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Quitting Sugar and Unhooking the Pull of Addiction

I recently made some progress in understanding how addiction works for me and in interrupting the mechanism that opens the door to my addictive pulls.

For as long as I can remember, I have had addictive pulls. I consider addiction, or an addictive pull, to be a way that I am pulled to use a behavior or a substance or a set of thoughts to avoid feeling a set of feelings or simply to “feel good” or “not feel bad” for a while.

I have discharged for many years, in many ways, trying to “unhook” my mind from these pulls. I have discharged on early isolation, loneliness, devastation, desperation, heartbreak, discouragement, distrust, hopelessness, and abandonment. The best result I have been able to achieve is to be able to decide (for a limited time) to not do the thing I am pulled to do. I have made great progress in my ability to be in charge of my diet, my television-watching habits, my Internet habits, my going to bed on time. Still, there have remained those moments when, faced with a particular set of feelings, I lose control of my decision-making ability and give in1 to my addictive pulls.

In some ways, addictions saved my life. When I felt my worst, I would watch TV for hours, numbing my mind so that I wouldn’t feel the harsh feelings that I knew would have killed me otherwise. While I haven’t really heard people say this in RC, I think that sometimes feelings kill people. They can feel so unbearable that any escape from them, including death, seems better than continuing to feel them. For groups that are systematically denied access to vital resources of society, addictions can be an alternate choice. They can enable people to stay alive and cope.

In society and somewhat in Co-Counseling, it seems that we try to interrupt our addictions primarily to lessen the harm they do to our lives. We can get more help with or attention for them, if (1) they are detrimental to our bodies or (2) they diminish our lives in other important ways, for example, interfere with our relationships, take time away from things we need to do to move our lives forward, or use resources that we need for other things. Less help is available if they cause no substantial damage or visible impediment to our functioning.

I have discharged some in groups of people working on addictions, and because the ways that I succumb to addiction aren’t as extreme as others, there’s been a misunderstanding that my addictions aren’t as serious, that the way that I experience the pull of addiction isn’t as bad or as strong, that I don’t struggle like the other people do.

I think that my addictions have the full force and pull that other people’s do and that the pattern is just as entrenched. But I have a socially accepted addiction. It doesn’t play out2 as regularly as some people’s do, but when it does, I am completely at its mercy. Sometimes I utterly lose control of my decision-making ability. It’s not easier for me in that moment to take charge of my mind against the pull of addiction than it is for someone with a more active addiction.

EXPERIMENTING WITH MY ADDICTION

In the fall of 2012, eight months before my forty-eighth birthday, it occurred to me that in the two years leading up to my fiftieth birthday I wanted to decisively move all aspects of my health forward. I wanted to start my second half-century more in charge of my physical well-being, in better physical health, and in less physical pain. I decided that when I turned forty-eight, I would make a firm decision to not eat dessert-type things: cookies, candy, cake, pie, and so on. I also decided that during the eight months before then I would learn as much as I could about the way addiction worked for me, try to understand why I couldn’t keep my resolve in the face of opportunity.

The next few months gave me lots of chances to experiment with my upcoming decision to stop eating sweets. At first, the resolve of my decision gave me the slack to not eat any at all. For a number of weeks, I truly felt uninterested. Then the U.S. November and December holiday period came up, and I was faced with many opportunities to eat or not to eat sweets.

I tried to be flexible. Rather than taking a firm stand against eating sugary things, I tried to hold on to my ability to decide what I wanted at each moment and to stick to it. I had periods of disinterest, times when I succeeded at being in complete charge of my mind, moments of not being able to stick to a decision I’d made, and times when I ate a lot of sweet things multiple days in a row. At the New Year holiday, I went to a party and decided that I wouldn’t eat anything sweet, that I would just eat healthy food. I utterly failed. I ate everything. I didn’t beat myself up, I just noticed that I couldn’t do what I’d decided to do and pondered what it was that made that happen. I wanted to understand what set up my succumbing to addictive behavior.

