This post was originally published on October 10, 2014.
I’ve never been one to routinely lump all addictions into the same category, mostly because I think it makes more sense to rate them on the severity of consequences rather than strictly on their “hole in the soul” shared etiology. As a matter of fact, when I was in early sobriety, I heard a speaker at an AA podium say, “Booze, heroin, chocolate ice cream, they’re all the same to me,” and I practically started frothing at the mouth. If you’re not going to get fired, ruin a marriage, or die, I reasoned at the time, then should I really be taking your addiction seriously?
And while I’ve since smartened up enough to realize that (technically anyway) an addiction really is an addiction, I still use the Plankton Scale of Imminent Death when judging how seriously I have to take it for myself. As someone told me when I first came into recovery, “Take care of things in the order that they’ll kill you,” and that’s been my rule of thumb ever since. I didn’t quit smoking until I was four years sober, and didn’t start to drop the no-smoking weight until about year eight, when I figured it wasn’t such a hot idea to die prematurely of a heart attack (or even just be an unsightly fat fuck) after I actually began to love life.
Just because you probably won’t die right away doesn’t mean it’s not an addiction. I was reminded of this the other day when I read Laura Barcella’s piece, “Diary Of A Sugar Addict In Detox,” which reveals her detoxification process from the other white granular powder, refined sugar. When she details her first week coming off the stuff, it sounds a lot like getting clean and sober minus the dope sick and seizures. She also precedes it with a kind of brief sugar-logue of how she got to the point of really wanting to quit: Periods of abstinence followed by binges followed by sickness, guilt and shame. And after she does decide to quit, there are those God-awful cravings and near slips before she finally thinks that she can actually do it. Like quitting smoking, the first few days and weeks totally suck, but then your body just kind of adjusts and you begin to reap the benefits of not being your addiction’s bitch. And just like kicking booze and drugs, it all starts with not picking up the first one.
While I found some of the verbiage to be a little dramatic (like me, Barcella is also a self-admitted alcoholic and a writer, so drama is par for the course), I could really identify with how many of the alcoholic behaviors show up in my relationship with sugar. After I finally put down the booze 11 years ago, I went on a massive sugar binge—cupcakes, candy, and lots and lots of ice cream, to the point where Ben & Jerry were practically my sponsors. But I kept losing weight for a while because I think my liver started functioning and all the booze began flushing out of my system. Old timers told me to keep hard candy in my pocket, because it would help with the alcohol cravings, so I just happily followed orders.
I slowly started gaining weight and began to balloon up, especially after I quit smoking and went through a divorce (a terrible combo). I realized then that in order to lose weight, I probably had to take sugar out of the equation. And it was just like when I would attempt to quit drinking. I put myself on a no sugar diet from the day after New Year’s until the Super Bowl. The cravings went away after a week or so, but I also had a breakout day scheduled, and when that day came, the results were remarkably similar to my picking up the booze and drugs after a layoff.
Then there was the day I was helping a friend finish his basement, skipped breakfast, and bought a giant bag of Hershey’s Dark Chocolate Kisses to tide me over. I ripped open the bag and popped the first couple in my mouth and it was on. I couldn’t stop eating them, and it’s all I ate for the entire afternoon. When I got out of work I got another bag, and after a quick Super Bowl meal at a local bar, I went home and started tearing through that second bag. Even though I had developed a searing headache I couldn’t stop eating them, despite knowing that it was the candy that was causing it. Believe me, nothing tastes that good. It was addiction, plain and simple.
I’d like to blame that episode on the pain of the divorce at the time, but I know it’s really my addiction. Since I don’t want to return to porker status (I lost about 30 pounds since then), I really have to monitor my sugar intake, so I usually don’t pick up the first one. But I’m not always successful. Just a few nights ago, I walked into a meeting knowing that they have the most awesome sweets table, but I wasn’t planning to have anything. Unfortunately, I skipped dinner and couldn’t resist grabbing a piece of pie (which I justified—just like my drinking—because it had fruit in it) and inhaled it. Before I left the table, I shoved two brownies in my mouth along with a couple of shitty supermarket cookies and then stuffed my pockets with candy. I felt sick five minutes after sitting down but I went back after the break and got some more cookies and candy. And I felt awful after I crashed.
I can easily justify those little slips, but I also keep them in perspective. The next day I just stopped the sugar, because it doesn’t have the hold on me that booze does. I don’t think that would be the case if I decide to start drinking again. I’ve watched too many of my fellow drunks pick up a drink and just bounce in and out of sobriety over the years. And I’m not arrogant enough to believe that I’d be any different. My little sweets benders are just harbingers of what would probably happen if I pick up a drink. Besides, if the sugar becomes that big of a problem, I could always go to OA. I hear that works, too.
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