Monday, April 2, 2012

What I Learned While Quitting Caffeine


My name in Glenn, and I'm a recovering caffeinoholic. I've been clean and sober for three months, with some relapses. It hasn't been easy, but it's getting easier. I am committed to getting my life back.

Okay, so caffeine isn't the most hard-core addiction. Everybody does it. Compared to other addictions, the costs are relatively low. I'm not quitting cocaine or nicotine here, just certain substances falsely classified as "food". Still, it has given me a taste of the whole addiction-and-recovery experience so I can now comment with presumptuous authority on all the other addictions.

Nearly everyone is struggling with addiction. There are things we know we shouldn't be doing that we end up doing anyway, usually because of the anxiety we feel when we don't do it. We "want" to change but fear we are too weak. Addictions can be the obvious chemical ones or they can be certain repetitive behaviors we know aren't getting us anywhere—like too much television, hoarding possessions or repeatedly gravitating to dysfunctional relationships. The underlying mechanisms seem to be similar, so if you successfully quit one bad habit, there's a higher probably you can quit others. I consider caffeine an exercise, perhaps helping me with more complex addictions later.

Why caffeine? Because it is unnecessary and it holds you down. People say they can't get started in the morning without their coffee or can't get through the afternoon without their pick-up, but this is an illusion. Caffeine seems to be "helping" you only because it has created the neurological condition where you need help. You "need" caffeine mainly because you are suffering from caffeine withdrawal. The levels in your bloodstream have dropped, so your neurons demand more and make your mood hell until they get it. It's sort of like digging a hole only to fill it up again: On the whole you haven't accomplished anything.

And the costs are not trivial! If you get your drug from Starbucks, you're paying five bucks a dose, but even if you make it yourself for pennies a day, you're still paying other expenses: (a) You got to stop what you are doing to prepare it. (b) You have to stay close to where it is available. (c) You suffer crankiness and lost productivity between the time you feel the need and the time your caffeine blood levels are restored. And (d) you're forced into LOTS of bathroom breaks.

Don't underestimate the burdens of (d)! It's a huge crimp on your lifestyle if you have to find a restroom every hour instead of 3-4 times a day. It affects travel, work and even social relations. ("Wait here, I have to pee.") That's the first and most immediate effect of quitting caffeine: Suddenly, you find you can go through the whole day without even thinking about your bladder. It's an amazing new freedom!

Then there's the price your loved ones pay when they have to suffer through your crankiness before you have had your fix. Caffeine is not a victimless addiction! Partners, co-workers and family members suffer, much like the effects of second-hand smoke. Although you may be fine after you've had your first cup, you're a bitch to live with until then.

My own addiction was pretty mild. I have never taken my caffeine hot, and I have never been drawn to it in the morning. I am one of those annoying people who can pop out of bed raring to go. I am filled with ideas in the morning and certainly don't need a pick-me-up. It is only later in the day that I am tempted. The mid-afternoon blahs are the worst. I remember suffering from them in elementary school long before I tried caffeine.

Caffeine in the afternoon seemed like a godsend. Do it once, and the blahs disappear. Suddenly, I could function at full throttle all afternoon. The downside creeps up only slowly: Over time, you need more and more caffeine to get the same high, and when you can't increase the dose, the blahs slowly return. Now you're addicted, with only a dwindlling benefit for all the expense. You keep drinking now only because if you discontinue the drug, you suffer blahs FAR WORSE than the original ones.

I also drive for a living, and if you need to keep going late at night, caffeine can save your life. Instead of falling asleep at the wheel and running off the road, caffeine can help you squeeze out a few more hours of alertness. But the costs are the same as in the afternoon: The more you use it, the less effective it is, until you are doing only only because of the terrible effects if you don't.

That's how I define addiction: An addiction is something you do not for its own reward but for the anxiety you feel when you don't do it.

Addictive substances like caffeine, nicotine and alcohol are usually marketed as a source of "pleasure". One cigarette brand supposedly gives you more "pleasure" and "satisfaction" than another. But let's be honest, it is really pain that it driving you to it. The pain is the withdrawal symptoms that the drug itself has created. Sure, it is pleasurable whenever you relieve any discomfort, but that's not "real" pleasure honestly won.

Prior to quitting, my weakness was McDonald's Mocha Frappé, essentially a coffee slushie that went down very easily. When I started downing a couple of them a day at $3.50 a pop and was daydreaming of them for hours beforehand, I knew I had a problem. For one thing, seven bucks a day is a lot of money to me, but I also felt that I was not experiencing life honestly. I couldn't tell the difference between my own moods and those that caffeine was creating.

Even when addicted, I was still experiencing daily blahs, usually involved a hankering for Frappé, so I finally decided I should quit the diversionary bullshit and experience my own moods directly.

I quit on Dec. 26, 2011. Once I decided it needed to be done, I did it IMMEDIATELY. That's the only way. I might have waited five days and made it a New Years Resolution, but quitting doesn't work like that. Either you do it NOW or not at all. No gimmicks, just do it.

I announced my decision on Facebook and on Twitter. Yes, the public announcement was important. In theory, I should be able to do this all by myself without telling anyone, but it doesn't hurt to throw some social pressure into the mix. I don't expect my friends to be my enforcers, but if I start to backslide, a little nudge from them might help. ("Hey, I thought you said you were quitting!") Everyone likes to have witnesses, people who see what you are doing and who can approve or disapprove. I should be able to quit without them, but if you have friends, why not use them?

