Learning to Breathe

Published by Athena Flicek on Apr 10, 2024

I could feel my blood pressure rising. You might wonder if I was about to run a race or perform a medical miracle. All I was doing was sitting at the dining table for lunch with my 4-year-old son. Looking at his sweet face. My eyes staring back at me. All of a sudden, I couldn’t breathe. He had bitten off a large piece of chicken. I was waiting for him to struggle to manage it. It sent me into a familiar spiral, presenting me an image I had been confronted with since he was an infant. Him struggling in front of my very eyes. He did amazing, as usual. And in that moment I realized that I needed help.

No one had told me I needed help up to this point. They could see it but they remained silent. They saw me struggle to leave my bedroom or to wash my hair. I would tell them I hadn’t brushed my teeth in over a week, and honestly, if you know me (a child who had braces, an expander, a retainer, and lover of floss and white strips) this would be the most obvious scream for help. Yet nothing. Nobody knew what to say or what to do.

But today was different. Today I could feel my anxiety clawing to get ahold of my child. And I knew I had to get help. I was 39 when I searched for support. It took me a year to build up the courage to schedule an appointment. It was my 40th birthday present to myself. Speaking of birthday’s, let’s get back to a very important one: my son Ari’s.

I had a beautiful pregnancy. Then came the struggle. Over the first 48 hours I heard him constantly struggle to clear his amniotic fluid. I would freeze up. His dad would grab the suction and get it out. When they told us we could go home I had a gut feeling that something wasn’t right. I felt like my son needed more testing or help.. I didn’t know what, but something felt off.

Over the next 18 months Ari would projective vomit across the room after every meal. He couldn’t sleep laying down. Every visit to his pediatrician’s office ended in tears. “It’s just spit up,” they said. Well, I knew that wasn’t true. My child’s body was violently refusing milk and certain foods. But here I was, trying to airplane an unwanted food into his mouth. At the end of one visit my son’s doctor casually said “You might want to try this local nonprofit, they might have some resources to help.”

I hurried home, went to their website, and all I could see was their beautiful orange “Get Help” button. I clicked on it seemingly 300 times. They had a simple 6 item feeding questionnaire to complete and be able to tell if your child might need help. If you answered affirmatively to 2 of the 6 it directs you to help. I answered affirmatively to all 6 and immediately started crying. My son Ari has pediatric feeding disorder. You might wonder what that is. It’s a child who isn’t eating in an age-appropriate manner. Ari also has EoE (eosinophilic esophagitis) and sensory processing disorder (PFD). He is curious, fast, a born performer, comically inclined and wants to build robots that he can accompany to space one day. I quit my job as an elementary school teacher to take him to therapy and help him find joy in food instead of fear.

It was the beginning of the end for many things for me: my marriage, my first career. But it was also the beginning of a new and amazing experiences.

Ironically, right before I started therapy, I saw a job posting from the same non-profit that I felt had saved me and my son. It was for someone to plan their annual pediatric feeding disorder educational conference. I didn’t tell anyone about it. And then I made it to the third round. I will never forget that phone call and subsequent job offer. They gave me a gift. A gift I will never be able to repay. Planning a pediatric feeding disorder conference for families and professionals is part of my therapy.

I feel like we are all given gifts. Ari was another one. He has taught me that his journey is not mine. I’m just a guide. My anxieties, should not be his. And my therapist likes to remind me I’m not a doctor, a mind reader or a fortune teller. I need those daily reminders. Therapy has taught me to avoid negative thoughts, be independent instead of co-dependent (and yes, this includes how we interact with our children), and to live in my calm, peaceful place.

I finally took my first deep breath two months ago. I could tell it was different. I am not a failure because I couldn’t feed my child. I am a success because of it.