It was at his best friend’s birthday party that the problem first arose. Full of cake and chocolate, Alex, then seven, had been running up and down the stairs when suddenly he threw up. An alpha male type with a tendency to show-off, he was mortified at this happening in front of his friends. No big deal – happens all the time. But after this, he developed a fear of being sick that was self-perpetuating. This fear actually made him nauseous. And it took over his life.
It wasn’t just a small fear, but all-encompassing. He wouldn’t eat breakfast before going to school and would wretch outside the school gates, trying not to vomit, too anxious and embarrassed to go in. Lunch was impossible – just the smell of school dinners made him heave and his packed lunches would go uneaten. Many mornings started with tears – and Alex wasn’t the tearful type, so we knew how frightened he was.
He no longer wanted to go to after-school activities, even drama club which he loved. The butterflies that anyone would get before playing team sports turned into full-scale nausea for him. In spite of the fact that he never actually vomited he was just too afraid of the “sickiness” overwhelming him, and the embarrassment this would cause.
A visit to his GP had been inconclusive. But by the time the school called me in to talk about the number of mornings he was arriving late due to the nausea, we’d sussed that it was anxiety-related and discussed it with his GP who agreed to refer him to our local children and adolescent mental health services (Camhs).
In children aged five to 15, one in eight have been found to have a mental health disorder. Statistics show that the vast majority of mental health problems are established at a young age and I worry that vulnerable kids like Alex will suffer lifelong problems. What’s more, I worry that the stretched mental health system will leave this new generation of youngsters with no support at all.
By the time Alex had been referred to Camhs, I was beside myself with worry. My handsome son looked grey and miserable and became quite introverted. He’d lost so much weight. At times he was angry, other times tearful. Cajoling him to do the thing he feared – eat, go to school, go to a friend’s house – would only make him retreat further. After a six-week wait and a phone call that got us a cancellation appointment, Alex had his first session with Janette, a Camhs counsellor.
I knew my son was a tough nut to crack. Both cocky and sensitive, he often behaved to others like nothing bothered him. But Janette was patient and reassuring – with both of us. For the next 14 months Alex had weekly sessions with her – sometimes with me beside him, other times while I sat in the waiting room. She would get him to draw his feelings, show her what the “sickiness” looked like in monster form, or teach him breathing techniques to help him calm his anxiety. She got him to talk about his feelings and learn to recognise his fears. After a while he started to trust her.
Eventually they devised between them a step-ladder of micro-stages – little manageable steps that would eventually take him to leading a more normal life. This meant cooperation from the school. But while his teacher was very patient, it was only after Janette came for a meeting with the school administration that everyone committed to the “step-ladder” plan.
Progress was slow and far from linear. Where school attendance improved and he might manage a few mouthfuls of sandwich at a table outside the canteen, the smell of hot dogs at a premier league football match still led to a full-blown panic attack that had Alex running for the turnstiles. Friends’ parties were out of the question.
Through it all, the sessions with Janette, while never fun, were the constant that kept him on track. His anxiety, she told me, was not uncommon among children his age, who are starting to find their place in the world and becoming self-conscious. She was quite confident that he would improve eventually.
And she was right because one day something clicked. Before he’d reached the final “step”, the anxiety was gone, never to be mentioned. And while the symptoms have momentarily returned a few times when he’s faced a new challenge, now 18 he’s thriving – and infinitely more compassionate as a result of his experience.
I cannot stress enough how helpless we felt before we got Alex the right help. Without Camhs and Janette’s patience, I dread to think how different his life would be now. My son should not be considered “one of the lucky ones” for receiving treatment that he deserved – but with so little in the way of adequate support for all those who need Camhs, perhaps he is. Without meaningful action, even fewer children will receive the help they need. The government must listen and take these statistics seriously; if it underfunds Camhs, the results could be devastating.
Names have been changed
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