Pizza is disappearing into his face at an alarming rate. He is crouched in his chair, hunkered down over his plate, using both fists to shove pepperoni slices and crust into his mouth. It’s savage and a little scary to watch. He is coughing and gagging, but refuses to stop shoving food into his mouth. Any and all attempts to enter into his space to offer comfort or words of caution, is met with direct hostility.
This is not quite as alarming as the fact that he has left the table twice now, to go into the bathroom. The second time I follow him down the hall to listen through the door. Just as I suspected. He is throwing up the food he is eating. I reach up to knock on the door and am almost run over by the boy sprinting out of the bathroom and back to his food. I find him back at the table, sniffling, and shoveling food into his mouth.
I attempt to slow him down and offer to save food for him. He begins wailing and crying heavily. Between sobs he is begging me to give him cake. We do not have cake. I’m not sure what made him think of that. He is begging me not to take his food. I offer to save his food in the refrigerator. He clutches his head at the thought and I realize that he also has a migraine coming on.
He is my 10-year-old son, Carl. He is not at all sick, at least not the viral kind of sick. This isn’t out of character for him, but we have not seen these behaviors in about a year.Carl has issues around food. I am quite taken by surprise to see this today because I’m not sure what triggered it. Carl is sobbing in loud, heaving hiccups and claiming that I am “mad” at him. There is a huge blob of ketchup running down his shirt. He finally allows me to gather him onto my lap and soothe him. I start his shower and promise to wait outside the door. I stay with him to pick out some cozy pajamas. My husband gives him children’s Tylenol for the headache. I rub his back as he vomits a few more times. I clean him up and give him water.
As I am going through the motions, I am reflecting. We have seen this before with Carl. It’s a trauma-response he has due to spending his early years without enough food. Carl and Mary would often eat butter or croutons that they got for their lunches when they were 4 and 5 (and maybe younger) because there wasn’t anyone to make them lunch. They didn’t always have enough food in the house. They learned to survive by eating as much as they could, before their siblings could get it.
When Carl first came home to us, his trauma response was triggered all over again. He had been living in a foster home separate from his siblings. Living with them again reminded him of all the times they were his competitors for basic survival needs, like food. He would scream and yell at me during each meal. He would throw his plate at me, food, silverware and all. I learned to catch the knife like a ninja! Then we started opting for plastic ware. After throwing his food he would scream that we were starving him and tantrum. Fifteen minutes after he ate a meal, he would forget that it even happened. He was convinced that we were lying to him about having eaten already. He was sure we were tricking him out of meals. It took this little guy a long time to finally feel safe.
His food issues have included hoarding food in his room, his backpack, and burying it outside in the snow. Snow melts, but Carl didn’t think of that at the time. He used to bring multiple snacks to school and then tell his teacher he had nothing to eat, and beg for more. He was just always worried that the food would run out. We gave him non perishable foods to hang onto so that he would know he had his own food. I made a written schedule onetime so that he knew when the next meal was coming. We let him know he could eat fruits, veggies, and granola any time of the day he wanted to. We showed him where to find these items, and always kept a full supply, where he could easily reach it. Slowly, he came around and stopped the food-shortage panic. It took a loooong time.
I thought we were past that phase. The thing about trauma, especially early childhood trauma, is that it sticks around. Carl’s brain was forming at a time when resources were scarce and adult support was even scarcer. He is almost hard-wired at this point to take care of himself by whatever means necessary. In times of stress, he reverts back to these survival skills.
This last week has been almost legendary in terms of the food drama. We could even hear him rummaging around in the middle of the night, collecting as much food as he could. He is in the beginning of his “trauma narrative” in therapy. This can bring up a lot for our kids. It puts them right back into that survival mode while they face their past traumas. The good news is that after they face the trauma, they begin to heal, and their mal-adaptive survival behaviors start to fade. The bad news is that while they are facing their trauma, we parents are facing it too!
Today we had church. We made it through communion although part of me was worried that he might jump across the alter and gobble down all of the wafers. He didn’t, and I was proud of him. After church, I decided to take the chickens out for lunch. Lately, eating a meal at home never ends, because Carl will beg for more and more foods to be brought out. Since he knows there is more food nearby he will cry and beg for other options and generally panic and yell at us that we aren’t feeding him despite the 3 different lunch options sitting in front of him. Carl isn’t trying to be difficult. He’s just afraid he won’t be fed.
Eating at a fast food place is great. You get all of your food at once, in your own little bag. Carl can easily see what is his and how much is in front of him. There are no other options seemingly withheld from him, stashed in cabinets or a refrigerator within arms reach. Also, Burger King is doing a “chicken fries” promotion right now. There are pictures of chickens everywhere including a grumpy looking “buffalo chicken.” Carl says that one is him! Since I refer to my children as “chickens” it seemed only fair that I herd them to a location with the slogan, “We herd you were hungry!” Lunch went off without a hitch. I would even say we all had a good time.
I took pictures to remind everyone about the great time we had at lunch. This way Carl can’t forget it happened. I have proof! Other than that, Luke and I just have to buckle up and wait out the trauma narrative. It’s hard to watch Carl struggle but it will be entirely worth it to watch him feel safe. In the meantime? Pass the chicken fries! I promise to take a picture so that you won’t forget.
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.
**If you’ve ever considered fostering or adopting I encourage you to start your journey today.