We are a month into bedtime and middle of the night anxiety episodes every night. Things are calming down though. I’m calming down. Hubby took over doing bedtime and middle of the night duty for a week so I could regain some equilibrium. Being able to sleep through the night again made a big difference.
Hubby said she had been crying at bedtime because she wanted me to do it. When I did it, she cried because she wanted daddy too.
Angel - I’ve got used to daddy holding my hand.
Me - Well let's get daddy too!
Once we are both there, me lying next to her, daddy squidged in at the end of her single bed, each of us with a hand, her breathing eases and she usually goes to sleep within 30 minutes (before it had only ever taken 15). Of course the next night she wants me to do bedtime again. I tell her I will alternate with hubby but both of us will be there for the final hand holding. She nods, satisfied. She knows I can’t do it all now.
She strings out getting ready for bed as long as she can to avoid the pending panic and has taken to hiding her new cuddly wolf toy, Tarby. It reminds me of her baby book ‘Where’s Panda' and I suggest we turn it into a game. We will hide Tarby at bedtime and she has to find him. She loves this idea and we build in the extra time.
The last few nights she hasn't cried but as she settles for sleep she mouths, ‘I’m scared’. ‘I know’ I say, ‘It’s OK, we’ve got you. It will pass. I am safe, I am loved, I am OK’.
‘I am safe, I am loved, I am OK’ - she repeats
Will I be? She asks one last time (she usually asks at least 15 times leading up to bedtime) ‘Same answer as always’. I smile and she smiles back.
This is a tip I found online about emetophobia. Emetophobia is the fear of vomiting and I’ve come to realise this is what Angel has developed. Of course I know it’s not really about the fear of vomiting but about all her other anxieties. I spoke to a child therapist, a friend of a friend and she said, ‘Think of the sick as being all the difficult, uncomfortable, scary things she isn’t able to digest’. I found some other tips:
Don’t reassure the child they won’t be sick. The truth is you can’t know and you have to tell the truth. For me this was, ‘It’s really really unlikely you are going to be sick as you’ve only been sick once since you were two. So when you ask me if you are going to be sick from here on in, I’m going to say, ‘same answer as always’. This is because I’ve read that, this is more helpful.’
Name 5 things you can see, 4 things you can feel, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell and one thing you can taste (I knew this one already and we sometimes did this for 30 mins at a time in the middle of the night - ‘Again mummy, again’.
Breathing (as before)
Write down all your worries and then tear up the piece of paper.
When I suggest the last one, Angel is really excited, especially when I add we could burn the paper in the fire pit.
The first time we do it, she takes to it with gusto and the worries come tumbling out like a turbulent river breaching its banks.
That mummy and daddy don’t love me anymore
That daddys belly is to big and he won’t be able to swim and play with me ever again
That Coco and Crystal (our dog and cat) will run away and I’ll never get to see them again
That Mahalia & Judy won’t love me anymore and when Davy gets older he won’t love me anymore (these are close family friends who have lived in our studio. Mahalia is moving away in September and Davy is Judy’s baby)
A wild animal will come and kill me here
Mum and dad will turn evil and try and kill me with a knife
Coco and Crystal will try and kill me with their claws and teeth
When Mahalia moves, it’s a lie. She won’t come back and will try and kick me out of her life
Silver (new woolf toy) will turn against me and kill me. Then she will turn good and she’ll be sorry that she killed me but it will be to late for her to bring me back
All the people in my family, mum, dad, coco, crystal, all my toys will go against me and try and kill me
All my friends and other family will turn evil and go against me but my mum, dad, coco and crystal and toys will keep me safe.
Wow! No wonder she’s not sleeping! I don’t say a lot while she recites this list to me. I just write them down and murmur that it must feel horrible and no wonder she’s worried. I feel slightly reassured that she has ended with me and hubby keeping her safe. At least part of her knows we are her safe place.
I get her to rip up the worry list and we burn it in the fire pit in our garden. She is exceptionally buoyant after, like she has shed a massive load.
We do this the next three nights with her worries getting less and less until on the fourth night she says she doesn’t have any worries at all. She obviously does, as it's the same pattern at bedtime and in the night but we feel the grip of anxiety loosening.
It’s shocking to me but when I start talking to friends, it turns out quite a few of them remember being terrified that something terrible was going to happen to them or they would be killed around Angel's age. I know it’s common for kids in the middle years (9 -12) to suddenly become afraid of the dark or sleeping on their own. I guess this is the anxiety about what it will mean to not be mum and dad's baby anymore, to be an autonomous being.
I also hear from other mums who’s kids are experiencing anxiety attacks. Maybe not every night but it’s reassuring to hear this is not that unusual and when I speak to the child therapist, she says the more we can get Angel to talk about her anxieties, the less grip the fear of vomiting will have over her. She also says that when children are around two they usually start to turn away from their mum as they gain confidence but because Angel had only just found me at this age, she obviously couldn’t do that. I see now that we have become very enmeshed to such an extent that I feel I can almost feel what she is feeling and that part of growing up is about her separating from me. Of course, having lost every primary carer before me (and literally two, to cancer) this is going to be terrifying and yet here is the march of time. She is 11, she is developing, she has hormones coursing through her body.
This is also the time kids begin to figure out who they want to be. What kind of person am I? What do I stand for? How do you work out who you are and where you are going if you don’t know where you’ve come from? I realise that childhood isn’t easy at the best of times, let alone without all the additional baggage that adopted children carry.
Angel is a Pony Day. This is the first time she has been away from both me and hubby since the anxiety started. On the drive there, I say this to her and add, ‘So if you feel like maybe saying something that isn’t true’….’Or stealing’, she interrupts. ‘Yes or maybe saying something mean, remember it's your brain's way of telling you you are not ok and to call me or daddy’. She nods. I love that she has her own phone now. I love the easy way we can talk about lying and stealing. I love the way she can interrupt me and add ‘stealing’. There is no toxic shame now and with that she reveals other things.
She comes into my room and unzips a cushion and a collection of my rings fall out . ‘I’m sorry mum, I started taking them when I was worried about losing you’. That’s OK, thanks for bringing them back and thanks for telling me. When you get a bit older, you can have some of them but we want to keep them safe until we know you can keep them safe right?’ ‘Right’ she says.
She trips over a towel trying to return my special writing pen to its home in the bedside cabinet. ‘Sorry mum, I took it when I was feeling worried.
The interesting thing is that since Angel’s anxiety has been out there in the open, to my knowledge she hasn’t taken anything or lied. In fact, she has turned into a child that fesses up if she accidentally sees something she shouldn’t. Playing Mafia, a game where two people with particular cards open their eyes, she immediately says when she opened her eyes by accident and saw who one of them was.
I think about what a strain it must have been trying to hide all that anxiety. I feel immensely proud of her.