anxiety,  autism,  cross-country,  high school,  motherhood,  strategies,  travel

Deception, Manipulation, and Bribery

J tracking the mile markers. I mean check out the amount of anxiety radiating in his body language. Right down to the finger picking.


We’ve avoided talking about this race all season. When J first saw the race schedule for the year, he immediately had a meltdown when he saw Willmar, MN listed. “I’m not going there! I am NOT running in Willmar!”

The anxiety runs strong in this one. I knew what this full-on panic attack in my living room was about–or at least I had a hunch. He couldn’t articulate it exactly to me–he was that worked up–but I knew it had to do with a number phobia. Specifically an exit number or mile marker. J has catalogued every exit number in every single state we’ve driven through and locked that library up tight in his mind. He has some mysterious association with numbers that nobody else on the planet has, and I knew the trigger had to be some number he had deemed in his mind as “tainted.”

I told him it was a long way away and he didn’t have to worry about it, but as soon as J got his XC goal book for the season, he flipped ahead and crossed out the Willmar Meet Evaluation page. Any time his coaches mentioned the “upcoming Willmar meet” he’d start to hyperventilate. Every time, I’d whisper in his ear to “not worry about it.”

In his brain, that translated to: “I will never have to run in Willmar.”

We had kept the Willmar anxiety under wraps up until a week ago, where I left J alone with his coaches for the pre-workout meeting. Suddenly the cat was let out of the bag when everyone (coaches and teammates) got to see J’s Willmar meltdown. Luckily everyone on the XC team (coaches and teammates) are really understanding with J.

Willmar was a problem. The question was what to do do about it.

And so Steve and I do what we always do with J and his severe anxiety over something.

We lie. We manipulate. We bribe.

There is only one real way to get to Willmar from Fargo. You have to take I-94 East. There really is no other option. But J was insistent we would never take I-94 East again, to which I said, “So you mean, we’re never going to drive to Minneapolis again? Never stay at the Days Inn by the Mall of America? Never go to IKEA or Trader Joe’s? Because you have to take I-94 to get to Minneapolis.” To which he looked even more distressed (because he LOVES going to Minneapolis). If he’s contemplating on never going to Minneapolis again, you know this has got to be a really bad case of anxiety.

So we lied. We told him we would take I-29 to Willmar. This kid knows maps–he memorizes maps–and so he knows that taking I-29 is an impossible option, but he took the bait. That shows you how weird things happen with logic gets when anxiety gets involved. J knew it was perfectly illogical–impossible to take I-29. But it appeased the anxiety in his brain and so he said he’d try it. We also promised him that we would go out to eat after the meet at a restaurant of his choice AND get a Dairy Queen blizzard back in Fargo.

We told everyone we knew about the I-29 plan and they backed us up and went along with it. Saturday we were able to get J in the car for the longest travelling trip of the season. 3 hrs. 3 hrs for J to sit and stew with his anxiety.

It was that morning, when J was finally able to articulate to us what number was bothering him. It was actually two– numbers 55, and 67. And within 3 minutes in the car, J’s logic took over and he figured out that we were taking I-94 and going to be passing both of those numbers. He started yelling and saying mean things (like I hate you! this is so stupid! I hate Willmar!)–and here’s where the bribery part comes in–we brought up the dinner, and Dairy Queen, and said if we heard another mean thing out of his mouth (he could still have a hard time, he just couldn’t say mean things) he would lose both.

The view back. It really is a gorgeous drive.

We plugged J’s iPod into the car and we listened to ALL OF THE MUSIC while J looked as if the grim reaper was watching him from the other side of the window. He tracked every mile marker that went by: 24, then 30, then Rothsay’s 38. Right at mile marker 54, Steve pulled over and I hopped in the backseat with J. Steve told J that we were going to get off here and that J “might still be able to see mile marker 55” so he should put his head in down in the back seat, that mom would help him cover his eyes until it was over. J hid his face in my lap, I put a sweatshirt over his head, and Steve drove right back onto I-94, passed 55, and by the time J couldn’t handle keeping his head down any longer he saw marker 56. I thought he’d be irate that we were still on I-94. There was some whimpering, but he was okay, and by the time we reached marker 67 he had pulled his hoodie up over his face on his own, muttering things to himself to block it all out, and then handled the rest of the drive to Willmar.

I warned the coaches that the meet might be an epic fail, and let them know that getting to Willmar would be the real victory we were hoping for this meet. J was still jittery by the time we arrived, but his race was last, and he settled down enough to run a good race. Not one complaint and he tried really hard at the end to keep up with his teammate! And Willmar is a killer course for our kids because in Fargo we have no hills! It threaten rain right before he ran (and I thought, “this is all we need to taint Willmar all over again) but we lucked out. We had Wendy’s at Alexandria. J handled the whole way home, using his own coping strategies (closing his eyes) as we passed those “hard” numbers. He got his Blizzard when he got back to Fargo. He felt pretty good about himself.

Finished with the race! One of the coaches knows how much J really loves Gatorade and has brought J a Gatorade to look forward to after a hard-run race. Seriously love the village that helps us raise J. We couldn’t do it without them!

Deception, manipulation, and bribery. I never thought I’d do any of these things or think these would be effective parenting strategies. But they are when J has an anxiety attack. Steve and I have learned (the hard way) that we can’t ever give into these types of battles– avoiding the phobia makes the anxiety 100x worse in the long run. Sometimes we have to lie to get him to try new things. Sometimes we have to coax him through it through really unconventional ways. We are always using bribes. But if we don’t, J misses out on life and the things he loves. Like running and Minneapolis. Making it through an experience like this is literally life changing for him. And that’s why we do whatever it takes to get him there. The weird thing about all of this is that it seems like, at some subconscious level, J knows that we are playing these games with him and he’s absolutely okay with it. It’s as if he’s aware at some level about the battle he has with his anxiety monster and knows that he needs help outwitting it.

I swear every meet he gets taller and taller! And look, he’s actually “handling” Willmar!

*As a side note, I just want to give a shout out to all of the middle school boys who made such a great effort with J when he arrived at the meet. One boy asked J if he wanted to go to a restaurant with his friends post meet (he didn’t realize that J would be driving back home with us). Another boy tried to ask J what music he was listening to while J was blocking out all of his anxiety with his music (J didn’t hear him through the headphones). I love that these boys are always trying with him, even if J doesn’t always (or can) reciprocate.

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  • Carol Forster

    You’re both smiling! Love your strategizing procedure. So glad he was able to make it through…a big hurdle. In this picture, you look like his little sister. ?

    • sarahwbeck

      I know, Carol! I feel so little beside him now. Yes, Saturday wasn’t so bad after all–we talked about that at Wendy’s and I took video of that conversation so he can remember how great he did and that in the end it was no big deal 🙂

  • Carol Forster

    Videotaping that conversation was such a good idea! You amaze me all the time! How is he doing in school? Classes going well?

    • sarahwbeck

      Yes! So far things are going pretty good. There’s the occasional “off day,” but nothing too crazy. He’s always saying hi to everyone, and when I pick him up after school, everyone is saying hi to him too–kids I don’t even know!