Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Confessions of a Sugar Addict


The doctor removed the needle from its case and held it to the side of my face. Two taps and a thin metal spear shot into my ear. A few more needles were tapped into my ear. The pain felt like two small red ants nibbling at my ear loom. I flattened out on my stomach and waited for the transformation. The acupuncturist turned off the lights and adjusted the volume of serene nature sounds on an iPod stereo system.

I started seeing an acupuncturist at the beginning of 2012 for a back injury. During the summer I fell down a staircase so hard that I bounced off my lower back and was able to flip in mid-air over on to my stomach. I rolled down the rest of the way and laid on the wooden floor covered in cold spilled tea. Employing reikki and matrix energetics, I struggled to my feet. I continued focusing on collapsing the pain and it went away in less than an hour but the trauma caused a melon-sized cyst to develop on my back. Being a guy, I shunned the silly idea of seeing a doctor to have the extra head-sized appendage removed from my back. I thought I could 'walk it off' but surprisingly cysts don't like to go for walks. They tend to just sit there. And after trying herbs and massage therapy, I decided to take more invasive action.

It had been over ten years since I had been to an acupuncturist. As a young high school student reporter interning at a few local papers, I figured I could get some free drugs by doing an 4-part series on alternative medicine. Due to wrestling and excessive summer work-outs, I had some minor skin diseases and eyes that were constantly irritated and red. I went to an herbalist for my eyes and skin diseases saw a few specialist and wrote up the series. My eyes and skin cleared up and someone offered free acupuncture. Years later I brought my Dad to a world-famous acupuncturist in Aventura, Florida and his strength and conditioning improved.

Om'Echaye was one of the first centers in Miami that popped up when I did a google search. I came in to see one of their specialist. She began putting needles on my back and the swelling reduced from a melon to a grapefruit and then a orange. We continued in the treatment as well as taking herbs and I was asked 'is there anything else' that I wanted to address in the sessions. I scanned my body and thought about all the little injuries and sprains. A doctor asking if 'there's anything wrong' is an opening for my hypochondriac to recount every bruise and flu since infancy and wonder 'is it AIDS?"As I searched for speculative cancers, signs of leprosy, and rare genetic diseases lurking I remembered something.

"You know, I have a thing...about sugar. I'd like to get rid of that."

The specialist didn't even feign shock. She's probably heard this story from countless clients or noticed it in them. She nodded and brought out the needles for my left ear. This was an old story for both of us.



I come from a long line of sugar addicts. Diabetes is as common and almost expected if you make it to a certain age. Being a family of overweight Black Americans I suppose we were all aware of the monster in the shadows. Diabetes means heart disease. Heart disease means complications, multiple ailments, several prescriptions, and spending my senior years in life worrying about foot circulation and carefully clipping my toe nails.

Although I played tennis well enough to win several tournaments I was still an obese kid and teenager. I was gifted with quick feet and hands that would leave opponents scratching their heads at how they could lose in straight sets to the fat Black kid with asthma. It wasn't until I hit high school that I burned away my belly.

Football and wrestling became my passion. And with my passion I could burn thousands of calories in a few hours. I would and could eat anything. Cookies, cakes, burgers, and shakes. The only thing I refused to eat was candy and soda, and still maintain my abstinence to this day.  But I could get my sugar in many other ways and tended to prefer it via elaborate drinks with whipped cream and gelatinous cherries. I could drink my weight in sugar and probably did when I was a teenager.

After high school I was conscientious of my sugar intake. Still I consumed a lot of the sweet stuff in college cafeterias. The meals were always buffet and dessert became an obligation (gotta get your money's worth). When I go away from sugar or attempt some restraint, I would get irritable and emotional. My mind and body felt agitated and edgy. I was experiencing withdrawal symptoms. One time it got so bad that I developed a pounding headache and tremors while in Miami. Granted sugar wasn't the only factor as I was also stressed out and obsessing about staying away from my substance. And the more I focused on it, the more it overtook my thoughts. I pulled into a fast food drive-in and ordered a vanilla shake. The moment I began drinking the thick, corn-syrup laced substance, my headache went away. In under a minute, I felt as if I had averted some terrible storm. The sun seemed brighter, the air was clear, and the tension melted away. I smiled and slumped down into my car seat as I returned to my senses.


It wasn't until 5 years ago that I made a dietary shift. I became a vegetarian and saw the weight fall off as I became more aware about eating to feel good. I started dancing and working out, going to yoga classes, and exploring a more physical life. Excessive sugar started to make me sick. Two slices of cake was a reward as a child but now I could barely get through even one. And still, at some point during the day, my body craved a hit. It might be a small shake or a few cookies, but most days there would be a point in the middle of the afternoon or at night when the sugar craving would vibrate from my stomach.

