I’ve never been a morning person. My mother remembers that when I was three years old, I was so sleepy in the morning that she had the impulse to offer me coffee. Don’t give coffee to a three year old, as a rule, she knew, but the impulse was there. I remember the smell of coffee fondly when I was child. Mom would drink it and it would make her happy. At bed time, she would read to my brother and me and the smell of it, both in the cup and on her breath is something I associate with comfort and affection.
I started drinking coffee on my own my first year of high school. I would order it from the coffee cart on the upper west side of Manhattan on my way into school, where I felt very cool and grown-up sipping it during first period. “Oh, I need my coffee to wake up,” I got to say in a very adult way. I’m not sure if was more awake from the caffeine or the idea of being an adult who needed caffeine, but either way, the love affair had begun, the pendulum set in motion.
In college, I had a little boiler pot in my dorm room. I’m almost ashamed to say it now, but I would make cup after cup of the International Foods instant sweet mocha flavored crap. My sophomore year, I dated a guy over the summer who unabashedly described himself as a coffee snob. He made gourmet French-pressed coffee every day before work and put it in a fancy thermos. After a few months of basking in his coffee prowess I couldn’t go back to instant. At the end of that summer, I drove back to school and stopped at my grandparents’ house in Texas. They offered me coffee in the morning and I accepted. It was instant. That was the last cup of instant I ever had. I choked it down to be polite, but I was forever turned.
My junior year in college, I lived off campus and bought a coffee pot with my roommate. We made pot after pot and would wake each other up with coffee. One of us would bring the other coffee in bed. Once again, coffee would be associated with friendship and affection. When out with friends late at night, we’d be those assholes in the diner, ordering nothing but cup after cup of endless coffee, annoying the wait staff and the patrons around us. Ah, youth. Sleep patterns are so irregular in college that I’m not sure the effects of the caffeine even registered with me.
My senior year I got a job in a bakery with the sadistic clock-in time of 5am. As a night person, it was easier for me to stay awake all night, shower at 4am, head into work and drink coffee all day. That, combined with my schoolwork and an active social life, I have no recollection of ever sleeping. I don’t even recall my 21 year old body being that upset about it. After all, I had coffee.
After graduation, I got an office job. Like many offices in the world, the coffee was plentiful and free. It was one of the many “perks” of my first-ever salaried position. It was around this time, with a regular schedule and normal-person hours, that I noticed something horrible was taking place in my body. I stopped being able to sleep. When you start researching articles about insomnia, one of the first recommendations is to stop drinking coffee and alcohol. That seemed so silly to me. That advice is for other people, I reasoned, people who don’t need coffee. I kept not sleeping and I kept reading articles. Apparently, caffeine can stay in your system for 13 hours. I did the math: If I could cut myself off by 11am, I could get to sleep by midnight. So I tried that but I really missed that 3pm cup. I looked forward to it as a little treat/break in the afternoon. It powered me through the long busy afternoons.
So I did the unthinkable: I switched the 3pm cup to decaf. I didn’t tell anyone. Since I made the cup myself, no one had to know. I didn’t have to order it or say the word “decaf” out loud to anyone. I would just quietly make the cup and shamefully pretended it was real coffee. It didn’t taste quite the same but the approximation was acceptable. The smell and the comfort were still there. And I did indeed start sleeping better almost immediately.
Over the years since then, my sensitivity to caffeine has only increased. My body added other quirks that I started noticing. Coffee on an empty stomach was suddenly a terrible idea. Coffee would arbitrarily make me lightheaded or hurt my insides. Coffee turned on me and gradually went from being my best dependable friend to being a weird-sometimes-mean moody friend. It took years to admit this to myself. I’d be sweaty, shaking, dizzy, having unpleasant digestion issues, painful stomach cramps and insist on another cup. It got to a point where one cup would make me feel terrible. And since giving it up was not an option, I slowly reduced the amount of caffeine in each cup until it stopped hurting. Even decaf has a little caffeine so a cup of decaf could still give me a little perk-up without as many of the side effects.
So here I am today. A half-caf person. I buy two enormous tins of coffee from Costco – one of each and I mix them together. I have to make sure I eat something within a reasonable amount of time from the first sip and it has to be protein. I should also drink some water with it. I can’t believe I’m this high-maintenance about my coffee intake. But it was either careful maintenance or nothing. If we went out to enjoy a cup of coffee together, I doubt you’d notice anything was amiss. After 3pm, there’s no coffee, not even decaf. I get weird looks from ordering decaf at 11am, but that’s what it takes.
I was at a morning social function a few days ago and there were a few large vessels of coffee available, one of which was decaf. Someone standing near me said, “Heh, decaf. Why do they bother?” and I jumped in to explain/defend the decaf. I said, “I’m in for the marathon, not the sprint. I love coffee and if I want to drink more than one cup, I have to cut it with decaf or I will faint by 10am.” He said, “So you’re one of those annoying people who order ‘half decaf’ at Starbucks?” He said it so sneeringly that I wanted to say, “Fuck you! You have ear hair! We all make choices!” But instead, I said, “That are a lot more annoying orders at Starbucks than “tall half-caf.” I’m not ordering “a grande extra hot soy cappuccino with extra foam, with a squirt of sugar-free vanilla and chocolate sauce drizzled on top.” – please tell me, Starbucks workers, if I’m right in this. At least with my order, no one asks for my name.
The judgey guy seemed to nod, but I kind of understood him. Decaf seems counter to coffee. It seems like an affront to all that coffee is about. But it’s all I’ve got. I’m not giving up on coffee and if I can find a way to enjoy it without hurting my body in the process, I’m going to jump on it. At brunch, with a full meal, I drink the real thing and it is sublime. As the day ticks on, I will cut it with decaf and by 3pm, I’m cut off. It’s how I live and I’m not ashamed of it. I’m not giving up on my moody mistress. I’m in it for the marathon.