Willpower

Starting tomorrow, I go sugar-free for 30 days. I’m not the only one moved to do something about out-of-control sugar habits, and I find this very comforting. I feel better knowing I’m not alone and because this is a safe place to speak about it openly and find support. None of us have to get sober or struggle with sugar habits in a vacuum.

The possibility of failure still troubles me. Soon after I posted my intent to go sugar-free for 30, my husband shared this article on willpower depletion, which made me feel like an irresponsible twat for whining about sugar binges on a sober blog. It warns that willpower is a limited resource in any given day. The more we use to do the things we don’t really want to do, like dealing with whiny kids at home or a messy project at work, the less we have later in the day to avoid destructive temptations like that glass (okay, bottles) of wine. If it came down to it, I’d take sobriety over kicking a cookie habit any day.

Fortunately, willpower is like a muscle you can build over time. It comes gradually when you establish and repeat good habits that reward you in new, improved ways. I couldn’t think of a better way to describe sobriety. At first it was really hard and I felt more deprived than good about what I was doing. Gradually, clearer thinking from sobriety helped me feel ready to focus on areas in my life that I’d neglected, and this created a chain reaction of good feelings. Sobriety created its own rewards.

But until I got there, sugar was of great comfort in the early days of sobriety when I had little else to look forward to after a hard day. That sounds pretty sad, but there is nothing sad about pursuing sobriety as a goal.

This article offers some great tips on how to build willpower. Limiting choices and keeping a tidy environment are two things that help me stay on track. I just don’t thrive in chaos.

I’m off to spend the day in the city with my family. Since it’s the last day before starting the sugar-free challenge, I may possibly have a black-and-white cookie that is only inches smaller than my head. I am having my coffee sugar-free this morning. The real work begins tomorrow and I feel excited and ready.

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The good: I survived the holidays with nary a thought about drinking.

The bad: I hoovered cookies like the mayans were right. (special nod to B for reminding me that hoover is a fine verb.)

Don’t worry, I’m not climbing up on the soapbox today to preach the evils of refined sugar, mainly because it doesn’t fuel long-lasting energy or clear thinking, apparently. I just noticed that I definitely replaced alcohol with other, less destructive forms of self-medication to survive the holidays. I feel aware of this in a detached sort of way and also notice these substitutes aren’t really working anymore. I wonder why that is.

Christmas as a season was excellent. One day I took my kids to see A Christmas Story in an old movie theater and felt like I’d traveled back in time to that perfect Christmas when I got a barbie pool under the tree and a kitten in my stocking. Then Christmas day came, and even then I was fine until I went home for the holidays. Nothing noteworthy happened – the visit just stirred up feelings of not good enough and disappointment that are hard to pinpoint. And I know they’re all me, which makes it more frustrating.

Spending time around family is what the holidays are all about. It’s also my #1 trigger because I absorb all the expectations – real and imagined – of others for this perfect holiday and family. I am most at peace when I let go of outcomes and expectations, yet I seem to lose my ability to let go the more interaction I have with others. I’m no mathlete, but this seems an equation for unease and unrest over the holidays.

It is up to me to add back to my reserves. I exercised this morning after taking several days off and felt the boost in energy and mood. Tonight I’ll go to the movies with my kid and tomorrow maybe we’ll get our first real snowfall of the season. I’m looking forward to both of these simple pleasures and I don’t really care how they turn out. Sunday we’ll strip and scrap the Christmas tree because that’s what you do at the end of the year. It was a good tree, a beautiful one, really. I’m sad to see it go but I’m excited about the new year and whatever challenges and changes it brings.

Wishing you and yours a peaceful end to 2012 and a happy and healthy 2013.

Sugar-free Januar-y

Portrait
World War I Poster

I read so many helpful comments after my last post on sugar binges. You guys are the best – did you know that? I hope so, because these comments helped convert powerlessness into motivation to do something about it. A few blogger friends said they had been thinking about making a change too, so I googled and found a great post on 3 Whole Plates on how to do 30 days Sugar Free. What appealed most was her sensible, common-sense  approach to kicking the sugar habit, so I borrowed heavily and did some minor tweaking to suit my own needs.

Following the same simple 3-rule format, this is what I will shoot for from January 1-31:

1) No refined sugar. No white or brown sugar. This means no desserts or donuts or candy. Because I also hope to recalibrate my taste buds, I’m also going to cut out natural sugar products like honey and blue agave nectar, which I will miss dearly in my morning coffee.

