Tuesday, 25 February 2014

I could eat a hundred of those!

I had been thinking about dieting for quite a while – well, since January 1st as it happens.  But dieting requires exercising as well and I’m not that keen on exercising.  But over the last year and a half, I put on weight after two operations to restore my hip and then my knee to a state of perfection.  Now, fully equipped with state-of-the-art joints, there can be no more prevaricating or excuses not to repay the hours of intricate repair by my friendly surgeon, and use them to their fullest capacity and, of course, this means putting my money where my mouth is.

One of my daughters introduced me to something called MyFitnessPal which is an app for my phone.  This clever little app will let me write up everything I’ve eaten, it will even scan in barcodes for my convenience, it will calculate the amount of calories I’ve consumed and, should I exercise the new joints, it will subtract the calories expended so I can “buy” my next meal with added extras if I so choose.

I’m intrigued by this patient and understanding little helper that doesn’t nag me or say ‘no, you can’t have…’ but relies on my conscience to sort things out.  At the end of the day when theoretically I should have stopped eating, it will give me a pat on the back for completing my day’s work and tells me in 5 weeks time, if I continue in such style, I will weigh a sight less than when I started.  So far, I’ve managed nearly 6 weeks and, yes, I have lost a few kilos.  The first week was difficult, and this is where my best learning happened.  I learned what it felt like to be constantly hungry; I learned that being grumpy was pretty much ongoing; I learned that I actually felt better after I’d had a walk for 30 minutes and while walking, I wasn’t feeling hungry.  I learned to love cottage cheese and look forward to wafer-thin biscuits that taste like cardboard.  I learned that when I couldn’t sleep at night, it was often because I was hungry, so I learned how to sneak into the kitchen and raid the cupboards.  I learned very quickly not to have peanut-butter in the house.

In effect, I learned what it felt like to be my daughter – the one with PWS.  When she says, “I could eat 100 of those,” I can say, “me too, I wish we could, but do you know how long we’d be walking into next week?!”  I crave a piece of chocolate last thing at night; and, if MyFitnessPal says I can have one, it tastes like heaven.  The other night we went down to friends for a “fish and chip” evening.  I told my husband he’d just have to take one for the team while I took, in a plastic container, a meal of lettuce, smoked fish and couscous.  I explained to our hosts that I was trying to lose weight and they were very understanding.  But, just like my daughter (the one with.. etc) I just wanted a little taste – it smelled so inviting, so yummy, surely I could just have one chip?  And yes, I could have sneaked one off someone’s plate and they would have been polite enough to ignore me, but I didn’t.  I ate my lettuce, smoked fish and couscous and, actually, it tasted really nice and didn’t give me that heavy feeling that a huge plate of fish'n'chips can do.

This brings me round to the argument of fat vs sugar.  Have you noticed recently there is a lot in the newspapers and magazines about the ‘deadliness’ of sugar?  No longer is fat the No.1 Evil that it was purported to be; sugar has taken over.  We’re told that when we were still living in caves, the amount of fat we ate then didn't kill us, it, in fact, protected us and enabled us to get through the hardship of famines.  We've realised that diseases like diabetes, various cancers, and weight-related illnesses didn't exist back then; they've come along since the invention of sugar.

When fat was the No.1 Evil, food manufacturers quickly learned to sweeten foodstuffs with sugar while labelling foods “fat free, lite, low-fat” etc.  I noticed even peanut-butter and the all-time staple of Aussies and Kiwis, Vegemite and Marmite, are higher in sugar content than ever before.  Sugar is hidden in so many manufactured foods and we barely notice how addicted to this we have become.
A huge amount of research is being done into obesity – something we all already know – and it is interesting to learn that hunger, the most basic survival instinct of all, is controlled not by the gut, but by the brain.  Research is being undertaken to find ways to trick the gut hormones into convincing the brain we’re full on less food.  Similarities between the brain-signalling of obese people and alcoholics, and the difference between them and their thinner counterparts, is being investigated.  We are learning that our genetics are linked to both our food preferences and our ‘varying natural ability to activate our satiety switch – the signal that tells us we’re full’ (North & South March 2014: The Food + Science Issue). Of course, my daughter (the one with ...etc) has a dysfunctional brain, so her satiety switch mostly doesn't work.

There are several conditions that affect both brain and gut which could be caused by a poorly functioning immune system, “People who have autism have increased rates of leaky gut and IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome), and it turns out that these individuals who are obese, particularly kids who are the offspring of obese parents, also have a higher incidence of gut problems, such as leaky gut, colitis, and inflammatory bowel disease” (Christine Jasoni, Neuroscientist, ibid).  This piece of information made me very aware of the number of times my daughter (the one with.. etc) has admitted herself to hospital because of bowel and gut problems; it also reminded me of our own PW researchers who have observed this in Prader-Willi syndrome.

There is so much that is against our having a healthy dietary regime with its full complement of exercise that it is no wonder the world is experiencing a huge rise in obesity.  There are the food manufacturers who want us to buy more of their processed foods – so lace them with sugar, or, when saying they are sugar-free, with fat, so that we become addicted to the taste.  There are our own genetics which play a part in whether we are “sweet” or “savoury” eaters; there is our brain fighting our gut; there is our own hard-wired selves who desire food practically more than anything else and the good old dopamine feel-good hormone that says to our brain, “have more!!” 

