Sugar is not my friend.
I know this, I know this, I KNOW THIS, and if I have any doubts whatsoever, I need only touch my tender, itchy skin.
And yet this afternoon I ate a cannoli, half a Napoleon, something that looked like a ball of meringue but was crunchy amaretto instead, two coconut cookies with rasberry jam, and finally, another Napoleon.
I am not writing about this occurrence in order to guilt trip shame myself. I’m just confused, and I want to understand.
Nearly ten months ago I found out that if I stopped eating sugar, dairy, and gluten, my chronically itchy skin would stop causing me pain. At the time I made this discovery, I was in a great deal of discomfort.
I’ve had eczema most of my life. When I was a child it was severe, but after I hit adolescence the rash faded to an annoyance. A persistent patch here and there, but nothing I couldn’t easily endure or ignore. And then came last summer. Suddenly, at age twenty-nine, I was overcome with an outbreak that rivaled the eruptions of my childhood.
The itching was relentless, and my scratching as destructive as it was unstoppable. Nighttime was torture. I tried wearing gloves, wearing socks over gloves, wrapping fabric and bandages mummy-style over my hands–anything to keep me from tearing up my skin as I slept. Nothing worked. Each morning I woke to freshly clawed wounds; no matter how short I cut my nails or how hard I tried to confine them, my unconscious hands found a way to do damage.
Then I stopped being able to sleep. Instead, I’d sit up for hours, scratching and worrying, experiencing flashbacks of long, lonely nights and futile frustration. In a way, I was grateful to be reliving my youth. I hadn’t realized how bad things had been, and connecting to the suffering of my younger self allowed me to show up with compassion, to heal distress that had not been acknowledged. It made me want to take action as an adult, to help her/me in a way I couldn’t before.
Having long ago maxed out the (in)effectiveness of steroid creams, I decided to try something different. I visited a friend who is a healer, and I surrendered my inflamed self into her care. Entirely desperate, I was willing to try whatever she suggested.
I immediately changed my diet. No sugar, no dairy, no gluten. No coffee, no chocolate. No chicken, no shrimp. No onions, no garlic, no spices; nothing raw, nothing frozen. I ate eggs, cucumbers, walnuts, apples. Salmon, quinoa, and kale. Hot lemon water in the morning, berries once a day, steamed arugula as much as I could manage.
I got better. The new diet, and my friend’s unique approach to acupuncture, was working. Two weeks into the treatment plan, I slept through the night for the first time. A month after that, my skin had almost completely cleared.
And then I started to slip. A bowl of lobster bisque at a wedding. Some gluten-free gingersnaps at Thanksgiving. A few buttermilk bacon pecan pralines at a holiday party. As the new year progressed, I coasted along a gradual slope of occasional indulgence…that turned into a freefall.
Coffee became a daily habit. A couple weeks ago I had a Twix bar for lunch two days in a row, followed by a Friday breakfast of bagels and cream cheese and a Saturday night milk shake with a generous helping of cookies. I had a friend in town, and when we got groceries, I encouraged her to put shortbread biscuits with chocolate medallions in the cart and added ice cream sandwiches. When she asked about my restricted diet, I waved her off.
I knew I was pushing my limits, eating whatever and dismissing the consequences. I figured I’d get back on track eventually, but I was waiting for a sign.
I thought the sign would be jeans that were too tight, or a belly unfit for a bathing suit. And I’m sure those indicators are en route. But what showed up first were welts. All along my torso, my chest, and under my arms. Not quite as bad as last summer, but close enough to remind me where I’ve been. The itching is back too. I woke up scratching the other night.
“Food is either medicine or poison,” my friend told me last fall, and I know that she is right. I’m back to hot lemon water in the mornings, and steering clear of coffee and chocolate and everything else I’m not supposed to have. Last night I baked sugar-free, dairy-free, gluten-free muffins.
And today I ate a truckload of Italian pastries.
People change at the pace of pain. I’ve heard that before, and it seems to be true for me. Apparently I’m hurting enough to buy better groceries, but not so much that I can pass up free sweets.
I pray for patience and compassion; there is no place for shame. It is too easy to say, “What were you thinking, eating those desserts! You know better—and it’s not like you had one cookie. Have you no self-control? Do you not care that you’re harming your health?”
It is a little harder, but not hard, to say, “Oh hon, oh dear. I feel sad that you did that, but I understand. Sugar is not your friend, but I know how it pretends. I know it was very tough to resist that unexpected temptation. Yes, you lost control, and I know you feel bad. But you are making progress. Next time can be different.”
I ate a lot of sugar this afternoon, but I also passed up pizza at lunchtime, and instead splurged on carrot-celery-apple-ginger-beet juice to go with my arugula and walnuts and eggs. I am making progress. Next time can be different.