while I was on a busy expressway, that my daughter’s anxiety induced absences were cause for the District to recommend a visit to our home from a county agency.
Anxiety, mood disorder, depression, mental illness, behavioral health issues are the terms I have heard to describe the agony my daughter goes through. It’s not a choice, it is a chemical imbalance. Sometimes, but not always, medication offers relief. This wasn’t the first episode, it will not be the last, but to date it has been the worst. As a result of our recent move, we had little in the way of a support network in place to keep us afloat in the dark, deep end of our anxiety pool, and the school, a raft that we were leaning on, had just deflated. I tried to breathe life into a rescue attempt at the school with IEP meetings, explanations, medical documentation, and even a desperate cry for help to the team of people who were trained professionals.
The fight that was triggered that day didn’t abate for weeks. I fought to keep her safe from crippling anxiety that made the simple act of leaving the house a terror. I fought for her right to experience school in Pennsylvania as successfully as she had experienced school in Ohio. I fought for her right to breathe easily. I fought to catch my own breath. She fought too. Everyday she woke up and fought to hold on with me. Each morning she moved into her day believing that today she would find a light to move towards. In the end, we couldn’t move forward until we stopped the slide backwards.
On that long ago summer day, stuck somewhere between the bottom of the swimming pool and the surface where the air existed, I realized that fighting a stronger force was futile. I needed to conserve oxygen and devise a new defense to outwit the brute holding me under. After all, my beloved sibling didn’t want me dead, or even unconscious, he just wanted to reinforce that he was stronger and entertain his bored self. Slipping deeper into the water, it occurred to me to let go. Stop fighting. When I did, the game was over and I could surface and fill my lungs with oxygen.
In the end, this is the same strategy my daughter found, mid panic attack, in the parking lot of the high school. Together we stopped fighting. We let go. We drove away, towards home, knowing she would never again enter that building as a student. It took a few days for us to realize that we were no longer going backwards, and a few weeks to put a team in place that helped us to move forward, one small step at a time. Letting go of the school and the unhelpful professionals there had been the answer we were seeking. Much of what is intelligent and strong about me today I learned from my siblings. Courage I am learning from my children.
Today, my daughter smiled. It was the first genuine, relaxed and sincere smile I have seen from her in months. We still have a long way to go, but I think we can start to breathe again.