My Firecracker (as my oldest daughter shall henceforth be known) was bitten by a dog when she was three.
Yes, this directly relates to the eating disorder, but in a roundabout, interesting way. Bear with me. 🙂
We were at a Bible study with The Firecracker and our newest baby, and she’d misbehaved in some three-year-old way. We made her sit on the steps while I was changing a nasty, leaky, baby diaper. Suddenly, I heard a dog snarl, The Firecracker scream, and looked up to see my daughter franticly trying to get up the stairs while the Bible study leader’s 15-year-old Collie had clamped down on her calf.
I left the baby to pee on the carpet, ran to my daughter, while the Bible study leader smacked the dog on the face, and got her to let go. There was a huge, bleeding bite mark on The Firecracker’s leg.
For years, she would not go near a dog.
She would shake, scream, and run away from the smallest little bleating yap-yap dog. She would cry, she would have accidents, she would even have nightmares about dogs chasing her.
All of this, in my mind, was a completely normal response to a very scary event. I never once told her, “It’s just a yap-yap dog! Get over it! It won’t hurt you!” Instead, I would say, “I know you’re scared, but this dog is too small to bite you, and I asked the owner to keep it in the basement while we’re here. Okay? Okay.” I would explain to dog owners, “Hey, I understand your dog is important to you, but The Firecracker had a really bad dog bite as a preschooler, and is afraid of all dogs.” Most owners understood, and some even helped allay her fears by holding a dog immobile while she pet it. “See? She won’t bite you. I won’t let her. You’re okay.”
One neighbor, however, had a dog nicknamed Juniper the Jumper. It was a huge chocolate lab that left muddy paw prints on EVERYONE and EVERYTHING. The kids, the postal carriers, the neighbors, and my new/used van all had the scratches and stains from Juniper’s “love”. That neighbor invited The Firecracker for a playdate, so I explained The Firecracker’s experience, and asked if the Jumper could be corralled, just while we were over.
The neighbor looked at me, bent down and looked at my then-five-year-old daughter in the eyes, and said, “You’re just going to have to get over being scared of dogs.”
We did not have a play date that day.
However, my Firecracker did gradually get over her fear of dogs. She understood that the dog who attacked her was likely sick, infirm, or otherwise crazy, and she has good relationships with her friends’ dogs.
As I’ve been learning about eating disorders, I’ve been amazed at what we *don’t know*. Until recently, standard wisdom was that anyone with an eating disorder had an inner need for control, and that they would not get better until they acknowledged that need, and asked for help. However, a couple of researchers at an eating disorders clinic theorized that a malnourished brain cannot reliably determine that it needs help. They decided to remain “agnostic about the cause” of eating disorders, and focus on re-feeding the patient.
This honestly gave me a lot of hope. Re-feeding is a horrible process, because as the body starts to get enough food, the patient’s behavior often gets much worse. There were tantrums, flailing episodes, a couple of “I hate you’s” and I still had to overcome her daily, hourly food refusals that usually focused on some detail of the food that wasn’t “just right.” The food was too hot. No, now it’s too cold. It’s too watery, no, now it’s too thick. I don’t LIKE it!! It’s DISGUSTING! HOW CAN YOU MAKE ME EAT THIS???
I would think, Dearest Firecracker, I can only make you because I love you, and I refuse to let you starve yourself. I know it’s hard. I know it hurts. I know something is bothering you…
Wait. What has her history been with food?
Well, the day she was born, she refused to eat. She didn’t eat for 36 hours, and it eventually took two lactation consultants and my Vulcan an hour and a half of holding her down and forcing her to latch on. It was horrifying. We attempted breast feeding for six weeks, before an online friend suggested she might have acid reflux disease. She was treated with Zantac, and immediately ate well.
(This is about to get gross, just FYI. Stop reading if you don’t have a strong stomach!)
At ten months old, we found out she had chronic constipation, and was backed up all the way to her stomach. She still has to take laxatives daily, to have any elimination at all.
