A year without caffeine, part 1

(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.

Me drinking coffee.  Photo by Cogdog.

Note the bared teeth, the delighted eyes, and the paw wrapped protectively wrapped around that frail cup.

That is almost certainly true.  From my college days (1985ff) through the end of 2011, my caffeine consumption was extravagant.

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 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.

Jolt Cola.

Ah, Jolt.

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.

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Gunpower tea.

Gunpowder tea, preferably.

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.

Turkish coffee

The ur-coffee.

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.

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 That was peppy.

Too Much Coffee Man, my ideal superhero.

Too Much Coffee Man, my ideal superhero.

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.

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 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.”

(onward to part 2)

(photos by Cogdog, 7 Bits of Truth, Akuppa, Nate SteinerWikipedia)

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62 Responses to A year without caffeine, part 1

  1. edwebb says:

    Quite the horror story. What the doc said, that is.

  2. Francine says:

    I await the Continued Saga! When you told us earlier that you were giving up caffeine, I imagined you to be a piker like myself… me, with my paltry two CUPS a day, sometimes three. I bow down to your determination even more!

  3. Please, please! Part 2! We know you lived, but . . . but how?

  4. Let me know when the movie version of this story comes out.

  5. miranda says:

    i’m actually dying to know more… how was the weaning process??

  6. Matthew says:

    I consumed a large amount of caffeine mostly in the form of coca cola and iced tea. One Saturday I drank an entire 2-liter and decided that was too much.

    Strangely I quit without any withdrawal symptoms whatsoever. I just stopped.

    • Were you drinking a good amount of water, Matthew?

    • Jeff says:

      Bah! Based on a quick search, a two liter bottle of coke appears to have 200mg of caffeine in it. Compare that to a Starbucks “tall” drip, which as I recall weighs in at 270mg. I believe an average, classical cup of coffee is 150mg, but does anyone count those little diner mugs when talking about the number of “cups” of coffee they have daily? 🙂

      Anyway, at your moderate level of caffeine intake, paired with that much water intake, I would expect you to be fine. The people I’ve known who suffered significant so-called withdrawal symptoms, like headaches, were people who literally drank nothing but coffee and soda. In other words, they were severely dehydrated after cutting off their only liquid intake! I think the dehydration explains the headaches more than the lack of caffeine.

  7. Justin Peterson says:

    That’s insane…Please keep us up to date! I’ve feel like I’ve had too much with drinking 3 cups a day

  8. Mimi says:

    Fascinating! And a popcorn-muncher of a horror movie for me: I am (I discovered late in life) allergic to caffeine in any form, so I too quit cold turkey, in January of 2011. Though my caffeine consumption was what you would call amateurish dabblings – a couple of cups a day, maybe – it was enough to cause a lifetime of abdominal pain and crippling migraines. When I cut out coffee (even and especially decaf) and chocolate, it all went away. I haven’t felt tempted to return, even the slightest bit, because a life not lived in fear of the next aphasic migraine is pretty sweet. So I’m curious to know if you have felt cravings or a desire to relapse, and also how the ordering of your life has turned out, without the fuel you relied on for so many years.

  9. He is, of course, too tired to write part 2 😉

  10. Dave Hardin says:

    I feel your pain, brother. I, too, started back in the 80s with Jolt, and widely available caffeine pills (357 Magnum, anyone?). And, likewise, it was to keep up with studies and simultaneous jobs. I’m still a 2-liter (or more) per day Mt. Dew drinker with a RipIt energy drink thrown in once a week for good measure. And, as you say, that’s just maintenance level. I tried a couple of times in the last few years to de-caffeinate, but, the headaches and sluggishness simply were intolerable, so I went back. I’m interested to hear the rest of the story. Maybe it will inspire me to try “caffeine-free me” again.

  11. All will be revealed, Stephen, Steve, and miranda.

  12. Ward says:

    Get ready for the jitters, trouble falling asleep, trouble getting up, then the headaches for weeks. Only advice is: DRINK TONS OF WATER. It has two effects, 1) keeps the headaches at bay, and 2) makes you go to the bathroom often, which keeps you awake.

    Good luck! The symptoms do subside.

  13. monkeybuddha says:

    I never got quite to the levels you did, but when I was consulting from a rented palace on the edge of a nature reserve with no set schedule I would consume 3-4 strong pots of coffee a day. By midnight I would wind down with a pot and go to sleep. At that point, no amount of coffee would keep me awake. God I love this stuff.

  14. Dimiter 'malkia' Stanev says:

    During heavy crunch at work in August, I had started having ear twitches (if this description is good enough), and also throughout my body. I was wondering what it was – sugar, caffeine, too much pizza, not enough exercise, too much standing in front of the monitor, so I cut the coffee, moved to herbal tea (got used to it), and it seems better. But it mustve been the sugar that I cut that helped 🙂 Or maybe not crunching that much now, once the game was shipped

  15. How could you drink that much coffee without getting a stomach ulcer? It’s highly acidic, no?

  16. landisb says:

    Wow. Impressive. Can’t wait to find out how it all turned out. I must admit, I have always marveled at your ability to keep up with things (work, travel, blogging, family, homesteading…..). I mentioned that didn’t think you slept to colleagues when we spoke of your newest adventures & successes. I see I’m not that far off from that assumption. I still drink coffee but my vice was smoking. I also quit that cold turkey 15 years ago and never looked back. It feels good.

