The greatest love story of my life was with a carbonated drink.
I can't remember a time when I wasn't addicted to Diet Coke. Some memories: I am sitting at the kitchen table in my grandmother's house in rthern Cyprus and I scream because my mother does not refill my yellow and green patterned glass. I am four or five years old. My grandmother looks on in dismay as I cry desolately. My mother doesn't give in.
I am a teenage anorexic. After a long day of starvation, I go to the corner store and treat myself to a bottle of Diet Coke. (My mother will no longer buy it for the house because of my addiction.) My low blood sugar makes the artificial sweetness taste euphoric.
It's my 30th birthday. I work for my previous employer. Too much fanfare my boss brings an 8 pack of Diet Coke with a lit candle. I am pleased.
I drink Diet Coke from waking up to going to bed. Five cans on a good day, seven cans on a bad day. My boyfriend jokes about my morning routine: wake up, go to the kitchen. The sound of a can cracking; a hiss. Glug Glug Glug. Yes every morning.
I estimate that in my 31 years on this earth, I've drank 11,315 liters of Diet Coke. (I've been conservative with these numbers – it's almost certainly more.) That's over 11,000 liters of caramel soda that ferments my insides and bathes my liver in foam.
I really want to stop drinking Diet Coke – and not just because I spend at least £ 500 a year on it. It's embarrassing and bad for me. When I go on vacation, to the amusement of my friends, I fill the supermarket cart with Diet Coke. I worry if I don't have Diet Coke in the fridge before bed. I run to the store in the middle of the night to make sure there's a cold can waiting for me in the morning. I recently spent a year on prescription medication for a stomach ailment which, according to my GP, was almost certainly caused by my excessive consumption of Diet Coke. If an endoscopy doesn't stop you from drinking carbonated beverages, then you know you are addicted.
"I guess I drank 11,315 liters of Diet Coke." Photo: Leirbagenaz / Stockimo / Alamy
To keep costs down, I buy 24-can boxes from my local supermarket. The staff there knows me and reminds me if I forget to pick up a box. It's shameful, but helpful.
I want to stop. I have to stop. I quit smoking on the first try in my 20s, but Diet Coke is my aluminum annapurna: I don't even dare reach the top. So I chose this role – mainly to hold myself accountable – and set myself a goal. I would be coke-free by the end of January 2021. If I'm being honest with you, I didn't think I could do it myself.
My attempt to quit Diet Coke is not starting well. On New Year's Eve I finish my supply and suckle from a two-liter bottle like a baby drinking from a teat.
On New Year's Day I wake up hungover and watch TV in bed with my boyfriend. We order pizza. "Add a can of Diet Coke," I instruct him. "I thought you'd stop?" he replies. My head is throbbing; Just a hint of caramel from Diet Coke is enough. "Order it," I say, and my tone of voice leaves no room for discussion. When it arrives, I turn it down and make little whimpering noises of pleasure.
The next day is worse. I long for Diet Coke in an alarming and unexpected way. I imagine a tiny part of my brain – roughly parallel to my tongue and upper roof of my mouth – that only gets activated when I drink Diet Coke. I want to throw a bucket of Diet Coke on this spot and watch it bubble. I know my headaches won't go away otherwise. I feel terrible.
According to Dr. Sally Marlow of King's College London, an addiction and mental health specialist, about physically withdrawing from the caffeine in Diet Coke. The average can of Diet Coke contains 42 mg of caffeine, which is roughly two-thirds of a shot of espresso. Caffeine is a medically recognized addictive substance that, when taken in excess, activates the brain's reward circuitry. "The caffeine will stimulate the neurotransmitter pathways, including dopamine," says Marlow. “Your brain has got used to having a certain amount of caffeine in it, and when you take that away, you go through withdrawal. It's physical. You get a headache. "
Marlow admits something unexpected: Like me, she's a Diet Coke addict. "I managed to stop drinking four years ago but had to have a cold turkey," she says. "I don't think having an occasional Diet Coke is an option for me – it would quickly increase to five or six cans a day." It took her four tries to give up the habit.
It is confirmation when an expert tells me that my Diet Coke addiction is just that and not a bad habit. "Oh, it's real," laughs Marlow. She explains that addiction has a biological and a psychological component. The biological component is your body's physiological craving for an addictive substance such as caffeine, nicotine, or alcohol. "As soon as you get this substance into your body, your brain knows about it and gets a hit from it," she says. "Over time, you develop a tolerance for the substance."
