When Sunshine Was Diagnosed With Mental Illness

Sunshine was sick for December. Not just sick in December. She spent the month in various stages of sickness. She said, “I don’t feel like myself” on our Nutcracker date, prompting us to leave a little before the end of the second act. She did not eat much for days at a time. She vomited without having a fever. She seemed better for a day or two. Then, she vomited again. She missed four days of school during the two and a half weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. At one point, she even developed a limp because she was experiencing leg pain that I at first attributed to growing pains.

She saw the pediatrician four times. She did not have the flu. She did not have strep throat. She did not have a fever, but she definitely had a virus. Viruses, Saint Daddy and I learned, can sometimes cause pain in the major joints, like the hips. No one else appeared sick until Sleepy vomited for twenty minutes and we celebrated the fact that Sunshine was contagious. Being contagious meant she would recover, even if it was taking a long time.

Shortly after this illness passed, we noticed that Sunshine felt sick regularly. At least three days a week, she did not want to go to school because she felt sick. Sunshine felt sick while we ate dinner. Sunshine felt sick as we prepared to leave the house. Sunshine felt sick around bedtime. Sunshine felt sick.

Then the nightmares came. Sunshine had a terrible dream that someone tried to kill her. It kept her up for a couple of nights with horrific “maginations.” She imagined that a man with a gun crawled into her bedroom window and took her away before Saint Daddy or I could stop him. She wanted to know how Daddy could save her if he was all the way across the hall. She imagined that someone was hiding under her bed, waiting to kill her. She imagined that no one would be able to protect her.

We bought her a new nightlight that projected beautiful stars across her ceiling. We gave her a sound machine. We even let her pick out a scary demon statue that she said would scare anyone away. It was her suggestion. He faces the window she is most afraid of. She calls him Mr. Scarypants.

These things helped for brief amounts of time. Inevitably, their usefulness would wear off and she would be imagining something even more horrific.

Sunshine’s fears increased as the year continued to progress. She stopped eating some of her favorite foods after she felt sick shortly after their consumption. Bananas, an absolute favorite, are a no-go for her now. She became afraid of the dark, of corners where spiders may lurk, of water being poured over her head, of walking within a foot of grates in the street. She refused to let us leave her room at night without a fight.

She associated “Sucker” by the Jonas Brothers with a particular magination about her swim instructor being a zombie and required that it be turned off if it ever played, and I do not know if you have noticed, but that gets played a lot.

About six weeks ago, Sunshine came to the living room where Saint Daddy and I were watching television after getting our babies in bed. She had a magination that she did not want to tell me about. She said it would make me scared too, and she did not want me to be scared. She was crying and wanted me to cuddle with her some more.

I followed Sunshine to her room. With her sound machine going and her stars projected on the ceiling, Sunshine gripped me and told me her magination. Someone had come into the house and had lined us up by age and had killed Daddy and then Mommy and they were going to kill her next and each of the brothers. She ran to me.

I felt grateful because she knew that she could come to me. I stayed with her that night, letting her feel my presence and know that I would always be there, choking on my tears, aware of my shortcomings.

It was that night that I knew, without any doubt in my mind, that Sunshine needed help. She was not going to get better going the way that we were going. She had spent eight months getting progressively worse, and I needed to do something. I needed to help her in ways I was never really helped.

Sunshine was formally diagnosed with anxiety in a therapist’s office on July 8. Her therapist noted that Sunshine is particularly afraid of being separated from me and that these fears manifest in recurring intrusive thoughts, nightmares, and a growing number of fears.

In my last post, I wrote about my diagnosis, but it was not that easy as a mother to admit that I could not save Sunshine on my own. I had tried. I knew what it was. I saw in her so many of the same issues that I saw in myself. The recurring belly aches, the incessant fears, the sleeplessness, the hesitation. I knew I had passed these to her in my blood. I wanted so badly to be the one who could help her figure out how to manage them.

But Sunshine and I are different people. She is an extrovert. She thrives on social interaction. She spends much less time in self-reflection that I did, even at her age. Sunshine needed help, and I, her mother who wanted to save her, got it for her. In many ways, my personal experience with anxiety helped me to know that the only way that I could help my daughter was to find someone else who could do it for me.

Sunshine did not let me out of the room for her first two sessions with her therapist. She was worried about where I might go while she was in this strange new place with this strange new adult who asked so many questions.

During the third session, Sunshine relinquished her grip on me and let me sit in the waiting room.

Her therapist has been amazing. She has helped Sunshine to evaluate good and bad emotions. She has her focusing on ways to lessen her fears as they happen. They talked about making scary things funny, like Harry Potter does in Prisoner of Azkaban. She taught Sunshine belly breathing, which Sunshine asked to do while listening to “Sucker” play on her therapist’s phone. Sunshine imagined that her swim instructor was a smiling zombie that was going to save the world, not hurt people.

They have worked through so much in so little time.

Today, on the way home from therapy, “Sucker” came on the radio. I did not realize what song it was until the chorus began to play. Sunshine did not yell about the song. In fact, she sang along with it and yelled at me when I changed the station when I realized what we were listening to. When we stopped at the store to pick up a few things, Sunshine walked on a grate. In fact, she stood on it long enough for me to snap a picture for Saint Daddy. “It’s not even scary, Mom!” she said.

Sunshine’s bedtime routine has also improved. She sleeps with a picture of the two of us nearby in case she feels lonely. She keeps a large book to use to practice belly breathing if the maginations come, but they are not coming, not like they were. We play lullabies instead of white noise (this was actually a friend’s suggestion, but her therapist said it was a suggestion that she often gives herself).

Sunshine is still afraid. I do not count her as cured or anything, but I am so grateful for her diagnosis. In many ways, Sunshine’s diagnosis has changed her life.

I pray that this experience helps Sunshine to understand her mental health in ways that I never could at her age.

As we were leaving her appointment today, her therapist told Sunshine, “Remember, you can’t make all your fears go away, but you can learn to not be afraid of the ones you can’t control.”

I am so happy to have found this woman who has helped my baby to learn what to do about the fears that she cannot control.

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