Coffee, Thou Art My Bitch.


It is now day 6 with no coffee. I realise it’s been a while between posts, but since my last at the 72 hour mark, there has been little to report except a gradual decrease in the physical symptoms; that is, I have gradually become less tired, my body has become less sore, and I have started feeling less despondent. Most of the research I’ve read on caffeine withdrawal say that it lasts between 3 and 10 days. I’m going to go ahead and call this. I’ve gotten through all but the very tail end of the withdrawal. After 25 years I’m over my coffee addiction. I almost can’t believe it. Once I got going – which took a couple days longer than it should have because I was having pre-separation anxiety – it almost seemed too easy. I simply didn’t have the cravings that you experience when quitting other substances, like cocai…tobacco, for example.1 I did suffer both physically and mentally. Physically it was not nearly as much as I expected or had built up in my mind. Mentally, it was significantly worse. I was outright depressed for most of days 2 and 3.

All and all, I think that coffee addiction it is just as much of an emotional addiction as a physical one. Though given that physical processes (chemicals in the brain) create our emotions, it’s hard to separate the two.2 I have been using the terms caffeine addiction and coffee addiction petty much interchangeably up to now, but I think this is being unclear. For me, the physical addiction is to caffeine absolutely, but the emotional addiction is exclusively to coffee. These are two sides to the same coin perhaps, but took very different processes to combat. The physical addiction I was not afraid of at all. In fact, I had a sort of ‘Bring It On’ mentality towards the physical side effects. I knew they would be short-lived, wouldn’t hurt me long-term, and that the worse they got, the funnier they would be to write about. The emotional addiction was much harder. It was always the emotional addiction that posed the real risk of failure; my love of the substance, the ritual, our long history together, the social aspects, the comforting effect, and the perceived positive influence that it had on my writing – all very strong bonds to the juice. This did ruffled my feathers, and quite a bit. I was genuinely sad when contemplating my impending loss, and that’s the real reason that I procrastinated for the first two days. I just didn’t want to let go, to say goodbye. And this despite the fact that I made things as easy for myself on the emotional addiction front as possible – notably I was not at work, but was in a very relaxed environment on holidays; and not a booze fueled holiday either, but a clean living yoga retreat type holiday.3 I also think that writing about the quitting process, publicly and in the framework of an experiment, gave me significant additional motivation to continue with it and not relapse.

I’m sure it will come as no surprise to you to hear that as a science experiment, this is…well, let’s just say the results are not rock solid, (the editors of the prestigious International Journal of Experimental Substance Abuse Psychology won’t even return my calls.)4 The problem from a scientific perspective, lies in the subjective nature of the emotional experience of drinking or not drinking coffee.5 I am the only one who has any chance of telling the difference between how I felt pre and post quitting coffee, and the truth of the matter is that even I can’t do that. Taking the issue of anxiousness for example: do I feel anxious now? No, definitely not. Did I feel anxious before I quit coffee a week ago? No, because the anxiousness I wanted to address only occurs in stressful situations, and the only stress I have at the moment, is deciding whether to have my daily massage before or after lunch. OK, so what about scattered thinking and poor concentration levels? Well, I seem to be concentrating well at the moment. Compared to how I was concentrating a week ago? My gut feeling is that I’m concentrating better now. Compared to my concentration levels at work? I’m concentrating far better now, but I’m working at what I love, which is writing, so it’s hardly a fair comparison.

And so you see the problem. Any observations I make about the differences in the way I feel with versus without coffee (and I will be making them), are subjective and largely immeasurable. But of course I never cared about the scientific value of the thing anyway, I just like feeling good, and I don’t like being addicted to anything. Where there’s addictive behaviour, there’s trouble, whether that be to sex, drugs, money, food or anything else. Coffee owned me, for a long time. I was its bitch. My need for it was compulsive, and the drug had changed my brain such that I both needed it to feel good, and believed that I needed it to feel good.6

The half-life of caffeine in the body is 5-6 hours. This means without exaggeration, that aside from a few rare instances, the only time in the last 25 or so years that I have been without caffeine in my system has been when I was asleep, or on the way to the cafe in the morning. And when I say rare instances I mean for example: being in a coma; being in the first two days of a new sexual relationship; or being at sea with a deranged captain who, upon admitting that he’s only brought instant coffee for our 12 day voyage, meets my look of despair and incredulity with “What? It’s got caffeine in it.”7

I decided to quit coffee for two reasons:

  1. I don’t want to be addicted to anything; and,
  2. I believe that doing so will make me feel, on average, better than I did when I was drinking it.

