Finding the Sweetness Within: My Path to Sugar Sobriety
My name is Peter, and I’m a sugar-holic.
I’ve been a sugar-holic for as long as I can remember. When I was three years old and witnessed with awe my grandparent’s hot chocolate sauce becoming chewy upon contact with ice cream, I was a sugar-holic. When I was 12 years old, bought a blueberry pie and announced that I would be eating it for dinner, I was a sugar-holic. Thirty minutes later I was lying on my bed holding my stomach wondering what I had done. I was a sugar-holic when, over just the last few years, I obsessively rated all the designer ice cream shops in Cambridge with my favorite flavors: #1, Christina’s Carrot Cake; #2, J.P. Licks’ Oreo-cake-batter; #3, Toscaninni’s Tarimisu. The truth was, as a self-identified Dessert Person, I didn’t “have dessert”; dessert had me.
Before I tell the story of how I gave up sweets, I should be upfront about a few things that I realize some readers may hold against me. First, I’m one of those annoying people who has weighed 165 lbs. plus or minus three pounds since college. (I can still wear a pair of pants I had in 10th grade.) Second, I am someone with a fairly successful history of giving things up. When I was about 12, one day I decided that I was sick of biting my nails until they bled, so I stopped. When I decided to try and reduce my carbon footprint by buying only local fruit, one day I stopped buying bananas and orange juice. Until then I’d had a banana most days of my life and orange juice was my favorite beverage. When I wanted to give up having a car two years ago, I sold it and have never regretted it. Note that I’m in no way trying to conflate any of these habits with more serious addictions such as alcohol or other drugs. The point is simply that sugar is not the first thing I have given up. But none of these other things were as large a part of my identity as being a Dessert Person.
A year ago I enrolled in a Master’s program in Counseling Psychology. My internship was at a shelter for homeless veterans. Most of these men and women had histories of substance abuse. Coinciding with this experience I took a class in substance abuse. I loved it. One day it occurred to me that it might be a good learning experience for those of us in the class to experiment with giving up something in our lives that we were fairly attached to. By so doing we might develop some measure of empathy for our clients who were trying to overcome addictions. Coincidentally, this was around Lent.
Our professor, Dr. Richard Reilly, supported the idea and offered a very reasonable suggestion. Imagining a scale from 1 to 10 where 1 represented something that we felt would be extremely easy to give up and 10 represented something extremely difficult to give up, Dr. Reilly suggested that we choose something that we would rate about a 5. Those students who chose to participate in this experiment agreed to try giving up whatever they chose for a period of one month. That day I decided to try giving up the center-piece of my Dessert Person identity: ice cream. Knowing that I could eat other sweets in place of it, however, I rated this challenge at about a 4. Some of my classmates chose to try and give up smoking—way more than a 5! I was impressed.
Around this same period of time, I did some work with a homeless veteran named Danny. Danny was the first person I’d met who was on methadone replacement therapy for heroine. He was the most hyper person I’d ever met. In our first conversation he talked for an hour-and-a-half straight. He showed me pictures of his family on his cellphone. He wondered whether he was going to make it or not.
Two weeks later, with a quarter of a pint of Ben & Jerry’s sitting in my freezer door, I hadn’t had any ice cream. And then something interesting happened. Every time I opened the freezer, I would glance at the carton of Ben & Jerry’s and think about Danny. After two weeks I had to confront the realization: “This is too easy.” Danny had given me a window into what a life-or-death struggle with addiction was like, and if I wanted to have the slightest idea of what he was going through, giving up just ice cream wasn’t going to cut it. It was time to raise the ante.
I glanced at the collection of lollypops and mini candy bars I’d collected over the last few weeks from the candy dish at the local public pool I swim at. That was it. I would try giving up sugar entirely. For me, I would rate that about an 8 or 9.
A few days later, I found myself standing in front of a vending machine at the library craving a mid-afternoon snack. The first thing that hit me over the head was the fact that 90% of the items in the vending machine were candy. Standing there alone surveying my choices, a vision came to me. I imagined my classmates from substance abuse class standing in a semi-circle behind me. A woman in the class who had also decided to give up sugar, Cindy, was talking to me like a wrestling coach: “You can do it, Peter! You can do it!” The two class clowns, Felicity and Debbie, gently mocked me by pointing to their favorite candy bars. My friend Ann stood there smiling quietly in a way that I knew meant support. After some consideration of them, myself and Danny, I selected Wheat Thins.
Imagine my surprise when I read the ingredients on the package—something I was now doing religiously—and found sugar to be the sixth ingredient of twelve. In Wheat Thins! This prompted me to reflect on exactly what I meant by “giving up sugar.” Sugar is in catchup. Sugar was in every variety of yogurt from my local dairy except Plain 0% Fat. My favorite granola lists “Evaporated cane juice” as one of its ingredients. Reacting to all this by becoming a Sugar Nazi seemed self-defeating, so I redefined what I was giving up as simply “sweets,” broadly defined. I would eat fruit and other naturally occurring sugars. Would I eat honey? Maple syrup? Sugar substitutes? I didn’t know. I decided I’d figure out those details on a case-by-case basis. As a practical matter, my commitment to giving up sweets meant that I replaced ice cream in the evening with yogurt and fruit and replaced sweets during the day with nuts or crackers.
Two weeks later, I began to notice some differences. I was sleeping better. I fell asleep faster. I was more likely to remember my dreams, perhaps because I was sleeping better. I wasn’t drowsy in the afternoons as much as I used to be. Frankly, I felt like a new man. I couldn’t believe it.
