Those of us who are parents know that the job does not come with a one-size-fits-all guidebook. Each family, each individual and each experience is unique. Unique ways of loving, laughing and learning to let go.
I have written before about parenting a child with severe anxiety but this blog is different. This one is about what success can look like and how it’s never the way you pictured. It’s kind of like that old saying, “If you want to make God laugh tell him about your plans.” Our journey was not easy, but it is important to share with those of you out there feeling lost and alone. You are not alone, you are doing the best you can and sometimes we just need to be reminded.
My son has given me permission to tell this story but I will not be using his photo or name. Not only is he a pre-teen who now won’t let me share his photo on Instagram, but he has been bullied online and is cautious (smart kid).
The story is two parts, where we were and where we have arrived. It’s not an easy story to tell and truthfully living it zapped my ability to write about it, until now. To give you a little background on our journey you can read my previous blog here.
The story begins when we moved to the other side of Canada four years ago when my son was in Grade 3. I did everything in my power to stay in my home province of Nova Scotia, including applying to over 300 jobs in eight months with no interviews. It was rough.
At the time we were living with my mother-in-law who was helping us out with free rent so that we could try our best to make a go of it with minimum wage jobs in order to pay our bills. That year I made $12,000. I knew I could no longer keep up the charade and I was living in fear all the time not being able to provide enough money for my son. In the end, Nova Scotia kicked me out.
My sister helped us moved to Grande Prairie, Alberta and got me a job working at Mr. Mike’s Steak House. It was incredible driving around the city and seeing all the “For Hire” signs. A few months later I landed my dream job working with the Municipal Government and helping youth have a voice in our city.
Everything was going well, until my son’s mental health started to go downhill. He had started to show signs of anxiety before we left Nova Scotia, but in Alberta in arrived with a bang.
My son was suffering from PTSD, depression and anxiety from a past trauma he experience at a young age. Also mixed into the equation was the fact that I was a single mother for seven years of his life and my mother and father were like his other parents. He was especially close to my father, his papa, and moving him to the other side of Canada would be no different than moving him away from his “father” if he were in the picture. It was really difficult for my son and he grieved every day.
School started to become impossible and I had to pull him out and start homeschooling him in Grade 4. It was so difficult and super overwhelming but I was afraid with all the time he was missing at school he would start to lose his interest in learning. Missing classes also made his anxiety worse. So we did our best, but I started to get concerned that he would fall behind in Math and Science.
When March break came along I was upfront with my son and told him that he either had to go back to school here in Alberta or he could try to finish out the year with his Papa in Nova Scotia. It was a no-brainer for him and I thought that I had told him he won the lottery when I gave him the option of going home.
He still had extreme anxiety but the school he was attending in Nova Scotia was incredible. The principal would come out to the car and sit with him for a few minutes if he was having anxiety and then offered for my son to do some work in his office till he felt better. That little gesture made all the different in my sons experience and he felt confident again, having friends and learning.
I told myself that we would start fresh in the fall at a new school and I enrolled him in a wonderful Catholic school. The teachers and school staff were incredible but the problem was, it didn’t matter how amazing they were, my son’s anxiety had reached a new level.
The anxiety made it difficult for him to sleep, eat, go outside. Each night we had a routine where I would try and soothe his fears but he was petrified and could not fall asleep unless I was in the bed next to his room. I watched the anxiety start to consume him and I did everything in my power to help him. We went to therapy, changed his diet, exercised, put him in special programs, and came up with a plan to help him get to class each day.
It would start with me taking him into the building and sitting with him until the teacher showed up. When he was engaged he could deal better with the fear lying beneath the surface. The problem was the second he wasn’t engaged he would find his way to the phone at the office and call me crying and I would have to come and get him.
One day, as I was leaving the building after dropping him off I heard him calling after me. There he was running towards me with absolute fear in his eyes and no shoes on his feet. There was two feet of snow on the ground. “Help me mom, I can’t do it. I can’t.” It broke my heart.
By November he had missed over 30 days of school from the stomach problems that accompany anxiety and depression. I wanted to get him on medication but seeing as he was only ten years old I tried everything before going down that road. Everything was not working.
