7:15 on Tuesday morning. Not a specific Tuesday morning, but any Tuesday morning. My laptop’s on my lap, and my coffee is next to me on a coaster. Printed on that coaster is “Hold me closer, Tony Danza.” It’s a gift from a friend who enjoyed my essay “Dewey Finn and the Dunder Chief” in my poorly selling book, Fragments. It’s a funny story about misinterpreting rock lyrics.
I’ve aligned my morning routine so that when my kids leave for school at 6:45, I have about an hour to write. My mornings typically look like this:
- Up at 5:00, drink strong coffee, check my blog stats.
- Read the news until 5:30. Check my blog stats again.
- Wake up Susan, drink strong coffee, stretch (I should call this yoga because it sounds more sophisticated, but it’s really just stretching).
- 6:00: rattle my kids awake and start the forty-five-minute dash to get them on the bus. Make lunch, take a shower, drink strong coffee.
- 6:50: check my blog stats, drink strong coffee, begin to write.
Besides obsessively checking my blog stats, the other constant across the morning, every morning, is drinking strong coffee. Calling it coffee is really an undersell. We have a stove-top espresso maker. It’s a smallish percolator with a massive reservoir to fill with coffee grounds. According to the literature that came with it, a filled coffee pot contains nine shots of espresso. Each morning, we make (at least) two pots. Susan typically drinks half a pot and I drink the rest. So, if the marketing material is to be believed, I’m knocking back thirteen shots of espresso every morning.
Caffeine is a drug. Like nicotine, it’s a drug that’s been legalized by custom and common use. But it’s still a drug that can be abused. And I’m a guy with a long history of abusing it.
When I was a kid, my caffeine intake was carefully controlled by my parents. Not because they were concerned about the caffeine, but because the delivery medium was soda. My parents were concerned about the sugar… and the cost.
I didn’t start my caffeine abuse until I got into college. In the dining hall, there was no one to limit my soda intake. And let’s face it, most eighteen-year-old guys would rather drink a Coke with their meal than water. Already a diet soda drinker (we became a Fresca family by the time I was in high school), I would knock back three or four Diet Cokes at every meal.
Mid-way through my freshman year, heading out for a day trip to a not-so-local ski hill, watching the sun rise from the backseat of an unheated Ford Mustang, a brief stop at a rural diner solidified my coffee addiction. Freezing and hungry, I was looking for some comfort. And a cup of coffee with just the right combination of sugar and cream (that would be LOTS) hit the spot perfectly. I can’t imagine I’ve skipped my morning coffee many times since that day.
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I was talking with a doctor recently about ADHD. He isn’t my doctor, so this wasn’t an appointment. It was just a discussion. He said the most common treatment for ADHD was a prescription of stimulants, specifically amphetamines. Incongruously, being hyped up apparently helps unfocused-kids focus. I thought it would help them bounce off walls. Many folks with ADHD are naturally drawn to stimulating drugs like Cocaine, like nicotine, like caffeine. ADHD teens are more likely to smoke cigarettes and drink Red Bull than their peers (I made that last part up, but I’m sure it’s true. I just can’t focus long enough to research it).
The remainder of my college career was a blur of caffeine. Coffee in the morning, sodas in the afternoon. Pharmacy-grade caffeine pills on party-nights, which were mostly every night. I’ve been reading about teens running into heart problems after consuming too many energy drinks. Recently, an American teenager actually died of a caffeine overdose from Monster energy drinks. I’m not certain how I skimmed by. By ingesting almost two thousand milligrams of caffeine over the course of a night, I was more than quadrupling the maximum daily recommended amount.
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Caffeinated focus: I guess I can verify this. My ability to settle down and write is in direct relationship to the amount of coffee I’ve swilled. The more buzzed I am, the more I want to write. Yes, I wrote buzzed. My relationship with caffeine is still abusive, although it’s not clear which of us is the abuser. My daily caffeine overdose is starting to concern me.
It’s now three days after I wrote the first section of this essay. Two days ago, I quit caffeine after my first cup, after only a half pot. I switched to decaf for the second pot (if the concept of decaf espresso seems stupid to you, well, I’m struggling with it, too).
Yesterday I did the same thing. And today too. I switched to decaf. If you’re doing the math, you’ve already figured out that I’m undercharged by twenty-seven shots of espresso over the last three days. I’ve got a wicked headache.
I’m clearly an addict. I love the buzz I get from the coffee, and I think I’m trying to work out a bit of my own ADHD. I’m obviously self-medicating with caffeine. I have a lot of experience with this. For decades, I self-medicated my OCD and Tourettes with alcohol. Now I take real medications for those problems, but the ADHD just gets caffeinated.
In the conversation I had with that doctor, he said Tourettes was a deal breaker for prescription amphetamines. He said that that being amped on speed would only fuel the tics, the unwanted movements and sounds that plague the daily lives of those of us with Tourettes. I decided to keep quiet about my thirteen daily shots of espresso.
Like almost every positive change in my life, my decision to take action, to alter my behavior, came in the middle of writing a story. Until I actually wrote down “thirteen shots of espresso” it didn’t occur to me that getting high on caffeine every day was a problem. Three days into the decaf world, I’m already sleeping better at night, and my blood pressure is lower. True, I have a crippling headache every day from 4AM until noon, but I bet that will start fading away in a few more days. I haven’t really been paying attention to my Tourette tics. That might mean they’re improving but I’ll need more than a few days to know for sure.
So, all in all, it’s a positive change. Although I’m dreading my next visit to a coffee shop.
Me: “Double, decaf espresso, please.”
Barista: “Uh, sure.”