I developed an eating disorder when my youngest sister was born. I was just under three years old. My mom had to stay in the hospital for life-threatening hemorrhages. I am told that my dad’s mom came to stay with me and my two older sisters. I have no recollection of what or if anything happened, but that is when I am told that I became an extremely picky eater.
My diet was suddenly restricted to cereal, milk, toast, pancakes, waffles, peanut butter, saltines, grape jelly sandwiches, apples, carrots, french fries ( they’re a vegetable, right?), Lipton’s chicken noodle soup (the one WITHOUT the lumps of chicken) and bacon, which confused everyone except me! And of course, I like just about every kind of candy, chips and pretzels, my favorite. I could pass for “normal”at breakfast, but the rest of the day was the problem.
Being a picky eater affected affected every aspect of my early life, and the scars from that experience are never far away. Because so much of family life involves food, I avoided family dinners and thereby avoid my mother’s well-intentioned nagging. I tried to make myself scarce at gatherings of the my extended family. There was a particular aunt who made it her mission to call me out and to offer unsolicited advice to my mom. “If she was my daughter, she would eat what I made or starve!” Others would say, “Don’t worry; she will grow out of it.” Or “it’s just a stage.”
I made excuses to decline invitations to parties, didn’t go on school trips or to the prom or to my senior awards banquet. When I think about these times, I am still sad over all that I missed. At other times, I ate beforehand so I could honestly say I wasn’t hungry.
My family thought it was pure stubbornness. What they couldn’t understand is that I would have given anything to be able to sit down and eat dinner with them and eat whatever was being served. I would have loved to be able to order from the menu, rather than having my mom make special requests on my behalf. I spent lots of time in restaurant bathrooms just hiding out.
I didn’t know any other picky eaters when I was growing up, so I was an outcast. Mom had convinced me that I would die young from eating such an unhealthy diet. It made me overweight, but still I was healthy. In my family, I was “not normal.” Rather than making me want to conform, being labelled as different made me want to dig in my heels and embrace the fact that I was just weird even while I longed to be the “normal” child they wanted.
When I was a teenager, the media started to report about people, mostly girls who suffered with anorexia nervosa or bulimia. I could relate to their struggles, but there was still no name for what I had. Like them, my eating disorder was a secret. It was tied with some deep unrecognized wound. I couldn’t just suddenly start eating what everyone else did.
With extremely picky eaters, the texture of food is usually a problem. We like things smooth or crunchy. We like things plain so that all of the ingredients can be identified (and picked out if needed). I was an adult before I learned that Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder or Selective Eating Disorder (SED) was an actual psychiatric diagnosis.
This is how Wikipedia describes it:
“Sufferers of ARFID have an inability to eat certain foods. “Safe” foods may be limited to certain food types and even specific brands. In some cases, afflicted individuals will exclude whole food groups, such as fruits or vegetables. Sometimes excluded foods can be refused based on color. Some may only like very hot or very cold foods, very crunchy or hard-to-chew foods, or very soft foods, or avoid sauces.“
I eventually recovered through the help of a hypnotist who helped me to try pizza for the first time at 17 and through peer pressure as I entered college. I am still picky, but eat a wide variety of foods and can usually order from a restaurant menu without any special accommodations. Being a picky eater doesn’t keep me from things like it used to, but I still avoid some kinda of social gatherings where the available food choices would be difficult for me to fit in, like barbeques.
I am part of a closed facebook group where picky eaters can share theIr stories and not feel so alone or freakish. It would have been so wonderful given to have this sort of support when I was growing up.
If someone you know is a picky eater, please be kind. Unsolicited advice to the picky eater or their loved ones is generally not helpful. Actually calling great attention to it or ridiculing the picky eater can cause lasting scars. Suggesting that it is a phase (for some it is), or that the picky eater can just change overnight trivializes a painful situation.
People struggle with all sort of social anxieties. Some are more obvious than others. If you or someone in your family is an extremely picky eater, know that you are not alone.