It was the first day of school for Jesse yesterday. Day 1 has traditionally been a bad, bad day. The stress and anxiety are overwhelming, and Jesse has typically expressed those feelings in ways that bring to mind things like the scene in Alien, when the gooey creature comes out of the android’s stomach.
But Jesse’s been in talk therapy for almost four years now, and she’s getting really good at managing the stuff rattling around in her head. She started talking openly about school fears a few weeks ago. In particular, she became very anxious about seeing a first-grade teacher who had been awful to her. There’s no legitimate reason to fear this woman anymore. She retired. After we worked that one out, Jesse got agitated for a few days about her hair, worrying that everyone will think she’s a boy. She solved that one herself by demanding an even shorter cut. I thought it was a perfect solution. After the haircut, she was fine.
A couple days ago I spoke with Jesse about finding her way to the classroom alone, because I didn’t want to drag Nick through the school and deal with that. She whined and mewled, because getting lost at school is one of her weird fears. So I drew her a map of the building with arrows showing the path to her classroom. I listened to 10 minutes of complaints and questions about my failure to draw everything correctly to scale. But eventually Jesse took up a pencil and added trees in the courtyard area, and then she was satisfied. She studied the map intensely, and she pulled it out again at breakfast on Day 1 to study it some more. She seemed in control of this particular fear.
Leading up to the first day of school, I felt that Jesse handled her feelings really well for a nine-year-old with a tic disorder, OCD, and abnormal anxiety. She seemed fine. I kept waiting for the ax to fall.
I anticipated Jesse would have a bad night’s sleep before Day 1. In fact, Jesse came into my room at about 2 a.m. muttering about where she had put her pillow. Fortunately, I was wide awake. I walked her back to her room and handed her the pillow, which had fallen to the floor next to her bed — probably when she got up to come ask me about it. She put her head on it and fell right back to sleep. I’m not convinced she was really awake, and I was thankful that she wasn’t having her more usual nightmares or terrors. She seemed fine when she woke up, and in a pretty good mood.
I had some extra concerns about how Day 1 would go because Jesse had a huge patch of poison ivy rash on the back of one knee and some over-scratched bug bites that appeared to be badly infected and a rash on her face and spots forming all over her torso. But otherwise she seemed fine. I put medicine on all her itchy spots and she didn’t complain about anything.
Breakfast went smoothly too on Day 1. Jesse actually ate something. True, she burp/cough/vomited (the mouth trifecta) in the living room. But she seemed fine afterwards, and she cheerfully told me it was a nice reminder that she still needed to brush her teeth. I was the only grumpy one because she nailed the beanbag chair and rug, making cleanup that much harder. If she had just leaned out and puked one foot to the west, she would have hit the hardwood floor, which is so much easier to wipe up. I don’t know why kids can’t be more thoughtful about where they yack.
Anyway, Jesse seemed downright calm all morning. When Nick came out of the bathroom and announced he had a pee pee accident (i.e. he peed all over the walls), she handled it peacefully. Eventually she wandered upstairs to dress and she spent about 20 minutes by herself. I went to check on her and found her in an almost trance-like state, slowly going about her business — feed the fish, brush her hair, get dressed. She was fine. Kind of normal, even.
When it was time to leave home, I anticipated the drop of the ax, but it didn’t come. Jesse was a little slow to get out the door to the car, but there was no ululating or screaming; she didn’t do anything mean to the dog or Nick; I didn’t have to sit in the car for 15 minutes waiting for her. On her way out the kitchen door, she did carefully and deliberately place her hand flat on a stovetop burner — her only capitulation to the “hurt myself” compulsions and tics that rage up inside her in moments of great stress. But the stovetop was off so she was fine, and I let it go without a word because I actually get it now. She’s looking for a real danger to replace the imaginary ones, because the real fears are less frightening. Also she’s trying to show herself that some real fears are only real in the wrong moments. The dangerous stove is safe. School too.
We walked outside and I took her picture. I could see the worries oozing out of the green flecks in her eyes.
We got to school and it so happened that one of Jesse’s friends was pulling in at the same time. They walked in together holding hands. Jesse was calm. It was quiet, so Nick and I followed Jesse down to her classroom after all. Jesse was acting a little dazed, but it seemed like a lot of kids in the hallways were feeling that way. When we got to her locker, Jesse gave me a big hug. She didn’t want to let go. But she eventually did, without any clinging, grabbing, inappropriate groping, or strange noise-making. I didn’t have to pull her off me. She was nervous, but she was also fine. It was the first Day 1 where I didn’t feel like I was abandoning my helpless little girl to face her unbearable fears alone. I didn’t cry.
