The Saddest Tootsie Pop Ever

January 4th, 2011

I was a little sad that my therapist wasn’t moved by a photo of my lollipop, the saddest Tootsie Pop ever. She wanted instead to talk about my dad. She wanted me to tell her how scary it was that he yelled at me for no good reason when I was a little kid. You must have been scared, she said. You must have blamed yourself, she said. You must have internalized the screaming, she said. That dynamic surely must still be playing out in my skull, she said.

It was hard to focus on what she was talking about. My skull and I were floating on a hypoglycemic fuzz cloud, overcome by affection for my snacks.

I had wafted into therapy after having sat at a table in the coffee shop for what felt like a very long time. As I sat in the coffee shop, picking shreds of glued-on wrapper off one particular Tootsie Pop, it struck me that it was the saddest member of its clan. I realized that I had been picking at its wrapper for quite awhile, ignoring the fresh, crispy cellophane-clad organic lollipops arrayed on the coffee shop table beyond, any of which would have been easy to get out of its wrapper. The ingestion of any of the easily attained lollipops could have promptly pulled me back down from this cumulonimbus state by increasing my blood sugar and thus feeding my glucose-starved brain.

The brain doesn’t work well without glucose. The central nervous system—the brain and spinal cord—is unique in being the only organ that lacks the capability to store glucose. Whatever the brain needs, food-wise, jet fuel-wise, make-me-think-thoughts-and-process-language-wise, had better be there ready to soak up from the blood, or you’re going to be as stupid as a rock. You’re going to get to the counter at a deli and somebody in a white cardboard hat is going to ask you what you want and you’re just going to laugh at their hat and fall in love with them, overwhelmed with compassion for those who are forced to wear white cardboard hats. You’ll stare at all the beautiful containers of greasy orange and white and brown lumps and globules and fall in love with the luscious glowing blobs as if somebody had finally adjusted the light dimmer in the gallery’s back room and now the photorealistic painting of a crumpled brown paper bag was leaping out at you with shadow and crease and depth and breadth and soul. Somewhere inside those clear containers of food is the key to unleashing you from this rapture, but the ability to discern where has evaporated, and, truth be told, who would choose to go?

The who that chooses to leave this rapture is the tiniest remaining shred of cognition, which sees through this cloud to identify its true nature: The preamble to loss of consciousness, seizures, permanent brain damage and if things get particularly dire, death.

It’s that remaining tatter of cognition that makes you want, desperately, to say to the white paper hat person something more intelligible than just, me, give, that, maybe, or that, or, oh, yes, but, perhaps, that, and you’ll laugh at your own garbled situation, and once in a thousand times maybe whoever you’re talking to will maybe figure out you’re diabetic, but then they’ll get all their own brain’s messages scrambled, and so they’ll try to give you Diet Coke, thinking, Well, she’s diabetic, so she can’t have sugar, right?

You’ll shake your fuzzy head, because even a stupid rock like you knows that won’t help. There’s something in your DNA that knows that fake sugar isn’t real sugar. But who can blame the white paper hat people? It’s not their fault. It’s all confusing. People keep trying to be helpful, to share cures, such as the guy who wanted to date me and who was very proud of developing a diabetic diet of raw vegetables churned up in a blender.

It cures diabetics, he said.

I tried to be polite.

Yes, that’s marvelous, I said. You can indeed cure that kind of diabetes with a sewage spill of raw vegetables, that Type 2 type of diabetes, but no, not this kind of diabetes, this Type 1 kind being more of a professional-level diabetes. The kind where your pancreas has gone on strike, isn’t making any insulin, refuses to be coaxed into making insulin by a vat of raw vegetables. Less of a dilettante’s diabetes. One hates to be snobbish, but, well, there you have it. It’s not the couch-potato kind of diabetes; it’s the other kind.

None of this is helping. All of these words. You’re still in the deli with the Diet Coke white paper hat people. You need sugar, but people want words. The therapist wants words because that’s the only currency the language-adoring economy of therapy recognizes. The white Diet paper people hats hold your salvation hostage until you say some magic words, something perhaps to do with potato salad or juice but perhaps not egg salad or chocolate bars, though all of these things are staring back at you, and behind door number 1 or door number 2 could be the perfect, carbohydrate-appropriate snack, unfettered by the fat that slows sugar absorption, made of nothing but the slickness of digestive speed. Of sugar. Of the pure, unfettered heroin of carbohydrate.

But you say, Umm.

And then you blink.

Blink. Blink. Blink.

