Hell in a Packet

I think I speak for most when I say, quarantine has brought out the worst in us.

To be fair, I think most of the issues we’re having were already there, hiding beneath the surface, mitigated by the monotonous regularity of our daily lives, our jam-packed schedules, our steadfast routines. Simply put, we had no time for our problems back then. By living our lives normally, we held them at bay, and sometimes didn’t even realize we were doing so.

But now, we have all the time in the world. We have no pretty distractions up our sleeves. We have half the work, if any. And in the wake of our pre-quarantine obligations – the work, the commute to work, the get-togethers with family and friends, the restaurant outings, the nights on the town, the dates, the hook-ups, the parties, and everything else we don’t do any longer – we are left with a gaping void. Perfect for those insecurities, those doubts, those disorders to creep in and take their place. Divorces surging, opium overdoses soaring, disorders cropping up, obsessions taking hold, addictions creeping in to fill the emptiness that a lack of life, love, togetherness created when we were forced to seclude ourselves. We’re alone. We’re without purpose. We’re scared of the world as it is, now. We’re scared to leave our homes. Scared to be within six feet of another human being. Scared to do anything besides sit, holed up in our homes, contemplating how scared we are. So, it’s no wonder that all of the issues, burgeoning for so long beneath our consciousness, have bubbled up to the fore over the past few months, simmered to a boiling point, and imploded.

For me, the lesser of the issues that creeped into that life void, was an addiction to aspartame, sucralose, and vinegar.

As for vinegar – I was drinking a bottle of the apple cider stuff every two to three days. I was going through it as if it were candy, and mixing fifteen or so Equals into the bottle to make it palatable. I was cooking my meals in a broth of sweet vinegar and lemon juice, and then downing a shot of vinegar after every bite – like a chaser. What I didn’t realize until somewhat later, was that my addiction to aspartame and sucralose – collectively, artificial sweeteners – was what was feeding my addiction to the vinegar that I’d sweetened with both.

The aspartame and sucralose addiction was arguably worse. I stopped drinking water altogether. All I drank, was diet Coke, diet Crush, diet green teas, and water mixed with those zero-calorie Crystal Light powder sticks and liquid flavorings. I woke up, thinking about what I was going to drink and how sweet I could make it. I began using these artificial sweeteners on my food. I was pouring Equals onto my salads just to make them palatable, dousing my slices of cucumber and brussel sprouts in squirts of Crystal Light, soaking my celery in this zero-calorie mocha flavoring I’d bought to spruce up my coffees, sucking out the insides of cherry tomatoes so that I could fill them with Crystal Light powder. I was addicted to the sweetness, and always looking for ways to amp it up – new mixtures of artificial sweeteners, higher doses. Anything without sweetness, or without the ability to be sweetened, was wholly unpalatable. Natural sweetness, in the form of apples, strawberries, pineapple and the likes, were suddenly no longer sweet, to my distorted taste receptors. So, I found myself augmenting their sweetness by soaking them in vinegar, dousing them with Crystal Light, and spreading layers of Equal over them like a sugar glaze.

The aspartame – and this is something I didn’t realize until after I kicked the addiction – was also causing me constant and intense hunger. For those few months, there was never a time in which I truly felt full. I was always thinking of food, always planning out what and when I would eat, always thinking of the ways in which I would spice up my food, always counting the calories meticulously to see if I could get away with eating more (and in doing so, consuming more artificial sweetener, since I put it on everything I ate). Food became an obsession, and when I lost control, the hunger manifested through multi-day-long binges.

This isn’t uncommon. It’s how artificial sweeteners, and aspartame in particular, work. Aspartame itself is derived from aspartic acid and phenylalanine, and breaks down into methanol as well, when digested. Methanol is toxic. It’s a carcinogen. Aspartame is also linked to a slew of other harmful physical effects, from disrupting the healthy, bacteria-killing enzymes in your gut, to increasing blood sugar levels and causing diabetes – but here we’ll discuss how it changes the brain, causes dependency, and ultimately causes an addiction to food which leads inevitably to weight gain (or, in my case, 4,000-calorie binges, after which I had to run 10-20 miles every day for a week to keep from gaining weight).

