I awaken after yet another night of debauchery. A bag of Pepperidge Farm chocolate-filled Milano cookies, two sesame bagels with peanut butter, a bag of peanut M&M’s, a pint of mint chocolate chip, and cheese. Lots and lots of cheese. Real cheese, though. Not the fake Velveeta crap. I was raised in a health-food house. I avoid junk food.
In the fall of 1978, there’s little talk of eating disorders, but I know something is wrong. Nobody gets that I have a problem because I’m nowhere near fat. I’m also not anorexic. Nor am I bulimic. The only explanation for my thinness is my rocketspeed metabolism, my danceresque physique, and fasting after I binge. Plus I worry. A lot. That must burn a few calories.
I clench my jaw, swallowing repeatedly to squelch the wall of nausea that rises up the back of my head. My pupils pulsate, probably from all the fat, sugar, and shit lodged in my gut. I have a cramp in my lower right side, a pocket of pain that gurgles when I press down into it. It started after I left home three and a half years ago, at seventeen, and began sugar bingeing. The family doctor called it irritable bowel. He got that right. My bowels must be pissed off—and stingy, too, considering I only take a crap about once every two weeks. I don’t want to have to crap. It’s so menial. I don’t want to have to pull down my pants and see that subtle but developing roll of womanly gut and those slightly wider thighs that didn’t used to be there. I don’t want to have to sleep. Or breathe. Or chew. A chiropractor told me I was full of shit—literally—and sold me a can of volcanic-ash shake mix for twenty-five bucks. I never tried it. I’ll shit when I’m ready. People always say that people with eating problems have no willpower. I’m the willfullest fucker I know.
I tell myself I will quit bingeing when I get diabetes. I heard somewhere that diabetes makes you dizzy, so after a binge I always roll my eyes around inside my head to make myself dizzy so I can make sure it stops. Otherwise it might be diabetes. Of course, my biggest fear is cancer. At this time no one is talking about the cancer/sugar connection, but I have my suspicions. Or maybe I just go to the darkest place.
Actually, I don’t just go to the darkest place. I live there. I own real estate.
I should be happy. I’m living my dream, rooming in an old farm house and working with a professional mime troupe in a small New England town. Well . . . semi-professional. Everybody knows there’s no money in mime. My parents are supporting me. But I really should be happy. I chose to be here. I’ve already dropped out of two colleges, worked with three performing arts programs, lived in seven different cities, and only just turned twenty-one. For my birthday my mom sent me twenty-five dollars. Cash. I spent every dime on sugar. Before noon. Alone.
The only person who gets my problem is my sister Sarah. Fourteen months my elder, Sarah has always been my higher power. My heroine. As my Brooklynese father used to say, “If Sarah jumped owaf the Golden Gate Bridge, Leeser would follow.” It’s true. I would put her in a needle and shoot her into my arm if I could. Instead, I turn to sugar, and then to her to save me from it.
“I can’t stop bingeing!” I cry into the phone to my sister. She recently quit sugar under the guidance of a hardcore Japanese healer. He put her on a strict diet of brown rice and some putrid smelling medicinal teas, and her bladder infections disappeared. Not a granule of sugar has crossed her lips since. “The pain in my side won’t go away! I don’t know what to do!” Sarah tells me about a macrobiotic study house in Boston. She suggests that I check myself into sugar rehab so the food nazis can kick my ass and cure me. It will be macrobiotic lockdown. No white flour. No milk products. No animal fat. No caffeine. And no sugar. Those macros know sugar is the devil, even more than booze or cigarettes. It’s the ultimate yin. Meat is the ultimate yang. In the middle of the food scale is brown rice. Brown rice is like their god. Chew your rice, balance your diet, and you can solve any problem, cure any pain. Your lover just dumped you? You’re too yin. Eat root vegetables and red adzuki beans. Got a migraine? Too yang. Try stewed apples with barley malt. Got heartburn? Lost your job? Got a brain tumor? Find your balance. Chew your rice. Chew, chew, chew. As for me, I am yin incarnate. If there was a macrobiotic dictionary and you looked up “yin,” you’d see a picture of my face. A little frosting smeared on my lip.
