Childhood Anxiety: Pookie’s Journey

Pookie is taking anxiety medication.

Pookie is five years old.  I feel some vague sense of horror that my five-year-old takes anxiety medication, but there it is.

Mental health issues run in my family.  There’s the story of my great-grandma, who was intensely angry about her last pregnancy and thus refused to touch her youngest or look at him for most of his first year of life, leaving her oldest daughters–young teens at the time–to mother their newborn brother while she locked herself in her room.  My grandfather (the older brother of the unwanted little guy) struggled with depression as an adult, and my dad has dealt with it off-and-on over the years.  My sister was depressed for a year or so recently, and I battled its shadow for several years from late-high school until about the time I had my oldest child.

Anxiety2

This is my child who was afraid to go in water deeper than his navel last year, the child who clung to my side even in said shallow water.  This year has brought an amazing transformation!

Pookie has nearly always been a challenging little one.  While he was very happy for the first several months of life, he abruptly became very fussy when he was nearly six months old and we went on vacation.  At that point he began waking 8-10 times a night, writhing in his sleep (at night, but not during the day), fussing perpetually, and refusing more and more foods.  By the time he was one, my mom was taking him overnight twice a week so I could get a little sleep, and his diet consisted of about two things at a time (and those were likely to change abruptly).

Since Pookster had bad reflux as an infant, we first thought perhaps his reflux was making him miserable, but a GI scope revealed no issues.  His doc suggested that perhaps a food allergy was causing him discomfort, but allergy testing revealed no common allergies (and his limited diet–and hypoallergenic, lactose-free formula–left few possibilities on that front).  Having sent him to two specialists who treated us as if we were nuts, my pediatrician shrugged her shoulders helplessly.

We moved across the country when Pookie was 2.5.  By this point, Pookie was a very difficult toddler.  He hated to be out of the house or away from me, crying for the entire two hours of separation from me during MOPS (which we attended weekly for the nine months before our move) and demanding to go home if we ventured someplace “fun” like the zoo.  He rarely spoke in a normal voice, opting instead for angrily shouting anything he had to say, as if we should have known he needed water or couldn’t find a certain toy.  From being a very social baby, he was becoming a fearful and withdrawn toddler, no longer showing interest in other children and hiding from adults who paid attention to him.  Our new pediatrician, however, had no more solutions than the old one.

When the new pediatrician retired within a year of our move, we brought our concerns to his replacement at Pookie’s next well-check.  She insisted that since he was on-target for growth and development, there was nothing wrong with him.  Instead, she suggested that perhaps I could use some counseling for my parenting skills.  ‘Love was livid at this suggestion, but I was desperate enough that I would have been willing to try.

By Pookster’s 5th birthday, I was getting desperate.  He was still waking me up at least three times at night.  If he had any kind of injury, real or imagined, he insisted he needed a BandAid, which then could NEVER come off until he started developing a secondary rash from said BandAid.  The sight of his own blood would send him into hysterics: he once had a complete melt-down for what turned out to be a dot of red marker on his finger.  He abhorred going places, insisting that he wanted to leave as soon as we arrived and shouting at his siblings if they walked so much as three feet away from me.  He would absolutely fall apart if something unexpected happened, even if it was something as minor as dripping water on his shirt or finding a larger-than-usual air bubble in his toasted bread.  He would only eat peanut buttered toast made with one certain kind of bread and one kind of peanut butter and eaten in one particular way: holding the bread in only his left hand–since his right one once had a BandAid on it–and licking off all the peanut butter without moving his grip, then eating all the crust (still not moving his grip), and finally eating the portion his hand had been holding.  He progressed to also wiping his mouth after every bite, since he didn’t like the peanut butter being on his lips.  None of this seemed like a healthy way for a kid to live.

What concerned me most of all was not that my kid was quirky, but that he was simply not happy.  His default mood was anger.  On top of that, his shouting and rigid behavior were causing his siblings to see him in a negative light (which is totally understandable if your sibling constantly yells at you and throws tantrums and makes every fun outing miserable), and I knew it was only a matter of time before others outside the family began noticing his shouting and odd behaviors.  I saw glimpses of a kind, outgoing, and funny little boy, and I didn’t want others to only see his unpleasant side.

And for the icing on the cake, I was teetering on the brink of depression from the exhaustion of dealing with his behavior all day and then waking up with him several times a night.  It’s a special kind of misery when your own child is causing your mental instability; it really makes you question your fitness as a mother.

Finally, I discovered that a woman in our church was a pediatrician, and I apologetically asked her for advice (and signed Pookie on as her patient!).  She suggested seeing a developmental pediatrician, and when I was told I needed a referral, she gladly wrote one.

After filling out the intake paperwork, I looked up the screening test online and noted that my answers indicated that my child was a candidate for ADHD, ODD, and depression.  The developmental doc said that Pookie was too young for an official diagnosis; however, based on his behavior, he felt that an anxiety medication might be helpful.

Though I was both skeptical (How can a 5-year-old need anxiety meds?) and nervous (I don’t want to drug my kid!), I was desperate enough to fill the prescription.

The church pediatrician and the developmental ped are my new favorite people.  That medicine has changed our lives.

Anxiety

Though we’ve been visiting this petting zoo during our cottage trip every year since Pookie was a baby, his only prior experience on the jumping pillow was last year and involved him clinging to my hand for a very quick bounce.  This year he leaped about joyfully with a passel of other kids, leaving me on the sidelines.

Three days after he started the medication, we went to a festival with family.  I was anticipating the usual misery, but this time Pookie didn’t insist on being glued to my side (and having everyone else glued there, as well).  He happily pointed out features on the old farm equipment we saw, watched a soap carver, and even walked a good ten yards away from me to get a closer look at the petting zoo animals while I stood in line for something.  ‘Love and Grandma and I couldn’t stop exclaiming at the difference.  On top of that, he began miraculously sleeping through the night.

Of course, it wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns.  With his anxiety reduced, Pookie found that he had energy for other pursuits.  In that first week, he wrote math problems on his carpet with red marker, climbed on the kitchen counter and leaped to the island whenever he had a spare moment, rearranged the furniture in his room several times, and drew road signs on my bedroom door with pen.  In addition, he became the most pesky little brother ever, taking glee in casually bumping his siblings on the way past, gradually taking over their couch space during a movie, and generally violating every unwritten rule of personal space.

Now nearly five months in, Pookie has evened out a bit.  He’s back to (mostly) following family rules, having gotten five years of rule-flaunting out of his system in one short go.  He was intensely proud that he was finally brave enough to take swimming lessons this summer, though he ended up teaching himself to swim by flinging himself into the deep end of the pool and floundering back to the side over and over.  On our big road trip, he was slightly anxious in large crowds and during transitions, but generally happy to explore and hike.  He’s trying soccer this fall, and he spends at least as much time socializing with his teammates as he does actually playing soccer–though that doesn’t stop him from having a hilariously overblown view of his prowess.  And he still is the world’s worst pest–though at least he is now a fun playmate, as well, so that evens the score a bit for his siblings.

But best of all, our Pookie is now a happy five-year-old.  He has his regular-kid ups and downs, and he’s still a mama’s boy, but gone are the days of incessant screaming and the nights of poor sleep.  In his words, “Mommy, I feel much braver now.  And sillier, too!”  What more could I ask?

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