Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Hunger Strike

People can be perplexing creatures. Shaped by a mix of social and cultural influences, biochemical fluctuations, and personal divinities, we’re creatures of routine and habit until suddenly we’re not. This irrationality seems to be a fundamental part of being human. It’s what makes each person different, lively, interesting. It is often a source of great joy. At the same time, it can be the genesis of real pain. Especially when you’re dealing with your kids.

Three weeks ago Pip stopped eating. At breakfast on that Tuesday morning he ate a half-piece of toast and then said he was full. He skipped his usual morning snack and then at lunch only ate a few bites of his sandwich before begging off with a stomachache. At dinner he said he was too distracted to eat. It was unclear exactly what was distracting him.

The next day brought the same thing, and so did the day after that. During each meal he would half-heartedly nibble a couple of bites and then tell us he was done. At first we did not think too much of it. Perhaps he was feeling sick or a little off. We figured the next day he would wake up hungry and plow through a couple days worth of food in twenty-four hours. But after three days of eating just a bare minimum of food, he showed no signs of returning to normal.

While his absence of interest in food was frustrating, what really worried us was the depressive demeanor that accompanied it. At the table, he would slump in his chair and stare blankly ahead or slowly and drearily move his food around his plate. His normal, overwhelming chatter vanished into a series of thick silences which he broke only to provide single word responses to the questions Ava and I directed at him. He asked no questions of us. He told no stories. He made no requests. He had no demands. All of the barely contained energy that makes him such a beautiful kid was drained away. What remained was an enigmatic husk.

Away from the table, things were only slightly better. He went about his normal daily activities – getting dressed and brushing his teeth, doing a reading lesson, playing with some toys, riding his bike – but there was always a crucial element missing. Every movement, every action he undertook was just slower, softer, quieter, duller than usual. It was like looking at a rainbow photographed in black and white. His form was present but his true animas, the magic dynamism of his colors, was gone.

This state of affairs continued into the latter half of the week. On Thursday and Friday I really began wondering what the hell was going on. I began periodically asking him “what’s wrong?” but this was a question he was probably unable answer even if he had been willing. I picked through my memories from the previous week searching for something that might have triggered this: was it because I had scolded him one evening for being too jumpy and out of control during our bedtime routine? Was it because I had gotten frustrated with him one morning because he woke up whiny? Was it because I had been spending more time with Polly as she was toilet-training? Was it because I had been less than understanding one night when he could not go back to sleep at 2 AM? Every little moment of negativity I had encountered with him over the past couple of weeks became, in my mind, a potential generator of his funk.

In the midst of all this pondering, I became very aware of the delicate balance I wanted to strike in my interactions with Pip. At one level, I was very conscious of the manipulative possibilities at work in his behavior and sought not to reinforce it with a heightened level of attention and special enticements. At the same time, I didn’t want to ignore the obvious and pretend like everything was just fine either. As such, I began engaging in all kinds of complex gymnastics with him, trying to do things the way we normally would do them while simultaneously probing him, asking him lots of extra questions, and trying to engage him in some kind of conversation. These efforts were not very fruitful. Ultimately, they just sucked the life right out of our house. In measuring every action and every word before moving forward with anything, I squeezed all the life out of the air around us, suffocating us in an atmosphere devoid of spontaneity.

On Friday, the situation brought me to tears. The precipitating incident came at dinner. After two bites of his food, Pip dripped slowly out of his chair and onto the floor. Then he stayed there on his hands and knees looking absently out through the windows at the front of our apartment. I got down beside him and asked,

“What are you doing, Pip?”

“Just looking at the trees,” he replied in a slow, distant voice.

I looked up at Ava and felt tears starting to build on the lashes of my eyes. I was done. Whatever it was that had gotten into Pip was now taking me down as well.

Fortunately, Ava had been working on her own theories – perhaps he needs a change in sleep patterns; maybe he is compensating for the increasing difficulty of his reading lessons; it could be he is just bored with our regular cycle of foods; perhaps he is bothered by sitting beside an increasingly active Polly at the dinner table; maybe he needs more time with four-year-olds instead of adults and two-year-olds. We talked through these and several other ideas that night and decided to take a more active approach to solving his funk the next day.

So, on Saturday morning breakfast was served with a few silly variations: oatmeal in a juice glass, egg sandwich instead of the usual egg and toast. After breakfast we moved the dining room table, pushing it from the center of the room to a position by the windows, and then rearranged the chairs such that Pip and Polly were facing each other across the table. For dinner that night we actively engaged him in the process of selecting the meal choices, preparing the food, and getting it from the kitchen to the dinner table.

The effect was not instantaneous, but there was some noticeable improvement. He ate more breakfast and seemed a touch more lively at that morning’s swim lessons. When he really perked up was later that afternoon after we ran into a new friend of his. The interaction was relatively brief - consisting mostly of showing each other how much they could hop on one foot – but it seemed to be the thing that pushed him over a threshold and returned him back to something approaching his normal vivacity.

In the wake of these changes, Sunday was a much better day. Pip ate his usual portions and went about the day with his accustomed exuberance. Then on Monday morning, he slipped. We got up at our normal weekday time – about 30 minutes earlier than on the weekends – and Ava and I started making breakfast before Pip and Polly got out of the bed. The result was not good. Pip was very upset at not being able to take part in the making of breakfast and by the time Ava left for work it looked like we might have lost some of the progress we had made over the weekend. Fortunately, Pip and I went back to the kitchen and started breakfast over again. This seemed to assuage him and, once he got some food in him, he went about things with his usual cheer.

He’s been fine ever since.


I don’t know what happened that week. Maybe it was a biochemical hiccup related to a coming growth spurt. Maybe it was a necessary break from an accumulation of unspoken grievances. Maybe it was a need to wake up differently in the morning. Or it could be something completely unrelated. We’ll never really know.

But, for the last two weeks Pip’s level of food consumption has sky-rocketed. Most meals he now cleans his plate and asks for second and, sometimes, third helpings. And the pace at which he is eating has increased as well. He used to pick his way through his food at an excruciatingly slow pace. Now, he usually finishes his first helping in about the same time as Polly and me. These changes are both a relief and a curiosity. I’m thrilled to have him eating with such gusto, but I find it hard to understand how his new appetite fits into the puzzle of his previous disinterest. Was his funk really caused by the food or the arrangements at mealtime? Or is this spurt of interest just a side effect of resolving whatever was actually at the heart of this crisis? Again, we’ll never really know.

Whatever the case, I sure am happy to see him bouncing around the house again.

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