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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Food issues and binging 5 years later

Feeding a child is deeply rooted within us mamas.   It's almost beyond maternal and instinctual.  It's a part of what we do, and right or wrong, it's a part of how we measure our success.  And when it didn't go according to plan, it affected me much more than I could have imagined.  Being a mama is a huge part of who I am, and this failure hurt my soul.  

If you would have told me that we'd be having food issues nearly 5 years later, I would have thought you were either nuts, or that we surely messed our daughter up somewhere along the path.

Hmmmmm... which is it?
Tess was 12 months old when she came into our arms.  We knew (know really) next to nothing about her time before us,  but we do know that she was born prematurely with low birth weight.  At 12 months weighed barely 15 pounds and we quickly learned that she couldn’t sit up, pull up, bare weight on her legs and still had a profound gag reflex most likely indicating that she hadn't had solid foods yet.   It was the feeding therapist that said she had all the classic signs of being force fed.  
But these things could be overcome, right?  Nourishment, a high fat diet, a calorie supplement, lots of love.. we could fix all that, right? 

As her new mama, I had some anxiety about my malnourished daughter that just didn't eat. And because only a generous insurance company at best would pay for “feeding therapy,” we paid dearly out of pocket for a feeding therapist as soon as we got home.  It was one of the best things we did.  We learned how her lack of core strength was a huge hurdle to getting her to eat solids, and thus her physical therapy was critical to her eating progress.  We learned how to introduce foods to her in a non-threatening way and expose her to an amazing variety of foods that we never would have considered, (including straight mustard, pickle juice, and all sorts of stuff way out of the box.)

By her third birthday, she was eating enough to stay on her own growth curve; a curve that was 50% below 0 on the growth charts.  But a healthy curve nevertheless.  
She would not eat fruit.  
Not a single banana, applesauce, grape, peach or melon.  Not fresh, frozen, dried or mashed.  No fruit leathers.  None.  She had a peculiar relationship she had with food.  One of luv and hate.  She used food to control her environment, and she often refused to eat even when she was hungry.  We continued to offer her every food under the moon, including fruits, for years.  We encouraged but never forced her to eat anything and kept her on a high-calorie formula supplement. And after no less than 13,767 presentations of the foods she didn't care for and years of attempts, she began to eat fruits and a pretty normal-ish diet.  
Yet, as we approach her 6th birthday and the food issues are not over.  To the contrary, new issues are coming forth, and they seem to be escalating.  Mainly food hoarding.  Her middle-of-the-night visits to the cupboards, 'fridge and freezer.  Currently, every night she gets up when we are all fast asleep and raids the cupboards, binging on whatever she can find.  We've lost much money from the freezer door that always seems to be left open.  I've gotten up in the morning to find 10-12 otter pop wrappers hidden under her pillow.  A precarious stack of over-turned buckets and boxes stacked high enough for her 36" frame to reach the freezer door.  A box of popsicles melting between the bed and the wall.  An empty box of saltines and a bed of crumbs.  Every. Single. Night. this is happening.

So what to do...
Door alarms.  
Baby gates.  
Refrigerator and cupboard locks.  
These come to mind first.  Taking away the power for her to hurt herself or destroy property.  
But the more we consider these options, the more we realize that her eating issues are attachment issues in disguise, issues deeply rooted in food trauma.  Hoarding and binging are her way of controling her environment rather than releasing control and trust to those she loves.
She needs to control the food, even in the middle of the night, to feel safe.  
With some great advice from fellow adoptive parents I remember these truths.  Children who come from a history of trauma and/or loss need to feel safe.  It is my priority.  My obligation to her.  There is no attachment without it.  
So tonight, after her teeth were brushed, and after her brother and sister were tucked in, we went to the kitchen together and packed her middle-of-the-night snacks.  She chose what would go in her basket o' food and how much to put into it.  
A cream cheese bagel.  
4 saltine crackers.  
     I love you so much mama!  
A small baggie of grapes.  
     And I can eat this whenever I want?
A large baggie of cheerios.  
     Oh mama, you're the best mom ever! 
Carrot sticks.  
    I want 6 carrots.  No 7.  No 8.  No 10.  No 14.  Can we just put all of them in the baggie?  Yes, of course we can. 
She carried the basket in to her room looking around carefully, and ultimately set it next to her bed.  
And that night she went to bed happy and with a sense of peace that I hadn't seen in a while.  It was her choice.  Her power over her food.  Safety.  Security.  And it hopefully comes back full circle to attachment.  

