“Would you like a Diet Coke or some water? That’s all I keep in my office fridge,” I offer, smiling at my friend and colleague with whom I am having a brief organizational meeting.
“No, thanks. I never drink that stuff,” she replies, tilting her head toward the Diet Coke can in my hand and giving it a faintly disapproving glance. “And I brought my water bottle.” I shrug off my defensiveness and smile cheerfully, popping open my Diet Coke and settling in for our discussion.
Cracking open an icy cold can of Diet Coke is how I punctuate meetings, classes, or most any other event. I never did learn to like coffee, and while I do enjoy hot tea, it causes me to have major hot flashes, so I only drink it before my morning shower.
Diet Coke never lets me down; it is my go-to source of caffeine. I love the fizz, the taste, and coolness of it slipping down my throat. It is energy, it is comfort, it is tasty. But does it count as self-care or self-harm?
Any number of students, friends, family members, and colleagues have made gentle and not-so-subtle references to the idea that Diet Coke is not good for one’s health, at least at high levels of consumption. Aspartame (the artificial sweetener) has been blamed for everything from head aches and dizziness to diabetes and depression. One memorable student cried in my office as she warned me that aspartame would turn into formaldehyde in my body and poison me. And more than a few students have teased me about the irony of me teaching them about health communication while drinking my favorite (unhealthy) beverage.
I admit that drinking several cans a day of Diet Coke is probably not the healthiest option, and yet I feel caught in an impossible bind. I drink so much Diet Coke because the daily dose of neuropathic pain medications necessary to control (most of) my phantom limb pain leaves me feeling chronically sleepy and unfocused. I feel more alert after drinking (caffeinated) Diet Coke, and it is a convenient and readily accessible product. Yet I also feel embarrassed and defensive about how much of it I drink.
For the record, significant bodies of research have failed to demonstrate that aspartame has negative effects, except for people with a genetic disorder that makes them unable to process one of the compounds in aspartame. The FDA continues to approve its use. That doesn’t mean that aspartame can’t have long-term negative effects for which we do not have evidence, of course.
When people suggest—implicitly or explicitly—that I should not drink so much soda, I feel a complex blend of emotions: resentment and frustration, mixed with sadness, shame, and defensiveness. I don’t know how else to break out of the mental fog and stay awake. I typically explain that I am so tired that I could lay down on conference table or the floor (or whatever is handy to where I am at the time) and take a nap right at that moment. And drinking Diet Coke helps me stay alert and focused.
Writing this, I continue to feel defensive. I want to explain that other decisions I make are more clearly health sustaining: I eat in a fairly healthy manner and engage in regular, moderate exercise on an exercise bike, both of which help to keep me feeling as well as possible. I drink at least 8 glasses of water per day. Granted, eating less chocolate than I do would be a good idea, but that’s unlikely to happen, and anyway, dark chocolate has antioxidants and other good nutrients.
At this point, Diet Coke remains the best—albeit imperfect—solution that I have found to coping with one of the worst side effects of my medications. It would be so nice if health decisions were clearly right or wrong, healthy or unhealthy, but in real life, coping is almost always more complicated than that.