(This is the first of a two-part series. The second part can be found here.)
I used to drink more caffeine than you do.
That is almost certainly true. From my college days (1985ff) through the end of 2011, my caffeine consumption was extravagant. Epic. Other people speak of the number of cups of coffee they drink per day; they are pikers. For me, the number was pots. Two, three, or four pots between grimly waking up and falling asleep. From the first thing in the morning through multiple after-dinner imbibings, the blessed black bean brew was my brain’s constant companion.
Along with coffee, soda was my parallel caffeine delivery system. I still recall the glorious days of Jolt Cola (more sugar, and twice the caffeine!), two-liters of which saw me through my sophomore and junior years. Coke was too basic for me, but doable when nothing else was available. Mello Yellow was fine, but hard to obtain. Although it had a splendidly lying name: lots of caffeine, so nothing mellow; green, not yellow color.
Mountain Dew was my drink of choice, sweet and fiercely caffeinated. One year my housemates and I purchased enough Mountain Dew cans in bulk to make a six foot tall stack. It nearly replaced water for us. I was quaffing a can with breakfast, bottles during the day, cups in the evening, plus a final can in bed, just to relax.
Other caffeine mechanisms also supplied my needs. Chocolate, especially chocolate-covered espresso beans, helped. Black tea sometimes sufficed when I was among Brits, or just wanted the taste. Hot chocolate was fine in winter. But Turkish coffee, ah, that was the sublime caffeine delivery system. I fell in love with the potent stuff in Bosnia during the 1990s war, and sought it out ever afterwards. I visited an academic in Mostar whose house had taken a hit from a shell or missile. In its ruins, on a half-shattered gas-powered stove, the prof and his wife brewed Turkish coffee every day. I recognized my fellows, members of the worldwide society of caffeine devotees. That concentrated bolt of coffee was like neutronium, or anti-Kryptonite for Superman, an outrageously heavy distillate for my gleeful brain.
I could also combine caffeination systems. During a long drive I’d load up with Mountain Dew and a giant cup of coffee. After a couple of hours I’d stop to replenish those sources, buy some Water Joe, then add a couple of doses of Stok to the steaming coffee. (At home my wife forbid me from brewing coffee with Water Joe, lest my chest simply explode)
Once a chemist friend gave me a small container of pure caffeine. She warned me not to just snarf the white power straight down, so I took to dabbing a finger in it. That was peppy.
Why did I drink so much caffeine? it wasn’t simply chemical or behavioral addiction. My habit began in college as a way of providing enough energy to do both my studies and jobs. I took heavy courseloads (double or triple majoring), while working. After graduation that overload of work never went away. I did my M.A. in a single year, while working at a bookstore. For my PhD I was teaching nearly the entire time. As a professor I taught four (4) classes per term, while conducting research, plus doing lots of service (committees, technology, advising, etc), plus consulting on the side. I also married, and we had two children. With such long days (and nights), the caffeine was essential.
After a while caffeine no longer provided stimulus. Instead it became a way of recovering some basic energy level from a pit of exhaustion. A strong dose stopped making me sparky and manic, as far as I can tell, but powered me up just enough to get things done over the course of a very long, but well fueled, day. I suppose this is another way of saying “maintenance level”.
I would have continued along this glorious, bean-strewn path until my body failed, and it nearly did. Throughout 2010 and 2011 I suffered frequent bouts of gut pain. This wasn’t indigestion, but fiery shocks, enough to wake me up at night or knock me off track during the day. The pains increased in frequency, duration, and intensity, ultimately coming several times a day, and leading to regular nausea. Besides being painful and disgusting, these attacks were debilitating. I took to chewing antacids many times a day. Ultimately I decided to seek medical advice. Well, “I decided” really means “I gave into my wife’s patient, well-informed concern”.
On December 22, 2011, we arrived at the family clinic we saw for most medical questions. I described my symptoms to the doctor, who looked concerned. He asked me to describe my caffeine intake, and his facial expressions were quite entertaining. He demonstrated incredulity, dismay, outrage, amusement, followed by iron determination. When I finished, the doc laid it out for me.
“Either I hospitalize you tomorrow, or you go cold turkey on caffeine. Immediately.”