Got distracted by sugar

Yesterday I popped into CVS to buy a new lock for my gym locker and got distracted by the candy aisle. There was a lot to be distracted by: Halloween candy was half-off, bagged gummy candies were on sale, and Christmas candy was newly out. I was drawn to the gummy candies, but knew I’d eat the whole bag and feel sick. The Halloween fun-size candy bars were good to share, and I would share them, but I’d probably end up eating half the bag anyway. The seasonal Reese’s cup, then — shaped like a single little Christmas tree, it would be a reasonable and festive choice. I spent the walk from CVS to the gym deciding when to eat it: now, before the gym? Or as a treat after? I settled on the latter, but after I worked out and was getting dressed, I saw it in my bag and thought, no thanks, I’m a health queen, now. That lasted an hour, until I was in a meeting and remembered it, craved it, forgot about it again. I remembered it on my walk home, scarfed it in one bite. I immediately wanted another. Writing this, my mouth is filled with saliva.

My friend Edith and my brother Alex are both very interested in food and nutrition, and a few years ago they both became quite vocal against sugar at about the same time. Not just distaste, but disdain. They’d each read a book by a man who explained, in the book, why sugar was bad and were very convinced by his arguments. I wouldn’t hear any of it, couldn’t — I basically plugged my ears and hummed loudly whenever either of them brought it up. Alex sent me a PDF of the book, but I could not bring myself to read it. I felt like sugar was my only joy. What would summer be without ice cream cones? Or mornings, without baked goods and chocolate chip pancakes? I could not do it. I won’t. I still basically feel this way, though I do accept that there is something not great about eating tons of sugar all the time. Moderation in all things, a good goal. But quitting altogether? Impossible. 

But then there’s a little record scratch because I’ve heard this before, this refrain of, “impossible, I can’t, I won’t,” this full-body dread at the idea of abstinence. It’s the same cartoon hard stop — my heels dug into the dirt, my body in a full lean backward — that I had years ago when I first considered not drinking anymore. 

I stopped drinking three years ago. There’s a longer story there, but barely: I was drinking every day, decided I’d like to drink less, found that moderation took a lot of energy and so stopped altogether. This all took a few years, many conversations with my therapist, lots of thinking and talking about drinking, reading a book that hypnotized me, I think. Ultimately the decision to quit came because I was sick of thinking about drinking. It had gotten so boring, I just wanted to be done, I wanted to think about something else. I don’t never think about drinking now, but I rarely do. 

I still think about sugar. A lot. I’d say it’s the vice I replaced the wine with, but sugar has been a constant vice, my original one. Maybe I even replaced the sugar with the wine, originally? I remember coming home from school and housing whole sleeves of Oreos, eating ice cream from the carton standing in front of the freezer. On a family trip to Germany, I ate a family-size packet of peanut butter cups we were bringing for a friend. My mother couldn’t believe I’d eaten the whole thing, but I couldn’t remember any decision in it. It just … happened. Sometimes I’ll decide to buy a cupcake on the way home from work and think about it all day. This may sound like an essay about disordered eating and maybe it is, but I don’t mean for it to be. I just love sugar!!!!!! When Matt and I watch the Great British Baking Show, I get angry at the savory challenges. 

Here is a list of my current favorite treats: a pink frosted donut at Dunkin after we drop off the laundry. A scoop of honeycomb ice cream from Van Leeuwen on a night walk. A piece of almond polenta cake from Bar Pisellino on a Saturday morning. Chocolate chip pancakes in bed on a Sunday morning. A piece of pumpkin bread with cream cheese icing from East One on the way to work. An almond croissant from Maison Kayser after therapy. A cream puff from Eataly, split with Matt while he drinks an espresso. A little brownie bite from Pret A Manger to eat on the walk back to the office. Pints of Häagen Dazs portioned out after dinner. A soft serve vanilla cone whenever I pass a truck and have some cash on me. Slices of applesauce cake that I make on the weekends. This is like, a normal week. Someone add up the grams of sugar — no, don’t! Maybe add up the cost — no, don’t! 

Matt and I each have a list of goals on the fridge. His are: Stay sane at work, do more yoga, and so on. Mine are: write a book, go to the gym, avoid sugar during the week. The book goal has morphed into this newsletter, the gym I go to twice a week. But avoiding sugar during the week? I’m sorry to report that I’ve totally blown it. I was doing pretty well for a while and then somehow I fell off the wagon. Or rather, some blue mood struck me and I decided the only solution was some combination of sugar crystals, and that wrecked the goal for that week, and then by the time the next week came around, I was so far back on the sugar train that I forgot I’d even attempted not to be. 

Why was I trying to not eat sugar during the week? Well the fact that I’m writing about it now like it’s some class-A substance is maybe a clue. I was eating handfuls of Skittles at work without even noticing, buying ice cream on the way home from work on the daily. I was routinely leaving our fifth-floor walk-up for the sole purpose of procuring a sugary treat — and I don’t even go back up the stairs if I’ve left my phone at home! I knew from my experience trying to moderate alcohol that consciously cutting back doesn’t really work for me, but a hard and fast rule does. I was unwilling to stop eating sugar, but I could try to only have it on weekends: a reasonable goal. 

With booze, at first, I didn’t want to cut back, at all. Then I was prepared to stop drinking if I could have a long list of loopholes: If the light is just right and there is an open table at an outdoor cafe. If I’m in a foreign country. If I go to a wedding. If I’m with friends. If something very bad happens. If something very good happens. Eventually, I realized, the loopholes have to go, this is ridiculous. (Although: I still have a very clear vision of myself sitting under an arbor in Tuscany drinking a glass of wine — it’s basically the last scene from the German film “Mostly Martha,” and if I do end up under that arbor, well, I might do it, my one remaining caveat.) But basically, I’m OK being a non-drinker. It’s been good for me. Good things have happened. The part of my brain that was taken up by thinking about wine is now freed up for other things. My career took off, Matt and I got together, I started exercising and cooking, and getting out of bed more often.

Sometimes if I’m eating a very good piece of fruit, I think: this could be enough, this fruit. If I could just tilt things a little bit, I can see a world where I’ll crave an apple, splurge on a pear, delight in a bowl of berries. I used to think that about bubble water, when I was still drinking. And I was right, it is enough. In fact, we don’t even buy it anymore, after realizing we could save a lot of money each month, and probably also the enamel of our teeth, by switching to tap water. (The key was to buy thin crystal glasses that feel good in the hand.) 

I just came back from therapy and managed to resist the Maison Kayser almond croissant across the street, the Pret brownie on the walk back, the M&M-filled trail mix in the office kitchen. It does feel good, to make good decisions. And I do wonder, what might fill the space that would open up if I gave sugar less of a hold. On the other hand, the day is long, life is short, ice cream is good, and I pass like five CVS locations on the walk home. Tricky.

Watercolor by Matt Davis


“Stop Drinking Now” by Allen Carr (the book that helped me quit drinking)