When you’re a kid, and you break your arm, you get a cast. Sure, it’s annoying and a little itchy, but it’s a visible reminder to take it easy for a while. It lets others know to be gentle. Plus, your classmates can sign it with positive encouragement, and sometimes that can help ease the pain.
Anxiety isn’t like breaking your arm. People struggling with anxiety don’t always have obvious symptoms, even when a storm brews below the surface. Grace Ryan’s anxiety wasn’t always the invisible kind. She’s struggled with it since fourth grade. “It was really hard for me to get to school. I would cry and say I’m not going. I was so upset, and I would sit in the office all day,” Grace explains.
She saw a therapist at school who helped her through fourth grade and into fifth. But when she went back for seventh grade after a year of virtual learning, Grace’s comfort levels were tested again. “I was knocking on four different people’s doors to see who I could sit with so I could try to calm down,” Grace says.
Her parents brought up Amberwing, the mental health and wellness center owned by the Miller-Dwan Foundation. Grace’s younger sister had been so successful from going there. It took some convincing, but Grace agreed to try the three-week outpatient program for middle-school-aged kids. Preparing to start at Amberwing brought on a rollercoaster of emotions.
“The first day, I came home and I cried. I’m not used to talking about my feelings 24/7,” Grace says.
It didn’t take long for Grace to find her footing. She started to understand that what she was going through was hard, and she deserved help.
“It made me feel so validated,” Grace said.
Days at Amberwing included group therapy, occupational therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) skills, and art therapy. There was also time for schoolwork, homework, and spirituality. She says the skills she learned stuck so well because the providers at Amberwing, including psychotherapist Kaylen Knutson, saw her struggles and understood her.
“She totally got me. When I was trying to explain something, she’d put it in her own words and I’d say,
‘Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m going through,’” Grace says. As her time at Amberwing drew to a close, Grace was surprised by how sad she was to leave. It felt like home. Today, with her DBT toolkit and the confidence she’s gained, she says her overall anxiety is much lower and under control. “Before, when I got so scared, I would have to go to the nurse’s office or the counselor. Now I know that sometimes you just have to sit in the feeling and let it be there,” Grace said. “I’ve actually done breathing exercises in the bathroom stalls. It works.”
Carrie, Grace’s mom, says that beyond the care Amberwing providers give to kids, they also support families and schedule follow-up calls after the program has ended. It’s been a relief to see Grace doing so well. “It goes back to validation for our whole family. There were days when Grace didn’t go to school and I had to try to get my head into work. Amberwing understands and sees that,” Carrie explains. Her advice is to not wait until the problems become a huge struggle, and to not feel ashamed about asking for help because Amberwing is an amazing resource for families. She and Grace agree that if people talk more openly about mental health, maybe more progress can be made.
“I knew the statistics,” says Grace, “but meeting people with mental health issues showed me that I’m not alone. It’s OK. I have anxiety. I went to Amberwing, I learned the skills, and I came out better.”
It’s a reminder of the seen and unseen struggles those around us may face. By stopping and taking a breath, reaching out for help, or leaning on family and friends, we’re able to give ourselves and others the kindness we all deserve.
That’s what Grace does. And wouldn’t we all benefit from being a little more like her?