When the Pterodactyl was a toddler, he’d often wake during the night screaming like his head was on fire. He sounded like – duh – a baby pterodactyl. Trying to soothe him was futile; he flailed and wailed, his brown hair slick with sweat as he tried to climb out of his mental pit of despair. Hot Firefighter Husband whispered sweet calming words that floated up into oblivion: It’s okay, darling, we’re here…It’s Mommy and Daddy….Shhh, shhh, we’ve got you…..and I held him for long, long minutes, rubbing his back, assuring him of my presence. Eventually he would drift back to sleep, and for all I know, back into the tortuous grasp of some terrible, terrible memory. He never really woke up during those episodes, and I assumed they were night terrors, a well-known but relatively rare phenomenon that occurs in a small percentage of children as they transition into REM sleep.
He outgrew these nightmares, or whatever they were; but he never stopped having these violent, terrifying tantrums in which he ceases to be his sweet, smart self. Listen – he’s an Honor Roll student. Polite as the spawn of Emily fucking Post to complete strangers. Charming and witty to his friends’ parents. Witty! How many 9-year-olds are witty? And yet he has fallen apart when there’s crust left on his sandwich and threatened to BREAK THIS ENTIRE HOUSE because his Pokemon cards are missing.
Many of you know how hard we’ve worked to overcome whatever demons plague him. We’ve seen psychologists and psychiatrists and neurologists; I bought him a damn service dog, remember? We’ve given up gluten and dairy. He has an attachment disorder, we were told. He needs more discipline. He suffers from severe anxiety! He has anxiety brought on by an attachment disorder. He’s 0n the autism spectrum!
Everything we’ve tried has helped a little, although nothing has been as transformative as giving up gluten and feeding him a variety of supplements including Vitamin D, probiotics, and 5-HTP, which is an amino acid that helps with the production of serotonin in the brain. Still, the journey continues, and we’re always finding new ways to make improvements.
A couple of months ago, he had been in a downward spiral. I dreaded when he got off the bus. We were miserable, all of us. The Diva resented how he controlled the family, and the Tyrant hated how he picked on her. I was a mere shell of a decent mom – spending actual hours Googling “military boarding school for young boys” and “symptoms of mental exhaustion” and “summer gin recipes.”
We made an appointment with Dr. B, the doctor who changed our lives last year by diagnosing the boy with severe anxiety and directing us to be gluten- and dairy-free. We had been slacking off quite a bit on the dairy-free part, and I had run out of some of his supplements without refilling them. I feared I was in for a verbal spanking.
Dr. B listened to Hot Firefighter Husband and I rant about our frustrations, and the inanity of living with a kid who couldn’t stop kicking our asses. She asked us to describe his diet. Syrup for breakfast, with gluten-free waffles on the side. A decent lunch – then cookies after school. Candy whenever he could get it. Smoothie King like, every day. (Remember when he wrapped up my car in packing tape?)
Mostly I talked – because I was the one clinging to the proverbial cliff. When I finished speaking, I looked around, half-expecting to see the room flooded with giant 3D versions of the words and phrases I had just spewed forth. Look there! I can’t live like this is leaning against the desk! Be careful – don’t trip on Enters into a fugue state. Oh, crap – When will this ever end is about to crash down on my head.
Dr. B engaged in some head-shaking and eye-rolling as I spoke, then said, “Your son is addicted to sugar.”
I was like, NO. That’s impossible. I give all my kids tons of sugar so they’ll be immune from the effects of it. Ask their dentist! But Husband and Dr. B and I started reviewing the episodes I had described: when he dumpster-dived to retrieve a pair of old shoes we had thrown out. The time he wouldn’t go to school because his shirt was the wrong shade of blue. When he took back my Mother’s Day present and tore up the handmade coupons he had written. How he locked himself in the bathroom because I couldn’t find a shoe. All of it centered around his apparent need for sugar. Part of his behavior comes from the anxiety, but the escalation, said Dr. B – his clear inability to control his emotions – are symptoms of addiction.
Whatever, I thought. Because when I say, When will this ever end, what I really mean is When can I finally stop making life-altering changes for my son that dramatically inconvenience me? I’ve given up wheat bread. I don’t eat pasta. I finally got used to having almond milk in my coffee. I BOUGHT HIM A GODDAMN DOG. And now sugar? Well. I do like kale.
But Husband was all, “Wow, that makes sense.” Gawd.
So we gave up sugar. Not all sugars, of course, but most of the added stuff. No more processed cookies. No more gummy bears. So long, Gatorade. I was suspicious of your Red Dye 40, anyway.
And you know how long it took for his behavior to change? Two days. I’m serious. Like, serious as a heart attack.
I’m back on my paleo kick, people. I shop on the perimeters of the grocery store – produce and proteins. I’m changing the way my family nourishes itself – and it’s changing us. The Diva has begun to research recipes, and cook dinner a couple of times a week. The younger kids love to taste what their sister has created. We are eating more and more real food – and enjoying its preparation.
Neither the diet or the behavior are perfect. The Pterodactyl ate four peanut butter and (a little) jelly sandwiches yesterday, and just this moment announced loudly that he was going to bite everybody on the butt. The kids still think French fries are a vegetable. But what I’m realizing – why did this take me so long? – I’m realizing that what we put into our bodies matters. It affects our bodies, and it affects our brains, which – NEWS ALERT – are part of our bodies. Not everyone is as sensitive to the quality of nourishment as my son, but it certainly affects everyone in ways that are harder to measure – longterm health, brain function, physical coordination, and daily energy levels, for starters. And maybe it makes you smell less bad when you sweat? The boy hasn’t bathed since school let out. And – weird – his hair looks fabulous.
I’m sure our battle isn’t over. I fully anticipate at least as much drama in our future with this boy as we’ve had in the past. But ever so slowly, we’re beginning to figure him out. He’s like an adorable, erratic, whimsical, beast waiting impatiently to be tamed. But he’s our beast, and we love him enough to keep trying.