“It has been my experience that folks who have no vices have very few virtues.” — Abraham Lincoln
I was thinking yesterday about the stigma that goes along with addiction as I took the last few sips of my coffee for the day at exactly 8:30am. As part of a year long set of experiments I’m conducting, March will be entirely free of both coffee and caffeine in an attempt to determine what kind of irritable mess I’ll turn into. Throughout February, I’ve been imposing rules in an effort to wean myself off coffee so that March isn’t a total disaster, and this week, 8:30am is the cutoff for my last cup.
So as I savoured that last sip, I wondered if what I was feeling was similar to what heroin addicts might feel when their body demands more, and whether I should be thankful that I was only sipping coffee when my addiction could have been to something more life-threatening.
It’s hard for me to imagine anyone in this decade of (relative) tolerance not having compassion for those struggling with more severe, life-changing addictions, but nevertheless I must admit that such ignorant views most likely still exist. There may always be those closed-minded individuals who point to others and assume that we’ve all been given the same opportunities in life, completely oblivious to the role that trauma, family environment, and mental health play in the cycle of addiction.
How unfair that there are those who turn up their noses at others, because in truth, we all struggle with addiction in some form or another. Some of us are fortunate enough to be struggling against demons that are much less malevolent, and others find themselves faced with life-or-death consequences while waging these battles against their own behaviour.
I’ve had a number of conversations with a friend recently about how it might be possible to share partial perspectives, but it’s impossible to fully understand the trials and tribulations of another person, whether as simple as compulsively eating sweets or as complex and multifaceted as existing in a world that strongly favours white, cisgendered, heterosexual males. Empathy is important, but empathy is not a direct substitute for actually living the struggle.
This highlights the need for each and every one of us to challenge our own addictions in order to better understand just how powerful these forces are. I will likely never know exactly what it’s like to be addicted to crystal meth, but I can know exactly what it’s like to be dependent on a substance by inviting my physical brain and body to openly defy my mind and crave something it cannot create on its own.
I told myself for as long as I have been drinking coffee that it’s not an addiction. On the worst days, I would drink 6–7 cups a day, often spending large chunks of time in a jittery hell and honestly believing I could stop whenever I wanted. While I still do believe very strongly in my own willpower, I now see that the denial was definitely real.
Admittedly, caffeine probably plays a large role in my coffee addiction. But my newly-identified addiction to coffee is, I believe, more about behavioural and environmental factors than it is about chemical ones. Boredom and my work environment seem to beg me to have a cup of coffee in my hand. For most of February, I’ve managed to counter this by drinking hot water instead of coffee. This eases the pressure of environmental stimuli telling me to have a beverage in my hand and be sipping automatically as I go about my day. It assures my brain that everything is as it should be while it adjusts to a reduction in caffeine and natural adenosine consumption.
While this hot water trick has decreased my coffee intake from 5–6 cups per weekday down to 1–2, weekends are an entirely different battle. While at home, the temptation to brew pot after pot of coffee is huge. There’s always a cup on the go somewhere in my house, and sipping has just become automatic at this point.
As I continue to impose stricter and stricter limitations on when and how I can drink my coffee, I’ve had numerous people approach me with their own opinions on the rules I’ve set for myself. Most tell me something along the lines of: “Loosen up a bit! No need to be so rigid about things.” But rigidity is the only thing my caffeine-starved brain understands, and I know these opinions simply come from a lack of perspective on the cycle of addiction. A cycle they are most likely caught up in themselves.
As March approaches, I only expect things to get harder. Headaches, as those around me seem to enjoy pointing out, will come and make me beg for death. Rules and a greater purpose are the only ideas keeping me from obeying the voice in my brain crying out for coffee (always trying to lie and tell me it “just misses the taste”). With any luck, those around me will also learn how to support someone struggling from an addiction of any kind — not with unsolicited advice, but with understanding and sympathy.
We’re all addicted to something. It’s a commonality that we share as human beings. So before you take it upon yourself to judge those who suffer from addictions — life-threatening or otherwise — remind yourself that all of our brains rely on one thing or another to keep status quo. Whether it’s TV, books, running, working out, eating, video games, cocaine, or sugar, challenging what your body has come to rely on is the only way to inch ever closer to fully understanding those people who suffer from an addiction of any kind.
Next month as I embark on what is undoubtedly going to be the most difficult of my twelve experiments, and even this month as I begin to transition into a short period of life without one of my greatest vices, I will be coming to terms with a better perspective of those suffering from addictive behaviours. If you find yourself with little understanding of my self-imposed struggle and relentless irritability, then you may also benefit from considering what kinds of addictions you’re struggling with in an effort to expand your own narrow perspective on addictive behaviour.
Dexter McMillan is a Special Educator in the West Vancouver School District, and is embarking on 12 months of various experiments to assess each and every one of his habitual behaviours. Follow along on Twitter and Medium: @dexmcmillan