Just back this evening from four days in Minneapolis to let audiences know about my new book. (It’s not officially out for another three days. Look for both the print and electronic editions then.)
While onstage at Garrison Keillor’s hangout, being interviewed by the amazing Dessa (a star in the Minneapolis music scene whose sun is rising nationally), taking questions from the audience, I heard loud and clear that people are struggling not only with drugs and alcohol but also with food, particularly with sugar. But it’s hard to deal with food. “It’s not like drugs and alcohol,” said one woman who is sober and also has an eating disorder:
You can quit drinking and taking drugs, but we have to eat. You can’t just quit eating food.
She wanted to know how I handle my cravings for sugar. BADLY, I wanted to say. But that’s the critical voice in my mind. What I said is that I sometimes eat sugar—too much of it—and then I pick myself up and start again.
But how do I pick myself up? Do I do it the way I would have done it when my son was small and he fell on the playground? I didn’t jerk him to his feet, smack his butt, and tell him how stupid he was for tripping over that rock. I’d ask him whether he was hurt, kiss his scraped knees or palms. I’d tell him to get out there and try again.
One woman said,
I want to say that it’s OK to have a cupcake!
It might be OK for you, I thought, but it ain’t OK for some people. I can’t have cupcakes in the house. The other day I made two batches of chocolate chip cookies for my dear old friend Jeff’s wedding and I could not stop at eating just one.
There were other women who told me after the show that they can’t eat just one, either. Fist-bumps all around: my sisters, the sugar junkies.
During the book signing afterward, a woman with long white hair told me she has 25 years off alcohol and 22 months off sugar. Before those 22 months, she’d been off sugar for four years, but then she “started eating like a middle-schooler again,” she said:
Sugar is absolutely my primary addiction.
She ate sugar for TEN YEARS, she said, and her intake was uncontrollable.
“So you Went Back Out There,” I said, using the language used in 12-step rooms for relapse: Going Out.
“Exactly,” she said. “It was exactly like that.”
I looked at her. Her face was calm and kind. Her body was relaxed, and she looked straight into my eyes.
“How did you manage to stop again?” I asked her. “What made the difference?”
“I just knew what it was to me,” she said.
Let me repeat that:
I just knew what it was to me.
She accepted that sugar destroys her body and makes it hard for her to live in peace. It activates the obsessions and delusions that are part of her nature. Eating sugar, she said, was just like drinking alcohol: it never felt very good after the first one. In fact it felt terrible, not least because she couldn’t stop. In fact the body metabolizes alcohol directly into sugar, and studies show that erratic processing of blood-sugar underlies alcoholism.
She did it to change her feelings, change her head, to “change her shorts, change her shirt, change her life.” (To quote Tom Waits’s lyric.)
I sat there thinking that
(i’m such a fraud i’m such a liar i have a candy bar in my hotel room i wrote in my book that i stopped eating sugar but i’ve started again fraud liar)
when I fall on the playground, I smack my own butt.
I’m fond of beating the shit out of myself. It’s such an ingrained habit. The language of it is so familiar—almost comforting in its familiarity. It’s like my mother hitting me, making me cry, and telling me she’s doing it because she loves me.
It also makes me feel noble: Mea culpa, hair shirts, and all that medieval nonsense that my mother loved so much.
So it’s not eating sugar that’s the most destructive habit. It’s the punishment. Punishing myself makes it ten times harder to make good choices. I can sit there onstage next to Dessa and say that I practice “self-compassion” but really what I practice when I eat sugar and then beat the shit out of myself for eating it (or distract myself with streaming Netflix) is fucking self-hatred.
But when I accept What It Is To Me—basically poison; who eats just A Little Cyanide?—then I can choose not to eat it out of love for myself and my body. When, for example, I open the cupboard full of household cleaners, I don’t stand there beating myself over the head to keep myself from drinking them. I Know What They Are To Me, I tell myself the truth, and I don’t put them in my body.
Of course, a shot of Clorox Cleanup wouldn’t feel nearly as good going down as one of my own homemade chocolate chip cookies. Aye, there’s the rub.
Dessa doing her thing at the NPR offices. You go, girl.