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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.

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I waited until I was in my early thirties to really begin looking at how sugar related to my mental health. I’d given up alcohol, which in college I’d started to rely on in a similarly escapist way. Sober and attending 12-step meetings, I began meeting women like me—women who used external substances (drugs, cigarettes, food, sex) to treat their internal symptoms. I heard these women talk with conviction about how they learned—through both simple faith and diligent practice—to sit with their uncomfortable feelings instead of blindly rushing to numb them. I related to these confessions, and began to make confessions of my own. I was forced to acknowledge how I’d compulsively used sugar as a balm for my depressed brain. Each time I shared about it in a meeting or talked about it with a friend, I felt a tiny bit less alone.

A few years ago I began meeting with Annie, a nutritional counselor who firmly believed that refined sugar was the devil. She emphasized the connection between what I was eating (crap) and how I was feeling (crap). A recovered alcoholic who once stuffed herself—and her feelings—with pizza, pasta, cookies, and gallons of Diet Coke, Annie had been off the white-sugar sauce for years. She seemed airy and glowy and (gasp!) happy. As they say in 12-Step-Land, I wanted what she had. So I began taking her suggestions and trying, as much as possible, to do as she did. I learned to cook fast, easy meals for myself at home, instead of constantly relying on take-out or frozen fare. I started experimenting with vegetables (a huge feat in itself—I was one of those rare vegetarian anomalies who didn’t like vegetables). I began avoiding refined sugar, but I still allowed myself a "healthy" dessert every night (I usually opted for fruit-sweetened soy ice cream). Slowly I began to feel a little less out of control around sugar. 

 

I can’t claim that cutting back on refined sugar was a panacea for my depression. I only wish mental illness were so simple to treat.  But I can say that I started having fewer mood swings, and I felt a bit better about myself, self-esteem wise. Just learning how to feed myself in a nourishing fashion – vegetables, me? -- was something.   

Now 35, I’m still on meds. My depression goes through peaks and valleys. Some weeks it takes center stage; some weeks it retreats to the background of my life. I may not love it, but I’ve come to accept—at least somewhat—that it’s a part of me, and it's here to stay. My love affair with sugar is still around, too. I dabble in phases of being entirely off the refined stuff, usually for a month or two. Then I'll go back to allowing myself the occasional bag of gummy goodness. Sugar still tastes deceptively like comfort, but I understand now that when it comes to my self-love-sized hole, gummy bears are just never going to cut it.  

Laura Barcella is a former associate editor at AlterNet and a freelance writer and the editor of Madonna & Me: Women Writers on the Queen of Pop (March 2012, Soft Skull Press).

 
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