A Year Without Coffee

FirstCoffeeAug2009I am sitting in my favorite cafe in Stockholm’s south side, laptop out, sipping on a strong cafe latté … for the first time in a year.
It tastes wonderful.

To those of you who love coffee, I can almost recommend taking a year-long fast, just to rediscover how wonderful this drink truly is.
But I jump ahead of myself. If this stuff is so wonderful, why in the world did I quit?

Confessions of a Coffee Addict

As recently as ten years ago, I rarely drank coffee. When I did, it was one cup, once in a while. Moving to Sweden in 2001 changed that. Soon I was contributing to the national statistics (Sweden ranks a global second in coffee consumption per capita, after Finland) with 4-7 cups a day.

Having babies and the constant sleep deprivation helped drive that big jump, as did the long Swedish winters. Cultural factors also played a part: Swedes drink coffee in an almost ritualistic way, often even taking two cups after dinner. Or at least, that’s how it is in my circle of family and friends here in Stockholm! (I extrapolate from this all too often.)
In my old neighborhood, I became known for always walking around the common areas and playground with a coffee thermos-cup in hand. Often I took one onto the bus with me. I ordered large coffees at the cafe, and if the refills weren’t free, I bought them. I used coffee to wake up in the morning, to get going in mid-day, to combat jet lag, to fend off that sad feeling that sometimes comes over one in February … and I soon realized I was thoroughly addicted to the stuff.

I know a little bit about addiction, having once been a counselor to heroin addicts. Coffee is a rather mild thing by comparison, but my need was no less real to me. And scary, in a way: how could I live without coffee?

Accidental Cold Turkey

One year and one day ago, we arrived home from our annual vacation trip to Gotland, where my coffee consumption — fueled by the leisure of being on parental leave for two months — had seemingly soared to new heights. I felt awash with coffee, and so, when we discovered there was no coffee in the house on our return, I did not feel compelled to rush out to the store and rectify the Problem. Let’s see if I can go a day without coffee, I thought. Let’s see how that feels.

It felt terrible. I am a person who never gets headaches. Ever — except when eating very cold foods too quickly, or after bumping my head. But I get none of that throbbing awfulness that most people take medication for, from time to time.

I had a headache. I felt a bit sleepy, even a little too-easily irritated. But on the other hand, I was still on holiday. I was just hanging out with my kids, and I made of a point of not being irritable with them. I ignored the headache.

The next day, it was still there. This I took as a real indicator that my addiction was quite real, and physical. So I resolved to go another day. And another. I wanted to see what would happen, how I would feel.

After about three days, the headache disappeared. After a week, the feeling of “need” disappeared. I got used to feeling a bit different: “Much calmer,” I’d tell people, when they asked about the difference. “But a little stupider.”

The latter was the most puzzling to me. Did coffee really make me feel smarter? Or just mentally faster? How would not having coffee in my system affect my work? My social life? My budget? (Cafe lattés are expensive!)

Thus was born my one-year experiment. I decided, in this sort of accidental evolutionary way, to take a year off from coffee. By then, it should be thoroughly out of my system — not just physically, but also emotionally, and socially. I would get used to saying “No, thanks,” and taking tea or something else instead. I would find out what life without coffee was really like, the whole year round (even in darkest winter).

And then, a year later, I would drink it again, just to see what the difference was.

That’s what I’m doing right now.

Oh, My, What a Difference

My whole face is a bit tingly. My mind is certainly tingly. I feel much more focused and determined and analytical. (It would have been good to have these feelings when the economic crisis started playing havoc with my company’s finances and marketing plan!)

Or … do I really feel these things? Is it the coffee? Or is the fact that I’m on my first day of work after our annual summer vacation, my mind rested and almost longing to work, with a lot of things to focus on and get done?

The physical tingling is definitely real: that’s coffee. My eyes dart around, following thoughts that skitter around the mind like hares … I don’t really remember having that feeling in the last year. Nor did I miss it! I enjoyed the calmer, slower rhythm of thought that I began to associate with being coffee-free. (I was never fully caffeine free. I drank tea once or twice a day, and even the occasionally caffeinated soft drink. But this was nothing like the caffeine shock that a double espresso seems to provide.)

