For those who are new or fairly new to my blog, this past winter, my 13 yr. old son, Little Man had a grade A, first-rate, complete and total anxiety fueled melt down. His anxiety reached such epic proportions that he became locked in a perpetual panic attack and he shut down. I had lost my son to his brain.
For several weeks I thought he was sick with a mystery bug. Finally, after almost a month, he was able to tell me what was going on; that he was experiencing severe panic attacks. The day he fessed up, I realized that as much as I’d tried to push him to figure out how to deal with his anxiety around school, taking him to a few different therapists, I now had to do what I’d dreaded for the past three plus years: pull him out of school and homeschool him. Just over half way through seventh grade.
Things had become too intolerable. It was as plain as day to me that if I didn’t pull him out of school, there was a very good possibility that I would completely lose him; to where he would never come back. Whether that would look like his taking his life, or merely becoming catatonic, I don’t know. But I knew he would leave.
At that point, I thought that within days of pulling him out of our local public school system, his anxiety would magically disappear, and I would be able to either enroll him in an online public school, or begin a homeschooling curriculum.
Well, the anxiety didn’t go away, and hung on just as tenaciously as when he was still enrolled in public school. What I ended up finding is a local independent learning situation, technically a private school, where we meet with a teacher once a week, and talk about what was done at home during the week. We would decide about curriculum when Little Man was able to handle it. At first, I could barely get Little Man to even talk at these meetings. He was still experiencing severe anxiety and panic attacks.
All this while, we were working with a new doctor (a naturopathic doctor, chiropractor and intuitive healer), who determined that Little Man had some physical health challenges, as well as the emotional challenge of severe anxiety. We had to make dietary changes, including eliminating gluten, dairy, and a few other foods. And, vitamins and supplements were added. After about four months, his physical issues were almost all back to “normal,” and his emotional health was much improved. Little Man is no longer a prisoner in his room, and if he experiences anxiety, it usually doesn’t go on for hours and doesn’t often roll into a panic attack. Yes, there are some tough days, but overall, things are a lot better.
During the first few months when I lost him, it was some of the scariest times of my life as a mother. Every day I white knuckled it. I put my faith in Little Man’s new doctor, and we are seeing progress. What I particularly appreciate about this doctor, other than his intuitive skills and medical training, is that when I spoke up and said that we needed more help with Little Man’s anxiety, he came up with a supplement that made a difference. And as we go along, I know that if Little Man needs even more help, there will be options to explore.
All of this time, Little Man has been learning about his own mental health and how his physical health affects his mental health. Low blood sugar can bring on anxiety while his body is healing. And he’s been learning all about eating for his health (eliminating foods that have damaged his body over time). He’s gone through some very tough and some very dark times, with the worst of it behind us (I sincerely hope).
As time goes on, Little Man will learn more skills to help him live with a brain that tends to experience anxiety, and will learn how food affects his body and brain. He’s already had quite the crash course.
As for “school,” he’s been deschooling: the process of adjusting to the non-school environment of everyday life after leaving the education system. Because Little Man associated so much trauma with being in school, we’ve spent the past few months just living and waiting for my son to come back. Yes, we’ve been meeting with his teacher weekly, but he hasn’t been forced to do traditional book work.
With the pressure of “school” off our backs, we have the luxury of time. Time to allow Little Man’s body to heal, and happen as it needs to happen. For so many people, in our fast-paced world, with mandatory attendance of public school, they feel their only option is to find “the right” medication that takes the edge off their child’s mental-emotional problems, so they can go to school every day. And that helps some people. But I didn’t feel that was the best course of action for Little Man, because of his extreme sensitivity. (When he was in fourth grade, we did a medication trial with ADHD drugs, with horrible side effects).
Too often, taking a medication that masks things like anxiety, does just that: masks. They allow a person to feel better and to function in our world. But they do not address why the anxiety was there in the first place. Because of that, I wanted to leave medication as a last resort. I have not ruled it out, but I haven’t felt the need to explore pharmaceuticals yet.
