This evening the conversation goes like this:
Me: Sam, would you like to have beef stew for dinner again, like Daddy and me?
Me: Great. Dinner is in ten minutes.
I am pleased that Sam says yes. I am pleased that he tried the stew at dinner last night. Trying new foods is a sign of health in our son, while rejecting foods is a clue that he is doing poorly.
We sit down to dinner. Sam looks at the bowl of stew in front of him.
Sam: I won’t eat this.
Sam: I didn’t ask for it.
I’d sorted all the vegetables in the pot and put the best-looking ones in Sam’s bowl, because he won’t eat them if they are mushy or misshapen. Ian, Ruby, and I can live with less-pretty vegetables.
Me: Yes, you did.
Sam: No, I didn’t!
I’d poured Sam’s serving of broth out of the steaming pot five minutes before dinner so that it would be just the right temperature for him. I’d taken out four chunks of meat, cut them each into smaller pieces so their size didn’t freak him out, and then tasted a small piece from every chunk to make sure that none of them had that gamey flavor that stew meat sometimes gets, which would also freak him out and end dinner with tears. There had been three volcanoes already today, many more this week, countless more over the years we have been navigating life with Sam.
I close my eyes and take a breath.
Me: I would like you to eat your stew.
Feeding Sam is a delicate experiment, not only because a particular meal might fail if something is not right, but because a single bite of something he finds unpleasant will eliminate that food in his diet. It happened with a spicy bite of chicken when he was five, and now, two years later, he gags at the sight of chicken.
Sam, his voice rising: You didn’t ask me if I wanted this.
Me, my voice rising: I did ask you, Sam. Daddy and Ruby heard me ask you if you wanted stew.
Feeding Sam’s four-year-old sister Ruby is easy. She likes most of what we put in front of her and is eager to try new foods. As I argue with Sam about his dinner, Ruby quietly gets to work on her bowl of stew, the bowl of stew which I did not check over, taste or otherwise de-fuse before serving to her.
Sam, whining: I want to eat noodles.
Me, stony: You can have noodles if you eat your stew.
Sam stares hard at me, then lifts his spoon to his mouth. His small pink tongue darts out to lick the spoon, then disappears. He squinches up his face and says: The broth tastes bad to me.
The words pour out of my mouth hot and mean: You liked it yesterday.
Sam starts to cry. He beats the table with his fists. Ian warns Sam not to let his volcano explode. The developmental pediatrician had given us this metaphor for Sam’s angry meltdowns. There had been three volcanoes already today, many more this week, countless more over the years we have been navigating life with Sam.
Sam yells tearfully that it isn’t fair, that he didn’t ask for the stew, that it tastes bad to him. Ian gives him a second warning. Something shuts down inside of me, as though my anger abruptly recedes, and I gaze toward the stewpot, thinking placidly about throwing my bowl of stew against the purple tile backsplash behind the stove. About how the stew would splatter, how the shards of the blue Heath bowl would fly. Sam lets out a howl and my anger floods back into the foreground. I excuse myself and go to the living room.
I sit on the couch, sadness and fatigue eating at the edges of my anger. Most days, Sam’s issues threaten to overwhelm me. Now seven, he has had a sleep disorder since birth, and gets up for the day, every day, hyperactive, between 4 and 5 am. He is anxious, depressed, irritable, hypersensitive and over-reactive, and has been all of these things — in some way or another —his whole life. We recently found out that he also has celiac disease and cannot eat the gluten in wheat, barley or rye, and so now is on a strict gluten-free diet.
This is the son we have, the person we have to work with every day. Most of the time we do not feel equipped to do this, do not feel confident in handling what comes our way from minute to minute. I am, however, a competent researcher, and so I seek answers. This is one thing I can do.
Instead of working at my actual job, I’d spent my morning emailing with doctors at Stanford University, the University of California at San Francisco and the University of California at Davis, trying to find a physician who understands the relationship between Sam’s anxiety, depression and morning insomnia. We have seen psychologists, psychiatrists, a developmental pediatrician, a holistic pediatrician, a sleep disorders clinic, an occupational therapist, an osteopath, a chiropractor, and a speech therapist — the latter for the oral-motor disorder he developed because parts of his mouth were so sensitive he could not let his tongue go there. No one, except for the speech therapist —who assured us that correcting Sam’s speech should only take three or four years of twice-weekly therapy — has an answer for us, for our child.
When Sam was four, he picked obsessively at his head until it bled, and chewed his fingernails to nubs. When he gnawed off an entire toenail, we took him to a psychologist for help with the anxiety that drove him to tear off parts of himself. The psychiatrist heard his story and said that Sam didn’t need therapy: he had sensory processing disorder, difficulty taking in and figuring out what to do with everyday sensory information: sound, sight, taste, smell, touch, awareness of his body in space. That explained why Sam gagged at certain smells, could not dress himself, had fine and gross motor delays. Why, as an infant, he had cried at loud noises, at sunlight, at the feel of wind on his face. But why?
We are cautious in the way I imagine an abused wife is around her husband when he’s been drinking, certain he will explode, wondering only when. No one could tell us this. I’ve asked them all.
One psychiatrist told me, when I asked him why: We must have a certain epistemological modesty about what it is possible to know. In other words, suck it up and live with it. But I can’t— I need to know why my son is this way, so that I can help him live a less disordered life. I can’t see where modesty about my quest to help my child serves any purpose. Except, perhaps, that it might preserve my own sanity.
I feel so often that I am failing with him. Trying so hard and still failing.
