So it’s been exactly nine years since — on one especially excruciating afternoon — I quit sugar and caffeine. Or maybe it was a morning.
I’m having trouble remembering the details, but it was definitely February.
Actually, I do have this one very specific memory, but … there’s something really important I have to say before I tell you about that.
The thing I have to tell you.
I don’t often mention the no-sugar thing. Or the no-caffeine thing. Because it’s been my experience that — when it comes up — people tend to think that I’m secretly implying that they should do it too.
So let me state as clearly as I can:
The choices I make in my life are only about my life. You can totally drink coffee and eat cookies all day and I will love you just the same.
Seriously. I could not care less.
Whatever guilt or “shoulds” come up for you, they’re not coming from me. I’m sorry if talking about stuff that goes on in my life makes you feel uncomfortable about stuff going on in yours. That is never my intention.
People vary. What might be poisonous to me could be completely harmless — or even beneficial — for you.
I am not interested in being an evangelist. “You” just the way you are right now? Fine by me. I promise.
Okay, let’s get back to the story.
If you don’t count the week or so I spent curled up in a fetal position, begging for someone — anyone! — to bring me just one piece of chocolate … the first real memory I have of Life Without Sugar is this one:
The end of February. Which I remember because it was my husband’s birthday. It was sunny and beautiful. Tel Aviv. Late afternoon.
We walked past a little Italian café, and my husband bought a cup of gelato — one scoop of chocolate-something and one of pistachio-something. Or maybe it was mint-something. Anyway — it was green.
And when he offered me a taste and the answer wasn’t yes, he looked at me, incredulous.
“You’re really going through with this.”
And I realized for the first time that — yeah, I was.
And then it was a month.
I never intended to stick with it for longer than a month. And the truth is, I didn’t even expect it to make it a month.
I couldn’t even imagine it. Thirty days was pretty much the outside boundary of impossible.
But once I’d gone through that first awful part and come out on the other side … well, things were different. For one thing, I was picking up clues about the nature of my addiction and its power over me.
You seriously don’t realize that there is sugar in just about everything until you try to quit. Then every single thing you crave becomes a clue.
You wake up in the middle of the night, dying for a bowl of corn flakes or a spoonful of spaghetti sauce. A can of corn, a handful of crackers — if you’ve got to have it, expect to find out that it’s loaded with factory-installed sugar.
I’d indulge the latest craving for a couple of days and then eliminate that one as well. It was hard. I didn’t have then the techniques that I have now.
Or the patience.
But I was noticing the sensations that accompany change. And it was fascinating. Painful, yes. And fascinating.
It took a week or so for the fog to clear. But when it did a few things happened.
I would open my eyes in the morning and be absolutely wide awake. Things made sense. The space around me was clearer. The sensations of morning, crisper.
And then there was this energy. The desire to take long walks in the morning, to work and think and create all day, followed by a natural desire to fall exhausted into bed at night.
The holes in my life that I had been filling with sugar and caffeine — they weren’t gone. Other things came in to feed the old patterns instead. I didn’t have the tools to understand that yet.
But I was awake. I was free, or at least felt more free than I had ever been before. And I was noticing so many things about how I interacted with myself. Most of these depressed the hell out of me, but the noticing felt really powerful and true.
What I know now.
When my clients and I work on habits now, we focus on getting to the root of these patterns, to the thing behind the thing. I didn’t know about that yet, so I didn’t have ways to pacify the hurt, to interact with the shame, to meet my pain with comfort and compassion.
If I were going to do this quitting thing again, things would be different. Obviously.
And then I’d figure out what needs were hiding out inside the pattern I wanted to shift. Needs for sweetness in my life. And comfort. And ritual. And reassurance. And pleasure.
And instead of falling into the old pattern of resenting myself for needing those things, I’d look for other ways to give them attention. And affection.
But I’m not …. I don’t know, tortured by regret or anything like that. The way it happened is the way it happened.
And what I wish someone had told me.
That one month would turn into nine years and it wouldn’t be such a big deal.
That rewriting this habit the wrong way would teach me so much about all sorts of possible right ways.
That — despite my expectation that my whole life without sugar and caffeine would be sluggish, painful and tasteless — I’m actually energized. And my perception of taste has changed so dramatically that now everything is sweet.
A slice of tomato. A handful of raisins. Hazelnuts. Instead of having to look for the thing that will give me sweetness, that sweetness is everywhere. My whole system has re-calibrated itself.
Why I’m telling you all this.
Most of the people I know spend way too much time — completely understandably, of course — feeling guilty about the changes they haven’t made yet.
And about everything that’s getting in the way.
And all I want is to hug them and say that there’s nothing wrong with taking time — even a long, long, very long time — to process all the stuff that needs to be processed to make that change.
The most important thing you can do is to catch yourself doing the guilt thing — and then reminding your guilt that it’s not helping you.
Change through “I think I like you and I want us to feel better” is so much healthier than change through “you’d better get your act together, you lazy, incompetent etc.”
Less depressing, too. And considerably more sustainable.
Honestly? I’d rather see people working on their relationship with their “shoulds” than to see them forcing themselves to make uncomfortable changes because of the old “you need power and discipline, loser” mantra.
Because self-mastery can bite me.
Working on your stuff with patience? And kindness? How completely revolutionary.
I’ll drink to that. :)