A Safe Space

Storm Shelter Sign
Right this way to safety (Image from CampgroundSigns.com).

Ryan has never been able to fully explain to us why certain shots-on-goal totals in NHL games trigger for him bouts of extreme anxiety.

Maybe if I understood why it bothered him so much, I could better help him through these episodes, but the explanation doesn’t really matter. What matters is the anxiety is real. The fear is very real.

What also matters is that we’re learning. Ryan is getting better at managing his anxiety when the fear strikes. We’re getting better at anticipating it and reacting to it. Riley has learned to offer soothing words.

Last night could have gone completely off the rails. Ryan settled in to watch his Sharks, who had a rare East Coast game with a manageable start time. Just a couple of minutes in, we knew we were in trouble. San Jose had five shots in the first three minutes, putting them “on pace” to surpass the triggers.

Veronica knew even before the game started. She sensed Ryan’s nervousness, a carryover from his recent struggles in one class and concern about his grades.

As Ryan’s fear rose with San Jose’s shot total, we reached into our bag of tricks. I reminded him to tell me what always happens in these cases — the pace invariably slows. Still, it was too much. He asked to turn the game off.

That’s the part that hurt the most. Anxiety prevented Ryan from enjoying something he truly loves. It seems so … unfair.

He retreated to his room to keep an eye on the stats. We have learned from experience that shutting off his access to the stats at this point would only make the situation worse. He was keeping it together. He was just very, very nervous.

As has happened in the past, my focus on the game changed. The players moved on the screen in front of me, but I was focused only on the shot total. The Sharks ended the period with 21, meaning a full intermission of worry about them being on pace for 60 — the magic tragic number that can strike a panic attack.

But not this time. Ryan talked himself through it. He self-advocated, explaining that he needed to stop watching and be by himself. He even laughed when I suggested his favorite team should be exempt from causing him worry.

When San Jose went seven minutes into the second period without a shot, the storm passed. Ryan never did go back to watching the game, but he went to sleep without incident.

Just before lights out, he was making one last check of the in-progress games. One other team, Ottawa, was also on pace for 60-plus shots. Ryan’s mouse lingered over the refresh button. I casually suggested that he shut the computer down and go to bed and not continue to refresh the page.

To my surprise, and delight, he agreed. The computer went off and he climbed into bed. I eyed the iPad on his desk and wondered if it was a good idea to leave it in his room. There have been times when it hasn’t been, but Ryan appeared more in control of the situation this time.

Throughout the evening, Ryan kept apologizing. He was sorry that he couldn’t watch the game. He was sorry that he wanted to be by himself. He was sorry that he was so worried.

If there was one thing we wanted him to know, it was that he had no reason to apologize. As I tucked him in, I told him so.

“You never have to apologize to us if you get worried about the stats,”
I said. “We are NOT mad at you.”

But there was something else I was searching for. Thoughts tumbled in my head before I found the right word.


I wanted him to know this house — his house — was and always would be a safe space for him. Free of judgement. Free of opinion. Full of love and support.

Dealing with the anxiety is hard enough. It produces a very real emotion of fear. The best thing we can offer him when the fear arrives is to feel safe.

These storms arrive, and pass, in a hurry. But when you’re caught in them, time can feel like it’s standing still. I’m encouraged that this one blew through leaving little damage. Our house is more fortified against the storms than it once was.

Not storm-proof, but safer.


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