If you know me at all, you know I’m a devoted coffee snob. I have an AeroPress at home and a second one at the office where I’ve been contracting for almost a year. I have not one, but two expensive burr grinders so I can always brew from fresh beans (one at home, one at the office). I temp the water before I brew. (Different beans extract ideally at different temps – I generally prefer anywhere from 85C to 95C depending on the bean, but 92C seems to be about my sweet spot.) And I buy rather expensive single-source beans from a local roaster.
So it came as a big surprise to my friends and family when, leading up to Memorial Day Weekend, I announced my intent to do a caffeine detox.
It started as my attempt to give up diet soda – I’d usually drink Coke Zero at lunch and dinner, and sometimes extra Coke Zero throughout the day. I know the chemicals in that stuff are going to kill me someday, so I decided I wanted to stop drinking it. Soda entirely, really – the diet stuff is full of chemical crap, and the non-diet stuff is jam-packed with unnecessary sugar, and I really don’t need any of that in my life. Plus, I lost a bunch of weight when I stopped drinking soda in 2005, so I thought it might be a good way to jump-start a healthier lifestyle again.
When I was thinking about it giving up soda, though, I realized I’d gotten entirely too accustomed to drinking a lot of caffeine, period. I’d start my workday with a latte. I’d have Coke Zero at lunch. I’d have a latte or a mocha mid-afternoon when I started feeling sleepy at the office. I’d have Coke Zero at dinner. Sometimes, when we’d eat out, I’d have a coffee with dessert. Basically, caffeine every few hours from morning ’til bedtime. I thought: “You know, while I’m trying to clean up my soda-drinking habits, maybe I should just stop drinking caffeine entirely. Just for a little while. Get through the withdrawal, and then drink less of it when I start drinking it again.”
So I did.
I planned to start over Memorial Day Weekend, because I’d have an extra day off and I knew I’d have massive headaches due to the caffeine withdrawal.
I was right.
The extra day off wasn’t really enough. I ended up working at home for a couple of days once the weekend was over. It wasn’t until an entire week had passed since I last drank caffeine that the headaches let up. And we’re talking migraine-level headaches for days 2-4, and then pretty bad headaches from 5-7. It was no walk in the park.
Week two was about feeling exhausted, all the time. I never really thought about what that must be doing to my body – how every time I started to get tired during the day, I’d just add some more caffeine. As a result, I had unconsciously programmed my body that whenever it sent me a sleepy signal, I’d just give it a chemical upper. I had completely messed with my body’s natural energy cycle, and it didn’t really know what to do once the caffeine wasn’t coming in again.
I’d wake up feeling relatively ok. But by the time an hour had passed – when I’d normally be drinking my morning latte or coffee – my eyelids didn’t want to stay up on their own. I had NO energy. I just wanted to go back to bed. Mid-morning, I’d be dragging. But mid-afternoon, when I always tend to get sleepy, was the worst. I’d literally be staring at my computer, and no matter how much effort I put into keeping my eyelids open, they would not stay open. I never fell asleep at my desk, but there were times when I’d sit there with my eyelids closed because I just literally couldn’t keep them open. I’d give them thirty seconds and force them open again, or go for a walk to try to get some blood flowing and give me some energy. But I think week two was even harder than the headaches – I could barely focus, and there’s something really debilitating about just being exhausted all the time.
By week three, I’d gotten a little apprehensive about what was going to come next. Was it going to be headaches again? Was the perpetual exhaustion about to descend on me again? When neither manifested, I thought: hey, maybe that’s it. Maybe the withdrawal is done. I started thinking about when I might start drinking caffeine again, and what form that might take.
One day, in the afternoon, I was feeling sleepy and also craving chocolate, so I thought about getting myself a hot chocolate. I know hot chocolate has caffeine in it. I did some spelunking to determine how much. Turns out, it depends. Generally, anywhere from 5mg to 20mg of caffeine in a hot cocoa, versus 80mg to 200mg in coffee, depending on the bean and the brewing method. I decided that was benign enough, so I treated myself to a hot cocoa around mid-week during week three.
MAN, I felt that caffeine!
That hot chocolate tasted effing amazing. And I felt SO GREAT after I drank it. I felt like I could do ALL THE THINGS. My mood lifted, I had so much more energy and focus, and I was super productive for the rest of the afternoon.
That’s when I realized two things:
- Wow, the body really adjusts quickly to not having caffeine. I thought I’d barely feel it, because I’d been drinking so much caffeine before, but let me tell you I felt the results and was very aware that the caffeine was affecting me.
- Oh shit. This might be worse than I realize. If even a little hot cocoa makes me feel this way, I’m going to have to be damn careful about how I re-introduce caffeine to my life. Maybe I shouldn’t drink caffeine again at all?
I wrestled with that for a few days. On Sunday, about five days after the hot cocoa and a little ways into week four, I decided to try a latte from one of my favorite local coffee shops. I was going to be deliberate about it – we sat there and had breakfast, and I savored the crap out of it. It was one of the most amazing coffee-drinking experiences I’ve ever had. And I realized: mindful coffee drinking is even more mind-blowing than habitual caffeine consumption. (This was the latte in the picture at the top of the post. Yes, I took a picture of it. It tasted even better than it looks.)
