You are not just an emptiness that breathes and walks and eats…
The melting point of chocolate is the temperature of the human mouth. It’s one of those happy accidents in the universe, like the apparent sizes of the discs of the moon and sun being the same, so that total solar eclipses can even happen at all.
I cook my own drugs. I confess that raw concoctions, like the batter for my chocolate chocolate chip muffins, are often superlative to the finished product. It’s the way they coat your mouth. The sugar, fat, and salt are just merging. The baking soda and powder are starting to fizz. The whole chemical reaction is taking off, right there on your tongue, studded with solid cocoa pearls that immediately begin their surrender.
But you’ll get the jitters so quick. You’ve got to take the edge off, cut it with baking, or it’s too pure, too strong.
My dad doesn’t drink, but he has admitted to eating ice cream until he’s stupid. He and I have had this exact conversation.
“I mean, once you’ve eaten ten cookies, what’s the difference if you eat thirty?” That the answer is twenty cookies is both obvious, and not the point. The point is: once the damage is done, why quit?
Why quit, indeed?
Sugar is the gateway drug. It’s not the booze, the cigarettes, or even the marijuana that’s our first rush: it’s the Cocoa Krispies. It’s glucose, fructose, sucrose, dextrose: all carefully titrated by food chemists to achieve the bliss point that kids are especially susceptible to. The bliss point.
It’s how we were raised: sugar babies.
There’s an innocence associated with the –ose family of chemicals (perhaps unfairly distinct from the attitude afforded ethyl alcohol, which after all is the product of yeast getting blissed out on the sugar in grain). How many brave little kids got handed a lollipop at the doctor’s?
There’s also an association with celebration. I have a near-cellular memory of my first taste of black cherry soda, syrupy and fruity and a little spicy, poured into a tall glass instead of Pepsi during our family Friday pizza night, seared into my brain almost five decades later. I remember the first taste of a white chocolate Easter bunny, a sweet shock that melted like butter and lingered smooth on my tongue, and the bright yellow dress I was wearing. I remember the Welch’s grape soda accompanying a last-day-of-school lunch, and artificial grape flavor is still, in my opinion, one of the pinnacles of twentieth-century food chemistry, mostly for how delightfully recognizable it is despite tasting not one jot like any actual grape in history.
It’s also associated with the start of every single day, the first thing you do, a giant bowl of –ose doused in milk, and if you’re particularly lucky, the milk is chocolate by the time the cereal is gone.
(“Mom, can we get Cookie Crisp?”
“No, those are bad for you. Get the Sugar Smacks.”)
When we figured out we had sufficient agency to start the party early, my sister and I would sneak into the kitchen on Saturday mornings and, armed with spoons and insatiable cravings, we’d get into the sweet things behind cupboard doors. Sugars, syrups, cake mixes: down the hatch, raw, spoonful after spoonful. We once even tried the (clearly marked) unsweetened baking cocoa, in a fit of collective illiteracy and decadent ecstasy, and ended up coughing up clouds of bitter brown powder all over the kitchen floor, while trying desperately to keep it quiet enough not to wake up Mom. (We knew enough to be a little ashamed…)
One particularly hard 1930s winter, my grandfather, age still in the single digits, had to troop miles into town through a freshly-fallen Nor’easter to get the doctor. The family was all sick, except for him: botulism from home-canned tomatoes. The baby had already died.
There’s a bipolarity to parenting, speaking as someone who was too chickenshit to try it, who can only look in from the outside. Our parents want to protect us. But there’s also a hushed, (partially-)hidden resentment that we never endured the things that they’ve protected us from. Your generation is so soft, they don’t always say quite directly (but sometimes do, if impatience gets the better of them), eat your Cocoa Krispies and stop complaining.
(Do you remember your grandfather having to go get the doctor?)
Of course I remembered it. I’d wish with everything I had that it had never happened, because it filled me with dread. I’d think about him, alone and small and cold, plodding through the drifts because he was the only one who hadn’t eaten the tomatoes. I’d think about a house in the snow, cut off, with a dead baby inside. Nobody had ever said anything about the woman (my great-grandmother) who canned those tomatoes, about her grief and guilt, and I didn’t know how to ask, so she stayed a mystery.
Of course I knew how lucky we were, how far we’d come in just two generations, how our uniform rectangular boxes of assembly line food were perfect and pristine, absolutely antiseptic. It was almost unfair how lucky we were.
Sugar Smacks never killed a baby.
(At least not quickly.)
