Thursday, January 19, 2012

Caffeine hits and sugar spikes

More than a year ago now, I wrote about how much I needed wine in the evening. I didn’t drink half a bottle, just a glass to settle my jangled nerves while the kids squabbled and I cooked. It was either that or shouting everyone to table and bed. I felt bad about the dependency, but there it was.

Nine months later, I was placed on a very restrictive diet: no sugar, gluten, dairy, fruit, alcohol, or caffeine. I was worried about how I’d manage without that glass of wine at the end of the day, but my health problems were sufficiently severe that I adopted the diet almost immediately.

To my surprise, I coped just fine. There’s been no real yelling, in fact less than usual, and, while I missed the social aspect of wine with friends – not to mention toast with butter and jam – I didn’t miss the daily glass one bit.

Had my personality suddenly changed from wound up spring to positively yogic? Or had I been deluded all this time into thinking that my jangled nerves couldn’t get through a full day without a glass? Well, neither, really.

Four months into the diet, it came time to reintroduce or experiment with the restricted foods. Like the good girl that I am, I started not with fresh fruit (it blows me up like a balloon), but alcohol. Last Thursday, an old friend came for dinner and, in for a penny in for a pound, I drank two thirds of a bottle of wine. I was on top of the world, and the next day felt fit as a fiddle. It was wonderful. And while I don’t intend to start drinking every night, it seems I can enjoy wine with friends from time to time – and I will. Wine restores me to my rightful place as the storyteller at the dinner table, a role that I don’t fill to the utmost when I am stone cold sober.

Next I tried caffeine. Within minutes my body filled with adrenalin, my heart started to race, my hands grew sweaty and I became highly anxious. A sense of foreboding swelled and bobbed like a threatening grey balloon just above my head; my chest constricted in fear. I wandered around for a few hours waiting for the axe to fall, but it never did. Instead, the caffeine gradually cleared out of my system and all was right with the world again. Hmm, not so good.

I had always assumed that being anxious and highly strung was just part of my neurotic and irritating personality – but was it since I started drinking coffee? I certainly had a lot to be anxious about at that time. I had recently moved countries; my mother was very ill; and a lot was going on. Perhaps the coffee only exacerbated how I was already feeling, back then. Now, however, there is little to be anxious about, yet my high levels of anxiety had faded away only when I went on the exclusion diet.

A few days later, I tried sugar: pure candy, which I never usually eat, and with nothing to slow its effects. Within fifteen minutes, I was screaming like a banshee at a child who had left her shoes in the hallway. When I had calmed down I apologised, and had a think.

I had previously suspected sugar to have a volcanic effect on my temper, which is why I rarely eat much of it. Having completely eliminated all sugar for four months and, during that time, never shouted unduly at the kids; and then, having eaten three test candies and positively erupted, this was proof enough for me.

I was seventeen when I began drinking coffee, which means I’ve had nineteen years of two to four coffees a day, sometimes more, with a small sweet treat to pick me up in the late afternoon.

Nineteen years of jangled nerves and pounding heart, with a sugar spike just before dinner time.

Add children to the mix and it’s no wonder I self-medicated with alcohol. Take away the caffeine and sugar, and dinnertime is fine; no wine required. I realised that it wasn’t the kids who were the problem at six o’clock; it was me and my bad habits.

It’s shocking to think that I have razzed myself up daily for almost twenty years and never really noticed. I wrote myself off as an anxious person who doesn’t cope with stress when, in fact, the things I don’t cope with are caffeine and sugar. In other words, all this time I have been causing the majority of my stress through the things I have chosen to eat and drink.

I don’t know whether to be frustrated that we have endured so many years of my carefully reined in bad temper, a temper that now appears not to be an intrinsic part of my personality, or just deeply relieved that I have found the key to letting the temper fade away. Mostly, however, I feel glad for my kids that I have found a way to be calm. I no longer have to use all my tricks – counting to ten, leaving the room, or transforming the shouting into an operatic aria – as I now rarely feel the surge of rage that leads to the urge to shout.

I also feel sad for my own history. My mother was far more highly strung than me. A wrong word could set off an explosion, and I was the expert in wrong words. Our relationship was always fiery, never calm. Now I wonder if she, too, was winding herself up every day with her dozen cups of tea and a sweet biscuit in the afternoon. Meanwhile, she tried to fit in a lot more than me, combining child rearing with demanding work. She was always tired, and always felt guilty because she never had enough time to do everything she wanted. If she was feeling as physically wound up and anxious as I have been feeling, then, combined with the stresses she placed on herself, it is no wonder that she exploded regularly; we just couldn’t seem to get along.

I have a fantasy that we could meet each other again, no caffeine, no sugar, no work pressures. No shouting, no surges of aggression, no adrenalin spikes, just two women on odd diets but otherwise quite ordinary going for a stroll along a riverbank. In quietness, we could listen to the water tumbling by. We never knew each other calm, but I wonder whether, in such a space, we might find a gentle peace.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, this is so powerful and gives me a lot to think about. Thank you for your unflinching honesty.


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