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The Same But Different

with Susan Wagner

Susan Wagner is a freelance writer and editor, an avid runner and a mom of two boys. She's tentatively navigating the teen years with her oldest son, who has ADHD and an anxiety disorder (because puberty isn't hard enough already). [Insert blog name here] chronicles her efforts to balance science homework, basketball practice and panic attacks without completely losing her mind. Follow Susan on Twitter and Instagram (@workingcloset) and at her personal blog, The Working Closet

90 Days, No Worries; Or, Why Therapy Matters

Categories: parenting, stress, support system, therapy

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Not long ago, I wrote on my personal blog about some advice my therapist gave me: She told me to stop worrying about anything that was more than three months away. (More about that in a bit.) And a very helpful commenter said, “If you can afford a therapist for your first world problems (it’s called LIFE) then you have had a very cushy life.”

Honestly, that made me laugh. I had written, in the same post, about how I was giving up eating wheat and really missed scones, and how a pair of not-inexpensive J. Crew pants were my new favorite thing to wear. Of all the first-world issues to pick on, seeing a therapist seemed like the least frivolous of the things I was sharing with my readers.

From a material standpoint, my life is very comfortable; my husband and I both have good jobs, and we live in a nice house in a safe neighborhood. Our children are healthy and intelligent. We have wonderful family and terrific friends. We are, as my Oklahoma neighbors say, very blessed.

So yes, my life is pretty “cushy.”

At the same time, though, we have a child who often struggles to get through the day, and who challenges all of our ideas of how to be parents. Wade and I find ourselves constantly questioning our intuition; Henry’s experience in the world is so unlike ours, which puts us at a constant disadvantage. In addition, his issues affect our entire family — we are all edgy and anxious and, sometimes, sad about the way things are.

We need outside help and we are fortunate to be able to afford it. We know that. But I would hardly call therapy “cushy.”

Therapy has been a struggle for us. Ideally, it would be Henry who went to see the therapist, or — even better — we would all go together, as a family. Henry is the type of kid who would really benefit from what is called cognitive behavior modification, a type of therapy where the doctor and patient work together to understand and change problematic behaviors. For Henry, this would mean dealing with his anxiety by learning some strategies other than refusing to get out of bed or leave the game room.

Unfortunately, Henry’s anxiety makes it impossible for him to participate in therapy. The idea of going to see a therapist terrifies him; each session is different in some way, and because he doesn’t know what’s going to happen or what the doctor is going to ask him to do, he just refuses to go. Instead, I go see the therapist, or Wade and I go, and we talk about what Henry is struggling with and how we’re handling it and where we feel like we need help. And it’s been a lifesaver for our family.

But there’s nothing “cushy” about it.

I really like the therapist we see; she’s never met Henry (because he won’t participate in the therapy) but she’s read his file and listened carefully to what Wade and I have told her — and, more importantly, she’s worked with kids like him before, kids with his profile and his issues. She gets him, even though he’s just a series of stories I tell and a folder of test results. She also gets me, which I find fascinating. It took me a while to realize that as I was talking about my son, I was really telling her about myself, about my own anxieties and fears and failings.

And that gets me back to not worrying about anything more than three months away. A couple of months ago, I was in the therapist’s office, talking about Henry’s lack of patience and planning. If he wants something, I told her, he wants it right now — not next week or tomorrow or later today. At the time, he was obsessed with a video game that was coming out the next week; it was going to cost $60 and despite his plans to earn or save the money in the months before the game’s release, we were now just a few days away and he had exactly $4 to his name. “He’s convinced,” I told her, “that he can do $55 worth of chores this weekend, which is not going to happen.”

This worried me, I told the therapist, because one day he will not be living in my house and I just know that he will spend all his grocery and rent money on video games and junk from the game store and then he will wind up calling me because he can’t eat or pay his rent and then he will have to move back in with us and he will spend the rest of his life in our game room and —

And that’s the point where the therapist literally threw her hands in the air and said, “Stop! STOP! Don’t do that! You can’t worry about anything that is more than three months away. Just don’t do it.” And then she circled back to some things we had talked about earlier, about Henry’s obsessive thought patterns and how to help him break those, and talked me through how and why I needed to do the same thing. She modeled a deep breathing exercise and suggested that I do it four or five times a day. “Let Henry see you doing this,” she said, “and eventually he will ask what you’re doing and why and you can share it with him.

“But really,” she added, “no worrying about anything that is not happening in the next 90 days.”

That advice changed my life. I’m not even kidding.

It’s nice to have the luxury of not worrying about things; I am fully aware that not everyone can do that, just stop worrying about the future and take some deep breaths instead. And as hateful as that original commenter was, I understand her point about first-world problems, and I get why she was annoyed with me. But for our family, and many families like us, therapy is not a treat, like eating out; it is a necessity. What bothered me the most about that one comment wasn’t the accusation that I was unable to handle my own life without help, but the underlying assumption that mental health support is unnecessary and unimportant.

And I can’t help worrying about that attitude.

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