Life has a way of teaching you things you don’t want to know, especially when rebellion is a huge part of your nature. These lessons are usually things you know intellectually but feel don’t apply to you, or rationalize because of any number of excuses. The Surgeon General has been warning us for decades about the dangers of cigarette smoking, yet people still smoke. We’ve all heard the stories of the dangers of drinking, yet folks still drink. Sugar, along with any other food (such as flour) that has the color stripped of it, is sometimes referred to as “white death”. But sugar is a big thing in European societies and their spin-offs. (I’m looking at you, United States.) Tobacco, alcohol, and sugar are the things we introduce into our bodies, and then there are the activities we should do but often don’t: preventive healthcare, screenings, exercise, and so on.
I try to do well … sometimes. It’s a real struggle at other times.
I quit smoking in 1983, after I found out I was pregnant with my daughter. Although I’ve had a few cigarettes here and there over the years, I never bought another pack. These days, with as bad as my asthma is, I can’t even smoke medical marijuana. My airway is far too reactive.
I drank quite a bit in my teens and twenties, especially when I was traveling. I was what I call a “heavy social drinker”. I didn’t really like to drink alone, but in a group, I could put it away — and on business travel, there is always a group. These days, even one beer makes me tipsy, so I choose not to drink. I don’t like the way it makes me feel anymore. I think it was sometime around 2010 or 2011 when I really just stopped. The one person I had to really make amends to says they’ve forgiven me. I felt so bad about many of my behaviors that I have apologized multiple times. I’m happier not to drink.
Drugs? “I did, but I didn’t inhale.” That’s all I’ve got to say about that. (And if you take that statement for anything less than the joke that it is, then I have some land I want to sell you!)
My real vice is sugar, but I come by it honestly (and probably genetically). I can lose control of myself with sugar. Probably the most damaging diet I ever went on was “The Carbohydrate Addict’s Diet” (Heller & Heller, 1999). The idea seems like a good one. You limit your intake of unhealthy, simple carbohydrates to one “reward meal” a day, and you have to finish that meal (including whatever drinks and desserts you want) in less that one-and-one-half hours, so that you don’t cause a second surge of insulin to deal with those nasty carbs. I know. It sounds crazy, and nutritionists hate it. It was based on the Hellers’ own theories about diet and fat burning. And I loved it! If I went out to dinner with the family, I ordered my dessert at the same time as the rest of my meal so that I could wolf it all down in that 1.5 hours. I was religious about having a dessert. The rest of the day consisted of protein and complex carbs (like salad, with dressing that had no sugar). I actually lost weight, but I had developed a new bad habit – always having a little something sweet after dinner.
My mother was a fabulous Southern cook, and so was her mother. My mother was born at the beginning of the Great Depression and came of age during World War II. There was poverty and rationing of things like sugar and coffee. Those things, therefore, became a luxury. When they were available again, they were still seen as very desirable, and it was considered polite to always serve rich desserts and coffee after a meal.
Mom and Granny loved to make pies and fudge and brownies. Seven-layer cakes and cherry cobbler and traybakes of every sort. Cookies. Fried apple or apricot tarts. Homemade vanilla ice cream. The holidays brought special things like peanut butter or coconut candy (better than anything you can buy in a grocery store or confectionary), peanut brittle, pecans coated with a meringue-like sugary mixture and roasted in the oven, towering fruitcakes, and divinity fudge. Yes, we also had fresh meat from the family farm and vegetables grown in my grandmother’s “kitchen garden” (which was a half-acre plot behind her small house. You could see it from the kitchen window. But desserts were the star of the show for me. They were the reward for hours spent playing outside with my cousins or helping my grandmother pick and shell peas and beans. Back at home in the city, desserts soothed me. Ours was an anxious household in which you never knew when someone would explode. I was teased mercilessly at home for my chubbiness and bullied at school for it. My brothers liked to jump out at me from dark corners to scare me. All. The. Time. I never felt at ease. Sugar helped soothe me, but of course, it made the chubbiness worse.
There was (and is) a lot of shame that came with my love of sugar. I remember that lack of control. I remember returning the refrigerator over and over and over again to a pan of fudge my mother had made. Instead of stopping me, she just made another. But then she would do things like make me wear a girdle (I was a pre-teen) or a rubber belt that went around my abdomen that was supposed to make me sweat off the fat. All it did was to soak my shirt above and below that awful contraption and embarrass me in front of my friends.
When I started junior high school, PE was much more regimented (no longer just languishing on the playground at recess, trying to be invisible so I wouldn’t get beaten up). I had to do calisthenics and run and play volleyball and play softball. This, with my sudden desire to be attractive, led to some weight loss. A little was good, so a lot would be better, right? I became anorexic right around the time I also grew five inches taller. Both my family and the people at school were letting up on me. In fact, they were being nice to me. Mom was constantly telling her friends all about my weight loss, like it was a personal accomplishment for her. My mother and sister both dieted throughout my entire childhood. Mom had done every diet I’ve ever heard of. Some of these diets made her swell (because of food allergies, I can only surmise). Some made her break out in a rash. She would always fall off the wagon. The only way she lost weight was to get sick, and that happened a lot. It wasn’t just Mom who was praising my thinning body. My sister wanted to take me shopping and to the hair salon. My older brother no longer minded if people at school knew I was his sister.
