Stepping off the sidewalk, I repeatedly glance backward. “Please don’t be there, please don’t be there,” is my chant as I twist my neck to see over my left shoulder. My breath is caught in my chest, as if I have forgotten how to exhale, and my stride is so fast an onlooker would guess I am the strongest member of a speed walking team. By the time I’ve crossed the parking lot and reached my car, hot tears streak my cheeks — and even though I warn myself I shouldn’t — I take one last glance back at the school, and there he is. My son, sprinting toward two rows of cars dropping off little ones, followed by three teachers who will catch and contain him before he hits the pavement.
I slid into the front seat and rested my now throbbing head on the steering wheel. “Kindergarten was supposed to be easier,” I thought outloud, but in fact, the anxiety had escalated to code red. There were signs in preschool: begging me not to go, puppy dog eyes and one more kiss/one more hug. This level of reluctant separation was mildly frustrating, bordering on cute at times. We had a song and dance every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning.
“Please stay, Mommy.”
“Mommies don’t stay at preschool.”
“I’ll miss you too much.”
“I always come back.”
“I love you.”
Out the door and into the car; no tears from my son, none shed by me. At the time I didn’t realize how perspective would present this to me as an easy drop off, one I would wish for in the year to come.
This type of back-and-forth banter was something I longed to relive on the stretch of weary mornings also known as the year my youngest son went to kindergarten and was diagnosed with severe separation anxiety. This would be the same year that, as a tangled mess of adult arms worked to pry my son off my body, the antennae to the assistant principal’s walkie talkie went so far up my left nostril, I swear it tickled my eyeball. The same year that, after my son’s teacher finally contained him with her kung-fu grip, I broke free and darted out a self-locking side door, which meant I was locked not only out of the school but trapped inside the grounds as well; made to climb over a low fence near the back of the cafeteria in order to get to my car. Each time one of these episode occurred, I could physically feel a day of my life erase off the calendar. Which, when you do the math, adds up to losing roughly six months of my journey here on Earth.
The more I tried to help my son overcome his anxiety, (which, if you’ve never done it, is like trying to rotate your mattress by pursing your lips and blowing) the stronger a crushing feeling started to grow in my chest. Each night I went to bed begging God and the universe and any power that was listening, to please let tomorrow be the morning that we turned a corner. Before my eyes opened in the morning I would begin rehearsing my speech, hoping this would be the day when bravery triumphed over fear. “You can do it, buddy,” I would say to my son in my most encouraging voice, “You’re safe at school and it’s so much fun. You’re braver than you realize!” Typically, the motivational speach was a fool’s errand.
There were those rare smooth transition mornings when my little guy would walk into school with the comfort of his older brother by his side, not even looking back to see if I was still there. Days like these I dubbed, “School Day Miracles.” But even these mornings wouldn’t allow me to stop holding my breath. These days were like sparse punctuation in a paragraph of run-on sentences. Most days, as soon as we loaded into the car, I could smell it on him. Fight or flight has a very distinct scent. Which meant I would be prying him out of the car, carrying him to the front of the school, and handing him off to a tangled mess of adult arms, which may or may not be in possession of a walkie talkie.
Coming home was no relief. Even the lulling of Diane Rehm’s voice wasn’t enough to comfort me on the five minute ride back to my house. Some days I’d pull into my driveway and wonder how I got there, having little to no memory of driving home.
I developed a type of anxiety by-proxy: feeling absolutely certain and utterly hopeless in tandem. I knew my son needed the repetition of independently tackling a school day to prove to himself that his fears were unfounded, yet I wanted to burst through those school doors, scoop him up in my arms, and say, “Mommy loves you. I don’t want to leave you like this. Let’s go home.” As strong as that urge washed over me, I never sank. Emotional eating seemed to work fine. So did crushing up itsy bitsy crumbles of a Xanax I scored off a friend. I continued to cope my way (did you know one Xanax can last you a year?) and took my son to therapy.
For eight months my anxious little boy worked hard to walk into school as a proud first grader and not cry or protest or cling to my leg like a hair to soap. He silenced that voice in his head that told him he couldn’t do it, that he needed to be with his mother. Even as I cheered him on in his triumph, I still felt twinges of tightness shoot through my chest and I continued to look over my shoulder. Though these days when I glance back, my son’s nowhere to be seen, and I suddenly remember how to exhale.