A few years ago I tried going a week without any sugar at all. By the second day I wanted to cry. Not balling or weeping, but just a little whimpering fetal position sob with dramatic shaking as I rocked myself. I found that without sugar, my body was telling me something. It didn't desire cookies or cakes. What it was desiring was love. All this time I had been using sugar as a substitute, a reminder of childhood love expressed through cupcakes and hot chocolate. Those birthday parties with fruit punch and cake. All those little things I didn't get growing up I had been storing in my sugar experience. The sugar was a psychological balm and emotional pacifier which I had projected onto desserts and sweet things. I desired sweetness emotionally and had substituted in physical sweetness on my tongue. It's sounds like self-help pablum, but I was using sugar as love.

Flashbacks flooded me. My romantic dates with sugar, furtive and in secrecy. These were moments in my life that I hadn't thought about in years. There was the time I snuck off into the laundry room as a kid and consumed cream-filled Debbie cakes as the drier tumbled the sheets. The lights were off and my face was smeared with chocolate. I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand and stuck the shoved the wrapper to the bottom of the trash. There were long drives in the middle of the night in which I wasn't going anywhere or doing anything. I would drive around with my date of french fries and banana shakes.

This is something I have never talked about to anyone. Not my parents, not my friends, not counselors of any kind. These memories were buried in my body and were now being excavated in rough and disorderly fashion. My body unpacked these jagged little frames. After a few days without sugar, my spirits picked up. I wondered if I could try my hand at gorging myself on fruit but thought better of it.

By the end of the no-sugar week I was consuming spicy hot foods and curries. My appetites had shifted to burning sours and pickled piquancy. I bought a sandwich from a grocery store and took a bite. The bread was sweet. This wasn't Wonder Bread or some white processed food. It was whole wheat organic bread and I found it sugary. I checked the ingredients of the sandwich to make sure no one slipped a pack of Dixie Crystal in between the bun.

"Bread is sweet!" I exclaimed on 14th street in the middle of New York City before realizing that I had verbalized the thought at a volume a bit too loud to be kept to myself. Bread is a dessert. It always has been but I never noticed it. My taste buds were too dull and caked up with corn syrups.

During the summer in Nicaragua I was cut off from fast food and luxury items. Food options were anything that could be grown or bought a simple store. The deprivation kicked up even stronger emotions but also a greater sense of relief once the withdrawal symptoms faded.

Over the last year I've phased out the sugar. From once a day, to once every other day, to 2 or 3 times a week. I did the same thing with meat as I went from a die-hard carnivore to vegetarian over a 2 year phase-out period. The biggest thing was adding drinks to my count. I used to be able to get around limitations by chugging a Starbucks frappucino or sugary chai tea.

At the beginning of this year I added another substance to my ban list: shakes. No small shakes, no tiny shakes, no 'I'll just sip a little bit' excuses. It was at this point that I was willing to ask the acupuncturist for help. My ego wouldn't have allowed me to ask for help when it was still a daily obsession. It's ridiculous because I wasted so much time 'not asking' or speaking up.

The acupuncturist asked me to focus on 'stress eating' or when I feel anxious. It's difficult to realize because my sugar eating doesn't happen in massive orgies or binges. It's a cookie here and there or some chocolate-covered almonds for Valentine's Day. And still it's an avoidance of something that wouldn't even occur to me if I was feeling good about myself.

A few ear acupuncture sessions and I took note of any changes. Did a miracle happen? Where is the special, instantaneous transformation? My acupuncturist repeatedly warned me that miracles don't happen in acupuncture. Believing that my deus ex machina lies in needles is a belief in voodoo magic. It's like believing that there is some magic, special point that can be tapped and make my problems disappear. My issue with sugar isn't magical or mysterious. It's clearly related and easily overcome. All acupuncture does is the same thing as yoga or any form of medicine: it opens the possibility of transformation. By opening the channels in my body what was once blocked now becomes open and flexible. My mind and my memories can be shifted, but not wiped away. The miracle happens when I look for that chemical high and find a different kind of relief in my mind.

When I search for sugar and, instead, find the presence of love then I am in the presence of a transformation. I experience the miracle because I am reversing the magical thinking of addiction. It's this faulty voodoo logic which projects love and validation onto cupcakes and chemicals.

As I said, I come from a long-line of sugar addicts. Our magical thinking gave us comfort but also continued the never-ending pursuit of a shadow. We ran after the shadow, broke down our bodies, destroyed our minds, and shut down our emotions toward each other. Love was something not to seek in others but to purchase from a bakery or drive-in.

