I was recently given this photo of me from my fourth birthday party.
My first thoughts were, “look at the cute, hippy clothes.” But then I looked at my wee self in that photo and instantly felt what she’s feeling—and it stung. I so desperately wanted to reach across that table and eat that cake. Erm, hug her. Give her the comfort she was longing for back then, the comfort that I’m longing for right now.
Decades later, I’m still that little girl sitting somewhere in the world—there and here physically. But not there or here, at all. Not really. And that there is a cake in front of her, a birthday cake no less, is just ironic, in the Alanis Morissette kind of way.
n. the subtle, but persistent feeling of being out of place, as maladapted to your surroundings as a seal on a beach—lumbering, clumsy, easily distracted, huddled in the company of other misfits, unable to recognize the ambient roar of your intended habitat, in which you’d be fluidly, brilliantly, effortlessly at home.
You see, sugar has been my addiction and my best friend since before that photo was taken. I didn’t even know that I was addicted until last year when I finally went cold turkey and had several months of absolutely no sugar (including no fruit or fake sugars). Once I was able to get away from my addiction, things became clear, and I suddenly saw the major events in my life as part of that addiction.
All these years I’ve counted myself lucky that I never became an alcoholic, although I came close many times. I never smoked cigarettes and rarely smoked anything else. I was always worried that I would give in to my addictive genes. The fact that I’m not in the bathroom right now with a needle in my arm was always my way of congratulating myself on making it this far in life without getting addicted, for breaking the cycle. I just didn’t see that I already was addicted in another way, and always have been. Sugar was just available at the corner store and came with less social shame or risk of arrest.
I also didn’t see what sugar did to my life.
I can’t blame sugar for everything, and I don’t. But my body has always had an odd reaction to too much sugar. The cravings are real and the high from binging is pure bliss…but after a few days of binging (yes, days) my moods swing violently and I can no longer respond—I react suddenly, and with fury.
Over the years, I’ve come up with clever ways to combat this so I don’t completely ruin more relationships and opportunities. Kind of in the way when your monitor keeps flickering and instead of fixing the problem, you get really good at jumping under the desk and wiggling the cable “just so” to get it to work again. Even congratulating yourself on how quickly you can fix it. Or showing your cubicle mate your clever trick so their monitor won’t flicker either. All the time diving under and wiggling to fix a problem that won’t ever get better.
In those sticky sweet binge hazes, I knew enough to put a Post-it Note on my computer that read, “Be nice! You’ve had too much sugar this week.” I’ve also found myself repeating that mantra before meeting up with friends. I thought I was clever to think of doing that. As if fixing the actual problem wasn’t possible.
Over the past year, and with a clear, unsugared mind, I reviewed a few patterns in my life. It made me sad that I’ve gotten this far, and still didn’t figure out that I had a sugarcoated monkey on my back calling most of the shots.
I’ve realized that yes—I am addicted to sugar. But also that this addiction is a symptom. And although sugar and my body’s reaction to it has been a problem for me, that it has created problems for me—it is not “the” problem.
Going back to the photo, I see that she is lost. Everyone is smiling and happy to be there, she just stares and focuses on the yellow checkered pattern of the tablecloth and waits for it to be over. I recognize that look, that feeling—she needs, I need, to feel safe.
For even at four years of age, she has never really known love or safety.
I have enough early memories blocked up inside to remind me, the type of memories that manifest in other ways. In addictive ways. I’ve always hated my birthday and the fake happiness I thought I had to show to the world. And I’ve always gone out of my way to avoid my birthday—as a child, I often just came out of my room for the cake part.
So today all I could think about was that image, with that expression, and that birthday cake…and that yesterday was my birthday. Yesterday was the day that I woke up and decided to make a change. Not because of any date on the calendar, but because it’s time for her and I.
Last year, when I had been off sugar for several months, I realized that I have never once in my entire life felt safe. Not safe in my body, with other people, with partners, in my career, not anywhere.
There is at least one giant hole in my bucket that I’ve been trying desperately to fill for many decades.
