(tl;dr) My story… until about age 22, I was very similar to you in terms of what I could eat – just a bit more variety in meat. As a child I’m sure I was hell for my family, and though they were kind they were clearly frustrated that the usual cajoling made absolutely no headway.
While in dorms at university I had to pay for canteen food I couldn’t eat, and was too embarrassed to use the communal kitchen much. I subsisted (somehow) off bread, tinned meat and Greggs. Eating out was essentially impossible, so I very much kept to myself.
I have a way of thinking of ARFID now that helps me reframe how others saw me – and a way of thinking about overcoming phobias that helps explain how I started to improve after 22. On ARFID (and it helps so much having a name), the root cause in my mind is the disgust reaction. Disgust is an immensely powerful emotional reaction, a key evolutionary defence mechanism, and is remarkably variable/configurable.
We all have disgust reactions that keep us from trying to eat certain things, and we have them to keep us safe. It’s just, if you have ARFID, those reactions trigger for almost every food, by default. As you said, it’s absolutely like a phobia, but it’s actually worse than that. It’s many phobias, for each and every food you haven’t ‘signed off’ and reconfigured your reaction to.
So… overcoming phobias. We’ve all heard about exposure therapy. My family tried that on me. On random days now and then, they’d put some live, writhing gagh on the side of my plate (well, that’s how it felt). And I’d prefer to not eat at all than even ignore that gagh, never mind try it. I’d never been able to work out how exposure therapy is supposed to be ‘the way forward’ when it always failed so utterly with me.
Then my mother told me a story about herself a few years ago, about how she got over her phobia of spiders. See, my dad had always dealt with them in the house, for decades at this point. One day she saw one, unmoving, and she could’ve asked him to remove it but decided to work herself up to it. When she caught it, she realised it was dead.
To her, the story is about how silly it was to be afraid of something that wasn’t even alive. But that my was a lightbulb moment for me about exposure therapy. I think the key was, she was safe. She had absolute confidence that she didn’t have to deal with it, then or ever. My dad would deal with it, and that was okay. It was only because she was safe from exposure that she could actually choose it for herself, and then – only then – could exposure therapy do its magic and reconfigure her reactions.
I started getting better with my ARFID when I got my own place. Living alone, unattached, and frankly pretty damn antisocial and introverted I got myself into a place where it didn’t feel it mattered what I ate. I did want to be able to eat more things, but it was okay if I never did. After a while, I thought about which non-signed-off foods I was least disgusted by, and which were the most useful to be able to eat. The first few foods took a few months each to come to terms with. I’d buy something in, sometimes throw it out immediately, sometimes cook it and throw it out, sometimes nibble a bit, but I’d get it ‘signed off’ eventually.
I think parsnips and bananas were first – they just felt easiest to me. But it’s been a few foods a year for 10 years now. Last year was one of my best – I got okay with lentils, chickpeas, butter beans, blueberries, almonds and cashews. It was finally enough to let me go semi-vegetarian, which I’ve always wanted to do. Huel and Quorn helped massively with that too.
Right now I’m working on tomatoes (in solid forms) and kidney beans, and maybe mushrooms, but I don’t expect to be okay with them for a while yet. It’s still okay if I don’t get there, quickly or ever, and that’s exactly why I probably will. Not with everything, mind: some things I’m really happy with just never being okay with. (I’m talking about you, peas.)
Applying this to your situation… first, I want to congratulate you: you’re loved and you’re starting a family, and ARFID didn’t stop you getting there. Your kid will turn out fine – they probably won’t be an ARFID sufferer, and even if they are they’ll turn out at least as well as you, and probably get better support!
It’s not easy to feel ‘safe’ with our condition, because pressures to eat normally are pretty ubiquitous. But have a think about if there are changes that could make it easier for now. Seems like improving your nutritional intake will help you feel less anxious, so I… err, am going to write another post about that. Ideally, any exposure to unwelcome foods has to be your own choice, in your own time, and prepared yourself.
Then figure out the least disgusting and highest value foods to sign off, and keep one or two in mind for a few months. Hopefully you’ll start getting good days here and there when you feel you want to try a bit of exposure, and often you’ll find you can quickly become okay with that food. Then it’s the next, and the next. It does get easier: foods group up, so once I was okay with parsnips other root veg followed at a decent pace, and the same seems to be happening with legumes and nuts.
It’ll take time, but that’s okay because it’s okay if you stay exactly how you are. Either way you’re gonna’ be able to get decent nutrition (err, see later post), and be a great husband and dad.