My best friend recently asked me to go back - way back - into my history of drinking diet coke to see what emotional needs the substance satisified. Here's my journey:
My mother was a Tab drinker. I liked the taste, but I drank other sodas too. I remember starting to drink sodas around 1972. Mom was always dieting, and Tab was part of her plan, whatever that was. I guess I thought of Tab as a drink for people who dieted. I was 9 years old.
The next drink was Diet Pepsi and Pepsi Light (remember that refreshing bit of lemon?). Again, I don't associate anything especially different by drinking those sodas.
Sometime around high school, I started swimming. I would opt for a Diet Pepsi after morning swim practice. I chose Diet Pepsi because it was readily available in the machine at the local YMCA where I grew up. I don't remember this habit until about my junior year, when I started driving to swim practice myself, and that would put it about 1979-1980. I do believe that is when my habit started. I also remember watching my weight. Whether it was my mother always dieting, my best friend and her mother dieting, or my awareness of how I looked in my swimsuit at swim practice - I became aware of my body and I began questioning my appearance. I was 16 years old.
As a side note, but integral in the journey, in the middle of my senior year in high school, my parents announced they were getting a divorce. I can pinpoint this time in my life as the trigger for an eating disorder - bulimia. I was a perfectionist, a straight A student, accepted into the prestigious University of Notre Dame! I played first chair flute and piccolo and was in the elite singing choir at school. I was captain of the swim team. I had to be strong. I had a certain (body) image of myself to fulfill. I actually went into counseling while at Notre Dame, which brought to the surface the need for me to control my circumstances, my life, my situations.Back to the diet soft drink habit. I would drink diet soft drinks as a way to maintain my weight. I filled the need for "nourishment" through diet soda, often subsisting on just diet soda for 24 or even 48 hours. It was a starvation diet of sorts. I used diet sodas as a "meal replacement". I did that through high school and some through college. I was 22 years old.
Fast forward past college to 1990, I was married, working in Chicago, and since I didn't drink coffee, I would sometimes (maybe it was more frequently? - I really don't remember), get a diet coke at McDonald's on my way to work. When I became pregnant, in 1990, I remember giving up caffeine, and my diet cokes. Not a big deal. Didn't miss them. I was 27 years old.
I may have had diet cokes in the house, but I don't recall a "habit" of drinking them on a regular basis, at any given time or anything. In fact, I do recall, my only instances of drinking diet cokes at McDonald's were in conjunction with ordering a meal. I never stopped by a convenience store, or fast food joint just for the drink. I was 35 years old.
Until...fast forward another 10 years to when I became involved in endurance sports (1997). Somewhere along the line, I recognized that nothing quenched my thirst like a "cold, fizzy diet coke - fountain drink". It was like an "ahh" moment. It was thirst quenching, and this became routine after all my long bike rides (especially after 6 hours on the bike). I rode a lot. This is when I would stop by a fast food joint (McDonald's) JUST for the diet coke. No meal necessary. It just tasted good. This became rather routine. (In retrospect, I can say that I was simply dehydrated, and needed lots of cold hydration - water.) I was 38 years old.
Then - the summer of 2009 - McDonald's started selling diet cokes for $1. $1.09 with tax. I remember saying, "Wow! - That's cheap! I can drink as much as I want now!" I remember the very strong connection to the $1 diet coke at McDonald's. I became a regular. I would stop by almost everyday. Sometimes it was 10am, sometimes it was 6:30am, sometimes it was 3pm. Some days it was more than once! I was suckin' them down. I "craved" the sensation of a cold, fizzy diet coke from McDonald's like no other. The bubbles going down the throat were soothing. I recognized that this many diet cokes were not good - and I committed to cutting back.
Fast forward a couple more years, when I was commuting from my hometown to my vacation home, and half way to my destination was a McDonald's. A stop there for a diet coke became a "fun stop" and a "refreshing stop" and continued to be my habit. (In fact, as I make that commute today, I almost start salivating when I get within 10 minutes of the McDonald's. The emotional connection is THAT strong.) I was in my early 40's.
In 2011, I taught exercise classes and I would stop by the next door McDonald's for a diet coke immediately after teaching class. I rationalized that it made my sore vocal cords feel better. It was soothing. (In retrospect, I can say that while my vocal cords might indeed have been stressed, I was able to substitute ice cold water for the same the soothing effect.) I was 47 years old.
Which brings me today. I am a knowledgeable person, well versed in establishing healthy habits for my clients. I KNOW what's in diet soda. I KNOW the effect of artificial sweeteners on the body. I KNOW what a craving is. I RECOGNIZE a bad habit. What I find so hard, is stringing together the emotional events that triggered my habit in the first place, and continue to string them together to the place where I am today - trying to kick the habit once and for all. What is that emotional need for that cold diet soda? Does it go back to control over my circumstances? Was I most successful when I was drinking the sodas regularly? In high school - yes, I was able to be an over-achiever and maintain my weight. In my athletic career - yes, I was able to be an over-achiever and train and race at the top of my age division. In my fitness career - yes, I was able to teach the best and bring the best to my clients.
My very best friend - who I've been talking to about this very issue - asked me today, "When you ask me to run down the street and bring back a diet coke for you, what do you really need?" My response made me cry. I said, "Just hold me" and that would make it all better.
So - the journey isn't over, and the self-analysis continues. The connection between our habits and our emotional needs is indisputable. And, as a side note, I am happy to report that, through rational thinking, I am not salivating as much when I approach that McDonald's along my commute.