At home we do what the occupational therapist calls a sensory diet to manage his sensory integration dysfunction, and what the developmental pediatrician calls cognitive behavioral therapy to redirect anxiety and rage. We are trying to control his behavior, mood and sleep disorders with nutrition — he takes fourteen different vitamins and supplements twice a day, and sits in front of a 10,000 lux light box every evening. We have adopted strict timetables and firm boundaries and clear expectations because Sam thrives on structure. In these ways, we prevent as many meltdowns as we can.
Still, we are cautious in the way I imagine an abused wife is around her husband when he’s been drinking — certain he will explode, wondering only when.
Ruby finishes her dinner and comes in to see me on the couch. I lie down with her delicate body on top of me, her back to my front. Cuddling. Snugging, as she calls it. Loving. We giggle and I start to feel a little better. She is my love, my light. I feel fortunate to have her, my normal child, my sweet girl.
Me: I feel lucky to have you.
Ruby: I feel lucky to have you too, Mommy.
Sam comes in. I ask if I can talk to him. I send Ruby to the kitchen in search of a gluten-free pumpkin muffin (Omnivorous Ruby has more-or-less happily gone gluten-free because of Sam’s illness). I tell Sam that I feel sad because I’d asked him if he wanted stew for dinner, and I gave him the best vegetables, and I cut up the meat and tasted each piece to make sure it was okay for him, and he still wouldn’t eat it.
His face crumples.
He starts to cry.
I pull him onto my lap and lie back down, hold him on my body the way I’d held Ruby. He is larger and more full of sharp elbows and wiggle. He starts to sob. I stroke his arms.
Sam digs an elbow into my ribs and wails: I hate you, you never do the right thing, I wish you weren’t my mother.
My hands freeze and my heart locks up. I think: I hate you. And I’m going to bite off a chunk of the inside of my cheek with the effort of holding those words in.
I take a deep breath and try something I learned in parenting class. As he howls on top of me, I say, with as much gentleness as I can muster: It sounds like you had a hard time with dinner tonight.
He doesn’t hear me through his sobbing.
I sit up and move his body off mine, position him next to me and look directly into his eyes. Say again, slower: It sounds like you had a hard time with dinner tonight.
He takes a ragged breath and sighs in two parts. Says: Yeah. Dinner was hard for me.
My heart melts a little.
Lock, melt. Lock, melt. This is the tachycardic dance in my chest every day I live with Sam. Sometimes it feels like I just can’t take it anymore, can’t handle the overreactions, the accusations, the sobbing, the vast despair. I don’t sleep enough to withstand it. I ask why he is crying. I think: I hate you. And I’m going to bite off a chunk of the inside of my cheek with the effort of holding those words in.
Sam: Because I feel so bad.
Me: What do you feel so bad about?
Sam: Because you did all that work for me and I didn’t eat it.
I melt the rest of the way. His despair becomes something to feel compassion for, not something hateful, hateworthy. Sam starts sobbing in that way that is not easy to stop. I put my arms around him.
There are things we could, should have done differently with Sam. We should have gotten help with sleep earlier. We should have figured out his sensory issues when he was a baby, not a four-year-old. We should have found a more aggressive pediatrician who helped with referrals and diagnoses. We should have taken special parenting classes sooner.
And there are still questions. Should we medicate him? With what, when his doctors can’t agree on what is wrong? Could we have found his celiac disease earlier? Are we, as our pediatrician once suggested, making too much of this? But here we are, on this couch, in this moment, and we have not done these things or answered those questions, and I have to decide how to respond to the howling boy next to me. My boy.
I murmur: It’s OK. I love you. I even loved you when I felt sad about the stew. I will always love you. I’m not mad. It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay.
His sobs start again. I hold him.
Me: It’s OK. Everything is going to be OK.
He cannot stop crying.
Ian comes in and says it is time for Sam’s supplements. That Sam already has two warnings. That it’s not OK to let his volcano explode like this.
Me: No, this is different.
Ian stares at Sam for a moment, taking in the ragged breathing, the small face wet with tears and snot. Then he says to me: Earlier when Sam was upset we did some squeezies, and Sam felt better.
Squeezies are the sometimes-ineffective and sometimes-magical joint compressions that the occupational therapist taught us to do on Sam. They are helpful during a meltdown when words don’t work. I often forget to try them.
I sit him in my lap and squeeze him firmly: shoulders, upper arms, elbows, forearms, wrists, hands, each joint of every finger. Press the flat of my hand into his stomach, compress his ribs from the sides, gently press his head down into his neck.
He begins to calm down. Still taking uneven, gulping breaths.
Me: We will get help for you. For this bad feeling inside. We are working on it.
Sam: Okay, Mom.
I squeeze his smallest, last finger. He catches sight of a toy catalog on the floor and asks to look at it, sitting up next to me on the couch. He takes a shuddery breath. Mommy and Daddy both try our best. We don’t always get it right. But we are always trying our best.
Sam, opening the catalog: Is that a bouncy house?
Then, with more enthusiasm: Is that a pirate sandbox?
We look through the catalog together, and then I tell him it is time to go take his supplements. He does not argue. He looks at me.
Sam: I wish you could do my bedtime reading tonight, Mom. Daddy was giving me warnings. He thought my volcano was exploding.
Me, thinking for once it is Ian and not me who has missed a cue: It wasn’t your volcano, Sam. This is something else.
Sam: Daddy thought it was the same thing.
Me: Mommy and Daddy both try our best. We don’t always get it right. But we are always trying our best.
Sam: Okay, Mommy.
Sam goes into the kitchen. I sit on the edge of the couch alone for a moment.
I take a deep breath, and then go back into the kitchen to find my family.