About 15-18% of any glucose that goes into your belly—French baguettes and potato chips and carrots and Whoppers and popcorn and pizza and Tootsie Pops, those wonderful little corn syrup orbs that can bounce around at the bottom of your backpack for months and still be ready to help out, if perhaps a bit melted, if perhaps a bit adhered to by detritus, by unnamable grit, by molecules shed by books and crumbs left by other members of the snack clan, successive generations of which have always squatted in your equipage, cheerful gypsy snack travelers come to spend part of their life cycle in your belly, bless them, bless them and their progeny, bless their shameful high-fructose illicitness, bless their photosynthesis-derived glucose molecules, those sixlet chains of carbons holding hands with doubled-up dozens of hydrogens and then streams of septuplet pure oxygen, bless the glucose, bless the sugar that the people whose hobby it is to suggest laws want to rip out of cafeterias and government snack machines, to tax because they think it’s evil and will make us fat, bless the rich gulps of dark sinful carbonation erupting from a Coke, fizzling your nose and tasting of caramel and sputtering like a small volcano of life, bless the fuel it feeds the brain, bless it, bless it all—about 15-18% of that ingested glucose goes straight to nourish the brain during the absorptive period of digestion. The brain doesn’t store glucose, it burns it, burns it on the high holy altar of cognition, burns it as it flips Cartesian cartwheels and writes or reads sentences like these.

The brain is, therefore, extremely sensitive to reduced blood glucose levels. This impairment of cognition presents an interesting conundrum, given that cognition enables self-diagnosis and treatment. You don’t have much else to tell you when your blood sugar is low besides your brain, or a gadget to test your blood sugar, but again, what tells you to use a gadget to test your blood sugar? A sugar-plumped, glucose-stoked brain.

I was fond of this particular Tootsie Pop. It struck me as being ludicrous like a scrotum is ludicrous, an aged senility implicit in wrinkled folds of melted, veiny purple that rose in small dusk-purple mountain ranges, scraps of paper like swaths of fog adhering where no paper should be. One of those small crumbs of cognition made me self-aware at some point, made me question my fixation on unpeeling the atmospheric haze of wrapper, made me look up to the table’s surface, spread with a horizon of lollipops that were as available and willing as prostitutes on Bourbon Street. But because hypoglycemia is what it is—the flip side of attention deficit, more an attention surplus disorder, as it were—I then fell in love with my brain’s obviously debilitated state, and with the pathetic state of a long-forgotten piece of candy, as if they were related by blood: one an enfeebled, starving brain and the other this wrinkled, sticky, forgotten piece of candy.

That’s how I chose not to treat the hypoglycemia, but to instead photograph the Tootsie Pop.

The fact that I took this photo is evidence of cognitive shutdown due to hypoglycemia. It's a dangerous, glowing, lovely place.


The last person I loved, as love-filled people do, consoled me when he broke up with me. He told me that I was beautiful, and smart.

“So what?” I said. “That doesn’t make me happy.”

“What’s so great about being smart?” I said. “Stupid people are probably much happier than smart people. Smart people think about things too much.”

I ate the Tootsie Pop. I packed my things up, left the coffee shop and walked down the block to my therapist’s office. As I walked, the loving warmth of stupidity lingered, and I picked the paper out of my back teeth.

It made me wonder about the neuroanatomy of hypoglycemia. It made me wonder over the parallels between meditation and hypoglycemic-induced stupidity. Aren’t they similar? The stilling of the mind’s chatter, either by meditative focus or sugar deprivation? It made me think of the work of Dr. Norman Doidge, or of Dr. Jeffrey M. Schwartz, neuroanatomists who write about the power of the mind to alter the brain’s mappings, to still the hyperstimulated alarm systems of the brain—the amygdala and the caudates—and about the ability of obsessive compulsive disorder sufferers to sooth and shrink their own swollen caudates through guided meditation. Could a similar rewiring be evident in a brain exposed to a forced state of meditative awareness and focus, such as hypoglycemia? Does a lifetime of diabetes and exposure to hypoglycemia make somebody more prone to using alternative synapses? To quieting the ringing alarms of the brain’s alarm systems?

What I wanted to communicate to my therapist, to Susan, had something to do with the rapture of stupidity.

Although some relatives of diabetics disagree with their findings, scientists have failed to discern permanent brain damage from recurrent episodes of low blood sugar in the brains of diabetics.

I didn’t peel off all the flaking skin of that thing. I put the entire thing in my mouth. I take entire things and pull them into me. I draw in the grit and the purple mountain majesties and the wrongness and the storm and the blood-sanctioned sugar, the photosynthesized godhead, and I absorb it all, nutrition and offal, without label or thought.

I feed myself.

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