By Linda Pressman
We’re in the car leaving the airport, I’ve just said goodbye to my daughter when I receive the first text.
There are too many people waiting at the gate for this plane.
I’m in the third boarding group, C17. I’m never going to get on the plane.
I’m worried about boarding that late and getting a seat.
I respond calmly. There’s no reason to think she is having a full-fledged panic attack. I mean, she hasn’t even left the ground yet. The texts keep coming. I respond to every one: mom, psychologist, counselor, guru. And when none of that works, I tell her I’ve bought her a ticket home as a safety net, to be used at a natural break in the program. This is like gold in her pocket; she calms down. But there is still more:
The boarding agents won’t let me get on early as an unaccompanied minor because I’m seventeen.
Why didn’t we pay for an upgrade so I could board early?
I’m never going to get a seat.
I’ll probably have to sit in between people, which will be really uncomfortable.
We really should have paid for an upgrade.
Then there is silence, finally, as the plane wafts across the country. Then more texts as she lands and starts navigating her destination airport.
Wait, I’m not lost.
I found the group of teens on my tour.
This might not go so well, Mom.
I think the girls all know each other.
The girls are all cliquey.
No one’s friendly.
I can’t believe I signed up for this.
Why did I sign up for this?
How am I going to live through five weeks of this?
I don’t think I’m going to make it through five weeks of this. We need to talk about this.
It’s no exaggeration to say that my daughter’s anxiety started when she was four. She was a happy, pigtailed girl bouncing around her preschool with all of the other happy kids when suddenly, one day at drop off, she started to cry just as I was about to leave. And not just regular tears, but big, splashy, unstoppable tears. She clung to me. She didn’t want to go to school. Ever, as it turned out. Or, rather, she’d be happy to go but only if I stayed with her.
So at age four I took her to our all-purpose family psychologist, where my husband and I had been going for marriage counseling and where I’d been going for individual therapy.
I’m not sure if I noticed in all my time in that office that it was actually crammed with children’s toys, or maybe I thought those were for patients who expressed themselves more easily manually, like with clay. But there they were and there was my daughter, in an office that looked like her preschool. I was relieved to find out the diagnosis was no big deal, just some temporary situational anxiety possibly related to a visit to her preschool by a firefighter. While the other kids had listened with wonder and awe to his stories of saving people from fires, my daughter had heard a different message: my mom could die in a fire.
Over time, she did get “better” with a few techniques the therapist suggested. Or at least she stayed at school each day.
At home she was fun and imaginative, either performing medical procedures on her father clad in her veterinarian lab coat, using her Barbie stethoscope, or playing waitress in a vegetable restaurant serving me plates of plastic carrots. But she stayed around the house a lot, saying no to parties, to movies, to camping, to sleepovers, even to friends sleeping at our house.
She skipped her pre-K graduation performance, crying inconsolably on my lap while we watched her friends up on stage. Same thing for every recital, ever. Before we’d sign up for any class, we needed to know how they ended. Was there a performance? If the answer was yes, then her answer was no. In later years, when shootings made the headlines, she had a running list of places she’d never go, to avoid being shot: malls, movie theaters, concerts.
Instead of growing out of her anxiety, it has grown with her. When she was misdiagnosed by a new doctor with ADHD, in a fit of defiance, she threw the bottle of tiny blue pills all over the floors of our house. Years later, I’m still finding them. Then came a counselor for teen issues, a psychiatrist and, finally, a firm diagnosis. Anxiety. This time she takes the medication.
Now we trot her out into the world, trying to help her through exposure. She successfully went to sleepaway camp for three years, though the first week was always a shaky one, when I wasn’t exactly sure she was going to make it.
We never get to build on a success; each year we start all over, like the last confident experience never happened. Every day is Groundhog Day.
Because she felt confident after going to camp, we signed her up for a teen trip abroad. She didn’t make it past the beginning: her luggage was lost, the counselors were disinterested, the other teens aloof, the language foreign. The texts and the phone calls—dark and hopeless—would wake me up in the middle of the night. We flew her home.
This year she’s decided to try again, because how will she ever go to college if she can’t do something like this? Is she going to spend her life in one of our back bedrooms watching Netflix on her iPad? So she flies off for a Civil Rights journey that crisscrosses the country.
The texts and calls start again. In the background, I hear the kids on the bus having fun, laughing, and singing.
I don’t know how to fit in.
If I say something they ignore me.
I don’t know how to act normal.
I’m not sure my medication is working.
The days of the trip tick off while I wait for a miracle, for one of the other teens to hold out a hand in friendship to the slightly awkward, quiet girl who can’t seem to turn things around.
Linda Pressman is a freelance writer, the former blog editor of Poetica Magazine, and mother to two people she’s somehow managed to raise. She is presently working on the sequel to her memoir.