"It's deeply embedded in its association with the fashion world" … the late Karl Lagerfeld, a former creative director of Diet Coke. Photo: Bertrand Langlois / AFP / Getty Images
Marlow speculates that the bubbles in Diet Coke could make the drink more addictive. "This is just a theory, but we know that a person who drinks champagne will absorb alcohol faster than a glass of wine because the bubbles increase the area that alcohol releases into the bloodstream," she says. "I wonder if the bubbles in Diet Coke are making you absorb the drugs in the drink faster."
In a statement on its website, Coca-Cola denies that its products are addictive. “Lots of people enjoy a sweet taste from time to time, and that's normal. Eating and drinking regularly that taste great and that you enjoy is not the same as being addicted to them. Caffeine is a mild stimulant, and if you have it regularly and regularly then stopping suddenly, you may experience headaches or other minor effects. But most of us can cut back or remove caffeine from our diets without serious problems. "
Then there's the psychological appeal of a can of Diet Coke, something Marlow knows firsthand. "I would open a can and it was almost like Pavlov's dog," she says. “I would expect the Coke in my mouth. That's the psychological aspect of addiction.” She tells me it takes 17 days to fight an addiction. "The first few days are very intense," she says. "Hold on."
I don't have the strength to do what she did – get a cold turkey – so I improvise an extraction schedule. I'm going to cut myself off from Diet Coke: two doses a day for the first week, reduced to one can a day for the second week, and no doses after that. I run to the store and buy a pack of eight. My mouth is watering as I carry it home.
How did I get to the point where I felt attached to a sugar-free carbonated drink?
Like many women, I was cruel to myself as a teenager. I grew up in the 00's when there was no body positivity movement. Rachel Zoe's tribe of the identical US size zero (UK size four) haunted the pages of every fashion magazine. Models talked about eating cigarettes and Diet Coke. "thing tastes as good as thin feels," said Kate Moss in 2009. I have taken this message with all my heart.
Every girl at my school aspired to be as thin as possible. The toilets smelled like vomit. At lunch, groups of diet girls – myself included – walked arm in arm to the corner shop and skipped the food to buy Diet Coke, which was filling and calorie-free. Diet Coke referred to thinness and a social seal of approval. We all wanted a taste.
Over time, I flirted with other soft drinks – Pepsi Max is a favorite because it's a little sweeter than Diet Coke – but I kept finding myself back in my original love.
"It was a spectacular success" … Jean Paul Gaultier Diet Coke in 2012. Photo: Michael Bowles / Rex / Shutterstock
Diet Coke was introduced in 1982, seven years before I was born. I grew up on the Diet Coke Break ad, which has a group of business women looking at a topless piece. The Coca-Cola Company already had a diet drink – Tab – but Diet Coke was being marketed smarter. "It has been a spectacular success since its inception," said Prof. Robert Crawford, marketing expert at RMIT University in Melbourne and co-editor of Decoding Coca-Cola. “It followed the zeitgeist of its time, in which working women found their way into the workplace, looking and feeling good. It also reflects the fitness craze of that time. "
In the 00s and 10s, Diet Coke relied heavily on the fashion world and recruited Jean Paul Gaultier and Karl Lagerfeld as creative directors. More recently, as the movement for body positivity has gained traction, Diet Coke has turned away from that association. But as someone who grew up and associated Diet Coke with skinny models, the imprint remains. For me, Diet Coke is diet culture in a can.
"I don't want you to beat yourself up any more," says Aisling Pigott of the British Dietetics Association when I ask them to tell me why drinking so much diet soda is bad for me. I can take it, I say. She gives in.
"It will cause tooth erosion and lead to fillings," says Pigott. My stomach gets hit too, as I know from my own experience. "You are at an increased risk for colon ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome," she says. "And there are links between carbonated drinks and reduced bone density, which means that as you get older, you're at greater risk of fractures."
Although I was concerned about the health risks of aspartame, the sweetener in Diet Coke, Pigott tells me not to worry. "Aspartame is a heavily tested sweetener," she says. "There is no clear evidence to link this to health consequences." By the grand scheme of things, Pigott says, Diet Coke isn't terrible. "It's definitely a better option than whole-sugar cola. But it's the amount you have that is potentially harmful," she says.
The first week of my regime was uneventful. I'm joining a Facebook support group for diet cola addicts who want to quit. It may just be my caffeine withdrawal, but I find the positive attitudes I get from strangers online so moving I am close to tears.
"If I can do it, anyone can," says one convalescent addict. "You have that!" Another tells me that she had to get colitis to stop. "The hardest thing is that it calls me," she writes. "I'll never be free from that 'Mmm, Diet Coke' feeling. I love it."
