The Christmas Truce – by Olly Double
It’s been twelve years since our first Christmas with Type 1 diabetes. Our younger son Tom was diagnosed in December 2000, casting a long shadow over the Yuletide season that year. The process of getting him diagnosed was far from straightforward, but I won’t go into the gory details as I’ve blogged about it before. Suffice it to say that he’d been very poorly indeed.
Tom was less than two when all this came down on him – still young enough for us to praise him for being a ‘good eater’ and ‘doing well’ with his dinner. He would scoff pretty much anything you put in front of him, and seemed to really enjoy his food.
He was still pretty emaciated once he got back from the hospital where they’d been treating him – and he wasn’t in the best of moods. We were still reeling, and struggling to adapt to life with insulin injections and finger prick blood tests. As he was on mixed insulin he had to eat at specific times, so at the prescribed mealtime we’d be anxious for him to eat straight away – and he must have picked up on our anxiety, because he would then refuse to touch the food we’d put in front of him. That only made us more anxious, and trying to be strict only made him dig his heels in.
Very quickly food became a battle ground, and one occasion when he refused to eat gave him a terrifying hypo that left him lying rigid on the floor. My wife Jacqui had to give him a glucagon injection, and although her swift action undoubtedly staved off more serious consequences, I think that the trauma of that particular crisis will always stay with her. Suddenly, our omnivorous son had become the king of the fussy eaters.
It wasn’t a question of something as simple as not liking vegetables. The list of stuff that Tom wouldn’t eat was encyclopaedic. Chocolate cake, pizza, strawberries, he’d turn his nose up at the lot of them. The only meal of the day that was relatively safe was breakfast, because he was OK with most breakfast cereal. He could tolerate sandwiches, as long as they had nothing more exotic than jam on them. With cooked meals, he was pretty much limited to frozen potato shapes with egg or beans.
For years egg was his favourite food, and he went through a phase of pretending to faint with excitement at the very mention of the word. He was pretty open minded when it came to frozen potato shapes, gladly accepting either the ones that looked like smiley faces or the ones that looked like letters of the alphabet. Baked beans were a different matter. He’d suspiciously eye up each one before allowing it to pass his lips. His particular hatred was any bean that looked irregular in any way, and in his little lisping voice he’d talk angrily about ‘broken beanth’ and ‘bean thkinth’.
You might be reading this and thinking our parenting was a bit slack for putting up with this behaviour. If so, you should bear in mind that when we tried to introduce him to new foods by forcing him to try them, he would often start retching and sometimes even throw up on his plate. Clearly, this wasn’t the kind of conduct that would get him invited to dinner parties. More importantly, when he challenged us to these food-based battles of will, he had a powerful ally – diabetes. When he refused to eat, we couldn’t do the normal parent trick of letting him go hungry, because we knew that if we did that we’d have a monster hypo on our hands once the insulin kicked in.
The situation went on for years, and it made it difficult for us to cultivate a warm, happy atmosphere at mealtimes – which takes us back to the subject of Christmas. Like troops putting their guns down for a game of soccer in no man’s land in World War One, we would call a truce for Christmas dinner. Jacqui, Tom’s brother Joe, and I would sit down to a plateful of seasonal yumminess – a freshly-made pie containing vegetables, chestnuts and Quorn in a red wine sauce, served with roast potatoes and parsnips – and Tom would sit down to a plateful of processed potato faces and scrambled egg.
Eventually as Tom got older we all struggled together to expand the possibilities of his diet, and he slowly began to enjoy many of the foods he’d previously refuse point blank to eat. What made this possible was the fact that he’d gone onto multiple daily injections of insulin, which allowed us to make mealtimes much more flexible. It wasn’t easy for him to change, but in the end he realised that he wasn’t fighting a war against food – or against us – and by starting to eat normally, victory was his. Not only was he eating a healthier, more balanced diet, but he was also actually enjoying food.
Those potato-shapes-and-egg dinners have belonged to Christmas Past for a good few years now, and nowadays we all sit down to the same festive fare. The battle over food is over, even if the war for good blood sugar control goes on. True victory in that one will only come when we have a cure for diabetes. For now, though, Christmas dinner is in Tom’s five favourite things about Christmas – above ‘presents’ but below ‘the Dr Who Christmas special’.