The consumption of natural sugar triggers the brain in a way so that the reward system is stimulated less and less with each subsequent bite, in effect curbing your hunger and making it less appetizing to continue to eat. Neurons in the primary taste cortex throw signals to the reward-pathway in the brain upon stimulus of the central taste pathway (your tongue, when tasting something). This releases dopamine, giving you the pleasure you so desire when eating that bowl of ice cream, as well as leptin, which reduces subsequent activation of dopamine. So, the next bite will release less dopamine than the first, and so on. However, with aspartame, much less leptin is released, and the mid-brain reward system is activated to a much lesser degree – in effect, you receive less pleasure from eating something with aspartame as opposed to real sugar, and you have less biological motivation to stop eating, causing you to require more calories to satisfy your hunger, and your need for the dopamine-release caused by food intake. This is how I could eat so much, without ever feeling full, and why I went on binges, seeking out anything with real, non-artificial sugar, to curb the hunger and get me high off of dopamine in a way aspartame could not. For me, it became a vicious cycle of extreme hunger and constant binges – everything in my life devolved into food.

So, I decided to cut myself off from all aspartame products. I went cold turkey. And boy, if I had known what would happen, I doubt I would have. I didn’t consider the possibility that I might start experiencing withdrawal symptoms – I mean, it’s just Equal, for goodness sake! – or so I thought. And I hadn’t done enough research to know, that aspartame withdrawal is not only a real thing, but a beast of a thing, arguably as bad, or worse than, withdrawal from alcohol and drugs, because of how long the symptoms can persist. So here, is my personal aspartame & sucralose detox journal:

Day 1

Extreme fatigue. I slept for ten hours, woke up to eat, went back to sleep for another three, woke up to eat again, and went back to sleep. I had absolutely no motivation to get out of bed (besides food), nor could I, with how severely exhausted I was. I must have slept over fifteen hours that day. When I was awake, I was either depressed, staring up at the ceiling listlessly and with no incentive to do anything but close my eyes, or on the other end of the spectrum, severely irritable, lashing out for no reason and snapping out of the blue. I spent part of the day wondering why I was even alive. I had no purpose, no drive, no goals – nothing besides the ability to close my eyes and forget about everything I didn’t have.

Day 2

The fatigue and depression worsened, though I didn’t think it possible. The constant hunger I was experiencing, along with incessant thoughts of food diminished, so that I was left with no motivation to get out of bed — not even food, which had been one of my sole motivations for a while. I began to develop cravings for sugar, but I was too exhausted to act upon them. I spent most of the day in bed. I tried to get out for a walk, but couldn’t make it out of the door. I tried to stay up long enough to watch a movie, but I fell asleep halfway through. In the evening, the burning began. An intense burning sensation in my hands, feet, and face. I thought it could have been an allergic reaction to a spice I’d eaten, so I didn’t think much of it.

Day 3

The burning intensified to an all-body scorch. It was as if my entire body was lying on top of asphalt in the summer sun, a red-hot, constant tingling like a thousand needle brands piercing my skin. I didn’t have a rash, nor a fever, nor was my body warm. See, aspartame is a neurological Devil — although it felt as if my flesh had been lit on fire, it was the nerve endings. Everything was in my head. There were no physical signs of the fire, and so there was no remedy for it. Pain meds did nothing. The burning was worst in my palms, the bottoms of my feet, the skin around my mouth, my eyelids, and the inside of my throat. It felt as if I was breathing fire, as if I’d eaten a ghost pepper. All day.  The skin of my face, especially around my lips, swelled noticeably. I couldn’t wear pants, because the contact burned too terribly against the skin of my legs. I experienced less fatigue, but I was in so much pain that it was easier to sleep than to endure it, so I slept most of the day. I spent the rest of the day with my hands and feet in buckets of cold water, and a washcloth across my eyes, trying to fall asleep and failing, because I was in so much pain. I developed a headache in the morning that persisted throughout the day — it was abnormally painful compared to most headaches I’ve had, but the pain didn’t compare to the all-body burning, and the headache could be helped by pain meds. I tried to take a cold shower, and thought I might die.

Day 4

The headache subsided during the afternoon, but the burning remained. Same overall level of all-body burning, still targeting the hands, feet, eyelids, and throat without any contact, and my arms and legs when there was any sort of contact. I was less fatigued, so I tried to get out for a walk. I made it a few blocks before my legs started burning so badly beneath the sun that I was forced to turn back. My constant hunger decreased even further — I actually felt full after meals, and the craving for sugar was no longer there. I could eat a non-sweet meal with just as much pleasure as one with. I no longer had the urge to binge at night. I dropped by two pounds overnight. However, I woke up with body aches added to the mix. They weren’t all that intense at first, so I chalked it up to muscle weakness, to overdoing a workout I’d done a few days earlier. They intensified throughout the day, mostly in the arms and legs. It was difficult to stand or sit, or to carry anything at all, regardless of weight.

