I’ve been aware for awhile now that sugar is where I got to hide from myself. Eating sweets has been my way, for many years, of comforting myself, treating myself, enjoying myself, and taking the edge off of my bad moods. Sweet foods, in all varieties, are all of what I crave. Sugar is my comfort food, the comfort zone where I curl up in my body. Not my optimal state, of course, but the one I go running back to. This became most glaringly apparent to me the summer I lived and worked at a Buddhist retreat center, especially during closed retreats where we were supposed to remain on the campus to let all our imperfections boil in the crucible of the closed container. Less apt than some of my peers to seek out sexual intrigue among the others marooned at the dharma center or look forward to drinking in town on free nights, I ran straight for my childhood vices. I stocked up with a package of cookies and some freshly baked goods, a bag of licorice, and chocolate bars. I rationed it for my days spent away from civilization. And by rationed, I mean I had enough to keep myself in an almost constant sugared state: I practically sugared myself sick. Searching for that sweet spot. They say that Tibetan Buddhism calls up our demons in a faster and more intense way than other paths, and works to quell them, this is the Tantric way. I didn’t totally buy into this idea until I inexplicably watched myself run immediately for this hiding place within my own body. As fast as I could. I also ran away, driving 8 hours round-trip all through the night, to see my sweetheart for about one hour. Chasing senselessly after sweetness. Cue Mandy Moore, “I’m missing you like candy.”
I’ve long admitted that my diet has been largely comprised of two extremes: that of mostly natural vegetarian fare—increasing over the past decade of my vegetarianism within my growing knowledge of cooking and food politics, and that of highly processed refined sugary treats. I mean the junkiest of junk. We’re talking Nerds Ropes, Airheads, and especially, as a proud member of an extended family tradition of loving red licorice, Twizzlers. I don’t consider my tastes above anything you could find in the drugstore candy aisle. My aforementioned sweetheart likes to make fun of me for calling myself a chocoholic, and not preferring a higher quality of chocolate. I have always considered this elitist and stupid. These were the colorful candies miraculously showering down from the floats passing through the parades of my childhood.
I have simply never outgrown my reverent childhood view of candy and sweets. I haven’t really wanted to, perhaps, in some ways, I’ve held on. And, for that matter, hardly grown into more adult vices, namely alcohol and drugs. Sometimes I try, but what’s the point? They disappoint me, frankly, compared to the reliable high of sugar.
Of course, gender has shaped my relationship to my eating choices. It’s perhaps a petty point to make, but in the face of so much body image pressure (beginning and felt most strongly in the preteen years), and the commercialization of sweets for women as guilty pleasure, I’ve defended and reified my sugar habit as some sort of counteraction. Perhaps it’s a refusal to feel guilt about my pleasure. Despite a tendency toward guilt in many other areas of my life, and the fact that I’m currently renouncing sugar, I can honestly tell you I’ve rarely felt guilt about it. I’ve rarely regretted it. What I occasionally am made to feel, is shame, embarrassment. I start hiding the habit, eating alone, throwing away the wrappers and covering them in the trash.
Of course, I react to feeling judged for this simple vice, and at times this is related to feeling judged as a woman with an appetite. No, I’m not going to not eat this simply because I “shouldn’t,” because it will make me fat. The messages from the mainstream and subculture start to feel quite the same—be a good girl and drink your Kale smoothie and Kombucha and get that yoga body. In the language of advertising and consumerism it’s all the same. Yet what has at last motivated me to quit sugar completely for this year is that it is so blatantly incongruous with what I otherwise consider my values as a consumer of food. Not only politically, though I think this has some value, if limited, but nutritionally. The point is: of what I’m putting in my body, not only is sugar the “bad” part of my diet, but what I’m discovering is that it undermines and physically conflicts with all of my other food choices in the way it acts on the body.
