by Megan McInnis
One sign of alcoholism is getting back on the wagon; non-alcoholics don’t have a wagon. But I’ve had a sugar-sobriety wagon for 35-plus years. Every morning I climb back on and, by evening, I’ve fallen off—or, more often, enthusiastically jumped. If you hear an addict say, “I’ve been good all day long,” go ahead and laugh. All day long is the easiest part; once night falls, you’re invisible, and if it can’t be seen it doesn’t go on your record.
But at my worst I’ve eaten sugar for breakfast, when the birds are singing and the sun is staring right in. I don’t mean pancakes with syrup, or the boxed cereals that finance cartoons; I mean cookies with frosting half as thick as the cookie itself. Whole cartons of them. That is, if any are left from the ones I fell asleep chewing.
I never keep sweets in my house—nor soup, bread, salad dressing, or yogurt containing even a gram of added sugar; that would be looking for failure. What I do is wait for the craving to start and then go out to buy something sweet. It only stays in my house for as long as it takes me to eat it—even if it’s a whole pie. And I’ll eat until it’s gone; why keep any around to tempt me later? For God’s sake, I’m giving up sugar!
This disease runs in my family—both sides. I once found a list that my aunt had written as a teenager, long before I was born: “27 Reasons Not to Eat Sugar.” When I found it, I had already made several dozen such lists myself—always while high on sugar. (There’s nothing like that kind of rush to inspire such brave resolve.) Even now, when I see a new article about glycosylation, glycemic index, insulin resistance, or the way sugar forms glass-like shards that lodge in your joints, I read it as if I’d never read anything else on the subject. I’m fascinated, and motivated to change my life. I’m as addicted to giving up sugar as I am to sugar.
When I was eleven my mom said it was time for me to get clean—not because of ADHD or obesity but because I was normal instead of underweight, like her. (She probably said it while taking a guilty bite from an ice cream bar and giving the rest to me, to keep herself from finishing it.) So she put me on a no-sugar diet, but instead of just cutting out desserts she brought me home “dietetic” candies—that’s what they called them in 1978—and ice cream sweetened with saccharin. (When you look at Wikipedia’s photograph of the active ingredient—the rocky, powdery “sodium salt of saccharin”—your eye automatically fills in a razor blade next to it.)
Every time a new sugar substitute came on the market, she was all over it: aspartame, neotame, sucralose—anything with a long chemical chain and zero calories. (This is the woman who would later get me addicted to prescription drugs: Methadone. Klonapin. Xanax. Oxycontin.) If anything could be substituted with a low-calorie version, my mom stocked up on it. Melba Toast. Figurines. Tab soda. I Can’t Believe You Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter. Sometimes it wasn’t even low-calorie; the important thing was that it was fake.
No wonder the first man I married was someone who’d given up sugar and centered his life around not eating sugar. He also inspired me to vegetarianism—a practice I’ve continued these last thirty years—but at the time it was less about ethics or even nutrition than self-denial. Together we lived a whole life of self-denial, substituting sugar with healthy carbohydrates, and meat with nothing at all—no protein except that found accidentally in the vegetables we ate (sparingly) and the grains (enough to feed a large farm animal). We didn’t think about whether two plates each of whole-wheat spaghetti and a shared loaf of whole-wheat bread was much healthier than a smaller meal with dessert.
But that was our dinner each night. And it followed my daily lunch at Nature’s Pantry: a quart of vegetarian pea soup—that’s four bowls—and up to seven whole-wheat croissants—as many as were on sale, day-old. (The important thing was that the croissants contained absolutely no sucrose.) When day-old croissants weren’t available, I bought a bag of whole-wheat rolls and dipped all eight of them into my soup.
But, even though my body turned all this starch into sugar soon enough, it wasn’t soon enough to give me the high I was used to. For that, I resorted to dried pineapple sweetened with harmless fruit-juice concentrate. When I could get it (not every store carried it), I went through the 16-oz. bag in the car on the way home. I wasn’t really kidding myself—I knew there was something unwholesome about a sweetness that hurt my teeth. I just didn’t dwell on that.
With my second husband I gave up the charade: whole boxes of Fun-Size Baby Ruths were my staple. With my third husband (yes, I was also addicted to marriage), I temporarily lost all interest in sugar—or food of any kind—with my cocaine addiction. I seem to have an attraction to white crystals and powders. Crushed Oxycontin is another example. (Later I learned to love powders in other colors: crushed Adderall can be orange or blue. It’s just harder to make excuses for why your nose is dripping blue dye.)
These turned out to be unsustainable solutions to my sugar addiction. And I certainly can’t say I’ve mastered it yet. But I spend a lot more time on the wagon now. I think I’ll eventually have a good grip on the reins.
Megan McInnis was born in the Summer of Love in San Rafael, but grew up in Issaquah. Her greatest inspiration is the Safe Place Writers’ Circle, Recovery Café.