I’ve been thinking about this painting by Lee Price a lot lately:
I gave up eating sugar about 5 years ago, about the time that I was taking my comps in grad school and just before my divorce. Prior to doing so, from the ages of about 16-33, I spent my days on a sugar-fueled roller coaster of self medication. My drug of choice: pastries. But not just any old pastries. Secret pastries. Stolen sour cream cake donuts in my mother’s bathroom. Safeway cream-filled eclairs in my car. Chocolate filled croissants on the streets of Grenoble. Plastic containers of a birthday cake someone forgot to pick up from Fred Meyers. Of course, I loved other baked desserts and snacks as well… Cookies (a Keebler Elf Treehouse full of them while watching movies in the dark). Ice cream. Brownies. Even warm French bread with a slab of cold butter and strawberry preserves could temporarily fill void left by all my repressed anxiety, fear, and self-loathing. And everything tasted better in secret, as though escaping from the sight and judgement of others were symbolic of the escape from my own judgement and the self-knowledge I was trying to avoid.
But one can only keep a demon contained for so long. And it was perhaps the stress of grad school exams, or the impending failure of my marriage, or the difficulty of raising two kids in an isolated rural town in Alaska with no family or friends to help me, or the combination of all three that made me suddenly hyper aware of the fact that I was overweight and malnourished due to the fact that I was eating almost nothing with any nutritional value on any given day. I’d given up sugar once or twice before, but I knew this time I would have to get serious about it because my demons were about to make themselves known whether I liked it or not. I knew they were coming, and I would either meet them with my back turned and a face full of donuts, or I could stop the secretive binging and meet them mano-a-mano with a level head.
A good deal of time has passed now, and I was lucky and surprised by the fact that when I gave up sugar (and white flour) altogether, after a few weeks, my cravings were much easier to deal with. The emotional stuff only got harder, but I knew that was going to happen anyways. I knew eventually that all I had been hiding from myself and everyone around me was going to come to the surface and that there would be hell to pay when it happened, and it was true. It’s still true. I’ll always have to deal with my tendency to hide, to run away, to ignore my sometimes very powerful feelings about being human and living with and loving other humans. A good friend of mine told me recently “You have a LOT of feelings, Madara.” And that’s true. My emotional being is large, complex, and intense. It is, for lack of a better term, a demon.
I don’t mean “demon” in the biblical sense. I mean it in the Campbellian sense. For those of you not familiar with the scholar Joseph Campbell, you are no doubt a fan of his work if you’ve ever enjoyed a superhero movie from the last thirty years. His interviews with Bill Moyers, collectively known as The Power of Myth, were, during these painful years, both an impetus for change and a balm on my suffering. A quote from Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces became like a mantra for me:
We have only to follow the thread of the hero path, and where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence. And where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.
I listened to The Power of Myth religiously in my car for nearly a year. There were six cassette tapes and they became like a catechism for me. A question would rise in my head, and like a guide, the memory of Campbell’s voice would respond. In that way, I began to fear less what was coming from my own interior, and to love more the outward life that I was living; even though my marriage was falling apart, and my kids were hurting, and I had no idea how I would learn to support myself outwardly. It was, to date, the most painful and powerful transformation I have ever been through.
But do we ever “defeat” a demon, or do we simply learn to live with it? My demon is not a secret sugar binging problem, is a feeling avoiding problem. Current events in my life are revealing yet again, how powerful my emotions can be and how necessary it is for me to face them with compassion, awareness, and patience.
These recent events, which involve the well being of my family, are compelling me to seek comfort. Right after the inciting event (I’m avoiding details because of the parties involved) I was shocked to see, spread before my imaginative eyes, visions of sugar plums dancing in my head. Ok, they weren’t plums; they were my old friends Doughnut and Bear Claw. I was standing in the kitchen of my workplace, in the light of the returning Alaska sun, watching dust particles float in a sunbeam, praying and hoping for a solution to my problems, and Doughnut and Bear Claw appeared before me and promised that they could help. They were very nice about it, like a mustachioed man in a white van saying all I had to do was climb inside and he’d give me some candy.
There were pineapple crunch bars on the table. They looked really good. There was a crumb in the dish, off to the side, a remnant that some other employee forgot. I picked it up and tasted it. It was, as you can imagine, delicious. I thought about Doughnut. I thought about Bear Claw. I thought about the paintings by Lee Price. I thought about all of the secrecy and shame and desperation I was feeling, and I decided, like Lee Price, to tell someone how horrible I felt. I decided to expose myself. To show my desperation, if not to the world, at least to one other person. In doing that I discovered, yet again, that real people, especially those who love me, are far better at providing comfort than sugar binging in the dark.