Research tells us anxiety is an emotion, often characterized by inner turmoil, dread, and the expectation of a future event.
It is not the same as fear, because fear is the response to a real, actual event.
Science says there are six major types; generalized anxiety disorder, panic attack disorder obsessive-compulsive disorder, phobia, social anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The thing is, I don’t think you can reduce it down to one word, or four syllables, or six disorders, because it is so much more.
It is fire drills, and loud cracking thunder, and bounding, barking dogs.
No dog no dog no dog!
It is the white noise that gets in the way.
It is the disappearing smile; the vanishing joy.
Apparently, it is something called comorbid to the autism spectrum disorder. This means when you have one, you will likely have the other.
My son Jack was six years old when he first became anxious, and it was like the floor dropped right out from beneath him.
All at once, he refused go outside because he was afraid of the wind chill even though it was March and no longer really winter and not even that cold out.
And then he was afraid to go to the bathroom because one time he went in a public bathroom and the toilet flushed while he was still sitting on it so he could never, ever use one again. He had accidents—lots and lots of 6-year old accidents.
He was terrified of dogs. He worried about them constantly.
He started talking to himself. I don’t mean a quiet little reminder to pack pretzels for snack, or a softly hummed nursery rhyme. I mean he was having full-on expressive conversations with himself. He gestured. He grimaced. He jabbed his finger in the air while he muttered.
It chilled me to the bone, watching him converse with an imaginary person inside of his own mind.
We were confused, and perplexed, and scared. One day we had a sunny, albeit quiet and unusual little boy who was working on so many things like how to say hello when someone walked in the room and making tons of progress. The next day, he was gone. I don’t know how else to describe it.
We tried something called the Wilbarger brushing technique where we used soft, white brushes to brush the length of his arms and legs. When that didn’t work, we tried massages, and another thing called joint compression where we gently squeezed his knees and his shoulders and his wrists.
When those didn’t work, we went to the doctor. He wore a yellow and blue plaid tie and after he examined Jack and asked him a bunch of questions, he turned to my husband Joe and I.
Oh, he has anxiety. It’s comorbid to autism. We’ll need to consider medication.
He said it matter-of-factly like it was something I should already know—like it was something everyone knew.
In the bright lights I looked down at my boy and it was as though I was seeing him for the first time. I turned the words over and over again in my head until they were one big word without any breathing spots in the middle.
Autism. Anxiety. Medication.
Comorbid is an ugly word. It calls to mind darkness and death, which I guess makes sense because even though Jack will never die from anxiety’s wily ways, neither will it let him live.
It is the criminal sitting next to autism in the getaway car, screeching out of the parking lot with all they have stolen from my son—courage and confidence and peace and security.
It eats him from the inside out.
It is the interrupted sentence, eyes wide and wild.
For dinner I want—did you hear that? A dog. A dog! Barking!
This what research and science and Wikipedia and articles don’t tell you. They don’t explain the way anxiety is a fire that burns around the clock, demanding all the air in the room until my son can hardly breathe.
It is cuticles torn to shreds.
It is the whispers in the dark of the night, while a 6-year old tosses and turns in a bedroom down the hall.
It’s like we’re losing him all over again.
I know, I know but I don’t know what to do and I am scared to try the medicine.
But we did. We took the plaid-tie doctor’s advice and on the way home from his office we picked up anti-anxiety medicine and that night, we gave it to our 6-year old son. It was very, very hard to do. We never thought it would come to that. For the time being, anxiety had won the battle.
We looked at it like this: if he had diabetes, we would give him insulin. And when he had strep throat, we gave him antibiotics. If there was a remedy that could quiet his torment, he deserved to try it.
It was not easy, but a few days later, there was sweet relief.
He slept a full night for the first time in months, and slowly, oh-so-slowly, his smile returned.
Ever since then, I’ve imagined Jack’s anxiety like a snake—a slithering, sneaky, savvy snake who comes and goes as it pleases. For six years, the little white pills in the orange bottle kept the snake at bay. Oh, it never disappeared completely, but at times it was dormant—quiet.
Little did we know, it’s just been lying in wait.
Now Jack is twelve. The conversations are back. The constant perseverations about fire drills and the weather are back. He tosses and turns all night long, and his cuticles are a mess.
It smirks at me constantly, this snake.
I can’t stand the smirking. It makes me want to put my hands over my ears and scream.
Stop smirking stop smirking at me I see you. He is my son and I don’t know how to help him but you have to stop the smirking because it’s driving me crazy.
Some days, I think I could handle autism—the quirkiness, the stimming, the constant decoding his unusual speech patterns—if it weren’t for the spectrum co-pilot.
It is annoying. It is relentless and uncompromising. And it never, ever, never stops not for one single second.
I try and I try to stay patient and not snap at Jack to stop asking everyone in the house about fire drills. Every morning, I grit my teeth and I take all the blankets off of his bed so I can tuck the top sheet back into the mattress, where he pulled it out in his restless sleep.
As I tuck and smooth and fold, I remind myself that anxiety may win a battle here and there, but the cold-blooded snake will never triumph in the war that wages within my son. In my heart, I know this.
I know this because although we are still stuck on fire drills and he doesn’t sleep well and he checks the toilet every time he uses the bathroom, we have had some magical, unexpected success in taming anxiety’s sharp, quick fangs.
A dog named Wolfie who has the heart of a lion and the spirit of a lamb, who gives Jack air to breathe amidst anxiety’s burning heat.
He is caramel and cream and softness and light, and gently, kindly, he absorbs my Jack-a-boo’s anxiety like a sponge.
Every day, in his own Wolf-like way, he looks the snake square in the face, and without a single word, he says just one single sentence.
He is ours, and you cannot have him.