I don't think there's an ending here.  And that seems to be the whole point that escaped me 5 years ago.  As parents we didn't necessarily do anything wrong or mess her up, and yes, 5 years later we are still dealing with food issues.  Our baby, adopted at 12 months old, is still working through her past.  These issues of attachment and food are intertwined and aren't necessarily "fixed" but a journey...
... one that we're more than willing to walk with her. 

I woke the next morning before Tess and discovered that she didn't touch her basket of food that night.  And for the first time in 2 weeks, Tess did not get up in the middle of the night to binge.  The freezer door was closed just as I left it.  And there were no wrappers, melted or spoiled food, piled boxes to reach the freezer door, or any evidence to be found.

Her basket of food, untouched and right where she left it, was her first thought as she woke.  With her eyes not even fully open, she reached over to touch it and promptly asked if she could eat it.  Yes.  She asked if she could eat it any time she wanted.  Yes.   And again she didn't touch any of her food in her basket and was satisfied to wait for breakfast with her siblings.  In a tiny bit of panic, she was also concerned if she needed to share her basket food.  I assured her that she did not.  It was all hers to eat anytime she wanted and there was plenty more of it for both her and her siblings in the kitchen if they wanted.  She suggested we keep her special food in her purse that day, so she could carry it around, just in case.  And so we did.

Over the course of the next 2 weeks, Tess still didn't eat her basket food in the middle of the night.  Although on occasion she would munch on her favorites before breakfast.  She still is sure to have her basket of midnight snacks next to her bed every night, but it now contains just a couple items.  And it's all her choice.  She just doesn't seem to need as much food next to her to feel safe anymore.  We find it interesting that she has never needed to eat the food to feel secure, just have access to it. 

My girl... what latent un-remembered memories are still in your head from so long ago?
They still seep in.
And we assume as the years pass, they will continue to resurface in different shapes and forms manifesting in various food or attachment issues.
And it's still okay.  


  1. Oh Nancy, that precious child, makes my heart hurt.We too are still dealing with issues at 6 1/2 with Madeline. I just finished writing my list of "issues" that we are to take with us to testing next week. Many words have been mentioned, ocd, autism,rad ect ect. You know this drill well. Thankfully today is a new day and I can put our bad day yesterday behind us amen:)
    Tess is so very precious and has the same deep soulful eyes as my Madeline:)

    1. Prayers for you and Madeline and the whole family that deals with the issues and letters you face. Some kiddos just don't handle it well and carry the scars forever. The the victories are all the sweeter because of it!

  2. Nancy,

    All I can say is "Wow!" Sharing this.

  3. What a hard post and a beautiful one. She's such a gorgeous girl with those deep, deep eyes.

    I think the hardest thing to learn sometimes is that there is no "doing" enough. That sometimes pouring all of you into a child won't yet completely heal a hurt. It sounds like you've beautifully arrived at that place. Thank you for sharing this with all of us.

  4. You are doing an amazing job raising your beautiful children.
    You inspire me to be a better mama!

  5. OMG could that BED-HEAD BEAUTY get any more cuter!!! Love the "time-lapsed" photos of her "triumphing" and "conquering".

    Nancy, what a poignant and informative post on how "deeply ingrained" being instituitionalized can affect a child even as young as Tess, and still be deeply ingrained. I LOVE your approach in helping Tess heal. I sat here with tears in my eyes and complete admiration for a baby girl that has endured thru it all and still has a beautiful smile. I also realize "behind that smile", there is still painful memories. Tess is not only a BLESSING to your family, but also blessed to have a Mom and Dad who "gets it"!

  6. This is such an interesting and in a way sad, but post of triumph! As parents, how do we know? Should we, shouldn't we. this or that? it is a journey of faith and trust.

    i'm so happy that this little girl made her way to you. and how amazing that she is content having her basket next to her bed... we also adopted and our son came to us when he was 18months old... he refuses to eat any meat.... i'm trusting that he knows what his body needs.. he does eat lots of fish and egs... so i'm not really worried about the meat...

    but yes... it comes back to what happens in their little minds when we go to sit down...

    i wish we all could live closer to each other to talk and share more... thank you for sharing this xx

    please give her an extra hug tonite xx

    1. I pray every day that God show me when to step out of the box. It's hard to know much of the time.
      And that extra hug, done!

  7. The basket of food idea is a great one, and I' so happy it's working well for you. Hopefully as she grows she may be to put these fears into words and use different ways to work through them.

  8. Thanks so much for this post Nancy! I'm learning so much from you and other mamas who post about their victories, large and small. Amazing the creativity it takes to approach certain situations with a child who has endured so much at such a young age. Thank you for sharing your journey, and I hope the food basket continues to bring a sense of safety and relief to Tess.

