There exists, somewhere in storage at my parents’ house, a heart-wrenching home movie wherein my father interviews six-year-old me about the upcoming school year. “Are you excited to meet your new teacher?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say, swinging my legs.
“Will you be on a soccer team again?”
I show a thumbs-up and then slowly turn it down, smirking. First grade humor.
“What do you think your biggest problem will be this year?” asks my dad, his voice cheerful from behind the camera.
My face instantly freezes in wide-eyed terror, and then, quietly, I say, “Can you turn off the camera for a second?” The camera cuts to me, a few minutes later, looking sick. “The bad feeing,” I say solemnly. I don’t remember what I said while the camera was off. Maybe I asked permission to tell my secret. Scared and sad, I clarify: “The bad feeling I get when I’m away from Mommy.”
According to my parents, I was born with separation anxiety. No amount of training or soothing could keep me from becoming hysterical the moment my mother left the room. No one, not my grandparents or aunts or even my own father, could comfort me. I knew, as soon as I could know, that my fear was unusual. I made up coping tools and learned to avoid anxiety triggers; in preschool, I noticed that “She’ll be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain” was intolerable since coming meant she wasn’t there yet. I felt the same about one of my mother’s favorite lullabies, which opened with “I still remember the nights/when mommy would turn out the lights.”
I had myriad anxieties as a child, but the fear of losing my mother was by far the worst. Every single second I was away from her, I worried that she’d died. It didn’t even feel like worry, it felt like I knew she was dead. If she was a minute late to pick me up from preschool, my fears felt confirmed and I panicked until she arrived. In kindergarten, I did my best to hide my anxiety, but it showed in the way I paced silently during pickup, the way I clung to my teacher during class, and the way I couldn’t be alone.
In the early nineties, most of these symptoms were seen as cute quirks I’d likely outgrow, but my parents saw the extent of my discomfort and rightly worried. They’d tried every bit of advice the pediatrician could offer, and when I still refused to spend a single night in my own bed halfway through first grade, they finally got a referral for a child psychologist. The psychologist dispensed an awkward mix of old-fashioned mother blame and contemporary cognitive-behavioral therapy. I started spending ten minutes at night in my own daybed, listening to The Baby-sitters Club books on tape. A week later, I followed that activity with ten minutes alone in the dark. Eventually I wasn’t allowed to get into bed with my mother unless it was after 11, then after one. So I sat in the dark and stared at the clock and cried quietly for ten minutes or four hours, it didn’t matter. Finally, after weeks of my daytime grogginess, my parents gave up.
I moved into my own bed volitionally in sixth grade.
Check back tomorrow for Part 2, advice for parents and teachers of children with Separation Anxiety Disorder.