7p.m. Central Standard Time, just after dinner.
Taco-seasoned ground turkey, sweet potato, a few cups of steamed broccoli; the perfect recovery meal after a long work day and a hard workout in the gym. But before I can sleep, there’s one more trial to overcome. A final challenge from an enemy I know too well. It’s the nightly assault of the Sugar Demons.
I’ve fought this battle countless times before. If I can resist their temptations, I’ll sleep soundly, wake up refreshed, and tomorrow gets a little easier. But if I lose there are consequences. I wake up feeling tired, head unclear, my body struggling to get out of bed. Worst of all, the Sugar Demons get stronger and harder to resist.
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. It makes them hard to detect and harder to kill. They shine a spotlight on your negative emotions and suggest a solution in the most friendly, casual, innocent way. But the solution is always the same, always sinister.
“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 know what you need to do to make it go away, at least for a little while. A pint of ice cream would be my go-to delivery mechanism. I learned long ago not to keep any in the house. Sugar is a drug and when the drug is that close, the battle is already lost. Ridding your house of sugar is the first strike against the demons in what is to be a very long war.
But the enemy is patient. They have other ways of getting to you.
Their 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 who hide in your subconscious. In other words, you carry them with you. You carry them with you in the same place a heroin junkie carries his demons. Though sometimes I envy the heroin junkie. At least every friend, family member, coworker, TV commercial, sign, and billboard isn’t trying to feed his addiction. Is it not heresy to refuse a slice of cake at a your nieces’ bithday party? My demons are enabled by an entire culture.
So you empty your pantry of all sweets and you swear off desserts. Your efforts work, for a time. The demons’ hold upon you weakens. They get smaller, quieter. But 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. It waits for you to think it’s finally gone.
But they whisper…
“You are stressed.”
You know this trick. You’re capable of avoiding anything resembling a dessert. You’ve trained for this. You are stronger now. But you happen to be driving near a barbecue restaurant and realize you could totally go for some ribs right now. That will make you feel better. And ribs are protein, so technically it’s not cheating right? As you head home, still licking the barbecue sauce from your fingers, you feel as though you’ve made a decent compromise, but the Sugar Demons are feasting on the deceptively sugary sauce.
The next day, your defenses are down thanks to the choice you made yesterday. This time you have a sandwich, not even giving consideration to the fact that the refined carbohydrates in bread are basically just sugar. Later, you compromise again with tortilla chips and salsa from your favorite Mexican place. The day after that you give in once more with a fast food burger for the sake of convenience. As you continue to give in 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 Oreo’s 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, but the justifications are your own.
“I know I shouldn’t eat 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 demons don’t taunt. They’re far too sophisticated for that. They would never lower themselves to insults. But this kind of self-talk can easily take you down a dark path, where the demons lead and you always follow.
You learn you can never compromise with this enemy. You learn it the hard way.
But you’re a fighter. 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’ve heard the saying about idle hands. But they know eventually a weekend will come where you have nothing planned. 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.” 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 “boredom” is just another ambush to 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 and eat meals at regular times everyday, then it becomes easy to avoid the demons. Monday through Friday are a breeze, and when you keep busy on weekends, avoiding the demons becomes effortless. 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’re 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 successes over the past few weeks have made you stronger, but they have also made you arrogant. You think that if you give in, just for one day, just for the sake of convenience, you can get right back on track the next. Because you’ve got this. You are in control now.
But they whisper,
“You deserve a break.”
One day turns into six. Getting back on track the next day 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 leaves you vulnerable to the enemy. Vacations are especially problematic. Most importantly you learn that you are never as in control as you think you are. As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, “you are powerless over this.”
Over time, you realize the Sugar 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 ice cream to cheer you up when you were sad. Every birthday into adulthood was celebrated with cake. Every accomplishment, every great milestone in your life, was celebrated with sugar. Every tragedy was consoled by it. The pattern is simple: Need a reward? Have some sugar. Feeling a bit down? Have some sugar.
The reward center of your brain is directly linked to your emotional dependence on sugar, and the Sugar Demons have a direct line on your emotions. So you know that when you’re feeling sad, elated, bored, or stressed, the demons will come. That’s the predictable part of the disease.
You cannot fight them with logic. Otherwise, you could 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 valuable. With this knowledge you can form your own patterns, which 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. It’s your only chance.
So after I finish dinner, I prepare for the inevitable showdown. The demons love to come at this time of night. They tell me I’m stressed. It’s usually over something work related, something that must get done tomorrow or else. 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…