I am addicted to diet Pepsi.
I hesitate to confess this for a number of reasons. One, because it’s so embarrassing. If I’m going to be addicted to something it would be so much better if it was alcohol or drugs because that’s what the cool kids are hooked on, you know? Famous writers, rock stars, filmmakers, people who wear tattoos well, those who can mix patterns with abandon and carry off flowy fabrics without looking fat (like all the models in a Free People catalog, for example) – none of them are coming out in public with their horrifying, life-threatening story of their total and undeniable subservience to a carbonated beverage without calories. Mary Karr, one of my favorite writers, has told the story of her alcoholism so eloquently, with so much depth, insight and humor in her wonderful book, Lit. Somehow I can’t imagine it would have had the same…gravitas…if it had been called Fizzed.
I also don’t really want to admit to this out loud, in a blog five or six people may actually read, because the next time one of those people sees me with a diet Pepsi bottle in my hand, they will look at me across the room and they will know. They will know this isn’t just a casual, occasional thing with me. They will know that I can’t handle it, that I am completely out of control.
During Lent this year I’m not drinking diet Pepsi and I hate, hate, hate it. Every time I’ve tried to give up diet Pepsi I’ve hated it. And I’ve tried before, believe me. For health reasons certainly. There’s a lot that’s been written about the possible adverse health effects…though not much proven, one way or another, honestly. But needless to say, pouring massive amounts of chemicals into my body everyday, seems like it just might possibly not be good for me.
But I am also mostly doing it because diet Pepsi has gotten a little too important to me. It’s one of the things that I look forward to in my day, it’s what I use to reward myself for getting out of bed in the morning, it’s what’s been helping me keep it together at work, not screaming or crying, or walking out the door and into oncoming traffic. It’s my go to, it’s my sweetness, when I’m sad or bored or angry, or happy, or afraid, it’s what I drink when I’m anxious about my children who are off in college and starting their lives without me, or, at least with a lot less of me. It’s my solace when I think about the losses in my life. It often feels like it’s what’s standing between me and going totally friggin nuts.
If not my best friend, it’s certainly in the top three.
Unfortunately, I’ve been needing that friend to the tune of about 2 liters a day.
So yeah, it’s kind of an addiction, my goofy little joke addiction, though lately I’ve been hearing that the aspartame in diet drinks actually is physically addictive on the same level as alcohol and drugs. In a study with women who drank water sweetened with sugar or sweetener, they couldn’t taste the difference in their mouths, but their brains were doing a much bigger happy dance when they had the sugar. The author of the study, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California San Diego, seems to believe that diet soda could be addicting because “artificial sweeteners have positive reinforcing effects – meaning humans will work for it, like for other foods, alcohol and even drugs of abuse.” Which essentially means, the sweetness of a diet Pepsi is not satisfying enough, so when you have one, your brain suggests, ever so nicely that you get more, have another, please, and I’m not kidding, as the brains of an alcoholic might ask for another scotch, or a drug addict, just a tad more meth, thank you very much.
But come on…I tell myself…unlike the more serious stuff that I could be addicted to, it’s not really obviously screwing up my life, is it? And no one really cares about or thinks very badly of me for doing it, at least not to my face…
Yet sometimes I care. Sometimes I wonder what I’m missing. By holding on to my 20 oz. diet Pepsi, what am I not able to grasp? When I’m sucking down that fizzy refreshment, what else am I trying to swallow?
A couple nights ago I was at a Taizé service, in a beautiful candlelit church in Austin, Texas. Taizé, for those who aren’t familiar, is an ecumenical monastic order from France, which started in 1940 to bring people together to encourage them to live in simplicity and community. Their main mission is reconciliation, bringing together disparate groups, ideologies, beliefs, nations, races. Their worship is made up of singing simple songs, a scripture reading, silence and prayer, and each year over 100,000 young people make pilgrimages to their monastery in France to join them in worship and service. The monks also take their show on the road throughout the year, to locations on every continent. This weekend they are holding a retreat in Austin, which my daughter Zoe is attending while on her spring break. Gary and I came down here with her…we aren’t allowed in the full retreat (you have to be under 30 to participate) but we are going to some of the worship times, which are open to the public.
I am not a total Taizé groupie like Gary and Zoe are. These services for them seem to be like taking a deep breath when you haven’t had one in a very long time, when you’d almost forgotten how much air there actually was available to you. For me…well, imagine a starving mouse you’ve just overloaded with caffeine and put at the starting line of a maze where the aroma of cheese is pervasive, overpowering, and all the little mouse wants to do is run, run like the wind and get to the friggin gouda, but then you force the mouse to stay in the candlelit starting line area singing lovely little songs over and over and over again, and you tell the mouse to just pray and be still and take in the silence, and to look for the cheese…inside of them.
But Friday night, in the midst of my forced march of silence, it came to me that diet Pepsi is the artificial sweetening of my LIFE. It is what I take in because I’m afraid to ask for the real thing, for the stuff that might actually be satisfying to me. For someone to listen and understand when I’m sad or lonely or angry. For work that challenges me and encourages me when I’m what I’m doing feels boring and meaningless, for respect when I feel dismissed. For time to rest when I’m running around trying to get everything done, for reassurance that I am loved and adored when all I feel is shame and loneliness.
And it came to me how much easier it is to have this faux sweetener in my life, than it is to have something that might be the full strength variety. It’s safer, less complicated…it keeps me in control of the sweetness in my life. Sure, my artificial sweetener is actually kinda toxic and the real thing might be ultimately more satisfying, but here’s the problem…the real thing involves other people…and in my experience, other people often let you down.
So I feel caught in many ways, between an artificially sweetened life which feels safe and predictable and more controllable and one in which I would have to risk more, risk asking for what I need, and trusting that something or someone or even Someone will be there for me.
Trust is not one of my strength areas. Letting go is not something I do well. When I am able to do it, I do it scratching and kicking and crying.
But I am here. Diet Pepsi-less for one more day.
One of the songs we sang over and over and yes…over… again, at Taizé was “Within our darkest night you kindle the fire that never goes away.” I’m hoping for that fire.
I’m holding out for it, one day, hour, moment, second at a time.