About a month ago I did something I never thought I’d be able to do: I quit caffeine.
Some of you may sneer at this and think, so what? How hard can it be? Well, I guess, like any addiction, the difficulty in breaking it is proportional to the entrenchment of the addiction. And my caffeine addiction was deeply entrenched.
I’m not entirely sure where my love of coffee began. I remember my dad drinking big cups of milky instant, weighed down with 3 sugars apiece, when I was a child. If I recall I was never too fond of them (due either to the overload of sugar, the cheapness of the coffee or the fact that hot drinks were weird to me back then). However around 1993 I played a video game called Gabriel Knight: The Sins of the Fathers.
The game was (and still is) a superb adventure/horror/mystery, set in (then) contemporary New Orleans, and revolving around a neo-gothic book-store owner/author called Gabriel Knight, who was investigating a series of murders in the city as research for what he hoped to be his breakthrough novel. Along the way, Gabe discovers a voodoo cult operating within the city, and also discovers his own dark heritage. A 20th anniversary remake has been in production for a while now, and if you didn’t play it the first time round, I highly recommend you snap it up. But I’m getting off track…
Gabriel Knight was, to my fourteen year old self,, the coolest guy I had ever seen. He was intelligent, popular with the ladies, rode a Harley and wore a black leather trench-coat. So I did what any teenage boy would do; I tried to emulate my hero. I couldn’t find a leather trench-coat, but I found a tweed one, which kinda worked (and was similar to the one worn by Gambit of the X-men, another hero of mine – hmmm… why were all my teenage heroes Cajun?). I also started aping Gabe’s behaviour… which included a strong cup of black, unsweetened coffee as frequently as possible.
Of course, I’m not blaming Gabriel Knight for my caffeine addiction, nor am I suggesting that video games should be blamed for the actions of the individual. I’m just saying where my coffee habit stems from. Through school and university I would chug coffee like there was no tomorrow. When I was painting, I rinsed my brush in my coffee more frequently than I did my water – maybe it was instinct reaching for the inky black goodness. When I was working on projects, or coding late at night, the coffee kept me going… And then in the morning before I could get up and do anything I needed that hit. The coffee addiction was bad… but I think the caffeine addiction began even before that.
Kids love cola, right? Well most kids I guess. My parents used to buy this horrible Tesco own-brand value cola which tasted of paracetamol and had a tendency to weld teeth together. In fact I think the only thing it had in common with top brand colas like Pepsi and Coke was the fact that it was chock full of caffeine. As much as I hated the stuff, I still drank it like water (which meant my parents kept buying it, and the cycle continued). Every so often I’d be able to afford a can of the “real” stuff, and I’d treat myself to one, along with some fish and chips. It’s weird, because the cola never made me feel awake like the coffee did. Still I kept on drinking.
In my twenties I used to go clubbing a lot (I still do, but not as frequently). When I was there, I spent pretty much the whole time on the dance floor. It was the only reason I went; I didn’t drink, I didn’t do drugs, I had few friends and I couldn’t hear people over the sounds of the music anyway. Now, at these places the common view is that people who spend all night on the dance floor are likely dosed up on amphetamine to see them through the night. As previously stated, I didn’t touch drugs… but I did dose myself up on energy drinks. Red Bull was usually too expensive, so it was usually one of the cheap knock-offs like Red Rooster, Sitting Bull, or my personal favourite, the suspiciously named “Energy Drink”. I’d knock them back throughout the night and dance away without a care.
The more caffeine I consumed, the more normal it seemed, the more I wanted to consume. As long as I had a steady supply, I never had problems. If I went without my daily ten cups of coffee, however, I started to develop banging headaches. What was the solution? That’s right, more coffee. I was consuming vast quantities of caffeine in coffee, energy drinks and cola and I was losing control. A month ago I decided that the circle had to stop.
Whenever I’ve given anything up in the past – drinking, drugs, eating meat – I’ve always done it the same way; I just stop cold turkey. For the previously mentioned items this was fairly straightforward. For caffeine though it was a nightmare.
The headaches came, as I knew they would, towards the end of the first day. I took some co-codamol to ease the pain and had an early night. I wasn’t ready for what greeted me in the morning. The headaches were worse, as expected, but I was also developing a tightness in my chest. It felt like someone was pushing down on me, that my ribcage was made of steel and my lungs would not be given room to expand. I had a glass of water and went to work.
That weekend, days two and three, was the worst. The headaches were omnipresent. The chest pains had intensified, and I could barely keep my eyes open. I decided to lay down for an hour and I woke up close to midnight. This was all compounded by the onset of flu-like symptoms; a sore throat, fever, difficulty breathing. The crowning jewel in this waking nightmare was the heightened anxiety, something I had never felt before.
I was worried. really worried. Irrationally worried. This wasn’t just a case of “Oh I hope this goes away soon I don’t like it.” I was genuinely convinced that I was going to die. Every time I felt myself nodding off I forced myself awake again, as I was convinced that if I fell asleep I would never wake up again. The third night was the most difficult.
After that, the anxiety gradually abated. I don’t know if the headaches went away or if I just got used to them, but they were less noticeable. The chest pains were still there however. And I felt faint. My manual dexterity was shot to hell. I couldn’t hold my hands straight for love nor money. After the first week I started getting really irritable. Whey the hell isn’t this over yet? Why the hell do people keep bothering me? I couldn’t focus on any particular task. I half tidied my house, read snippets from books, played sections of video games – but I couldn’t stay focused. Interestingly however, I never felt any compulsion to drink coffee (I still have tons of it in the house, as it was the default family Christmas present for me). I just wanted it to end.
And end it did. After a little more than two weeks, I was effectively back to normal. The headaches had gone, the tightness in the chest had gone, I felt good. Eventually I realised that this wasn’t “normal”. Or rather it was, but it was the “normal” which had existed before the caffeine. I was waking up at 5:30 AM and not even feeling tired. I didn’t need a dose of stimulants to get me moving around the house. I felt more energetic without caffeine, not less. Of course I still get tired, but it feels less all-encompassing.
I don’t know if I’ll go back to drinking coffee. For now, it’s hands-off all caffeine. Maybe in the future I’ll have a cup now and then, although with the range of caffeine-free herbal infusions in the supermarkets round here, I’m well stocked for hot drinks.
I would recommend quitting caffeine (even temporarily) to anyone, but please make sure you’re aware of the withdrawal symptoms. If you’re a heavy caffeine consumer, I’d probably recommend gradually decreasing your intake for a few weeks before quitting. Make sure that you have people to support you through the withdrawal. Let them know that you’re going to get grouchy. It will be difficult, but it will be worth it.
I hope this is useful to those people battling caffeine addiction. Feel free to comment. In the meantime, I’m going to brew up some peppermint infusion…