As a student of mental health counseling, I often think of a diagnosis as a tree trunk. There is one, solid stable disorder planting its roots and from the symptoms of the disorder, a branchlike network of additional challenges and diagnoses blossom.
I have discussed sensory processing disorder (SPD) before, this diagnosis has planted a giant Redwood like tree trunk in our front yard. There are a multitude of symptoms that have allowed additional problems and disorders to branch and bloom, casting a large shadow over our entire house. One such symptom is sensory eating, and from this symptom a tangled grid of branches has formed to develop a new and even scarier diagnosis — failure to thrive (FTT).
There are differences between a picky eater and a sensory eater. The major difference, the most significant and frightening, is that sensory eaters would rather go hungry than eat a food that would disturb their bodies fragile peaceful state.
My son, Man, is a sensory eater. Most people assume that means that he can’t eat certain textures. We all know people who can’t eat tapioca pudding or cottage cheese without having a visceral reaction. Personally, I couldn’t eat shrimp until well into adulthood because that rubbery crunch gave my body the heebie-jeebies. But for my son, it’s flavor intensity. He cannot eat foods that have too much flavor. When he was three-and-a-half, he mistakenly grabbed a garlic-flavored cracker off the counter and before he could even finish chewing the first bite he broke out into a cold sweat, his eyes began to water, and his entire face turned bright red. His body was literally rejecting the flavor. He couldn’t eat for the rest of the night.
Years of having such extremely intense bodily reactions to flavors have naturally resulted in extremely poor eating habits and dread around food and mealtime. I mean, if every time you put food into your mouth it made your body feel pain, would you want to eat? In our house, mealtime brings fear and anxiety, not pleasure and excitement.
You see, from day one, every bite of every meal that has gone into his mouth has been prompted by me.
“Take that bite, Man.”
“No, you’re not finished yet, Man.”
I can remember when he was younger, I would bring him his breakfast on a Monday morning and think, “Here we go, 21 meals and the week will be over.”
Meals can take upwards of an hour-and-a-half. He laboriously chews each tiny little bite, bites small enough that he really won’t have to actually taste the food, while I would stand there, trying to stay calm, encouraging and supportive. If I walked away, he would simply not eat.
After many years, I decided that I did need to walk away and just let him be. Mealtimes were causing me such stress, anger, fear, and resentment that I didn’t want to be around him at all anymore. I forced myself to accept that he was going to eat what he was going to eat and that was going to have to be okay. I couldn’t help him in any way if I was internally fuming and freaking out three meal times every day.
That tactic worked for a while; he wasn’t growing a lot, but it was steady growth at his own slow rate. That was until our most recent visit, where we found out that he has begun to lose weight. Now, a seven-year-old boy that only weighed 38 pounds, was a mere 36.5.
When we heard the news, it sent me into a frenzy and I yelled at him.
No, I screamed. I threatened, and basically tried to instill a fear in him that would force him to eat better, that would allow me to remain in my protective “Man eating bubble.”
I am ashamed, and it brings tears to my eyes and an ache to my heart to know that I made him cry so much about something that he really has no control over.
I vowed to get my fear in check and help him in a calm and loving way. And that worked… for a few days.
Can you imagine what it feels like to have to remind your child to take every bite of every meal that he has ever eaten in his entire life? It’s exhausting.
Can you feel the anxiety through the screen as I even type those words? It’s palpable.
Like an alcoholic picking up a drink after a period of sobriety, I picked up my anxiety about his eating right where I had left it. It has now intensified to such a severe level where every morning I’m yelling in a way that humiliates me to admit.
Every meal, I look at his gaunt body across the table. I see the dark rings of malnourishment under his eyes. I watch him pull up the pants that are sized for a child half his age as they slip down while he trudges across a room and I yell. I yell out of fear. Fear for his health. Fear for his growth. Fear for my own sanity.
Mostly, I just feel and incredible guilt every day. This is obviously my fault because I can’t handle making sure he adequately eats each meal. This is obviously my fault because I’m not finding the magic cure that will make this all better. I’m obviously only making it worse by revealing my anxiety and fear to him in such a loud way and angry.
I just wish I could find a chainsaw strong enough to cut the branches of FTT off at the root, because right now, I’m terrified that this tree will fall and crush us underneath it’s weight.