2) No artificial Sweeteners. I’ve heard that artificial sweeteners try to trick the brain into thinking it’s had something sweet, only to find out the brain is smarter than it looks and it looks pretty smart because it’s, uh, a brain. I don’t know if artificial sweeteners satiate my need for something sweet or not, but I do know most are made from hard-to-pronounce chemicals and they don’t taste very good anyway.

3) N0 more than 10g sugar per serving in processed foods. This is any food that comes with one of those little black and white nutritional labels, which is mostly what I’ll be eating unless I get a tiny farm (complete with tiny farmhands) under the tree Christmas morning. I chose 10g because the plain greek yogurt I eat every morning has 9g sugar per serving and I like even numbers.

That’s it. I’ll still have fresh fruit because last spring I tried a low-carb diet with no fruit or grains for 2 weeks and I got a terrible chest cold and a case of the sads, so nuts to that. With processed grains, I’ll stick to the ‘no more than 10g of sugar per serving’ rule.

My main goal here is to reduce cravings and stabilize my mood and energy levels. Sugar used to be a wonderful high, but lately I’ve noticed how run down I feel, especially when I exercise. I believe I can do this for 30 days and hope it will motivate long-term, sustainable changes in what I eat and why. Food is a huge source of pleasure, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. I just hope to change the pleasure from cheap thrills to something ultimately more enjoyable.

I don’t plan to change the focus of this blog to nutrition, but I will check in and report how it’s going. If you want to join in the torture FUN by going sugar-free in January or by following your own plan, yes, yes! As someone wisely said, Power in numbers!

I am the yeast

I’m back to my old books again. This time I went underneath my bed and pulled out a very dusty copy (wth, dust ruffle?) of Under The Influence. If someone doesn’t get me to the library stat, pretty soon I’ll be forced to read my 7th grade diary, which is neither informative nor particularly entertaining.

I bought Under the Influence about a month into sobriety and skimmed it, but nothing really resonated at the time. This time around, I found myself fighting to keep from reading certain bits aloud to anyone who would listen or even the cat (who always listens) because it all felt profound.

This bit on page 17 really got me:

When yeast encounters honey, fruits, berries, cereal, or potatoes, for example, it releases an enzyme which converts the sugar into carbon dioxide and alcohol…The yeast then continues to feed on the sugar until it literally dies of acute alcohol intoxication – the very first victim of “drunkenness.”

Oh my god, I am the yeast.

The quotes in “drunkenness” feels apropoos because lately I have been drowning myself in sugar in an attempt to get high or numb down or, hell, I don’t really know. I just do it and it’s gotten out of hand and I have to do something about it or I’m going to gain back the weight I worked hard to lose and feel like crap.

Tell me if any of this sounds familiar.

I try cutting back but pretty soon find myself right back where I was before, and much worse than I was years ago. I can’t seem to help myself and once I get started, it’s hard to stop. I spend too much time thinking about it and feel deep shame and regret at my lack of willpower when I overdo it, which is often. I don’t even know that it makes me feel that good, so I don’t know why I do it.  

I am talking about sugar, but I could have been describing my drinking at the end. For the past (almost) year-and-a-half of sobriety, I told myself I wouldn’t worry about all the sugar in my diet because it was better than drinking. I already feel like I’ve shrunken my world by taking alcohol away. Some would argue it’s only gotten bigger and better, but the reality is I’ve imposed limits that sometimes put me at odds with the rest of society. Why would I want to be the weirdo who can’t drink OR eat cupcakes?

Plus there is this: Vices are fun! I’m convinced I have an overactive pleasure center in my brain. I get equally excited over fluffy puppies and bad movies, but fortunately these things don’t seem to be as addictive, probably because they can’t kill me. If I take away my vices, what fun will life be? This was my worst fear before I quit drinking and it turned out to be completely, miraculously unfounded. But are cupcakes and booze even on the same plane?

Part of my fear about giving up sugar is that it feels totally impossible. Do you hate failure? Sure, we all do. Sometimes it feels like alcohol is everywhere, but refined sugar and simple carbohydrates are even harder to avoid. Do I have it in me to read every label and follow a complete overhaul of my diet?

