My child didn’t smile for months and I thought he was just being a teenager, I was wrong

The New Normal

“If the college agrees to grant leave for a day due to stomach upset, why isn’t it agreeable to accept ‘mentally upset’ as the reason?”
“Well, the company doesn’t reimburse counselling costs. Are there any medicines? If a doctor recommends, we can bear that.”
“He never met the facilitator or me. If he was nervous about the project, he should have discussed with us. He doesn’t speak to us at all!”

If you are the parent of a young person with an anxiety disorder, it’s entirely possible that you are familiar with these quoted texts. That is if you have understood that your child has an anxiety disorder, which is different from the usual ‘butterflies in the stomach’, or ‘the exam blues’.

It’s not easy to recognise. As a parent, you were never aware of such behaviour. You had never been trained for this. The society you know does not acknowledge children with such disorders. It is considered as an excuse for missing a day of school, or, if the parent is aware, a syndrome that you can ‘talk the child out of’.

So, in class 4 when your child vomits before his geography test, you think it is some sort of food poisoning. When he repeats this before the Science test in class 6 or a vernacular test in class 7, you change his food during the exams and keep him mostly on a liquid diet during that period. The situation seems improving with this step, but in class 9, he throws up again! This time inside the exam hall, when he sees that the question paper doesn’t include the parts he had prepared well.

You think he is a ‘cry baby’ when he says that the change in school is not suiting him.

“It is very ‘American’ in culture, and my middle-class upbringing has not prepared me for the kind of classmates I am meeting here. They do not share my love for reading books, neither do they care about the simple games I played in my previous school.”

One fine morning,he doesn’t want to go to school anymore.

Obviously, you do not leave him alone. You tell him, like a worldly-wise parent, to ‘man up’ and ‘face the world’. You explain to him why this change was so necessary for his ‘career’ and how moving to an ICSE school from a state board will open up new vistas for him.

For the first time he raises his voice against you, he doesn’t agree. He sulks! He cries!

But, since you wield power and can physically subdue him, you prevail upon him.

He doesn’t smile for months while speaking about his day in the new school, but you ignore that as an ‘adjustment’ issue of a child who is ‘growing up’.

You are busy with your work. You have established yourself in the new job. Your spouse is busy with his / her own set of issues, joint family, sick parents, or a job.

Both of you do not notice when the virtual world of comic books takes over his consciousness. You do not observe that after he has gone to bed in his separate room, and you have gone to sleep as well, he switches on the light on his mobile and reads the comic books.

When he gets a little more tech savvy, he learns about torrent, and how to download volumes of e-Books and finds an application to read those files with .cbr (Comic book reader) extension.

He comes to you with great enthusiasm to show his achievement, “No one in my class could do this. They are all asking how did I do this and requesting to let them in on how to download the comic books. I won’t say!”

You have seen him brimming with happiness after years, but you feel scared that he is wasting his time in frivolous pursuits. You ask him to focus on the forthcoming Term-2 exam and remind him of his poor marks in Term-1.

“You are doing all this for his own good,” you proclaim to your child, to your own mind, and to anyone who is listening.

One day, he stands before you at 3 a.m. in the morning. That was the day of his class 12th Physics test for the final Boards.

Fully dressed in school uniform, tears not having the courage to cross the threshold of his eyes, he declares, “I don’t think I am prepared well for this exam. I am not taking it.” He turns around, goes to his room, lies down on the bed, dressed as it is, and falls asleep.

At first you don’t know how to respond. You gather courage and try to convince him, “It’s just a test. No one gets judged by one exam. It’s alright if you’re not …” You realise it’s too late.

He is sleeping. Deep in his world, that he has carved in his mind and that will surface in all its glory in the time to come. He doesn’t listen to you, he doesn’t care anymore of what you’re pleading about.

At 6 am that same morning, you consult your friends and doctors. Your office doctor says, “Seems like an anxiety disorder; do consult a psychiatrist. I know someone who might be of help, here is the number.”

A journey starts, for him, for you and for the entire extended family. You realize that you were carrying this in yourself for decades, your mother had it for as long as you have known her. No one told you about it!

No one told you that it is not normal to cease functioning in fear during a flight, to nag life out of your near and dear ones due to an apprehension of ‘things going wrong.’

Now you know what it looks like.

You face the devil head on and your child learns to live with it.

It is the new normal.