A few days later I passed the free food table at school. Sitting on it was a single piece of chocolate layer cake—five layers, to be exact. For the past two years, I had walked by this table and lunged at anything on it like a vulture. Now, for the first time, I just kept walking. The primary emotion I experienced in doing so was nostalgia. I thought, “Ah, yes. I remember when I used to do that. But that’s not where I am now.”
When I explained this transformation in class, I shared another vision. I imagined I was in a boxing ring in a crowded stadium wearing a silk robe with a hood. My classmates were in my corner giving me a pep-talk. In the opposite corner stood my adversary: an eight-foot tall giant paper bag of sugar. Then the camera view in my vision zoomed out and provided a helicopter view of the stadium. The crowd was going wild. It zoomed out farther, still, showing the stadium as a whole and revealing a collection of other stadiums surrounding it. Each was filled with a roaring crowd and a brightly illuminated boxing ring at its center. In each was one of my classmates going up against their self-selected nemesis. We were all in this together.
At the end of class, one of my classmates, Ashley, gave me the drawing above depicting her boxing match with a pack of cigarettes. (Click on the image to see a higher resolution version.) I particularly appreciated the fact that in the drawing her expression suggests anxiety while her thought bubble transforms into another face that looks more like terror. I understood and was touched.
The month came and went, and I remained “sugar-sober.” I felt great, physically and emotionally. I tried to understand why. A critical moment to explore with an addict is what is going on for them just before they have the urge to use. Typically, they feel an emotion that they do not feel they have the ability to regulate by themselves, for example, anxiety. As a result, they reach for a drink or a cigarette. I was realizing that food evoked emotions that were equivalent to real-life experiences. If drinking castor oil could be likened to stubbing your toe, eating ice cream was like getting a hug. So whenever I felt like having desert, I tried to explore the unfulfilled emotion that was underlying the urge. Sometimes it felt like an urge to celebrate. Other times I felt a little down. So I experimented with playing my piano or calling somebody, instead. It seemed to work. Inserting this pause between impulse and action was critical and liberating. Some in the addictions field refer to taking this pause as “urge surfing.”
Inspired by these initial positive results, I decided to try and make this change permanent.
A few weeks later, I attended an open house. Among the hors d’oeuvres was a bowl of mixed nuts. I inspected it carefully to see if it contained any yogurt chips or anything else that might have sugar in it. I saw none. So I took a fist-full of nuts and shoved them in my mouth. A split-second later, I felt a chocolate chip melting on my tongue. And then something surprising happened; it tasted disgusting, sickeningly sweet. On impulse, I spat it out into a napkin. I reflected that this reaction made sense. By giving up sugar, my body had re-adjusted its baseline of what “sweet” tasted like. After a few months of mostly fruit, the thing I used to crave had become alien. All this time I had been terrified that if I accidentally had some sugar, I would relapse and be unable to get back on the wagon. Instead when it happened, my automatic reaction was, “Patooey!” This realization made it much easier to continue my sobriety.
After two months, I had lost weight. Depending on what pair of pants I was wearing, I dropped four belt loops from about 168 pounds to 161. I couldn’t believe it. I hadn’t even been trying to lose weight. A few months later I had dropped to 158—the first time I had gone below 160 since college. I needed to find a way to gain weight. Crazy! Maybe I had a tape worm.
I’ve now been sugar sober for six months. This experience has been far more profound than I could have imagined and inspires questions of a more philosophical nature. I have successfully given up something that previously was such an integral part of my identity that the choice to give it up would never have occurred to me. I was subject to sugar. Giving it up meant giving up me. Yet, I now had to confront the incontrovertible truth: I was still here. So that prompted a scary question: “What else am I so close to that I can’t even see that I might benefit from giving up?” What if I gave up my piano, for instance? What would I do instead? Sing, probably. O.K., what if I gave up singing? Draw? How about giving up talking? Let’s take this thought experiment even farther. What would happen if I gave up expressing myself at all? To be clear, I’m not asking these questions because I actually intend to give these things up; I’m asking these questions to explore the bigger question of “How much can you give up and still be ‘you’?” I imagine a spectrum; at the left end are those things I am strongly attached to (oxygen, for example) and on the opposite end is sugar—something that at one time I thought I could’t give up but now have. What’s in between that I can’t yet see?
I mentioned this to my friend Anne who is an executive coach, and she said something very wise. She suggested that I should turn this experience around and instead ask, “What have you gained?”
Hmm. Good question.
The first thing that came to mind was that somehow I felt like there was more of “me”–while not even really being sure what that meant. Having thought more about what that might mean, I think the main thing I have gained is a closer relationship with myself. I’ve gained an understanding of my emotional relationship with food, the emotional component of addictions, and the social component of recovery. Having Cindy, my “Sister in Sugar Sobriety,” and a community in my corner of the boxing ring made a significant difference. I can now see that they provided both support and a sense of accountability. One of the greatest challenges facing those giving up smoking or drinking is having to make a whole new set of friends. In my case what I gave up was benign enough to allow me to keep all of my friends. I still go to birthday parties; I just pass on the cake and ice cream.
And then I remember Danny. No longer in the shelter, I have no idea where he is. I wonder how he’s doing, whether he’s even still alive. He provided me perhaps the most important ingredient of all: the moral conviction to try. By so doing, he inspired me to experience what it can take to move that which we are subject to, to becoming an object for our inspection and development, and for that I will never forget him.