I am lurking in a stall in the bathroom at work, preparing to feed my addiction. Wait. I hear someone. They’re washing their hands. I pause, keeping quiet.
My mouth begins to water. What’s taking them so long? You just need to squirt a drop of soap into your hands and rinse. Squirt and rinse. And wipe. OK, squirt, rinse, and wipe. There’s nothing difficult about that procedure. But to any junkie attempting to scratch an itch, no one seems capable of getting it right.
When the coast is clear, I eagerly dip my hand into the pocket of my long, blue trench coat. I grasp a box, yank it out, and then spew a portion of the contents into my hand. I shove the pieces in my mouth.
As they cascade down my esophagus, I feel the substance disperse into my bloodstream. An unmatchable state of euphoria ensues. The high lasts about 45 seconds. Once the feeling begins to subside, I exit the stall and look in the mirror. That was one good pack of Milk Duds, I think as I gaze at my reflection. Time to get back to work.
I’m addicted to candy. It’s my best friend and worst enemy. I’ve been teetering on the brink of addiction since birth. When I was little, I used to suck on sugar cubes as if they were a part of the five food groups. As a result, I have cavities in every tooth except the front four. I even had two of my wisdom teeth yanked because they had rotted away to stubs (and, yes, I brush my teeth twice a day).
A week has passed since my bathroom binge. I am wandering around Brooklyn chomping on a rope of red licorice. A flyer stops my snacking. It reads, “Suffering from the sugar blues? If you are constantly craving sweets and want to understand why, or if you want to gain control without willpower, please join.” The advertisement is for a free lecture given by a holistic health counselor.
It’s an omen. I know I’m out of control; if I don’t stop soon, I may end up with a bad case of diabetes—not to mention dentures. The class is just what I need to regain control of my life.
At the workshop the next week, I scan the crowd as I take a seat on one of the foldout chairs. I see an older man and his daughter, a middle-aged woman with glasses, and a young couple. The instructor, 27-year-old Felicia Desrosiers, welcomes me to the group and informs me that we are going around the room sharing what our favorite sweets were as children, what our favorite sweets are now, and how sweets make us feel.
Licorice, I reveal, was my favorite sweet growing up. It still is.
“My intention for this afternoon is to permanently change your relationship with sugar,” says Desrosiers.
I’m not sure I am ready for that. Most of me wants to end my unhealthy relationship with sugar, but a deplorable part of me knows that it makes me happy. And it’s not just the instant high I get from eating candy that I don’t want to give up. Similar to a smoker, a candy addict has an oral fixation on the sweets. Much of the joy I get from eating Jujyfruits is hearing my jaw click as I smack those rebellious suckers into submission.
But after listening to what Desrosiers has to say about how sugar will ruin your life, I change my mind. I’m ready. The thing that affects me the most about her talk is a simple diagram she creates about how sugar affects your blood. She starts by drawing a horizontal black line. This is what your blood sugar is supposed to be like—an even keel. She then draws a spike in the line and tells us that this is what happens to your blood-sugar levels when you eat refined sugars (candy, sweets, white bread, pastas, etc.). She says that in order to get it to come back down, your body produces insulin.
She brings the spike back down under the original line. We learn that if you eat sugar throughout the day, you put your body through a roller-coaster ride. Do it for too long, she says, and you may develop hypoglycemia. Do it for a lifetime, she continues, and diabetes might ensue.
By the end of the lecture, Desrosiers has scared me straight. I leave the class vowing not to eat refined sugars for the rest of my life.
I made it a week.
The day of my relapse, I’m out shopping with my roommate in the East Village. After a two-hour walk, we grab a bite to eat. The meal fills me, but my roommate suggests we get some rice pudding for dessert.
“Rice pudding?” I ask. “What’s that? It sounds gross.”
Amazed by the fact that I have never had rice pudding, she insists we go. I tell her that I can’t eat any because I haven’t eaten any sugary substances for a whole week.
“Come on, it’s Sunday,” she begs. “Every- one deserves a break on Sunday.”
No, they don’t, I think, but opt to take one anyway. We share a bowl of the cookie-dough flavor. My mouth doesn’t like the mealy morsels of rice swimming in the ultra-sweetened creamy substance. Nevertheless, with one bite the candy freak in me is unleashed. Immediately after leaving the pudding shop, we stop off at the closest Duane Reade so I can buy packs of gummy bears and Twizzlers. They are inhaled.
Every day after work, once I get off the C train, I pass a Super Foodtown grocery store. Now, this isn’t just any grocery store. The important thing to note about this store: It sells strawberry laces. Each coiled lace contains an artificially flavored abundance of sweet goodness.