This bucket, with this gaping hole, has been filled with promises and sugar, hope and sugar, and love and sugar. But never enough of the good stuff, not enough to block the leaky bucket and fill it up to the point where I feel safe.
I took that beautiful, innocent girl who had already known abuse and subjected her to more abuse by not keeping her safe. By abusing our body with sugar because it was the only way I knew to find comfort, and then to numb, and escape. Every time I felt unsafe as an adult, it was really her crying for attention. Crying to be held and healed. I just couldn’t hear it over the chewing and shoving of plastic candy wrappers into my pockets.
I had this beautiful love story once, the kind people write books about. But now when I look back with clarity, he never even knew me. He knew the hopped-up-on-sugar me. We were together for almost 10 years and he must have been so confused. Really. When I think of some of our biggest arguments and disagreements, they were all, every single one of them, fueled by a sugar binge.
I was either on a binge at the time or my adrenal system was crashing from binging too much. Even while traveling around the world with two small backpacks, he didn’t know that I kept a stash of candy in my bag, and the reason I always took so long in the public toilets was because I was “shooting up.” I was locked in the bathroom stall shoving as much chocolate, Gummi Bears, and candy in my lie hole as I could. He never questioned why I was always in a great mood when I got back in the car, and always smelled like the minty gum I was suddenly chewing. Or why, a few hours later we would get into an ugly argument.
I sometimes wonder what we would have been if one of us would have been sober. Me, that one of us is me—just in case that wasn’t clear. We are still great friends today and he has moved on to a wonderful relationship with someone who deserves his love.
Yes, I know. That’s also part of the healing process. Believing that I also deserve that kind of love. I’ll get there. That’s another project of mine. They probably go hand-in-hand, but about that bucket.
So, I’ve decided to just get a new bucket.
Rather than spend another decade or more trying to plug up the many cavernous holes in that worn-out chocolate-stained bucket. I’m throwing it out and starting fresh.
My new bucket will have walls made of safety and I’m placing all the things that comfort me in the bottom. I’ll fill it with the voices of my dear friends who remind me when I’m lost that I bring a lot of love and light into the world and it’s necessary for me to be here. I’ll fill it with the voices of the animals and birds and plants that I freely give my love and attention to, and with the voices of the music that comforts me when I need to feel not so alone.
I will fill my new bucket with their voices—until my own voice is strong enough.
I know it’s there. I can hear the crackling sounds as she chokes on the words trying to comfort me now. I also know that I’m counting on me to take that little girl in the photo, the one inside me all these years, to take her by the hand and let her know we are safe, we are worthy of giving love, and just as importantly—we are worthy of being loved.
I’ve spent too much time confusing love and safety with being needed. I was always the first one to jump in and offer my help. I wanted to be needed. I need to be wanted.
Always doing extra for others also meant I had no time or energy for my own needs. It was better not to think about or confront “the feelings.” Just keep busy, stay necessary, and be valued for what you do. Now, I’m setting boundaries that serve me and my life—that don’t feed my addictions.
I know now what doesn’t work for me, for my life, or my body. I’ve been off sugar (including relapses) for one year. To be fair and real, it’s currently been one week. I went off on a long detour a month or so ago and finally have one week on the sugar-free wagon. Again.
For the first time in my life, I have plans for me. Not plans made with other motives in mind—I’m not doing this to be liked, to be needed, or to be loved. These plans are for me, for my body, and my soul.
I finally understand how good my body feels when it’s nourished. How my muscles ache for more movement after I dance or run. How spiritual it feels on a metaphysical level to sing. How much clarity and comfort I have when I do things for myself—without guilt or shame.
I’m going to treat myself right. I’m going to listen to what my body is telling me. She has got me this far, this long, in one piece (with a few extra bits and bulges here and there). But she has had a taste of what feeling safe and what breaking free from an addiction can feel like.
She wants more.
And right now, it’s time to honor her and myself.
“There is a candle in your heart, ready to be kindled.
There is a void in your soul, ready to be filled.
You feel it, don’t you?” ~ Rumi