It was strange to be back in the classroom on Monday. There’s nothing like missing practically an entire week of work to make you feel out-of-the-loop, and very, very far behind. I also noticed that while I have a hard time getting any students to come visit me in my office for a chat about misplaced modifiers, or parallel sentence structure, they didn’t seem to mind dropping by to ask me about my battle with the swine flu last week.
What were my symptoms?
How long did my fever last?
Was I really, really, really sick?
(For the record: body aches, chills, sweats, sore throat, cough, stuffed up nose; five days and five long nights; yes, yes, yes.)
Yesterday afternoon a very quiet student came by. She's been in once or twice before with worries: about assignments, course load issues, family problems. She sat in my office for awhile, nervously twisting her iPod headphone wires in her hands.
I’m really scared about the flu, she told me. I’m scared I’ll die.
I tried to reassure her, but I knew what I was dealing with. Anxiety. She wore it around her eyes, and in the corners of her mouth. It’s a tricky beast, anxiety, and I know it well.
When we first started taking L. to see a therapist about his anxiety she told us that the easiest way to think about anxiety is to see it on a scale of 1-10. Most people, she told us, walk around every day at a 3 or 4. Sometimes, during periods of stress or worry, our anxiety might shoot up a bit, like the needle on a gauge, to a 5 or a 6, or even a 7, but we non-anxious people can bring it down again, back to the safe zone, and suffer no ill effects. People with an anxiety disorder, she told us, walk around in a perpetual state of heightened anxiety—so L. might always be at a 7 or 8 as a baseline. Then, when something stressful happens (almost hourly for a child with Asperger’s) his anxiety shoots up to 11 or 12 or even higher.
This was like a revelation to me. I had never thought of his anxiety in numbers like that before. I had never thought in such concrete terms about what it would be like to walk around every day feeling too anxious, to have that trembling needle on your own personal anxiety meter tipped by every day things, like someone calling on you in class, or sitting too close to someone, or a smell in the cafeteria, or a sudden sound. When L. was a child it was easier to protect him; to wrap him close when his hands would fly to his ears to block out something painful; to take him away from a crowded room, or a scary situation. It’s no coincidence that when he was a tiny infant the only place he would sleep, deeply and peacefully, was wrapped up tightly in my sling, the edges of the fabric over his face, in his own dark, safe, predictable world. On his back in his crib, or even on our bed, he slept fitfully, legs and arms thrashing, waking every few minutes to cry and root around, looking for something—someone—to protect him from a thousand and one different things.
When your child gets older, though, you can’t control his environment so well anymore. He goes out into the world, into the classroom, into dozens of different interactions each day, any number of which might lead, like some flowchart-gone-haywire, to a dozen or more different anxiety-producing twists and turns.
One day two weeks ago, out of the blue, L. asked me if I ever felt like I was walking up a ship’s gangplank. Except, he said, the ship was never there.
I can’t say I have, I told him, thinking about this literally.
I feel like that all the time, he told me. Then I realized that L. was perfectly describing how his own anxiety felt to him, every day—a terrible, strange feeling of climbing up a gangplank, and not ever being certain what would be at the other end of it: perhaps a sick, dizzying fall, perhaps something wonderful, perhaps something horribly unknown and confusing.
I'm still at a loss as to how to help L. through all of this, or some of this, at least. The calm, matter-of-fact approach seem to work best, but it falls far short many times, especially when we don't even know what's bothering him, and he might not himself. And I couldn't offer much in the way of reassurance to my quiet student. I gave her some Halloween candy, a pat on the back, and told her to wash her hands and eat right.
In the end there is very little in life that comes with a guarantee attached to it; the anxious people in the world feel this fact like pain, bearing down on them constantly. The rest of us? We're just good at pretending, I think, and moving on.