I had two quarters and a $20 bill, but all that added up to just then was this: No Diet Coke for me.
One nickel and I could do business with the office vending machine. I could've borrowed one from a co-worker, probably, or asked if anybody could change a twenty, but it seemed like less hassle just then to retrieve one I'd noticed earlier in the car.
It was right where I remembered, and I snatched it up in triumph –only to realize I was now locked out of the building.
The front lobby was closed on Saturdays, and in my haste I'd neglected to grab either my access card or my phone. It was just now getting light. There was no one in sight.
As I contemplated my options, however, I detected movement: A frizzy-haired woman in a shabby purple coat, apparently scanning the ground for half-smoked cigarettes.
“You wouldn't happen to have a cell phone, would you?” I called out.
“Got a cigarette?” she asked as she fished in her pocket.
I shook my head, but she held the phone out anyway. Crisis resolved. Or was it? I should give her something. Those quarters – or that temporarily useless $20 bill?
My inner cheapskate won the debate, by a narrow margin. I handed over the coins, and watched my would-be Diet Coke move off down the street in the hands of another addict.
I'd like to say this incident was what finally helped me quit Diet Coke, the elixir of so many former fatties like myself. But my addiction went on to survive countless warnings from my mother about the possible dangers of Nutrasweet – along with a price increase at the office vending machine – before I finally decided, exactly 51 days ago, that I'd had my fill.
What finally did the trick, nearly 25 years after I first wrote about my addiction in this newspaper?
It wasn't any one thing so much as the gradual accumulation of reasons to quit finally overshadowing the desire to continue. I'd already given up quarter pounders and French fries. My longtime beverage of choice no longer provided a lift or even refreshment. It was, in the end, nothing more than a habit.
Breaking a habit really isn't hard to do, if you focus on it for three weeks or so. You find an appealing substitute – in my case, seltzer water with lemon juice – and periodically review key images representing your desire to quit.
For me, visualizing a giant bucket of change was a key motivator. In fact, I'd already stopped drinking Diet Coke at the office months earlier, reasoning that I could get my caffeine from coffee. This “containment” strategy – only allowing myself to drink Diet Coke in certain situations – helped build enough willpower to remind me there were other options besides always giving in to impulse.
The memory of getting locked out was a vivid reminder of the dumb ways that neediness gets in the way of living your life. Another key image – though at the time I found it mostly amusing – was the photo shoot we did with that 1989 addiction story, in which a 2-liter Diet Coke bottle hung upside down like an IV dripping into a woman's arm as she worked at her desk.
But ultimately, I now think, it was two seemingly unrelated developments that got me to the tipping point.
The first was a study I stumbled across suggesting that the acid content of Diet Coke can damage your teeth. To me, that's a more tangible and realistic concern than seemingly scarier health issues.
The other was our subscription to an organic grocery delivery service. Switching to “clean” produce, after cutting back on junk food earlier, felt like that containment strategy all over again. I liked to think I had the chemicals in my life – and in my body – on the run.
Suddenly, it no longer seemed appealing to take a big swig of synthetic soda, no matter how hard it tries to emulate the “real thing.”