Trying To Protect My Son From The Anxiety I've Passed On To Him

I’ve struggled with "bad thoughts" my whole life — and while I can't stop my son from having them too, I can show him how to live fully.

When my older son Griff was 3 1/2 years old, he would not eat food without very strict parameters. For his third birthday, he’d received a singing birthday card, a vibrating hamster who sang “Kung Fu Fighting,” and he would have to play this card, over and over, while he ate. As soon as the song ended, and the weird, skittering vibration of the cardboard rodent died down, he would consider his food, look panicked, and play the song again. Sometimes, when I am eating, I can hear that song echoing around in my brain.

I looked at my son, who was beautiful, who was crying, who would not do the thing that was necessary for him to keep living.

There were times when this was not enough. He would cry, sobbing, refusing to eat. My wife and I were still learning how to take care of a child. Our pediatrician told us that Griff was not eating enough; we felt judged in ways that only new parents can feel. We pleaded with Griff to eat. He refused. One evening, after nearly 20 minutes of steadily rising mania on all of our parts, I was overcome with a kind of buzzing numbness. My tics, head twists and whispered grunts, began to manifest. I looked at my son, who was beautiful, who was crying, who would not do the thing that was necessary for him to keep living. “I can’t,” he shouted. “I have bad thoughts.”

“What are the bad thoughts,” my wife asked, had asked so many times before.

“I can’t tell you,” he said.

“Tell us,” I said. “Just tell us what it is. It’ll be okay.”

“No,” Griff screamed.

Our table was so small. We could reach out and touch each other with the slightest movement. I thought about my son. I thought about my own childhood. From the ages of six to twelve, I could not eat dinner without reading Archie Comics. My parents would bring Double Digests of Archie to restaurants or to other people’s houses. If I did not read the comics, I had bad thoughts. I had a recurring, overwhelming thought that was completely ridiculous but prevented me from eating, made me nauseous.

I looked at my son.

“Can you tell us what the bad thought is?” I asked him.

“No,” he said; he was so tired.

“If I guess it, will you tell me?” I finally asked him.

He considered this. “Okay,” he said.

“Is it an alien, and is he covered in, like, something slimy?”

Griff looked at me and there was the slightest flicker in his consciousness. He looked at me like he both did and did not know me.

“Yes,” he said.

“Is that it?” I asked.

He nodded.

“That’s my bad thought, too,” I told him.

“I don’t want to eat,” he said, and, that night, my wife said, “You don’t have to eat.”

I don’t know if that truly was his bad thought. I know how easily he could have just agreed with whatever I said, just to move on to whatever came next, to avoid the questions, because he hated when we asked him questions. But I think it was his bad thought. And I think that because it was my bad thought, nearly 30 years before he was ever born.

It was hard not to think of him as me. And that scared me.

That night, after Griff was asleep, I thought a different bad thought. Here’s what it was. I had lived a life where it was sometimes nearly impossible for me to exist in the real world. I was scared of so many things that I was sometimes paralyzed inside my own mind. I thought about my own son, this wondrous person that I had helped make. I thought about that alien, covered in slime. I had pulled that image so deeply inside my brain that I had passed it on to my son. I had scared him. And I thought about the things in my brain that were so much worse than that alien covered in slime. I wondered if Griff held those, too, just waiting to make themselves known. He was my son, and I loved him, but it was hard not to think of him as more than my son. It was hard not to think of him as me. And that scared me.

Around this same time, Griff started to develop tics whenever he was watching TV or looking closely at picture books. He would blink rapidly, his head tilting to the side, and it would continue for minutes. He did not seem aware of this, was not troubled by it. But I could not stop watching him. I had been diagnosed with Tourette syndrome as an adult, and his tics looked a lot like my own, jerky head movements. While he was watching a TV show, my wife holding him in her lap, I took our camera and made a video of him while he was experiencing these tics. We sent the video to his pediatrician, who said that it did look something like Tourette syndrome, but that it was hard to say with certainty. I watched the video on my computer and felt a ragged, angry sadness well up in my chest. I couldn’t finish watching; I deleted the video. “This is because of me,” I told my wife, who said that it was so much more complicated than that. “I feel like he’s getting all the bad parts of me,” I told her, and she said that this was not true. We didn’t take Griff to a specialist. I did not want to deal with it. After two or three months, the tics stopped. “See?” my wife said. “He’s wonderful. He’s fine.” I knew they would come back, of course they would. I had them; so would he.

Griff looks just like I did at his age. My parents have a photo of me at Halloween when I was 3 years old, wearing a Boba Fett costume. They have it on their fridge next to a photo of Griff when he was 3, wearing his own Boba Fett costume. It is very hard to see that these are two different children. Or maybe other people can tell the difference. I cannot.