Then I became an insufferable caffeine snob. That, too, was important. Here are my tweets about caffeine. I scoff at people who use it. I walk down the caffeine aisles of Walmart and feel superior. This holier-than-thou attitude may be annoying to my still-addicted readers, but this belligerence is part of the mechanism of quitting. It helps to maintain your resolve if your denigrate and demonize the drug. The fact that I'm visiting the caffeine aisles just to scoff shows that it still has a hold on me. There are a lot of things in the world that I could ridicule, but caffeine and its practitioners are what I need to dis right now.

The first week without caffeine was the hardest. It is ALWAYS calling to you. It's still in my mind every time I pass a McDonalds. Several times, I have backslid and given in. It is really easy to do when the drug is so widely available.

There's no place you can go in the world where caffeine isn't on tap. Sometimes, like on an airplane, people just shove it in your face for free. It takes great resolve to toe the line. In one sense, quitting caffeine might be more difficult than crack cocaine, because it's available EVERYWHERE. For crack, there are more steps involved: you have to rob a convenience store then find a pusher, etc., all without getting caught or killed. Crack is not available legally in every store you walk into. With caffeine, you're never more than two minutes away from falling off the wagon. You're bombarded by it!

Caffeine withdrawal, at least for me, consists of grogginess and depression, coupled with a hankering for a caffeinated beverage. I can taste the Mocha Frappé  as I pass huge billboards for it. I feel the sleepies coming on when I would rather be alert.

But for every unpleasant symptom I feel, I have found a work-around. Sometimes, I go ahead an stop at McDonalds and get some sort of non-caffeinated crap, like a sundae. Sure it's not good for me (Nothing at McDonalds is.) but at least I'm holding the line on the main addiction.

My workaround for the sleepies is ingenious: I take a nap! That usually revives me much better than caffeine does. Of course, not everyone has the freedom to take a nap in the middle of the day, but since I control my own schedule, I'll make use of that option when I need to. Getting over addiction is a matter of using whatever tools are at your disposal to get past the craving. "One day at a time," as they say.

If I am forced into a long nighttime drive where I would previously use caffeine to stay awake, I rearrange my sleep schedule. When my eyes droop, I pull over and sleep, maybe only for two hours instead of the whole night. I am prepared in advance for this by having all the supplies I need to sleep in the car. There are several late drives I have forced into lately where I felt certain I would need caffeine, but I somehow muddled through without it.

I would still use caffeine if I needed it to stay alive. If found myself in an impossible situation where sleep is simply not practical, I would break my vows. And I KNOW caffeine would work, because when you're not addicted, it is much more effective. A single Frappé can now keep me wired for hours. The only trouble is, when you use the drug even once, it reawakens the cravings and the withdrawal symptoms. If I use caffeine tonight, I know I will be craving it and fighting the blahs for the next couple of days.

There is no "free lunch" in chemical mood control. If you use a drug—any drug—to improve your mood, your going to pay for it in some way later. You can't use alcohol to have a good time without a hangover and creeping dependence. The brain has its own equilibrium, and if you try to squeeze more "happy juice" out of your brain cells, that juice is going to be stolen from someplace else.

It is much better to experience your own moods directly and honestly. As long as you know what they are, you can find non-chemical means to regulate them. It's tough facing the blahs in the morning or afternoon or whenever you deal with them, but at least they are YOUR moods and not the artificial moods of some parasite in your brain. Caffeine and other drugs don't really erase the blahs; they just rearrange them. They don't make you happier in the long run; they just make you addicted.

The withdrawal period is tough, but you just have to power through it, knowing there is light at the other end. Once you've broken the craving cycle, life is much brighter and more wonderful. You start seeing things you couldn't see before. New colors! In the case of nicotine, you start BREATHING again like you couldn't breathe before. It's a whole new world!

Without caffeine, I may feel good or bad throughout the day. These are my moods, and I live with them, but on the whole I feel a greater proportion of good than I did when I was addicted. These days I can feel great all day long, which just isn't possible when you depend on the drug for your mood.

And I can go all day long without peeing! It's pretty amazing! What most people interpret as "thirst" is usually just caffeine craving, which pumps way more liquid into your body than it needs. Without caffeine, the body is much better at regulating its water content. It calls you to the drinking fountain only when real dehydration in imminent, and then water is all you need. When you sweat, you need more water, and when you're not sweating you need less, and your body uses real thirst signals to tell you what it needs.

I know I'm not out of the woods. I understand how you are always a "recovering" addict, never a "cured" one, because with just a little bit of stress, you can easily slip back into your old habits. In my case, my old bad habits were never that bad. At the peak of my addiction in the 1990s, I was going through a half-dozen cans of Mountain Dew every day (roughly the same caffeine as coffee). I was never a menace to society, and it never significantly damaged my ability to function. I have kicked the caffeine habit many times before but relapsed, and I am doing it now mostly to prove to myself that it can be done permanently. With that self-confidence under my belt, I can move on to other bad habits.

I can't quit alcohol, nicotine or gambling, because I never had the slightest interest in them. As a kid, I had a severe TV addiction, but now I can't tolerate more than a few seconds of it. So what is there left? I can always lose weight and eat a healthier diet. And there are always activities I find myself doing instead of more productive one. Do I need to be doing so much traveling or taking so many photos. Here, the "addiction" aspect gets murky, but I need to know that when I recognize a behavior is dysfunctional, I can change it quickly.

I am quitting caffeine to practice the art of quitting, to prove to myself that I am not weak or a victim of my impulses. I control my own moods and behavior. No outside agent can do it for me.

I reserve the right to feel moody and dysphoric, as long as the feeling is authentic and my own. Then I can deal with it on an honest and sustainable basis.