When I picked Jesse up after school, I knew the ax would finally hit me. Jesse is apt to come out the schoolhouse doors and unleash her pent-up emotions all over me. But on Day 1, 2014, she was calm and cheerful. She didn’t slap me or scream at me, or whine and complain about something that happened at school, or tell me she had been bad bad bad. We went over to the playground for a few minutes with a friend. They ran around happily, and when it was time to leave Jesse went with the flow instead of whining and refusing. I started to feel like she must be a body-snatcher. She remained good-natured as I rushed about preparing dinner before she and I headed to the doctor to see about her rashes. At the doctor, Jesse was well-mannered and not disgusting. She didn’t touch waiting room toys and then lick her fingers. The doctor concluded Jesse has impetigo and needs antibiotics. Jesse handled the news well. She was fine.
We headed back home and Jesse dug into a bit of homework, which was just a list of questions about her day of school and a snoopy picture to color in. With fatigue setting in, she unraveled a little. She didn’t understand the homework because she had been “spacing out” while the teacher explained it. She couldn’t settle to read the written instructions. She lashed out at me as I tried to read the instructions for her. She got hung up on inanities, expressing it with fussing, whining, complaining, wiggling. Her letters weren’t good enough. Her handwriting was bad. She didn’t know what to write. Her spelling was all wrong. She wasn’t sure the teacher would like it. She couldn’t color the picture as directed because there was a blank spot. She got it wet a little. I started to feel on edge, because these behaviors have been a torture to me for several years. But after a time, Jesse settled and finished her homework, and then she seemed fine.
By bed-time, Jesse had disclosed a lot of anxieties to us — homework, school success, lunches and snacks, rashes and itches, the discomfort of sitting cross-legged on the floor, unfair teacher corrections, shyness, arbitrary rules, on and on. But she wasn’t brandishing a fire hose. It was more of a leaky wound, an uncomfortable cramp Jesse was slowly working out. Some of her tics erupted, but Anthony and I handled them with as much patience and compassion as we could muster, and the tics didn’t define our evening. It was a good day.
* * * *
The ax finally fell on Day 2. I got out of bed this morning and was completely exhausted. The kids started irritating me immediately. By breakfast, I was nattering at Jesse about her homework behavior. I can’t make it through 9 months of your nagging and whining, your bad attitude about homework. Yesterday you started up already and that wasn’t even REAL work, just something that was supposed to be fun for us to share. It wasn’t fun. It was painful. It took three times as long as it needed to. I don’t want to do that for 9 months. I won’t survive.
Jesse got up and left the kitchen without a word. Anthony pointed out I felt exactly the same way in June, as I stared into the abyss of summer vacation. Helpful. Jesse came back to sing me a be-happy song.
Jesse was annoyed about the lunch boxes I was using to package her lunch. She got a little whiny and difficult. I nattered again. I can’t do this for 9 months. I have PTSD from all the ways you’ve been mean to me about school. I can’t allow you to treat me like that. I won’t make it in one piece. If you don’t like it, I don’t have to send lunch for you and you can skip it.
Jesse said, “it’s fine it’s fine,” and walked away from me.
Jesse decided she wanted to bike to school. As I was pumping up tires, she came outside and started her Tourette’s-style trash-talking about male anatomy. My bicycle seat looks like balls and penises, balls penis balls penis. I ignored her for as long as I could and finally started nattering again in exasperation. You will stop that now. This year you will act like a nine-year-old, not a toddler, or I will take away privileges left and right, starting with your iPad and all of your swimming extra-curriculars. If I hear from school that you are using words in this way, in the wrong time and place, I will come down on you like a hammer. I cannot do this for nine months.
Jesse stopped. She pushed her bike far away from me and got ready to leave.
Despite my best grumpy efforts this morning, Jesse’s ax never fell — only mine. She stayed up-beat. I felt like a terrible failure. I slumped into a chair on our front porch and asked the children to come over. I said what they already knew: I woke up really grumpy today. I don’t know why. I’m over-reacting to things. Thank you for tolerating it so well. Can you please forgive me, and I will try to feel better? Of course, my little urchins told me. They leaned in for a sweet, gentle trio hug and some kisses. They filled my cup and filled my cup and filled my cup.
We had a peaceful bike ride to school (Jesse only took her hands off the handlebar a couple times, and not for long enough to fall over completely). The sunlight shown on us from a blue sky. We arrived early enough to spend 15 minutes in the wildflower garden that’s in front of the schoolhouse. The flowers are in bloom late this year because of a cool summer. The stems towered over the kids’ heads like castle walls, golden and lavender buds bursting. A little rabbit hung out with us for a time as it ate breakfast in the underbrush. We quietly observed it as it hopped about. A brown grasshopper flopped past. Jesse caught it with her hands so that she and Nick could observe it together. A flock of goldfinches burst from a tree overhead and disappeared into a new tree. We looked up and breathed in this wonderful world. I withdrew my ax. Jesse seemed fine.