Transforming Caffeine

Hooked on coffee. My gateway drug was Coca-Cola; even then, I knew I had a problem. At 16, I posted rules for myself on the basement fridge, where my red sweet stash was stored: Maximum 3 cans a day on weekdays; Saturday and Sunday, free for all.

In university, I matriculated from sweet to bitter brown. I composed a sonnet praising java, mostly to impress my thesis supervisor who, like most profs, could be handily won over if you brought two lattes to your meetings with them. Academia is coffee culture. There were other drugs, of course—marijuana, speed, and copious amounts of red wine—but in undergrad, I never went for any of those. Caffeine did the trick.

Now, at 41, I can look back on a more colourful and varied history of consumption, but coffee is the only constant. Over time, its tricks have worn thin; instead of letting me define my persona through the brew in my hand, the brew controls me.

I didn’t realize how intricate and limiting it is until I recently tried to explain it to some old friends. “If I don’t have a cup before 10am, the headaches start. But if I have two cups before noon, I get the jitters. Sometimes I can go without a second cup that afternoon, but then I’ll wake up the next morning in withdrawal. So, number two around 2 or 3pm—not later than 4, or else I’ll never sleep…” And so on. And these rules pertain to only normal cups of drip coffee. Offer me a cappuccino and I’m into quadratic equations.

It’s personality, too. Withhold my mug, and I’ll get cranky and selfish. Offer me too much, and I’ll get twitchy, flighty, easily distracted. In the middle, there’s a zone, and there I’m focused, amenable, controlled. On a good day, each cup delivers 2-3 hours of that state. Then…crash.

But I love the taste of it—good coffee, fresh coffee, coffee at its optimal temperature and in the proper cup and in the right environment: divine. Then I can forget that it’s a delivery system for caffeine, and it always has been, or else who on earth would ever dream it up, much less export or mass-produce the bitter sludge? After I paid $22 for a cup of rare Jamaican Blue Mountain, friends asked me what it tasted like. “Smooth,” I’d enthuse, “so smooth and light, it almost had no taste at all.” And fellow javaphiles would nod sagely, but non-coffee drinkers would look aghast, as if to say, “Really? The best coffee in the world is basically water?

Alright, maybe it’s the whole ambience I love. Coffee shop culture, the aroma of fresh ground beans, the delicate shapes formed out of foam upon the surface of a finely wrought latte. But if I’m being honest with myself, coffee is the usually the least satisfying thing about coffee shops. Either I’ll knock it back fast, so I can get into the focus-zone quick, to get some good, productive writing out of myself before the staff start to begrudge me for taking up space. Or I’ll try to nurse it, till I get distracted with writing, and then it’s cold and bitter and the cream has coalesced into white scum on its settled surface.

Cream. Don’t get me started. My dad learned to drink his coffee black, so that he could still accept a cup when offered, even if the hosts didn’t have cream or sugar. I’m less accommodating. It’s not part of my persona to drink coffee black, although I did wean myself off sugar for some reason. But at the same time, I’m a sourmilkophobe, so if my cream shows even the slightest sign of having curdled, I’ll toss it in a heartbeat, but then I’ll grieve the loss like a bereaved parent. Once, my roommates and I discovered our cream had gone off, and we couldn’t afford to buy more, so we used maple syrup instead. (Someday, they’ll call that a Canadiano, and I bet you I won’t even get credit.)

Eventually, my dad quit caffeine, and he claims it changed his personality profoundly. I’ve tried to quit a few times, but it’s brutal—not as bad as cigarettes, I’m sure, but much tougher than weed, which is the drug I’ve struggled with most after coffee. But the withdrawal from weed is psychological, whereas caffeine withdrawal involves physical brain trauma. The blood vessels in your brain constrict, depleting your bloodflow, causing brain fog, nausea, and horrendous headaches. For me, these symptoms usually last 1-2 days, but during one attempt to go cold turkey, I was screwed for a week.

So, I’m a coward, and I’d rather manage my daily doses than go through that hell—especially since I know it’s only a matter of weeks before I cave and order another coffee. In the meantime, when I’m off caffeine, even a chocolate bar can be enough to mess me up. And while I’m mildly curious about the “other personality” I might uncover if I ever quit the drug for good, I like myself pretty well the way I am.

Besides, in less than two weeks, I’ll be living in France. Is this really the right time to give up coffee?

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One thought on “Transforming Caffeine

  1. Mary-Jean says:

    I know what it’s like to be in love with our demons and make excuses for our excessive use of them (terrified smoker over here). But maybe if you’re interested, tea might do the trick? It seems gentler than coffee and still has caffeine. It’s also a fun hobby. Just a thought! Let me know if you want me to send you some when you reach France.

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