I am an addict.

My drug of choice is sugar. But don’t let that fool you: Addiction is addiction. I’ve been using sugar as a feel-good drug since I was eight years old. When I read Russell Brand’s words on substance abuse — in an article I highly recommend reading — I see bits of myself.

“When I saw the tape a month or so ago, what was surprising was that my reaction was not one of gratitude for the positive changes I’ve experienced. Instead I felt envious of this earlier version of myself, unencumbered by the burden of abstinence. I sat in a suite at the Savoy hotel, in privilege, resenting the woeful ratbag I once was who, for all his problems, had drugs.”

Just replace sugar for drugs and you will perhaps have a glimpse of the minefield in which I walk. While I can easily note the number of bars available on my drive to work each day, they don’t tempt me.  Food, however, is something we all need on a daily basis. In modern western society, it is practically omnipresent– always available, day or night — and much of the food available to us is processed (not whole) and packaged to tempt, chock-full of sugars.

Russell Brand writes,

“Don’t pick up a drink or drug, one day at a time. It sounds so simple, it actually is simple, but it isn’t easy — it requires incredible support and fastidious structuring.”

Put me in a restaurant or a grocery story and I will struggle mightily against the sugar monster begging to be fed. Sure, don’t shop hungry — we all know that advice,and I do my best to follow it. But sugar addiction has little to do with hunger. Don’t we all wish for a little something sweet after a meal? You’re not truly hungry then… and yet you desire a bit of sweetness. This is true for most people whom I know. But me? Even if I start out wanting just a bite, I often end up wanting an entire slice… and then after I savor it, I want more. I want more of the feelings and chemicals that rush through my body when I am savoring those first bites.

The fact is, though, that the sufferer must be a willing participant in their own recovery. They must not pick up a drink or drug. Just don’t pick it up — that’s all.

I’ve given up sugar before. In the spring of 2003, I went on the Atkins diet. The first couple of weeks were awful: I cried at the table sometimes (trying to not let my boys see) because I was craving fresh, homemade bread. I took Tylenol to combat the headaches from sugar withdrawal. Later on, I did feel much better without the simple sugars in my system and it became easier to avoid sugar, but it was always around in some form or other. I had lost 32 pounds when we threw a surprise birthday party for my husband. His mother made carrot cake with real cream cheese frosting. Once I had a taste of sugar again, I quickly returned to active addiction — and there went four-and-a-half months of hard work and self-denial. My weight slowly crept back up, bringing more pounds as baggage.

The fact is, though, that the sufferer must be a willing participant in their own recovery. They must not pick up a drink or drug. Just don’t pick it up — that’s all.

It’s hard enough to follow that wise advice about an illegal drug, and it is much easier said than done when we are talking about food.  (Please understand that I am not underestimating the difficulty of breaking addiction! I am merely pointing out that food is more available than illegal drugs — at least for most of us.)  I want to be one of those people who can have the occasional treat and not go overboard, falling into the abyss of abuse. It would be so much easier and nicer to be one of those people. To be able to eat just one thin slice of cheesecake and be utterly satisfied with 3 or 4 bites, to leave 10% on my plate as a testimony that You don’t own me, Cheesecake! would be incredibly gratifying. But right now, to envision the first scenario is often to desire more-More-MORE, to plunge headlong into the fullness of the entire dish.

I’m working hard to change. (Admittedly, some days I work harder than others.) I’ve been listening to meditation tapes CDs at night before I fall asleep. On stressful days, I’ll come home from work, drink a glass of water, and spent 25 minutes with a personalized session on CD from Positive Changes® before communicating with anyone. It puts me in a positive frame of mind and I no longer want to use food as the tool to try to make me feel better. This has been a big change for the better for me.

Limiting simple sugars in my diet (and here, diet = daily way of eating) is my desired modus operandi. To do so is to plan, shop, and eat intentionally. There is so much food being marketed at us that is not healthy and yet the USDA spent years telling us that it was the ground level of the food pyramid. (Hello, bread and cereals, I’m talking about you!) Have you looked at the ingredients and nutrition label on a typical granola bar? Manufacturers took the fat out of food, added sugar to make it palatable and told us it was healthy. I’ve actually gained weight trying to eat low-fat food because I was always hungry.

