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I had never liked the word “chocoholic,” a cutesy back-formation that brought to mind the comic strip Cathy. But it was the only word available for my condition.
I had just consumed, in less than 24 hours, an entire bag of fun-sized candy bars that I had bought to hand out to trick-or-treaters. I had literally stolen candy from children.
I didn’t have an eating disorder; I didn’t binge and purge, and I didn’t stuff them all down my gullet in one gluttonous sitting. Instead I pocketed one here, two there, a few for the road, a few more for dessert, and finally a few more simply because a few more were all that remained in the bag.
The empty bag and the crumpled pile of brown paper wrappers mocked me, evidence of my utter lack of self-mastery. What was wrong with me? I clearly needed help.
I’d had a pretty serious sweet tooth for most of my life, pretty much from the moment I realized the universe contained candy.
As a small child, I’d been forbidden to eat any kind of processed sugar at all. My mother, who wrote a monthly column for a major health-food magazine, regularly schlepped me to Cup O’ Sun, the local hippie-granola food co-op. She bought me carob chips and organic fruit leather and told me these items were “treats.” Actual candy simply wasn’t in my purview until the fateful day my grandmother came to visit.
Grandma bought me a package of Reese’s peanut butter cups, and I can truly say that purchase represented a major turning point in my young existence. I can recall the gossamer feel of the orange paper in which the candy was wrapped. (The company has since replaced that paper with plastic, which offers a far less satisfying consumer experience. But I digress.) I can remember the slant of weak Montana sunshine in the parking lot of the shopping center where the purchase had been made. I can taste the waxy milk chocolate and the just-sweet-enough peanut butter filling.
I’d had no inkling that anything so sublime existed. It would become a primary mission in my life to acquire more candy.
With the birth of my sister, my mother no longer made much effort to subdue my sweet tooth. She happily traded candy for child care assistance, and chocolate chips became a staple in our pantry. I learned to bake cookies and brownies, greedily licking the batter from bowls and beaters. I was a tireless trick-or-treater, hitting every house within miles. And, once I became old enough to earn my own money through babysitting and part-time jobs, I bought myself some kind of sweet every day.
I didn’t have a problem. I just had a slightly out-of-control sweet tooth. At least that’s what I told myself until that fateful Halloween night when I faced the fact that eating a full bag of candy in a day was neither normal nor acceptable.
I decided to see if I could go for a week without eating chocolate. If I could live chocolate-free for a week, I reasoned, I couldn’t really be addicted to the stuff. And if I could go for a week without chocolate the week after Halloween, when everyone would be bringing leftover candy to the office, it surely meant I was capable of controlling myself.
Another major occasion occurred during that first week without chocolate: my birthday. I turned 22 on November 4 and, unlike other birthdays, this one passed by without a chocolate cake.
“I’m trying to cut back on chocolate,” I explained to my bewildered family and friends. They shrugged, bought me a lemon cake, and didn’t give the matter further thought.
It represented a major achievement for me, though. I could walk past chocolate! I could say “No, thanks,” to chocolate! I could try new kinds of cake!
At the end of the week, I decided to see if I could do without chocolate for a whole month. I removed all chocolate from the house, leaving it on a table at the office. The month passed, then another month, then a year.
I found, as time went on, that I had no problems being around chocolate. I made chocolate desserts for others and kept a dish of candy on my desk at work. Because I knew I wasn’t going to eat any, I simply wasn’t tempted.
As the years passed, I occasionally made deals with myself. If you go to Yosemite and do a big-wall climb, you can take one piece of chocolate in your backpack and eat it to celebrate when you top out, I told myself during an obsessive rock-climbing period. If you marry Jeff, you can have a slice of chocolate wedding cake, I told myself when I was in a long-term relationship that looked like it might end in marriage. And when I moved to Portland to pursue a job at a company I particularly wanted to work for, I told myself, If you get a job at that company, you can celebrate by eating chocolate.
I didn’t expect to land a job at the company in question. Everyone wanted to work there, and it was notoriously difficult to get a foot in the door. I’d submitted literally dozens of applications for jobs for which I was overqualified, and I’d never even gotten a “No, thanks” email in response.
But thanks to a referral from a friend of a friend, I found myself receiving a phone call one afternoon in late February: “We’d like to offer you the position. Can you start Monday?”
“Yes,” I replied. “Yes.” I was in downtown Portland, standing in the entryway to a store to get out of the rain and the street noise. “Thank you. Of course. Thank you so much.”
When the call ended, I meandered to the grocery store and bought one Cadbury egg, paying for it in the U-Scan line. Standing outside in a fine mist of rain, I peeled back the foil wrapper and took my first bite of chocolate in 12 years. It was delicious—as good as the peanut butter cup my grandmother had bought me when I was five years old.
Walking home, I ate the egg in tiny bites, closing my eyes with pleasure.
I’m able to control myself now. I no longer consume whole bags of Halloween candy, nor do I feel compelled to eat chocolate simply because it’s in the house. Since that day, I’ve occasionally given up chocolate for Lent, or during a marathon training cycle, but I’ve never given it up for a long stretch. It’s just too good. It still boggles my mind that I made it 12 whole years.
I guess I am a recovered chocoholic.