For much of my life, I was addicted to sugar. Sugar was my drug, mother, comfort, and refuge. It’s how I escaped from anxiety, uncomfortable feelings, conflict, and fear.
I’ve spent many years unraveling the many tangles – physical, emotional and spiritual – that kept me addicted to sugar and bingeing out of control.
It’s a map to unravel the tangles. Maps are helpful. So are fellow travelers walking the same path. As someone who’s walked through sugar addiction, I’d like to help you. I want to put you at ease about what’s “normal” and what to expect – both now and up ahead. I hope you can rest assured that you’re right where you need to be, that your feelings are common and shared by everyone, and that, most importantly, you can heal.
Stage One: Healing the physical body
When I committed to giving up sugar, at first, it was all about me. This will probably be true for you, as well.
Your health is a top priority during those first few months. You’re working hard to stabilize your blood sugar, soothe the brain (in particular neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine and endorphins) and eat whole, unprocessed foods that nourish rather than deplete the body.
This physical work lays the foundation for the emotional and spiritual work that is to come.
During this time, your new habits (and eventually, if you so chose, a sugar abstinence) are like a new plant that needs watering, care and protection from the elements. You are that caretaker, so it makes sense that a lot of your time is focused on nurturing this new growth.
What to do during this stage:
- Practice patience. It takes time, practice and effort to create new habits and behaviors.
- It will pass. Over time – thank goodness – that effort diminishes. You don’t have to think so much about your new routines, because, well, they’ve become routine.
- During this stage, you focus a lot on yourself – your needs, your feelings, your physical health – even though healing yourself also benefits those around you. It’s okay and normal. You’re not selfish; you’re more internally focused. It’s okay – it will pass.
- Get support. You literally rewire the brain when you learn new ways of thinking, behaving and acting. Again, it takes time. Consider reaching out to loved ones and friends for support. They can help you reach for the best when you’re not able to make the leap on your own. This is the beauty and brilliance of sponsors – we all need to lean on someone.
- If you’re looking for a specific place to start with my work, I suggest using my book, Overcoming Sugar Addiction, for support during stage one. Then move to Emerge, an audio program that uses compassion, gentleness and self kindness to shift painful habits with sugar.
How we get stuck:
The challenge with overcoming an addiction is that it’s easy to get stuck in stage one. We think it’s all about the physical structure, the food itself, and we don’t move on. We can become obsessive about food – as fixated about not eating sugar as we’d once been about eating it.
The solution isn’t to go back to eating sugar, but to move onto stage two. How do you know when you’re ready to move out of stage one? When you start to feel like you deserve praise for your healthy eating, when you become obsessive about healthy eating, or when you start to feel like a plant that has outgrown its pot. Restlessness can be a sign as well.
Stage Two: Healing the emotional body
After a solid physical foundation is laid – let’s say you’re eating regular meals, you’re not eating sugar; you have regular rhythms of self-care in place – what often comes up next are the emotional needs that are underneath the food. You’re taking your process deeper. You aren’t so physically challenged to stay off of sugar (thanks to your physical healing), so you have some breathing room: space where you can begin healing the wounds that create the desire for sugar.
Something inside recognizes that you can handle “more.” This is often when buried feelings, needs and emotions that were once suppressed underneath the food come out to play.
This stage can feel completely overwhelming. It’s often when things get very, very, very messy and it feels like life is falling apart. In my life, this time period also coincided with huge slips back into sugar.
Stage two, frankly, can be intimidating. It takes courage to face our wounds, to feel them, to mourn them, and to let them go. And yet stage two is even more rewarding than stage one – because you’re healing yourself as you heal your sugar addiction. This feels much better than merely applying a band aid (sugar abstinence) to the problem.
What to do during this stage:
- Know it will pass. Keep going. We often feel like when it’s messy, it’s hopeless; that we’ve erased all our progress and healing. This stage will pass – and when it does, it feels really, really good because you’ve taken your healing to a much, much deeper level. You’re healing the roots of addiction in this stage.
