From Sandy Hook to Ebola: what to do when fear goes too far

Meaghan_OKeeffe_1

It was my daughter Sophie’s first day of kindergarten. I was desperately trying (and failing) to hold back the tears. Wearing sunglasses inside the building came in handy because I was determined to put on a big show of confidence.

Parents around me also looked nervous and emotional. A child’s first day of kindergarten is a big transition. Gone are the days of spending so much time together. Now a large portion of your child’s life will happen outside of the home. Even if your son or daughter was in full-time daycare or preschool, kindergarten is new and unwieldy. You aren’t just sending your kid into the belly of the beast, you’re saying goodbye to an old way of life. A life you’ve known for five or six years.

That was a small part of what I was feeling. But if I’m telling the honest truth, I was afraid.

School shootings have lasting impact

I was afraid of another Sandy Hook.

School shootings are terrifying and tragic. There isn’t a single one of us who wasn’t crushed by the events at Sandy Hook and the acts of gun violence before and since. I couldn’t help but feel as if my daughter’s school might be next.

I couldn’t stop worrying.

Every time I dropped Sophie off at school, I cried afterward. Ambulance sirens made my heart race. My stomach was in knots from morning till night. My fears had gotten out of control.

So I went to see a counselor. Me. The nurse, the professional, the one who’s usually reassuring concerned parents about this thing or that thing.

Why am I telling you this?

Because it’s important. Because I hope that if you need to seek help, you will.

There is so much to be afraid of. The media is fraught with alarmist stories of Ebola and Enterovirus D68, of global conflict, school bullying and car accidents. Social media can intensify our fears.

Being aware and informed is one thing. But most of the time the fear we feel is not useful. It’s harmful. It’s our way of trying to control for every possibility. And when that kind of fear gets out of control, you need to do something.

It’s important to know that if you’re struggling with fears or sadness that go beyond the usual worries and difficulties in life, there is help. If getting help seems like something a “normal” person shouldn’t need to do, think about your car. When it’s shaking and choking on the highway, do you just tough it out and hide it from others? Or do you take it to your mechanic—an expert—who can listen to the engine and coax it back to running smoothly?

By talking to a professional, you learn coping skills. You learn how to stay balanced in the face of uncertainty, anxiety, conflict and loss. When you are balanced, your children feel safer. If you’re struggling, even if you’re doing a great job of hiding it, your kids will know. They might not verbalize it and they might not even be completely cognizant of it. But they will know.

Sophie and I have graduated to the car drop-off line. I pull up to the school entrance and she hops out, waves good-bye and opens that big school door by herself. I drive away with a smile on my face.

Am I cured of my tendency to think dark and scary thoughts? Not by a long shot. But I’m learning how to recognize these unhealthy fears. I’m learning that these worries are just stories that I tell myself. And I’m learning how to stop chasing them.

I reached out for help when I needed it. It’s the most “normal” thing you can do.