Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Benjy and Performance Anxiety

At home, Benjy is a great clown -- when he's happy. He's an accomplished mimic. A creative performer. There are several characters he trots out on occasion -- the "G'Day Lady" chap (sorry, he's too bizarre to describe here), and the hungry, squeaky rodent, to name just two.

But performance -- academic, musical, athletic, etc -- and the expectations that go along with it, are a heavy, heavy burden to him. Homework was part of the amalgam of stressors that landed Ben in the hospital and then a special needs school, where -- at least for now -- there is no homework, and no tests. Any time Ben senses that some other person expects something from him, he crumbles.

When we realized he was a talented violinist, when his teacher was astonished every week by his progress, the speed and facility with which he learned new pieces and new, increasingly difficult techniques, he fell apart. Practicing became a burden. He spent half his lessons curled up on the couch, or watching YouTube videos of Gil Shaham or Anne-Sophie Mutter playing whatever piece he was working on, instead of playing it himself. His teacher learned that she had to walk on eggshells if she wanted to avoid precipitating a breakdown.

Now he has entirely given up the violin, much to our dismay. Today I will be returning his rented instrument to the music store. I kept holding off, just in case he would pick it up again, but those days are over.

There is nothing Ben has tried that he's been able to follow through on. Violin, video game programming class, soccer, basketball. So far he's still fencing, and three times out of four it's going okay, but I imagine when he starts feeling the weight of expectation, from his coach, from us, from his peers, he will drop out. Maybe I'm wrong -- I hope I am -- but history would seem to back me up.

The latest thing we are going to try is a Bar Mitzvah. We have a while -- until fall 2013 -- but already I am worried. This will NOT be a standard Bar Mitzvah -- anyone who's been to one understands the magnitude of learning and performing that's involved. It will be an afternoon service just with our family, maybe a close friend or two, and Benjy will carry the Torah and recite two short prayers -- the Sh'ma, and the Torah blessing. Saskia and I can teach him these -- no need for a year of tutoring like Saskia had. That would break him.

When our Rabbi told us that a celebration of Benjy, in the form of a Bar Mitzvah, was still within reach, I cried. I am not a deeply religious person. My God is simply the strength, courage, compassion, creativity -- the potential for good -- within myself. But somehow a Bar Mitzvah for Ben feels important to me -- just as a Bat Mitzvah for Saskia did. When Saskia had her day in November of 2010 we were so deeply moved. Of course, she is a very different person than Ben.She studied for a year and offered a beautiful and heartfelt "performance" -- tons of Hebrew chanting, a lively and thoughtful exegesis of her Torah portion (the one about competition between siblings, Jacob and Esau). She was a star, as she is in so many avenues of life. We just watched her onstage in the musical Oklahoma. She is a talented singer and actress -- absolutely fearless.

For Ben, there is rarely fearlessness. But sometimes he surprises us. He'll reach out to an older kid, make a connection. He'll plunge into a new situation, willing to give it a try even if it ultimately does not work out. It's just that damn performance anxiety that's keeping him down. I try so hard not to worry about the future. You've heard me say it before, corny as it is -- One Day At a Time. But how will he ever make it in life if he cannot perform, cannot handle expectations?

I'm trying hard to figure that one out. It may take me a year, or twenty.

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