It is lunchtime when I arrive in Beantown. Thank God. The sooner I get that miraculous macrobiotic food into me, the sooner I will find salvation. I lug my bags from the back of the cab and peer up at the austere, ivy-covered Tudor. Good. This is just what I need. A severe, sober setting where I’ll be forced to get my shit together. Or take a shit, with any luck.
I ring the bell and am greeted by Enid, a small, poker-faced gal with mousey-brown hair. She’s as warm as cold rice. “Hi,” I mutter. “I’m, um, Lisa?”
“I know that,” she says looking slightly disgusted. “We’re expecting you.”
“Oh . . . great!” I say reaching for my bags. She stops me and points to my feet.
“Remove your boots first,” she instructs. I learn it’s a house rule, to prevent tracking in dirty snow, along with the bad vibes of the civilian, omnivore world. I remove my boots and follow her through the dark, wood-paneled vestibule that spills into a large, dimly lit dining room. There, about a dozen sallow-faced, scrawny men and several beefier-looking women are seated on floor pillows around a long, low, Japanese-style dining table. There is no conversation. Just the steady sound of chewing, the occasional chopstick gently tapping the side of a bowl, and the sporadic smacking of lips.
Enid leads me to the end of the table where her husband, Marty, sits crossed-legged, chewing away. When I called to reserve a space in the house, I told Marty about the sugar and the side pain. He said he was sure macrobiotics could help. I hope he’s more welcoming than the wife. “This is Lisa,” she flatly states, then zombies off.
“Welcome!” Marty says and motions for me to sit across from him. “Please! Sit!” He reminds me of a younger version of my dad—only with hair. And enlightened. Taking my seat, I am amused by the juxtaposition of this gruff, frizzy-headed, obviously—I assume—ex-Brooklyn Jew sitting cross-legged, chomping open-mouthed on the allegedly sacred food. He should be eating bagels and lox, wiping cream cheese from his lip with the back of his sleeve.
Enid returns to slide an empty bowl and a pair of chopsticks before me and Marty gestures to the bountiful spread. “Please! Ga-head!” There are platters of brown rice, dark-red beans, and vegetables. Squash, to be exact. Green and yellow, steamy, watery squash, the gag-worthy legume I always feel pressured to savor as a vegetarian. I loathe squash. In fact, I can’t stand most vegetables. When you’re full of sugar, the last thing you want are vegetables. I wish I wanted to eat them, like my sister Sarah. If I eat like her, I think, maybe I can be like her. When she went vegetarian at age ten, I followed right behind. My mom took a vegetarian cooking class to accommodate us. My dad suffered through multiple lentil-cheddar loaves and carrot-raisin salads. “This health food is killing me!” he loved to say. He never recognized my vegetarianism. Sarah got all the credit. If we went out to dinner, he’d gloat to the waitress, “My dawter’s a vegetarian. It takes great discipline, you know.” I wanted to put my face in his and yell, “I’m a vegetarian too, you know! I have discipline, too! Love me, too!”
“What’s that?” I ask Marty, all sweet and innocent, pointing to a bowl of something stringy and black.
“That,” he says between lip smacks, “is seaweed. Have some!” I smile politely and fill my bowl with some rice and beans. Then I cautiously add a few chunks of the dreaded squash along with a spoonful of the slimy seaweed for good measure. I chopstick in a mouthful of rice, then immediately dig up another bite. Marty frantically waves his paw at me. “No, no! You gotta chew every bite forty times. Very important. Chewing your rice is everything.”