I realized that I had to take him out of school again because each day for him was torture. That is something really difficult for people to understand especially when you came from a generation that was told to “suck it up.” We all know that tactic worked out so well for so many.
I felt alone. It was a difficult system to maneuver through and nobody seemed to want to help. Dr. Appointments, psychologists, reading book after book trying to find an answer. Anxiety and depression are still the most misunderstood conditions I have come across in my life. That became even more apparent when the school staff said things like, “but he is the most popular kid in the class.” As if being popular is the cure.
So we finished his Grade 5 year homeschooling while I worked a full-tme job. I was responsible for Language Arts, Social Studies and Novel Studies while my husband took on Math and Science. My goal, to make sure my child still loved learning while we tried to find a way to help him feel better.
We finally got him on the list to see a psychiatrist but the appointment was in 6 months. I tried to stay optimistic during the waiting period but my son’s condition was growing worse. When I tried to explain it to family members back home they just couldn’t understand, until the finally saw it for themselves.
During the summers my son goes back home to be with his Nana and Papa, his favourite thing in the world. That summer my family got a window into our lives and they were shocked. They had never seen him like that before, so afraid and devoid of joy. They had also never seen him self-harm, something that can often accompany this condition. When I joined him in Nova Scotia I slept most nights in the lazy boy chair at my father’s house so my son would know I was right next door. It was terrifying.
My son no longer wanted to live. He told me that becoming an adult was too scary and that he was already too tired. That was when I put my foot down, enough was enough, I needed someone to help us. I called Alberta Mental Health and told them that I was willing to go to Edmonton, Calgary or any city that would get him in to see a doctor. Imagine my shock and anger when the girl responded, “I think you should just be grateful you even got on the list and have an appointment.” The appointment was three months away.
I responded, “Excuse me, you don’t know me and have you no idea what I should or shouldn’t be grateful for. I want my son to see a doctor so that he doesn’t die! Please, help me!” We got an appointment the week we returned home. That was when amazing things started to happen.
My son was so excited when he started to feel better now that he was on medication. Every time he went to see his doctor he thanked him. My son told me it felt like he could breath again.
He even wrote this incredible poem about the experience and it was published in Teens Now Talk magazine.
We got him into a new homeschooling program for grade 6 which was all online and in the afternoons he would spend time with the other ten students playing sports, going to the art centre, volunteering with the police, learning life skills and building his confidence. He still had anxiety but now it was manageable. It was a miracle.
The only thing that continue to be the place of pain for him was his separation from his Nana and Papa. We helped him make sure those connections were strong by sending him home for a month before Christmas, and it helped.
Homeschooling is really difficult and the higher the grade the more challenging Math and Science were becoming for me to teach. I worked a full-time job, ran my podcast and came home every day to teach my son. We made it work but I told him that he had to go back to school in grade 7. I explained to him that he owed it to himself to learn Math and Science that challenged him in a good way.
After he completed grade 6 he eagerly boarded his flight to go back to Nova Scotia. Immediately my dad was shocked at the difference in him, he was so happy, so healthy. They spent an incredible summer together and when I joined them in July to get ready for my wedding Cole would make so many comments such as, “Mom if I lived here I would have friends like Ben,” or “Mom the energy of Nova Scotia is just so wonderful, don’t you think?” or “Mom, if I went to school here I bet I would start liking sports again.” The list went on.
I replied lovingly, “Baby, I know it would be great, and mommy will try her best to get back here, but for now we have to live in Alberta.” He would always smile, “I know mom, but I like to dream.”
It was incredible to see my son so strong again, I was excited for him to start school and he felt ready.
When we returned to Grande Prairie we went for a tour of his new school across the street from our new condo. In the beautifully polite way he always converses with adults he thanked the teacher for showing him around.
“I think I will walk to school by myself on the first day mom,” he said with confidence.
“Really?” I answered a bit shocked. “Are you sure, because mommy doesn’t mind walking you over.”
He just looked at me and made fun of me, “Mom, you are going to have to learn to let go.” We both laughed. How did he become so old all of a sudden?
What unfolded next became one of the biggest life lessons in learning to let go. Stay tuned for part two of this blog as I continue to story of how my son found and felt success with the help of those who love us.