I Was a Sugar Slut!
Sugar has been my drug of choice since childhood, especially frosting. Then I found a way out.
I lived for sweet, white food and took whatever, wherever I could get it.
I sneaked frozen Cool Whip from my grandmother’s freezer when she was in another room. As a busgirl, my first restaurant job when I was 16, I often found my way to the walk-in fridge with my fellow busboy. While he sucked nitrous oxide out of the Reddi-Whip cans, I simply sucked down the Reddi-Whip. My drug of choice, though, was vanilla frosting.
Even now the smell of Betty Crocker or Duncan Hines vanilla frosting is just barely resistible. But I do resist.
In high school, I got into a daily routine, stealing a couple bucks from my parents’ change jar if I needed to so I could buy my stuff. It was okay because I walked or rode my bike the half mile downhill to the store and then the half mile uphill back home, where, to celebrate burning 100 calories or so, I savored each luscious, creamy, sweet, white spoonful, running my tongue back and forth over the smooth luxury of it.
A whole can of frosting, and I didn’t have to choke down any cake. This was pure, pharmaceutical grade bliss, and each serving was only 180 calories. Of course there were 12 servings per can, but what does “serving” mean in relation to this substance? Does hydrogenated vegetable fat mixed with sugar count as food? Is there a U.S. recommended daily allowance? It’s probably better not to ask. In any case, I did the math. Each can was approximately 2000 calories, more than what the average woman should be eating in an entire day, but when I was in the first half of the can, before my stomach had a chance to realize what was being deposited into it, and before my taste buds were utterly saturated with sugar, I was in ecstasy.
It couldn’t last, though. I could never stop when I’d had just enough. The can always called me back. When I was totally sickened by the sweetness and feeling ready to throw up, I’d eat olives or a pickle or a chunk of leftover meat. As soon as the sugary taste was out of my mouth, I would crave it again, so I’d go back and finish the can. Was it any wonder I was plagued with zits and had no figure to speak of until I was out of high school? But I’m grateful to the frosting for getting me through the pain of mid-adolescence. I’m grateful to the clerks in the Grand Union down the road who never questioned my daily purchase, which felt even more shameful to me than my first purchases of condoms at the drugstore one door down.
After years in the frosting phase, there was marshmallow fluff, straight from the jar of course; then marshmallows. Did you know you can get a three pound bag of marshmallows at Costco, and it’s as big as a luxurious bed pillow? Did you know it’s possible to eat three pounds of marshmallows in a day? (Just don’t fly in a small plane the same day. I’ve never felt so sick in my life.) From marshmallows it was back to Cool Whip, then finally ice cream, something normal - except, perhaps, for the quantities I would ingest, every day, no matter what.
I tried sex, alcohol, drugs—I chain-smoked three packs of Marlboro Lights a day for two years (back when a teenager could afford to do that), but sugar was always my drug of choice. It numbed me, soothed me, isolated me from people who might, if I tried to get to know them, reject me and hurt me. Frosting would never reject me. My bowels might reject it, but it was always there for me, no strings attached, like the one night stand who’s back at the bar the next week and looks good again by the end of the evening. Even now the smell of Betty Crocker or Duncan Hines vanilla frosting is just barely resistible. But I do resist.
In 2000 I was at a party, haunting the dessert sideboard and basically ignoring all the people I was there to see. A friend, who I knew was in recovery from alcohol, and who worked at a local rehab, came up to chat, and I told her I wished I could go to rehab myself for my sugar addiction. I thought if I just had a month in which I could be separated from the drug, I would come back “normal” and be able to eat it in moderation—the addict’s dream! Up to that point, I had never gone more than a couple of days without sweets. It seemed physically impossible for me to do it on my own.
That night at the party, my friend saved my life. She told me there was an Overeaters Anonymous group that met in my small town. She told me when and where to go. I had been to an OA meeting once, years before, to support a bulimic friend. The words I’d heard there – about God and food plans – sent me into a binge when I got home and made me stay away for years.
However, I was desperate this time. I was so obsessed with sugar that I ate all day long at work. If I didn’t have something in my desk, I went down to the vending machine. I didn’t get a lot of work done. Every night my husband and I devoured half gallons of ice cream. My life revolved around eating sugar.
So I went to the meeting. There were four people on couches in a small corner of a large church hall. They were reading Step Four. I think now that I probably should have been scared away, but it happens that I am a person who likes to look inward (even though at that time, I usually did it for the purpose of self-flagellation!) so the step spoke to me. I also heard about God again, but after the meeting I was told that I could “act as if” I believed and could create a higher power for myself that I could relate to. It didn’t have to be the punishing God of my childhood.
Because I was desperate, I kept coming back to this tiny meeting, and I heard what I needed to hear. Within weeks I was abstinent from sugar. It took no effort whatsoever, and for over ten months I did not crave sweets. I had half a roll of Lifesavers in my desk. Before OA, I would go through at least a roll a day, but that last half roll sat there for almost a year. It was my test. I would see it there and feel no urge.
Clearly there must be a higher power, because I had never been able to do such a thing on my own before. Someone or something was helping me, even though I didn’t know who or what it was. At the time, I imagined it as a giant wave. I could either be carried along by the wave or fight it and drown in the sugar and my life’s unmanageability. I went with it. I even lost 10 pounds despite the fact that I was eating anything and everything to compensate for the sweets.
Eventually, though, I picked up. I don’t know why. It was no big moment. When I think back, it reminds me of a story in AA’s Big Book where the writer stops into a diner and has a glass of milk, then on a whim decides it would be better with whiskey in it. Suddenly he is off. It was that small of a decision, and yet it led to years of on and off abstinence and misery. Through it all, though, I kept coming back to meetings, mainly because I had finally found a group of people who understood me.
I, who had never once in my life felt like I belonged in any group, now had one, and I even had a rudimentary spiritual practice of my own choosing. At one point I had put together about three straight years of abstinence and felt great – but then I became pregnant, and it seemed like the only thing that would take away the bad taste in my mouth was chocolate chip cookies. So I was off again for a few years.
When my daughter was three, I got into her Easter basket and could not stop shoving chocolate bunnies and jelly beans into my mouth. I felt awful, thinking each one would be the last, but then being physically compelled to open the next one and eat it. Guilt and nausea roiled my gut, and I still couldn’t stop. When my daughter saw me, she was horrified. I will never forget her crying, “Mommy, I wanted some of that!” It was a wake-up moment. I didn’t get abstinent immediately, but as of now, she is 11, and I have stayed away from sweets for seven years straight.
I am no longer a sugar slut, but I know the addiction still lurks around every corner. Now I sometimes struggle with how to eat regular food in quantities and meals that make sense for me, but the sugar urge only comes around every now and then, and with the help of my group and my still nebulous higher power, one day at a time, I am able to let it go.
Liz Woods is a pseudonym for a professor and writer.