We used to talk about it all the time, to the point of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion. It was unbelievably frustrating and impossible to understand, but no matter what we tried, its presence continued to loom large in our lives. For several long months it refused to budge.
That’s when we tried ignoring it. Maybe if we didn’t give it any attention, the enormous pachyderm would kindly exit the room. Refusing to talk about the elephant didn’t entirely work, but it helped us function a little more peacefully.
Finally, at long last, though the elephant trumpeted loudly, stomped and raged, we were able to force him out the door.
But we still don’t talk about it much.
Fear is an interesting thing. It can come from nowhere and become entirely paralyzing. I watched it seize my young daughter and at times it seemed hopeless. I am not at all exaggerating when I say we tried everything. Except hypnotherapy. I guess we didn’t try that even though she was begging for it. How do you wake up one morning and inexplicably become unable to do something that was once as easy for you as tying your shoes?
When Natalie was five years old, she started hurling herself backwards in frog-legged back handsprings. “She’s fearless,” onlookers would say. It certainly appeared that way. Until one day, and countless back handsprings later, her worry-prone brain suddenly decided to send a different message. And just like that, going backwards became mentally impossible even though her body knew exactly what do to.
It seemed enough tears were cried to flood the elephant from the room, but still he stood firm.
“Do you want to just set this [competing on floor] aside and not think about it, or do you want to fight to get it back?” I asked one day.
She wanted to fight.
But as parents we stepped completely away and vowed to never talk about it no matter how obnoxious the elephant became. We would let Natalie and her coaches fight the fight.
A dear coach made herculean efforts with Natalie. He provided many hours of one-on-one time. There was progression followed by regression followed by progression followed by deeper regression.
Shortly after Christmas, Natalie went to the store with her best friend, Emma. Emma happened on a too-good-to-pass-up after Christmas sale and ended up buying an enormous stuffed dog. Because she always wants what her friend has, Natty started asking for a stuffed dog of her own. Jon agreed that he would get her a dog like Emma’s if she set a fear-conquering goal for herself. Natalie decided that if she competed her round-off back handspring in a meet, she could earn her reward. But when Jon went to purchase the dog, the price had increased significantly. There was, however, a reasonably priced elephant.
We’d long been referring to her fear as “the elephant in the room” but now we had a literal elephant as a constant reminder of our issue!
The first meet of the season arrived. Natalie started on bars and did a great routine. Then she went to beam and perhaps did the best beam routine I’ve ever seen her do. She was on a roll. Maybe that momentum would carry her through her fear on floor? No. When warm-ups on floor commenced, an all-out panic attack ensued. Between sobs, she looked to me in the crowd with an expression of “Save me Mom!”
I broke meet rules when I reached across the barrier and held my sobbing daughter telling her, “You don’t have to do this!” Finally her coaches took pity on her and she scratched floor.
The literal elephant when untouched and the figurative one went unmentioned.
The following Monday when Jon went to drop Natalie off at practice, another larger panic attack held her captive in the car for more than thirty minutes before he brought her home. She never did make it to practice. That was the final straw. The elephant could not be ignored anymore!
We decided there were two options. Because I believe in finishing what you start, walking away was not one of them. She had that option back in June. But she had since signed her name to a contract committing herself to this season. Furthermore, it was not the desire of her heart to quit. She told me that if she left now, she’d “always think about that back handspring that she couldn’t do.” But the fear seemed insurmountable. She was stuck.
So the choice was this: finish the season competing three events or compete all four events. We talked long about how to handle bumps on the road of life. We sometimes want to sit down and not go over them, but we have to push through and keep going.
We met with the gym owner and he encouraged Natalie to create a plan for floor for the week leading up to last weekend’s meet. I printed her a calendar and she set goals for each day. She stuck to it and seemed at peace all week long.
The competition arrived and floor was her first event. She followed her predetermined plan for warm-ups, which included using a mat. Physically it was entirely unnecessary, but mentally it was crucial.
Add to that an exceptionally understanding and patient coach who made himself available for her in that exact moment. (Typically this particular coach would have been busy with other girls on a different event, so the fact that he was there for Natty was demonstration of his concern for her.)
And you know what? She did it!
Were they the best back handsprings she's ever done? No. But that doesn't matter. The score didn’t matter, either. The mere completion of that routine was an enormous victory. And she even placed 4th all-around!
Though only time will tell how this war with fear will turn out, in that moment, a mighty battle was won.
The figurative elephant was kicked to the curb and the literal one welcomed into Natalie’s bedroom.