There were other addictions beside sugar. Cigarettes became a part of my life around age twelve. It sort of went with being an accepted member of the skater/smoker crowd at my school, the ones who wore graphic tee shirts and Airwalk shoes before they went mainstream. My own vanity helped me break that addiction. It turns out it’s hard to get really buff when you’re a smoker. The cigarettes don’t leave you with enough appetite to support any extra muscle. At the wise old age of seventeen I’d decided it was in my best interest to fill out my clothes a little more and finally grow a butt worthy of being checked out by the ladies. So I replaced smoking with more gym time and a larger appetite for protein shakes. I’m making it sound easy but it wasn’t.

After high school I graduated to diet pills. They had scary cool names like Lypodrine, Xenadrine, Hydroxycut, and Ripped Fuel. We call them ECA stacks because all of them contain the same three basic ingredients: ephedrine, caffeine, and aspirin. They work because the combination of those ingredients artificially increases your metabolism. Of course they’re illegal now due to the ephedrine. Too many criminals were buying ephedrine products for the purpose of cooking meth.

In the late nineties and early two thousands you’d see these guys going into stores buying as many bottles of diet pills and cough medicines as the stores had in stock. Eventually people caught on, and stores selling ephedrine containing products began limiting sales to one or two products per customer. Criminals responded by shopping multiple store locations until they could accumulate enough product to cook a batch of meth. “Smurphing” is street term for shopping around for ephedrine.

Some of the pills I used to take still exist under the same brand name but the formulas are all different now. Mind you I wasn’t taking diet pills to lose weight, I just preferred them to ADHD medications. They helped me focus in college and allowed me to work late nights as a bartender. I got so used to taking them that sometimes I would wash down three or four pills with a sugar free Red Bull just before my shift. There were nights I’d wake up with my heart beating so hard it was shaking the bed.

My first panic attack occurred at age twenty nine, approximately ten years after my dependence on the diet pills began. After some quick research to confirm my own suspicions I stopped taking the pills. Cold Turkey. Apparently if you abuse caffeine in excess of two hundred milligrams a day you’re way more likely to develop panic disorder. Between the energy drinks and the pills I’d been taking in over a thousand milligrams of caffeine a day for ten years!

I anticipated my first caffeine free bar tending shift to be a nightmare but it wasn’t. Even though the shift lasted until four AM, I had no problem staying alert. There were other withdrawal symptoms though. What can only be described as an “ice pick” headache was my constant companion that night behind the bar, but my lack of exhaustion perplexed me. That is until I realized the benefits of the caffeine stopped working for me long before I’d stopped taking it. I didn’t need caffeine to work a late shift anymore because it hadn’t been helping me do that anyway. I just kept taking it past it’s usefulness because I liked the feeling it gave me. After that realization I didn’t touch caffeine again for a very long time.

Though they’re illegal to sell as one product, you can make your own ECA stacks by combining multiple over the counter products. It’s really simple. I know this because at forty I decided to do a bodybuilding competition. For accelerated fat loss my coaches advised me to take a combo of Vivarin (caffeine), baby aspirin, and Bronch-Aid (ephedrine) before my morning cardio sessions. That’s how you make your own ECA stack. I did it once but it made me feel dead inside to the point I wasn’t enjoying my workout anymore. Maybe it’s what I needed to get through college but not anymore. I stuck with just a small dose of caffeine before hitting the treadmill after that.

Meanwhile, my sugar addiction was always close by. It didn’t start before or after my other addictions, it ran concurrently with them. All through my twenties and thirties I used it to cope with life’s little stressors the same way I used the diet pills, and the cigarettes before that. You might think I have an addictive personality but don’t all of us? Isn’t the psychological side of addiction just feeling like you need something to cope? A little ritual to help you deal with the psychic pain of living a modern life? Many of my Crossfit clients have no problem with punishing themselves in the gym daily, or with giving up fast food for a healthier diet, but still they can’t manage to part with that glass of wine at the end of the work day. We all cope.

The point is, we all have our own addictions for our own reasons. We believe it’s the physical part of addiction that’s so dangerous and difficult to cure but it’s not. It’s the psychological component that gets us. The physical symptoms of sugar addiction will pass within a few weeks tops, but the psychological symptoms are what cause us to relapse. Those who read my blog know “The promised land” is my nickname for when I make it through those first ten days without sugar where the cravings and other physical symptoms of my disease disappear. Life gets much easier for me once I’m there. But I can’t count how many times I’ve been to “the promised land” only to relapse because of something as trivial as a schedule change, or a bad day at work. How do we win the psychological side of this war?

Lately I’ve been reading “Chasing The Scream” by Johann Hari. It’s about the drug war and how we view addiction. I agree with him that all our perceptions of addiction are flawed. In his book Johann talks about how the old experiments with rats in cages misled us into our current understanding of addiction. We used to put rats in cages with two water drips to choose from. One contained only water but the other contained water laced with cocaine. Predictably the rats would addict themselves to the cocaine drip and eventually overdose. This is how we began to understand addiction as a physical need we bring upon ourselves.

But there are new experiments which contradict this theory. When you run the same experiment in a rat park (a really fun environment for rats) they hardly touch the cocaine drip. Even if you put cocaine addicted rats into the rat park, they will quickly ween themselves off the cocaine drip. It’s not the presence of cocaine that makes these rats into addicts, it’s the cage.

To run a similar experiment on humans would be criminally irresponsible, but it’s already been done. We called it the Vietnam war. According to Johann Hari (and Time magazine) around twenty percent of service members in Vietnam became addicted to heroine during their deployment. It was such a widespread problem that politicians of the time warned of crime and the coming health crisis when all these “junkies” returned from the war. It never materialized. Only about five percent of soldiers kept using heroine, the same number that would have probably become drug addicts anyway.

War is a terrible cage to live in. In Vietnam, heroine was a way for our troops to cope with it. Once our soldiers were out of that situation, they no longer needed the heroine to get by. Similar to the rat experiments, they came home to a better cage. In order to be successful against sugar addiction in the long term, you must learn how to change your cage. In the next section I will teach you how to do that.

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One thought on “Chapter 5: Changing Your Cage”

  1. Just great. Your writing style is very entertaining while informative.
    I think this will be a book that you read and remember because of the personal stories you tell.

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