“Oh, okay, thanks.” I nod appreciatively, then take my next bite and start chewing. Folding my hands in my lap like a good macrobiotic girl, I mentally count . . . 1, 2, 3. Chewing steadily, I casually glance down the table, perusing the lineup of munching men for potential lovers . . . 9, 10, 11. It’s always a good motivation to eat healthy if there’s a cute guy to work towards . . . 15, 16, 17. But the men all look sort of feeble, staring down at their bowls, chewing away. Lots of spectacles and unkempt beards. One guy even has some rice stuck to his mustache . . . 23, 24. Fortunately the house has an open-door policy for macrobiotic travelers who are just passing through. My future soulmate could arrive at any moment.
By the time I get to 28, there is nothing solid left in my mouth to chew. I usually don’t even chew my food at all. So 28 is pretty darn good. I take another bite of rice, determined to make it to 40, and stick my chopsticks straight down into my food. “No!” Marty objects. “Never leave your sticks like that. The energy from the food will run up through the sticks and out into the universe.”
“Oh . . . sorry.” I quickly pluck them out.
“Always place your sticks on the table, facing in, towards you, so the energy will continue moving into you.”
I must be in bad shape, because this actually makes sense to me.
Time to try the beans. I do like beans. Especially baked beans in a can. Yum. But these beans don’t taste like that. These beans taste like dirt. And farts. Like dirty, muddy farts. That’s okay. This food is going to cure me. As I mix up my beans with my rice, Marty nails me again. “Don’t mix up your food. Keep each food separate. Mixed-up food means you have a mixed-up mind.”
“Okay.” I’m so glad he doesn’t know I’m already mixed up.
After lunch Enid leads me upstairs, where I meet my roommate, an eccentric seventyish earth mama named Jean with wispy, white locks and a slender, youthful figure. I didn’t see her at lunch. Maybe she’s on a special plan. Or maybe she’s one of those health food freaks who never really eats whole meals. They just nibble on shit all day, like a bird. Jean is seated at the corner of her futon surrounded by troughs of wheat grass. She is gnawing on a crust of bread so dense it could cause a concussion. She proudly holds the bread up for us to behold. “I just found this in the back of my van. It was there for six months. All I had to do was steam it. It’s da-licious.”
Jean clearly embraces a healthy existence. She actually wants to live. Good for her. It’s not that I don’t want to live. I mean, that’s why I’m here, right? I just don’t know how to live without chocolate.
My roommate is the first guest downstairs when the 5:45 a.m. gonnnnng summons everyone to group meditation. My sister Lauren, the Zen Buddhist, has been trying to get me to meditate to quiet my mind. But it’s five fucking forty-five in the morning. Why should we have to quiet our minds when we just woke up? Isn’t that what sleep is for? But maybe this is good. At this point, twenty-four sugar-free hours are all I have under my belt. Cookies, cake, and candy bounce off the walls of my brain. I sit crosslegged in the very back of the meditation room, in case I nod off. But the scent wafting from the kitchen intrigues me. Ommmmm—what’s that smelllll? Is that what I think it is? Why, it smells like chocolate-chip coooookies. It’s not cookies. In fact, it is oatmeal. The thick, pasty, steel-cut kind that sticks to your ribs. For years. And there’s more squash. Which people actually eat. For breakfast. At least it’s baked pumpkin squash, so it’s less watery. If I stick to the diet and never eat sugar again, I am sure I will learn to love squash, as well as all legumes. Not if. When. As long as I don’t leave the house and venture out into the world of evil yin, I’ll be safe.
Every day after breakfast there is . . . the preparation of lunch! Enid solicits kitchen volunteers. Helping out is part of the deal. I now have three whole sugar-free days. Three days. This is the longest I’ve abstained from sugar since I left home. But I’m getting antsy. I raise my hand to volunteer. It will keep me out of trouble. Besides, I want to be good. And there is so much to learn: Like, you don’t need to refrigerate cooked rice; you can just keep it in a bowl covered with a damp cloth for up to three days! If you cut carrot slices on the diagonal rather than straight across, every slice will have an even mix of yin and yang in every bite! Stewed pears with just a few drops of brown rice syrup will satisfy any sweet tooth! Yeah. Right.
