We Tried Normal – 2e Family Stories: Chapter 13

We Tried Normal – 2e Family Stories: Chapter 13

Lauren and Jenny

Lauren has rarely left her room for the last few months. Despite medication and therapy, her anxiety has reached a level where it is crippling her daily activities. Her parents think that her withdrawal from the world may be the result of her lofty goals running headlong into her anxiety and perfectionism. She had an accelerated learning path, she is not yet sixteen and has been attending college classes for two years. But Lauren is terrified of what the world holds for her as an adult, even though legal adulthood is still several years away.

Her mother, Dannie, mused that when Lauren was elementary-aged, she used to enthusiastically dive into life. She relentlessly pursued her interests without much concern for rules, expectations, or limitations. “She chose something to study and then she went to extremes to master it before she ran the course. She did things to the obsession level most of the time; but then once she mastered it, she was totally done. Check it off, move on to something else.”

Dannie said schooling Lauren, and Lauren’s younger sister Jenny, has been surprisingly easy. Dannie chose to homeschool her daughters because of her own negative experiences with being a gifted child in the public schools. She allowed her girls to study anything they found interesting, from the time they were both very young. Dannie felt teaching Lauren to read was effortless, as she picked up reading just by being read to and looking at books on her own. “Once she started reading, her ability just exploded. She went from not being a reader, to suddenly reading, in a few months.”

Initially, math didn’t seem to come as easily for Lauren; in fact, she resisted doing math for most of her homeschooling years. But once she actually attempted it, she raced through the curriculum with ease. “When she got close to middle school age, she was worried about not knowing enough math. We had done math, a little here and there, so she knew some of the basics, but there were a lot of holes in her knowledge. I hired a tutor and he tested her to see what she didn’t know and then worked with her on those gaps. After that, she went directly into algebra and took algebra, advanced algebra, and trigonometry in one school year, no problem.”

Lauren also loves science, particularly biology, and can often be found studying science just for the fun of it. She is an avid consumer of science videos, such as those produced by Vsauce and CPG Grey. She has always enjoyed taking science classes through museums and homeschooling programs. She reads science magazines and books for pleasure. Her overall knowledge of science is much broader and deeper than the average person’s.

But her true love is writing. Lauren wants to be a novelist and has been writing a series of fantasy/science fiction books for years. She asked Dannie to help her learn to write fiction when she was very young and has been working with a writing coach for the last several years. “At first I thought it was cute that she wanted to be a writer, and I guess I was a little condescending, but the more I read of what she writes, the more I realize just how serious she is about this passion.”

All of these strengths came into play when Lauren decided to go to a hybrid high school/college program at age 12. She told Dannie that she wanted to take college level classes, so Dannie helped her enroll in the program. Dannie reported that Lauren wasn’t worried about higher learning, she just set her mind to it and got ready to start her college classes.

Dannie, on the other hand, was worried. “I was wondering if she’d be okay, you know, she’d never taken a college test, she’d never received a real grade, ever. So I wondered how this was actually going to work, whether or not she would be able to transition into more formal learning. But Lauren just took it on. The hardest thing for her was figuring out exactly what her professors wanted her to do, but once she figured that out, she did everything so fast and so well, she blew her professors away.” Dannie said Lauren was excited to be able to pick her own courses and was initially challenged by the higher-level work.

The second semester was not as successful. The structure of the hybrid program put high school students as the lowest registration priority. The advanced classes Lauren was interested in taking were full before she could register. Lauren was frustrated that she wasn’t able to register for any classes that would challenge her intellectually. Dannie thought they should just circumnavigate the system and recommended that Lauren test out of high school, so she could be a regular college student, and get a higher registration priority.

Lauren took her advice and passed the equivalency exam. She officially graduated from high school at 13 and transitioned directly into being a regular student at the college. Lauren took two classes each semester and enjoyed being at college. Her freshman year ended on a high note, Lauren was a straight A student and on the Dean’s List.

When she started back to school in the fall, Lauren realized the Spanish class she had signed up for was too elementary. “She was far beyond where they were and that annoyed her. It was supposed to be a more advanced class.” So Lauren dropped Spanish, but kept her other classes. Even though some of the remaining classes had academic rigor, Lauren began to have trouble fitting in.

The other students were not as serious about school and, like many college students, they were more enthusiastic about parties than class work. Consequently, Lauren’s enthusiasm for learning was not shared by most of her classmates. Her delight in exploring the topics in depth was often met by stony stares. She got called out for doing too much work and setting the bar too high.