A few years before we had Griff, I had a nervous breakdown. My body would lock up, rigid, and I would make these strange, strangled screaming sounds. My wife would stroke my hair while I screamed, unable to move. Sometimes she had to call my parents and they would drive over and they would all watch over me, unsure of what to do. I took a leave of absence from work and went far away from Tennessee to McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, to figure out what was going on. I went to therapy, changed my medications, sat in rooms with people much younger than me, with more profound issues, and I tried to figure out how I would ever return to the life I had made. My wife and I had only been married for a year. I imagined a future where I never left my bed, where my wife watched over me, her own life ruined. I imagined myself driving my car into a tree, cutting myself over and over with a knife, swimming across a lake at night until I was too tired to swim, until I sank beneath the surface. I thought of much, much worse stuff, things I do not want to say aloud, even when I didn’t want to. I came back to Sewanee, not cured, but better. I went back to work. My wife and I walked our dogs in the woods, the world so beautiful around us. She wanted to have a kid. We had been talking about it before my breakdown. I did not feel capable of caring for a child. A year passed. The medication had normalized my life, though I still had outbursts, though my tics were numerous. My wife was 10 years older than me. We needed to decide about children. I said okay. I tried to imagine our child. I could not do it. It wasn’t a good or a bad thought. It was a pure blank, and I could not tell what this meant.

I have always struggled with unwanted thoughts, with horrible things that come to me, like a flash of light, and the force of it makes me recoil. When a bad thought comes to me, I have to shake my head, a quick jerk to the side, and then my wife will ask what’s wrong, though she already knows. “I had a bad thought,” I tell her. I have more bad thoughts than good ones. I have had a relatively easy life. My parents and my sister have always loved me and cared for me. My wife loves me and I am happier with her than I have ever been. My children are beautiful and kind and sweet. Aside from my struggles with mental illness, I’ve received most of what I dreamed of. But there are bad thoughts. And they never go away.

I have always struggled with unwanted thoughts, with horrible things that come to me, like a flash of light, and the force of it makes me recoil. 

Griff is 8 now. He has so many friends. He does well in school. He is kind to other people. In some ways this is how we are different. He walks right up to strangers and introduces himself, shakes their hands, which terrifies me, not knowing how they will treat him, what they will say. Just last night, Griff’s friend William was at our house, and when he left to go home, Griff hugged him and said, “William, I love you so much,” and I wondered how a boy who struggles with his sadness can make himself so open to the world. It makes me happy.

And Griff is happy. But he struggles with bad thoughts. He says, often, that he is stupid. He will hit himself in the face and head when he says this, and then lie prone on the floor. He calls us into his room at night, at least three times, to tell us that he has had a bad thought. If we ask what it was, he says that he cannot tell us.

This year, we met with his third grade teachers for the first parent-teacher conference. Griff was doing so well in class, and they said he was well-behaved. “But he’s our worrier,” his teacher said. His English teacher nodded. “He really is,” she added. My wife mentioned how often Griff says that he’s stupid or a bad person. They told us that he often says this at school. We explained how we praise him, that we try to show him all the ways that he’s succeeded but he doesn’t seem to believe us. “Sometimes,” my wife said, “I think he says this just to get attention from us, so that we’ll reassure him.” His teacher nodded. “I know kids that will do that,” she said, and I felt my body relax, a temporary reprieve from my anxiety. Then she continued, “but I think Griff really means it.” And I started to tear up, this crushing tightness in my chest. I knew what kind of certainty that was, and I held it in my own heart.

That night, I sat in bed with Griff and we read a book, and I told him that I loved him. He said that he loved me. We lay there in the bed, and each of us held something in our heads that was unknown to the other. I wanted to know what he was thinking, wanted to know exactly what is was, so that I could say, “I’m thinking that too, the very same thing, sweetie.” And he would not feel alone. And he would see that I had made it this far, had made a good life, and that whatever was in his head would not keep him from the things that he desired.

But I don’t know what is in his head. No matter how much I want it to be true, we are not the same person. I love him and his brother more than anything in the world, but there are limits to what I can do to make their life happy. I have bad thoughts. Griff does too. After we finished reading, I walked with Griff into his own room, tucked him in, and turned out the light. I went back to my own room, my wife singing to our younger son, Patch, and I waited for Griff to call me, a bad thought in his head, and I would always, always come to him, to stand over him, for however long he needed me.

Kevin Wilson is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Family Fang, named a best book of the year by Time, People, Salon, and Esquire. His story collection, Tunneling to the Center of the Earth, received an Alex Award from the American Library Association as well as the Shirley Jackson Award. His fiction has appeared in Ploughshares, Tin House, One Story, and elsewhere. He teaches fiction at the University of the South and lives in Sewanee, Tennessee, with his wife and two sons.

To learn more about Kevin Wilson's new novel, Perfect Little World, click here.

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