Extreme challenges kept one mother’s son home from school, endangering his graduation, until she hit upon a last-ditch answer.
With an educational infrastructure built around outdated teaching methods, barely supported by consistently decreasing budgets, causing class sizes to swell and children to suffer less individual attention, is it such a leapt to compare our children’s stress levels with those of 1950’s mental patients? In the year 2000, a psychiatric study, cited in Psychology Today, found the average high school student carried the same degree of stress as the average 1950’s psychiatric patient. People, that’s 15 years ago. It’s time for updated research. Stress follows the same arc as inflation, economics, and until recently, gas prices. And we are talking the run-of-the-mill kid, one not wounded by the shards of their broken home, one without learning disorders, one immune from bullying—what we might think of as normal challenges for our teens these days. Because our children certainly don’t reside in a sanitized environment as indicated in the study, this ups the ante.
We want to regard our children as regular ol’ kiddos, saddled with nothing hairier than the bogeyman under the bed, a resistance to eating certain foods, or a worry over their Little League lineup, but sometimes we are gifted a child unable to fend off the demons in their own head. The weight of anxiety pressing on their precious temples prevents them from doing even the mundane, derails them from accomplishing goals other parents might assume to be anticipated milestones. I want to detest those other parents, but I envy them in a happy jelly sort of way instead because it’s important to be right with the universe.
My son, Colton’s stomach aches started at least five years ago. I can’t remember the first episode, but I can safely say I thought he had a tummy virus. He would throw up, turn a peculiar color of paste, sweat, expel it out of his system with terrific speed, and life would go on. Watching him in the grips of this hellish beast was torture for both of us. He will argue he got the short end of the stick.
As he returned to this nauseating rut time and again, no action I could take would stop it. He was sick and while he was, I worried. When he had recovered, the color returned to his thin cheeks, I convinced myself there was nothing to freak about. Until it happened again. And again. And again, leaving us both crying. Doctors puzzled over his symptoms, offered no treatment. I knew what they thought anyway and I began to wonder if it was psychosomatic, too? Was Colton mentally ill? Dear God…he had enough going on. Two learning disorders, social anxiety, and unbeknownst to me, a burgeoning realization he was gay.
Years passed, Colton cycled through his weird illness that we began to call his “thing.” I’d get calls from school—knew the nurse’s number by heart—His timid ashamed voice stuttering out of the phone, “Mom…I think…I think I have my thing again.” Sick and thin and missing school, this ailment was tough to hack, harder for him to be sure, but still an obstacle course of emotions for me. The timing of this illness was so inconsiderate. You couldn’t tell me before we left for school and I returned to my still-warm bed, you felt your thing coming on? A tragedy of school was missed, I think that’s a real word like describing a fleet of ships or a colossal volume of some sort; it should be if it’s not. He was always behind in schoolwork, never prepared for exams. First, came sympathy from his teachers, then doubt, then his educators checked out, stymied, unsure how to help him. Uncertain if they should believe his fabulous tale of affliction. Many days I felt like a moron, as if I had been duped.
I became alternately annoyed with the school staff when I suspected their doubt, and annoyed again when they didn’t doubt, when their feelings didn’t match up to mine on certain days.
Cherry on the crapola sundae? I got life-changing sick. Colton went on anxiety meds, then off, convinced they were doing more harm than good. He came out as bisexual, then gay and seemed to find himself among a group of understanding friends. Always there was hope, but hope never guaranteed his way would get easier. Everything but the coming out was short-lived. Back to the doctors, specialists, and new therapists while I researched and Googled my ass off.
Here’s a funny lesson. Even when you’ve identified the problem, you’ve still got a problem needing solving. The only thing you’ve gained is a name, but after about five years of sore throats, heaving, weight loss, lethargy and prayers for answers, a diagnosis came: cyclic vomiting syndrome aka abdominal migraines. Rare, it causes intervals of intense vomiting, some throat pain and fatigue. Triggers to this dastardly bastard include overstress, overtiredness, or other minor illnesses such as colds. Abdominal migraines in children may be a precursor to garden-variety adult migraines, and lucky Colton appears to have won a second disease lottery. He’ll surely endure years of unpredictable, life-altering pain because of this prognosis. As his mother, this murders my heart.
After years of battling missed school, “riding the C” (a cute way of referring to a student who performs well enough to skate by on their “C” performance until they crash due to missed assignments), Colton might be getting the fresh start for which we’ve all prayed. Riding the C is dangerous with no existing algorithm to follow and no formula to inform the student how much time remains to slack off before another passing grade is needed to pull up their flagging GPA. You’ve probably beaten me to the logistical punch – as a result of incremental demerits, each dragging your child to lower starting points, a crash looms, happens…and the cycle begins again.
Colton made promises. He would get it under control. My prediction: doubtful. My poor son, with all he battled, also sought to mitigate a new family dynamic, the loss of his childhood home, a catastrophic coming out on one side of his family, he could not and would not accomplish what he’d set out to do. We waited for him to fail again, and waiting for your son to fail because you lack the resources to swoop in and make everything right is miserable. It’s also a deal breaker.