Can I still have an occasional ice cream or cookie or even artificial sweeteners? Some believe that even a little bit of sugar creates all new, all powerful  cravings for more. This is why I gave up on moderating alcohol and why I don’t even drink fake beer. Well, also because fake beer tastes terrible, but the same can be said for aspartme.

I don’t know where I’m going with this post because I’m not there yet. Under the Influence theorizes that alcoholics may suffer from hypoglycemia, which is an abnormally low level of sugar in the blood that can cause concentration problems, anxiety and a number of physical symptoms. Even if I don’t have this condition, I recognize that a hypoglycemic diet would be good for me.

A hypoglycemic diet avoids sugar, white flour, alcohol, caffeine and tobacco. From what (little) I understand, these things cause our blood sugar to spike and then crash, which makes us want more sugar in order to feel normal. Caffeine would be the hardest thing for me to give up because I so look forward to my morning coffee. Maybe there is life after decaf, but I’m skeptical/scared.

I cut out most refined sugar and white flour from my diet last spring, so even though I didn’t stick with it over time, I could view this as a relapse. I have the chance to pull myself back up and try again because obviously eating whatever I want isn’t working for me either.

If anyone has any experience with cutting sugar intake either altogether or drastically and sticking with it over time, I’d love to hear from you. If you’re also suffering from out-of-control sugar cravings and you’re an ex-drinker, just know you’re far from alone.

I’d also like to make a disclaimer that I personally don’t think people in early sobriety should worry over sugar cravings because early sobriety is hard enough! Baby steps, and all that. But some believe a diet free from sugar helps eliminate cravings for alcohol. An individualized approach is probably best.

How to wrap presents with a monkey on your back

The most powerful craving I’ve had for a drink came about a year ago. I was in my room wrapping presents on Christmas Eve and wanted a glass of Christmas cheer so badly, I burst into tears. I should have seen the trigger coming since I’d been drunk-wrapping for years. It made the tedious act more tolerable somehow…it made me swear less when I played the inevitable, perpetual game of hide-the-tape-and-scissors with myself. Plus kids tend to look the other way when it comes to Santa’s sloppy wrapping skills.

I was in a bad way all-around last December. I had recently decided to wean off an anti-depressant known for its serotonin-withdrawal effects, so I was already in a fragile state. At least I was going to regular meetings then, and at one a woman I’d never met before said “I have something for you” and while I turned to see who she was talking to, she disappeared and returned with an issue of the grapevine and said “You look like you could use this.”  The cover showed a messy swirl of holiday lights with the headline Un-Crazy Holidays. I went from being alone and scared to feeling like my recovery was part of something bigger. I still don’t know who that woman was, but I’ll never forget her kindness.

This December, so far anyway, has been the polar opposite of last year. I went through a rough period in late summer/early fall, and part of that was fear of the upcoming holidays. I was afraid history would repeat and our wrapping paper would again turn soggy from my tears. But the past is not the present. Time in recovery has given me tools I either didn’t have last year or wasn’t using.

When I met with my doctor last month for an annual med-check, we both decided it was best for me to stay on the anti-depressant I’ve been on for the last year. No, I don’t want to take something for the rest of my life, but it’s side-effect free and, anyway, right before the holidays is a terrible time to make a medication change. I’ve learned I’m no superhero and that my life is much easier when I respect my limits.

I also feel more prepared this holiday season, possibly because an early Thanksgiving gave a jumpstart to the holidays. It occurred to me this morning that I could start wrapping one or two things at a time. Part of last year’s meltdown was because I’d saved all of it for the last minute and I was feeling unmotivated and overwhelmed.

When it is time to wrap presents, I plan to introduce a couple new tools to the process. When I first saw an ad for the pop-up tape handband, I hadn’t felt like a product was designed so specifically for me since the onion goggles (and I still don’t own a pair of those <frownie face>). I don’t know if I’ll ever see a pair of scissors I can safely strap to myself, but at least there’s one less thing to lose under layers of gift wrap paraphernalia.

Before
Before
After
After

This year I will also reintroduce a cup of Christmas cheer when I wrap presents. Instead of booze, I’ll go for a mug of Trader Joe’s Peppermint Hot Chocolate, which the husband picked up and I admit I was skeptical until I tried it. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m actually looking forward to wrapping gifts this year, yet another example of how our perspective can change in small, miraculous ways in sobriety.

I'll deal with you in the new year, raging sugar addiction.
I’ll deal with you in the new year, raging sugar addiction.

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