It starts with the anticipation. The lead up to my next hit is almost as good as the score itself. The wanting, the waiting, the luscious dance between want and need. I can barely contain myself as I reach into my bag and lay out the goods, away from prying eyes—Hershey’s Kisses, Smarties, Kit Kats, and other assorted chocolates and candies. I sort through them like a kid at Halloween. I prioritize them. I segregate and categorize them. I plan which ones will get consumed right away, which ones I will squirrel away for later. The usual questions creep into my head—will I have enough for tomorrow? Do I need to do a sugar run later today? How will I get rid of the wrappers? And the most dominant one, the one that hangs over my head—why am I doing this?
Sweet Tooth in Recovery
I never really had a sweet tooth when I was active in my drinking. Sure I enjoyed birthday cake or the occasional chocolate bar, but I saved all my shekels and appetite for the booze. Besides, donuts and vodka wasn’t a pleasant combination, so given the choice, the distilled potato juice always won over the diabetes wheel. I used to joke with friends that I thought it would be harder to give up caffeine than to give up alcohol. When I first got sober I drank 10-12 cups of coffee a day, mostly because I needed to fulfill the action of putting liquid to my lips. Old habits. I eventually moderated, and now I enjoy about 2-3 cups a day (just enough to stop me from committing mass murder.) Little did I know what kind of foe I would find in sugar.
Like anyone else who gets into recovery, my yearning for sugar skyrocketed when I finally put down the bottle. One counselor at my treatment center warned us about this new craving and said that it was better to double down on danishes rather than take a drink or drug. Now being the good student I was, I took her advice to heart. And to my gut. I spent my days hitting meetings and my nights hitting entire cakes, strudels and boxes of chocolate chip cookies. I felt uneasy about it at times, but what I knew was safer than chugging whiskey. What I didn’t know was that I was hitting the same pleasure and reward centers in the brain that heroin and cocaine activated. What I didn’t know was that sugar, in all its crafty forms, could easily become my new addiction if I wasn’t careful.
Most alcoholics and addicts early in recovery struggle with sugar in one way or another. The common reason is that most alcohol has sugar in it, and/or is mixed with something like soda, which is loaded with sugar. So once you take away the years of booze intake and the sweet punch it delivers, our body joneses for it. Many folk eventually moderate, like I did with the coffee, and it’s not something they need to deal with any more. But for many, like myself, it’s an ongoing battle, even years into sobriety.
Early on, I never saw sugar as an issue, because I wasn’t getting loaded. Sure I was packing on a bit of weight, but at least it wasn’t from beer or rye. The red flag for me later on, was when I noticed I started to hide my treats, when I started to try to moderate them. I started to think about sweets often, and got sugar hangovers when I binged on them late at night. I was secretive with my sugar, stashing and hiding treats everywhere. My moods were all over the place and my energy levels always felt depleted. My behaviors and relationship to sugar was frighteningly similar to what I had with alcohol. The corner variety shop became my new liquor store.
I used to sit and watch videos and read articles on the internet about how damaging sugar was while I attacked a pile of chocolate beside the computer. It was exactly how I’d watch videos and read articles online about how damaging alcohol was to your liver while pounding back cheap sherry. I never had this sort of problem when it came to Brussels sprouts, cauliflower or lemons, so clearly there was something underneath it all.
What I have come to see is that it was another form of self-medicating.
It’s easy to dismiss eating excessive amounts of sugar. People sometimes tease about how they’re “addicted to sugar”, perhaps posting a picture online of an empty plate where a piece of pecan pie used to be or describing how they ate four whole cookies while watching The Walking Dead. What they don’t understand is that for someone addicted to sugar, that is mere foreplay—the beginning of a new run on sweets. Sugar addiction is seen as harmless, almost a joke. One doesn’t get pulled over on the side of the road for having too many M&M’s in their blood system. But like those who pick up cigarettes or other harmful substances when they get sober, sugar can kill. And it does…regularly and slowly (see: diabetes, heart disease and cancer.)
These are some of the things that have helped me in my relationship with sugar:
- Checking in with myself – am I eating for pleasure, or am I trying to stuff my feelings? Am I avoiding something within that needs to be examined or talked about?
- Self-Care – I make sure that I am sleeping well, that I am exercising, that I am eating regularly and not going a long time between meals, which is an incentive for me to start sugar bingeing.
- Observe cravings – I will sometimes find that certain situations or thoughts will be a trigger point for wanting sweets, I try to be aware of those times and figure out why I am uncomfortable and need soothing.
- Apply tools – I often forget that the same tools that helped me get sober and that I use to maintain my spiritual and emotional centering can also be used when I struggle with sugar. Am I willing to let this go to the Universe, to live in a way that removes the want to gorge on sugar in the first place?
- Don’t be Judgy McJudge– sometimes I have to just accept that where I am right now is where I am. I may be progressing and this may take some time, but I can’t chastise or flog myself for not being perfect. I have to be gentle with myself.
This is all part of what recovery is for me, in the broader sense—the ability to look at things and examine my intentions, to seek growth, to understand that it’s not always an overnight matter. For some it’s sugar, for others it’s cigarettes, sex, spending, anger…there are many ways we transfer the inner turmoil or unease into something external. I find that when I am emotionally and mentally centered, when I move my body, and when I reduce my stress levels, I don’t crave sweets very often. It all comes down to self-awareness and honesty. That’s just how it for those of us in recovery.
It’s how the cookie crumbles.