- No judgment. We can feel horribly guilty in this stage. Here we are with all this progress and emotional awareness, and we’re back in the sugar! What gives? I’d like to reassure you with: It’s a necessary part of the journey. You’re not doing anything wrong; it’s simply that the tangles are coming up to be healed.
- Keep your grounding. Keep doing the things that support the physical body and help you feel nourished, strong and rooted.
- Practice kindness. Try and be kind to yourself and focus on growth and learning rather than appearances – how you look or even how you’re eating.
- Get support. (A common theme!) Processing emotional wounding is done best in relationship, with a caring, compassionate witness. You can serve as this compassionate witness for yourself, but because we’re social beings, it feels very healing to have someone else alongside us to show care and empathy.
How we get stuck:
We don’t like doing emotional work because we’re often terrified that if we open that door, we’ll get sucked in. This can happen. In my experience, the more I reacted to my feelings the more I got stuck in them. By contrast, truly feeling my feelings – which usually means feeling the grief and fear under all the other emotions – and offering them compassion is what fostered the healing. I was less emotionally reactive, not more.
We can also get stuck in compassion. We can equate healing with false acceptance or neglect; doing nothing. In other words, “I’m hurting, I want to care for the hurt and be done.” And yet we’re asking ourselves to heal the wounds *and* grow. To change what we can change – to shift beliefs, behaviors, patterns and more. Whew.
Stage Three: Integration – inner and outer freedom
Stage three is where you move on; where you stop focusing on sugar and food and live your life. It’s taking the physical healing you found in stage one, adding in the emotional healing you found in stage two, and integrating them into something more powerful than the sum of its parts.
If you lost your sugar abstinence, gained weight, or had things falling apart in stage two, this is where you get it back. But you’ve “gotten” it at a very deep level. You’re now able to align your behavior with your deepest intentions and values – which goes way beyond will power, vanity, or control. You move from awareness – this is what I am currently doing – into intention – this is what I’d like to be doing – and into action – this is what I can do. What I am doing.
It’s being able to say, “Yep, a part of me wants to eat that sugar and a part of me doesn’t.” You accept these conflicting desires as normal and not something to control. At the same time, your ability to respond with wise discrimination – how do I want to be in this world? How do I want to treat my body? My needs and feelings? My soul? What kind of relationship do I want to have with sugar? – grows.
You’re living out your deepest values in your daily life. Your food choices arise from love, reverence, care, deep listening, and more instead of fear, anxiety, control or “ego.”
What to do during this stage:
- Celebrate. If you’re in the summer of your growth – full of life and bounty – honor this. Give back. Help someone else. Thank yourself for your willingness to learn and grow.
- Play. Don’t take this journey too seriously. Rest and play are necessary. We especially need seasons of rest after periods of intense growth.
- Ritualize what you’ve learned. I think any ritual that can “mark” the growth we’ve experienced can help cement it in the unconscious. Simply sharing what you’ve learned – either to yourself by writing in a journal or by blogging or sharing with others – is a great first step.
- Recognize that this isn’t the end. It’s just one stage of the cycle. Enjoy this part of the journey, even while recognizing that it’s not permanent.
How we get stuck:
Stage 3 feels really, really good. When I’m in stage 3, everything’s working. We want to do everything we can to stay here. And then…life shows up in its impermanent, messy way. We leave stage three and go back to stage one or two. But take heart – going back to stage one or two is not going back to the beginning.
Traveling the circle
As you journey through stage one, stage two, and stage three, you’ll see that these stages aren’t linear, but cyclical. For example, when you’re going through a challenging or stressful time, you may need to return to stage one, where you are more vigilant about your sugar abstinence in the face of external stressors. (For many people, this includes the holidays, big life changes like moves, new jobs, new babies, illness, separations/divorces/marriages/new relationships, and money stress.) During these times, give yourself deep structure, support and care in order to navigate this rocky terrain.
If you’ve been in stage 3 and move back to stage one, don’t look at this as a sign of “failure” or moving backwards, but as a sign that you’re in a different cycle. Don’t judge the stage you’re in. They’re all valuable; they’re all necessary.