  9. Amen to the food basket. It sounds like it's exactly what Tess needs. Praying it continues to provide her with a sense of security. You are an amazing mama!

  10. What a wondering and insightful idea. It sounds like Tess is responding well to this. My hope is that this will open her up to you all more and more.

  11. Exactly what I heard about children in orphanages after WW2
    They couldn't sleep at night forfear of starving, and the nannies put them to bed at night with a dry. Crust of bread, and they were content knowing there was SOMETHING to eat when they awoke
    Such I tense fears most of us will never begin to understand, but our children from hard places know so well
    Thanks for sharing

    1. I had never heard of the Chris, but it makes total sense. VERY interesting!

  12. Nancy - we went through the same thing with our precious Addison. We would leave a box of crackers by her bed and she was able to eat them when she wanted. It was amazing the difference that we saw in her because they were her crackers and she was in charge of that box. It crazy hard to believe when our little ones went through before we were able to hold and love them.
    Stay strong and know that you're doing the right thing for Tess!
    The Kainz Family :)

  13. Our guy is 17 now, came to us at 3.5 yrs with lots of trauma, neglect, medical issues. The food hoarding was intense at first, eating til vomiting, then not eating other times. We too found the freezer door open, chickens defrosting next to the fridge, whole boxes of popsicles gone, whole boxes of pudding cups empty with piles of chocolate vomit next to it. Lots of nighttime foraging. He was very sneaky, we didn`t hear him many of the times. We too did the huge snack trays on the bedside table, as well as a snack basket on the counter for daytime, always available. I still think this was our best response. More limiting would have only triggered more anxiety.

    We also talked at length during teachable moments about the `lie` his brain told him, that is, to worry that he may not have enough food. We let him know that we would help him fix that lie with the truth, that in our house there was always enough food and he didn`t need to worry about that anymore. Despite his multiple diagnosis, including developmental disability, he seemed to grasp this concept after time (and lots of coaching). At his age now, we deal with some binging on highly preferred items, like pop, cookies, packaged snack food. We have no more random pilfering in the fridge, very little night waking. We mostly choose not to keep those things in the house to avoid everybody`s frustration. There is hope, I promise. We made it through and tell the stories now. We are on to bigger and better problems now, but still pleased with how we handled that one. Keep up the creative approaches that respond to needs, instead of triggering more anxiety, it really is best.

  14. It sounds like you're hard at work, but it's amazing how persistent a mother can be to do anything in her power to keep her children healthy. Not to get into too much detail, but my mom is the same way. And her efforts never go unappreciated. :) As I am sure yours wont either.

  15. I'm so happy for you and your little one. We've had the same issues, only it's the stealing from the pantry, not the fridge, thank goo'ness. We began to give her a fanny pack to wear around her waist, with foods she could eat any time she was hungry. She ate every bite of it, every day, plus all her usual meals and snacks. I'm happy to say that she doesn't seem to need it at this point, and, things are somewhat better, though not gone completely. Keep up the good work, and, thanks for posting about it. It's good to know that others are going through the same types of issues. :)

  16. Can you tell me more about what force feeding is? I've never heard of this and this post was so interesting to me. You are such a good Mom to let her control this situation. This issue could become really dangerous for her as she gets older, but it sounds like you're so wise, in the way that you're dealing with it.

  17. What an awesome idea, the food basket. The thoughtfulness, caring, and love behind that gesture and how she responded to it brought tears to my eyes.

  18. What a great idea, Nancy. Food issues with our little kiddos are so tough, but it sounds like you found a perfect solution for taking the next step with your beautiful girl.

  19. I found myself in tears reading this: tears for her struggle and fear and vulnerability, and tears for the incredible love emanating through the words, photos, and actions of her mama. Thank you for sharing.

  20. I am so amazed at the thought you put into this. I don't know if I would have thought to do the same thing. You are such a loving and understanding mother. Not knowing either of you, I am so thankful she has you! What a blessing you are to her life! I also find it so interesting that at 12 months when her life changed for the best, that at the age of six her previous life still resurfaces. Its more sad, than interesting, but its also a great lesson in psychology and the way our minds work. She's always known that you love her, but something in infancy still haunts her. Thankfully to you, she will grow to work thru those insecurities. :) SO glad to have found your blog!

  21. This is an absolutely wonderful post, and I continue to be so impressed and inspired by you. And because I failed to comment, I also want to tell you that you look absolutely WONDERFUL. I actually lost almost 50 pounds (hit that mark about 8 months ago), and it really does feel fantastic, doesn't it? I hope you feel as wonderful as you look!


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