9/11 changed everything for nine-year-old Tricia.
At school, the little girl imagined planes flying into the building, black smoke billowing and the walls collapsing around her and her big sister, who was also attending school in a nearby classroom.
She felt panic overwhelm her as she worried about her parents being in an accident.
The boisterous, exuberant child became quiet and withdrawn, shadowing her sister at school and her mother at home.
“I had this fear that only my mom could take away,” Tricia says. “I don’t know how to describe it.”
“I would be in class crying, everything had changed, it was a different me,” she says, still struggling more than a decade later to explain the feelings that once overwhelmed her. “I could feel it wasn’t me, it scared me.”
Her mother Clair trusted her instincts, knowing something was seriously wrong.
“Right away, I knew it was a disorder, a condition, that needed to be treated,” Clair says. “It became my mission to get her the right help.”
Tricia was seen by a child psychiatrist, who diagnosed her anxiety disorder and referred her to the Shaw Clinic, Child and Family Service, Mental Health Program at Mackenzie Health for individual, group and family counselling.
Her physician began working with Tricia to determine the required medication for her disorder, but things got worse before they got better, Clair recalls.
Getting her to school was a daily struggle, her marks plunged and she continued to have crying jags in class.
At home, she lashed out at her family, often becoming hysterical with fear, yelling until she could hardly breathe.
“All those years, I was quiet, and when I began to get treatment, it all came out — just to my family,” Tricia says.
Weekly sessions at the Shaw Clinic’s anxiety disorder group immediately helped Tricia to feel “normal” again.
“I thought I was the only one, then I saw all these different people in group — we all had different (anxieties) — and I felt I belonged somewhere for the first time.
“The biggest part for me was seeing I wasn’t alone, that’s when I went back to being me.”
While Tricia worked hard with her psychiatrist, therapist and social worker to develop the skills to cope with her disorder, and her independence grew; she continued to require constant contact with her mother.
“I’m the type of mother who would do anything for my child,” Clair says with conviction, thinking of the many occasions on which she left her work to be by Tricia’s side after receiving a frantic phone call.
“As a mother, you are desperate. I’ll never forget how desperate I was to get her help, it consumed me. It broke my heart.”
School remained a struggle for Tricia, with her mom acting as her strongest advocate, meeting with teachers and the principal to get her daughter the support and acceptance she needed.
The anxiety limited Tricia’s ability to focus and severely impacted her cognitive functions.
Tricia studied hard with the tutors her parents hired, but as soon as she was confronted with tests at school, the lessons she had successfully learned at home flew from her mind.
“She would literally hand in blank tests,” Clair says. “My daughter was a fighter, she did not want this to define her. She taught herself to learn things — she knew everything at home — but when she got to school, she forgot it.”
Clair says the family couldn’t afford the thousands of dollars it would cost for the tests the education system required to provide accommodation.
As the academic decline continued, other issues began to emerge, including depression, attention deficit disorder (ADD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and dramatic weight gain from the medication.
“What do we battle today?” Clair says, recalling the realm of Tricia’s once daily struggles. “Is it anxiety? Is it fear? Is it depression? Or her eating her emotions away?”
In Grade 8, with the encouragement of her Shaw Clinic team and family, Tricia set her mind on accompanying her class on a trip to Quebec City.
Clair had attempted to prepare the teacher to provide the support Tricia would need away from home, but he admitted to Clair later that he had brushed aside the concerns about Tricia until he “actually saw the real fear in her eyes”.
Tricia cried throughout the eight-hour bus trip there and balked at taking part in the activities with her classmates.
Clair had promised Tricia she would “jump on a plane” to bring her home if required, but with the support of parents who accompanied the class on the trip, she restrained herself when Tricia’s calls began coming in.
“The turning point was that trip to Quebec City,” she says. “I did it! I felt if I could do that, I could do anything.”
She decided she would prove wrong the teachers who had told her she “wouldn’t amount to anything”.
“I always knew I wanted to be a teacher,” Tricia says, her face lighting up. “I needed that trip to Quebec City to tell me I could do it.”
“I’ll be a different kind of teacher (than those who didn’t support me). I’ll be very understanding, sympathetic, supportive and caring.”
Her marks slowly began rising, from 50s and 60s to 80s and 90s, and then honour roll.
“The Shaw Clinic taught me how to deal with my anxiety, but also taught me life skills, how to take care of myself, how to do homework,” Tricia says. “In that room, I was normal, and that was everything — they saved my life, gave me a childhood.”
Tricia finally received the educational support she required when she was identified as requiring an Individualized Accommodation Plan (IAP) on starting high school. Clair says, however, as Tricia mastered the success strategies she learned at the clinic, that support wasn’t necessary.
“An assignment that might take most students two hours takes me three days. I’m OK with that, I’m in a routine and the end goal is teaching.”
Today, Tricia is steps away from achieving that goal and is successfully managing her anxiety disorder. She is in teachers college, with a perennial presence on the Dean’s List.
She lives away from home and is in a stable relationship with her longtime boyfriend.
She continues to meet challenges head on — whether it’s taking the subway or planning an upcoming trip to Greece.
The deep bond between mother and daughter is readily apparent when the two are together.
They are proud of the journey they have travelled together and are deeply gratefully for the exceptional care and support Tricia and her family received at the Shaw Clinic, so close to their home.
“Once you’re in, you’re family,” Clair says of the clinic.
They want to share their story with others, in the hope of creating more understanding and acceptance of people with mental health conditions.
“Tricia wants to be seen and heard. Awareness of mental health has come a long way,” Clair says, adding she would tell other parents to “trust your instinct, trust the system, be an advocate, fight for your child — keep an open mind and you’ll create an amazing adult.”
As far as society has progressed in its understanding of mental illness, Tricia chose not to be identified by her last name for this story out of concern it could impact her career.
“I have no shame, I will tell my story and be an advocate; however, I’m here, society is there,” Tricia says adamantly, using her hands on the table to indicate a gap. “We are so close, but we’re not there, it’s sad, still people don’t understand.
“I’m so open about it, and (most people are) so accepting. It’s such a shame, I could be turned down for a job because I have mental health issues.”
— Debora Kelly