By Devora Busch, as told to Mitchell Jordan:
I heard a loud crash and rushed into the living room to see what had happened. My four-year-old daughter Rhee had knocked a small hole in the wall and was stuffing her mouth with pieces of the insulation padding. I stared at her, completely shocked. “Stop doing that, sweetheart!” I cried, snatching the padding out of her hands and removing it from her mouth. I rushed her to the doctors. Luckily, she hadn’t swallowed anything, or else she could have easily been poisoned.
This wasn’t the first time Rhee had tried to put strange things in her mouth. She’d previously reached for my keys, pens, coins, and anything else she could grab and pull apart. I started to become worried. Rhee wasn’t a toddler anymore and should have grown out of this behavior by now. One evening, as I was putting her to bed, she pulled off her diaper and stuffed it in her mouth. She did the same with pillow stuffing and toilet paper. One time, she even tried to drink a mud puddle.
Rhee had been diagnosed with autism when she was two, but my husband Richard and I were both teachers and had tried to integrate her as best as we could. Her older brother and sister adored her. But her habit of putting everything in her mouth was becoming so bad that we had to make major changes to our house. We removed anything she could reach and blocked off the kitchen with gates. After dressing her in a body suit so that she couldn’t destroy her diaper, I put her in a safety bed with bars to stop her escaping. I’d no sooner said goodnight when Rhee started screaming hysterically and banging her head against the bars, wanting to get out. “Mummy’s here,” I soothed, lowering the bars so that she no longer felt trapped. There was no way I could go to sleep knowing that my daughter could choke or suffocate while I was asleep next door. I spent the night by her side. Even when she was sleeping, I was still too scared to close my eyes properly. When Richard saw the bags under my eyes next morning, he knew that neither of us could go on this way, so we installed an alarm that would alert us if anyone left Rhee’s room.
Doctors eventually diagnosed Rhee with pica, a condition where people can’t stop their appetite for inedible substances. “Try giving her strong-tasting foods like toasted cheese and onion sandwiches or cinnamon muffins,” the doctor suggested. “It can sometimes help.” But it didn’t.
By now, Richard’s own health was beginning to deteriorate as he struggled to hear properly, but Rhee always brought a smile to his face. “Rhee has no control over who she is,” he said. “It’s our job to make her life as good as it can possibly be.” He retired from his job, and the two of us became permanent carers for our daughter. She attended a special needs school. Rhee was very affectionate towards her siblings, and slowly learned to talk. I was glowing with pride when I heard her mention me in a list of her favorite things. “Mummy, rainbow! Mummy, chocolate!” she cried. It was a great reminder that we were loved. “My mum loves me. My dad loves me,” Rhee said suddenly. “Yes we do,” I said, scooping her into my arms and kissing her. Her affection brought me so much joy.
Then, one day at home, we noticed bubbles around the wallpaper and warping wood around the doors. After having the house assessed, Richard and I got some shocking news: Water was getting in because the cladding on our house wasn’t watertight, and it was causing the wooden frame to rot. We were told the walls were filled with toxic mold. My stomach dropped as I listened to how much it would cost us to have it removed. Neither of us were working and the cost of living and looking after a child with special needs meant that we simply couldn’t afford it. We were trapped in our own home.
Thankfully, friends, family, and the community rallied around to help us raise money. Even the pop star Lorde, who I’d never met, was so moved by our story that she gave us $10,000. She wrote, “Sending best wishes and love to you and your parents.” Her kindness helped me to realize that whatever happens and wherever we’re living, the love our family shares will help get us through. Rhee will always struggle with pica, but she’s shown us what’s possible when you don’t give up. I believe the world is a better place with people like my daughter in it.
This post was written by Mitchell Jordan. For more, check out our sister site, Now to Love.