All of this just brings me back to MyFitnessPal and my own feelings of hunger and how much I have associated with my daughter (the one with…etc) as I fight to become fitter in order to battle the aging.  The old saying (albeit slightly altered), “walk a mile in her shoes” comes to mind, frequently.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

PWS and "Other People"

Last year I saw an accusation that was widely shared on the sites of organisations that support people with disabilities.  It was structured as a question and answer and went something like this: 

  • Question: "What is the biggest problem faced by parents of children with special needs?"   
  • Answer: "Other people".  
It is a sentiment that many of us, accustomed to intolerance, insensitivity and rejection, can instinctively relate to.  But is it fair? 

At my son's 8th birthday party (he has PWS) 2 minor incidents revealed to me a vision of a happier and more inclusive world.  The custom, where I live, is for children to have birthday parties in venues outside their home - typically sports or play centres where 2 hours of fun is accompanied by a meal.  Finding a venue that provides a meal comprised of anything other than junk food is always a challenge and so was the case that year.  The matter, as usual, was resolved by me supplying my own food.   

The first incident that brought a smile to my face happened during the meal, when one of the 15 or so happy children noticed me carrying a large platter of fruit skewers into the room with 8 candles on top - our alternative to a birthday cake.  Announcing my arrival to the others she declared, "Oh look, we're having a fruit cake".  While the offering comprised no cake and all fruit, it was still accepted without complaint or comment as "the birthday cake".    Some fruit pieces were swapped, all was soon eaten, a few good-natured skewer battles occurred and play continued.  The fact that my son was not having a traditional cake did not appear to cause any problems for him or any of the other children present.

The second incident, which brought a tear to my eye as well as a smile to face, occurred when, as the party drew to a close, all the children congregated on a large bouncing castle.  A complicated game was hastily agreed that involved all children having to cross the centre of the castle from one side to the other.  Within seconds of the game commencing one child realised that my son was unable to cross the castle.  She immediately (and loudly!) commanded everyone to stop bouncing to make it easier for him.  When he still couldn't manage, another child positioned herself in the centre to hold his hand to help him across.  As I was standing out of sight and there were no other adults present I felt certain that this modification of the game had been done not for the approval of adults, but because the children instinctively understood that everyone needed to be included.  I also felt certain that my son felt neither patronised nor different as a result of the game's rules being changed to meet his needs.

I don't think this group of children was unique or particularly remarkable.  Yes, all of the children attended the same school which proudly promotes an ethos of equality and inclusion, but they also came from different backgrounds and experienced different parenting.  My son, to my knowledge, was the only child at the party who had a disability. Yet all the children were able and willing to engage collaboratively and inclusively with each other.  They were also sufficiently open-minded to accept that things may not always be the same - e.g. some "birthday cakes" may be very different to others.

The question this raises, of course, is what happens?  How do open-minded, tolerant children turn into adults who  are perceived to be the biggest problem faced by parents of children with special needs?  I don't have the answer.  But I think it's an important question.  And do I personally believe that the biggest problem faced by parents of children with special needs is other people?  No, just other adults!

Wednesday, 5 February 2014


How can I talk to you about guilt?   It's not an easy subject and I feel awkward talking about it, but sometimes when I stop and analyse my feelings, they seem to be conditioned by guilt.

When my daughter was born, I grieved - we all did - for the daughter we were expecting and didn't get.  Time goes by and the grief calms down.  It never disappears entirely because there are hundreds upon hundreds of little things that other children do that remind you your own child can't; but it abates.  It becomes replaced with pride in what your child can do, rather than what they can't.  Suddenly, you have this amazing opportunity to see life from another perspective and you stop searching for those rose-tinted spectacles that made life the way you wanted to see it, and you clean the lenses of your old glasses, and suddenly get a whole new view.

Most of the time it's rewarding, it gives you courage to go on, it fills your heart with love for your child who tries so darn hard to do everything in life that they can.  Then there are times when your 'life spectacles' cloud over and it takes time to get back the right perspective.  The knock-backs are still there, but can be seen differently and learned from. Yet, even the smallest of knock-backs can still hurt.

"I visited my niece yesterday, Mum.  It was lovely, and she is so sweet.  I played with her on the floor, but she didn't smile at me, just at her own mother.  And the clothes I bought for her, well, they don't want them.  They've got enough clothes."

And immediately I feel hurt on her behalf.  I know how she has shopped in all the second-hand places for these little clothes.  I know how she has bargained for them and I know how carefully she has washed them all, hung them out to dry, folded them and taken them as gifts for her niece.  

"Mum, I hope you don't mind, but I have been thinking about not visiting Grandma much any more.  (Grandma is in a retirement home.  She is frail and forgetful.)  I just don't think she knows me, really.  She tells me she does things like play bowls, and I know she doesn't.  And she never says goodbye to me."

And immediately I feel hurt again.  I know how she plans her visits to Grandma, how she takes her little things that she thinks she might like.  I, too, wish Grandma was not like this.  I feel guilty that my daughter is not loved enough.  I feel guilty that I am not loving her enough to prevent even the slightest knock-back.

So, I asked, "Did you mind when your sister said not to bring any more clothes because they have plenty?  And do you mind not going to see Grandma, now that she is old and forgetful?"

And here's when I know my feelings of guilt are totally unfounded -

"No, not at all.  I know they've got heaps of clothes!  They're already spilling out of the cupboard!  And no, I don't mind about Grandma - I don't want to upset her."