Unconventional thinking got us on the right track. As of this writing, Colton has been pulled out of public school and he’s now enrolled in Minnesota Virtual High School. He is free to worry, free to succumb to stress and illness. Knowing he simply has to sit up in bed and pull his laptop into position to get started on his schoolwork has allowed him to unknot one stressful snarl holding him back. The ability to create and control his own schedule is another knot. He’s told me he is excited to work ahead! My brain exploded after that announcement! Was it from his excitement or the fact my son now has real, undeniable hope for himself? Colton is leaving a school with children not so kind, children growing up themselves, hurting nonetheless and striking out at those less able to handle bullying, insecurities and cracks in their self confidence. Boom! Another knot explodes, and the slack loosens to a point where he can at last breathe.
The child of 2015 is not your grandma’s child. No, they’re your darling. In the land of the lost, where big business manages benevolence and intentions are bald and baseless, we can’t expect our children to be satisfied with the offer to “buck up!” We can’t overly instruct them in the fine art of ignoring their pain and confusion if it’s not helping. We are fast out here, spinning on the globe, trashing our planet at an alarming rate, allowing dangerous science toxic influence and permanence. You better believe our kids know it. It messes with their heads, terrifies them because this power is real and scarier than anything they could conjure, just hanging out under their bed. When the knowledge also snaps into place that they’re responsible for mending all these mistakes, the panic attacks strike without mercy.
Because anxiety represented one side of Colton’s conundrum, we also had to examine how we could help our son academically. Standardized tests do not measure intelligence; dated and dusty curricula underserve and pigeonhole children. It’s why we moved Colton to online high school. Exposure to these methodologies and the educators who subscribe to them were hurting him more than helping, were teaching my student his own limits versus imbuing him with the sacred belief he is the only one who can put limits on himself. With the right and personalized education plan, our kids can fly.
Anxiety, untamed by medication, multiple therapists’ visits, massive heart-to-hearts, all of it was eating Colton alive, stealing pieces of him. Anxiety is a mental illness cycling through a person, reinless, rudderless. A person caves under anxiety, tries to hang onto their mind as best they can while it beats them into a trembling pulp. Parents, your child cannot go to school if they believe the anxiety will kill them. When it doesn’t, the sufferer is surprised, but ungrateful because they know anxiety is merely awaiting an encore. Attempting to convince an anxious person they are blessed not to have cancer, that they should feel fortunate for never knowing poverty, trying to reassure them they are stronger than they feel—is not a solution.
Sometimes, the world we’ve built is too much for our children, or doesn’t offer enough to our children; this world will not take the time to get to know their glorious little souls, but is hell-bent on gobbling them up. Society, expectations, performance in the face of white-knuckle challenges is so intimidating a percentage of children can’t handle it. In our son’s case, he won’t. If your kid is sensitive, empathetic and all heart, reconsider the educational norm. We couldn’t put generalized expectations on Colton anymore, but it took years, and many regrets to reach that realization. My inability to see what he needed is shameful. As Colton was suffering miseducation, I was learning about the unraveling of standardized education and why it’s vital to understand its shortfalls if we are to best facilitate our children’s success. I’m sure there were many times that Colton wished I would hurry up and reach an epiphany already.
You and your child don’t have to suffer as our family did. As soon as you feel bigger problems at play, requiring a therapist, act on your instincts, avoid delaying crucial decisions. The quicker you act, the quicker your child begins to heal and cope.
Learn from our family’s mistakes:
1. Stop living in denial. It is agonizing to hear your child has a learning disorder. Two learning disorders lacerates your heart. But this is not about you. It is about getting real help designed to move your child past their roadblock.
2. Even when your child has good days, or seems to be improving, they are still struggling. Colton has a hard time organizing thoughts in sequential or chronological order and I labor to remember this on days when he recalls something on his own, or takes a rare initiative. He still processes information differently than other people and he still has limitations imposed on him due to our homogenized educational system. He will be that way today, tomorrow, and forever.
3. Let your child know you are on their side. Oh, I caved to anger with this boy, anger bred fear, followed by terror he would not make it in the world. I wondered about the degree of his learning disorders and some days, I’m sure he felt I was demanding him to get better, to fix his thinking, remember his assignments, stop throwing up, to heal. I hurt him and all he wanted was a stalwart mother reassuring him he would be fine. Was I convinced my anger would force him into remission? Anger is such a lie when it’s really fear all along. I regret some of my handling of Colton’s circumstances to this day.
We knew it was time to pull the plug when we worried about Colton graduating. Never was the decision to take him out of his high school presented as punitive, but rather that it was meant to help, to liberate and to create a new chapter.
Today, we are hopeful undoing these knots, supporting a calmer environment and furthering Colton’s newfound educational control will nurture him as if he’s awakened to find himself in a garden. We all, at last, believe he will bloom.
Photo: Phillip Schumacher/Flickr