"Me too, buddy," I think and call up a can to shake the last few drops into my mouth. "Me too."
Week two of my conical extraction program. The first day is fine, but on the second day I snap and drink four cans. I hide the cans in the bottom of the trash and hope my friend doesn't notice, but he had counted the cans in the fridge that morning. Rumbled.
It's humiliating, but accountability helps keep myself in check. A day later, I stick to a can, but only by drinking more tea than I've drunk in my life. I wonder if I'll get to the point where I like the taste of water.
According to Anna Jezuita, a specialist change consultant, I'm tough on myself. "Diet Coke has been your friend since you were four," she says. “This is Mount Everest of habit. You can't just destroy it. What you have to do is break one habit and develop another so that you can build the little pebbles of a new behavior alongside Mount Everest. "
I grab and drink four cans. I hide the cans in the bottom of the trash and hope my friend doesn't notice
I tell Jezuita that if I don't get a cold turkey, I'm worried that I will let go too easily. "You know, in the West we are taught to see ourselves as inherently bad, as if something about us is dubious and dirty and we need to be kept in check all the time," she says.
Jezuita helps me calibrate my expectations to something more realistic – reduction with the aim of quitting, but in a friendlier and less self-despising way. She also encourages me to enjoy the taste of Diet Coke. "Really enjoy," she says. "Every time you have a drink, sit down and let the world stand for a minute."
My morning Diet Coke is quickly turning into the best part of my day – I crave it animally and take it out in tiny sips so that the precious Coke will last as long as possible.
Week three: a week without Diet Coke. I expect this like a cervical swab, only with less enthusiasm. On my first day, I feel like I'm going to cry. I miss it. I miss Diet Coke.
Hypnotherapist and addiction specialist Jason Demant has helped people overcome far more severe addictions. "Cocaine, alcohol, that sort of thing," he says. It examines my childhood, youth, and the connections I make when I contemplate the highest majesty of a can of Diet Coke. I explain teen eating disorder by replenishing Diet Coke instead of eating lunch. I made a full recovery, I explain, but Diet Coke stayed in my life anyway.
"Do you often feel that you have to follow the rules in your life?" Asks Demant. “Are you always a good person? Do you always do the right thing? "
Yes i answer slowly. I work hard at my job, I try to be a good friend and partner, eat well, exercise. Diet Coke is the only thing I think fuck it. I'll do what I want to do, which is drink gallons of it.
Demant explains that Diet Coke triggers my built-in reward system, so I can't seem to let go of it. “It's a break from life's obligations. What you have to do is find something else that makes you feel that way. What is, instead of rewarding yourself with Diet Coke, you could do things for yourself that are loving felt? "
I incorporate small self-care gestures into my day. I play more with my cat. I watch trashy television. I read in the bathroom. In the twilight between brushing my teeth and going to bed, I listen to the hypnotherapy recording Demant sent me after our session. "You don't have to drink Diet Coke," Demant intoned over a smooth piano soundtrack. Yes i nod. I do not want it.
Something wonderful happens. I stop thinking about Diet Coke. I have run out of Diet Coke in my fridge – and that's fine. I dont miss it. To my amazement, I'm losing a kilo. I don't care about weight loss, but it's fascinating. It suggests that the artificial sweetener in the Diet Coke sparked my appetite for sweet things. (Studies have shown an association between diet drink consumption and higher sugar consumption.)
Most of all, I feel peaceful. "When you're addicted to something, your brain always thinks about where you're going to get the next hit," says Marlow. "Drinking five cans of Diet Coke takes up a lot of space in the brain." She's right: Although I still think about Diet Coke, it doesn't consume my mind like it used to. I'm not constantly monitoring how many cans I have in the refrigerator or when the next time I have to run a supermarket run.
Demant explains that I have to be vigilant in the future so that I don't slip into old habits. "With any pattern that is compulsive or addictive, you have to be on your guard all the time," says Demant. "Because you might be thinking, 'Oh, I got this done," and five minutes later you can go into the store to buy Coke. Always be on your guard. "Marlow agrees." What we know about most addictions , is that if they think they only have one, people will relapse. "For many people, that's just not possible. My advice is: don't think you can only have one can. It's not worth it. "Marlow hasn't had Diet Coke in five years.
It's been a month now and I stopped drinking Diet Coke. When I take out the recycle, it doesn't sound like a steel band at the tting Hill Carnival. I drink water in the morning – and I like the taste of it. I swam out of the foaming caramel tide into an ocean of clear, clean sea: water around me and not a drop of fizzy drink to drink.