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“A New Beginning for Lee”

When prom was too much for my daughter’s SPD and anxiety, she decided to accept her challenges and her true self.

“Mom, do you think I’ll regret it if I don’t go to my high school prom?”

I pulled my car into a parking space at the mall and looked at Lee. My daughter, the tomboy who avoided formal school events, had decided to go to the spring junior prom.  Maybe there’s a little fairy princess in her after all, I thought, but I saw the concern in her eyes and felt her fear.

“You’ll never know unless you try,” I said, getting out of the car, pretending to be a lot more confident than I felt.

Lee’s recent struggles with sensory processing disorder (SPD) and anxiety had become equal to her ADHD challenges. She couldn’t stand crowded rooms, loud music, or being around the so-called “popular group” in high school. Would she and her boyfriend, who had also never been to prom and was equally shy, be able to pull it off?

Inside the mall, we stopped in front of a store where mannequins in formal dresses stared down at us, none of which bore the slightest resemblance to a fairy princess. Lee and I took in deep cleavage, tight dresses slit high, and transparent fabric that would show every curve and freckle.

“This…is…degrading.” Lee grabbed my arm. “Let’s go. I can always wear the blue dress.”

Over my dead body, I thought.  The blue dress was a costume she’d ordered for Halloween last year, a Scarlett O’Hara Civil War gown. I took a deep breath, and pondered my next move.  Try telling a kid with ADHD whose hyperactivity is off the charts that maybe we should be patient and look around a little.

I thought of Lee’s boyfriend’s mom who had paid for prom transportation and the after-prom party, and arranged for a photographer for pre-prom photos at the botanical gardens.  Didn’t I owe it to her to try to find a suitable dress?

“We’re going to Macy’s,” I said. I had no idea if Macy’s had prom dresses, but it was close by. The minute we stepped in, we saw it: a black dress, with rosy pink embroidered flowers, dropping to the ground in understated elegance.

“Perfect,” Lee said.

Prom day started early so Lee’s long, gleaming auburn hair could be styled into soft curls and her fingers and toes painted pink, a welcome change for me from her usual black. I’m not sure which was worse for Lee, sitting still for hair or nails, but when we returned home in the late afternoon, she was beginning to shake and feel a little dizzy.

I slipped the dress over her head, and we looked in the mirror—  a beautiful young woman, with no trace of tomboy, stared back with wonder in her eyes.

The botanical gardens were the ideal setting for the young, blushing couple. As the photographer snapped photos, I could see Lee trembling, but also a determined smile on her face holding on to the idea that she could do this, that she deserved prom like anyone else. I held on to that hope all the way to the mall parking lot where I watched Lee and her date get on the chartered bus and drive off.

Two hours went by. The phone rang.

“Mom… I’m outside.” Lee spoke quickly, her words coming out in jagged gasps. “I can’t go back. There are too many kids inside.  The music is pounding…in every room! It’s as hot as an oven, and there’s no escape!”

I sank down onto the couch. Why, I thought, couldn’t Lee be lucky just this one night?  Between SPD, which affected her ability to withstand loud sounds and extremes in temperature, and anxiety, triggered by the crowded school event, she’d gone into sensory overload.  My husband raced downtown where he found her in the courtyard outside the building, arms locked tightly around her knees and head bowed, trying to stop shaking.

Once home, Lee raced to the safety of her room, ripped off her beautiful dress, and threw it on the floor. She jumped into pajamas, got into bed, and started to cry.

I sat next to her, wishing I could take her into my arms like I’d done when she was little, when I could kiss away the sadness and bring a smile to her face. Instead, I said, “Lee. You had the courage to go. Think about that, instead of leaving.”

A few weeks later, Lee went to the hairdresser and asked for short hair, “a new beginning.” I fought back tears as long strands of shiny auburn, coppery in the sunlight, slipped off her shoulders and onto the ground. Lee was putting the past behind her, making sure no one would confuse her with the girl who had tried to go to prom. Sometimes, she’d decided, we have to accept our limitations when our struggles are too great.

As the last strands fell, Lee and I looked at each other in the mirror, and I felt a weight lift off my shoulders, as well. Lee sat in old shorts and T-shirt, her short, wavy hair framing her broad, happy smile. She looked nothing like a fairy princess, but her true self lit up the room.