Coffee

In my life I have participated in most of the legal substance-abuse vices, with the exception of tobacco. I’ve been around smokers frequently, but I’ve not been interested in smoking. Some other time I might address the abuse of sugar, salt, and oils, but today I want to write about coffee.

My parents had the habit of drinking a cup of coffee with each meal–breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They drank it black–no sugar, no milk or cream. As a child, I didn’t like the smell of coffee and didn’t want to drink coffee. Even when I went to college, coffee held no appeal for me.

That changed my last year of college. I took a course in art history which met three afternoons a week, right after lunch. The professor turned off the lights and showed slides of paintings and sculptures on the wall. He had a quiet, monotone voice. His quizzes were very difficult. To keep awake in class, I started drinking coffee with my lunch those three days of the week.

By the time I started graduate school, I was in the habit of drinking coffee every day. During my internship, I even learned to drink Cuban espresso, which absolutely requires a lot of sugar because it is so bitter. Also during my internship, I learned that drinking a cup of coffee during Wednesday night Bible class was a bad idea. I was often awake for hours after Bible class, until I learned to stop drinking coffee that late in the day.

When I graduated and started working a steady job, I had one day off each week. After a couple of months, I began to wonder why I always had a headache by lunchtime on my day off. I finally realized that my headache was a symptom of caffeine withdrawal. Rather than giving up on coffee the other six days of the week, I started drinking coffee on my day off as well, and the headaches went away.

My habit became two cups of coffee a day: one with breakfast and the other with lunch. Most of the time I drink it black. On hot summer days, I sometimes prepare a cup of iced coffee, which includes sugar. On some winter days, I treat myself to a mocha, stirring a package of hot chocolate mix into a cup of coffee. I always fix my coffee at home, because I do not want to pay the coffee shop prices to soothe my addiction. I have been careful not to have coffee in the mid-afternoon or evening, because I want to be able to sleep at night.

This was not a scientific study with proper controls, but I have played video games while mildly intoxicated with alcohol, and I have played the same games while “buzzed” with caffeine. In matters of coordination and in matters of judgment, I found that caffeine created more problems for me than alcohol.

Over the years, I have given up alcohol for Lent, and I have given up caffeine for Lent. I found caffeine to be the harder substance from which to fast. Withdrawal symptoms, the desire for a drink, and the rush to return to the substance when Easter arrived all were stronger for coffee than for alcoholic beverages.

My doctor suggested that I cut my coffee drinking in half to help control my blood pressure. At first I resisted his advice, but after I was diagnosed with anxiety, I was willing to cut back to one cup a day. I still drink a mug of coffee after breakfast before I leave for work.

Some web sites list the dangers of caffeine, while others insist that caffeine is safe except in extremely high doses. Some mornings I savor my cup of coffee, while other mornings I worry about my addiction to caffeine. I sympathize with people who struggle with addictions, because I know how powerful my own addiction is in my life. J.

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A day without coffee

A day without coffee is like… well, I’m not entirely sure what it’s like. I’ve had so few days without coffee recently, I don’t remember what they are like.

When I was growing up, my parents drank coffee with every meal—breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Sometimes in the summer they’d switch to iced tea with lunch and dinner, but otherwise, the coffee was always there. As a child I didn’t care much for the smell of coffee. I didn’t hate it; I simply didn’t think I’d enjoy drinking it. As a result, I had very little coffee throughout my formative years.

My last year of college, I took an elective class in art history. The class met after lunch, and the professor’s voice was calm and soothing. He turned off the lights and showed pictures of important pieces of art. His quizzes were hard. I tried everything to keep awake in class—grounding the heel of one foot into the top of my other foot, clenching my fists to drive my fingernails into my palms, even answering the occasional questions the professor asked. Nothing worked. Out of desperation, I began drinking coffee with my lunch, and I managed to survive the class and even earn an A.

Over the following years I drank coffee sporadically, until finally I arrived at a full-time job with an actual day off each week. The day off happened to be Monday. After a few weeks, I wondered why every Monday, by lunchtime, I developed a headache that didn’t go away for the rest of the day. I should have been more relaxed on Mondays—I shouldn’t have been getting headaches. The only difference, I found, was that on Mondays, being off of work, I wasn’t drinking any coffee.

From that time on, I became a regular coffee drinker, two mugs of coffee every day, seven days a week. I didn’t dare have coffee after early afternoon, or it would interfere with my sleep. (I learned that during my internship, when I would drink coffee during Wednesday night Bible class and then be awake until the early hours of the morning.) Generally I drank one mug of coffee with breakfast and another with lunch. If I was at a meeting and had coffee there, I skipped the lunchtime coffee.

Twice, I gave up coffee as a Lenten fast. Both times, I wisely tapered off the strength of my coffee during the month before Lent to reduce withdrawal symptoms. Both times, I found myself returning to my coffee habit as soon as Easter arrived.

Two years ago my doctor suggested that I reduce my coffee intake to see if that would help control my blood pressure and my anxiety. Since I began taking medication to control anxiety at the same time, it’s hard to say if drinking only one mug of coffee a day makes a difference in the way I feel. There’s no sense paying a doctor and refusing to follow the doctor’s advice, though, so for two years I have had but one mug of coffee each day.

I’ve not learned yet how to brew just one mug of coffee. Generally I brew about two-thirds of a pot, drink the fresh coffee that day, the day-old coffee the next day, and the two-day-old coffee the third day. Microwaves make that very easy to accomplish. I’ve learned not to make a full pot of coffee and try for the fourth day. Especially during the heat and humidity of summer, some sort of algae or slime begins to grow in the coffee by the fourth day.

Last Friday I came home from work to an empty house—my daughters were away for a dance competition. When I began to get my supper ready, I noticed that the microwave was flashing a message at me: “Enjoy your meal.” That seemed premature, since I hadn’t yet heated my meal in the microwave. I assumed one of my daughters had heated some food and had forgotten it. (Getting ready for dance competitions can be a whirlwind experience, and sometimes things are forgotten.) No, in the microwave was my mug of coffee, forgotten since I left for work in the morning.

But what happened to my withdrawal symptoms? Driving home from work, I had felt some pressure or pain above my nose and between my eyes. I assumed that was caused by sinus problems, which I’ve been having all month. I had not been short-tempered during the day, or restless, or tired. I proposed several theories about my lack of symptoms, still not sure which of these is true:

  • My aging body is no longer as prone to addiction and withdrawal as before. Not likely, but worth considering.
  • My reduction to one mug a day has made me less likely to have withdrawal symptoms when I miss my morning coffee.
  • The medicine I’m taking for anxiety blocks symptoms of coffee withdrawal.
  • Something at work is so pleasant and distracting that withdrawal symptoms from coffee had no chance of getting my attention.

Whatever the reason, I made it to suppertime without my daily coffee. On the other hand, as soon as I found the cup of coffee in the microwave, my headache became worse. I finished the coffee while I warmed my supper, not knowing whether or not it would interfere with my sleep that night. As it happened, sleep came slower than usual, and I was on the point of turning on the light and reading some more (even though it was after midnight) when I finally drifted off to sleep. J.