“I don’t want to be coffee’s bitch.”

I actually said this, to a friend, when she was asking why I didn’t just go have a cup of coffee. I was almost in tears from a smashing headache that had been going on for almost a week– a headache that was so bad it actually made me throw up, and I’m not a puker.

I had decided, on July 4, 2010, that I was going to quit my decades long coffee habit. I’d started on coffee as a senior in high school, when Starbucks was a new thing and my boyfriend at the time worked in a local coffee shop. Iced mochas were my gateway drug (and one that I would still not pass up if it were offered to me). I kept on drinking the “foofy” coffee all through college, usually dousing it with enough milk and sugar to keep it from tasting like…coffee. I made it in my dorm room; I’d set it up at night, and in the morning, the alarm would go off. I’d hit the snooze button and the “on” switch for my Mr. Coffee at the same moment, and when the alarm went off again, I’d slug the coffee without even getting out of bed. When we had crew practice at 5:30 AM, I was up by 5 to have a cup of coffee. During our senior year, a friend quit caffeine cold turkey, and I mused that maybe I should do the same. “Don’t bother,” he said. “Coffee just has a light little hold on your wrist. Coffee had me with two hands around the neck.”

So I didn’t bother, and kept on drinking coffee. Usually just a cup in the morning and a cup after lunch, but if I didn’t get those two cups, watch out. I was basically non-functional, wandering around confused and quickly afflicted with a massive headache. If I had  control over my surroundings, I was fine, but if not, I panicked. On a camping trip, I packed three cans of Starbucks double shot in my backpack, and chugged them in my tent in the morning, so no one would ask me to share. I drank coffee before I went to work– the thought of encountering a colleague in the elevator before my first cup was horrifying. Lunch meetings, or working in remote locations like state prisons or rehab facilities, would leave me with a single minded focus: COFFEE. MUST FIND COFFEE. WHERE’S THE CLOSEST COFFEE? It reminded me of a description I had once read about alcoholics, how they always know where the booze is and how much is left.

I tried to stop once. I cut down to half regular/ half decaf, then to 3/4 decaf. The morning that I was supposed to go to full decaf was September 11, 2001. I looked out the window and figured that life was too short not to enjoy coffee or whatever else I wanted. I don’t think I missed a single day of coffee in the next almost-10 years. I drank bad coffee, burnt coffee, hot coffee in the middle of summer when it was all I could find. I didn’t savor the coffee; I NEEDED the coffee.

So, fast forward to 2010.  I was feeling very sad and unsuccessful when I woke up on July 4, and I canceled my plans for the day. Then I decided that one way to stop feeling this way was to conquer something, like my coffee addiction. I had given this zero thought before that morning, but I figured that since I hadn’t had any coffee yet, this would be a good day to start. I drank some herbal tea and tried to get on with my life.

It was rough. It was probably one of the hardest things I had been through (and I’ve run a marathon). I was sweating, shaking, nauseous, and the pain in my head was like nothing I’d ever experienced. “If I don’t feel better soon, I might have to hold up a Starbucks,” I wrote on day 4. I tried to sleep as much as I could (not hard, since I was a grad student) and drink a lot of water. I didn’t do much else for the first week.

After a week, I could do some work. I tried to take it easy, not get too tired, not do anything that required a lot of focus or patience or mental effort. My teeth looked brighter, I thought, and I was sleeping great. I felt good when I woke up in the morning, though afternoons were tough. I was a little tempted to drink coffee, but I reminded myself that if I fell off this wagon, I’d probably never get back on again; it was that painful.

It probably took a month for me to feel good/ fully functional. And for the longest time, I felt amazing. I would wake up in the morning and just…be awake! What a concept! I felt good after lunch– not like a cloud had settled on my brain. I got fewer migraines. I craved sweets less. I learned to love a million types of tea, and not to think about how much I loved coffee.

I’ve since fallen off the caffeine-free wagon. For a while I was just drinking decaf, but now I’m back on the real stuff and, while I love  it, I miss  the state of substance-free purity I attained back then. I used to brag about how I’d untethered myself from coffee’s grasp; now, I sip my coffee with some guilt and tell myself that tomorrow I’ll stop.


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