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© Jean Jardine Miller 2002.
I had enrolled both Kirstin and Robbie in an arts-oriented day camp at a nearby community college for the first half of the summer. Kirstin, particularly, had been looking forward to it despite her problems with school. She loved art and drama and could think of nothing better than having the whole day revolve around what she loved doing - she was not expecting to have any difficulty. They had attended a two-week YMCA day camp the previous year and enjoyed it. But panic attacks (it was many years before Kirstin's episodes of alternating hysterical immobilization and sheer panic were actually diagnosed as such) are not discriminating. They spoil even the things the victim really wants to do!
It took most of the four weeks for Kirstin to become familiar enough with her surroundings, the counsellors and the other children, to be able to relax and enjoy the program a little. This involved all the reluctance to attend, running away and refusal to communicate with staff and peers that we had experienced with school which, at least, ruled out any possibility of the problem being the school itself. It was, however, more frightening for me because the camp was situated in an area with which Kirstin was not familiar, making running away a lot more dangerous than it had been in our own community. The first day the unfamiliar territory kept her from leaving the area in the community college grounds being used for the camp, but on the second morning I received a call from her counsellor as soon as I arrived at my office after dropping the children off - Kirstin had left the premises and could not be found. I drove back over to the college. It was only five minutes away - one of the reasons for selecting it in the first place. I tried, unsuccessfully, to spot her among people and traffic, then decided that, since she would be too scared to go into such a highly congested area, she was more likely hiding somewhere on the mostly deserted college grounds. I found a public phone - these were the days before we all had cell phones! - and called my office to find that she had phoned but had hung up when she was told I was not there. I returned to the office and waited for her to call again.
"Mummy?" said the tiny, frightened voice when the call finally came. "I'm in a call box just down from where you go in. Please come and get me."
Every effort had been expended in saying that much. I told her to stay where she was and I'd get there as fast as I possibly could and prayed that nobody would come along and frighten her away before I found the call box. Fortunately I found it quite easily and took her home. The next few days were very difficult, but we kept working at it and, eventually, she developed a bond with a young counsellor, who worked extremely hard to win her confidence, and she began to participate.
An additional problem was surfacing. Robbie had been diagnosed as hyperkinetic as a toddler and we were used to his high energy level and the kind of escapades that bring problems for such children. By the time Kirstin had settled into day camp, Robbie was out of control - at three o'clock in the morning on the sleep-over night, I was asked to come and fetch him and not to bring him back. Kirstin, I discovered, had - after playing charades - gone happily to sleep. It had taken almost the entire four week camp period for her to win control over her fear.
The next morning, I let Robbie sleep while I arranged to have him spend the day at a friend's house. Then I called my office to say I'd be late and sat at the kitchen table drinking coffee while I tried to think the situation through rationally. I decided there was no point in discussing the problem with Kirstin's psychologist - I could not afford to pay for her to see Robbie, too.
Then I had an idea. When we first moved to the area which, at the time, was in an early stage of development, the church we joined shared services with another congregation and I remembered that the wife of the minister of that church was involved in child counselling. But, back when the subject had came up in conversation with a mutual acquaintance - ironically while we were discussing the behaviour problems of a neighbourhood child and feeling rather smug about our own well-behaved, well-balanced children! - there had been no need to know where she worked. I was pretty sure that it was OHIP-funded, however. I looked up the phone number and called her home. Her husband remembered me - he was a fellow Volkswagen Rabbit owner - and I explained my problem. Grace, he told me was away for a few days but, if I phoned the Child and Family Services Clinic at the local hospital, which was where she worked, and explained that Grace had directed me to make an appointment, I'd be able to get it faster than if I waited to speak to her when she came home. I did as he told me, heartily congratulating myself on discovering how to circumvent the system - this was the route for which the doctor had told me I'd have to wait at least six months!
The following week I took both children to the Child and Family Services Clinic where they checked out the toys and books while I told Grace how Kirstin had developed what appeared to be a compulsive fear of people, how the doctor had said there was no help available and, at my own insistence, had referred me to a clinical psychologist who had assessed her and, had since then, been seeing her once a week for nearly three months. I admitted that there had been no improvement but, possibly, another few weeks would enable Kirstin to reach a greater comfort level and benefit from the sessions. Meantime, Robbie was exhibiting a behaviour problem that had ended in his being expelled from day camp and I needed someone to counsel him. She saw the children individually and then explained how the clinic operated on the premise that one person's problem impacted on each member of the family and, therefore, counselling must involve the whole family. This really seemed to make sense. Robbie was six years old - how could he be expected not to act out when his sister was getting so much attention for unacceptable behaviour? Indeed, why hadn't the psychologist considered it? If she was making the slow, but certain, progress with Kirstin that she claimed, she must know something of Robbie's behaviour problems. I felt like terminating the sessions immediately but knew that psychotherapy could not be handled that way. I decided to begin family therapy with Grace, but continue Kirstin's program with the psychologist. Grace agreed that three months, in terms of therapy, was not long enough to evaluate its success and, while she could not guarantee that Kirstin would benefit from the two forms of counselling, her program would not jeopardize the individual therapy.
Summer ended and school began again. Robbie, who was starting Grade I, was still young enough for me to have a plausible excuse to accompany the children on the first day of school but, of course, I was really there to provide encouragement for Kirstin. Robbie soon ran off with his friends to wait for their names to be called by the Grade I teachers and, mercifully, Kirstin's new teacher came over and, after asking Kirstin about what she'd done during the summer - not minding that Kirstin was too nervous to reply - kept her beside her while she called the names of the rest of her Grade V pupils. They all went into the school. I walked back to my car, fervently praying that everything was going to be all right.
For a little while everything was!