Sugar and Shopping — Salves for the Slave

Yesterday, I went to get ice cream, the pint-sized junky delights we can all easily find in almost any food store or gas station. I chose the ooey gooey version that has all the brownie, cookie dough, peanut butter goodness available. 

Wait, it gets better. 

It's not just the ice cream. There's a ritual involved. Once this bundle of goodness is safely home, I set it on the counter and take the lid off. Then I dig my favourite teaspoon out of the utensil drawer. Once armed and dangerous, I go to one of our various flatscreens and find some equally trashy entertainment. In this case, it was the first episode of Mr. Robot…a free dose of the series that ended up being better than I expected (Fight Club meets The Matrix).

Once I've arranged for the proper dosage of crap for two of my senses, I settle in and enjoy the manufactured experience. And I don’t get up until both have been consumed.

This ritual, though a behaviour I’ve had for years, feels different now. It used to be a bandaid I applied on a regular basis. I used to perform it at least once a month, along with other rituals that helped punctuate my days/weeks/months and make them more bearable. Now, it's an oddity—the exception and not the rule. In this case, it's been at least a year since my last "dose".

Here are some examples of my old daily rituals:

  • Venti latté for breakfast, with an extra shot (or coffee and a huge bran muffin)
  • Second coffee at around 9 or 10am when I’d come in early (almost always)
  • Sushi for lunch if it was a tough day
  • Junky internet news during lunch or shopping for trinkets
  • Dried fruit at 2-3pm, sometimes 2 servings (sometimes substituted for wine gums or a bran muffin)
  • Copious amounts of wine with dinner
  • Depending on the night, dinner could mean takeout (burger, chinese, sushi)
  • Some sort of dessert was always in order (ice cream, pie, chocolate)
  • Junky TV for the rest of the evening
  • Driving by default (Aside from walking to the concourse to get my food items throughout the day, I drove everywhere.)
Long hours at work put a premium on time and convenience. Those who can afford it buy prepared foods, restaurant meals, and takeout...[The overworked] relieve stress with three-day weekends at hotels, entertainment, massages, and vacations to get away from it all. Earning to buy turns into buying to keep earning.
— p. 103, The Overspent American by Juliet. B. Schor

Weekly rituals:

  • Eating out.
  • Mindlessly shopping for stuff I usually didn’t need.

Monthly rituals:

  • Looking for and/or planning the next getaway vacation.
  • Making or planning a larger purchase.
  • Getting expensive hair and nail treatments to help me feel better.

The result is that I looked like the crap I ate and managed to gain 20lbs. What 5’2” early 30-something woman wears size 12 and needs undereye concealer? What a mess I was!

My rituals, my personal salves, revolved around sugar and shopping for the most part. They were the soothers for my cranky inner child. They'd pacify me in frequent small and larger doses so that I could forge ahead and just get things done. And there was a lot to get done, along with a lot of pressure to accomplish it all.

Note: If you want to know more about the effects of sugar on the human body, the resources on the right can help. D. Gameau's book is an easier read (it's also a documentary) and G. Taubes's book is very informative (especially p. 545 where he lists the top 10 insights derived from his extensive research). As for why we shop, J. Schor's book is a good read.

A SaLve for the SLave

Amazing how one simple transposed letter transforms a word. We play with these transpositions and reversals all the time (the latest I know of is the iLived movie).

In this case, I think the two go hand in hand, and even more so in this, our modern age. Indeed, we're taught to self-medicate at an early age. Who hasn't heard a variant of "If you _______, you'll get _____. The carrots and the sticks are introduced early. And, unfortunately, the carrots are no better than the sticks in the long run.

[TV] yields relatively low satisfaction and is often used by adults as a way to unwind after a stressful and exhausting day at work.
— p. 166, The Overspent American by Juliet B. Schor
[C]onsumerism is so pervasive that ‘retail therapy’ is a response to just about any mood state or psychological problem. But it carries considerable risk. As with consumption of drugs, alcohol, and food, millions of Americans are experiencing spending control problems.
— p. 158, The Overspent American by Juliet B. Schor

I hardly come across anyone who feels like a wage slave who doesn’t have his or her drug(s) of choice. The potential list is long:

Antidepressant [like Prozac, the ‘Feel-Good Pill’] sales spiked from $2 billion in 1993 to more than $12 billion by 2001, prescribed increasingly by non-psychiatrists and for a wider array of conditions...
— p. 115, The Big Fix by Katharine Greider
  • Junk TV (yes, including the news)/movies/magazines/internet surfing
  • Junk food/caffeine
  • Social media/email/SMS (delivered "intravenously" thanks to smartphones)
  • Alcohol/nicotine/marijuana
  • Hard drugs (pills and powders)
  • Prescription drugs (pain killers, psychotropic)
  • Gaming (video, gambling)
  • Porn/strip clubs/recreational sex
  • Shopping (mall, online, TV)
  • Services* (doctor’s visits, self-help books and seminars)

*Many additional services and associations can be salves when used to excess or for the wrong reasons. 

SaLvation (aka “Escape”) for All

I managed to improve my lifestyle over time and I’ll spare you the recounting of that whole journey, save to say that today I don’t need to eat and buy sh*t to get through the day. I look forward to what I’m doing day in and day out. The activities themselves are the rewards. I don’t need all the "extras". 

I still enjoy good food and drink, but I don’t have to add the junk or finish the bottle. And I don’t feel like crap—mentally, physically and emotionally—when I do.

The big change didn’t happen overnight. It happened as I slowly woke up and realized what I was doing to myself. My progress ebbed and flowed, but I inched along, replacing poor choices with better ones. As the mix changed, my dependencies lessened and, more importantly, I started to notice to pay attention.

I became more aware of the triggers for my poor behaviour and tried to lessen or avoid them. I also became more aware of what my mind and my body needed, which is quite different from trying to stay numb so that I didn’t have to listen. This growing awareness started to snowball and the changes became material. Swaps became more frequent:

  • Move or sleep instead of eating junk or drinking too much.
  • Walk or bike instead of driving.
  • Play or train instead of shopping.
  • Talk with and relate to others instead of watching TV.
  • Create or educate myself instead of shopping.
  • Enjoy what I have instead of accumulating more.

When I do go for the sugar, the TV, the extra glass, it’s the exception and not the rule anymore. These activities aren't a salve anymore. They’re like the sprinkles on top. They’re a treat that enhances fun as opposed to a necessity that makes it all bearable.

I don’t have the perfect recipe—aren’t we all just a work in progress after all? What I do know is that reducing and removing my unfulfilling coping mechanisms made me able to start listening to what my gut was telling me about how I feel about my life, about how I live my days. It helped me turn up the volume on my inner voice—my gut—and lower the volume on external cues, pressures and expectations. 

I just hope I keep listening and learning what helps me live a better life, not escape it.