Tis the Season for Mixed Messages!

Tis the Season for Mixed Messages!

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This post was originally published on December 23, 2014.

It’s that time of year when every other ad prominently features a glistening bottle or tray of clinking drinks while the fine print reads “Drink Responsibly.” In one ear, retailers tell us things like “Make this year the one she’ll remember!” and “Give the gift that counts” while in the other ear we’re admonished for going into debt over holiday shopping. Every other night we’re “treated” to passed hors d’oeuvres or another holiday buffet, followed by trays of holiday baked goods and edible gifts of every arrangement. Meanwhile, “Kick Sugar Addiction and Enjoy the Holidays!” commands one local news station, KARE 11 News.

I can only imagine how condescending articles like the one above probably appear for people who struggle with sugar addiction. The same could be said for my last post, which basically yelled at people to put down the cookie and go to the gym. When it comes to perfection, alcoholic women can be some of the worst people out there, and I’m no exception.

When I first got sober, I kept a diary where I gave myself a gold star—yes, a literal gold star—for every meeting I attended. I remember an old-timer catching sight of this once, and giving me a look I’ll never forget. My “to do” list at the time ranged from “Turn in my Masters thesis” to “Get a job” to “Get my teeth whitened” to “Finish my book” (still not done). All these things had equal priority; “First things first” was not a concept I was familiar with at the time. I was an alcoholic and a sex addict, and I was hemorrhaging debt. But yeah, my teeth. Let’s just say that giving up sugar was the last thing on my list but I’m sure if someone had suggested it was necessary, it would’ve made it to the top.

Though I’ve been brought to my knees by money and alcohol (and let’s not forget sex), overeating has never been my issue. Even so, like any good addict, I can abuse anything that feels good. Even as someone who doesn’t struggle yearlong with sugar, I too find it somewhat difficult this time of year to just say no to the sweet stuff.

No matter the season, sugar feels good. The taste, the texture—not to mention what it does to the brain: a spoonful of sugar activates the brain’s reward center in a way that causes experts to compare it to cocaine. When I first got sober, I ate a pint of ice cream every night alongside the drug-using boyfriend I was lying to my sponsor about. Seven years later, I’ve lost the bad boy boyfriend, but my sugar tooth remains, and I’m as likely as anyone to fall into the bad habit of craving and satisfying that craving by eating rich desserts well after I’m full. It’s a relatively innocent habit. Take away drugs and booze, irresponsible sexual conduct, righteous anger? What’s a sober girl got left?

Of course it’s not a totally innocent habit. Even for those of us who don’t consider it a “problem,” sugar is known for its negative effects: liver damage, heart disease, diabetes, cancer. All this, and I haven’t even mentioned what it does to the waistline. Or your skin. And winter is a time we’re especially likely to fall into the habit. Not only are rich foods more readily available but scientists also say that our bodies crave carbohydrates during colder months—a holdover from days when our bodies needed to prepare us for when food would become less available. We’re also more stressed, and therefore prone to stress eating. For those of us that struggle with the wintertime blues, a cookie might seem a perfect cure—but eating loads of sugar has the opposite of this intended effect.

Experts say that alcoholics are especially prone to sugar addiction. So, if you can’t control yourself around the sweet stuff, or it’s causing problems in your life, you’re right to feel concerned. That said, not everyone’s an addict. And to compare it with cocaine? C’mon.

Yes, there are people out there who ought to avoid sugar altogether. But for those of us whose lives aren’t made unmanageable by the substance—who haven’t suffered negative consequences as a result of our consumption, and especially for those of us fighting other addictions more consequential and pressing—go ahead and eat that fucking cookie. Have two. When it comes to taking advice from people in meetings, from the Internet or anywhere else, it’s important for each of us to know where we’re at, and what’s realistic. I think back to my first sober holiday, and New Year’s Eve, which also happens to be my birthday—no pressure to have the Best Night Ever, amiright?— when I found myself in tears, locked in my bathroom, the drug-using boyfriend on the other side. I have no idea why I was wigging out. My life was far from perfect but, hey, at least I was sober. Maybe all I needed was a little birthday cake.

These days, I’m an incredibly clean eater, and so I find being told to eat oatmeal in the morning and splash fruit juice in seltzer water rather than opting for a soda to be somewhat useful advice. But for someone who doesn’t eat as much kale as I happen to, that advice is pretty silly. For many people, being told to avoid sugar altogether—the very time of year when sugar is most prominent—is just plain annoying. And maybe even irresponsible. Certainly, for the newly sober, it’s better to reach for a cupcake than a drink.

Bottom line: A cupcake won’t kill you. What might, if you’re an alcoholic like me: black-and-white thinking. When it seems impossible to be perfect, I know just how I react: I choose the exact opposite of perfect. Before I got sober, trying to do the right thing all the time was impossible and so I did what was obviously wrong, and got drunk. These days, I don’t have the perfect diet or budget, but by eating pretty darn healthfully most of the time and watching what I spend, I can afford the occasional treat. The only one thing I keep pretty black-and-white is whether I do or don’t have a drink.

One last tip for those of us looking to practice a little moderation management this holiday season when it comes to the other white powder: there are creative ways to indulge without overindulging. For an end-of-semester class party at the school where I teach, for example, I had a student bring a version of these flourless brownies. They weren’t exactly sugar free, but since that they were made with black beans instead of heaps of oil and butter, they were definitely healthier, and—equally important—still incredibly good. Serving these at my next holiday gathering will mean serving myself this healthier alternative, alongside a smaller slice of pie. Because, let’s be honest: on Christmas Eve, no one in my house is skipping the pie. And that’s okay.

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Melissa Petro is a freelance writer and writing instructor living in New York City. She has written for NY Magazine, The Guardian, Salon, The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post, Jezebel, xoJane, The Fix and elsewhere. She is the founder of Becoming Writers, a community organization that provides free and low cost memoir-writing workshops to new writers of all backgrounds and experiences.