Thus, the journey home creates a constant battle. Should I stop off and buy a pack of the laces? Or can I muster up the courage to fight my craving? My only motivation to fight it is knowing that when I do give in, I usually fall victim to a tragic overdose, which leaves me shriveled up on the couch in a bout of paralysis. I didn’t intend to make the stop today, but the laces wouldn’t stop calling me.
Once I commit to giving in to my wanton craving for the tantalizing sweets, I become impatient. By the time I make it into the store, I’m so eager to consume the candy that I run to the metal shelves where the laces are stored and I eat a few on the spot. On my walk home from Super Foodtown, which is only two blocks, I’ve consumed 20 of the 50 laces. As predicted, exactly one hour later, the box is history. So am I.
I decide to hit up Dr. Richard K. Bernstein, the medical director of the New York Diabetes Center and author of Dr. Bernstein’s Diabetes Solution: The Complete Guide to Achieving Normal Blood Sugars and The Diabetes Diet: Dr. Bernstein’s Low-Carbohydrate Solution. If anyone can scare me into giving sugar up, it’s him.
Bernstein assures me that it is quite possible to be addicted to sugar. He tells me about a two-decade-old study that found that if rodents were fed carbs, the serotonin levels in their brains increased.
“[Sweets] raise serotonin levels in your brain and make you feel better,” he says. And they are fast-acting.
Bernstein reminisces on a time 40 years ago when sugar addiction wasn’t as prevalent in our society. He remembers riding with a cab driver who used to get excited when he stopped at red lights.
“He liked to look at the girls,” Bernstein says. “He especially liked it when the sun shone through their skirts.”
But now most of the people he sees on the street are obese. The diabetes epidemic is proof of our addiction to sugar, he says.
“And it’s not just sugar. It’s things that get rapidly converted to sugar, the happy things that raise your serotonin levels—bread, pasta, and carbs.”
I guess they call them “simple sugars” for a reason. America has become so fixated on instant gratification that, at the moment we begin to feel pain, we numb it with a spoonful.
By this point, it’s pretty evident that I need professional help. There is only one option: Desrosiers’s services. She offers one-on-one counseling to help you kick your sugar addiction. I schedule a session with her.
Two weeks later I arrive at her castle-like brownstone. She greets me with a warm hug.
First we go over my diet history. She asks me questions like “What kinds of things did you eat growing up?” and “How often do you exercise?” I notice that I remain defensive throughout the session. She’ll inquire about what I ate for lunch and I’ll blurt out that I had pizza every day this week, but I usually don’t do this and it has just been a really, really bad week, so give me a break, OK? Then I remember she was only asking what I ate for lunch.
Later, I let her know that I have pangs of hunger every hour or two. If I don’t eat, the right side of my stomach hurts immensely. She suspects that I have already developed hypoglycemia. I tell her that this can’t be. She tells me that it can.
It’s the end of the session, and once we discuss the price of her services, I realize I will not be able to complete the program. Her six-month solution costs $1,500—which is $1,350 more than I can afford. I inform her of my low funds and she lets me know that we can work out some sort of payment plan. I entertain the thought, but realize that a payment plan doesn’t work if I don’t have any money.
So I’m at it alone again. The only difference between my situation now and my predicament of two weeks ago is that I know what not to do. For example, I’m aware that vowing never to eat candy again isn’t going to work. If I want to stay clean, I must come up with a goal and a plan to get there. The first thing I give myself is a date to work toward. If my goal is only to stay clean for a select amount of time—instead of eternity—then I’m less likely to freak out and relapse. Once I reach that goal, I will be reluctant to throw all my hard work away and eat sweets again. (I am sticking to eliminating all refined sweets because they are bad for you, too.) It’s a kind of reverse psychology.
I stash a chocolate chip cookie in my desk at work. If it is still there in three weeks, then I win. (Note: I don’t particularly like chocolate chip cookies, but I know that if I become desperate enough, I will eat anything short of Splenda—and I have even tried that.) Halloween, of course, will also be a test.
The next part of my solution includes shopping at the beginning of the week for groceries. I usually don’t buy groceries in advance; I just take it one day at a time (which pretty much means purchasing my meals from newsstands). But if I stock up on alternatives to candy, I just might stand a chance. For example, if I feel a craving coming on, I can try to combat it by eating a piece of fruit instead.
My journey starts the next day. I go to the Super Foodtown. Unfortunately, this is place that sells those strawberry laces. They whisper sweet nothings in my ear as I stroll by them, telling me that I should walk on over and rescue one of them from confinement. I saunter over, look at them, and contemplate taking “just one.” But I can’t let them win. I tell them to shove it and add kiwi, Asian pears, apples, and black seedless grapes to my cart instead.
The first couple of days are the worst. During this period of withdrawal, I often find myself getting up from my desk to stare at the bevy of beauties that the vending machine offers. Today they have Skittles. They haven’t had Skittles since I’ve worked there. They’re even in two slots—D4 and E0. I imagine what it would be like to “taste the rainbow.” Eventually, I remember my diet and return to my desk.
