Addiction Story #1, Buttercup: I Know an Addict When I See One
And I definitely do — in the mirror. This is #1, Buttercup, in my flower-titled series on sugar addiction.
Here’s how I know I am an addict. I cannot turn away from my substance once I start — primarily if it’s sugary but also floury, baked buttery, chocolate, salty or sweet chippy, fried or doughy (or fried and doughy).
I might return to its lure, chase its hit, five minutes later, that night, the next day. For a string of days. A dead daisy crown of months. A tarnished silver necklace of years. And when I indulge in my substance — as with alcohol or drugs, I guess— my personality can change wildly. I might be evil. Also fearful, sad, erratic and undependable.
I can’t show up fully for you, or for myself.
Take yesterday, Saturday, January 30 at 10:06 a.m., when I was screaming at my family. Raging, really.
It was the aftermath of yet one more pandemic Friday. I had tried hard to show up for life. I had succeeded. Slogged through kitchen and dirty refrigerator cleanup (singing “Hey Jude” and “Here Comes the Sun” with our speaker by the sink) while Skipper, 13, attended remote school on the couch.
I had forced myself into a shower with Aveeno Daily Moisturizing Body Wash with Soothing Oat, brushed my hair, hoped to apply concealer and mascara but ran out of time. I fastened a gold chain. I took pages of notes, jotting words and details in blue pencil, interviewing someone for an article pitch. All are big steps in the fight to not let addiction rule your world.
I then walked, though frigid Friday, at 4:30 p.m. with Skip and her younger friend and his mom, now my friend. We did a 1.7-mile loop around the waterfront at Turtle Back Zoo. The walkway was empty. Thick sheets of ice floated on the reservoir. We wondered how ducks bobbed their heads under the surface without freezing to death.
The mallards modeled determination to survive and a can-do spirit, no matter how trying the circumstances. So did our kids, leading our way in their five-pocket blue jeans, size small but born to be rugged. Those kids walked fearlessly into the wind, into adversity, wool hats pulled down to block the gusts.
Truth is, I don’t know, deep down, how other addicts function or do not function. I only know life is not strictly sunny for anyone. People carry burdens on their backs at different times. Some tote them every day. Show me someone whose knapsack is empty from birth to death as they navigate life’s highways and craggy mountain trails.
I try hard not to succumb to my substance. I guess is it the same for you, with a bottle, pills, needles, coke or gambling.
Lately, Skippy and her friend have come back to our house after our weekly walks, to play board games or watch “Anime.” My husband, Dan, or I, both eager to fulfill childhood wishes (big or small) when we can, secure Dr. Pepper and Cool Ranch Doritos and/or Oreos (“any kind”). Public schools here in Montclair, New Jersey have been closed since mid-March — it’s going on 11 months since the kids have seen the inside of a classroom. God bless them if a bag of chips and a can of soda can spark a little joy.
“I buy, you fly,” my brother Will used to say back on Bedford Road in Dumont. I happily drove to Grand Union for a large bag of peanut M&Ms to share.
When I fly now, I am careful. I choose a box of small individual bags of salty snacks, so as not to be tempted by a large bowl, or even the broken dregs left at the bottom. I buy a box of single-serving Oreo six-packs.
Even Skip — or should I say, especially Skip— knows I have a problem. After impulsive pad thai takeout for dinner (and who am I kidding, even the most basic recipe calls for high-carb rice noodles and three tablespoons of white sugar), I eyed the Oreos. Those Nabisco stackers were a big treat when I was a girl. My mother grew up poor and rationed them out. She hid them in the liquor cabinet or on a high closet shelf. I can still hear the sliding doors creak, and smell the moth balls, when I stood on my tiptoes to take some. I had waited until I heard the washing machine lurch and start; I knew that meant Mommy was doing laundry in the basement.
I thought Skippy wouldn’t notice on Friday night. They were busy chatting. I approached the box. “No, you know you can’t have these. They’re not good for you,” she said. She does care.
“Come on,” I said.
“You’re right,” I mustered up. And silently thanked her, in my heart.
But — was that like my mother rationing the elusive sandwich cookies? Did the fence Skip put up ignite my defiance to break it down? What propelled me to the kitchen, to sit alone, feel lonely, deprived and defeated, and search the freezer? Aha, my not-Chubby-Hubby had a pint of ice cream stashed in there. I spooned swiftly to the bottom. Defiance. Later, when Skippy wasn’t looking, I took the unfinished Oreo snack pack from her nightstand. She had only eaten two out of six (who does that?) and hidden the rest of the packs. Good for her. They will last for a month.
That’s not the end of the story. Had there been more substances in the house, I would have torn through those, too. I was scared about something a doctor had said last week, about an uncharted road for our family; terror gripped my heart and soul. It manifested as anger. I wanted to bury my emotions in food rather than sit with them, painfully aware, aware and brave.
My wise therapist says that the longer you are addicted, the more of your desired substance you need to reach a satisfying high. That may seem obvious, but it wasn’t to me.
It is hard to pause. It is hard to stop. And my mood changes; I take on the ermine-trimmed robes of the Evil Queen in the Snow White story. The more sugar I eat, the more I want; it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. And the longer I go without and eat clean, the better and clearer I am.
Consuming my trigger foods throws me off my road of integrity and kindness. I am at my worst under the influence. I have cursed and yelled and pushed doors open. I have been willful, dark, mean and overwhelmed with fear — or mired in inertia.
Today, though. Today is a new day. It is 1:12 p.m. and I have finished this Buttercup essay I’ve wanted to work through all week. This is step one in my latest plan to write my way off this unsteady, sugar-paved path. The footing is not strong enough to hold me and my goals, my dreams, my hopes for a healthy everyday life.
No matter how life-affirming they seem to be, our addictions will kill us and our good intentions.
Sugar dissolves in water — in rain, in snow. It blows away in windstorms. It offers no grounding. So building a walkway with bricks of it — even if the crystals glisten in the sun like diamonds or beckon like sparkly sand, even if you spackle them with pure white icing —will guarantee nothing. Only that you will travel a shaky, shifting road in the face of life’s uncertainties.
Memo to self: Buy Skippy and friends one smallish bag each of cookies or chips (sold by the cash registers). We don’t need the big family pack. And skirt the pad thai.
My next essay on sugar addiction will be #2, Clover. I’m giving them flower names, from the tiniest yellow bloom I saw as a girl on a summer night in Bedford Park to big, wide-open garden varieties, which I hope will signify my journey to self-knowledge on this sweet and sour road.
Alice Garbarini Hurley was on staff at Seventeen, Good Housekeeping and Sesame Street Parents magazines and freelanced at Cigar Aficionado as a fact checker and copy editor. No matter what pocket of the city the offices were in, she knew where to nab the best brownie, donut or glossy dark chocolate-dunked graham cracker. Now she is changing, and can walk past a bakery without entering (sometimes she does still enter, and orders a cup of coffee). She is in a recovery program.