Giving up liquid-bean juice brings withdrawal and grouchiness.
“Vices” is a four-part column that challenges what we think we need. Each week, a different writer will give up something he or she “can’t live without.” We watch them land safely or crash and burn.
Coffee controls my life.
Every morning, I start with a mug full of Folger’s Colombian coffee. I drink it black with three ice cubes – not because I’m an idiot who can’t figure out how to make iced coffee, but because I like my caffeinated brew at room temperature. This way, I can gulp down my first cup as I take a shower, occasionally reaching out from behind the shower curtain to drink a few sips, then get dressed, blow-dry my hair and rush out the door.
But one cup does nothing.
As the day progresses, I usually consume at least three more.
But two weeks ago, as I was running by the Schuylkill River after my 7 p.m. coffee, with my rent payment on my mind, I began to think about how much money I spend on coffee. I’m only home once in the morning to use the Mr. Coffee. If I lie to myself and say I only buy one cup a day at $2 per semi-steamy wonder, that’s $14 per week.
Every time I hand over my orange enemy – my PNC bank card – or a handful of change to a cashier, I justify it with three reassuring words: You need this.
Or do I? To test myself, I decided to give up coffee for seven days. The motivation? To save money and reassure myself that I could stay sane sans-liquid roasted beans.
Instead, the experiment began to convince me I belonged in a Coffee Addicts Anonymous meeting.
By the end of the first day, I was sluggish and slightly irritated but still functioning. By the second day, my boss was telling me I looked stoned, and to say the least, I was not the most agreeable person.
Remembering New York Times writer Brian Stetler’s experience using Twitter to lose weight, I turned to 140-character content for sympathy. But while Stetler later reported in “Tall Tales, Truth and My Twitter Diet,” an article documenting his experiences, that he received at-replies like, “Am so proud of you,” I got at-replies that read, “Why are you doing that to yourself?” and “I’m going to have to have an extra cup of coffee to make up for this horror.” But the most telling was one I laughed off at first: “You sound like an addict.”
By this time, I’d cracked. Falling asleep at work during the morning of the third day, I knew I wouldn’t make it through my four classes without at least one cup. One cup quickly turned into four, and by macroeconomics time, my body was blissfully bored rather than fighting to stay awake.
To be honest, I hate to lose. The idea of giving up coffee was daunting, but I was positive shear willpower would get me through it. Sure, I would lose my Energizer-bunny status for seven days, but then I would write a nice article on how it was difficult but I succeeded by using healthy, high-energy alternatives like waking up early to run more often or sipping cups of Joe’s herbal caffeinated counterpart, tea. Wrong.
My dignity was diminishing: One coworker texted me saying he’d heard through the grapevine I’d broken my coffee-less spell, while another pointed out that I was drinking coffee when it hadn’t been a week since we’d seen each other.
Disappointed, I turned to Google for an explanation.
The first result: “The hidden dangers of caffeine: How coffee causes exhaustion, fatigue and addiction,” from NaturalNews.com, a Taiwanese nonprofit that covers “health, environmental sensitivity, consumer choices and informed skepticism.”
The blog post drew information from “Caffeine Blues,” a book by Stephen Cherniske.
“By stimulating your adrenal glands to produce adrenalin, caffeine puts your body in this ‘fight-or-flight’ state,” blogger Dani Veracity explained. “When this adrenal fear wears off later, you feel the drop in terms of fatigue, irritability, headache or confusion. At this point, you may reach for another ‘hit’ of caffeine. If you constantly keep your body on a caffeine high, you’re constantly keeping your body in ‘fight-or-flight’ mode.”
Fight or flight? Hits? The blog post was beginning to sound like a voiceover on A&E’s “Intervention.” I clicked the Back button.
The results of “Addiction Inbox: Coffee Addiction,” a blog post by Dirk Hanson, author of “The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction,” were more disheartening.
“Like alcoholics and cocaine addicts, people with an impressive tolerance for coffee and tea may find themselves chasing a caffeine high in a losing battle against fluctuating neuroreceptor growth patterns,” Hanson wrote.
By this point, the power of Google was betraying me. Beginning to feel a little skeeved about the dangers of my coffee-drinking habit now that it was linking me to cocaine addicts, I sought comfort in an e-mail reply I received from Thomas Gould, a psychology professor for Temple’s Center for Substance Abuse Research.
Gould explained that addiction is a “tricky definition,” so instead I should focus on what dependence is. Dependence means that without something, a person cannot function as desired. Our bodies have a baseline level of arousal, and when we stimulate it with caffeine or other drugs, the body reacts by working against the jolt and trying to return to the baseline.
“Your body has adjusted its set point to compensate for the caffeine, and that is why you are drowsy when you do not have it,” Gould said. “Eventually, if you abstain for a long period, the body will readjust so caffeine is not needed, but this is not a fun time and most people relapse.”
I like to have fun, so I excused my relapse.
The most comforting part came when he answered my question regarding the unhealthy nature of my dependence.
“Caffeine is not viewed as a dangerous drug,” Gould said.
And though everything is following by a “but” (“Long-term use can cause problems, and with some pre-existing conditions, this could be problematic,” Gould added), I’m reverting to my Internet-, WebMD-certified knowledge that I do not have these vague “pre-existing conditions” and drinking up.
Besides, no one likes a grump.
Ashley Nguyen can be reached at email@example.com.