The rest of that day was amazing. I was SO PRODUCTIVE. I did a million chores, and got a bunch of writing stuff done, and didn’t feel like napping at 3 o clock or any of the normal stuff.
Then, when night rolled around, I was still feeling pretty energetic when it was time to go to bed. I forced myself to lie down, but my brain wouldn’t shut off – I laid there tossing and turning for a couple of hours, just thinking about everything and nothing, because my brain was too busy for sleep.
The next day was rough. And I knew it was because of the caffeine. I could still feel it in my system 24 hours after I drank it. But by the time mid-afternoon had rolled around – around 30-32 hours post caffeine – I was crashing. I think most of it had left my system, and combined with the lack of sleep the night before, I was exhausted. I barely made it through the rest of the day, and I canceled my evening plans because I just didn’t have brain.
Then I started to wonder if I should really be drinking caffeine anymore. If one latte, drank first thing in the morning, could have that effect – should I even be ingesting this stuff, period?
But I enjoyed it so much. And I had felt so productive and focused.
When Thursday of that week rolled around, I was absolutely dragging. I woke up feeling really cranky and grumpy. I could barely keep my eyes open. I made a decision: I’m going to get a mocha this morning. I want the chocolate and caffeine, for the mood elevation and to help me wake up. Otherwise, work is going to be very unpleasant, not just for me, but for anyone who encounters me.
It was a good call. That mocha was amazing. By the time I got to work, I was happy and chatty. (Mildly obnoxious, too – I announced to at least a half dozen people that I’d had a mocha that morning, and I even made it my Slack status. I had previously shared with people at work that I was caffeine detoxing, so I wanted to let them all know the good news when I started drinking it again. In retrospect, I may have been mildly caffeine-high.)
In the end, I didn’t regret drinking that mocha at all. I’d made a very intentional decision to have it, because I wanted it (and perhaps because I felt I needed it), and it had the desired effect.
Now here we are into week five. It’s Sunday, and I’ve just bought a mocha again. This is my third caffeine-based beverage in about four and a half weeks. (Well, really, my third in the last week, because that’s when I started drinking them again – last Sunday.)
I thought, when I walked up the street to pick it up, that I finally had it figured out.
I could have coffee-based drinks when I wanted them, and ONLY then. Not when I felt I needed them. Not when I was feeling sleepy, or tired, or cranky. Not out of any sort of craving or habitual need – I’d gotten used to lattes every morning, and again every afternoon/evening, and I don’t want to get back to that state. Only when I deliberately, mindfully, WANTED a coffee-based drink should I have one. I was pretty happy with that decision while I was sipping my mocha on the way home.
But now that I’m sitting here, typing this out and thinking about my reactions, I’m wondering if that’s really a good call. I made the decision to have a mocha on Thursday because I was cranky and tired and couldn’t keep my eyes open. Was it really that I WANTED it, or did I feel I needed it?
How much can I trust myself to judge the difference between want and need?
I don’t want to get back to a dependency state, because withdrawal was no good and it can’t be healthy for my body to be going through all that. The migraine-level headaches completely eliminated my ability to do anything substantive in days two through four. The exhaustion I felt during all of week two of my detox made me realize how I’d been putting my body through all kinds of crazy, unnatural swings with the sleepy/caffeine cycle. I feel like the caffeine was just masking the fact that my body was actually tired, and shouldn’t I be listening to my body? Isn’t that the whole point of mindfulness?
There’s also the fact that it feels wonderful to be so focused and productive when I drink caffeine. I feel like I get so much done. (I really do get so much done.) But it also just feels like a better mental state. And how is that different than any of the more serious, less socially-acceptable drugs? It feels like a slippery slope to me. Not that I ever have, or ever would, use “real” drugs – with my family history, that’s just not a thing that would happen. But in terms of how it affects the body, and wondering whether I can trust my mind when I’m making a decision about whether or not to have caffeine – all of the same psychology of addiction applies, I’m beginning to realize.
There’s the added complication that this coffee-consumption is tied into my identity as a writer. I love sitting at my desk, typing away and drinking coffee. It’s a really satisfying ritual. But how much of that is habitual?
And coffee helps me through those lagging cycles, where I want to stop and rest, instead letting me sit in front of my keyboard and just keep on working. But is that the healthiest thing? Shouldn’t I instead get up and talk a walk, or exercise, or nap?
Let’s not forget the fact that coffee and writers go hand-in-hand like peanut butter and jelly. It’s a huge part of the cultural identity of writers. If I stop drinking coffee entirely, does that mean I’m less a writer than other writers? It does feel alienating.
In short, this is a way more complicated question than I thought it would be when I stopped drinking caffeine on Memorial Day Weekend. The coffee detox was only supposed to be temporary – no more soda, but I’d go back to drinking coffee because I love coffee and I don’t have a medical reason not to.
But now, I have to wonder… is it really that simple? I’ve seen very clear signs of the physical effects, and I don’t think it’s such a straightforward question anymore. So I guess today, I’ll finish drinking this mocha, and savor it, and acknowledge that I have some thinking to do about whether caffeine has a place in my life long-term, and if so, how it will fit in.