Dear Sugar (C12H22O11),
We’ve had a good run, not quite half a century together, longer than many marriages. I thought that by reaching for you when I felt blissful and blue, I proved my devotion to you. It never crossed my mind that you were a parasite who never reciprocated. Your complex molecule has romped, if not rampaged, through my bloodstream, so much so that I confused your chemical antics with my own emotions.
Sugar, I fell hard for you in 1971, when I was four. Then, my family lived in Mexico City during my father’s sabbatical year; it was an affordable place to feed me and my two brothers on a partial salary. But the tap water was as dangerous as the living was cheap; my parents boiled agua scrupulously to avoid dysentery. When I went to nursery school, my mother forbade me from eating anything homemade shared by other students, in case it came from a careless kitchen. That included a birthday cake shaped like a racing car, proudly delivered to the classroom on a foil covered tray, its thick red frosting tempting me like a siren. After lunch, I sat helplessly as the teacher sliced and served it to everyone but me and one other girl. My lips quivered with envy and outrage as the other kids, oblivious to food-borne illness, gobbled it up. As the room emptied for recess, I saw a kid toss the rest of his lunch, including a partially eaten yellow Twinkie, into the trash. The Twinkie was not homemade, therefore fair game. And it was only fair that I eat dessert, too.
The girl and I hung back as the others filed outdoors. Coast clear, we reached into the garbage to scavenge the nearly intact snack. An observer might have mistaken us for urchins, not daughters of professionals. My face burned hot as I swallowed the spongy cake and licked the sticky white creme from my fingers. Did that moment forever link shame with pleasure in my psyche? I can’t be sure. What I do know, Sugar, is that I have never stooped that low since, even for a man. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder and, in your case, Sugar, this was true. My cravings for you only intensified since my parents effectively banned your tastiest, most highly processed forms like a controlled substance. It didn’t matter that they bought ice cream and cake for birthdays and celebrations. During the “famines”, the desert-like stretches between special occasions, I opened and shut the well-stocked refrigerator several times a day, seeking but not finding anything to ease my particular hunger. Sugar, you were the only one who could soothe my soul.
As an older kid, I milked Halloween. I didn’t care that the holiday represented the lifting of the veil between the living and the dead; it was a periodic lifting of our household’s junk food embargo. Costumes were not valuable in their own right but a means to an end, a ruse for stockpiling sweets from unsuspecting neighbors. As I hit my teens, Sugar, I brazenly trick-or-treated with a pillowcase rather than a small, hollow plastic pumpkin, so I could get more of you. Afterwards, I curated my loot, deciding what to keep (Hershey’s, Nestle’s, Snickers, Milky Ways, Mr. Goodbar and Kit Kats) and what to barter (Charleston Chews, Butterfingers) with my brothers. Like commodity brokers, we executed trades on my bedroom floor. Finally, I divided my stash amongst my closet, a storage cubby and a dresser drawer, my form of diversification. There was always the risk I’d lose candy to a snooping sibling or one of their friends. One year I stretched my supply until May.
Sugar, did you ever savor me as carefully, and treasure me as vigilantly, as I did you?
Growing up, my tastes in you changed. By my early 20s, Hershey’s reminded me of cocoa flavored wax, so I graduated to Godiva. After college, I lived in Budapest, and for my birthday my father shipped me one of their two-tiered gold ballotins. I considered sharing what was probably a pound of sickening gooeyness but thought again. I stuffed my face and surfed Godiva’s sucrose waves, savoring the highs and enduring the lows, the foggy brain and dull focus, until my next fix. Later I developed a crush on Swiss made Toblerone and its triangular shape. Designed to be broken off one section a time, Toblerone allowed me to feign restraint and feminine daintiness. When I tired of its chewiness, I cozied up to Lindt, another Swiss brand. Those chocolates melted in my mouth allowing my eager bloodstream to absorb you, Sugar, even faster. In my late-20s a doting suitor and fellow foodie plied me with deluxe treats, including Leonida’s chocolate from Belgium, deliciously packaged in fine paper. We both believed he was courting me but, in hindsight, was he simply a high-end candy man catering to, and compensating for, my serotonin deficiency? That I was hooked on sweets and other delicacies made it all the more difficult to unhook myself from him once I realized I was not in love.
Aren’t you a little remorseful, Sugar, at how much you complicated everything?
They say growing up means becoming responsible for all aspects of one’s life. After ending that relationship I realized I couldn’t count on others to supply me with sugar. I’d have to buy it myself. I don’t remember every single tart, brownie, chocolate bar, and ice cream that I devoured in subsequent years only that, around these things, I had lost control, unable to resuscitate my teenage discipline. Serving sizes were either an insult or a joke. Like a magician, I could make a pint of Ben & Jerry’s or a box of Entenmann’s cheese danish disappear. For years, my metabolism kept pace. My belly never ballooned, my skin did not erupt in pimples, nor did my teeth decay. Since I didn’t purge, I didn’t think I had a problem, just a personality quirk, even though my mood traversed the unpredictable path of a pinball. Still, the intense pleasure of you, Sugar, was worth being yanked upwards and then dragged down and around. I served as your willing marionette, even though as puppeteer you were pathetic, repeating the same moves.