As the semester progressed, Dannie noticed that Lauren’s enthusiasm for college began to wane. Lauren told her that she felt like she couldn’t truly be herself at school; it seemed like she had to dumb herself down to try to fit in. This was very disappointing, because Lauren thought that college would be the one place where she could let her intellectual abilities shine.

Dannie noted that Lauren began to refuse to leave the house, unless she had fully done her makeup and hair. “This was new for Lauren; she had always been kind of a hippie, not wearing make up or bathing regularly. I used to have to tell her to bathe, and she would retort that she didn’t need the artificial veneer of scrubbing and primping, as people are beautiful in their natural state.” Dannie believes Lauren’s behavior was a perfect metaphor for her assessment of her situation; that she must be feeling like she needed to put on a false face to go out in public.

Lauren also became very stressed about doing her work perfectly and spent many more hours on her homework than was actually necessary. She second-guessed herself and would often rework problems and reread assignments. In particular, she seemed to lack confidence in her statistics class. By the middle of the semester, Lauren was showing serious signs of stress. “She was losing weight, hating getting up in the morning, and being really anxious about going to class.” Dannie told her that there was no pressure; she was way ahead of the game already, so she could just take it slow if she wanted.

So Lauren decided to drop her statistics class. When she told her professor, he tried to talk her out of dropping because she was getting an A in the course. He thought she was dropping because it was too hard. “He was puzzled, just like, ‘Why would you drop out? You are doing so well.’ He didn’t understand how much the pressure of trying to be perfect, trying to fit in was affecting her. He thought that she was coping just fine.” Dannie knew the professor didn’t realize what Lauren was going through, because she hid it well.

Despite her understanding of anxiety disorders, Dannie was a bit bewildered by the abruptness of Lauren’s shut down. “I actually had previously thought Lauren was super confident before she started this last semester. But I think she’s lost so much of that confidence. She used to feel good about her achievements academically, and through just being herself and being able to be different. Now she feels like she is too different to be successful at college.” Dannie hoped the winter break would give Lauren a chance to lower her stress and recoup some of her earlier confidence.

Over the winter break, Lauren traveled to Spain with Dannie and Jenny. This was a special trip, a long-awaited gift from grandparents. Dannie was excited for Lauren to be able to speak Spanish and put her language learning to use. She told Lauren she was happy to have an interpreter in the family.

But after they arrived, Lauren didn’t want to leave the hotel room. Dannie spent the next day trying to convince Lauren to come out sight seeing and enjoy the travel experience with them. But Lauren became more and more anxious each time she was pressured to join them. Lauren told Dannie that she couldn’t accurately express why she was so anxious, but she just felt like the world was crashing in on her. For days, Lauren had panic attacks and hid out in the hotel room. Eventually, Dannie cut their trip short and came home.

When they got home, Lauren was completely exhausted and stressed. “I tried to do everything I could to help her pull herself together so she could function, and that worked for a while. She did go back to school after the break, but she barely managed to finish two classes. I worked hard to support her and she tried really hard to stick it out. She communicated with her professors, and both were understanding, supportive, and encouraging, so she was able to finish. Even through all her stress, she got As in both their classes, so she toughed it out. But after that, the bottom fell out, everything just disintegrated because of her anxiety.”

Lauren didn’t sign up for any more classes and Dannie hoped that having the time off would give Lauren a break from all the stress. She explained the situation to the counselor at the college and they gave Lauren permission to skip the next semester. Dannie found a psychiatrist for Lauren and she started treatment. The psychiatrist prescribed anxiety medication and Dannie was hopeful that Lauren would respond to the therapy.

Around that time, Jenny came down with a bad flu. When she recovered from the flu, she began to wash her hands obsessively. While Jenny had always had perfectionistic tendencies, and sometimes seemed a little obsessed with various things in her life, Dannie hadn’t ever noticed anything that caused her great concern. After the bout with the flu, Jenny was afraid she would get sick again if she didn’t wash her hands repeatedly. “I am dreading that moment when she actually gets sick again. Everyone get sick, you can’t avoid it, so now I have to watch her to make sure she’s not becoming OCD about washing her hands for fear of getting sick. I know that at any moment the house of cards could come crashing down.”

Toward the end of summer, Dannie tried to get Lauren to register for online classes so she wouldn’t lose her grant money in the fall. Lauren qualified as a low-income student and got state funds for school and living expenses. Lauren reluctantly agreed to register for the classes, but Dannie doesn’t think she will actually do them. She is afraid that this is the end of Lauren’s college career.

