What is a time of joy for many women was my darkest hour.
This week it was strongly recommended that I give up what are pretty much my only two vices: diet soda and sugarless gum. Trace amounts of blood and bacteria in my last two urine samples, plus a series of traveling, wincing pains in my back and side, seem to indicate that I have kidney stones and a mild infection. (This is the third in a string of illnesses; I am also recovering from shingles and Lyme disease. Yeah, life’s sucked pretty hard lately.)
“Do you drink a lot of diet soda, or eat a lot of things with artificial sweeteners?” was the first thing the doctor asked when she arrived at her diagnosis. “Because those can promote poor kidney function, and kidney stones.”
Honestly, I’ve got the diet soda thing under control now. After many years of just pounding that rat poison, I now limit my consumption to one a day, usually either Boylan’s Diet Cane Cola, or Stewart’s diet cola, which I get from a Stewart’s Shop down the block from where I live. It takes self-control, and every now and then I break my own rule, and go for two -- maybe even three, especially when I’m hurtling toward a deadline.
Sometimes, though, I just get so disgusted with the stuff -- and I think about Gilda Radner quipping somewhere that all the Tab she guzzled is what gave her ovarian cancer -- that I go cold turkey and live without it for months at a time.
But my sugarless gum chewing? That is just off the charts. I chew SO MUCH GUM. As in, Trident Bubble is pretty much my main staple, and has been…oh…since I was a sophomore in high school (we’re talking 1980/81, and then it was mostly Care Free Bubble), when I first got into the business of starving myself. I’ve never, ever tried to curtail it.
I chain chew, going through 18-pack after 18-pack, sometimes two or three in a day, especially when I’m feeling particularly emotional, or writing on deadline. My desk is almost always strewn with wrappers. It’s almost as if I’m a smoker, except instead of inhaling tar and nicotine, I’m chewing on a rubbery glob filled with chemicals, which tastes and smells like a nail salon. I chew until I’ve sucked out and swallowed all the toxic chemicals, and then I quickly pop another piece into my mouth -- well, two…as long as I’m confessing here, I’ll admit that I chew two at a time.
I don’t really even like the taste. Actually, I don’t think I even like it a little. I seem to be addicted to it, to that initial burst of chemical-y sweetness, and what is probably an attendant spike in my blood sugar. The chain chewing doesn’t feel good, but it has come to feel necessary. Every time I stuff a new couple of pieces in my mouth, there’s a part of me that stands to the side in disbelief, shakes her head and says, “Really?” She thinks, “This HAS to be doing something bad to me.”
Clearly as vices go, I could be into much worse things. But I have never felt terribly good about my soda swilling and gum chomping -- not from a health standpoint, nor regarding, like, manners. And although some cursory Googling turns up mixed results about any correlation between artificial sweeteners and kidney issues, I’ve decided to take this as the wake-up call I’ve needed for a good long time.
Even if those sickly-sweet artificial sweeteners in soda and gum aren’t the cause of my kidney issues right now, there are other good reasons for me to give them up.
The biggest? I’m not consuming that shit because I like it. I’m a SLAVE to it, because it distracts me from my hunger, and numbs the connection between me and my appetite. This is one of the last vestiges of an eating disorder I battled in my late teens and early 20s. (I was mostly anorexic for long stretches of time. Thanks to a mortal fear of vomiting , I didn’t show much promise as a bulimic.)
Drinking fizzy diet soda makes my stomach feel full. And constantly chewing gum keeps my mouth occupied, so I don’t feel the need to put anything else in it. The bursts of flavor trick my body into thinking it’s just received some sort of nourishment.
The gum also perpetuates a long-standing oral fixation that pre-dates any conscious effort to lose weight or stay thin. I was a pretty committed thumb-sucker until I was six. There are photos of me with a bright red, fungus-encrusted thumb. I remember my father sitting me down and trying to reason with me. “Well, if you’re not going to stop,” he said, “can I at least get you to switch thumbs?”
Here’s why I need to quit: I want to no longer be a slave to gross, toxic, non-caloric or low-caloric foods that my body probably doesn’t even know how to process. And even more than that, I want to no longer be a slave to my need to always be thin. I care way too much about that, even though in theory, I believe that doesn’t matter. I’ve relaxed about it a little in recent years, but to some degree, that shallow, unhealthy concern is still always with me.
As a teen, I starved myself because I hated my body -- my full, Sephardic tush, my growing breasts, my cellulite dimpled thighs. When I look back at photos from then, I see that my perspective was warped -- completely dysmorphic. I was tiny, even before I starved myself.
In recent years, I’ve gotten new, more realistic perspective on my body. I’ve made peace with it and even come to like it. I eat pretty healthily, although there is always a running tabulation of how much I’ve consumed each day.
And I have some weird food rituals and rules, such as, I eat one square of chocolate, and only one, each day.
On the rare occasions I let myself eat whole desserts, I prefer to do so at 3 or 4 in the afternoon, which I’m not full from another meal. Any time I feel too full, I freak out. I exercise every day -- mostly hiking, and not excessively -- but on the rare occasions when I have to skip my daily calorie-burning -- because I’m sick, or my schedule won’t allow for it -- I get upset with myself and obsess about when I’ll get to do it next. I stand backward on the scale at the doctor’s office and never let them tell me my weight.
These habits aren’t too terrible. Who’s to say what’s disordered eating and what’s prudent mindfulness in our weight-obsessed culture? I remember coming home from college in the mid-eighties, starting to eat like a normal person again, and discovering that many of the adults who’d been so concerned with my eating issues were now on something called The Cambridge Diet, a precursor to Slim Fast. People who’d been lecturing me about not getting enough nourishment were now getting all theirs from these shakes, with pretty much the nutritional value of a Tic Tac.
I’m not starving myself anymore, but there remains a pre-occupation with thinness that doesn’t feel entirely sane, and which has been making me ignore my instincts about putting potentially harmful shit in my mouth again and again and again, all day, every day.
I am still so afraid of gaining weight, and I really want to finally give up that concern. I want to direct my brain toward better uses. Giving up the weight-maintenance crutches of diet soda and sugarless gum is helping me bring much needed awareness to that. But it’s going to be a challenge. So don’t be surprised if the next time you see me, I’m sucking my thumb.