It’s 7pm. I’ve just had dinner. Ground turkey, a sweet potato, a few cups of steamed broccoli, the perfect amount of nutrients to help me recover from a long work day and a heavy training session in the gym. But before I can sleep, there’s one more trial to overcome. It’s the nightly assault of the sugar demons.
Having fought this battle many times already, I know the consequences. If I win, I sleep soundly, wake up refreshed, and tomorrow it gets easier. If I lose I wake up with a tired, unclear mind, my body suffers and struggles to get out of bed. Worst of all, the sugar demons get stronger, harder to kill.
If I continue losing, I risk falling into a death spiral of weight gain and depression. The sugar leads to weight gain, the weight gain leads to depression, and the demons feed on depression. In turn this leads to binge after binge, more weight gain, more bad feelings and so on and so forth. This pattern must be avoided at all costs.
But they whisper….
Not with words mind you. My demons communicate through feelings. That makes them hard to detect. And harder to kill. They feed feelings to you the way a friend comes up behind you at a party and puts a hand on your shoulder to let you know he’s there without interrupting your conversation. Casual, respectful, but sinister in this regard.
“You are stressed.” they whisper.
Stress is their favorite weapon. It’s the one I’m most likely to cave to. Although “bored’ works well enough on occasion. You recognize the feeling and you know what you need to make it go away, at least for a while.
A pint of ice cream would be my go-to delivery mechanism. I learned long ago not to keep any in my house. If the drug is that close, then the battle is already over. Ridding your house of sugar is the first strike in what is to be a very, very long war.
But the enemy is patient, and they have other ways of getting to you.
The next trick will be allowing you to think sugar itself is the enemy. It is not. Sugar is just a series of atoms linked together, mostly carbon and hydrogen. Hence the term “carbohydrate”.
Sugar is just a chemical fact. Sugar demons on the other hand are destructive creatures that hide in your subconscious. In other words, you carry them with you. You carry them in your brain in the same place a heroin junkie carries his demons. But sometimes I envy the heroin junkie. At least every friend, family member, coworker, TV commercial, sign, and billboard isn’t trying to give him heroin. My demons are enabled by an entire culture.
So you empty your cupboards of all sweets and you swear off desserts. It works, for a time. The demon’s hold on you weakens. They get smaller, quieter. They wait. The enemy is patient. It waits until you sort of forget that sugar lives in bread, and pasta, and alcohol, and other processed foods. It waits for you to forget your triggers. You think it’s finally gone.
But they whisper…
“You are stressed.”
You know what this is. You are capable of avoiding anything resembling a dessert. You’ve trained for this. You are stronger now.
But you happen to be near a barbecue restaurant, and realize you could totally go for some ribs right now. That will make you feel better. And it’s not technically cheating. As you head home, still licking the sweet sauce from your fingers, you feel as though you’ve made a decent compromise.
The next day it’s easier to compromise with a bready sandwich. Later the tortilla chips and salsa from your favorite Mexican place. The day after that you give in again with fast food for the sake of convenience. As you compromise the demons grow in size and strength. The feelings they feed you are stronger, the impulse to indulge unshakable.
Finally you end up grabbing a package of Oreos during your weekly grocery. It falls into your cart with zero resistance. Once it’s there you have second thoughts about it, but you’re already rationalizing. The demons communicate with feelings, the rationalizations come from you.
“I know I shouldn’t be doing this, but I’ll get right back on track tomorrow.”
Five days later you’re sitting in front of the TV eating a pint of Haagen Das with another back-up pint in the freezer.
That’s your own voice. The demon doesn’t taunt. It’s far to sophisticated. It would never lower itself to insults. But this kind of self talk can easily take you to a dark place, where the demons lead and you always follow.
You learn that you cannot compromise with this enemy. You learn it the hard way.
But you’re a fighter. A former Golden Gloves boxer. You have trophies and medals out the ass to remind you. So you get back to meal prepping. You get back on a schedule. You resolve to fight harder this time. You keep busy because you know what they say about idle hands. But they know eventually a weekend will come where you have nothing to do. Nothing to occupy your time.
The attack will come on a day when your healthy meals are already prepared in neat little Tupperware containers. There is no junk food in the house. The battle is in your favor.
But they whisper…
“You are bored.”
With a long day of Netflix in front of you, you think “Maybe I should grab some trail mix or something while I watch TV.” And that small compromise is enough to put you back on the slippery slope to overindulgence. By the afternoon you will have progressed to potato chips, and from there, probably cookies.
You learn that “boredom” is just another ambush you must watch out for.
So you start over. You begin the fight again. Your resolve is stronger this time. You know yourself better. You know that if you keep to a regular schedule; work, go to the gym, eat meals at the same time everyday, then it is easy to avoid the demons. Monday through Friday are a breeze, and when you keep busy on weekends you’re successful. You keep to this pattern for a few weeks and are once again in control.
It feels amazing.
The demons cannot stand against you when you are strong like this. So they wait. They wait for a gap in your defenses. Inevitably you give them one, because life is not meant to be lived on a schedule all the time. You take a vacation, or you come down with a head cold, or some social engagement breaks your pattern, leaving you without the time or the energy to meal prep.
Your success over the past few weeks has made you stronger but it has also made you arrogant. You think that if you give in just for one day, just for convenience, you can get right back on track the next. Because you have this. You are in control now.
But they whisper…
“You are magnificent.”
One day turns into six. Getting back on track is never a given. You learn this lesson over and over again. You learn that anything interrupting your schedule, anything that breaks your pattern of behavior, is a weapon in the hands of the enemy. Vacations are especially problematic. And you learn that you are never as in control as you think you are. As they say in AA, you are powerless over this.
Over time, you learn that the demons have patterns as well. They were born of patterns. Before you were old enough to speak your parents rewarded good behavior with candy and other sugary treats. They gave you sugar to cheer you up if you were sad. Every birthday into adulthood was celebrated with sugar. Every accomplishment, every great milestone in your life, was celebrated with sugar. Every tragedy was consoled by it.
The reward center of your brain is directly linked to your emotional dependence on sugar, and the sugar demons have a direct line to your emotions. So you know that when you are feeling sad, or elated, or bored, or stressed, that is when the demons will come. That’s the predictable part of the disease.
You cannot fight them with logic. Otherwise you would just say “This is bad for me so I’m gonna turn it off.” Obviously, this has no effect on the demons except perhaps to amuse them. But knowing when and how they will strike is a valuable. With that knowledge you can form your own patterns that allow you to resist. Keep sugar out of the house, never compromise, stick to a schedule, stay active; these are your weapons. And for god’s sake keep learning how they fight. That’s your only chance.
So after I finish my dinner, I prepare for the inevitable showdown. The demons love to come this time of night. They tell me that I’m stressed about something that needs to get done tomorrow. It’s a hollow feeling. Like I’m empty even though I just ate. I’ve been here so many times now. I know how to resist. I know how to win this fight. I will win this fight.
But they whisper…