Dannie knows how unpredictable anxiety issues can be, “You just never know what will trigger it. You are going along like everything is fine, and then you just get slammed. I was so unprepared for Lauren to go down, it was like, one day she’s fine, the next day she won’t come out of her room. Even with Jenny, I knew she had a bad experience with the flu, but who knew she would be so traumatized and terrified about getting sick again? I have had to literally drag her to different events and places because she is so anxious about germs. The slightest thing can be absolutely debilitating, maybe even life changing. I just want my kids to have a fulfilling life, but I don’t know if that will happen. I want them to be happy. I know happiness may be overrated and elusive, but I want them to be happy, at least some of the time.”

Dannie decided to take Jenny to Lauren’s psychiatrist to see if she needed more support to help her cope. The psychiatrist diagnosed Jenny with anxiety disorder, too, and recommended medication for her. Dannie admits she is somewhat traumatized by her daughters’ anxiety issues. Watching them suffer has brought up many of her past feelings of anxiety and replayed painful memories.

Because she was already exhausted from dealing with Lauren’s anxiety and her own reaction to it, Dannie didn’t handle Jenny’s fears very well. “I had just been through weeks of worry and stress and trying to juggle psychiatrist appointments and getting Lauren’s medication squared away. So the timing was terrible. When Jenny said, ‘I’m really worried, I’m nervous, I’m worried,’ all day long, every day, I found myself getting short with her, which, of course, made things worse.” Dannie feels guilty that she took so long to get Jenny professional support. She is worn out with worry and remorse. Dannie believes most people underestimate the effects of anxiety disorder on her and her family.

While Dannie’s mother has been supportive of her and her girls, some of her friends and family members have judged her for the girls’ issues. Some blame Dannie for ‘pushing’ Lauren to start college early, even though Dannie did no such thing. “People just don’t believe that I am not the one who wanted early college. I have told them and told them that it was Lauren’s decision, but they just don’t get it.” Others have chided her for being too lenient in letting Lauren drop out of college.

Some friends think Dannie has allowed Jenny to make a big deal out of ‘nothing’ with the germphobia. Dannie is saddened by the lack of understanding around mental illness. “I have been surprised at how unsupportive my friends and family can be. It’s like people only want the Facebook way of looking at the world. Let’s go on and say all the good stuff, but then if there is anything that people perceive as weakness or negative, they can be so judgmental.”

Dannie feels there is also a lot of blame directed at her for homeschooling her girls. Most of her family members think her daughters wouldn’t be so anxious if they had been in a ‘normal’ schooling situation. Dannie has been told that she caused this problem by sheltering her daughters and isolating them at home. This makes Dannie angry because she feels homeschooling actually gave her girls many more years without undue anxiety. “I can’t even imagine forcing them out the door to school and trying to balance all the pressure that comes from having your kids in school: they’re going to get behind, they’re not doing their homework, they’re going to get bad grades, they are going to fail. My kids are already so hard on themselves, I can’t imagine how bad it would have been if they had all those academic and social pressures from school.”

Yet, Dannie was also very supportive of Lauren when she decided she wanted to try more formal schooling. Even though she was worried about the outcome, she tried not to let her own anxiety show. She didn’t want to do anything that would make Lauren doubt herself, but she knew from her own schooling experiences that it would likely be a difficult experience for Lauren. “What people don’t realize is that kids like mine don’t fit in at school. They are bored because it is too easy, they are incredibly stressed out by the school environment, and they are ostracized socially. How could anyone be successful under those circumstances? Let alone somebody who has an anxiety disorder. It’s like lighting a fire and throwing gasoline on it!” Dannie believes that being able to stay home, and homeschool her children from the time they were little, was a lifesaver for all of them.

Dannie’s husband has shouldered the burden of earning the family’s income, so Dannie has always been a stay home mom. She is proud of the fact that she has put all of her time and energy into raising her daughters. She didn’t want them to have many of the same negative experiences she had growing up. Dannie has tried to avoid replicating the worst pitfalls of her own life. “I go through times of worrying about all that stuff, but deep down I know I’ve done a good job and I’ve done the right thing. Even though I don’t always have the support that I would like, somehow I have the confidence to go with what my gut says. For the most part, I’ve been able to feel like I could take care of my kids.”