Hmmm … now, it seems, I have a new “weapon” in my mental arsenal. As long as I don’t rebuild that addictive behavior pattern — and it is my firm intention not to, and to only drink coffee a few times a week — I can “use” it to speed up my thoughts and give myself, at least in subjective/illusory terms, a feeling of being more productive, sharp, and focused.

But there’s something else I notice, a kind of “mental cost” to this sped-up feeling … and that’s the speed itself. It’s as though the thoughts are moving *too* fast, more quickly than I can reflect on them. I can think, but I can’t think so easily about what I’m thinking. It’s a kind of “Just Do It,” or rather “Just think it” mentality. There seems less room for that questioning moment when I ask myself, “Am I on the right track?” For the train has already sped down the track it was on …

I’m sure the reader will guess that I am exaggerating my perceptions a bit here; but I am seriously searching my mental experience for differences, and I am certainly finding them. In this way, the experiment seems already to be a success. The question now is, can I moderate this usage, really test the difference in practice? Will anyone notice the difference? Will I?

The Fringe Benefits to One’s Conscience of a Year Without Coffee

As the foregoing attests, my experiment in coffee freedom was not a grand Act of Will, and there was no attempt in it to Make a Statement either. But as a fringe benefit, I did discover that my will power was strong enough to break, decisively, a genuine addiction. (We’ll see if it remains so, now that I’ve tasted the forbidden fruit again!) There is something comforting and even confidence building about that.

There are also the fringe benefits for the planet to consider — for surely giving up coffee generates some. The stuff is grown in plantations which, if not managed to preserve songbird biodiversity and protect peoples, are part of the juggernaut that is replacing nature with human production and consumption processes, and often impoverishing local folks in the process.

Then there are the preparation, packaging, and shipping processes, with their carbon footprints and their polluting emissions and such. For a year, at least, I did not contribute to these.

My family’s economy also benefited, since the tea I drank (often herbal) was cheaper, and I drank far less of it. This also reduced my personal energy consumption, since I boiled a lot less water.

And finally, the longer my experiment went on, the more I also saw the benefit of sacrifice. Yes, sacrifice — a word that is not popular in our consumerist, post-religious (even for the religious), modern societies. Modern people are not expected to “sacrifice” anything. Even dieters are expected to enjoy low-fat chocolate. And in my field, sustainable development, the strategic talk usually revolves around how to get people or companies to switch to sustainable solutions without ever invoking the idea that some things must, in the end, be given up.

One way I kept my own motivation going, in this tiny personal combat with a fairly mild case of addiction, was to think this thought: if I can’t give up something as small as coffee-drinking, for just a year, how can I expect anyone else to give up anything larger? Like, switching out their large, fossil-fuel burning vehicle for something smaller and more electrical? That extra spontaneous charter vacation to Thailand? Fresh strawberries in February, shipped in from half a world away?

But I don’t want to turn this experiment into an exercise in personal righteousness, because it wasn’t that. Giving up coffee for a year was easier than giving up a whole lot of other things that, if I were radically dedicated to fundamentalist simple living for global equity and sustainability, I would probably feel duty-bound to deny myself.

And now, the last third of that first, fabulous cup of coffee, modestly ennobled and greatly enhanced by a year of abstinence, beckons. I don’t know when I will drink my next cup of coffee — maybe tomorrow, maybe not.

But I do intend to savor this one, to the very last drop.

One thought on “A Year Without Coffee

  1. I appreciate this was written over two years ago, but I just thought I’d chime in anyway. I found this after a chance search on google with ‘thinking without coffee’ – hoping someone had experienced the same thing as me. I gave it up about a year ago after a few bouts of mild anxiety. It may or may not have been the coffee, but I just wanted to make sure. At the time, I was quite comfortable in calling myself an addict of the stuff and had forgotten what it was like to wake up in the morning and go about the day on natural highs rather than anything from a mug. Anyhow – gave it up for a year or so, had a fairly dejected and numb year of wondering what had happened to me, where my creativity had gone, why I couldn’t maintain interest in much until I decided to have real coffee one morning rather than decafee – and oh my me.

    The circuit breaker’s back on.

    I searched for this in the first place because I’m concerned that I’ve permanently altered my neurology to the point that just to feel alive again, I have to have a few cups of Joe. There’s nothing terrifying about that – I’m just intrigued, and apparently I’m not alone.

    It was a good read, cheers; the internet is a serendipity engine.

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