What happened when I kicked my coffee habit

Times writer Will Pavia experienced withdrawal symptoms similar to a drug addict when he stopped drinking coffee. Could he cope without the black stuff?

On the third day of my life without coffee, I call a heroin addict. He’s received a pioneering treatment that involved drilling two holes in the back of his head and inserting electrodes to tickle his brain. It seems to be working. The terrible cravings have been silenced. “I think it could be better,” he says. “But I’m an addict. I always think I could feel better.”

I’m supposed to be interviewing him for a story, but I can’t concentrate on what he’s saying. My head is pounding and I have these terrible cravings. Getting up every so often from my desk, I pass the kettle and move, as in a daydream, to flick the switch before remembering the order from the doctor. No coffee. No black tea. Just like that.

It was three days ago. I remember thinking I could spy a loophole.

“So, it’s all right if I put milk in it?” I say at this fateful meeting. “The tea?”

The doctor stares at me for a moment and then speaks slowly, as if to a child. “Nothing with caffeine,” he says. “No coffee. No tea, unless it’s herbal tea. No mint tea.” There’s a long list of other lovely things too, but I can’t get past the coffee.

“But I’m a journalist,” I say. “I have to write things and I can’t do it without coffee. I have to drink large amounts of coffee from six in the morning until about ten at night. My livelihood depends on it.”

The doctor shrugs. “This is not a life sentence,” he says. “It’s just until you’ve got this thing under control.”

The thing is a lump in my throat, a persistent feeling that I’ve swallowed a pill. It’s reflux, the doctor says. Very common. You have to stop consuming the chemicals that relax the sphincter at the top of your stomach: theobromine, which you get in chocolate, theophylline, in tea, and caffeine.

This is the beginning of the ongoing disaster that is my life without coffee. I stumble home along Lexington Avenue, past New Yorkers drinking lattes in the afternoon sunshine. On every block there are cafés, lovely, enticing places with gold writing in the windows and old sacks behind the counters. One or two got nobbled by the pandemic, but this bit of Manhattan remains a place where it seems impossible to have too many coffee shops. At every major intersection there’s a steel cube with a nice man inside who will give you a coffee for a dollar, if you can’t be bothered to go inside one of the cafés. It tastes terrible, but it’s coffee.

Can you give up coffee in New York? It’s the city that never sleeps. It goes against every reason you are in New York to begin with. It’s like going to Miami and dressing sensibly, or moving to Panama and paying all your taxes.

I’d had a couple of coffees that morning, before I saw the doctor, plus four cups of tea, so I’m not yet at the stage where I have to hide under the duvet while the wallpaper starts to move, but by the evening things are getting dicey. I have some work to do and I think I should finish it while there are still homeopathic traces of the black stuff in my system, but I keep falling asleep at the keyboard.

The next day is Saturday, bright and hot. I have a burgeoning headache. Some friends are in town and we meet them in Central Park where I relate the awful tragedy that has befallen me. I can’t even tell it in an entertaining fashion, because I’ve had no coffee, but they listen. Marvin works odd hours, advising governments, crisscrossing time zones. His wife, Steph, is built like me, anxious with a cup of coffee perpetually in her hand. Marvin worries about her coffee habit or, rather, he worries that she spends too much money in coffee shops. Every couple of years he runs the numbers and buys her a new coffee machine, each model grander than the last, in an effort to persuade her to drink at home. But they never stay at home. They live a restless lifestyle. Once I asked Steph if she’d eaten that day and she said it was fine because she takes whole milk in her cappuccinos.

“I would just die,” she says, looking at me, genuine concern and possibly grief welling in her eyes.

“I am dying,” I say.

We’re sitting on a low wall in the shade of a small tree, Steph with her coffee, me listless and wondering what to do with my hands.

“There was this one day when Marvin went out early in the morning and brought me a coffee from a place down the street,” she says. “He came into the bedroom holding it. Marvin has never looked more sexually attractive to me.”

I think sexual attraction is probably over for me. Even if you leave Marvin aside, I don’t think I’ll have the energy. I have the same feeling in a playground the next day, that I am an invalid watching life slip by, my kids having a water fight, the gorgeous young New Yorkers gliding down the pavement. A friend comes over to wish me a happy Father’s Day. It is Father’s Day, apparently. Her husband has it all mapped out: a massage at ten, lunch with old friends, squash in the afternoon. We see him a little while later standing straight, backlit by the morning sunshine. He looks like the Platonic form of middle-aged manhood and there, in his left hand, is a cappuccino.

Monday is when it gets real. This is day three. Painkillers have numbed the headache, but they do nothing to alter the impression that I am still asleep. I have to write about the heroin addict with the holes in his head. The holes were drilled by surgeons as part of an attempt to cure his addiction to opioids, using a technique previously used to treat Parkinson’s. Wires fed from a pacemaker target with electrical signals a spot in his brain meant to stimulate the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with happiness. The hope is that the treatment will reverse alterations to the chemistry of his brain wrought by his years of addiction.

The man got hooked on prescription painkillers in his teens after a sporting injury and then switched to heroin, which was cheaper. He’d tried many times to quit, but never managed more than a couple of months. The cravings were terrible, he says. I know I shouldn’t, but I keep wanting to chime in and say, “Hey, I know what you mean. Let me tell you what I’m going through.”

He tells me that addiction ran in his family. Here again I want to say, “Me too.” My parents drink tea morning, noon and night. They drink tea when they are going to bed. It can be 10.30 at night, everyone’s about to retire for the evening. “Who wants a cup of tea?” my mum says. What she means is, “Who else wants one?” She’s so dependent now on PG Tips that she needs a strong cup just to give her the strength to go to sleep.

