Even thinking about why I started drinking diet soda knocks me down. The sadness of actually doing this to myself is hard to grapple with. It is profoundly offensive to me that I poured poison into my body for six years because, as a teenager, I had no reliable stress outlets, and no support to which I was entitled.
My predicament is not like those of drug addicts, or alcoholics, but I do relate to their stories of years lost, opportunities not taken, relationships missed. I feel sad that I would often lock myself away, hoping the diet soda would help me sustain yet another impossible diet, refusing traveling, work experience, family evenings, social events.
It has been six years since I ripped open the lukewarm eight-can pack of Pepsi Max for the first time, and drank every single one in less than four hours.
During the week I had no access to the stuff, but on the weekends, I would buy massive packs and drink them all.
This really frightened people who were looking over me at the time, but I went to every extent to continue my habit. There was something of the ethereal about finally doing something remotely disgusting enough to actually deserve their neglect and their disdain.
This is not uncommon among sufferers of eating disorders. We often come to rely on these drinks (eventually) because it tastes nice, and the caffeine gives you a buzz, like fireworks, like ice crystals growing in the veins.
I decided to try dropping the stuff to see if I would feel better. No harm in trying.
First week. No cans?
At first, I wanted to try dropping the stuff cold turkey. At the end of the first day, I had a massive bout of overeating, with a massive headache too. Yes, yes, the pain in the head recalls the narrator’s psychological pain, etc etc. For four days I held on. Then I did more research, and learned that it would be better to cut down gradually. And after reading yet another internship rejection e-mail (probably because of my visa), I caved, bought an eight pack with my usual massive product haul… and set aside four cans.
I have a pleasant dream. The skyline in the late afternoon is crooked and bent at an angle, it’s all rotating, but I know where I’m going. I go up the stairs, and I open the door, and even after all these years, there is no awkwardness. Long have I asked for this time, wrote about it and described it against logic, against hope, against even failure and silence, like pressing a button again and again – and here it is. I have described it and asked it into being. And there is enough time. There is so much time, I asked and asked and asked for time, and here it is. The words, the words are there, in my head, and I am faithful to them, but I am silent. And because we are silent together, I know the words are true.
Four cans on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Easter Sunday.
Locking up the Easter chocolate in my university locker does not stop the beast. So I commute through the city, on the bus, at 10pm to get to the locker and free the unlikely prisoners. Nothing helps. The cravings are everywhere. I could have chosen not to act on them – but why would I want to? What is the POINT of all of this, anyway?
Second week. Three cans each day.
I have been overeating so much that I can feel a visible difference all over my body. Is this even worth it? I force myself to think in the long term. How many times have I achieved short term gains, only to surrender it to the cavernous beast? No, persevere.
Third week. Two cans – glasses – each day, because I’m off to see my family and they don’t have cans there.
My old friend. The cold, bubbling, sizzling blanket all around my mouth and teeth, the icy feel of the glass as I conquer another concept, solve another equation, write another coursework. My old, dear friend. ‘My songs of old earth’s dreamy youth’. Memories, when a sip of the icy drink was a rebellion. When my old friend and I hunched over a problem, a challenge, until the spine bent incorrigibly and the stomach rotted and teeth fell out. When we conquered the world and solved the issues and mounted the stars. An entire module was barely a thought, and an hour was a minute. Even in dreams, I would recount the things we read together.
Who can replace my friend? I cannot bear the thought of going when my friend is not with me. All the world is at my feet, but where is my friend?
Then, the setting sun. As now, over the city, the tender twilight descending.
Fourth week. One can a day.
And what a difference.
I wake up and I feel fine, I don’t have cravings, I don’t want to eat. But to finish the challenge, I put the can in the freezer for 40 minutes. And when I drink the solitary can, I feel it immediately – the desire to eat, the tiredness, the fatigue, the hunger. I don’t finish my last eight-pack. I throw out the last remaining can, without going onto week five.
Fifth week. None.
I struggle still against the cravings and the stress. I read online, more and more, about the harms of these drinks. Six years… six years. How can I have done this?
And how could I have realised that doing this was harmful, and the reasons for why it was harmful, without doing it? It’s impressive that some paraphrased Terry Pratchett has actually stuck to my brain. It wasn’t until this point that I understood just how much aspartame had been interfering with my ability to concentrate. Before, I would really count myself lucky if I was able to push through a book without getting distracted. Now, each and every day, finishing narratives is becoming easier. I actually finish the horror narrations that I used to love, get to the end of twitter threads, finish stories that are longer than 10 pages…
Time is slowing down. I blinked away two wasted years, putting cans into the freezer and setting a timer when things got difficult and boring. But finally, I can do things at a suitable pace.
I used to stay up every day until midnight, drinking, hunching, glaring, waiting to eat. But now I fall asleep well before. My appetite and my concentration are increasing. I am enjoying stories, audiobooks. Before, a platter of sushi, topped off with a tub of ice cream and an entire loaf of bread was nothing, and now I actually realise that I’ve been eating entire full plates of raw fish like I was paid to do it.
Seventh week – NOW.
The bad thoughts are still with me, but the headaches are gone. With each day that passes, my focus and my appetite improve. And still, I cannot hide that I am haunted. It takes 28 days for aspartame to really leave the body, and now I almost don’t want it to.
I’m fine most of the time – REALLY fine, and this, it turns out, is what it’s like to be fine. But something moves in the air, the pavement glints, the grass shivers – and immediately I am brought back, and I see it clear before my eyes. How the sun shone through the glass in my old room. I could turn my head and see it straight before me – not so, never so in my rooms here in England – and think to myself, feet and feet above the glistening snow, ‘I will remember this’, for some reason. Or a clear, open road, and so many cars, and I want to look at every single one. My favourite songs, which say things that only your mother tongue can say to you.
Sometimes, I remember a different evening to that one, in the relentless, merciless, setting sun, and then the clutches are on my chest again, and there is so much to say, but no way to even begin, there is no time, and no one listens. The pressure will tear me apart, but I can’t start to say it. I don’t know what to say. I want to run back and say something, anything, and I know that if I put it into words and fill my mouth with arguments, I can fix everything. I will be heard. And nothing that people say about me will stand a chance against my words.
I know what to say now, but the language is dead.
Is this how it will all end? In the setting light?
I cannot get over my deep sadness. It’s like a separate part of me, a whole human being that I carry on my back. But I don’t want to do this to myself anymore.
Six years of damage to my body. But three weeks ago, I drank my last drop.