There are plenty of smart and healthful reasons to strongly limit one’s consumption of simple sugars.  Jen on the Edge wrote about this a few months ago. I know that when I strongly limit my sugar intake I feel more energetic, once I get past the withdrawal symptoms.  Yes, I do get withdrawal symptoms when I cut back strongly on sugar, the same withdrawal symptoms that I get when I forget to drink coffee! 

I’ve spent many years now — all of adulthood, basically — trying to fight back against my genetics (tendency for adults in my family of origin to be overweight) and the excessive availability of food with high sugar content/empty calories. In most places it is easier to buy a pack of donuts or ice cream than it is to find some guacamole or an orange. While I like a relaxing day now and then, I also enjoy being active and productive. I’ve been struggling with foot problems for the past nine years and those problems have sidelined me to the bench sofa when I’d rather be out doing something active like hiking or kayaking or even walking. Obesity isn’t all about laziness, and fat-shaming hasn’t dug us out of the hole we’ve created in this country. Juggling Jenn has written a well-thought-out blog post on this very topic.

I live with thin people who will probably never be overweight; the boys all seem to have their father’s genetic tendencies when it comes to body shape and weight. I am not like them and I never will be like them. My parents were overweight most of their own adult lives, but their body types would never fit the “thin is beautiful” branding even if they had been fit and healthy. I inherited their build: I’m 5’10” tall and my “skinny clothes” — as a younger adult, after my first 2 babies and becoming a jogger — were a size 14. My personal healthy & fit goal is a size 16 because I’ve had four children and a somewhat botched hysterectomy (which I got the difficult way, complete with a 5-day hospital stay, four of those days without taking anything by mouth).  So I actually become a bit irate when people assume that size 16 is humongous and think that size 6 is desirable for the entire population of women.

I figured out about 20 years ago that low-fat diets did NOT work for me, and that I’m much happier and more easily satisfied eating real food. [Gwen Shamblin’s Weigh Down Diet opened my eyes to more about this in 1997, along with my own rebellious nature regarding food choices and control in general. Again, I’m working on it. It’s apparently a life-long journey.] I’m learning about head-hunger (appetite) vs. true hunger, and I’m still trying to figure out daily what “enough” (satisfying the needs of my body) feels like. I’ve learned that I am a person for whom sugar is a dangerous trigger, but I’ve also learned that I need to live in a world where sugar exists. Dr. Atkins — perhaps rightly so — labeled me a sugar addict and I’m sure many other people have the same issues. I started treating sugar like a feel-good drug when I was eight years old. That is 40+ years of habit to overcome. But I am learning about how to treat my own body with respect. This is the only body I have and I want it to work well for many years to come.

13 thoughts on “Addict

  1. Nodding in recognition reading this.. Strangely I have decided that tomorrow I start weaning off sugar… And your blog post has helped me tremendously.

  2. Good Post–wrenching and familiar. I remember sneak eating whole bags of Brachs candy and Hershey Kisses and half packages of Oreos ( I was restraining myself on that one, but then my secret would get out). The fact that I was obese meant it really was no secret, but I just became angry and defensive when my weight was bought up . this was followed by more sugar usually. I’ve gone the ‘no sugar and no artificial sweetener route’ during eating disorder treatment. it’s hard to do and many months later, I gave in gradually to at first artificial and then real sugar . Girl likes her coffee. For a while the usage was gradual. I did eventually regain weight that was lost but that was more to do with meeting my now husband and having a food buddy to then share things with.

    I have difficulty with the concept of complete abstinence, but many people’s blogs I read seem to revel in it. I think those are the few, and I’m not sure that the one’s I’ve read that have total abstinence may have a lifelong history of chronic bingeing like I did. I think total abstinence is extremely hard . For me , it sets up the cycle of restrict , overuse, restrict (diet/ abstinence), over use and now with guilt and more baggage.

