Our Secret Key to the Food Universe

We’re coming out of another post illness hunger strike. It’s not a “strike” as in a deliberate avoidance of all food, more of a protective lock down to prevent undesirable acts of digestion reversal.  TJ’s tummy is sore, queasy and not in a very accepting mood.  It’s more frightening for his parents than it is for him.

The last hunger strike was around late January, after battling a bad cold for the team.  He was the only one who caught it and graciously kept it to himself.  It took until mid February to bring his eating back to what’s normal for him. Hostage Dad and I attended a meeting at the school, armed with a diagnosis of generalized anxiety and specific food phobia.  With the support of the school’s social worker, psychologist and his teacher, we put a strategy in place to help TJ recenter and prepare for the school day after his harrowing two minute bus ride.  A whole lot can go very wrong for a high reactant child in 120 seconds.  It gets worse with an empty belly.

The Scream

Edvard Munch’s The Scream

The suggestions that are working at the moment involve letting TJ have a comfort object (toy) that he can bring into the classroom.  He likes to show his toy how to write and how well he can read.  He is given some time to play after he gets out of his winter gear, and before he joins the class and the lesson in progress.  

Also permitted will be special lunches when the school allows catered lunches for students who request them.  There is nothing on the menu that he would eat, however, the novelty of seeing lunch brought to specific students is adding to the uncomfortable stress he experiences around food.  The school will overlook their no junk food rule so he can have a packet of potato chips, or some other “forbidden” treat on these special lunch days.

TJ also has the support of a psychologist that he sees once a week.  They have met twice at home, where TJ has been very open and accepting of this new “friend” of mom and dad’s.  We have a Feeling’s Chart taped to the wall so TJ can express his emotions when he is overwhelmed.  He’s been overwhelmed at lot in the last few days.

Whether it was the result of illness or over-stimulation, we’re not quite sure, as the vomit was brief, and a fever was absent.  He had spent Saturday afternoon with the neighbour playing LEGO Star Wars on the Wii.  Before you chastise me for allowing my 7 year old to sit entranced in front of a video game, I challenge anyone to keep up with his activity and energy.  The continuous bouncing, leaping, victory celebrations and movement required to operate the on-screen characters would challenge athletes of Olympic calibre.  He had also eaten very little all day.  He was sick Saturday night after finally settling down for bedtime. By Tuesday afternoon, with the exception of a bite here and a nibble there, he had still not eaten.

TJ met the psychologist at his office on Tuesday afternoon. The openness he had demonstrated at home was replaced by shy, clingy behaviour, followed by hyperactivity and a chair leaping demonstration that broke Hostage Dad’s new glasses.  The psychologist and I need to discuss which avenue is best, cooperation in a safe but distracting place, or unwillingness and destruction in a sterile environment.  We also need to assess if this was TJ’s reaction to unfamiliar scenery or the result of not eating for two and a half days.

Two. And. A. Half. Days.

george's secret key to universe by Lucy & Stephen Hawking

He trailed off and gazed into the distance, the way he did when he was having an idea. “I’ve got it!” he cried, sounding very excited. “I know what we need to do! Hold on, George, I’ve got a plan.”

On the way home from the psychologist, TJ ate an entire a bagel while Hostage Dad had his glasses repaired. Perhaps the biggest milestone we have achieved is embracing a feeding strategy based on trust as a family. Removing the pressure on what foods to serve and focusing on how to eat gives me enough confidence to know that eventually, he will start eating again.  I still worry like only a mother can. I won’t deny that watching him take a sip of chocolate milk and hearing him announce that he’s full isn’t disconcerting, but I am learning to trust him.  After lightly snacking on Wednesday’s breakfast and lunch, TJ devoured 3 pancakes and an entire glass of chocolate milk for dinner.  He also asked for strawberries.  The first food that has ever been rejected to make a fully accepted comeback.

That night, as I was snuggling in for my bedtime hugs and kisses before Hostage Dad reads another chapter from George’s Secret Key to the Universe, TJ asked me a very strange question.

“What does honeydew taste like?”

Where this question came from, I can’t explain, but it would only be fair to let him discover the answer for himself.

Inquiries about food remind me how far we’ve come in a relatively short time. TJ has had occasional open windows of willingness over the years.  He would be open to trying something that looked appealing, but once he tasted something that he didn’t like, the window would slam shut with a serious of almost audible clicks and clangs, and would remain shut for months on end.  If we had two open windows a year, we considered that luck. None were open for longer than a week, possibly two at the most.

This latest window has been open for several months.  He’s come across some things that weren’t palatable and still, the window remains open.

This is where giving TJ control over how much he eats and trusting him to eat as much as he feels he needs to leads.  His exploration of unfamiliar food has branched out from the very safe circle of breads, cookies and muffins into the bold new territories of cheese and fruit.

This is our secret key to the Universe, one that has opened up a well fortified door, guarded by fear, into a strange and wonderful world of unfamiliar food.  We no longer dine with a monster. Our key has unlocked something I never dreamed I would ever know.



3 responses to “Our Secret Key to the Food Universe

  1. So inspiring! Thank you for sharing your journey, and how scary it still is, particularly with illness. My heart is with you on those scary, scary days. What is it that keeps you in those times of true fear from resorting back to pressure and anything to get those bites in?? So many clients get terrified and lose hope… Thank you for sharing hope! Oh, and I’m sure you’re there already, but when kids have a GI thing going on, or a viral illness, all bets are off! I skip the structure, and allow them to eat or drink whenever and whatever is appealing (within reason). Popsicles, pudding, ice-cream, fruit, noodle soup, and as the child gets better, get gradually back to the routine. I’ve been thankful over the years for the DOR, so that I didn’t push M to eat. Usually a day or so after the decreased intake, she would start puking or have the runny nose. Glad I didn’t have to look back and think, “Oh, she was getting sick, I guess I shouldn’t have made her eat more…”
    Oh, and the Wii is awesome, and I hope no one would throw shade your way for letting him have fun with a friend over a video game! Us moms are so hard on one another sometimes! I remember when M was 11 months old, and had a GI bug that kept us housebound for 11 days. We learned to like TV that week, for my sanity mostly… 🙂 It’s all good.

    • Thank you. 🙂 It’s only recently that I have learned to respect just how much even small amounts of pressure can derail TJ’s eating. At times when eating will be very stressful for him, as in trying a new food, even being in the presence of other people, even those he trusts implicitly, can seem like pressure to him. There is no such thing as “getting those bites in”. Force equals not eating. A two cracker dinner is still better than no food for days. We’re not going back there.

      I really love how both you and Ellyn Satter preach flexibility. Like when TJ said he was hungry after declining a snack and an hour before dinner. Had I taken a rigid approach and said, “We’ll be eating in an hour, the kitchen is closed now,” that would be enough pressure to put him off his dinner. He’s quite the delicate subject, my boy. Instead, I handed him a bun and the chocolate spread he wanted and a new cream cheese spread and left him alone. He inspected that cream cheese spread with meticulous care, and eventually put it on his bun and ate it! 🙂 Onward, to melon and beyond!!!

    • Sounds like you knew exactly what to do! I think it it was the second time in my child’s life I heard, “I’m hungry,” I would have taken notice and made sure to do whatever was necessary. Kudos for trusting what he needed (and you too…)

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