“As a child I felt myself to be alone, and I am still, because I know things and must hint at things which others apparently know nothing of, and for the most part do not want to know.”
I had a very meaningful conversation with my mom the other day about my symptoms as a child and teenager. It was a bitter sweet conversation that ended in acceptance and love. I am grateful for my parent’s support as the beginning of this journey was not so clear cut.
I can remember my symptoms, although that is not what they were known as at the time, starting at age 6. Intense stomach aches at night and being unable to fall asleep several nights a week. I remember lying awake on the top bunk, heart racing and being frozen with fear. My parents read to me, sang to me, held my hand, rubbed my tummy and back but to no avail. When I would fall asleep I had recurring dreams of being chased, of fire and snakes and of falling off a cliff. This was the most frequent dream and I never landed but woke in a panic while still falling. I have such distinct memories of this, probably due to the intensity of the experience. Several times I gathered up the courage to seek out my parents in their room following one of these dreams. I don’t know what kind of state I was in, clearly not REM stage as I remember everything but not quite in reality. I would pose at the top of the ladder and stare at the seam in the carpet in the doorway. There appeared to be flames, about 2 feet high and I would jump from the top of the ladder and over the fire to get into the hallway. Once in my parent’s bed I would still sometimes see snakes crawling on the bed towards me.
I work with children who have experienced all types of trauma and one of the common symptoms in young children is severe anxiety and bad dreams. I am not aware of experiencing any significant trauma. I cannot pinpoint any event or sequence of events that caused my anxiety. My home was a safe and supportive environment, I lived in a very small town and had a great childhood. Without attributing this to brain chemistry I cannot come up with an explanation.
Once, when I was 7 and in 2nd grade I had a panic attack in class and threw up while running to the bathroom. I was humiliated and sent home. I have no explanation for this, either.
I underwent several medical tests for my stomach problems, all were negative. I remember one procedure (I don’t even care to look up what it was, because it is my experience of it that is important to me) in particular. I was 7 or 8 years old. My mom and I drove on the freeway (which was a big deal where we lived) to go to a medical center. I got to miss school which was fun but when we got there, they said my mom had to wait outside. The procedure included using a chalky substance in order to see the inside of my stomach (or something similar). I will not go into detail about how the substance was put into my body ,although this is a vivid memory, but I spent the entire time screaming for my mom. We went out for pancakes afterwards. There was very little discussion about how scary it was for me. Traumatic? Maybe. But it certainly didn’t precede the anxiety/panic attacks or bad dreams.
When people ask why I became a therapist and work with children, I give them a general/generic answer. Sometimes I say I was anxious as a child. No one really knows how bad it was, even my parents. As in the quote above, it can make a person feel quite alone. I am proud of my current stability and find that sharing these experiences is helpful. I sometimes fund comfort in my diagnosis as it provides an explanation.