They didn’t realize I was ill. It wasn’t until I asked to tag along with my mom to a “diet doctor” in Ocilla, GA, when I was 15 or so, that it sort of stopped. He looked at me and said that if I lost any more weight, I would end up in the hospital. My fear of hospitals (and of doctors in general) won. I started to eat a little more. Not much! I normalized, but I watched every calorie. I didn’t really put on any padding until after I had my daughter. When you’re pregnant, they want you to eat. They want you to drink whole milk (or they did in the 80s). You’re supposed to gain weight. I ended up with 10 extra pounds that lingered, despite my workouts to Joanie Greggains’ TV show every morning.
Both my mother and grandmother ended up being diabetic. That should not be a surprise. My oldest brother is diabetic. I keep teetering on that line. Since cancer, my numbers have started to creep up again. And now my triglycerides are tattling on me. I got a voicemail message from my cardiologist’s office about my recent blood work. “She wants you to significantly reduce your carbohydrate intake particularly with rice, bread, pasta, potatoes, alcohol, sugar, and any sweets, and follow up with your PCP for those elevated blood sugars.”
Ugh. That was depressing. Also, I don’t drink – like I said – and I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve had rice since my son moved out this summer. I do have pasta occasionally. I make a hearty meat sauce and a pound of pasta. I have one meal of it and freeze single-serving containers of the rest. I have done the same with stew. I’ve made one pot of stew with potatoes and have frozen most of it. I am just not big on potatoes (one of the “bad” foods, I was always told). I don’t eat fries. I only have bread if I have a burger or a breakfast sandwich. Those things are rare. What’s getting me are the sweets. Too bad I can’t see that sugar is a “bad” food, like potatoes.
In addition to my sugar addiction, sweetness was one of the only tastes to get by my tastebuds during cancer treatment. There were many things I either couldn’t taste or couldn’t tolerate. Lots of things tasted like metal. I’m still having some of that problem. But I’m going to have to back off of the sweets. She wants me to stop eating cereal, too. Boo, hiss! You might as well tell me not to swear! FUCK!
And so here I am, in shame again. We are at our most vulnerable when we are in a doctor’s office. They poke, they prod, they peer into every orifice. They ask us very personal questions. They squeeze sensitive areas. They narrow their eyes at us when we try to protest that we don’t drink! “Okay, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, then.”
My sister and I almost argued on Saturday because my rebellion rose to the surface. “What’s wrong with having a cookie or a brownie?” I asked, when she said that she wasn’t going to be making any of the recipes of our mother’s that I asked her for a copy of. “Why can’t we just enjoy the one vice we have?”
“Because I don’t want to get diabeet-us,” she said.
Well, I don’t either! And I don’t disagree with her, but it seems like she is so disciplined about food (all those years of dieting finally paying off!). She has quite a few food allergies, so she feels better if she sticks to the plan. But dang. I hate the thought of having to stop living before you die!
In the end, I wasn’t talking about her. I feel cheated by life in that my body doesn’t seem to be able to tolerate sugar, and it’s the thing I really love, that I really crave. I still feel judged by thinner people. I can feel them looking at me and thinking, “She needs to push back from the table.” But I’m not a big eater. It just sticks to me when I do eat.
There is so little that I have wanted to eat for the last two years. My appetite was gone before I found out I had cancer, and I had started dropping weight without trying. I think part of me is scared to see the numbers drop on the scale now.
I actually said to my sister, “We diet, we exercise, we die anyway. We all have to die of something.” Whatever happened to my rock and roll lifestyle? The sex and the drugs are gone! You want to take my sugar, too??
Yeah, I protest, but I don’t want to go blind, as one of my aunts did, from diabetes. I don’t want to lose toes, as my mom did. I don’t want to have to always think about finger sticks and insulin shots. I don’t want to have to keep juice on hand just in case I take too much insulin. (Mom actually hid cookies in different places around her room in the nursing home, because the nurses would give her the same amount of insulin whether or not they had checked her sugar. She ended up in a diabetic crisis because of that more than once.)
I’ve had people say to me, “sugar feeds cancer.” I have not seen one study that says so. I have seen studies that show diabetes or insulin resistance can lead to the development of colorectal cancers in certain cases. That’s not the same as a blanket statement that sugar feeds cancer.
But I’m not foolish enough to think sugar is safe for me. It’s like alcohol to an alcoholic. It’s like heroin to a junkie. But it’s everywhere, in all processed foods. In foods you would think are safe, such as vinaigrette dressings. I feel like my whole life has been spent paring down all the things that give me joy. I guess I’m just going to have to find new paths to joy, but I still intend to bake brownies now and again – if only to give away.