Several other eager macro beavers and I watch as Enid picks up a kitchen knife that probably weighs more than her and irately whacks the stems off a bunch of giant green kale. We’re having shrubs for lunch. Excellent. She measures out several cups of brown rice so carefully you’d think it were Tiffany crystal. “One grain, ten thousand grains,” she says. In other words, don’t fuck with the rice. She pours the precious grain into a pressure cooker and hands it to me. “Fill this with water and then we’ll rinse it. Careful.” I am so nervous as I take the pot that my hand slips and I nearly drop the whole thing. She glares up at me like I am the yin devil. It’s amazing how someone half my size can make me feel so small.
“Sorry,” I say, grimacing exaggeratedly, then proceed to fill the pot, staring, mesmerized, at the faucet water as it flows over the multitude of treasured grain.
I want sugar. Now. Three days of pasty grains, beans, fartinducing cabbage, kale, and other cruciferous crudités have made my gut feel like an atomic bomb factory. If I swallowed a lit match, I’d blast to the moon. I wish I could fart, but I’m so blocked up even the farts can’t fi nd their way out. The only thing that will cut through my wall of gas and shit is sugar. Pure, unadulterated sugar.
Maybe a drop of brown rice syrup will do it. It’s worth a try. I’m too afraid of Enid, so I wait until we are done and the kitchen crew disbands. Once I am sure Enid has gone upstairs, I slip into the pantry. If anyone sees me I’ll just tell them I’m making notes on how to set up a proper macrobiotic pantry. In thirty seconds I manage to choke down two heaping tablespoonfuls of disgustingly sweet brown rice syrup. I grab the sesame tahini butter and spoon a big glob into my mouth, followed by another helping of the syrup, trying not to choke to death. The concoction gives me nowhere near the buzz I so desperately seek. I shouldn’t be here. What am I doing? I should be on stage. I need sugar. Real sugar. Just one last big splurge. Then I’ll be ready. No. Don’t do it. You’re three days clean. Yeah, but not really because I’m still overeating. Exercise. Yes. A brisk walk. Great idea. Who cares that it’s a hundred below zero? It’s been three days since I set foot outside. I don’t trust myself. There’s that liquor store at the bottom of the hill. We passed it my fi rst day in the taxi. I picture all the snacks displayed by the register. Why tempt myself? Just walk the other direction. No. I’ll be fine. I haven’t come this far just to blow it all on some cheap liquor store crap.
I bundle up and head out into the bitter-cold January afternoon. As I trot down the hill, I dig my hand deep into my pocket, and there it is. Probably about a buck fifty in change. I should have left it behind. But you should never leave home empty-handed, I’ve always thought. Especially in a strange city. What if something happens?
Indeed, something is happening. My feet have picked up speed and I am walking briskly down the hill. It’s freezing. Of course I’m walking fast. Four blocks ahead is the liquor store sign. I’ll just pop in to warm up. What if someone from the macro house sees me? Maybe they’ll think I’m an alcoholic. That’s better than being a sugar junkie. Even Michio Kushi, the almighty leader of the macrobiotic community, drinks whiskey and smokes like a chimney. He says if your diet is clean, you can do that. Too bad I’m not a drunk instead.
There are going to be Snickers bars. My gait quickens. Slow down, honey. Maybe I could just have one. Like a normal person. I break into a light jog. Am I really doing this? Doing what? I’m just getting some exercise, but I know full well the only thing that can pry off this serpent that is strangling me from within is sugar. As I bite into the milky smooth, chocolate coating, it will crack apart, giving way to a sleek strip of caramel just below the surface. I am running at full speed down the hill. Running to satisfy a raging sugar hard-on before I implode.
The liquor store electronic bell dings as I enter. And there they are, lined up neatly on the shelf just below the cash register. Hershey’s . . . Mars . . . Kit Kat . . . open wide for Chunky. Actually, my mother never allowed Chunky’s. Something about a rat hair.
