Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Rewrite the Story

Ava went to the Titanic exhibit with her Grade Two class yesterday, and at bedtime the night before I could tell something was wrong. Her eyes were too bright, her lips in a hard line, and her protests too fierce that everything was okay. She had been talking about this field trip for weeks, but suddenly it was here, and she was upset, but pretending she wasn't.

Her teacher had tipped me off to the problem earlier in the day, when I was in her classroom and heard that Ava began crying quietly at her desk right out of the blue. This kind of thing is highly unusual for her. Her teacher asked what was wrong, and she said, "I miss my mom", also out of the norm for her (but well within the normal range for William). We strategized for a few minutes, wondering if she was still sick, or if it was because her Nana was visiting from BC and she wanted to be home with us instead of at school.

We got talking about the field trip. We filled out the volunteer form and asked if Nana could attend with Ava, but too many parents wanted to go, so there was a draw for the available spots, and no one from our house would be attending with Ava. I thought it might be Ava's safety concerns rising to the surface again if she didn't have a parent or grandparent with her on the field trip. We came up with some ideas for how to help her feel more secure and less anxious, and I came home hoping it was all going to be fine.

Then it was bedtime. I could see clearly that she was upset, but she repeatedly told me that she was not. Suddenly it was like looking into a mirror of myself at the same age: carrying too much responsibility and pretending I was fine like it was a full-time job. I didn't want my daughter to do that at the age of eight. I wanted her to be honest about her fear, and acknowledge it openly, and not pretend to feel a confidence that wasn't there. I recognized her smoke and mirrors, and knew that underneath of it beat a heart full of fear and uncertainty.

I pushed a little harder, and the wall eventually crumbled, washed away by tears and choking sobs. She wasn't actually afraid of the field trip, but rather the bus ride to get there. This made no initial sense to me, but I kept at it, asking her to define what her worst fear was about the bus, and suddenly it dawned on me.

One thing is always connected to another in this life. No one incident stands alone in our subconscious; they become strands, floating from one to another, creating associations either positive or negative in our memories. I saw Ava in my mind as a small five year old, getting on the bus at the end of a week of day camp, and heading to Calaway Park with her counselor (a family friend who was also our babysitter) and all of the slightly older kids registered in the same summer program. She waved to me, a big smile on her face, and offered no hint of fear.

That day seemed long for me, waiting for her to come home and tell me all of the fun things she did, but when the bus pulled up and she disembarked she had pulled away from me somehow, seeming older over the course of the day. She said she had a good time, but the next year when day camp registration rolled around, she was adamant that she did not want to go, and in fact has not been back since then.

I asked her, very gently, if she thought her fear of buses was related to this day camp experience. I could see that the hammer was striking the nail when we made this association. This is most of the work that counselors do, and it's extremely effective, connecting the dots of our past experiences to our present emotions. There is always a link, and finding it is the difference between being mired in our own pain and breaking free of it to move forward in our lives. The powerful stuff of life dwells in these associations, if we will do the work to source and connect our own personal dots.

When her tears had ceased, I suggested that her eight year old self talk to her five year old self when she was about to board the bus, and explain that she is different now, and with her friends, and her teacher, and that she is more confident and sure of herself than she was at five. I told her it was okay to be afraid, that bravery is not the absence of fear, but the act of persevering through it to the other side. When she went to sleep she was calmer, and in the morning expressed only a hint of nervousness about the bus, instead of a full-blown panic attack.

Awareness is the key to conquering our fears. We all fear something, but if we can identify why the fear or the behaviour developed in the first place, we can go back to the place before it was in our lives, and try to rewrite the story. We all have the ability to talk to our younger selves with the wisdom and maturity we have gained since we were that age, and comfort ourselves. I'm slowly learning how to do this, and I love that I was able to give my daughter some skills in this area that helped her ride the bus with less fear, and make good memories with her class field trip to last her a lifetime.

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