Last week I was sitting in the auditorium of our town’s high school, listening to my son play saxophone in the 5th and 6th grade All City Band Concert. As I was enjoying my “proud mother moment” two things stood out to me: one was how great they all sounded for eleven- and twelve-year-olds. The second was how far we have come as a family in the last three years.
About three years ago, my son was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. When he was diagnosed I finally had the answers I needed as to why there were aggressive outbursts and why he was impulsive in school as well as when we had guests over. We finally knew why daily life with him had become such a battle. With his diagnosis, it was as if I finally had the key to a door that had remained locked within him. At last I was able to communicate with him more effectively as I began to understand more about why he would get so angry. I was able to manage his triggers, but also withdraw from him if that was what he needed. I was starting to see my son return to me. But one thing I failed to do was recognize how having a diagnosis would affect him and how he would feel about himself going forward.
He recently turned eleven and is now in the “tweens.” Image and acceptance is everything. Currently the “in” thing at my son’s school is rubber band-like bracelets. My son told me about this type of “energy bands” that are supposed to be good for your health. When we went to the mall to look at the bands, the salesperson listed anxiety as something aided by wearing these “energy bands.” On the way home from the mall, my son asked, “Do you think she knew I have a disability?” I wanted to correct him and his perception that his anxiety disorder is a disability because to me it is not. Instead I asked him if he really did think of it that way. When my son said that he did, I recalled that the only times that he’s ever mentioned having an anxiety disorder have been in moments of defeat, after escalation, on his bedroom floor in tears wondering aloud why he has to have anxiety. Or in frustration, trying to justify a trigger to my husband: “I wish I could sleep in my bed by myself, but I just can’t tonight.”
I realized I never had the conversation with my son that his being diagnosed with an anxiety disorder is only that – a diagnosis, and that it doesn’t necessarily have to define who he is as a person. We had that talk as I was writing this post and I apologized for being selfish three years ago and never considering his perspective and exploring what having a diagnosis could mean for his life. Later, he asked me if he I thought it would be “safe” to tell his friends that he has a diagnosis. I replied that if they judged or disliked him because of it then they weren’t real friends to begin with, and he would be better off without them. I once again, and without fail, did not consider his perspective! But this time I was able to recognize my mistake a lot sooner, and then told him if he felt comfortable telling his closest friends, then he should. Our friends are our friends for a reason, and it’s OK to trust them. Each day he has been letting me know that he has told another friend. He will happily say something like, “I told Chris today!” No one else in the family will know what he told Chris, but I will, and from the tone of his voice I know that Chris is a true friend.