Damn it, Sugar!
Don’t you remember that I remained loyal when others ditched you for Sweet’n Low, Nutrasweet, and Splenda? I trusted you, not those odd spellings and even odder compounds. I loved that you were all natural, the real deal, with no crazy additives or aftertaste. And the only thing that came close to rivaling my affection for you was bargains. I drifted up and down grocery aisles, eyes darting as I scanned for the yellow signs that meant you, in the form of organic, free-trade chocolate bars, imported cookies or locally crafted gelato, were on sale. I swooned at you through countless bakery windows, drawn to your many incarnations that all seemed to be calling my name. Chocolate croissants, especially, whispered, “Come hither.” Rarely did I resist. Sugar, no matter your form, I had been committed to ingesting you, unwilling to accept that you, celebrated and ubiquitous, were depleting and not enhancing my energy.
In recent years, weary of being jerked around by swinging moods, I periodically tried to distance myself from you. Quitting you cold turkey felt extreme, given our long history, not to mention awkward and impractical as you and I are invited to the same gatherings. I invented rules to keep you from getting under my skin, my variation on a restraining order. No sweets in my living space, I decreed. Like a savvy attorney, I circumvented the letter of the law and scarfed Chocolove bars in the car, just outside my apartment. Next, I rationed. I limited sugary purchases, only to polish them off and buy more. Then, I rationalized. Since I did not smoke, drink, or eat meat, I convinced myself that consuming you, Sugar, was benign. I bargained with the Universe, believing I deserved at least one ingestible vice. Sometimes, disgusted by my lack of self-discipline, I fed partially-eaten pies or frozen desserts to the disposal, aware that if I tossed them into the trash my inner child might reach in and rescue them.
Perhaps I am equally a glutton for punishment as sweets, because it took until this past summer to get fed up with half measures and commit to divorcing you, Sugar. I wanted less drama in my life. I craved a calmer brain so that I could focus on who, exactly, lives in the body I’ve been given. With heaping tablespoonfuls of evidence accumulating that you are toxic, I could no longer turn a blind eye to your shenanigans. Still, despite my desire to walk away, I found myself, like a programmed robot, scanning the sale signs for bargain brownies and cheaper chocolate. My love of a deal and for you, Sugar, continued to conspire against me. That I had already stopped consuming alcohol and red meat did not make leaving you any easier. Each failed attempt to ditch you fueled self-blame; I didn’t understand why awareness and knowledge were insufficient to extricate myself from your biochemical grip.
I sought professional help.
Lying on my back after an acupuncture session, I listened as my wise healer offered to insert tiny needles, attached to small patches, into my ears, that I’d wear for a week or more. The needles, she said, would disrupt my fight-or-flight response, killing my cravings. Skeptical, I hesitated. Stubborn, I still wanted to believe that willpower alone would enable me to walk away from you, Sugar. The acupuncturist, whose voice was gentle enough to soothe an addict in the throes of detox, said she had seen these patches help heroin users.
“Let’s do it,” I said.
The patches bestowed superpowers. In supermarkets, I marched past pies, cakes and cookies without the slightest twinge of longing. Candy displays might as well have been canned beans, such was my indifference to the bright wrappers. Finally immune to your charms, dearest Sugar, I could look you in the eye and say, “No.” In the three weeks I wore the patches, I pored over The Mood Cure and implemented its regime of high protein, supplements and amino acids, its exactitude rivaling that of Jewish dietary law. I welcomed fatty ghee and coconut oil into my cupboard. Butter and eggs became allies again. With my new eyeglasses, I scrutinized labels to see how many grams of you, Sugar, were hiding in plain sight, often in odd places, like salad dressing. Letting you slink back into my life under the promise of “gluten free”, “all natural” or “organic” was out of the question. Sugar, despite decades of lusting and pining after you, my taste buds quickly adjusted to your absence. The fear of living without you had been far worse than the reality of it.
Still, our protracted entanglement taught me one thing: humility. I can’t pretend to be superior to alcoholics and meth users, to chain smokers and pill poppers. That I tried to fill my emptiness with something outside myself, even if it came dressed in artsy European labels, recyclable packaging and ribbon-bedecked boxes, meant I was no different from abusers of other substances, socially acceptable or not. Thanks to you, Sugar, I will never again say to anyone who struggles with an addiction or unhealthy habit, “Why don’t you just quit?” It’s not so simple.
To know that I will never again lick every last bit of a chocolate pot de crème, melt maple sugar candy on my tongue or tuck into tiramisu fills me with a wistful melancholy. Many memories may recede even more rapidly without you, Sugar, to jog them. But, this time, I refuse to look back. I trust that life will be even sweeter without you.