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?

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Eating apples and you gotta love her first thing in the morning hair!
She didn’t touch fruit for years. And even though it’s still not her favorite, now she does.
It’s all a work in progress.

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, bear 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.
None.
Ever.
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.

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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 controlling 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.

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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.

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Epilogue

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 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.



Comments

  1. This has me bawling. We brought out daughter home at 8 months old and she has food issues (currently 13 months). She is not old enough to have snacks whenever and however she wants. But I do look forward to the day she is mature enough for us to work through it in those ways. Oh, my heart hurts for your daughter and all the kids out there who struggle with this. Man, adoption is hard, that’s for sure.

  2. we do the basket thing too and initially it really seemed to help, but the closer we get to finalization, the more sneaking that happens, where she’s getting nervous. Any tips to keep her out of the fridge while we’re sleeping? She’s eating things that could make her sick uncooked and that terrifies me. We even gave her her own drawer in the fridge that stays packed, but she’s going to the other parts of the fridge.

  3. This made me cry a little…because I understand that even years later things we thought we loved them through still creep up. Thank you for this amazing idea!

  4. Antinette says:

    Hi Nancy,

    Thanks for sharing your beautiful girl and your beautiful heart- I love your blog! I’m so happy that you made the choice to not lock food away, while I certainly can understand the impulse to do so, I often see it as even more detrimental to our childrens’ attachment challenges. When my now 9 year old sweetie joined our family at age three, we had some similiar behaviors and our pediatrician, who is an international adoption specialist, gave us such wonderful advice! Some of the things we did were: packing food for sleep (she never ate it but loved that it was there), kept a bowl of fruit on a small table in her bedroom (SHE LOVED THIS), and made a basket in the pantry that was just for her (the whole pantry was available to her, but she loved having her own stash). One thing she adores is having pretty glass jars filled with healthy snacks on the counter in the kitchen. She rarely snacks from them, but it seems to be more a visual reminder of “plenty” for her. One thing we worked hard on teaching her was the concept of plenty- we initially had to change from serving meals family style because it was just too overwhelming, she wanted everything in front of her and you could see the absolute panic to get it all in- we thought family style would be helpful, but were surprised to learn it initially upped her anxiety. So, we learned to fill her plate in the kitchen and then worked hard to emphasize that there was always “plenty” by mama and daddy getting up immediately to refill her plate when she wanted more. We can now do family style meals but every now and then, if by chance she is overly hungry (which we try to avoid at all costs), we can see the anxiety come back. We think her anxiety over meals might in some part be due to a practice we saw on a video another adoptive family took at her orphanage. The ayis brought out a huge pot of milk and placed it on the table and each child, it was a large group, maybe 20 children, would have to sit and wait for their turn to receive a ladle of milk- it was heartbreaking to watch, you could see the nervous energy and sheer panic in each child as they anxiously awaited their turn. Then when it was their turn, they had to stand over the pot and lift their mouth and one ladle of milk was literally dumped in their mouths as they struggled to get it all in and lap up as much as they could. Anyway, thanks again for sharing, this is such a huge issue and your loving approach will surely help many families.

    Best,
    Antinette

  5. sandy peters says:

    We lined our son’s closet with canned goods (with flip open tops). Tons and tons of food. It didn’t help, unfortunately. But he was almost 14 upon adoption, and his food issues are deeply rooted

  6. This is so increidbly similar to my daughter. While we haven’t experienced binging, we have gone through many, many struggles eating. So much like you we didn’t do anything wrong, it’s just understanding something so deep inside that might never go away. I never thought there could be so much satisfaction in simply watching her eat a meal until she was full.

    • It is amazing, Cara, HOW STRONGLY food and nutrition and being a “good” mama are tied to one another! I never thought it would bother me as much as it did. Because I totally “got” where it was coming from. Yet, I was heart broken that I couldn’t “fix” this part of her. But there is peace doing the best we can, and letting God take care of the rest, no matter the results.

  7. Thank you for this post. I have heard of a number of families locking food away (although I don’t know what they tried first), but this is one of the best ways I’ve heard to deal with this issue. I’ll file it away, in case I ever need it.

  8. Great job Nancy – and a perfect response! Might I even suggest a couple granola bars (or what ever meal bars she’ll eat!) get left in her “purse” all the time so she has them ready when she goes out? And it need not be simply adopted kids – one of our bio’s also displayed this “behavior” – and rather than make it a “sneak it” issue we did the same thing. today he makes better food choices than anyone in the family! You’re right – its not about the “eating” – it’s all about the “having”. The comfort will come with time and continued love. It’s not about the “parenting” style or things we’ve done (or haven’t done) as parents – it’s just about something they’re “stuck” on.

    Finally – yeah – just love the “bed head look”! ;)

    hugs – aus and co.

    • Thank you, Aus! Great recommendation re the granola bars. She’s very picky about her food, and granola bars aren’t her fave and she wouldn’t pick ‘em. Too much raw whole grain nutrition in there I think. But give the child celery and she’s in heaven. But yes, she’s more than welcome to carry her food where ever. And yeah… I adore the bedhead too!

  9. Andrea Ellett says:

    Thanks so much for sharing. In our adoption education, when they were talking about food hoarding, an adult adoptee was interviewed. He said he still, as an adult, always needs to have a candy bar with him to feel secure. He never actually eats the candy bar, but he must have it with him or he gets nervous. Your daughter’s story reminded me of him. She just wants the security of having access to food, and that seems to set her at ease.

  10. Christine Weaver says:

    Nancy, can I have permission to share this in a newsletter that I send to people w/ no internet access? Your post has much that needs sharing… you can see my blog at http://www.shallrunandnotbeweary.blogspot.com

  11. Ljdowns says:

    What a great idea. We’ve had the same issue, to this day, and my son is nearly 12. Question: the ONLY kind of food he gets into is sugar/sweets. In reluctant to give him a basket of sugar. What do you suggest ? Did your basket have sweets?

    • She definitely loves sweets, but we are lucky that he food of choice is carbs. Crackers, breads, goldfish, so that has made it easier. But I will say, that sugar isn’t the worst thing in the world! FWIW–yes, I’d likely give some sugar items too (and really try to encourage other foods too along the way) if that’s what she wanted and needed to feel safe. I’ll take her emotional health as a priority over her nutritional health any day. Again, just my opinion.

  12. I heard a story at an adoption conference about a famous actor who started life in extreme poverty unsure of the source of his next meal. To this day he still carries a candy bar in his pocket.

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