For example, this year has been one of tremendous change and financial challenge for me – two buttons that historically, have sent me diving into sugar and food. In fact, I even slipped up and went back to raisins – my favorite sugar treat. I used this as a learning opportunity, as a wake-up call that pretending to be in stage 3 when I was really back in stage one will only lead to a raisin binge. Honesty – and humility – are crucial.
Going back to stage one or stage two is actually a sign of growth. It’s a sign that things that you’d kept blocked or under the surface are now rising, ready to be processed, like shrapnel coming to the surface of the skin. Welcome these times. Welcome the relief that this processing will bring you. Treat them as one more cycle of exploration, one more revolution around the axis of sugar, where you push your edge and probe deeper into beliefs and painful patterns. You’ll remove more kinks and blocks and find greater healing – if you don’t resist them.
As you go through your healing from sugar addiction, you will find yourself progressing around and around these cycles. If you accept this as a natural part of the growth process, you can even learn to enjoy those moments of growth, even as they may also be painful.
What stage do you find yourself in, with regards to sugar? And, more importantly, where do you want to go? How can you use your journey with sugar as a pathway for growth, as a rabbit hole into new ways of living in the world, opening your heart to a world that needs your unique gifts?
For more support in freeing yourself from sugar addiction, start by reading my book, Overcoming Sugar Addiction. Learn how to put what you learned into practice in the Emerge, an audio program that uses gentleness, kindness and compassion to change painful sugar habits.
So beautiful, Karly! I totally needed this. Thank you!
Wow, This is what I needed to hear right here right now!! Thank you!!
I overcame my sugar addiction, too, but only after I found out there was a biochemical (i.e. biological) reason for it. It's a bonafide side effect to having a condition called sugar sensitivity and I, and thousands of others worldwide, have benefitted from knowing this and finding out exactly how and why sugar affects us differently. Check out http://www.radiantrecovery.com to investigate. I really related to your post as I, too, was full of self-loathing and tried so many times to get off the sugar train. I was completely exhausted, depressed and hopeless when I finally found the answer. I think you would really appreciate having this background to go along with your healing so far.
Kathleen's work was a godsend for me. It was the first book I read, years and years ago, when I was trying to understand why I would eat sugar until I was physically sick.
I recommend Potatoes not Prozac to everyone I know who is sugar sensitive – including all the ladies of First Ourselves!
Like you, I am sugar sensitive. Sugar abstinence is the only way that I am able to find peace – it is not a food I can eat in moderation.
And yet the only way I have been able to maintain my sugar abstinence is by making it more than just a physical gift to myself. The only way I have been able to maintain my sugar abstinence is by tying it to my spiritual purpose. And that takes me through the cycles I described in this post here.
If you work for Kathleen, please give her my kudos. I am so grateful for her work.
Very nice site!
I LOVE the idea of practicing with a "dedication", and I wished it were a more common practice. Not only does it force us to get out of ourselves and think of others, but working for something other than ourselves is actually a key to survival and success. If anyone here has read Viktor Frankl's book "Man's Search for Meaning", you may recall the story on how he talked two men out of committing suicide while at Auschwitz. One he reminded that he still had research to publish and no one else could do it. The other he reminded of his child who had already escaped to another country and was waiting for him.
You are so welcome, Lynn. I am glad this was helpful to you. XOXO, Karly
Thank you for writing. I love reading your inspiring posts in the forums. Thank you for being a part of First Ourselves. XOXO, Karly
Thank you Chris. "Man's Search for Meaning" is an excellent book – I haven't read it in years but think it would be a good choice to reread. I hope to make it to one of your yoga classes the next time I am in San Diego.
I'm about to start my journey of freeing myself from sugar addiction. This site has given me great tips, advice and inspiration- thank you!
(P.s- I'm kind of scared for the whole becoming grumpy and moody part, anyone have advice?)
I just discovered your site and I love your approach, openness and wisdom. I value life designers who use their own experience as a way to give back and enhance the lives of others. You've truly done that for me. I'm totally in Stage 1 and while I'm pretty certain that I don't want to completely give up sugar, I'm also certain that I want to have a more respectable relationship with it that honors my body and emotions. I love the part where you emphasize that this process is circular and meeting Stage 1 & 2 again are mere reflections that there is more to uproot.
