No cheat days, so substitutes, no maple syrup or naturally sweetened-therefore-harmless-right? treats. There are no excuses. You just do it. You practice saying ‘I’m choosing not to eat that right now’ and try to remember your college boyfriend, with whom you spent 3 years. This is called ‘perspective’ and it is your friend. Happy discovery: if I survived his horseshit for more than 1000 days, I can do anything for 30.
There are two days left on my Whole30 challenge. For paleo newbies [or paleOh-my-God eye rollers], this popular detox program goes like this: for one month, you give up all processed foods, the full spectrum of grains, legumes and beans [including peanut butter, *sob*], white potatoes, dairy and alcohol. Oh, and? Any form of sugar—cane, honey, stevia and any other artificial sweetener—is completely off limits. Dates, in seriously limited moderation, are miraculously spared from the don’t list. This, friends, may save your ass.
Food is merely fuel…for sadness
Early on, I tried to explain the Whole30 rules, and was met with blank, my-God-what-can-you-eat? stares. So then I began with what I *can* enjoy without reproach: meat, veg, fresh fruit, plus fats and oils including [non-pea]nuts. So many of my favorites are on the don’t list. Frowny face. Oh, I don’t emoticon. And neither should you.
Anyway, in response to the inevitable ‘but, whyyy?’ I reply that my goal is to shift my relationship to food. I’d be lying if I didn’t own that I also hoped to shed the holiday pounds collected after hitting Christmas cookie rock bottom. But mostly, I hoped to reprogram my brain, and maybe learn something about my own capacity for change.
For those demanding truth in advertising, my experience followed the Whole30 timeline almost exactly [day 5-6 were, as predicted, rough…but no, I did not Kill All The Things, not Any of Them].
But the rules, moodiness, and dreadful day-counting are distant white noise at this point. On first light Thursday, I am done, muthafuckers. In fact, in order to get through the past week or so of absolute food boredom and despair, I have been gleefully planning my fall—nay, my spectacular dive—off the paleo wagon. That is, until I remembered the reason I opted for this detox in the first place.
Confession, cake and control
I am a sugar addict. Sure, I’ll see your eye-rolling, and raise you self-loathing. Fear of judgement and mockery keeps me out of most 12-step meetings. Incidentally, addictions follow a caste system, rank and file strata and absolutely no hope for mobility. Food issues are the untouchables, at the bottom of the pile. I sometimes wonder if heroin addicts are disgusted by the seeming ri-goddamn-diculousness of an ‘addiction’ to something as benign as cupcakes and wine.
Still. I suspect that diving face first into a bowl of Jeni’s with an 8 oz. chaser of Meritage is akin to an alcoholic celebrating 30 days of sobriety with a 3-day bender. Celebration can slide quickly into catastrophe. Plenty of us have technicolor spring break stories to back this up.
Stupid chicken! Er, stupid addiction.
I’ve studied addiction, both experientially [thanks, Mom] and more objectively, trying to piece together some form of logic and reason. Piecing together my childhood may have had something to do with it, too. Not sure.
From about age 14 I scoffed at the idea of addiction as disease, rolling my eyes at every d-word mention during Al-Anon meetings in too many church basements to recall. I refused to acquiesce. I always categorized addiction as choice. You choose to drink, and implicitly you choose *not* to do something else. Like show up to your life. Choice is not a disease.
So when I finally made peace with addiction as disease, it was beautiful and terrible all at once. I can thank/blame a great therapist who finally explained the biology of it all. The shift of understanding was immediate, and much more satisfying [and comforting] than the lifelong notion I had nurtured that because of some inner flaw, I was always simply second choice.
The disease part of addiction, the truly crippling part, is what happens to your body physiologically once you take in that substance. You can control the choice to take that first drink/hit/snort, but after that all bets are off. Have you ever wondered why so many alcoholics have such ridiculously small tolerances? You’d think two drinks would be nothing, right?
But addiction has a hair trigger. It’s an immediate biological change, one in which the substance hijacks your system, and careens away on its own course, dragging you along, caring not if you are buckled in or hanging off the tailgate. Matthew Perry likens it to an allergy. Someone jokingly, but sagely said, ‘I don’t have a drinking problem. More of a stopping problem.’
It’s a nut-punch, really, the jagged-edged, destructive sensitivity to that which you most desire.
Then it stops working
The cruelty doesn’t end there, though. I have been here before. God, have I been here. I’ve never made it the full month before relapse. Two weeks was my prior max-out, and I felt incredibly good that whole time. I lost 10 pounds effortlessly. Feeling cocky and just.over.it.already I reintroduced sugar in small treat-day amounts, ice cream and maybe wine on Fridays.
You can feel it coming, right? I had hopped right back on that slippery slope. Soon, the modest amounts became regular…Friday became Wednesday and Friday. Then Wednesday, Friday, and whenever I ‘needed a boost’. Completely coincidentally [right?] my irritability, moodiness and fixation increased at the same pace. But then [and this is the cruelty, part deux], the comfort I once relished from sweets vanished.
It just stopped working. Oh, this was a moment of deep despair. There was *nothing* left I could turn to for comfort.