In relation to Point 1 above, that’s achieved, all I’m addicted to now is tea8, and exercise. In relation to Point 2, I think it’s still too early to do a full analysis on that, because I’m still coming off the drug, albeit with the worst being over. I will wait till Day 10 for that.

  1. I couldn’t let that opportunity go past; but in reality I have never touched cocaine or any of the other highly addictive but supposedly absolutely, mind blowingly fantastic euphoriants. I’ve been aware of my addictive personality since I was a teen, and I ain’t no stupid. Quitting booze was plenty hard enough thank you very much. 
  2. These emotions can be initiated by external events, or created by the brain in the absence of a relevant external event. But it is the release of neurotransmitters in the brain that causes the subjective experience of an emotion. Human Diseases and Conditions. 
  3. Hangovers demand coffee, although my recollection is that it doesn’t really make one feel much better. It sure as shit doesn’t help with the dehydration. 
  4. Apparently a sample size of one is too small, and 347 confounding variables is too many. I think they’re just jealous of my work. 
  5. Physical effects can be documented and measured, and they have been. E.g. heart rate, blood pressure, arrhythmia, brain activity, frequency of urination (diuresis), cortisol levels etc. Of all the psychoactive drugs, caffeine’s effect on the body is one of the most studied.  But it is very hard to accurately measure or describe an individual’s conscious experience of these physical effects i.e. how do you measure a feeling? 
  6. Caffeine is a competitive inhibitor of the neurotransmitter adenosine. For 4 to 6 hours after ingestion, the brain takes up less of the adenosine, because the caffeine is blocking its adenosine receptors. Adenosine, when taken up by the brain, causes tiredness. So the effect is one of alertness. The neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin (feel good neurotransmitters) work more effectively when the uptake of adenosine is blocked. The surplus adenosine also triggers the adrenal glands, which then secrete adrenaline. Over time, the brain cells produce more adenosine receptors in an attempt to restore equilibrium. This is the cause of caffeine tolerance. The Smithsonian
  7. No matter how addicted and therefore desperate I have become, since the age of about 20 I have been unwavering in my stance that instant coffee in simply unacceptable under any circumstances and not to be tolerated (and by that I mean consumed), for the same reasons that I would not take caffeine tablets if I went to the cafe and found it to be closed. Not all coffee is created equal. There is also a certain delight in saying, upon the offer of a cup, “Oh god no! I don’t drink instant coffee.”, and scrunching up your face as though you’ve just seen a dog evacuating its bowels; or in saying, daily, “What’s that smell? Are you drinking instant coffee!?” when your colleague sits down next to you with his morning cup. 
  8. Obviously, tea has caffeine in it. By dry weight, more than coffee in fact, but what kind of nutter is going to use the same amount of tea by weight as coffee? You’d have to fill 7/8 of your tea-cup with tea leaves. I take my tea weak, and brewed for a full 5 min. Even if you don’t like your tea weak it has way less caffeine than coffee when brewed. Typical references say around 150mg in a latte, and between 15 and 70mg in a cup of black tea. Tea also contains tannin and theanine, which change the way caffeine is metabolised by the body and has a countering, calming effect to that of the caffeine. Finally, when you brew a cup of tea the caffeine is released in the frist 2 minutes, and the tannins are released for the remaining time. This means: 1) I am assured of getting all the tannins, and 2) that the caffeine level can be controlled, by discarding the first 2 min’s brew (if you want to get crazy). Whatever the reason, I have never felt a stimulating effect from tea that was anything like that of coffee. Tea for me is decidedly calming. 

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