Thursday, May 29, 2008


Over the past forty-eight hours, I fought my battle with coffee. It was over a lot sooner than I expected. All the same, I doubt I'll touch the stuff before August.

Coffee is addictive. And I don't mean that in any cute sense of the word: I mean that it creates physical dependency, and if a dependent person cuts down on coffee intake, there are withdrawal symptoms. That's simply a fact. A scary fact.

When I was in graduate school, about a decade ago, I went hog-wild on coffee. There was a very nice locally-owned coffee shop just about a block from my workspace, so I frequented it. This should give you an idea of just how frequent my frequenting was: they had, as many college-town businesses do, a punch card setup. Ten punches got you a free beverage. They weren't very smart about it, as they gave a punch for everything, even a small house blend, and the freebie was good for anything on the menu, no matter how expensive. But their foolish generosity was my boon, and I traded in a whole lot of punch cards. To be precise, it was not at all unusual for me to start a day with a brand new punch card, and, by the end of the day, fill it and claim the freebie. That was a lot of coffee. It gradually dawned on me that it was an unhealthy amount.

What saved me, I think, is that I hadn't been a coffee drinker before that. I started drinking coffee at that phase of my education, because my doctoral adviser was a hard man to pin down, but could often be enticed into stepping out for a cup of joe. At first, I had to have a mocha with a lot of whipped cream. Then I managed to choke down flavored coffee with lots of cream and sugar. The next step was unflavored coffee with cream and sugar, then just sugar, and now I drink it black. As a matter of fact, I like cafe Americanos, nothing added except, occasionally, an extra shot. The point of that little beverage history is that I worked my way up to my ridiculous overconsumption of caffeine pretty darned quickly, inside of a year or two. And I gather, from purely anecdotal evidence collected from friends and family, that what causes the addiction is heavy consumption of coffee over a long period of time. I wasn't able to put the serious hurt on myself in just two years, praise God; it takes year after year after year of steady coffee consumption.

So, earlier this week, I finally asked myself why I was still brewing up coffee every morning. It's summer. I have no need to get out of bed until I feel like it. I have no particular need to be alert. Once I realized there was no positive reason for me to go straight from my warm bed to a warm cup of coffee, I decided this would be a good week to see if addiction had set in.

Oh boy.

Tuesday was the day. I didn't suffer any symptoms until about two or three in the afternoon, but then it hit: the caffeine deprivation headache. Boom. Boom boom boom boom boom, like a jackhammer. And the pain pulsed with my heartbeat, which meant when it came time for me to take my regular half-hour walk home, I felt the headache at quadruple intensity every time I climbed a hill. By the time I got home, I was so wrung out from pain that all I wanted to do was go straight to bed. I slept fourteen hours: 6 PM to 8 AM.

And then I felt fine.

Yesterday, I had a little ghost headache in the afternoon that didn't amount to anything. Today, we'll see, but I don't expect anything fierce. I think my body shook it off in one day. And I think it did so because of a choice I made about twelve years ago.

Around the time that my excess consumption of coffee started scaring me, I made a firm resolution and cut back to one very strong cup, very early in the morning. Except in special circumstances, such as when I have to stay awake to drive, I never drink coffee more than about an hour after I wake up, and I never have a second cup. On more than a few occasions, my colleagues have requested, or even demanded, an explanation for this. I tell them that I have quite enough trouble falling asleep at night without making matters worse with too much caffeine, and this is true. But it's not the chief reason. The idea of being deep into caffeine dependency, with no way out except through a lot of pain, is one I find quite unsettling. And even though I drink coffee just about every day, it seems as though limiting myself to one early cup makes for a shallow dependency that's easily dismissed. Every few years I go off coffee for a while, and the effects are mercifully brief, so I'm not inclined to mess with what works. Yes, this being the Pacific Northwest, I keep passing places where I can smell it, and oh, does it ever smell enticing. But some sacrifices are worth it.

Something like the above reasoning explains the majority of odd choices that I make: choices about food, about sleep, about spending money, about making friends, about driving a car, about how I teach my classes, and the list could go on. Much of what I do doesn't make sense to other people, but I'm not inclined to mess with what works.

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