I took Jesse to the dentist today for fillings in a baby molar. Jesse faced it like she does many anxiety-inducing activities these days — she shuffled into the office like a POW being marched to an annihilating doom, her face blank and fatalistic except for a few edges of worry around the eyes.
We go the Fun Kids Dentist. I can’t tell if “fun” is meant to modify “dentist,” which would be a little twisted, or “kids,” thus implying that you shouldn’t come here if you’re no fun. Either option seems wrong to me.
Most of the kids have their mouth work done in a big open space, which fills with noisy little voices and squeaky toys and little people wandering around like drunks. But the shop also has a couple private rooms for kids who can’t handle the herd. Jesse can’t manage it because the noise and bustle can rattle her badly. Also the clinic and all its patients wouldn’t be able to manage it if Jesse blows an anxiety gasket.
Jesse’s anxiety disorder is a demon that comes and goes without any obvious trigger. Some days are worse than others, and some days are truly awful. When it revs up, her anxiety is a deep-rooted fear of just about everything real and imagined, expressing itself in strange noises and behaviors. It’s the dread knot in the throat, uncontrollably blossoming over and over again, the anxiety itself creating further anxiety as she tries to grasp what’s wrong. Weekly talk therapy helps, but I believe deeply that the best therapy for Jesse at this young age is having a parent by her side to shore up her emotional reserves.
Going to the pediatric dentist is a constant reminder of the many separation rules our culture imposes on parents and children, starting right from the beginning of life via cribs and sleep training. Dentists in particular are always trying to spirit my kids away from me, with admonitions that everyone will be better off without me there. I don’t think so, friend. I’ve watched Marathon Man. No one is working on my spawn’s teeth with dental tools unless I’m in the room. I’ll stay for the rectal exams too.
We get a private room at the dentist, because of the anxiety (Jesse’s, not mine). (I think.) Nonetheless, the hygienist, whom I will call Pat (because that’s her name, of course), gave me The Talk about how parents aren’t usually allowed in the room. I said that’s fine, but I stay. Pat retreated to a secondary position: they ask parents to be absolutely silent and stay out of the way, so the child can develop a rapport with the dental staff. I secretly rolled my eyes. I’ll try not to talk too much, I answered, and I will rub Jesse’s feet as discretely as I can while you do your thing.
A lot of people conflate anxiety and depression. The two problems can indeed come hand in hand, but they’re not the same. Many well-intentioned grown-ups come at Jesse as though she’s depressed and needs an up-beat, gung-ho adult to make noise and distract her. Anxiety isn’t like that, at least not Jesse’s. Up-beat buzz just makes it worse. It makes Jesse anxious because she’s thinking things like, there must be something for me to worry about because this grown-up is sure trying hard to make me not worry. In this vein, Pat — as well-intentioned as any adult could be — leaned over Jesse as she lay on the dentist bench, looked her dead in the eyes, and said cheerfully, “Oh honey, you have to let go of all that stress! Stress will kill you!”
You’ve got to be kidding me.
Pat was actually very charming with Jesse, leaving aside the “you’re killing yourself” gaffe. She didn’t even seem put out when I eventually explained that I ignore separation rules — especially at school — when it comes to Jesse, because it’s a choice. I can choose to give her the support she needs to find her courage, or I can choose to give her anti-anxiety drugs. Many educators are very hard-assed about not wanting me to do things like give Jesse an extra hug when she’s crying about going in to school, or walk her to her classroom on a day when things just feel bad. I ignore them all. They can talk to my back as I hug Jesse or walk on through the front office with her.
Last week, as Jesse and I toodled around on our bikes, she asked me an odd question. “Mommy. What do you think of me?”
As usual, I wasn’t sure what emotional vector this question was riding on, but I gave it a college try. I told her I think she’s a brave and strong little girl, because even though she has a lot of fears about the world and about school, every day she gets up and does what she’s supposed to do, and also I know she’s working really hard on controlling her tics. I started to say something like, “I know your egg allergy makes you a little more anxious about your world too, like when kids bring treats to school, so I’m even more proud of you for —“
Jesse interjected, serious and resigned. “I’m not just a little anxious about the food, mommy, I’m really scared.”
It was so honest and true that it took my breath away. I hid my tears from her and pedaled along, wondering if she would feel any different if she didn’t have an anxiety disorder. Her fears are well-founded. But would she experience them differently? Would they be less demanding, less constant, with less negative effect on her body and behavior? I’ll never know. But I know enough now to not dismiss her feelings or her reality. Instead I said, “I’m sorry, Jesse. I’m always right here next to you, fighting to keep your world safe. So far, we’re doing good.” It seemed to be what she needed to hear, or maybe she just acted satisfied because she decided it was what I needed to say.
So it goes with anxiety. I need an arsenal at the ready to help Jesse fight back the demon, who comes calling without warning. My weapons of choice are my own warm body, my advocacy, a strong emotional back to carry her through the inchoate fire, or a firm hand to hold hers when she’s strong enough to walk through it on her own emotional feet. Sometimes I manage and sometimes not, especially when the demon surprises me.
At the dentist today, I managed. Jesse’s fillings turned into a tooth extraction. The dentist had to pull two molars. Jesse lay there patiently for almost an hour with different things stuck in her mouth, listening to the dentist and Pat discuss and plan and change course, her hands tucked under her butt so she wouldn’t twitch too much. Whenever I saw her starting to do her agitated-nervous squirming thing, I massaged her feet and calves and reminded her to breath through her nose so she’d get plenty of laughing gas. I answered questions she was too nervous to answer. A couple times she called to me because she couldn’t see or feel me; hearing my voice and feeling my hand on her leg eased her. Jesse handled it all like a champ, and when they were done she smiled and said thank you. She was mature, polite, pulled-together. It was awesome.
I got in the way of the dentist, but I think I helped Jesse. So I feel like we beat the demon today. Do-over tomorrow with whatever life throws at us.