Another thing I did in that period was make a list of all of my favorite sweet things, to make sure to eat them before my forty-eighth birthday. I wanted to savor those things I had enjoyed, reflect on the happy times I’d had with them, and discharge and say goodbye to them. At one point this led to an addictive binge of eating super-sweet food a few times a week. Again, I maintained an attitude of kindness toward myself, giving myself great permission to try and fail.

During this whole time of “experimenting” with my addiction, I used many Co-Counseling sessions to put attention on the feelings I had about it all. I cried a lot about how good life was when I could eat sweet things and how bleak it would be without them.

I made a date with a girlfriend to make her recipe of chocolate peanut-butter balls (CPBBs)—one of my favorite sweet things. We made a lot of them, and over the next few days I had a concentrated engagement with them.

On the first day, I thought I would be able to decide to eat just two that whole day. Later in the day I “decided” to eat two more and that those were going to be the last. Later I changed my mind again and ate two more. I could not, could not, stop eating those amazingly good treats. I decided many times that day not to eat any more but had absolutely no control over it. I watched myself play with this and fail, over and over. I was absolutely sure that the last two I ate would be the last ones. But I couldn’t find the spot in my mind that would allow me to stay in charge, even though I felt “in charge” each time I made the decision.

It’s been important that I haven’t judged myself harshly for my failures. I was treated horribly for many years in my family and somehow emerged from that with some compassion for myself. In dealing with my sugar addiction, I feel myself as a gentle, understanding, and persistent counselor. This really helps me keep my decision to completely stop eating sweets without being swamped by discouragement.

The next morning I discharged on how bleak my life had felt in the moments right before I ate some of those CPBBs. I loved them. They were so, so wonderful and saved me when everything felt so, so terrible. I cried hard and couldn’t figure out how to manage the predicament. As a temporary measure, I made a rigid decision for that day that I wouldn’t eat any at all. I would keep the door to my addictive pulls closed and not even try to pretend that I could control it. The discharge helped me stick to that decision, and I lost interest for that day.

The next day I had to make another decision. What was I going to do with those CPBBs? I had a lot of them in my freezer. I wanted to be able to enjoy them, share them, say goodbye to their creamy goodness. But now that had a certain element of misery attached to it. It wasn’t that simple. I actually wanted to be able to think about what to do about those treats. I wanted my mind to be in charge. But I had questions: Should I try eating them again? If I started again, how was I going to stop? At what point did I lose control? What happened in my mind that I would slip out of my rational perspective into one in which the only logical solution was to eat as many of them as I could?

A REALIZATION

This felt like a true emotional crisis. I couldn’t answer any of those questions or move forward. But exploring the emotional and behavioral state I was in gave me time to notice and re-evaluate my perspective. I realized that there is a moment right before I eat sweets addictively in which doing so seems like the necessary and logical thing to do. And right before that moment, there is a sequence of thoughts and feelings that cause my perspective to shift away from the decision I previously made.

The wonderful feeling of relief that comes from eating sweet things only comes when I let myself believe a feeling from my childhood that everything is horrible, there is no help, no one is coming, I am on my own, it’s going to be like this forever, and there is nothing good. It’s a heavy, awful feeling and perspective that can cover my mind like a wet blanket. When I allow it to creep in, then I can hold sweet food in my mind as the thing that will save me. It becomes elevated to the only thing that will help. In that moment, it would be illogical to deny myself whatever I want. My feelings lock me in a horribly bleak existence that I can’t see my way out of except through that little bit of sweet sunshine that will change it all. And it does change it all. It is so, so seductive. But I can only get this rush of relief if I let the devastation seem real. Then a sugary treat is a real answer to those feelings. The instant I taste one, those feelings disappear. And it is wonderful.

