fear (revisited)

Fear 04.22.14

Several weeks ago I authored a post on fear. I used Caroline’s anxiety about competitive cheerleading as an excuse to describe my formative battle with this emotion as a young boy. I wrapped the story up neatly, suggesting that my late-night intervention with my daughter would lead her to a life-changing realization about and positive attitude towards fear – and all before the age of 9. The words, “Aren’t I just the most incredible dad?” implicitly lurked just beneath the surface of the words on the screen.

As this week’s continuation of the story will reveal, I am not.

*   *   *

It’s evaluation month at Caroline’s gym. All the kids on the team (as well as new kids vying for a position on it) audition for placement based on the specific skills that they’ve mastered. What I’ve learned over the last two years is that the word “evaluation” short circuits the neurons responsible for rational thought in my daughter’s brain. If I told her that I’d be evaluating her ability to walk tomorrow, I’m reasonably certain that she’d be lying on the floor, dragging herself around with only her arms – her legs dangling uselessly behind her – inside of 8 hours.

Despite that, following my late night heart-to-heart with Caroline a few weeks ago, my alter ego – SuperDad – naively assumed that he had given her a strategy to successfully overcome her fear. After this, he could turn his attention to bigger problems, like fixing U.S. health care and creating a self-sustaining clean energy source that would reduce the planet’s reliance on fossil fuels.

Then came what will go down in the annals of McGill family history as The Ride.

*   *   *

Caroline’s gym is in Ronkonkoma, which is anywhere from 30-60 minutes from her house depending on traffic. This usually gives SuperDad time to engage in all kinds of entertaining activities with her: listening to music; hearing her interpretations of what shapes the clouds have chosen to take on that particular day; getting regaled with the ongoing saga that is the life of a third-grade student. But on this day, SuperDad seized the initiative, bypassing all these benign activities and replacing them with Project Elimination of Scary Thoughts. (SuperDad, in addition to solving familial and world problems, frequently spends valuable time devising acronyms that strike him as clever initially, then decidedly less so the more he thinks about them.)

PEST strategy number one? Visualization. SuperDad, as part of PEST, had encouraged his somewhat skeptical wife to engage the services of a sports therapist to help their 8 year-old work through this anxiety. (Yes, the words “sports therapist” and “8 year-old” in the same sentence should send alarm bells off in your head.) And the sports therapist had suggested that Caroline visualize herself performing the moves that she had “lost” since evaluations started as one way to help deal with her anxiety.

Since SuperDad had previously suggested this to Caroline himself before retaining the sports therapist, he wholeheartedly agreed with this component of PEST. And as Caroline started to express mild anxiety about going to cheer shortly after leaving their house, SuperDad encouraged her to try visualization.

That’s when the fun really started.

“Visualization is stupid. It doesn’t work,” said Caroline. SuperDad smiled benevolently from the front seat.

“Little child,” he thought to himself, “thinking so small. Allow SuperDad to open your eyes to the wonders of reality.”

He glanced at his daughter in the rearview mirror. “Caroline, how can you say it doesn’t work if you’ve only done it a few times last night? It’s one of those things that you have to do over and over again before you know if it’s working or not.

“I don’t waaaannnnnaaaaa,” his daughter responded, the whine factor rising exponentially. “It doesn’t woooorrrrrrrkkkkkk. It’s stuuuuuupid.”

SuperDad didn’t miss a step. He re-presented his infallible logic, undercutting Caroline’s nonsensical reaction definitively and comprehensively. She responded with tears and the words, “I don’t wanna go I don’t wanna go I don’t wanna go.” The volume and speed of this mantra increased. SuperDad’s attempts to interject got cut off, dismissed, and drowned out.

In less than 10 minutes, SuperDad had abandoned PEST for an alternative strategy: “Shut UP! I don’t want to hear it.” He shouted at his windshield as he cranked the music up to jet engine levels in an effort to eliminate the sound of the screaming girl somewhere behind him.

By the time he exited the highway only 10 minutes from the gym, SuperDad was in bad shape. His hands on the steering wheel were shaking and white. He could feel the skin across his face, taut and rigid as his teeth ground together. His daughter’s histrionics overrode the nuclear explosion of sound through the car’s speakers, as if she’d tapped directly into his inner ear to broadcast her wails of anguish.

The moment required action. And the action SuperDad took was what he had previously warned his wife never to do under any circumstance when confronted with exactly this scenario. He turned on the left blinker. He pulled into an empty parking lot. He then turned on the right blinker, and pulled back onto the road headed in the opposite direction from which he had come. “There. Are you happy?” he shouted. “We’re going home. I’m not taking you to the gym like this. It’s a waste of everyone’s time.”

The sounds from the back of the car stopped. He turned off the music as he pulled back onto the LIE, retracing the path he had just carved out for the last 45 minutes. “I’m sorry,” said Caroline from the back seat, probably more shocked at SuperDad’s retreat than he was. “Whatever,” he snarled back. Just 30 minutes later, they were home.

*   *   *

I learned last week how much stronger fear is than SuperDad. If I were to create a word problem approximating this disparity, it would read something like this:

Fear is 3 trillion rabid jaguars with blood-flecked muzzles racing towards a tree in the desert. The antidote to fear is SuperDad, a single, one-legged human, tied to the tree they’re running towards, unable to move his arms or legs. What are the odds that the antidote to fear will defeat fear in this situation?

But while SuperDad can’t beat fear, perhaps his daughter can. On Sunday, Caroline came to me with her proposed solution. It involved her still going to cheer but eliminating the stressor that paralyzes her a full day before she even leaves the house for the gym. I spoke with her coaches last night, who agreed that Caroline’s approach made sense. We don’t know what this will mean in terms of Caroline’s placement on one or more teams next season, but we do know that her solution is better than the status quo.

I’m not SuperDad. I’m thinking, though, that my daughter could be SuperGirl. Or perhaps Dark Phoenix. Time will tell.

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