I got hooked in my teens. I bought a small white espresso machine, which I took to university. When the espresso machine finally died of overuse and under-washing, I bought a Bialetti, one of those beautiful stainless steel stove-top espresso makers. I got the nine-cup version. When that wore out, I bought another. I knew I didn’t have a problem because it’s not the largest one you can buy. There’s still the 12-cup. I drank two pots daily.

Now I am a no-cup man. “I can’t stand to see you like this,” my wife says on day four. “All the bounce has gone out of your bungee.” Wandering listlessly about the kitchen, I come across my coffee mug. It’s like meeting an old friend whom you no longer see.

On day five I confide in an editor at work. I tell him how weary, stale, flat and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world, as Hamlet says, while in a slump. Wouldn’t Hamlet have managed better if there had been flat whites in Elsinore? He would have been a lot more productive, I think.

He wouldn’t have skulked around the palace gurning at people and frighting Ophelia. Hamlet with coffee would probably be a one-act play.

“How long does it go on for?” the editor asks. “The withdrawal?”

It hadn’t occurred to me to look it up, but the editor is a man who lives in a river of information. He looks up things as he speaks, he checks facts mid-sentence. There’s a tapping sound. Then he says, “Three to nine days. You’re nearly there.”

I do feel a little better, it’s true. The headache is receding, the lethargy is lifting. The trick is to try to sleep at night and our two-year-old spends some of it screaming. “A monster was trying to eat me,” he explains on the morning of day six. Awful for him, of course, though lying there with him in the dawn, I think he’s getting ideas above his station. It wouldn’t take a monster. A small dog could finish him off. A rabbit would give him a good run for his money.

I think my brain is coming back to life, although there are a few residual symptoms. One is that I still have the feeling, like the addict, that I could be better. I’m writing that morning about a guy who makes wine using other bits of fruit. “People like to say they are getting grace notes of cherry, or peach, or mango, in the bouquet of a big cabernet,” he says on the phone. “Well, why not actually put them in there?” It’s a funny idea and there ought to be an easy way of making it sound funny on the page, but it seems beyond me. Before the coffee interdiction, I would have downed a strong one and stared at the screen until it came to me. Now there’s only water. I have to try to concentrate on my own. It’s a nightmare. Like being eaten by a monster, or a rabbit. Eventually I get to something, but I keep thinking it would be better with the help of a few espressos.

It’s not as if I was WH Auden back in my coffee-swilling days, but even Auden needed a stimulant. He took amphetamines (but then needed to drink a horse tranquiliser of a gin martini to get to sleep). And Hemingway wrote in Parisian bars with a café crème and Balzac was apparently a 50 cups a day man. He would definitely have bought the 12-cup Bialetti, or the giant Bialetti the company made to hold the ashes of its great leader, Renato Bialetti, when he died in 2016.

A few writers have penned books about the effects of coffee, although they’re usually looking from a great height. “It did help to shake up Europe and to get people to think more incisively, and a lot of music and literature was written to it,” says Mark Pendergrast, author of Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How it Transformed our World, when I call him. “The earliest newspapers began in British coffee houses.”

Newspapers are still written to coffee, as far as I can tell. Twenty years ago, there was still a cadre of reporters who ran on beer and wine and, among them, a splendid writer who carried a flask of whisky, which he called his “filing juice”. But they were replaced by middle-class university graduates who drank fancy coffees: lattes, cortados, macchiatos.

Pendergrast insists it is possible to function without coffee. “It is an addictive drug,” he says. “It’s not that it’s going to kill you, but it’s not going to make you happy either.” He then says that one of the health benefits of coffee, besides preventing liver cancer and being beneficial in relation to certain forms of diabetes, is that “those who drink coffee tend to commit suicide less”.

I thank him for this reassurance. “Good luck to you, personally,” he says, slightly undermining his message. I tell him the thing about Auden. “Well,” he says. “You could always buy amphetamines.”

I try one other writer, Stuart Allen Lee, author of The Devil’s Cup, a sort of travelogue which argues that coffee caused many of the great political and cultural revolutions. Writing it, he claims to have drunk “2,920 litres of percolated, drip, espresso, latte, cappuccino, macchiato, con panna, instant and Americano”. He says he’s not sure he can offer any advice on writing without coffee because he’s never had to give it up. Every writer he knows runs on coffee, he says. “I don’t think it really affects the writing itself. It’s good for journalism, where it’s a clear logical process, but if you’re doing fiction maybe it’s more of a gooey process. Maybe liquor is better.”

Now here’s the other thing that troubles me. Quite often, without coffee, I feel like a child. Stopping at a café, I find myself gobbling pastries with the children. There’s nothing else for it. What do you do when you go out, except drink coffee? What do you do when you meet someone? Arriving at the home of the writer Michael Wolff in the Hamptons, on day 13 without coffee, he takes me into the kitchen and points at a fabulous looking coffee machine, the kind of thing Marvin keeps buying for Steph. “I can’t,” I say. He looks crestfallen and as if he doesn’t quite know what to do with me.

After a month, I go back to the doctor. His colleague, a younger doctor, sticks a camera down my throat to see how things look. It looks disgusting, to tell you the truth, like some kind of hideous alien. But the doctor says it is meant to look like that. “There’s still a bit of inflammation,” he says.

I tell him of my struggle to write without coffee. I think I might write about it, I say. He nods thoughtfully. “I see,” he says. “It will be: ