Me and my coffee
A love story, a sob story, a horror story, and a cry for help
Did you know that caffeine exacerbates anxiety and makes it harder to sleep, which makes you feel more tired and anxious, which makes you want more caffeine, which leads to an infinite sweaty loop of vibrating with nervous joy and / or rage? Did you know that most of the time when you feel tired you also just need to drink some god damn water instead of further dehydrating yourself?
Wait! Don’t go. This is not a preachy essay about why coffee is bad. You, like me, have probably already heard all about the evils of coffee from someone like Gwyneth Paltrow and thought, “fuck YOU! I need SOMETHING to get me through this day, I don’t have butlers or whatever like you clearly do, you can’t expect me to do all this shit without some kind of help! Coffee is a gift from the universe, a powerful weapon to fight the battles of life, and you will pry my coffee from my cold dead fingers only if I don’t kill you first.”
Good for you. Get it girl. Just writing those words makes me feel like “HELL YES” and also want another cup.
This is just an article with some stories about caffeine, written as a way for me to work out how I feel about it.
I recently got pneumonia, and yesterday I woke up with the most blinding headache of my life. I thought I was having a brain aneurysm, on top of the pneumonia. I was lying on the couch trying to meditate through the agony when I sensed my husband approaching me very slowly. He fearfully whispered “are you sleeping?” because (as he later admitted) he thought maybe I had actually died.
I opened my eyes and burst into tears and cried “this is the worst pain I’ve ever been in! I wonder if we should go to the hospital.” “Yeah, maybe we should, you look terrible,” he replied. I considered it. I hadn’t taken my antibiotics / cough-suppressant / high-dose ibuprofen yet, so maybe this was just how unfiltered pneumonia felt? I couldn’t take my medicine because I hadn’t eaten anything yet, because I felt like I was going to throw up, because of the blinding pain.
And then it hit me: I just hadn’t had any coffee in awhile, and I was going through caffeine withdrawals. Those who know what I mean will KNOW what I mean: the pain of missing a morning coffee is not just mental. It’s like your soul is being split in two; like someone just destroyed one — no ALL — of your horcruxes.
The moment this epiphany took hold, I dragged my weeping self into the kitchen and began the ritual of brewing my black gold, my precious, my Stumptown Hair Bender morning pour-over with my Hario V60 and my ridiculously tedious little needle-nosed kettle. I was doubled over the counter with all the lights off, the noise of the grinder nearly annihilated me, but a few minutes later, the spell was cast. I had my fix.
I didn’t even want it. I could barely get it down. My body was like “are you fucking kidding me right now? You have pneumonia. A coffee strong enough to power a small city is not what you need today. Please stop.” But I kept sipping, and with each passing sip one of the knives that was driving into my brain began to relent. And just like that: I was once again ready for blast off.
The moment the empty mug hit the coffee table, I swept and mopped our whole house. I did three loads of laundry. I cleaned the bathroom. I suggested (he might say “demanded”) that Andrew take out the trash and vacuum the office and living room. “Aren’t you supposed to be resting right now? You’re sick!” he reasonably offered (at the time I thought this was to get out of vacuuming. Sorry Andrew.) “Look, I don’t feel like resting right now, and I want to get the house clean while I have some energy, and anyway I can’t possibly rest while the house is this messy, it’s too stressful.” (It occurs to me now the un-vacuumed rug may not have been the source of my crazed nervous energy.)
The love story
I never ever ever want to break up with coffee, for the record. I love it body and soul. Being a coffee fanatic is a huge part of my identity; I don’t know who I’d be without it. It’s probably one of the first things I’d tell you about me if we met.
Coffee and I go way back. I loved making my Dad his coffee in the mornings before school: the smell of it, the ritual of it, the taste of the sips I would sneak, the rush they would give my small child brain. In college it fueled my “night owl” lifestyle — I did all my best work around 2AM — a habit that continued in my career for more than a decade, hence owltastic.com (nowadays, I try to stick to more sane human hours though). One of the first things I created on the internet was a coffee blog, which I helped design and curate with founder Jina Anne (RIP, Art in my Coffee. Shout out to the solid HTML that makes it still navigable without CSS).
Nowadays I have a weekly subscription to Stumptown Coffee to help supplement the beans I collect every time I visit a new roaster I like. On a recent trip to Japan, our tour guide asked us what our interests were, and along with sake and “local street food” (aka whatever cheap fried food is on offer), all I could think to say was “Japan’s coffee culture.” (My favorite thing ended up being the shrines and temples, although for the record the food was unbelievable and is my new favorite thing to eat).
I don’t actually think there’s anything wrong with exploring a culture through the lens of its coffeeshops: every place has a unique approach to coffee worship, and it’s a wonderful way to connect with people while traveling.
On a recent solo trip to LA, the only way I was brave enough to explore the city and talk to locals was by plotting a map of the best coffee shops, walking to each one, and having a slow drip coffee at the bar. I chatted with the baristas while they prepared the brew and felt a real connection to the friendly fellow fanatics I met (shout out to southern Californian’s openness and warmth, in New York they might have spit in my cup for asking a question about their roasting process).
The sob story
We spent our last day in Kyoto exploring the picture-perfect Gion district, and in the late afternoon we wandered into a cafe for a quick pick-me-up to help us power through our last few hours of daylight. There we spotted a drink on the English menu that included cold brew and sweet condensed milk. It seemed to be a house specialty, so we went for it. The baristas lovingly prepared something that was part potion, part artwork — the coffee and milk were perfectly balanced, separated by science and skill, with the cold brew floating just on top of a thin layer of syrup which sat lightly on the milk like a sunset. This was presented to me in a delicate long-stemmed wine glass.
I tried to explain that I actually needed this drink to to go, and asked for a cup to dump it in. When I mimed pouring the drink into a cup and walking out the door they looked at me like I’d just slapped their mother across the face. Slowly one woman reached for a sad little plastic cup. Rather than handing it over as I beckoned for her to do, she started making me an entirely new drink. I encouraged her to just pour the existing drink into the cup, but she vehemently shook her head. Feeling guilty now, I indicated that we would just sit down and sip the original drink, reasoning we could miss one more temple for the sake of not offending them.
So we took the concoction to the upstairs seating area — an empty white room featuring unvarnished pine furniture and a large window overlooking the Hokanji temple. We pulled two of the squared little stools up to the glass, sat down, and took a sip of the coffee drink. “Wow babe. That is so good I could just cry.” And (in a turn that will surprise no one who knows me well), I started to cry.
I wasn’t just crying because the drink was so unreasonably, impossibly delicious (although it was), but also because I was flooded with gratitude. I couldn’t believe my life had turned out this way: so much better than I ever would’ve hoped for in my wildest teenage fantasies. There I was, the daughter of a teacher and an airplane mechanic, raised in a small town in Florida, sitting next to the man of my dreams, a really sweet and handsome Yorkshireman who actually wanted to marry me for some reason, in a beautiful cafe in Kyoto, looking at a centuries old temple, sipping a cup of true heaven. I couldn’t help it. I openly and ugly cried while trying to explain all these feelings to Andrew, who is used to it and already knows.
When we finally brought the empty glass back downstairs to the baristas, they looked at my tear stained face and politely smiled while I awkwardly bowed and kept saying “thank you, the coffee was very very good. Arigato gozaimasu, arigato gozaimasu” (the latter being the only Japanese phrase we knew, which means “thank you very much, with respect”, although I’m pretty sure we pronounced it wrong for the entire trip).
The lovely little moments that open up to me through my appreciation of coffee is the nice side of the story, and it’s the story I tell myself when I think about why I could never ever stop drinking it. (“But you could’ve had a similar experience in a tea house, on a park bench, in an art gallery” the rational voice in my head suggests — bitch!)
The horror story
The ugly side of this story is that when we were planning this trip, I was so paranoid that I wouldn’t have consistent access to coffee that right before we left I made a special trip to Target (even though I didn’t have the time) to buy Vivarin “caffeine alertness aid” pills. I was in a panic when they were sold out, and made a miserable teenage boy check the back to see if they had any more in stock (he did eventually find some).
This is not the behavior of a rational person. This is the behavior of an addict. I can remember a loved one having a similar level of panic and desperation when they were struggling with painkiller addiction. Addiction creates the feeling that there is no one you wouldn’t step on to get what you need, because the threat of not having it is as potent as the threat of death. (They overcame that struggle because they have a bottomless well of strength and love that they tapped into, and also because they got help. If you are struggling with addiction, please get help. You also have a bottomless well of strength and love, even if you don’t know it yet.)
I didn’t end up needing the Vivarin pills, as Japan has vending machines in every corner of the country — whether you’re in a city or village — which sell cans of strong black coffee, hot or cold, for about $1 (honestly, god bless them). Once I discovered this, I was on an unstoppable high for the entire 10-day trip. I tried every brand, flavor, and variety of canned coffee in every place we visited — there probably isn’t a single photo of me from the trip where I’m not glowing (perhaps you’d call it vibrating, sweating, bugging out) with a little can labeled “BLACK” in hand.
I keep Vivarin pills in my purse too in case of energy crashes, but thanks to the prevalence of coffee shops, I almost never need them. Friends and family who visit us here in Florida — who we inevitably take to Disney — are amused that I know where the closest espresso stand is in every corner of every theme park.
(Pro tip: if you go to a Joffrey’s at any of the Disney parks, get the Kahlua-tini and order a shot of espresso on the side. Dump the espresso on top, and you’ve got a boozy affogoto thing that will make it the Happiest Place on Earth no matter how long the lines are. Other pro tip: drink water, or get sun stroke. It’s Florida.)
The cry for help
As I’m piecing this article together, I am cringing at all the signs that I might have A Slight Problem when it comes to caffeine. I’m also rationalizing the whole time: “but EVERYONE drinks coffee!” “But that one article said the thing about antioxidants!” “But literally the only reason you’re able to write this article is because you’re drinking coffee RIGHT THIS MOMENT and without it you wouldn’t be able to form a sentence!” (It’s true I wouldn’t have been able to write this without coffee, but I am technically supposed to be resting right now, as I am still rocking a pretty solid case of pneumonia, probably not helped by the 40,000 cups of coffee I had last week.)
Look, I’m not going to tell you that this cup (*takes a sip*) is my final cup of coffee, because I would probably jump straight out the window if I believed that. All I’m saying is, I’m coming around to the idea that it might be time for me to CHILL OUT a little bit.
So let’s call this article a part one in a series of me coming to terms with what has maybe? probably? turned into an unhealthy habit for me in life?
Right now I’m ill. I can’t work or go anywhere, I have nothing to do, and no one to impress. Maybe this is a good time for me to stop over-consuming what is — let’s be honest — an addictive drug. Maybe pneumonia is my body’s way of forcibly smashing the off switch when it comes to my feverish need to perform and impress no matter how much coffee it takes.
This is also a long winded cry for help. Can anyone relate to the level of coffee love / need I describe, or am I uniquely unhinged? Any reformed coffee snobs out there who have successfully managed to phase it out? What did and didn’t work for you? Anyone else think I should delete this post and make myself another cup and forget the whole thing before too many people read it?