I still have some processed sugar once every few days. I would like to make it once a week and then not at all, but I don't know how long it's going to take to phase out. The process is slower than I like, but it's not on my time. My impatience is another trick of magical thinking: seeking to convince me that it's impossible because it's not instantaneous. And since most change doesn't happen instantly, my ability to change is impossible so I might as well give up. I know that's not true because I have many examples of change in my life to draw on.

Moment of change: The last time I ate a chicken burrito was after an Alvin Ailey dance class. I walked into Chipotle with my friend and sidled up to the stainless steel bar.

"I'll have a veggie burrito," I said as I stared down at my phone.

"Chicken, right?" the burrito wrap worker said as he pressed the sugary white bread into the heated ironing device.

"No, vegetable."

The worker nodded and, after a few moments, he took the burrito out of the metal iron.

"So...you're having the chicken right?"

In that moment I could have easily reminded the worker of what I said twice in under 30 seconds. It takes two words. Not a big deal. Instead something failed inside of me. The magical thinking came out and I hesitated for a second. Maybe I'll never get over this meat-eating thing.

"Sure," I muttered as the Chipotle worker piled spoonfuls of grilled white meat onto the burrito. I sat down with my chicken burrito and told my friend what just happened.

"Why didn't you just tell him you wanted a veggie burrito?" she asked.

The answer is that I have no idea. I wasn't aggravated or enraged at his initial mistake. I had a moment of helplessness and I just gave into it. Sure, whatever you want. Whatever the universe says because this isn't something I'm going to kick. Even though at the time I was eating meat once every two weeks, I still had cravings for it. And I know that if the cravings are still there, then the real underlying impetus hasn't been eliminated.

As a make-up action for my burrito surrender I went online to PETA. This is an organization I laughed at with its militant anti-meat, pro-animal stance that had fanatic intensity. This sounds unimportant but to make up for the chicken burrito I made a donation to PETA. Two weeks later I got mailed PETA's newsletters and fliers as a 'thank you' for my donation. I muttered my regrets at all this paper now sitting in my mailbox. One morning I sat down and opened up one of the PETA fliers and began reading the propaganda. It was a story about a cow and her life in the industrial factory system. I have heard all the sob stories about little chickens and lambs lead into these horrible conditions. As I read the story this morning something shifted inside of me. I started crying. No, I was weeping. Tears were falling down my face and I shook. The voice of my ego kicked up.

You're an idiot. Crying over a goddamn cow. 


Look at yourself. You're a grown man blubbering over a story about a farm animal. 

And yet I couldn't help it. At that particular moment in time, my heart was open. I was ready to hear for the first time the story I had glossed over so many times before. And I thought about that burrito and all the hundreds of pounds of meat I had eaten over my life. And in that moment it was done. Another voice started speaking to me, but it wasn't harsh and cruel like the last one. This voice was gentle and I felt an overwhelming peace.

It's all over now. You're done with that. 

And I knew in that moment that I was done with meat. Not just cutting back or having to abstain from a desire. My desire backed by decades of eating habits was gone. And that is how I became a vegetarian: by reading a story about cow in a PETA flier.  The craving was instantaneously gone once I had stopped asking for it or trying to manipulate it. The voice just took it away when I wasn't paying attention.

Even now as I write this years later I am crying when I think about that cow. It's really silly but visceral and real. The transformation wasn't something I had to will or force, even though that it was exactly what I had been trying to do the past two years. My efforts wasn't in vain.  Reducing meat intake over 2 years brought me closer and closer to that moment. All I was doing was training myself for the moment the miracle happened. I see that the training only opened my heart enough so that I would be ready to listen.

For sugar, which is really about love, I ask for the same. I am stripping away the voodoo dolls of childhood and asking for love. That is the healing balm that I have to be ready for in my heart. That soft gentle voice that will come to me one day and say 'it's all over now. You're done with that.' And so it will be done.

Sugar obsession is just like any substitute. It is just like excessive alcohol, drugs, sex. It isn't something to be overcome or fixed, but merely outgrown. When the childhood terrors look small and laughable like monsters under the bed, then I won't reach for the infantilizing comfort. I just have to be ready for the change.



3 comments:

Lisa said...

I found your post after doing a Google search for "acupuncture and sugar addiction." Beautifully written and very relatable, thank you so much for sharing your story.

Sandy Thomason said...

Wonderful post!
With respectful disagreement about the vegetarianism part: Eating meat that is raised reasonably, and harvested with respect like in several of the world religious traditions may be just the thing for people who are aware and in love with life.

Jai sha said...

Such a nice blog to read. The acupuncture treatment help you to stress reduction and pain relief management from neck and back pain, headaches and migraine headaches etc..

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