Hallelujah. I have enough change for a Snickers and a Milky Way! I procure my goods and rush back out, holding off tearing into a wrapper until I am fully outside so the clerk won’t see me—just in case he knows someone at the macro house. He’d call up there and describe the crazy lady with the big nose and the dark hair who couldn’t even wait to open her candy until she was out the door.
My heart flutters. My mouth fills with drool. Rip goes the sleek, brown Milky Way paper. And there it is. All firm. All fine. All mine. My teeth settle into my first bite and at last, I am home. Ahhhhhhhhh . . . how I missed you. Your thick, smooth bed of chocolate, caramel, and pillow-soft nougat. Right here. Right now. This is everything I know and need and want. I could live inside this bite forever. I pull up my green parka hood to conceal my bulging cheeks from the passing cars, just in case any of the drivers are headed to the house. It’s like I’m having sex out in public. Like I’m walking down the street, screwing as I go.
By the time I reach the corner, I’ve demolished my Milky Way. I cross the street, head up the hill, and nearly smack into a light post as I look down to tear open my Snickers. This time I will try to chew each bite forty times. Or at least ten. Oh, fuck it. I’m two blocks away. I must demolish my contraband before returning to the house. I wish this joy would last. One last bite. So sad. I wish I had more cash so I could keep going. But I am broke. And freezing. And there is the macro house, just a block away. I lick my lips, wipe away the bits of chocolate, kick off my boots, and tear inside, running into Marty in the vestibule. “Cold out there, huh?” he asks.
“Y—yeah . . . it sure is!” I try not to let out any air when I speak so he won’t smell my breath. Try not to let him see my eyes in case they are sanpaku. That’s what the macros call it when somebody is imbalanced, like from drugs or booze or sugar. The eyes have more whites below the irises than above. Macrobiotic teacher George Ohsawa predicted the deaths of Marilyn Monroe and Robert Kennedy because, he said, they were sanpaku. He said Charles Manson has it, too. Keep your eyeballs even, Lisa. Keep them even.
“So, how’s it goin’? How you feelin’?” Marty asks.
“Pretty good,” I say. Because, actually, I do. Right now I feel fan-fucking-tastic.
“Well, you look good,” he says, nodding his head. I hope he’s not attracted to me. Enid would find out and she’d poison my beans for sure. But Marty repels me with those hairy arms and that angry New York accent. I’m afraid he’s going to start yelling at me, like my dad. I don’t know if it’s the sugar and caffeine from the chocolate kicking in, or if it’s my fear of being taken out by Enid, but a peristaltic wave rises in my gut. Thankfully Marty moves along so I can take legitimate refuge in the john. The eagle has landed.
Back in my room, my roommate, Jean, is meditating. I lay back on my futon and stare up at the cottage-cheese ceiling, trying not to let my arms touch my body just in case it is finally fat. I grab my journal and quickly record every morsel of food I consumed today. “One bowl of oatmeal, a baked apple, some pumpkin seeds, two pieces of rice bread with tahini, a bowl of miso soup, a bunch of noodles, five rice cakes with tahini, a bunch of brown rice sprinkled with seaweed salt, some cabbage, some carrots, a few big spoonfuls of tahini with brown rice syrup, an S and an M.” (That’s Snickers and Milky Way recorded in code, just in case.) I should write how I hate myself for falling off the wagon, how I hate my body, and how hopeless I feel that I will ever quit sugar. Instead, I write, “In a little while I will have a wonderful healthy dinner and I will attempt to chew my rice 40 times every mouthful. That will bring me back to center. I just want to be balanced and centered. I also want to start a movement theatre company and become famous for my solo theatre pieces and fall in love, but first I must stop eating sugar forever.”
I will never eat sugar again.
Excerpted from "My Confection: Odyssey of a Sugar Addict" (Beacon Press, 2016). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.