death-wish-coffeeA taboo subject, I realize.  Every time I mention that I gave up caffeine a year ago, people just shut down.  They say, “Whoa, not me!” and run away as quickly as possible before I can open my mouth to explain.  Well, no one—except maybe a hacker—can keep me from saying my piece here!

Let me say at the outset that I love coffee – good coffee, that is.  I’m a snob.  That watered down crap you get at most restaurants doesn’t cut it.  I buy the good stuff.  I brew the good stuff.  You sneer, “I thought you gave up coffee!”  Caffeine yes, I did, but coffee, no.  I do drink decaf.  “But decaf has some caffeine!” you again sneer (this is how every conversation that gets past the clenched jaw phase goes).  I drink decaf black tea, too, by the way.  What I will say is that a decaf tea in the morning and a cup of decaf coffee twice a week does not a caffeine habit make!

The seed was planted when I heard a psychiatrist talk at a Texas Bar meeting about lawyers, stress, and caffeine.  She said that lawyers’ drinking too much coffee contributes to anxiety, stress, and depression, in a profession that already has so much of all three, and she gave a physical basis for it (something having to do with the adrenal glands and a hormone called cortisol). I paid attention, but I filed it away as the work on my desk piled up and responsibilities at home pressed.  Coffee was too much of a pleasure and too much of a crutch to even think about giving up.

Like most lawyers, I am always anxious.  The practice of law at whatever level, from securities and public affairs all the way to landlord/tenant and personal bankruptcy, always boils down to a singularity: who would prevail in court.  And the business of law is no easier nowadays, with much more competition chasing fewer dollars.  I haven’t watched Game of Thrones (or just about anything else lately), but I think of practicing law as being like single combat in an arena.  You have to use your skill and your wits to stay alive…or win, anyway.  I look at everything through that adversarial angle.  Our ancestors in the jungles were always on the lookout for predators or other obstacles and dangers, and lawyers are always on the lookout for conflicts and rules and negligence.  And we’re doing it almost 24/7 nowadays.  Coffee can help you stay sharp to handle all these obstacles, but too much coffee can make you jittery, over-reactive, and angry, and ultimately can dehydrate you, make you depressed, and add pounds to your frame (or so the science says).

Also like most lawyers, I got into the law in the first place because I’m argumentative, quick witted, sharp tongued, bossy, and I like to win.  Those traits don’t always translate well into life with small children.  I have a tendency to react quickly and harshly when something happens around the house that I don’t like, much the same way as when something happens in the office that I don’t like.  When my daughter started kindergarten last year and had to be out of the house by 7:15, I would get up earlier than her, have a cup of coffee to get me going, and then promptly harangue her all morning to eat, wash up, change, and get out the door.  If she lollygagged, I would get stressed out by the time constraint (I don’t want to be crosswise with a truant officer any more than with a judge!), and I’m sure I made the mornings as unpleasant for her as I did for myself.  I decided to move my coffee drinking to the afternoon.  But after blowing up in the office a couple of times and having trouble going to sleep at nights (which did not make the mornings easier), I decided that the caffeine had to go.

The change radiated out through other contexts.  It turns out being less caffeinated makes you more patient and a better listener.  You stop vibrating.  Things do not feel as urgent.  You don’t have to have the last word.  You don’t have to be the quickest wit in the room.  Vistas of possibility open up.  Where there was previously stress, there is now calm determination.  Where you once craved distraction, now you can focus.  Rather than competition, you can feel compassion.  Rather than anxiety, there is calm.

Postscript: I had 4 decafs during a morning meeting the other day, and afterwards I thought my blood was just going to boil out of my veins.  I was jittery and slightly dizzy.  The next day, I had a withdrawal headache.  After one day!  My understanding is that 4 decafs have as much caffeine as a regular, brewed cup of coffee, but even so, caffeine must be a potent drug to cause withdrawal symptoms after one day of not using it.  As much as I love the logo, I’m not sure I’ll be drinking Death Wish coffee anytime soon.  Perhaps you feel that you are not as susceptible as me, or that you don’t think caffeine is very dangerous.  In that case, be my guest.

P.P.S. Caffeine is not just a problem for lawyers.  From Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach:

“I turn to English breakfast tea to give me the boost I think I need to remain productive throughout the day and often into the night.  The price is that I become speedy, impatient, and distant from those I love.  I get disconnected from my body as I relentlessly urge myself onward to get yet another thing done.

“At a psychotherapy conference I attended, I saw a poster that struck home.  In it two homeless men are sitting on a park bench.  One is saying to the other, ‘I used to have a private jet, condo in Aspen, and be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.  Then I switched to decaf.'”

P.P.S. BBC article the other day on caffeine consumption (here).  I like the line that says, essentially, that you have to figure out your tolerance level for yourself.

9 thoughts on “Caffeine

  1. Great post! Caffeine is such a bane of my existence. But worse! I am addicted to diet soda. To disengage from this very unhealthy addiction is quite difficult. Many times I’ll siphon myself off, get down to maybe a small glass or none at all, and then slip and I’m drinking more than I’d like to admit. Just one day away and I have a headache as you describe!

    I think the key in your post though is realizing what you are putting in your body, listening to your body and mind as to what is healthy. We can still enjoy our favourite delights but in moderation, knowing how we will react and how it will make us feel. Whether it’s sugar or caffeine or alcohol or any other substance we can find ways to live healthy if we know ourselves.

  2. Ron! The more I read your posts, the more I just love and adore you. First of all, Tara Brach’s “Radical Acceptance” is one of the most life changing books I have ever read. I am so glad to know someone else who has enjoyed it.

    Amen on the caffeine. Caffeine is also an inflammatory substance. Whenever I have the courage to let it go, so many other things soar in my life.

    Thank you for sharing your journey here. I find it incredibly refreshing.

    Much love,

  3. I have cut way down on caffieine lately, and have felt better for doing so. I still yell at certain drivers on Mopac, but that is something I enjoy. Great post.

  4. got a few e-mail responses I wanted to share as anonymous comments. Don’t worry, you’ll just be one of the six billion until you reveal yourselves.
    “As I sip my coffee and read this I’m proud of your bold statement … Bold Nicaraguan Medium Roasted statement that is.”
    “Years ago I read off an herbal tea box that eating an apple will make one more alert than a cup of coffee. I get all my health advice from packaging materials. I often eat an apple in the afternoon as a result, rather than hitting up the stale coffee in the community pot’s dregs as was my previous habit. Seems it’s the active engagement of eating a crisp apple in addition to the actual nutrition that gives us a healthy boost. I bet someone is attempting to bioengineer a caffeinated apple right now.”

  5. Ron – first, love the post. Second, to me the underlying “issue” is the idea that we have to be productive all the time – and therefore need caffeine to fuel that productivity. Somehow calm and nice and centered doesn’t have the same value in modern American society.

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