When I was in my early twenties, around 2003, I used to love going to a coffee shop on Bedford Ave and North 7th in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. They served something called Rocket Fuel. It was four shots of ice-brewed espresso served on ice. You’re supposed to sip espresso, but this was served with a straw, and I would suck the whole thing down in under 30 seconds. The buzz was intense, and I really liked it.
I developed a love for coffee in my late teens, when I started touring America in a small punk rock band. If you’re going to drive from New York City to Austin, TX in 48 hours, you’re going to need a lot of coffee. And you wind up getting pretty addicted to it.
My reliance on coffee continued well into my first job after school. I wasn’t confused when I finished school. I knew I needed to work so, against nearly everyone’s advice, I became a bike courier.
Every morning I would get an extra large black iced coffee from Dunkin Donuts, without any ice. I would slam all 24 ounces, hop on my bike and go, usually for eight hours, riding up to 40 miles in a day, delivering packages.
The thing I liked about coffee is that it mitigates hunger. As you could imagine I was pretty broke, and would often go through an eight-hour stretch eating just one banana and a Clif bar, bringing my work-day food expenditure to a grand total of two bucks.
I stopped bike messaging after I was offered a job at a small indie music publication in New York City. The office was on 11th and Broadway right across from Union Square. Coffee shops were abundant. My boss drank four iced coffees a day, and he always offered to buy.
By this point, I had a huge coffee addiction. But I was used to chugging coffee and riding a bike all day. I wasn’t used to chugging coffee and sitting at a desk all day. No one can be. Having your adrenaline firing while you’re sitting in a chair staring at a screen is one of the most unnatural sensations in the world.
Around this time, I started taking stock of coffee’s deleterious effects on my health. It made me anxious and dehydrated. My skin became arid and I was irritated easily, especially when I needed it.
Idiotically, I stayed hooked on coffee until the end of 2008.
I knew something was wrong with me. On my morning commutes I would sometimes feel bizarrely detached, like I was floating above myself. I would get freaked out by crowds of people, and would keep my head down, counting my steps as I negotiated the masses at Times Square. I don’t have a temperament for hyperbole, so I’m being honest when I say these sensations were so intense they made me suicidal.
One warm November morning I drank a double shot of espresso I had made with my pricey Nespresso machine. I started walking down the street and became startled by the claustrophobia and fear that overtook me, out of nowhere, within a matter of seconds. I felt like I was having a heart attack, even though I was 26. I ran home, laid down and waited for the feeling to pass.
I saw an internist, and he told me I suffered from a severe anxiety attack and likely had an anxiety disorder.
He tried to put me on some medication, but I told him I wasn’t interested in starting a cycle of drug dependency.
I saw a psychiatrist and told her the same thing. In regards to mental health, conversations with doctors tend to pause when you tell them you’re not interested in pharmaceuticals.
The anxiety attack is to this day the most powerful sensation I have ever felt. The fear, paranoia, helplessness and physical distress it caused has yet to be rivaled by any pleasure, success or happiness I’d experienced beforehand or have afterwards. What a bummer.
But I did have a revelation from the experience. I am no proponent of cognitive behavioral therapy, and I’m routinely disheartened by the mass marketing and distribution of psychotropic drugs. But doctors are shackled to this network as much as it is an effect to their cause. My point is doctors are often wise.
I had two sessions with a psychiatrist before abandoning treatment, mostly because she told me all I needed to hear on the second visit: “You shouldn’t use caffeine. You can’t drink coffee again.”
I knew it all along, but I needed her to tell me, just the way she had, which is so often the case with life. I sold my Nespresso machine—it really tied the room together—and haven’t had a drop of coffee since.
We have one, two, three, sometimes four cups of coffee a day. To our generation, spending nine or more dollars a day at Starbucks is normal.
We’re driven to succeed, so we caffeinate. We’re hungover, so we caffeinate. We want to stay out late, so we caffeinate. We stayed out late and we’re hungover and now we need to wake up, so we caffeinate. This is a stupid cycle.
I’ve been both hungover and caffeinated—bigtime—but people are not supposed to be high or low. We’re supposed to be even. Our focus and creative energies are sapped by the ups and downs of modern convention. And most of those ups and downs are self-inflicted.
When you’re in your twenties and carving out your professional niche, competition is rich. Someone always has a better job, a better funded start-up, more money, more connections, is better-looking or smarter. “If I had that,” you’ll say to yourself.
The good news is that you can’t be that. But you get to be you, which is infinitely better. And you is a good thing to be so long as you don’t screw it up.
Your best self is even and clear. Being so will rescue you from potential decades of despondency. And you had better save yourself—it’s likely no one else will.