Quitting Sugar: Three Tips and a Story

Toni calls as I pull into Trader Joe’s parking lot. I’m friends with Toni only in what we call “the rooms.” I’d spoken up at her home group a couple months ago. “I need to talk to you,” she says, “about your little problem with the chocolate bar.” You mean my little tiny lifelong sugar-bingeing problem?

On Tommy Rosen’s Recovery 2.0 in January, he and I talked about how addictive sugar is — how it puts us back into an addictive mentality. I love and loathe those green Girl Scout Thin Mint boxes, those dark-chocolate Pringles-shaped cookies that you (okay, that I) find at Trader Joe’s.

Toni also eats, she says, to calm her “anxiety.” “The 12 steps have helped me in every single part of my life,” she says, “except this one. I’ve tried powering my will through it, and it doesn’t work.”

It’s ironic that Toni has called at this moment. I’ve been trying to write this blog about sugar for two weeks. Every blog I write goes on too long — just like my sugar problem. I’ve been abusing sugar since I was a little girl. But as Toni waits, my thoughts crystallize. “Toni,” I say, “just to begin with, you’re talking to the chick who just yesterday bought a jar of Nutella, okay?” We laugh. I wrote about my affair with Nutella in The Recovering Body: It’s made of palm oil and high-fructose corn syrup. I eat it out of the jar with a spoon. It hurts me, and I love it.

Renaming Anxiety

Quitting Sugar: Three Tips and a StoryWe eat sugar, as Toni says, “to calm our anxiety.” I detoxed in 2008 from 100mcg/hour of fentanyl — about the same as 400 to 500mg of morphine per day: a huge level of drugs. As a comparison, when my father was dying of cirrhosis and cancer, for the excruciating pain this 220-pound man was given 25mcg/hr of fentanyl. I was about half his size and taking four times more of the same drug for migraine and fibromyalgia.

When I detoxed the next year, my “anxiety” exploded. My legs kicked for weeks. My body was exhausted but I couldn’t sleep. I obsessed about fixing my “anxiety” with the only solution I knew. “At that time I had a sponsor who was a recovering pharma-drug addict, like me,” I tell Toni. “She helped me recast the problem of ‘anxiety’ in recovery terms. She said, ‘As long as you call it anxiety, you can medicate it. Call it what it is: fear. You don’t take a pill for fear.’”

When I rename my anxiety “fear,” it goes into the fear inventory. I don’t drug it — even with sugar. I surrender it. “That’s so simple and so powerful,” Toni says. “I hadn’t thought of my anxiety as fear before. Now I know what to do with it.”

This is an example of the powerful healing oral tradition of recovery systems. I pass on what was given to me, and helping someone else gives me the power to take very difficult action.

Will and Power

I ask Toni, “You say you’ve tried to ‘power through this’ with your will?” She agrees. “I’ve done that, too,” I say. “It’s the opposite of Step 3, right?” In Step 3 I give up my will. I let a will that’s greater and wiser than mine to move in. (Step 11 — prayer and meditation — gives me extra power.) “This is making me think that I ought to go home and put that jar of Nutella in the trash,” I tell Toni. “But that would be like pouring booze down the drain, right?” She laughed.

The problem isn’t the drink or the drug. It’s my mind. Truly sober people can hang with people who drink and still be free. I want to grow toward the kind of recovery that lets me live with the jar of Nutella in the closet and not be ruled by it.

Know Thyself: Humility

When I toured for my latest book last fall, I talked about my little chocolate-bar problem in front of an audience of 1,000. The women went wild. One jumped up and hollered, “I want to say it’s OK to have one cupcake!” Another stood up and said one cupcake was too much; she had to give up all sugar.

People wanted to know how I ate so that I’m the size I am — five-feet-five and 120 lbs. At age 50, that’s pretty good. I’m lucky; I have good genes. I also exercise and I eat moderately because I don’t like to feel stuffed. But I do have this little problem with the chocolate bar.

After that talk, a woman with long, dazzling white hair told me she had 22 months off sugar. She’d once had four years off, but then she “went back out there,” as we say. “I started eating like a middle-schooler,” she said. “I was out of control.” How did she stop? “She said, ‘I just knew what it was to me,’” I tell Toni. Humility: the word is from humus, soil. When I practice humility, I know myself.

Here’s what refined sugar is to me: physically, it taxes my liver, kidneys and pancreas; it causes systemic acidity that amplifies muscle pain; it makes me retain water; it gives me headaches. It harms me. Psychologically, its extreme sweetness plays into the distortion of truth that characterizes addiction. No real food is that sweet.

“Can you say what she said again?” Toni asks. I just knew what it was to me.


My Quaker friend Eileen came to visit yesterday and I offered her some brigadeiros, Brazilian fudge truffles I’d just made. My son loves them. She held up her hand. “I’ve quit eating sugar,” she said. That’s how to stop. I made the brigadeiros yesterday, but I didn’t eat any myself.

And that’s how, after Toni and I hang up, I can walk past the chocolate-covered chips in Trader Joe’s. Just for today, I know what they are to me.

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    One Response to Quitting Sugar: Three Tips and a Story

    1. Avatar
      Rebecca Henry April 25, 2015 at 6:11 am #

      I have what I call a addictive personality! I take everything to extremes! drugs food you name it and I’ve got a problem with it! I love this story! I have quit drugs and tries to refine my eating habits as well! Sugar is a large problem for me! I’ve got to try this one I’ve never thought about it in that light! TY

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