I tried lots. I tried little. I tried wine. I tried chocolate. Sugar did nothing more than bring me to almost normal. Too-brief periods of abstaining left me in a malaise, punctuated by a shitstorm of shame and self-sabotage. I’m standing in front of my pantry, and trying to gently talk myself off the cravings ledge, with reason and self-love [do you really want that custard pie, or is there something *else* you need?]. When a satisfying answer did not surface, or worse when it did surface, but I did not like the answer, I actually said ‘fuck it’ aloud and stuffed the thing in my face.
Who was I talking to, exactly?
How destructive is sugar addiction, really?
Yes, sugar is sort of benign. Sort of. Odds are, I won’t end my marriage to chase my ice cream jones. I won’t neglect my child because I am drunk on muffin yeast and full-fat lattes. There is no danger of HIV or Hep-C after I accidentally stab myself with someone’s used cake fork. But.
But. [and this is where I grow terribly uncomfortable.]
Like every single addict out there, I do not have control over this. This is terrible news for a control freak. In fact, this mere admission is more than I can bear most days. While I may not destroy my relationships with my family, or lose all my money or kill someone with careless wielding of car or cigarette butt, I am, like all addicts, a different person on and off my poison. And the shame that comes with that knowledge is the pits. If I know I am better when I abstain…why don’t I? Choice, again! Of all the different facets of addiction, this has got to be the most agonizing common thread.
It is the sense of being not of control of oneself that is the most dangerous part of even a seemingly harmless addiction. It’s no accident that one of the first 12 steps is admitting one’s powerless, and surrendering oneself to a higher power. Ultimately, we are none of us in control of a damn thing, but we spend so much of our lives laboring under the belief that maybe, if we can just keep our shit together, things will be ok. And by keep our shit together, I mean keep our shit perfect. Or is that just me?
Oh, us poor humans. Thank goodness for Mark Darcy, I mean, God. He loves us, just as we are.
Text book behavior
But we try to manage it, don’t we? Keeping the sweetest and most tempting treats out of my home is a helpful habit. But our home is not bereft of all sweet things. Evenings might be punctuated by multiple returns to the fridge for another piece of dark chocolate, to the pantry for a few more strips of dried mango. Like the character of closeted alcoholic friend played by Tom Hanks on a-very-special-episode of Family Ties, who desperately rifled through the cabinets and finally drank vanilla extract…I will.find.a.way.to.imbibe. Somehow.
Curiously, no one is ever in the room. If they are, I wait. Or pick a fight until they leave me in peace. Text book signs, all. Like heroin or booze, the shame of self-loathing is great enough to push us into the shadow. Shame dissolves in the light, through connection with another person. But how many women are drinking, bingeing or puking in the quiet of their homes, alone, right now? More likely, tomorrow, once the kids are in school. We stay hidden so no one else witnesses our failings, our flaws.
Portrait of the addict as a young girl
Watching my mother struggle with manic depression, alcohol and a terrifying and ever changing cocktail of prescriptions-not-compatible-with-alcohol sparked the original reprogramming of my brain. Something deep inside me resolved to never manifest such sadness, fear, and unpredictability for my children, if I was brave [crazy?] enough to have any. But.
Again with the but.
My child suffers my irritability and short-tempered-ness. She watches me go from quiet-voiced, empathic mommy to raging, lecturing, ‘I told you once, didn’t I, dammit?’ spasticity. She exhibits a whiney craving for sweet [just one more hit, pleeeease! a tiny one], which fills me with yet more shame. My moodswings spiked markedly during this detox [days 5-6 coincided with PMS. seriously. Kill All The Things.] and she reaped the full-screen version of that show, as well.
Sugar is a tame substance. But the havoc it wreaks on *me* is not.
Numbing: a single word for escape by many roads.
Addiction originates in a desperation to escape feeling…anxiety, fear, grief, joy, even. Brené Brown reports, stunningly, that it is joyful events that are most likely to cause an addict to wobble off the wagon. This is troubling and strange, yet also perfectly reasonable.
When we want to celebrate, we revisit our best-loved methods and patterns…then suffer the shame and pain from ruining what should have been a pure and joyous occasion. How many people have gotten rip-roaring drunk after years of sobriety at a daughter’s wedding? Joy is the most difficult emotion to endure. Which is maybe why I avoid it so well. Wow. That’s a left hook revelation right there, and a whole other post, prolly.
Substance abuse, rigid beliefs, or obsessive behavior, it is all the same thing. Numbing, avoiding, dulling…attempting to escape the shocking florescence of an imperfect and uncertain world. If I can’t control it, what if I can make it so I just don’t care?
Falling, diving or abandoning?
What did I learn about my capacity for change? I learned I don’t like it. And I can do it. I hope I can retain some new-found compassion for my own humanity, and the beauty that lies in truth.
So. Where does this leave me and my much-anticipated leap off the no sugar health nut wagon? I hardly know. Sometimes I recommence planning a perfect day long menu, with glorious treats at every meal. This is tempered by the paralyzing fear of what might happen if even a single sweet something passes my lips. I know one thing: I can only choose the first, but after that, all bets are off. It is the seemingly harmlessness of sugar that allows me to even consider a trip off the wagon, in any form. No other substance can be trifled with in this way.
So yeah, I am an addict. I am colorfully imperfect. I will fail. Then fail again. Whatever. I survived a full month of full-tilt feeling. I don’t know if it’s made me any stronger, but it didn’t kill me. And that’s worth celebrating. Chastely, and without wine.
Read my updates, one week out:
And hey, if you’re still skeptical, check out some science behind sugar. Not too science-y, not too long. Plus, it’s animated:8