Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: sugar

My Sisters, The Sugar Junkies.


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.

The God Thing: How God Changes Your Brain.

I am acting like an addict and eating through the rest of the sugar in the house. I know this is what I’m doing; it feels the way it felt eating through the rest of the drugs I had before I went into detox two years ago. I know I need to change my behavior because I’ve come to this awareness in sitting meditation.

Lots of people say they can’t meditate—they can’t sit still; they can’t keep their bodies from fidgeting; they can’t quiet their minds. Most of all, they say they don’t know how.

There are so many instruction books and CDs out there. I should post a list sometime. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s are great. He’s on iTunes and other places.

How God Changes Your BrainI’ve been sitting each day for about 15 minutes since late July. It began as an experiment: I wanted to try what Andrew Newberg M.D. and Mark Robert Waldman suggested in their book, How God Changes Your Brain. They say that just 12 minutes of meditation practiced daily for eight weeks can reduce stress and “anxiety” (fear) and also slow the aging process.

And “God” can, in their estimation, constitute any force of your choice outside of yourself: but it has to be positive and loving. Their studies show that a fearful “God” can be extremely damaging to the brain.

(Sound familiar?)

Further, after having studied advanced practitioners of meditation and prayer (Buddhist monks, Catholic nuns, etc.), they concluded that “activities involving meditation and intensive prayer permanently strengthen neural functioning in specific parts of the brain that are involved with lowering anxiety and depression, enhancing social awareness and empathy, and improving cognitive and intellectual functioning.” In other words, meditation and prayer, if practiced diligently and long enough, can PERMANENTLY decrease fear and sadness, and make us smarter and more compassionate.

I think possibly the “improvements in cognitive functioning” can have to do with simple awareness and insight. Meditation has brought more awareness to my life. In meditation, I just let go of thoughts as they come by. It’s the discipline, the training of the mind to Let Go. I don’t look for any feeling to happen, I just let go. Just as exercise has benefits throughout the rest of the day, so does meditation. In letting go, during my day, other information can come in. This is awareness…

What I wanted was to be the Queen of Serenity, Rocketed Into My (Preferably Pink) Fourth Dimension of Recovery. What I got was an awareness that I need to quit sugar. It’s bad for me. Part B of this awareness: I might not be able to just “cut down.” Part C: Quitting might be a pretty painful process.

There is a certain serenity in all this. It’s real, for one. It’s not Pink.

Meditation opens my mind so I can accept, or at least entertain, these formerly threatening ideas.

The authors also give eight exercises to improve brain function. The top three, which they suggest are the most important and must be worked together, are 1) Having Faith (or, basically Being An Optimist), 2) Dialoguing With Others (or, basically Being Social), and 3) Aerobic Exercise (or, basically Getting Your Butt Off The Couch, Dude). Number Three, they say, can include yoga.

You know what, this is totally nothing new. It’s “no big shakes,” as my Dad used to say. Maybe the scans showing improved blood-flow to certain brain-areas are news. But the results are stories we’ve been hearing about for a long time, and I’m coming to the conclusion that all the books are basically saying the same stuff:

Meditation | David Servan-Schreiber, a physician and cancer-survivor who wrote The Instinct to Heal: Curing Stress, Anxiety and Depression Without Drugs and Without Talk Therapy, recommends “heart coherence” breathing exercises (which I’ve trained in, and which are tantamount to meditation). Servan-Schreiber has recommended regularly practiced cardiac coherence as the single best way to protect longevity, stimulate the immune system (a project in which, as a cancer survivor, he’s particularly interested), and control anxiety and depression. He also recommends Aerobic Exercise and Being Social.

The Present Moment | Jon Kabat-Zinn, another physician, has written many books about the benefits of meditation for people struggling with chronic pain and other illnesses. His book and CD collection, Wherever You Go, There You Are, trains people in mindfulness and how to “wake up” and be fully aware in the present moment—a concept that is the centerpiece of meditation.

The Power of Now + Ego Deflation | Eckhart Tolle writes about all the same stuff in his Oprah-endorsed book. Tolle also adds a great deal of emphasis on the need to “smash the ego” (sound familiar?) except Tolle would never use such violent language. He might recommend, instead, becoming aware of the deep stillness within, the power that resides within each of us, and that as soon as we find that source, this disempowers the ego.  To accomplish this, however, we need to be practitioners of some sort of meditation, to foster awareness.

I could go on and on. There are a hundred books that have each sold a million copies out there that all say the same stuff:

  • Meditate/pray
  • Release resentment and fear—old stuff, and current stuff
  • Wake up to the present moment
  • Take care of the body

Big news: this is what the Big Book says, too! I mean the way of life the 12 steps advocate is the same kind of way of life these other teachers are advocating. It’s all the same stuff, it’s not Weird or a Cult, and it’s not rocket science.

It’s not hard to overcome these problems. The solutions are plain.

So: “God” (i.e., the good inside me, the little Dear Abby inside that gives me good advice) tells me I need to eat good food.

Got six sessions left on my yoga card. Gonna use them before the end of the year.

My best friend had her birthday yesterday. We took the afternoon off and watched It Might Get Loud (great flick, love Edge) at her place, after a game of tennis. We exchanged presents. Hers to me: one of those stretch-straps you attach to a door; when you stretch it, it’s supposed to build your lats and your abs and stuff. Great for winter-workouts. Also: a 5-lb. barbell so I can do curls while I watch Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

“Let the reps begin,” she said.

Yes ma’am.

Sayings From the Rooms: Nothing Changes If Nothing Changes

They say,

Nothing changes
nothing changes

Another way of saying this is another thing they say:

If you do what you always did,
you’ll get what you always got

A lot of us wrestle with habits other than “drugs” or “alcohol.” We eat sugar. We shop online. We have sex. We smoke. We don’t think these are problems until we bump  into walls.

Lots of people don’t think smoking is drug-use. It’s been well established, ever since Jeffrey Wigand testified against Big Tobacco, that cigarettes are nicotine-delivery devices scientifically crafted to maximize the effects of nicotine on the neurological system. Nicotine is an addictive drug.

I was at a meeting the other night where a friend of mine was talking about how she gave up smoking. She’d quit drinking and gotten sober and had changed her life, she said, and saved her cigs for the times when she really needed to control her “stress.” … I’ve heard so many people with addiction talk about how kicking nicotine was harder than quitting heroin or booze. My friend said she’d never thought that her smoking was a problem until her kid piped up one day:

Oh, look, Mommy! There’s the cigarettes you smoke when you’re mad!

She gave up cigarettes after that.

SugarThis made me think about the times I eat sugar. I eat it when I’m upset. I eat it habitually. I eat it because I’ve always eaten it. I eat it because it’s what I do. … It makes me feel good for a while, it comforts me, then it makes me tired; it gives me headaches. It makes me sad: classic sugar-crash. I could give you a technical rundown on what happens with the insulin overload, but it would be boring.

I have to give up sugar.

It’s the last thing.

It would be cool not to be a slave to anything anymore.

It would also be cool to eat real food. Not to hunt through the cupboards for “fun” trash all the time. It would require me to plan meals, to balance my life so that I pay attention to what I eat.

Mindfulness practice—meditation—brought me here… I’ll write about that next time.

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