What a great name – Food Relationship Coach! I love your name as my work has been greatly influenced by the idea of relationship – how we relate to our own hearts, to food, to others, to life, to our needs, to our many selves, and more.
What kind of relationship do we have with the difficulties in our lives? With pain? With food stuff? Those are some of the questions I love to explore. It sounds like you do too.
Welcome – I'm so glad you found us! I'd love to learn more about your path and share this journey with you.
In reading through the posts here, and browsing around this site….I feel like I have finally found my “home.” I have tried for YEARS to explain this response to sugar to anyone who would listen. I’ve been through every single possible “diet program” on the planet. The only ones that have ever worked have been those that reduce or eliminate sugar, ie, OA Grey Sheet, Atkins, SouthBeach, Medifast, Low-Carb.
BUT—none of these “programs” has enabled me to keep any weight off. The minute I “pick up” sugar in any form, I’m in a downward spiral of bingeing, dieting, bingeing.
This site offers me such hope. I’ve live much of my adult life in condemnation because I could not “get control” over this.
I recently returned to Weight Watchers. When I looked at my pantry two days ago and saw that I had stocked it (and the freezer!) with sugary low-points products, I KNEW that I was not on the right path. I’ve been edgy and battling terribly with the cravings.
Yesterday morning, I made the decision to “do” low-carb again and give away all the WW sugary treats.
BUT, today I found this site and will begin a NEW journey, one that seems to be written for ME! I see myself in every single paragraph of the “ten steps to break your sugar addiction.” Every word in your section on the “Three Stages” seemed to be written with my name on it.
I’ll be downloading or purchasing the book….and I will try to be “gentle” with myself. It would appear that God has opened a door for me to FINALLY find some healing in this very wounded and painful part of my life.
I am looking forward to the journey.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
You are so welcome. I feel so happy that you've found a place where you feel seen, heard and understood – where you know you're not alone.
It's my hope that the encouragement you'll find here will help you create a loving, caring relationship with yourself, full of the support and structures that you need to thrive.
My wish for you is that you may trust your goodness as you lovingly care for your body. May we all remember that we are so much more than a number, a size, a sensitivity, or a food plan.
In love, Karly
I am so grateful for your site. I have also been battling this addiction and driving myself insane trying to quit for 3 years now, I have a chronic illness that sugar also makes worse and I think actually had a part in causing, and you would think that would make it easier to quit, but its not when you are truly addicted. I fell off the wagon a few days ago and the binge lasted till last night and today is day 1 again of detox and I am so so tired. The detox from sugar is hard for me, I get very tired, joint pain, and my autoimmune disorder gets worse. I look forward to coming to your blog, in my times of stress..FINALLY SOMEONE WHO GETS IT! Thank you!
I am so happy that you feel understood, that you can rest in our compassion and support here at First Ourselves. Thank you for being so real and vulnerable and sharing your story with us here.
I admire your courage, perserverance and strength. I believe you can heal and find freedom, because I see this goodness in you.
In love and support, Karly
I would love to know how your sugar free life is going almost a year later. I too love sugar and eat dessert instead of my main meal for breakfast, lunch AND dinner. Sometimes eating so much sugar that I can't move. Are you still w/o sugar? do you allow yourself to eat dessert once in a while? I would love to hear how you are. Colleen
Sound advice. I dimly intuited much of what you say during my own, on-going struggle to control a severe and life-long sugar addiction. The genesis was, as you suggest, a childhood coping mechanism gone awry. Sugar was and is a 'placebo' against anxiety, fear and emotional discomfort. Others sought solace in grass, heroin or liqor. I reached for the white powder. And do and do. Two days ago, after a week of abstinence, I broke down and am still in the midst of a monumental binge. This morning I got up at 7am to eat a box of chocolate. I know that stress factors in my life provoke the addiction and am trying to 'stay calm and carry on.' Hard, though.