I’ve been a jittery guy for as long as I can remember, and I always thought it a natural extension of my body until I noticed that I was drinking six cups of coffee a day. Yes, those who know me well constantly poke fun at my perpetually quaking legs, wringing hands and tapping feet; habits that I foolishly thought to be an inevitable extension of my psyche and physiological makeup and not the blatant product of injecting 100 percent fresh-ground Colombian directly into my eyeballs every single morning.
I had a cup in the morning. I had a cup at lunch. I had a cup before naps. I had a cup to relax. I had a cup to write. I had a cup when I was bored. When the novelty of the lifestyle wore itself out after a few years, I found myself trapped in a spiral of spiking, crashing and debilitating migraines. Greeting each morning with a gigantic “middle finger” before I’d ingested my first mug had grown old. So I decided to stop.
My wake-up call came in the unlikely form of a weekend road trip to Pittsburgh in order to visit a Temple buddy of mine that had been living back in his hometown during our dear winter break. I refused to leave my home without a silo of fresh backup coffee in a large mug.
I finished it an hour into the ride.
I pulled my Caravan over twice to refill at passing truck-stop Starbucks kiosks along the way. I left a record store early to go drink coffee in my car. We spent two hours in a museum full of dinosaurs, walruses and prehistoric ground sloths – murderous animals that my 5-year-old psyche would have adored – and the only thing on my mind was where my next mug was coming from. I ended up downing two full pots of green tea at a noodle house to compensate.
I resolved to break the cycle immediately upon return.
As I am apt to do, I automatically did some smartphone research on the matter whilst devouring a sandwich made entirely out of cured meats and french fries in Pittsburgh’s Strip District.
Apparently, too much caffeine can directly raise blood pressure, increase migraines, destroy healthy sleep patterns and cause you to constantly spike and crash throughout the day like a stuttering Volkswagen bus. Turns out, the threshold for “too much caffeine” lies at two-to-three cups a day, a benchmark that I was virtually doubling by mid-afternoon. I routinely drank a 20-ounce iced coffee, possibly an entire day’s worth of caffeine, before taking an afternoon nap. I had no right to get angry when sight-destroying migraines surfaced during primetime television later that night. This was my fault.
As such, I decided to slowly wean myself off of coffee using tea until I eventually needed nothing at all.
I knew I faced a comically uphill battle, and within mere hours of quitting coffee, my life had devolved into a caffeine-based episode of “24,” every second lucidly ticking by as I patiently waited for sleep, death or Jack Bauer to arrive and loudly ask me if I’d seen the president of Kamistan. I think at that point I may have been hallucinating.
My roommate, a novice drummer, kindly decided that my first night post-coffee would involve listening to a stuttering, two-hour live rendition of the drum track to Metallica’s “Sad But True,” a song I neither enjoy nor tolerate on a good day. Through noise-canceling headphones, copious amounts of ibuprofen and sheer willpower, I managed not to murder him and stash him in our crawl space. But the thought was certainly entertained.
Throughout the healing process, I constantly asked myself just how I’d gotten this far up the Arabica tree. Do I blame Starbucks for placing a cozy, addiction-coddling, legal drug dealership every 10 feet to ensnare sleepy college students with hip music and an acceptable place to read in public? Of course I do. From the outside looking in, coffee houses are a borderline criminal enterprise: An opinion corroborated by the fact that Dr. Evil invests in Starbucks at the outset of “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.” Coffee houses are comfy, cozy, warm and typically full of smart, introspective and intelligent people.
“Throughout the healing process, I constantly asked myself just how I’d gotten this far up the Arabica tree.”
None of this is an accident: They sell an addictive product that briefly makes you sharper while sacrificing your long-term energy and health. The longer you hang out inside a Starbucks, the more likely you’ll leave having had six cups of Joe, contemplating whether or not you now have the ability to travel through time. You will be back. They know this.
Ever wonder why coffee has constantly gone hand-in-hand with reading and political action? Turns out, introverted people need more sleep than their extroverted counterparts. Multiple scientific studies have deduced that “thinking people” are typically more tired than those that gain energy from speech and company. Do coffee chains know this? Of course they do. Introverts are exhausted and love books. We hang out in warm places with headphones on for hours. And we’re being preyed on by large coffee chains. SBDC Net, a small business research website, even recommends that upstart coffee houses partner with universities for advertising tie-ins and find loyal customers in young, impressionable students.
Mostly though, I blame myself for getting caught up in the cycle that comes with collegiate life. Getting enough sleep each night is hard, especially when juggling work, class and a social life at 21. Enjoying a 6-ounce morning cup of coffee is a pick-me-up; needing a Venti at 5 p.m. is a problem.
I was relying on caffeine for everything: ideas, writing, energy, charisma. A crutch is a crutch, whether you obtain it legally or not. Spending some time away from baristas helped me realize just how often I was using caffeine to mask other areas of stress in my life.
And yet, after four hours of sleep before my first day of the semester, I woke up and poured myself another cup.
Jerry Iannelli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jerryianneli.