    I’ve worked with 3 eating disorder focused RDs in that last 3 years and they do not -NOT-recommend complete abstinence from any food based on that cycle of restriction / overuse-guilt/restriction that is set up. from what I can tell, many if not most Eating disorder centers do not focus on abstinence from sugar as a long term process. This is something you have to figure out for yourself and I would recommend do it with an Rd experience with disordered eating. Drop it and eat is a blog on my blog list written by an RD that I worked with briefly through Skype sessions who understands this if you want to check this out..

    I wish you the best in this. For me, I have reduced my sugar intake , but I still have sugar. The cycle of restriction / over use/ guilt/ restriction and on and on is a battle never won for me.

    • Since I wrote the blog post over the course of several months, I probably didn’t make it clear that I cannot do complete abstinence when it comes to food. I know from doing the Atkins diet that complete abstinence to sugar does not work for me.
      Food restricting can trigger horrible eating disorders, so I know that restrictions can be very dangerous. Moderation is key. (But I sometimes hate that moderation is key.)
      I do stay away from certain trigger foods, especially when I am not feeling strong in my convictions. This is why there are rarely cookies in my house.

  3. I’m just in awe of your honesty, your struggle, your courage, your faith. Every BODY is different, as are our addictions, our strengths, our weaknesses. Beautiful post. You’ve really got me thinking today.

  4. Yep, yep, yep.

    The sugar thing will always be an issue for me. I don’t abstain entirely, but I have cut waaaaay back on refined sugars. I feel like crap if I let things get out of control.

  5. What a wonderfully written piece. I think your struggle is quite common but not always recognized as such. Good for you for knowing your demon and fighting it as best you can. I completely get how addictive sugar can be for many of us. It’s easy for me to get caught up in it. And very difficult it is for me to resist sugars. If it’s in the house… it’s on my hips. And unfortunately, I’m not the only one buying groceries here. A very well written post, Karen.

  6. I, too, am addicted to sugar. I try to use the Weight Watchers program to modify my intake. it mostly works, but not always. And yes, the trick with food is that complete abstinence is not possible.

  7. I wonder, sometimes, about how much the change in processed food contributed to sugar addictions. I think all of us, over the last 25 years, have been eating more sugar than we realized because of the whole “low-fat” myth. I’m glad that society is beginning to recognize that fats are not the evil they were made out to be.

    I can also relate to how hard it is sometimes to be a tall, large, woman. And by large I don’t mean overweight –a taller body is normally also a bigger frame, and next to shorter and more petite women, that can make us feel enormous. And I’m raising a daughter who is beginning to feel that as well –when your thin/normal size is 12 or 14, you just always feel too big.

    What I really wish is that somehow we could all stop feeling a need to focus on food and just do the “intuitive eating” that nutritionists often recommend. But as you say, 40+ years of disordered eating makes it very hard to just switch to intuitive eating.

    I hope that your efforts to change will be successful, and make you happy.

    • Cassi, I suspect our “tampered with” foods have had a LOT to deal with our sugar intake. I can only imagine how difficult it is to raise a daughter in the messy world we have today, whether the issue at hand is body image or the way nearly everything has been sexualized. It feels like a battlefield. Kudos to you and others who are raising strong, smart young women!

  8. I get you. I really, really do. I have been sugar/simple carb abstinent now for about six months. I feel much much better, but I have to treat sugar like I have treated alcohol (for the last 7 years): I don’t do it. For me, abstinence is what I have to do. Hello, my name is Cheri. Thank you for posting this. Sharing our stories helps. XO

  9. Like you said in this very revealing post it is a hard one to do but well worth the struggles. Love you just the way you look today. But being healthier is so important.
    If you fall pick yourself up and get back to your original plan.

  10. Well, this sounds very familiar. I tried going completely no sugar and I was a wreck. However, I also realize that I stress eat (hello nutella and spoon) so I’m trying to be more aware of that. I agree that there is so much unnecessary sugar added to foods these days. You really do have to read labels carefully. Hang in there and soldier on!

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