At fourteen months old, she started developing a diaper rash that wouldn’t go away, which later developed into *blisters* on her rear end. Imagine what a diaper change feels like if you have blisters on your rear end. Then imagine repeating that process five or six times a day.
At eighteen months old, we found out she had an allergy to citrus, and the blisters went away.
By two years old, she became so picky with food that we could only reliably feed her Wendy’s Chicken Nuggets. Her doctor said she “probably” had sensory processing disorder, but it wasn’t “disruptive” enough to do any treatments.
We were able to gradually introduce new foods, but The Firecracker’s pickiness persisted. Oatmeal had to have *just* the right amount of water. Sandwiches had to have *this* brand of peanut butter, not that one. She could tell the difference!
At some point during the re-feeding process, I asked myself, “Could her experience with food have caused her so much pain that she reacts to food the same way she once reacted to dogs? Well, how did we overcome that?”
I started explaining aspects of the eating disorder to her, casually, in words she could understand. “Food used to hurt you when you were little, so now your brain thinks all food is going to hurt. Your brain is tricking you into not-eating. You need to tell your brain that eating won’t hurt. Eat all your cereal. Here, want another bowl?”
We need to buy stock in Cocoa Crispies right now.
I know a little bit about PTSD, and about strong-willed children. I’m used to explaining why I want The Firecracker to do something, instead of just expecting her do do it “because I said so.” I also lost four years of my life to selling retail jewelry, so I’m used to overcoming objections. Every. Single. Day. I’m also good with words. As I put all of this together, I thought, “God may have uniquely equipped me to help my own daughter through this.” That thought sustained me through the crying fits I’d have in the shower.
As we sat down to each meal, I would explain again that her brain and body were reacting to food the way she’d once reacted to dogs. “Remember how much you love Lucky now?” (Her best friend’s dog.) “You wouldn’t have touched Lucky two years ago, but now you love him! Don’t argue about the food. Eat it even if you think it won’t taste good. Oh, it doesnt’ taste good? Fine, let’s eat this instead. Firecracker, you love this. Will this bite you? Will this hurt you? Your brain thinks it will. You need to eat this much of it to re-train your brain.”
Finally, the breakthrough came one night when she asked, “Do I have to eat the cinnamon roll?”
(I wish you could have seen the relationship between my daughter and cinnamon rolls two years ago. Yes, they had to be cut up, just so. Yes, they had to have just the right proportion of frosting-to-bread. But oh my gosh, she ate them by the pound.) I was leaning against the dining room wall as she asked that, and said, “Firecracker, do you hear yourself? You’re asking if you have to eat something that you used to sneak out of the kitchen!”
“Oh.” She said. “Oh wow. I really do have a brain disease that keeps me from eating. Will it hurt me? Do I have to take medicine for it?”
I went into the kitchen and quietly cried my eyes out, while The Vulcan explained the nature of eating disorders in a more rational, unemotional way.
Since then, meals have been astoundingly different. She cleans her plate, and announces, “Mom, I’m retraining my brain again!” She asks me if she’s eating enough. She points out how “people who are really stout” in the media are always portrayed as stupid, lazy, or undisciplined, and opines that it just isn’t right.
I’m so proud of her. The Firecracker is not out of the woods yet, because I know that any compulsive disorder can pop up again. I’m still having her evaluated on the last week of April. However, the friends I’ve spoken with who have an eating disorder say that this kind of self-awareness is a HUGE step towards recovery.
Please understand, I’m really just making this treatment up as I go along. I had no guidance from official sources, except for the eating disorder’s clinic nurse, who said, “Maudesly re-feeding is a good idea.” I don’t know if there’s any research connecting traumatic experiences and eating disorders. I also know that this doesn’t address her body image issues at all. There’s been no therapy or intentional discussions on body image recently, except for our typical family culture that refuses to disparage fat people, or praise thinness as a virtue.
After she started eating again, the Vulcan approached me quietly, and said, “I’ve been fasting one meal a day for her, since her first rejection episode.”
I admit, I was pretty….
Please keep praying for her. God is working and moving in her life.