I wake up Halloween morning knowing that I need to put my game face on. Trick-or-treating didn’t stop for me until I was 18.
That afternoon, my co-worker and I head over to an office party. It’s at another location, so we have to walk four blocks to get there. On our walk, we spot a couple of people who are just leaving. One of the ladies pats her sweater pocket, which is loaded with candy.
“Make sure you get a pocketful of candy while you are there,” she exclaims.
We get to the party, and just as I anticipated, mounds of candy are spread over the orange-cloth-covered tables. My co-worker goes straight for the gold: a pack of Starburst. She eats one and offers me the other. I decline. To divert my attention from the luxurious piles of Dots, M&M’s, and Skittles, I paint a pumpkin. Ten minutes later, after I realize that the attempt at diversion isn’t working, I ask my pal if she’s ready to go. She takes a few pieces of candy for the road. I take nothing.
Sometimes the biggest obstacle in getting over an addiction isn’t your enemies; it’s your friends. That night, my crew and I go to the annual Halloween parade in the Village. Before joining the masses, we stop off at a grocery store to load up on snacks. They all buy sweets. One purchases yogurt-covered pretzels. The white delicacies look glorious, peering through the plastic container. My friend pops open the top and sticks the container in my face.
“No, thanks. I can’t eat sweets,” I murmur.
Five minutes later, the container is in my face again. I shake my head.
“Uh-uh,” I say.
Ten minutes go by, and I am being offered the treat a third time.
What’s the harm in tasting one, I wonder. I mean, really, there’s a pretzel underneath. That has nutritional value. But before I can grab one, my mouth blurts out, “No.” Thank God for my mouth.
My next obstacle: Every Friday at 4 p.m. we have a gathering at work we call “cookie time.” It’s an opportunity to celebrate the week’s being over with conversation and cookies in the conference room. Today is special because cake has replaced the usual cookies. There are two kinds: chocolate and carrot. The carrot looks especially delicious. It’s laced with orange and green carrots made of frosting.
As people enter the conference room, they pick up small plates of cake and gather in groups to chitchat. I bring in a cup of water. I find myself staring at a spot of carrot cake that has fallen from someone’s plate onto the table. I imagine what it would be like to lick it off.
By this point, it is evident that I can’t hang with the cake eaters. There’s too much heartache. I go back to my desk and nibble on the leftover broccoli and potatoes I brought for lunch. They’re good for you, I tell myself.
The day before the three-week mark is absolutely dreadful. From the second my alarm clock wakes me up, I long for a pack of Red Vines. By the time I get off work, I’m in dire need of a boost. My first inclination is to run into the grocery store, go straight to the candy aisle, rip open a bag of licorice with my teeth, stuff my face into it, grasp as many vines as I can fit into my mouth, and run. But not only is that stealing, if I go that route I will have thrown away two weeks (and six days) of being clean.
I scan the streets looking for a solution. The first thing that I focus on is the Popeyes across the street. A buttery biscuit with gooey honey and jam just might suffice.
“I’ll take a biscuit with honey and jam,” I tell the woman behind the Plexiglas window.
She turns around to wrap one up.
“Wait,” I say. “I’ll take two.”
She adds another biscuit to the bag.
“Can you throw in another pack of honey and jam while you’re at it?”
She follows directions and hands me my purchase. My hands sift through the contents of the bag. They wrap around a pack of honey. My teeth rip it open. I unravel the soft, hot biscuit and squirt the honey onto the top. I moan as I take the first bite. It’s so moist, so succulent. I let the contents melt in my mouth. The bliss lasts for about 30 seconds. After the sixth bite, I realize that this might have been a mistake. My stomach begins to ache as I near the biscuit’s end.
In a strange way, eating that bite of sugar (in the form of gooey honey and jam) reminds me that sweets really are the root of all evil and that, without them, I can possibly live a better life. Sure, eating candy feels good for 30 to 45 seconds, but after the initial high is over, I feel miserable. I guess I finally understand what Desrosiers was preaching—that the short high you get from eating the candy simply isn’t worth it.
So now I’ve made it. I’m at the end of week three.
Total number of times I wanted to give up: 99.
Total number of urges I had to hit myself in the face with a baseball bat to divert my attention from sweets: 57.
Total number of minutes spent staring hopelessly at vending machines and newsstand displays of candy: 16.
But let’s also look at the bright side of things:
Total packs of candy eaten: Zero.
Total amount of sweets consumed: Nada.
Total times I relapsed: Borscht.
Well, I guess if you want to get technical, you might consider the luscious piece of carrot cake I had last Saturday at 11:46 p.m. to celebrate my success a sweet. But that doesn’t count. That was a reward.