Day 5

The burning subsided a bit in the afternoon, after I took a walk, but returned in the evening to a lesser degree than the day before. The body aches, however, worsened. It was hard to move — the bones in my legs ached with every step. My arms were exceptionally weak. When I got back from my walk and the adrenaline subsided, I was in so much pain that I couldn’t even get down onto my knees to find my furry friend under the bed — the bones in my legs just ached too terribly when I moved them at all. Bending was an altogether different story. I laid in bed with ice-water socks on my feet, a washcloth doused in ice-water across my entire upper face, and my hands plastered to the washcloth.

Day 6

When I woke, it felt as if my feet were on fire, ten times worse than they had been the past few days. However, the aches were less, and the burn along the rest of my skin was lesser as well. Still there, but not unbearable. My eyes were especially bloodshot — it looked as if I was high, though that could have been lack of sleep. Besides that, no new symptoms manifested. My appetite stabilized, my hunger less, and I had no urge whatsoever to eat or drink anything with aspartame. I actually got out of my apartment for a bit and felt better when I returned. I was able to pull myself away from my meal with leftovers, something that was absolutely inconceivable for me for a while. I could eat an entire pot of noodles and vegetables without trouble before; now I filled up much sooner, and didn’t find myself hungry again for hours, if at all. I dropped another two pounds. Altogether, a four-pound drop-off, not because I was eating any less, because I wasn’t. Things were looking up; I’d passed the peak of the detox.

Day 7

All symptoms less, it must be nearly out of my system! I wasn’t out of the woods yet, but I was feeling better than I had in weeks — minus the Icy-Hot-like burn all over my body — and I’m glad I took this time to kick the addiction and detox, however hellish it was.

Days 8-14

The burning, aches, and slight fatigue persisted, though less every day. The most intense burning remained in my feet, face, and hands, especially at night. It’s difficult to sleep and stay asleep because of it, so sleep quality suffers. A new symptom had cropped up: a cold burn in my extremities. Now, along with the on-fire sensations, my skin is extremely sensitive to the cold. The first day this happened I washed my hands normally, with lukewarm water, and thought I was going to die. It was as if I’d stuck a hand with frostbite in a bucket of boiling water — this intense, cold fire that numbed my palms. Again, the cold burn is mostly concentrated in my palms and feet, but it also affects other parts of my skin. I wore shorts the other day and just exposing the skin of my legs to the air outside (which wasn’t all that cool — it’s July in LA) set off the cold fire sensation. It’s the epitome of strange, how my body can be on fire at the same time as it feels as if it’s been frozen in a block of ice. This also means that cold washcloth and the buckets of cold water to help with the burn are definitely a no-go. However, all the effects are declining with time, and the body aches are completely gone.

Here’s to hoping no more new withdrawal side effects crop up. I might be updating this!

A few last notes:

I can understand why aspartame addictions are as difficult to kick as the research says — this was not a walk in the park. Aspartame feels like a petty addiction. This wasn’t crack or alcohol that I was going cold turkey off of, but the symptoms were miraculously similar. I’ve read studies that say it takes up to sixty days for withdrawal symptoms to subside during detox, one of the reasons most don’t ever try to detox.

Of course, I’ll advise anyone not to go down the road I did, especially not with the fervor that I did. But, I also know how impossible that advice is. I know how tempting those diet sodas are, those sugar-free jellos and yogurts and low-cal desserts, the gums and jams and iced teas. You’d be hard-pressed to go a day without eating or drinking something with aspartame or sucralose in it, these days. Covid amplified my all-in mentality, and fed my need for obsessions, and that’s entirely on me.

But the bigger problem for us, is that we’ve allowed these chemicals to become so commonplace in society, that no one even blinks an eye at the word “aspartame.” We all know it’s bad. We’ve all seen the studies, heard the stories. But as prevalent as it is, we’ll never stop, unless someone stops us. This is a problem we need to fix, and now is as good a time as we’ll ever get.

Let’s put our Covid free-time to use and get these drugs off the market. I just spent the last two weeks of my life in the most excruciating pain I’ve ever experienced. Let’s make it so that others don’t have to endure the same sweetener hell.

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