Simply put, it is an addiction. I’m eager to push myself outside my comfort zone in other areas of my life yet in my eating life this possibility has been the dreaded, hardest scariest thing. That’s why I had to do it. Going to the place that scares me. Ready or not, here I come… What is your need, my mom asked me, to be so extreme? I’ve reached this point because I’ve gotten to know myself this well. I know from doing detox diets annually for several years leading up to this that my cravings for sugar only decrease when I give it up completely, cold turkey. And I know from my longest periods of time spent in cultures abroad that given time, tastes can and do change. I also know, from watching myself, that I am addicted to sugar and there comes a point where moderation is useless and it is all or nothing.
And what I’m doing is not extreme from a health and nutrition and diet standpoint at all. The scope I’ve set for myself is giving up refined sugars, but not natural ones like honey, fruit, and agave. In huge amounts these, of course, can be just as bad for your blood sugar, but I did this simply because I’m not addicted to these things and I think they are a more healthful outlet for my endless craving for sweetness, long-term.
All—your old ways, the gravity of habit, identity, etc. Nothing—Nothingness, scary, unknown and new.
If every addiction and renunciation must reach a point we call rock bottom, then I may have just found mine on New Year’s Eve. With no plan in place except to stop eating refined sugar come sunrise, I was desperate to gobble up all the goodies still left under the Christmas tree (and hanging from it, in the case of Spree and Sweet Tart-flavored candy canes, of which I had several that night.) And I had an unfulfilled dream of holding a make-your-own-sundae party so we’d purchased ice cream and hot fudge in an effort to fit that in. And, we made Mint Mojitos. And—this drove the nail into the coffin of the night— we were drinking another alcoholic substance—made mostly illegal for the way it combines an extreme amount of caffeine with an extreme amount of alcohol, and, of course, sugar. The only way I can explain that latter fact is that it was a joke that was taken way too far. The friend behind this idea facetiously commented at the end of the night that this particular, inexpensive substance was designed, “to kill poor people.” I also know that he meant this partially in a serious way and I regard it as a seriously revealing statement. (I write this from my place of work, a homeless shelter where most of the donated food we serve has sugar: it’s cheap, and it doesn’t go bad as quickly as fresher foods.) The effect of these combined substances had on me that night is also perhaps very revealing of the way sugary food affects mood, energy level, and metabolism.
The combined extremes of sugary stimulant and depressants made it so that my body went into shut-down mode. Never one to have this problem, I found I could not even bring myself to dance, even slightly. I found a pair of prism glasses that made all the lights break into rainbows. This helped a little, but I was bored, frustrated, and embarrassed. It was all I could do—literally—to stand on the dance floor among music, lights, dancing rainbows and friends. What I really wanted to do was sleep and that’s all I did at the next party we went to that night. The evening finished with a hot fudge sundae that I could not, because I was so nauseated. I told you, rock bottom. I know without a doubt that without sugar or any substance I would’ve had a blast that night, dancing laughing and staying awake til dawn. Instead, I could barely function, never mind move or really interact. This was partially a story of drinking too much for the first time in my life. And this is relevant because alcohol acts as a pure sugar on the body. But sugar binges are not uncommon to me. Sugar must be holding me back.
I don’t mean to make too much of this petty little problem, because I would never say it’s that important, but that deference has also been part of my cover. Oh, I don’t “do drugs. I don’t have any ‘serious’ addictions. I just do sugar. By comparison, it doesn’t seem so bad. This renunciation is about looking squarely at why sugar is a problem for my health and a hiding place in my emotional life, and taking that, for what it is, seriously for the first time.
I’m not really interested at all in food science or nutrition though I’m making myself learn some as part of my education and motivation here. My bigger project is to figure out through memoir, study of addiction recovery, and dharma to figure out why this has mattered to me so much and why it’s so damn hard for us to change our bad habits and give up our vices. To come into a more mindful relationship with my eating, if you will. Reluctantly yet resolutely, finally. Awareness, of course, never hurts. This is primarily an investigation, a fact-finding mission for self-knowledge.