My Turn: Why I Finally Gave Up Diet Soda

I can't sleep, work or concentrate. I'm depressed and anxious during this difficult detox. But I'm following doctor's orders, and I've gone six days without diet soda.

I blame my personality for my predicament. It's so addictive, I could get hooked on carrot sticks. I started out in life devouring everything I loved but abused the privilege. Now I'm being forced to delineate what's essential and make trade-offs. Six years ago, I quit my 27-year two-pack-a-day smoking habit, alcohol, marijuana, Blow Pop lollipops (a replacement for cigarettes), gum (too much sugar) and bread products (too many carbs). I'd spouted recovery-speak, analyzing my insatiable hungers, why I'd depended on substances more than people, how underlying every addiction was a deep depression that felt unbearable.

Back then, I quit bars, clubs and soirees where others puffed, imbibed or feasted on what I couldn't. I quit dinner parties cold turkey, scarring my social life. One friend starting saying, "Let's go out and get some water." I was such a self-righteous annoyance, invitations ceased anyway. I embraced abstinence, becoming the diva of deprivation.

I thought I'd graduated from the school of giving things up. I didn't expect to have to withdraw from a legal, cheap, ubiquitous liquid. When it came to oral-fixation satisfiers, this seemed like the end of the line. It reminded me of a line by Bob Dylan, written post-heart-disease. "Just when you think you lost everything, you find out that you can always lose a little more," he sang on "Time Out of Mind."

Diet soda was my last, and perhaps longest running vice. I had been the Queen of Diet Soda. At 12, in a bikini around my suburban Michigan backyard pool, I sipped hot-pink Tab cans through a straw, relishing the tin aftertaste, fizz, caffeine buzz, instant gratification and endless supply with zero calories. My mother was a dangerously delicious cook, so this appetite suppressant seemed a miracle.

In college, my dormitory's pop machines turned me into a Diet Pepsi girl. When I tried the Atkins diet, which banned aspartame and saccharin, I switched to the Splenda-filled Diet Rite. At grad school, I flirted with clear Diet 7UP before deciding on Diet Coke. By age 30, 12 daily glasses with ice helped me concentrate on work but affected my sleep. So by noon I'd switch to Diet Coke Caffeine Free, consuming so many cans during the classes I taught that students who wanted extra help left ribbon-tied six-packs with my doorman as bribes. Restaurants didn't serve the noncaffeinated version, so I'd sneak 12-ounce bottles in big purses, as if smuggling vodka.

I learned soda was a serious problem when I had laryngitis for two weeks during a book tour. As a 47-year-old, teaching six-hour seminars, I'd assumed it was overuse and silently pondered the ironies. While promoting a project on finding your voice, I'd lost mine. A motor-mouth career-obsessed feminist now needed her husband to return phone calls and place food orders. At my launch party I gestured wildly, as if playing charades. People bought more books so my editor surmised I was more endearing and relatable as a mute. I carried a pen and pad to write I CAN'T TALK, jotting down my destination for cabs I once hailed with a bellow.

A former smoker, I worried about lung cancer or emphysema. But a doctor said my viral infection was worsened by acid reflux, a common ailment. Take Nexium and avoid spicy foods ... and fizzy drinks. I did, felt better, then slipped back to diet soda, until I was voiceless, with a hacking cough and breathing trouble. A throat specialist said: diet soda or your esophagus.

I was in denial about the diagnosis, and it wasn't the only piece of professional advice I got to quit: my gynecologist reminded me that caffeine has in some cases been linked to vaginal cysts. My dentist said he couldn't bleach my soda-stained teeth. After a root canal, the endodontist warned me that soda's ingredients eroded tooth enamel, making emergency procedures more likely. The magic potion I drank for decades was wreaking havoc on different parts of my body.

I hadn't realized how dependent I was on the caffeine, chemicals and the appetite squelching effect soda had on me. I ended up gaining weight and had mood swings without my regular fix. Not to mention learning to live without the psychologically soothing rituals I'd practiced, under the illusion that "calorie-free" meant healthy.

I still feel bereft without my diet soda, but I'm lucky I'm not ill and still have options. My doctor OK'd mineral water and chamomile tea. I'm trying to enjoy new rituals--boiling water, stirring bags of decaffeinated French Vanilla, and Caffeine Free Cranberry Apple Zinger. The only thing that's hit the spot so far is sipping Evian water through a straw in my last empty Diet Coke can, as if my eyes can trick my tongue and taste buds.

Or I could keep my mouth shut and not put anything in it for hours a time, a choice that, up until now, had never actually occurred to me.