A friend asked me the other day which was worse, quitting cigarettes or quitting sugar. I must have looked flabbergasted. I felt flabbergasted. In my mind it’s so obvious. I forget that to most people, food is innocuous. That when you say you’re addicted to sugar, they think it’s a cute euphemism for liking dessert. Like “I have a sweet tooth” or “I’m a chocoholic”. Yet there are signs and public service announcements everywhere exclaiming the risks and hazards of smoking. If you are wondering which I think is worse, sugar. Sugar withdrawal stole a year and a half of my life.
My life got incredibly small from January of 2006 to June of 2007. It had to. I couldn’t do anything but protect myself from food. And feel feelings I had been eating my whole life. I couldn’t handle much of anything. I felt like I was walking around without skin. I felt dazed and stupid. And erratic and unhinged. The best way to describe it is “emotional free-fall”. Nothing about my life was familiar. Nothing felt comfortable or normal or safe. I had just made a commitment to give up the very thing that I had always used for comfort and a sense of safety and normalcy. Life had suddenly become terrifying. Filled with uncertainty. I felt unfit to be in the world. I needed to avoid food. I needed to avoid being upset. I needed to avoid most interactions. I spent a lot of time alone. Doing weird, obsessive things that were not eating.
I spent a ridiculous amount of time cooking. Preparing food for the future. I would cook for weeks and weeks ahead of time. I made fancy, time-consuming things. I got recipes for how to make all sorts of mock desserts and dishes. Things that were like the foods I was used to eating, but without sugar, flour or starch. And I made up my own recipes. I experimented and I labored. I obsessed over cooking and preparing the way I had over eating.
I watched the same anime series on 3 DVDs on a loop. As soon as the series ended I put the first episode back on. By the end of that time, the shows didn’t mean anything anymore. The funny parts weren’t funny. The sad parts weren’t sad. The romantic parts weren’t romantic. But it was familiar. And comforting. And it kept me oddly centered. It was another something to be obsessed with besides eating.
The only time I would want, really need, to be out in the world was at night. I would get restless and want to eat, so I would run out of my house, sometimes in pajama pants and a T-shirt, to the book store that was open until midnight. I would sit there reading manga and drinking coffee until they closed. And then I would take my time getting home. I did not want to be home alone at night.
Nights were so hard because nighttime and binge eating were specifically tied together in my mind. I ate all the time when I was eating compulsively, but the ritual of bingeing myself to sleep was particularly ingrained in me. Sometimes getting out of my apartment was both absolutely necessary and incredibly difficult. All I wanted to do was get enough sugar to make me totally numb, climb into bed, and eat myself into a food coma. If you are not a binge eater, you may not understand what “enough to make me numb” means. But it’s a lot. It means eating several of “the whole thing”. The whole box/bag/container.
When I was eating compulsively, I am not sure I ever fell asleep. I basically just ate until I passed out. Every night. Like an alcoholic. That is not an exaggeration. Frankly, it’s why I was such a bad bulimic (thank God!). I would start a binge with the intention of eventually going to purge, but so often the binge would get so out of hand that I would pass out before I could get to the bathroom. I don’t know that I would have looked for a solution to my food issues if bulimia had kept me thin. I may have thought that making myself throw up was the solution.
It’s kind of interesting to me that my friend asked me which was worse. Asked me to compare sugar withdrawal to cigarette withdrawal. Because they are comparable. Quite similar, in many respects. Since I quit smoking, I have had a few emotional flashbacks to that year and a half that I first gave up sugar. A lot of the same feelings have come up and have brought me back to that time. Whereas before I quit cigarettes, I had probably not thought about that time of my life in years. In fact, when I try to recall it, it’s kind of hard to remember. It’s a blur and the days seem to blend together. All 520-something of them. 2 Winters, 2 Springs, a Summer and a Fall. That’s a lot of time to lose.
It was my 30th birthday that I looked up and realized I had room in my head and in my life. That I didn’t have to be obsessed with not being obsessed with food. That the cravings and the craziness were gone. That maintaining my boundaries around food was a muscle I had successfully built up. Of course, I knew I still had to take it seriously (just like I do to this day, six and a half years later), but it was not so precarious. I could actually live my life. A life so much bigger and better than the one I had had when I was a slave to food.
I have been walking around all pretty and happy for a while now. But I generally remember where I come from. I haven’t forgotten that I was fat. And crazy. And that food and sugar ruled my life. And I know that I don’t ever want to be fat or crazy or enslaved again. But I don’t always think about what I went through in the beginning to come out on the other side and get this happy, pretty life. I feel like I should acknowledge who I was then. What a hero I was for myself. I walked through the fires of hell, and I made it out whole. Cleansed. I am careful about pride and hubris. But I also want to remember that I am capable of honor and commitment.
So yes. Quitting smoking has me in a bit of an emotional free-fall right now. And I have let my life contract a little. I’ve slowed down and taken on less. Avoided things I know will upset me. Because I know that if I let my life be smaller right now, and if I’m gentle with myself, on the other side life will be better and more beautiful than it was when I was smoking. And that less will upset me in the first place. But the truth is, I still have a pretty full life right now. I don’t need to lock myself in my house and obsess about not being obsessed with cigarettes. My years of keeping my food under control have taught me a lot about trusting life. And living with uncertainty. And being uncomfortable. And letting that be ok. I’ve gotten pretty good at the free-fall. I trust that my chute will open. Or maybe I’ll just learn to fly. Whatever.
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