Having a mother who was bi-polar and who depended on medication for her sanity, I very much appreciate what pharmaceutical drugs can do for a brain. And watching my mother’s battle with medications and her sanity, and watching her lose her life to her mental illness, despite several medication changes, I know that there is only so much a medication can do for a person’s brain. I have come to believe that mental illness is as much an illness of the spirit, as it is one of the physical body.
With all of the changes Little Man has made over the past few months, he is doing better and better.
The other week, at our weekly meeting with Little Man’s teacher, I brought up the question of how a person moves from deschooling into something that looks more like schooling, without sending my kiddo back over the edge. With our local public schools starting up again in about a month, I could anticipate Little Man’s anxiety starting to ramp up over the next few weeks, in fear of what he would have to do this fall to be considered in a “learning” situation.
We’ve been telling him all along that he’s been learning; learning a lot about his body and how to take care of himself. That in and of itself has been huge. But allowing Little Man’s education to be 100% child-led isn’t something I feel comfortable with right now because of his historically wanting to avoid subjects that are a challenge for him (reading, writing, math), with his learning disabilities.
After chatting with his teacher, she brought up the idea of having him create a project around something he’s very interested in. He will choose the topic and what the project will be. He will decide how he’ll present the topic at the end of the month, and what the presentation will entail. Because he’s been obsessed with flying his drone for the past few months, he decided that his project will have something to do with the drone. Part of the presentation will be written (because he needs to practice writing), part will likely include a video he will create, and it will be orally presented as well.
Having several weeks to get this all put together (maintaining our weekly meeting with his teacher) will get Little Man back in the game of “school” and it will get his mind wrapped around a new way of what school and learning can look like.
The beauty of it all, is Little Man is on a new path. His body is getting healthier every day. His mental health is improving. And with his teacher being our guide, we’re both learning what “an education” can look like. One thing it will not look like is sitting down for six hours a day doing book work, being quiet, and living in fear of breaking a rule.
Over the past few months, with so many kids around us receiving certificates, plaques, and awards for end of year academic achievement, others graduating and going off to four year universities, and several going to proms, I started thinking about how my son will never stand up in front of his class and be recognized for academic achievement, and he’ll never have the prom experience, and from where I sit right now, he might never go to a four year university. I started to get pretty bummed out and a bit jealous. I kept comparing Little Man’s life to the experiences I had when I grew up (traditional public school and academic success), and comparing him to other people around us.
I kept thinking how unfair it is that my son has to deal with a brain that thinks and learns so differently from most. I was sad that he doesn’t get the same pleasure from reading that I do, and that he doesn’t enjoy the process of putting word to paper. And I was sad that my son’s brain puts him into states of anxiety and panic when his life isn’t actually being threatened; that his brain can hold him hostage. I was sad that he’s had so many challenges in his young life that many of his peers will never have to deal with.
Then I saw a spark in my son that I didn’t know I’d ever see. He got excited about doing his project for school. He was actually enthusiastic about school looking like projects, and holy crap! he became interested to learn.
I have to remember that despite my son’s challenges in life, he has some amazing gifts as well. And the gifts that he possesses are not things that can be taught through any type of therapy or school. His boundless creativity, out-of-the-box way of problem solving, and his amazing intuition and empathy are part of who he is, part of how he’s wired. The areas where he struggles in academia are things that can be improved upon, and assisted with technology. But his gifts will carry him far in life. He might not grow up to become a writer or a college professor, but I know that’s he’s going to do something amazing, most likely in the realm of transportation.
I’m now excited to see where he’ll end up, no longer confined by rigid education standards set by someone who clearly didn’t design them for my son and the way he learns and thinks. I see that my passion for learning, collecting and analyzing information, and reassembling it into something useful for me, is similar in its intensity to my son’s passion to create. When his attention is grabbed, there is no stopping him. I love to see the spark of creation in my son, explode into an inferno.
I fully expect there will be more bumps in the road, but at least from where I sit right now, I think we’re gonna make it.