This was a huge realization! I now had a way to interrupt the addictive pull. I needed to figure out how to refuse to let those sugary treats be the answer to that problem (of early misery). So I tried. Sometimes I would push myself to face the awfulness: “No one is coming, Sooja. You grew up, and you have to find your way out of that awfulness. There is no shortcut.” Or I would not let myself believe the awfulness: “It’s just not that way anymore. Don’t even go down that path.” Or I would let myself feel how awful it felt while not believing the lie that something (besides healing) was going to make it all better.

AN UPSETTING RE-EVALUATION

From there things started to move quickly, and for the first time in my life I could see the possibility of choosing not to eat sugar (not just deciding but choosing not to, because that’s what I wanted). This made me intensely sad. I can still discharge about it quite easily. Sometimes when things are so, so bad, having something as simple as a cookie is like finding a ray of sunshine in a dark and dreary world. I feel grateful to have found a way to have some relief from those times. Even if it was a poor substitute for what I really needed, it was all I had, and it was good. To turn away from the possibility of ever having that good thing, the thing that provided what felt like some of the best times of my life, was heartbreaking.

I got to a point where I couldn’t tell3 that it ever made sense to put those CPBBs in my body. That caused great conflict in me. I had two dozen of those delicious things in my freezer, and I couldn’t foresee any moment when it would make sense to eat them. I was seriously not OK with that possible reality. All of this re-evaluating was coming too fast, and I wasn’t happy about my relationship to sugar being interfered with so thoroughly. I felt that my rational mind had taken over and I was unhappily at its mercy. I love sugar! I love it. It’s a personal and private enjoyment of mine when there are few things that I completely and thoroughly enjoy. It is reliable and easy to get. It always makes me at least a little happier. I was upset about this shift to where it just didn’t make sense to me anymore to ever eat sugar. Even though my rational mind was taking charge, I wasn’t ready to let go.

I call the combination of “thinking,” feeling, and behavior that leads me toward acting on an addictive pull a mechanism. It seems to set up the conditions for me to lose my ability to stay in charge of my mind and my decision-making processes. If I let myself believe something that isn’t true, then a different logic is in control and I can’t talk myself out of it, even if I know that at other times I have made a completely different decision.

MORE WORK TO DO

After these last shifts in my perspective, I decided to “quit” sugar for a two-year period. I have been quite successful in the nine months since then. I no longer spend time in the grocery store looking at all the things I want to eat but “can’t.” I can be offered sweet food, be pleased that someone wants to share with me, and feel fine about refusing it. I can have a small taste of something a friend has made, for the sheer pleasure of telling her how good it is, without feeling pulled to consume a whole bite or more. I can be around people enjoying dessert and not have one feeling that I am missing out. And there are times when I want something sweet and have to battle a bit in my mind to not succumb. Those times are infrequent and have less of a pull than ever before.

However, the firm decision to not eat sugar has not provided the right conditions for me to continue to learn about and discharge what sets up my addiction. It was super-helpful to have the long period of time before I quit in which I had many opportunities to decide when I was and wasn’t going to eat sugar. That provided me with more discharge and re-evaluation, and insights into my addiction, than anything before it or since.

I have more work to do. My re-emergence has been slowed and interrupted by my decision to quit, and I will have to figure out a way to finish the work, even if it means being more lenient about whether or not I eat sugar. I do not want any place in my mind to be vulnerable to the pull of my distresses.

A MANIFESTO

I wrote a manifesto about my decision to quit sugar. I wanted to have a document that laid out my best understanding of the forces at play4 in my relationship to sugar. It has helped me be able to keep in mind that my relationship to sugar is not a small, personal problem but part of a larger system that we are all locked in. It also reminds me to build active contradictions5 into my life that both support my efforts and regularly bring me joy. [This manifesto will appear soon on the e-mail discussion list for RC Community members. —Ed.]

Sooja Kelsey
Seattle, Washington, USA


1 “Give in” means succumb.
2 “Doesn’t play out” means isn’t acted out.
3 “Tell” means see.
4 “At play” means in operation.
5 Contradictions to distress



Last modified: 2020-07-17 20:50:52+00