Martin enters our house, sees me in the kitchen, and without my saying a word or any other provocation, immediately trips into a puddle of anxiety. He asks what’s for dinner, then complains about what’s for dinner, says what he wants instead. If vegetables are involved, he asks if other kids eat vegetables and why he’s not like other kids. He jumps. He lists activities in which, he thinks, I won’t let him participate: Can I go to the taekwondo picnic without a grown-up? Can I ride my bicycle to the Stop & Shop? He makes demands and contradicts them: Can I have more than 30 minutes of screen time? No! No screen time! Mommy, no screen time today! Near tears, or in tears, he flees the kitchen and throws himself on the sofa, spewing nonsense.
Three days ago, Martin entered the house to find me prepping his favorite meal—“pizza bar,” in which he gets a pizza crust, sauce, Daiya cheese, and his specified toppings (pineapple, black olives, artichoke hearts, and anchovies) to assemble and bake as he likes—and staged an anxiety attack because I was using Nature’s Promise organic pizza sauce, not Poblano Farmsbrand.
I’ve tasted the two sauces. I’m certain if he hadn’t seen the jar he wouldn’t be able to distinguish the Poblano Farms from Nature’s Promise.
When these meltdowns happen, Adrian or my brother Eddie, having entered the house behind Martin, watches the whole performance, dumbfounded. Once Martin has adjourned to the sofa, Adrian or Eddie says something like, “I don’t get it. He was just fine until we entered the house.”
These events happen, and happen, and happen again.
Martin has severe anxiety, and I, his mother, have become the locus of that anxiety. This reality is difficult for me, and painful. It’s difficult for me because I, too, am prone to anxiety, much more than Adrian or Eddie. As Martin becomes upset and nervous, so do I, which despite my best efforts to hide, Martin detects and incorporates into his own mood. We spiral. It’s painful for me because, even though I know Martin’s anxiety is generalized and not tied to the stimulant that provokes the meltdown, these incidents feel like an attack on me.
As to why I am the target of Martin’s anxiety, my theory has long been that Martin perceives me as the arbiter of limitations on him, especially food. I am the one who sees the entire world in terms of Martin’s allergies; Adrian knows, for example, that Martin is allergic to all forms of dairy, but he still calls me with panicked questions like, “Does chocolate have milk?” I am the one who has done the research on organic versus non-GMO versus “all natural,” who studies food dyes and additives, who says thanks but no thanks when a well-meaning host offers to grill Martin’s turkey burger on aluminum foil to protect it from beef juices. Adrian, along with everyone else who supervises Martin, tends to say, “I’m not sure about that. We’d better check with Mommy.”
What’s worse, Martin perceives me as an arbitrary arbiter of these limitations on him, with good reason. I have loosened the strictures on corn, refined sugar, soy, and a few others. I’ve done so because (1) Martin gets to me with his constant whining, crying, and preemptive anxiety about food (see above: “I, too, am prone to anxiety”), and (2) I genuinely feel bad for Martin and want him to be able to participate to the fullest extent possible in what his peers are doing, and much of the time, what his peers are doing is eating a bunch of crap (which I say in a loving, non-judgmental way).
I’ve tried to make Martin the arbiter of his own food choices. I created a chart with four columns labeled foods I never eat(this column comprised only gluten and his food allergies), foods I try to avoid, foods I eat sparingly (“Mommy, what’s ‘sparingly’?”), and foods I eat as much as I want. My idea was to turn decision-making over to Martin, with just enough supervision to know what he was up to and intervene if “sparingly” became “once an hour.” But the chart itself morphed into an anxiety source, as Martin melted down over details like whether rice is “sparing” or “unlimited,” and how he should tell if vegetables are genetically modified (“try to avoid”) or organic (“as much as I want”). For all the progress he’s made, Martin still wants bright-line rules and certainty, and also wants those lines to fall exactly in the position that accommodates his preferences. I can’t always make that possible for him.
Recently, a friend proffered an alternative explanation as to why Martin’s anxiety targets me: I’m the one Martin trusts most, so he allows himself to release when I’m present. The meltdown Martin had last Wednesday supports this theory. He’d been out with my brother Eddie and “doing fine.” Upon arriving home and seeing me, he started complaining about his class photo, from last October. All the other kids had their eyes open and nice smiles, except Martin. The photographer picked the shot with Martin’s eyes closed and an awkward grimace. (In defense of the photographer, it is very hard to catch a decent shot of Martin.) From the class photo, Martin moved to worrying about when he almost arrived late the day in March he was to say the morning Pledge of Allegiance over the loudspeaker. Then, becoming more upset, he remembered how, first semester, the kids had to wait in the cafeteria for chess club instead of going out to play, even though school ended at 2:25 and chess club didn’t start until 3:00. By the time Martin started perseverating about his mid-year fixation with the little girl Nicole, he was in full meltdown.
That sequence, from seeing me to meltdown, took less than three minutes. Clearly, Martin had walked through the door cocked and locked, ready to fire. It took me about 20 minutes of sitting with him, calming him, and coaxing him with questions to get him to admit the real issue: It had been the last day of school, and Martin felt terrified about not seeing his school friends over the summer. I understood where he was coming from. I remember, even as a young adult, fearing the end of law school or of temporary employment because I would lose access to people whose company I enjoyed, but whom I would not see independently. Martin’s remaining social deficits mean he doesn’t get playdate invitations. The kids who play the role of friends during school recess would be likely unavailable to do the same over the summer.
Once we’d sorted out the true cause of the meltdown, Martin became apologetic. He didn’t mean to shout angry things at me, he said. He’d been like a volcano ready to explode, and the last day of school brought up bad memories in his head. So indeed, maybe he’d melted down at me because I was the safe space to do so.
The safe space who controls his life. That’s me.