How we honor our ancestors, and the trauma we’ve inherited from them: clean our plates. There are no guarantees, there may not be enough. We venerate them when we feed ourselves. When we fill holes. When we flesh out our defenses. (It may not be for a hike through a storm to get the doctor, but you will need them…)
It’s funny to find out that the child now a half-century old still doesn’t quite always know how to feed herself.
Eat. Eat to taste, to experience, to ease stress, to comfort yourself like rocking with a thumb in your mouth (only the thumb tastes brilliant instead of like you’ve been playing in the dirt), to ward off boredom, to make yourself feel like you’re alive when there’s no one else around to confirm it, to fill the hole…
The hunger of a hole, and the understanding, especially for a woman, that she is a hole to be filled. The filling of the hole is the only thing that matters.
If you’re not hungry now, it doesn’t even matter. It’s a pre-emptive strike against the next ravening emptiness.
Is it really possible ever to be full? To ever stop seeking? To be satisfied?
But the important thing is this: never to let the hole get empty enough to see the shape of it.
Wanting to understand, I try mindfulness. So now I’m not mindlessly overeating. I’m mindfully overeating.
(Small victories are still welcome.)
I can study how it feels, this onslaught of self-medication.
It’s surprising but the best part is just the moment before it goes in your mouth. You’re about to get what you want, what you need, and it’s so easy. Just a little trip to the kitchen. It’s a perfect moment.
So few things can survive that level of urgent, desperate expectation, though. It doesn’t mean you’ll stop. There’s even a part of you that thinks, “Maybe this next bite… maybe this next bite.” It’s an inverted optimism born of chemical dependence. “Maybe this next bite…”
Even if it doesn’t live up to your tongue’s expectations, your body starts to feel it. Joints ache. Head aches. There’s a twinge between your legs that seems to indicate an incipient yeast infection, which makes you think you’ve even gone on such intense sugar binges that you’ve given yourself thrush, a yeast infection in the mouth. (Yeast loves sugar.)
You don’t sleep. There’s a static fizz in your brain that won’t quiet. Your stomach hurts, and you can’t get comfortable. None of your limbs seem to want to fold or straighten in a way that will allow you to lie down or curl up. Your bloated stomach is under your weight when you lie on your left; your transplant scar is kicking up a fuss when you lie on your right.
Your temper worsens; the smallest inconveniences become huge. (You yell at your dog. You snap at your mother. You do apologize to both—mindfulness—but it doesn’t change the fact that it happened in the first place.)
By any rubric, you’re drugged.
I note all of this, and think to myself, “This is so ridiculous. I did this to myself. I will do better tomorrow.”
And I believe it. Right up until tomorrow arrives.
And even standing in front of the pantry, with the door open, staring at the options (that I’ve said I’m not going to get when I go shopping, which I get anyway), I think, “you’re not going to do this” even as I’m reaching for the box of cookies.
It’s like my body is being piloted by someone else, via remote control.
It’s not always like that. Some days I can control it. But I always know: there will be a day, not too far off, when I can’t, or won’t, or some bizarre mix of those two things, can’t and won’t. Something that sounds like addiction.
“You need a sponsor.” It could have (and has countlessly) been a comment made to an alcoholic who can’t stop relapsing. This time, though, it was exactly what my friend, the addict’s widow, said to me when I told her about the feeling of being piloted from afar. About the other hunger.
I can justify this in any number of ways, or make excuses for it. It’s not like I’ve needed to borrow organs from anyone else, after all. It’s not like it’s going to shorten my life… (A matching set of diabetic grandmothers might beg to differ, if they were still alive.)
Honestly, though, if the universe were shaped just slightly differently (maybe one in which humans on earth have never seen the diamond ring right before the total eclipse), I could imagine a sullen, unreachable me, refusing all interventions, with bags of Lindt truffles underneath the bed instead of handles of vodka.
Three transplant anniversaries have come and gone now. The first, I reminded him. “Huh,” he said, and nothing else. We’d just started marriage counseling. The second, I didn’t remind him, because the divorce had just been finalized. The third, I forgot.
I remember, before and after the transplant, I was so sure that he would want to quit drinking. Now I think that is an incorrect framing. He’s being piloted from afar…
Maybe this is the birth of forgiveness. And if it’s for him, then it’s for me, too.
Maybe you can relate? Or maybe this helps you understand the alcohol addiction of your loved one just a little bit better. Either way, we’ve got room for you in our Echoes of Recovery program for the loved ones of alcoholics.