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  • Writer's pictureHaim Omer

Some personal experiences that helped me develop my approach to anxious children and helpless parent

I was a deeply anxious child. I was taken to a psychiatrist at the age of 5. Well, it didn't help at all. But perhaps it taught me that "normal" therapies are not very helpful against anxiety. In fact I remained highly anxious well into my 20s! The fact that I developed NVR has led some people to ask me where did I find the courage. Maybe I had an inner core of bravery all along? Maybe I was a little Gandhi as a child or adolescent? No I wasn't. I had no heroic inner core, not the slightest echo of a shadow of a heroic inkling. There were also no heroes (in the usual sense) in my family. I was born in 1949 and my parents were survivors of the Shoah. My father was a "graduate" from the Warsaw ghetto. Later, both he and my mother were inmates of the Skargisko Concentration Camp (a Nazi ammunition factory in Poland). Their families were almost completely wiped out. My mother lost both parents and six siblings in a single day. I was born when the ashes were still warm. My parents knew all too well what it means to be victims, to be completely at the mercy of absolutely arbitrary power, not only from the Nazi commanders, but also from Polish foremen and Jewish Kapos. They stood at the lowest rung of the pecking order. My father sometimes told stories of how he succeeded in cheating the oppressors by brilliant ruses, but his stories were not very credible. Even as a child I didn't really believe them. My uncle was with him and he told me how it really was. Anyone with some power could do with them whatever they wanted. If anything, what I learned from my family is what it means to be weak, oppressed and in total and abject fear. And yet, they survived! I admired them for that. But I never thought that I would have survived in similar conditions.

As a child I had a terrible fear of violence. I lived in horror of anyone who behaved like a bully. I also suffered from fears of supernatural beings (especially vampires). I was afraid of high places and of deep water. But I probably learned something from those fears. I learned that acceptance and understanding do not really help, at least not enough. I also learned that the protection that a child can get, for instance, by sleeping in his parents' bed, doesn't help. On the contrary. When I had severe night fears, I'd crawl into my parents' bed. But it turned out to be a pretty bad experience. My mom was very anxious and overprotective. She reacted strongly to my anxiety, but with a kind of nervous, helpless and irritated echo. I experienced with her what I later named "the alliance of fears", meaning that when parents react anxiously to the child's anxiety, the child's anxiety becomes the product of his original anxiety multiplied by that of the parents. My mom was overprotective in a disturbed way. I could see in her eyes, how frightened, helpless and nervous she felt, when I was afraid. Would it be better if she had allowed me to nestle in her bosom, hugging me, soothing me and accepting me as I was? I don't think so. I think this would only make it more comfortable for my fears, but that I wouldn't learn to cope with them. "Luckily" whenever I crawled into my parents' bed at night, the situation was very uncomfortable. My mother suffered from insomnia and if I made the slightest movement, she would get nervous, rant and push me to my father's side. My father snored loudly, and as I had awakened my mother, she would turn her anger against my father's snoring. So sleeping in their bed was a very bad solution. The utter discomfort of that situation helped me to learn how to sleep in my own bed. And I got better at it with time. If my parents had accommodated to my fears in a "better" way, I'd probably remain unable to stay overnight with friends or in summer camp, as I did with great joy when I was a little older.

And yet, my early fears and my "identification with the victims" (virtually everybody in my early surroundings were Holocaust victims) probably helped me to my sense of mission. I developed a deep need to support victims. I knew from personal experience that pitying and overprotecting the victim was no solution. I also knew that "throwing the child into the water, so as to make her swim" was a bad idea. I knew too that the example of the "Karate-kid", that is, training the weakling so that he gets stronger than the bullies, was totally irrelevant (at least for me). So how could the victims be supported? I yearned for such support as a child, for someone that would stand by my side, not be afraid of my fears and make me feel stronger without overprotecting me.

My closest friend Nahi Alon (he co-authored with me the books "Constructing therapeutic narratives" and "The psychology of demonization") gave me some unforgettable experiences of turning weakness into strength. The first occurred during my basic training in the Israeli army. I was a new immigrant to Israel and was much less prepared to the army experience than my Israeli mates. In my second week of training I had a challenge that seemed unsurmountable. It was just before we were to be sent back home for the weekend. Before entering the bus, we had to do a last exercise in which each of us had to carry another soldier on his shoulders for about 500 meters. My commander knew that I wasn't very strong, so he gave me an "easy burden". This small guy proved strong enough to lift me up and carry me on his shoulders. Then my turn came and I couldn't lift him up. I tried hard, even got back pains for my efforts, but nothing worked. They allowed me to board the bus, but told me that on my return I'd have to do the exercise. In the way home I felt completely helpless. The failure burnt inside me, I was trembling, the coming week seemed like an unsurmountable hurdle. I was the only one that failed. During the weekend I met with Nahi. He was 5 years older than me, a kind of older brother, to whom I looked up to in admiration. He asked me to show me how I had tried to lift the other soldier by trying to lift him up. This was ridiculous, Nahi was much bigger and heavier than the guy I had failed to lift up. Nahi told me he only wanted to see how I was doing it. I tried to lift him, and Nahi saw right away what I was doing wrong. I was trying to lift him with my back, instead of using my leg muscles. That was the reason for my back pain and my weakness. He showed me how to use the leg muscles and, lo, I lifted him up! I could walk, I could even run, so I started to run like mad around the room with Nahi on my back! He was frightened, he thought he would fall! I had proved dangerous, like the sorcerer's apprentice! But I never forgot the lesson. Nahi had shown me how, in order to support, one should stand behind or at the side of the other person, instead of serving as a shield between him and the frightening factor. That's the difference between support and overprotection.

This happened in 1969. In 1982 I had another formative experience with Nahi. We had climbed down the Grand Canyon and spent the night at the bottom. It had been a hard trek for me and I had bad pains in my knees. I couldn't imagine how I'd be able to climb back in the morning. Nahi said that for sure no helicopter would come to pick us up. He added that we'd find a solution (would he carry me on his shoulders?). In the morning he said to me: You go ahead of me, I'll be a few steps behind you. You give the pace, keep it always the same. Keep pacing yourself in your mind "right... left... right... left...", keep the same rhythm throughout. I'll walk behind at exactly the same pace. We went up and I didn't feel any pains. When we got to the rim of the canyon, I felt the knee pains again and they remained for a whole week. But during the 4-5 hours of "right... left..." I felt no pain, I only felt Nahi's presence behind me. That showed again how the supporter should position himself. He was behind me, but I gave the pace that was good for me. This is the perfect metaphor for how one should support instead of overprotecting. The parent should stand behind the child (or shoulder to shoulder with him), and the child can then give the pace. In both experiences with Nahi I found out that I could do what I had previously thought was impossible. It took me many years to crystallize those experiences into a treatment approach. But they were at the back of my mind when I started working with the helpless parents of anxious children. I had been there myself.

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