When she walked into our Greenwich branch office in The Anxiety Institute, I couldn’t quite figure out why she was there at all. She was energetic, very clever, and seemed to be quite social. She always wore bright-colored yoga pants and stylish tops, her hair was neatly cut and she was generally well-groomed. Many of the other young clients there did not fit this profile, many manifesting as low energy, shy, and a bit sloppy in their presentation.
But then we began her work…. When she signed up with us in February, she had been out of school for a month or a little over at the beginning of the second semester of her sophomore year of high school. Her anxiety had resulted in school refusal, and thus she faced course make-up work in all subjects that we needed to tackle. Her school, a very good local private institution, was generous about this course make up work, as is typical, and cut us many breaks. Essentially all we needed to do was to complete the major assessments for each class.
As we sat down to take stock of what we needed to accomplish, I began to see her coping mechanism. When something became at all confusing or difficult, she suddenly became very “bored” and developed a headache. When she was totally cooked, she would call her mother, whom she had wrapped around her finger, and explain that due to physical problems of one sort or another– headache or stomach ache– she would need to be picked up early. The father fought her on it, and wanted to hold her accountable more so than the mother, but he was typically overruled. When he said “no” to Tess, she would contact her mother and “go above his head.” Even when he did manage to hold her to task, it was with an elaborate set of rewards. They even took her on a week-long vacation to Antigua to incentivize her continued participation in the program, in the middle of the semester! It was due to this dynamic that she had been able to avoid school work and eventually drop out.
I should mention not to vilify the parents (as I think genetics play a larger role than we’re often willing to tender) that her social malfunctions were also a lead factor in her paralysis. She tended to bring high energy and boisterous sarcasm to every social situation with her peers, but lacked any awareness of any kind of social cues, frequently suggesting a distaste for her antics. Thus, her lack of social capital was always a surprising disappointment to her, contributing subtly to her avoidant behaviors.
There was no sense in challenging her in her academics, except in only infinitesimally small doses, as it would immediately trigger this cascade of avoidance. So instead, to approach this type of student, I took the opposite approach: I drew her in. I was over the top with praise of her positive academic qualities (given in a detailed and extremely sincere way). I repeated many times how impressed I was with her intellect and her memory for even the smallest act of academia. These compliments were always met with silence, and this is how I knew they were hitting the mark. Silence is the sound of positive ego creation.
I avoided correction of any kind at virtually all costs. A student like this is incredibly sensitive, but will never, ever show you this sensitivity, so sharply honed are their defense mechanisms. In a majority of these cases of anxiety or learning differences or ADHD, the problem itself is highly abstracted by the student, and obscured to the world. In fact, Tess’s malaise and indifference in regards to her academics she had adopted as an outward personality trait. She had to do it for her ego to survive! Teenagers will go to incredible lengths to present themselves as “normal” to their peers and the adults in their lives.
After a week or two of working together, at first in small doses, but in increasing intervals, she began to drop the act of apathy. She gradually gave herself permission to be more interested in the topics we discussed. At first with a wry, sarcastic humor about it, but gradually she even became willing to reveal a sincere interest, particularly in history. While she had railed against her history teacher and his approach for the first few weeks, these shenanigans receded over time and he became less of a preoccupation to her.
While she was only able to achieve small segments of work in the first few sessions we did, for only an hour and after an initial 15-minute warm up, four weeks into our work not only was she doing focused academic work for two hours during tutoring sessions, she was working outside of our sessions to complete reading assignments and math problem sets. At this rate, she caught up to grade level after being roughly six weeks behind, while school was in session. (It’s a bit like jumping onto the back of a moving (school(!) bus). She was able to rejoin her peers in school as the 3rd quarter was ending and has remained in school throughout her high school career.
When I had first begun working with her, the therapist and I were concerned that she could complete the program at AI, much less make up that huge quantity of academic work. But once a student gets on track like that, there’s really no stopping them. They become unrecognizable to their initial selves. Their potential becomes almost infinite.
She graduated from AI in the early spring with soaring confidence and returned to school without a blip. As I typically say, without exaggeration, “these moments of crisis are, in fact, prime opportunities for transformation.” We progress through crisis, mature through it, ascend through it. This cathartic process is exactly the reason we gravitate towards this thing, this tendency towards self-destruction, this thing that cripples us the most. And we do it most profoundly when we’re so hopelessly young and incomplete– pupal and inchoate. But though we often feel so alone in our metamorphosis, it is the geography of all paths to fall. And as we’ve seen time and again: the greater the fall, the higher the ultimate ascension.