  17. Susannah says:

    I’ll be anxiously awaiting to read an update. I thought I drank too much caffeine. I drank at least a pot of coffee a day, and a few Diet Cokes…even before bed! No wonder I had trouble sleeping!
    I’ve since cut back to maybe 1-2 cups of java a week, and the same with Diet Coke. After reading your story, I am going to stop completely.
    I hope you are feeling better! Your determination is inspiring!

  18. JP says:

    Thank you for making my caffeine addiction seem practically reasonable.

  19. Disappointed says:

    Came through Hacker News. Too bad this is cut short, as I probably won’t be back. Next time, just post the whole thing already. I feel like I’ve wasted a few minutes reading this.

  20. Stephen says:

    Caffeine clearly gave me arthritis. I can hardly wait for part 2. Here’s my 2006 post on the subject. http://predelusional.blogspot.com/2006/06/caffeine.html

  21. Cynthia says:

    This is a real cliff hanger. I am also incredibly impressed by your work ethic and productivity. Tell me..was it worth it?

  22. The most impressive tale of of survived substance abuse I’ve read, outside of a few rock star memoirs.

    Reminded me of Balzac, who I believe got to the point of eating the coffee grounds. http://www.blissbat.net/balzac.html

    • That’s excellent, Brian.
      And he’s almost talking about me, here: “I have discovered a horrible, rather brutal method that I recommend only to men of excessive vigor, men with thick black hair and skin covered with liver spots, men with big square hands and legs shaped like bowling pins.”

  23. Barbara says:

    Love love love that you are writing stories laced with images–horror stories to boot—fabulous if scary stuff! Sitting here with a cup of Arabic coffee (with cardamom–brought back from Palestinian Territories last month) awaiting the sequel, even though I know it’ll have me off coffee for ages. Oh well, what we’ll do for a harrowing story with a happy ending.

  24. Oh, that cuppa sounds good, Barbara.

  25. Ben Harwood says:

    You’re a stronger man as a result, Bryan. When you get to the 5th anniversary, let’s plan to share a bottle of the ole Dew or Jolt for a fast walk high above Ripton.

  26. Meg says:

    Waiting to hear the tale of a decaffeinated Bryan. The caffeinated Bryan of the bookstore years is the stuff of legend ( and a fellow I remember well 😉 )

  27. Pingback: A year without caffeine, part 2 | Bryan Alexander

  28. Andrew Calverley says:

    I went through the same thing when I went cold turkey from caffiene after having consumed 4 pots of coffee a day when I was writing my dissertation. massive headaches and muscle spasms. The latter can be alleviated by taking Calcium, Magnesium and Selenium. Injections of selenium are used to stop muscle spasms in race horses after the race,

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  30. Ramon Insua says:

    I’m an 8 cups of espresso sort of person. It comes a time when the stuff doesn’t do it so I reduce the dose for a week or two to half or less just to avoid headaches. Then I give it a go and voila! Just to be clear, your worst enemy is Sugar, not caffeine if you hydrate properly, excersise and every two months or so take a break from the stuff. Of course if you can do without caffeine great.

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  32. Mark says:

    Best of the pitifully few books written on negative side of caffeine is called “Welcome to the Dance” by Ruth Whalen. After reading it, you’ll never see caffeine the same. Be careful.

  33. Mark says:

    Part two is great. Id like to add I got the same place on green tea and spicy rich foods. don’t fall for the Tea alternative. I too am 46 and the party is over. Same gut issues, sleep, overeating (caused by caffeine), heart irregularities, fear/panic, compulsion to drink caffeine, running away, prostate issues, decreased sex drive, skin turning yellow, vision getting worse, ADHD, OCD, addiction to internet porn, uncontrolled spending habits, chronic dehydration, craving bentonite clay and a sauna, thyroid issues caused my fluorosis, insomnia. The list is endless. My doctor told me: ” We are now seeing caffeine is actually healthy for humans…” and prescribed wellbutrin? And you thought the Boston Tea Party was about taxes.

  34. Tea can really do some of the same stuff. Black tea has the caffeine plus a bunch of gut-churning oils. I didn’t know green tea was as bad.
    I’m sorry for the suffering, Mark, which sounds heinous.

  35. Mark says:

    Depends probably on how much one consumes

  36. Pingback: Two years without caffeine | Bryan Alexander

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  39. Dave Ludwig says:

    Hi, I found this article while Google searching about caffeine and related medical issues it can cause. Thanks for writing it. I hope to be able to write a similar article myself one day. I have been an avid Mt Dew drinker for 20+ years and its really catching up to me. But, instead of improving my diet (simple, but not easy, solution) I have been seeking medical help for anxiety (more costly solution) and trying different medications. It may be that solving those issues is within my own power. Thank you for the inspiration.

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