Yet, Dannie also feels that she has somehow failed. “The hard part for me is that I have given it my all, and then some, and it wasn’t enough; my kids are still suffering.” Dannie feels this has been the most painful issue to deal with as a parent. “You know my entire job has been to help my kids mature, to see what’s out there, and to build the maturity to cope with it. I mean my job, my real job is to keep my kids safe until they are launched; but they are so exceptional and they just need so much nurturing. It is tough because I am still dealing with my own issues. I think I have this amazing potential for growth in myself by being their parent, but that makes it even more difficult to deal with, because I can’t focus on myself or do anything to nurture it.”

Dannie said, looking back at her own childhood, she thinks she probably had anxiety disorder from a young age. She had an awareness of how dangerous the world was, yet didn’t know how to handle that knowledge. “I definitely had way over-the-top anxiety from the time I was little. I mean, I can remember being afraid of people breaking in and killing us when I was tiny. I would lay in bed and say, “They won’t come kill us because it’s too early,’ and I’d watch the clock, and finally I’d say, ‘They’re not here yet, and now look it’s too late for them to come!’ And that’s how I got through my nights.” Her own parents were in denial and just thought she needed to toughen up and snap out of it, so she spent her childhood and young adulthood not understanding why she was experiencing life that way. In fact, Dannie wasn’t diagnosed until she sought help as an adult.

Dannie is grateful that she did eventually seek help and had a chance to really deal with her own issues before all of the problems came up with her daughters. “I’ve been there and I walked that path. I had it for years without realizing what it was. I called it different things: I had bad menstrual periods, it was hormonal, it was just stress, it was postpartum, it was depression. I was just so exhausted all the time, you know, when you have a panic attack, you’re absolutely drained. But I just kept saying things to myself like, ‘I clearly don’t handle things well,’ or, ‘I need more sleep.’ For a long time I didn’t realize it was all due to having a legitimate mental disorder.”

With professional help, and through many years of work, she has developed healthier coping skills. “At least I’m prepared for these things now. I have been diagnosed and had treatment and worked through a lot of it. That helps me be empathetic with them. I can tell them I have been there and done that and, hopefully, they will see that I came through it. I am a pretty functional adult. You can live in this dangerous world and be okay.”

Dannie often mourns the fact that she can’t just celebrate her daughters’ unique abilities and achievements. “I definitely am filled with pride about their exceptionality, but I also struggle because their brilliance is dulled by their challenges. I don’t want them to feel bad, to put a negative spin on it, like their problems take away from their abilities, but they do. I can’t help but think of what they could do without their challenges. But there is nothing I can do about it, the combination just seems to be a package deal.”

Dannie confessed that all through their homeschooling years she didn’t do a great job of advocating for her children when confronted by others. For example, Lauren enrolled in an after school physics class for gifted children sponsored by their local middle school. Students were given a pre-test and the instructor caught a few small errors in her work. He pointed it out to Dannie and told her he often saw these types of errors from homeschooled students. She felt as if he were judging her abilities to teach her child, “I was put on the spot, and I didn’t defend Lauren when he said that was the problem with homeschooled kids, I just laughed nervously and backtracked. Even though I knew Lauren knew how to do the problems and had just made careless mistakes. I almost commiserated with him instead of standing up for my child.”

Dannie is struck by how much societal pressure there is for conformity.  “Looking back on it, there is so much pressure on us to make our kids conform, and then we feel guilty for not standing up for them. How can we as parents teach them to stand up for themselves, and be proud of the unique people they are, when we can’t even do it ourselves. I just wish I could get rid of normal. I don’t want my children to think they have to conform. Our idea of normal needs to change.”

Dannie also keenly feels the competitiveness of other parents when they see what her daughters can achieve. Or conversely, when they see her children’s deficits, they tend to be judgmental. “There is this level of competitiveness, people tend to measure their own kids against our kids, you know, this competitive mindset of our culture where you’re constantly sizing up everyone you meet. If your kids have problems and are seen as less than, then other people can feel superior. But if your kids are seen as so much smarter, then they feel their kids are inferior. Neither of those attitudes are actually helpful, neither of those are good things.”

Dannie wishes people could be more understanding and accepting of kids like hers, because she is not comfortable with confrontation or trying to educate others, due to her own anxiety. “You know having anxiety disorder is pretty debilitating in your own life, but when you are trying to help your children overcome it too, it is just such a hard thing to do. When you add condemnation from others to the mix, well, I guess I can understand why our daughter doesn’t want to come out of her room.”