Imagine somebody has signed you up for a skydiving experience. You are standing inside the aircraft. The hatch is open. Your guide is telling you to go ahead, jump. Nothing to worry, they will take care of you. All the others have taken the plunge. There is a yawning emptiness in the pit of your stomach. Your heart is racing; your throat is dry. You are barely standing. You take a deep breath, a tremulous smile. Yes, you can do it. You take that step forward. No! You cannot do it. You shrink back. Do they think you are crazy to rely on their words? What if the parachute does not open? What if you can’t breathe? What if you lose consciousness? All manner of horrors are possible. Voices are screaming around you. You are a coward! Everyone can do it, what’s special about you? You shrink into yourself. You are hyperventilating; eyes darting back and forth. What if one of these monsters pushes you? You feel totally powerless. You are losing control. My daughter goes through this crisis every single morning when we reach the gates of the school.
For the last two years I have watched my daughter go through this torture, refusing to go to school, time and again. Sometimes it is a couple of days, sometimes a week, at worst, a whole fortnight. I have battled my feelings swinging from sympathy to frustration to anger. I have vacillated between giving her a break, cajoling, bribing, threatening, shaming and I am sad to say, hitting. They have all worked at times, forcing her into the school against her better sense, but many times not. I have marvelled at her stubbornness and the power of her refusal. She just wouldn’t bend, be it threats, shaming, authority or love. The refusal turned to stomachache, headache, nausea, fever, you name it. Every day, she would turn up at the school clinic with a complaint and I would regularly get calls to pick her up from school. Then the clinic staff started shouting at her for making things up, “there is nothing the matter with you!” One day, they sent her to the headmistress who told her kids don’t have headaches and sent her back to class. Being a huge school, with a large student strength, perhaps made them ill-equipped to deal with the out-of-ordinary.
Through this all, I industriously Googled for answers. The keyword that jumped out at me repeatedly was anxiety. Anxiety, as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is an apprehensive uneasiness or nervousness usually over an impending or anticipated ill. It is an ever-present emotion for most people and it protects us from reckless behaviour. But sometimes the amygdala, a deep-seated organ within the brain which controls our emotions, becomes overactive. Then, the mind inflates the spectre of the “impending ill” interfering with our ability to function in the society. And there you have an anxiety disorder, panic attacks and in some cases, phobia.
I discovered that regular complaints about apparently unrelated physical problems that do not seem to go away with symptomatic treatment is a classic warning sign of anxiety. I wondered if the professionals in the school clinic had not learned this in their medical training, or simply did not care. The scientist in me started looking for triggers for this anxiety. I tried placebo treatment for her symptoms. We “scientifically” changed her diet, gave her vitamin syrups with magical properties. And slowly things settled. She started attending class, enjoying the daily banter with her classmates, loving her teachers. She identified “good” teachers who took her troubles seriously and helped her and “bad” teachers who did not believe her and scolded her.
The PTMs and discussions with her teachers gave me the impression of well-meaning but overburdened teachers. They were compassionate about her absenteeism but more worried about the effect it was having on her academic performance. With each class nearing a strength of 40, and multiple classes to teach, it was not surprising that they didn’t have much time to think deeply about each student. No time to think beyond academics, no time to discover what other talents and strengths the kids might have. The system was designed to select academic high-achievers and extroverted talents; others were invisible.
I decided that a move would be good for her in the long run, although it might turn out to be traumatic at the moment. I looked for a smaller strength school, where they could work with the kids, where they respected other talents beyond academics, where they took the time to discover hidden talents and nurture their strengths. Although such paragons of educational virtue are hard to come by, I did manage to move her to a smaller school with small class strength and a little more respect for non-academic achievements.
But soon after the excitement of new uniform and new books was over, she began refusing to go to school again. Now I knew it was not school-specific. It put to rest that unspoken fear that had gnawed at my mind that there was something that happened in the previous school that had triggered her fear. The response of this school was dramatically different. After a few days of her not making it to school, I was called in by the teacher. The principal madam talked to me. I had a meeting with the school counsellor and my daughter’s class teacher to discuss what the triggers might be and how they can help. She stood outside the meeting room the whole time, right in front of the principals’ office and cried, and nobody shouted at her! My self-doubt and unsureness at having moved schools was put to rest.
I decided it was time to bite the bullet and visit a mental health professional. The decision was not easy. Whatever science you know, however progressive your views may be, mental health problem still meant “an inability to control our minds”. A sign of weakness. An acknowledgement of defeat. But all my research, reading and discussions with my scientist colleagues convinced me that my daughter is suffering and I needed to get help.
The first visit turned out to be more of a therapy for me. I talked for an hour about my daughter. I discovered how much I loved her, how much I worried about her and how many dreams and fears I carried around with me. Then came the psychiatric evaluation. Again, it was a step that I would rather not have taken, but in for a penny in for a pound. Instead of the veiled discussions with parents and sugar coating for the child, the psychiatrist sat us both down and talked straight to my nine-year-old daughter. He discussed her complaints. He drew a graph! A graph of anxiety vs performance to explain the issue to her. She sat and listened to him, sometimes nodding sometimes disagreeing! I guess that is what we all want first and foremost, respect. She started therapy.
I was going through my personal unofficial not-paid-for therapy. I learned that when she is anxious what she needs around her is a calm presence. Not a stressed-out soul who extrapolates 20 years ahead and who foresees a bleak future projected from her every current action. I have realised that as a parent it is the fear of the future that drives us to our actions; the scolding, the pushing and pressurising, the nagging, the berating. I discovered that if I just provide a safe environment for her, where she doesn’t have to constantly keep looking over her shoulder, where she doesn’t have to second guess if mom is lying and where she doesn’t have to constantly feel she is not measuring up, then she will take that tentative step forward, take that small risk, and buoyed by the success, take that next step… The trick is to ‘just chill mom’ as she says.
But then while we are still on this journey of self-discovery, my daughter and I…the world turned upside down. Today there is not a person who is not anxious; fearful of an invisible but very real virus, fearful of not finding a hospital bed, fearful of finding one but only to die on it alone.
As the world struggles to fight, then hide from and then come to terms with this new enemy, schools have shut. Kids, and adults, have been cooped up within four walls for days on end. My little one was very excited about home schooling, when it all began. But two months of it and now all she wants is to go back to school. But what would schools be like in post-COVID era, one wonders. What new monsters will be lurking around the corner? What new terrors await us?
The writer is a scientist at CSIR-Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal