I decided to do something I have never done before: I quit caffeine entirely. Cold turkey. Nada, none, zilch. Since my senior year of high school, I don’t think I’ve gone without caffeine in some form or another for more than a day at a time. I most definitely have a caffeine dependency, but addiction? I don’t believe so. I have a loved one who has struggled with substance abuse and addiction. This isn’t that at all. They dealt with intense withdrawals from serious and life threatening substances. They worked through these challenges, though, and today they have been sober for more than a decade. I am incredibly proud of them, and I know it took them so much time and effort to overcome their addictions. They suffered through extreme, unimaginable and life changing hardship while recovering from addiction. Me? I’ve got a headache.
Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant. It acts through a molecule called methylxanthine, which blocks neurotransmitters in the brain, mobilizes intercellular calcium and inhibits phosphodiesterases. In layman’s terms, caffeine causes changes to the chemicals in the brain which create the common effects: increased alertness, inability to fall asleep, frequent urination and nervousness. Plus, at least personally, my heart sometimes feels like it’s beating differently. Caffeine can cause dependence and, in some instances, can result in addiction. Yet, caffeine is still the most widely used stimulant across the world.
The Mayo Clinic reports that up to 400 milligrams of caffeine can be safely consumed in one day. I average about 300 milligrams of caffeine a day, usually consisting of an energy drink, some coffee and a pop of some sort (preferably Diet Pepsi). It probably isn’t an unsafe amount of daily caffeine, but it’s still a lot and likely not the best for my body.
My caffeine consumption really picked up when I got to college. The summer before my freshman year, I would drink about two to three Diet Pepsis a day and sprinkle in a cup of coffee for good measure, but I wasn’t doing that for the benefits of caffeine. I just genuinely liked the flavor of Diet Pepsi and a hot cup of black coffee. Sure, sometimes I would be tired and turn to my usual caffeinated drinks, but my main purpose in drinking was not to wake myself up. It was to just have a little treat, and my treat of choice just so happened to be caffeinated.
But, when I arrived in my freshman dorm and got settled into my schedule, I noticed how exhausting it was to wake up for my 9 a.m. classes, try to get some exercise in, do some homework and go meet new people every single day. Life was draining. I would get up in the morning and feel like I had already worked a nine-hour shift. I was tired beyond reason, so I eventually turned to energy drinks.
I’d finish one nearly every morning, and if not, I would get a red eye with an extra shot of espresso at one of the local cafes. Later in the day, I would re-up my caffeine intake with a Diet Pepsi from the dining hall pop machines. It seemed to work — I was more alert and didn’t feel the weight of my existence on my shoulders so much. Sure, I would get jittery and not be able to sit still for longer than a couple minutes, but that was just the price I had to pay for the boost.
My caffeine habit more or less continued the rest of my freshman year and through the summer. It would ebb and flow with the stressors of life. Around midterms and finals, my intake would spike to upwards of 500 milligrams a day, but it would simmer down to a steady 200 to 250 milligrams on weekends and breaks.
I was satisfied with this routine. I was used to the high expenses of multiple daily coffees or energy drinks and the feeling of my body shaking. My dependence on caffeine was wholly obvious. Thus, when it came time to decide what I was going to try for this piece, I decided to try and shake said dependence. I didn’t think it would be that bad — caffeine was such a small part of my daily routine, after all. The worst I’d face would be some headaches, which could be combated with ibuprofen.
I was wrong.
On the first day of no caffeine, I woke up after my usual three snoozes and went for a run. Every part of my body seemed to be weighted. Each breath was completely manual and my legs seemed to be made of concrete. When I got back to my house, all I wanted was a big glass of water and an energy drink.
I kept pushing through the day. The ghost of caffeine kept popping in and out of my mind, like an annoying fly reappearing after you thought it went out the window. I couldn’t shake it; I just wanted something caffeinated. Anything. I instead decided to make myself a cup of herbal tea, and it curbed my cravings for a while; it was close enough to coffee — kinda brownish and warm — so it was enough to tide me over for awhile.
I went to my classes for the day and felt my body drooping. I was tired. I looked in the Haven Hall bathroom mirror and found that my eye bags had grown tenfold, and my eyes seemed to be set deeper into my face. I splashed some cold water on myself and went to my class. I then got lunch at South Quad’s dining hall. The pop fountain machines mocked me as I ate my questionable looking turkey burger.
As the day went on, I could feel a headache slowly setting in. It was gradual at first — I didn’t notice it until around 2 p.m. It faded in and out. I didn’t pay much mind to it because I knew that headaches would happen no matter what, but I couldn’t pay much mind to anything at all. Throughout the entire day, I seemed to be watching myself do everything. I was spacey and out of it.
Around 7 p.m. the headache really hit me. It felt like a cold metal rod piercing through my occipital bone all the way to my eyebrow. I took some ibuprofen in an effort to take some of the edge off, but it did nothing. I went to sleep, hoping it would be better in the morning.
When I woke up on day two, I felt as if a clamp was stuck on my head. I again forced myself to go to the gym to work out. Every part of me was rejecting the activity, but I kept pushing.
After a grueling workout, I couldn’t focus, no matter what. I kept trying to read, but every word blended together, and I got stuck on the same sentence for 20 minutes. My head was pulsating with heat and pain; my brain seemed to be expanding and pushing against the confines of my head. There was nothing I could do about it either. Something felt a little odd the entire day, but I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what. At dinner that night, I choked on a piece of food and every cough sent a shockwave through my skull as if my temple had been hit with a ball-peen hammer.
Day three came along, and I could feel my head starting to loosen up a bit. I still felt exhausted, but at least I wasn’t in pain at the same time. I was disorganized all day and struggled to focus, but the ibuprofen finally gave me some relief. In the past few days, I consumed more tea than I ever had in my life. It wasn’t the same as a coffee or pop, but it was a decent enough substitute. This detail might be something I should tell my doctor rather than pen in here, but I also noticed that I was peeing substantially less.
Days four, five, six and seven blended together. My headache was mostly gone, and I was feeling relatively normal besides being extra sluggish. I had been sleeping better than when I was on caffeine, and I actually began waking up before my alarm — something I don’t think I have done since my freshman year of high school. Regardless, on each of these cold fall mornings, all I wanted was a cup of coffee. But I got by with my herbal teas, and if I stopped to think about it long enough as I sipped, I could taste Diet Pepsi. I still missed my caffeine fix — or did I?
Before I began reflecting on my caffeine intake, I hadn’t even registered the degree to which my daily little treats were centered around the stimulant. That chai latte from the LSA Building, the coffee from Sweetwaters, the Diet Coke from the Stanford Lipsey Student Publications Building vending machine and any fountain drink from any restaurant were all removed from my life. Eventually, I felt as if I had forgotten what I had forgotten. The world felt so similar to the way it did before I had quit caffeine, but there was the slightest perceptible difference. My routine had a wrench thrown in its gears. Everything was ever so off.
Upon reflection, I realized that I honestly didn’t miss the physical effects of caffeine, once I worked past the initial pain. I can deal with being tired — I’m a college student with poor time management, after all. I did, however, miss the experience of going to get it. I missed going to one of Ann Arbor’s many overpriced cafes to get a vanilla almond milk latte during my school day. I missed waiting in the long lines, I missed joking with my friends while waiting for our drinks to be served, I missed struggling to find a spot to sit because every cafe near campus seems to always be at capacity. I missed sipping on my warm little caffeinated treats while talking about anything and everything. I don’t think I am going to stay off of caffeine — it’s in too many things I like. I am privileged that my quitting experience is temporary and involves something as relatively harmless as caffeine. I’ll use this experience to better cherish the moments I share with people while getting my daily treats (and yes, herbal tea sometimes, too).
Statement Columnist Miles Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.