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I Was Addicted to Sugar

Experts say that sugar affects brain chemistry and contributes to cancer, alcoholism and depression. It was also my first addiction—and it's still hanging on tight.

It was 11:42 pm on a Monday, and I'd just been dumped by the nice guy from Alaska. We'd been dating for three months before he realized, after a messy and recent divorce from his "best friend," that he wasn't ready to fall in love again. I'd had my doubts about our relationship, too, but I'd stuffed them down—goddammit, this was going to work. 

But... It didn't work, and here I was, teary and hollow on the couch, hit by a towering wave of craving. I needed candy. Now. Not any candy—a certain kind. Rather, two certain kinds, both sold in bulk: a vaguely sour but mostly sugary "natural" gummy bear, and a bracingly sweet sort of tropical-flavored jelly bean. I knew I could find said candies at the Safeway on Market Street, so I threw on my coat, grabbed my car keys, and ignored the irritating internal voice that calculated the calories and scolded me against the sugar. I knew that voice was right—once I started, I wouldn't stop—but right now, in this miserable moment, I didn't give a shit.

What came first, the sugar or the depression? It’s hard to say for sure. I can’t remember a time when candy wasn’t my first love, my quickest and most powerful fix for insta-comfort, joy, and soothing. Nothing’s ever worked quite like it—not the antidepressants I began taking at 17 and still take now; not the alcohol I’d come to rely on throughout college and early adulthood; not the long procession of often-unavailable boys I tried to distract myself with. I can’t remember a time when I felt free of depression's constant smudge of fear, doubt, and sadness. It’s just... always been this way. 

"Sugar acts like a drug in your body...It affects the very same brain chemicals that morphine, heroin and amphetamines do," writes  Dr. Kathleen DesMaisons, acclaimed author of Potatoes Not Prozac, on her website. Plenty of other doctors agree—not only does sugar provide a high that's as intense and addictive as opiates, but,  according to Nancy Appleton, PhD., sugar can also contribute to cancer, alcoholism, eczema, migraines, and—wait for it—depression. 

So it's only natural that a sugar addict like me would become depressed, turn to sugar to soothe the depression, become more depressed when the high wears off, and so it goes, over and over, ad infinitum. The sugar and the depression have been supporting and spoon-feeding each other while keeping me locked in a painful perpetual spiral of longing and self-loathing. 

I don’t fully understand where that self-loathing came from. Growing up in an upper-middle-class household in Washington DC, I had loving parents, good friends, private schools. I was cute enough, smart enough. I did fine in college; I always knew I wanted to be a writer. I had good friends. I grew up and made a life for myself in glamorous cities. I dated and had relationships of varying lengths and degrees of success (that’s an entirely different essay). In short, I never had a valid reason to hate myself (not that there is ever a good reason to hate yourself). 

My best guess—and the best guess of my rotating cast of therapists—is that my distorted self-image stems from my adoption. My birth mom was 20 when she gave me up as an infant. My adoptive parents swooped in soon enough, but I was in foster care for a few months in between. Sometimes I wonder if it was that parentless interlude that did me in. Being taken from my foster family and turned over to my adoptive parents so soon after being given up by my birth mom can't have been easy on my tiny psyche. It seems reasonable that such a double-whammy abandonment would set a perfect stage for my constant fear of rejection and the sense that no one ever stays.

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