One night in early October, my sixteen-year-old daughter, Leah, crawled into my bed with me and whispered, “Mom, are you awake?”
I grumbled, rolling over, hoping it was dream.
“Mom, I need to talk,” she whimpered.
I woke up quickly then—I knew something was wrong.
“Hey, what’s going on?” I asked as she snuggled next to me.
She began to cry. “Mom, I’m not happy and I haven’t been happy for a while.” Her voice trembled in between sobs.
Leah was a junior in high school, and had been friends with the same group of girls since grade school. She was a conscientious student and had been involved in ASB, Sandpiper Juniors, sailed, and played soccer for her high school. She was in multiple school clubs, but I’d noticed a change since she started school that year. She seemed more stressed and worried, breaking down into tears more often. She was taking three AP classes, had begun studying for the SAT test and was worried about college.
Earlier that school year, she’d told me she felt like she needed to figure out immediately where she wanted to go to school. I told her that she had lots of time and didn’t need all the answers right then—it was a process and she’d find the right school in time. Even though she had seen her two older sisters go through the college application process successfully, she didn’t seem convinced.
“What’s going on?” I knew I’d be awake for a while.
“I haven’t been able to sleep the last couple of weeks, I’ve been unhappy and I don’t know what to do.” She continued to cry in my arms.
I held her, whispering that she was going to be okay and that I was there for her. I didn’t want her to think she had to figure this out on her own, but I had reason to worry.
The previous night, shortly after I had arrived home from visiting my oldest daughter in Chicago, Leah ran into the bathroom crying. She stuck her head in the toilet and began throwing up. I didn’t know it then, but she was having her first panic attack. I followed her and sat on the bathroom floor holding her for twenty minutes, trying to calm her down, but her body trembled as she kept crying. In between sobs, she told me she was worried about her upcoming AP Biology test. Her teacher didn’t tell her what it would cover, so she didn’t know what to study. She continued to dry heave, trying to catch her breath in between. Her pain became mine.
I made an appointment with our family therapist for later in the week after the first panic attack the previous night, but that night in bed, when she told me she hadn’t been happy for a while, a yellow flashing light blinked brightly. I knew I needed to get her in sooner. She eventually calmed down and feel asleep next to me while I lay still by her side. Her confession shot an arrow of worry through me. She shouldn’t be feeling such stress at her age.
First thing the next morning, I sent a text asking for an appointment that afternoon. Next, I called a child psychiatrist that our therapist had recommended. I didn’t care if Leah failed AP Biology or any other class that caused her such anxiety. I needed to stop her from spiraling down into the abyss.
That week my daughter started therapy and by the end of the week she began trying medication, something I had resisted. I didn’t like the idea of my daughter relying on a daily prescription to stabilize her mood, but it was worse to think of her falling into a state of depression. I acquiesced to the professionals, and hoped it would help her, along with therapy and ongoing supportive conversations with my husband and me.
The next couple of weeks seemed like a whirlwind of doctor and therapy appointments. My daughter tried a couple different medications and different styles of therapy as we searched for the right combination that worked for her. It wasn’t a simple fix. One medication made her too amped, another too sleepy, and once we found one that worked best, it wasn’t the magical answer. She also needed to better understand her thoughts and how they contributed to her overwhelming angst that caused her weekly and sometimes daily panic attacks that entire school year.
Desperate to do everything to help our daughter stop spiraling, my husband and I also met with the high school principal, asking him to make an exception to their policy and allow us to take our daughter out of her AP Biology class, which seemed to continuously push her over the edge. He initially denied our wishes, but eventually passed us on to an administrator who helped us transition her out.
It was a stressful school year for all and there were many hurdles she needed to cross, but when my daughter’s panic attacks became less frequent, I knew we were on the right track. I was thankful for the professional support that helped stabilize her and I incorporated their suggestions into my parenting, but I won’t lie and tell you that her senior year was easy. My daughter felt the natural stress of applying for college and finishing her last year of high school, but helping her tackle her crippling anxiety when we did gave her the life skills she needed to be successful in college. The professionals recommended that Leah continue to take her medication for the next few years and my husband and I agreed. I’m happy to report that she’s currently thriving as a sophomore in college.
Laurie James grew up in a suburb outside Los Angeles, raised her children in Manhattan Beach, and currently lives in Hermosa Beach. She stayed home to raise her four daughters after graduating from college and leaving her career as a corporate recruiter. She has given back to her community through a wide range of volunteer positions within MBUSD. She was a docent for Growing Great and Grades of Green and was on the board of the MBMS PTA. She is currently writing her first book and pursuing her passion of helping children and families through volunteering her time to South Bay Families Connected and Manhattan Beach Mayor’s Youth Council.