Helpless to Help

The Next Family

By: Shannon Ralph

What is it like to be a terrified little boy? What is it like to be scared to your very core, but not know why? What is it like to feel a sense of impending dread, but have no clue when or where the unavoidable terrible event will occur? What is it like to be safe and sound in your cozy home—surrounded by people who love you—and still feel ill at ease? I am afraid I do not know what this feels like. My oldest son, however, does.

Lucas’ anxiety reared its ugly head again last night. It began shortly after I tucked him into bed. I was sitting in the living room watching Gone With the Wind. (It is newly available on Netflix Instant and I feel oddly compelled to watch the entire four hours for some reason.) Lucas came out of his bedroom, looking visibly upset, and told me that he was nervous. When I asked him what he was nervous about, he responded that he did not know. I sent him back to bed, assuming he was simply trying to stay up past his bedtime. When he came out several more times, obviously shaken, I let him stay in the living room with me for a while. He could not tell me exactly what was wrong, but he was in tears. From what I could gather, I suspect he was having trouble calming his brain enough to go to sleep. As the minutes ticked by, he began to worry that he would never fall asleep. This worry then morphed into an allover sense of impending dread, as he fixated on his inability to sleep. Eventually, he was in tears.

When I finished my evening chores and headed upstairs to bed, I took Lucas with me. Initially, I tucked him into the oversized chair in our bedroom that often serves as a de facto bed for our kids. Lucas, however, could not settle down. Several times, he got up and ran to the bathroom, convinced that he was going to throw up. He complained that his stomach hurt. He began to fixate on his sister, who was also having difficulty sleeping due to taking an unplanned nap that afternoon. Sophie was tucked into her sleeping bag on my bedroom floor, happily chatting and acting silly. Lucas began asking when Sophie was going to fall asleep. When is she going to sleep, mom? What if she never goes to sleep? What if she is up all night? His worry then turned to angry outbursts. Why did she have to follow me up here? I just wanted to get away from her and she always follows me! I wish I never had a sister! Why do I have to have a sister? When Sophie finally did drift off to sleep, Lucas didn’t believe it. He had to get out of bed and touch her to make certain she was asleep before he would—finally—let it go.

I eventually let Lucas climb up into bed with me. I snuggled him and shushed him and told him everything was okay. We talked about how he was safe and nothing bad was looming around the corner. He cried because he was scared. Then he cried because he didn’t know why he was scared. Then he cried some more because—despite my best efforts to calm him—I couldn’t understand his fear. Eventually, Ruanita came home from work to find Lucas and me still wide awake in our bed. She tucked him back into the chair, talked to him calmly, and tried her best to waylay his fears. He did eventually drift off to sleep—the expression on his angelic features far from peaceful.

As I write this, I am worried about my son. Lucas comes by his anxiety naturally. He comes from a long line of worriers. I can’t even begin to count how many times I have sat in that very same bedroom and reassured Ruanita—telling her that everything is okay and there is no reason to worry. She struggles with anxiety, as does her mother and her mother before her. I look at Ruanita and Lucas and I want nothing more than to wrap my arms around them and protect them from everything in this world that would ever cause them concern. I can gaze into their eyes and see the exact moment the worry starts to take over. It’s a look. An expression. I just know. I want to shoo it away. I want to stop it in its tracks. I want to prevent it from causing a single iota of emotional pain for the two people I love more than anything in this world. Unfortunately, I am incapable of doing that.

It is an unnerving feeling to be helpless to prevent pain for the people you love—particularly your child. We recently began taking Lucas to see a therapist to help with his anxiety. We practice our coping skills. We talk about how anxiety lies to him and tricks him into being scared. We discuss things we can do to make anxiety a tiny bit more bearable each day. Regardless, bedtime continues to be difficult. All I can do, when the anxiety takes hold of him, is reassure him that all is well. Nothing bad is going to happen. And that I love him and will always protect him.

Beyond that, I am helpless to help.

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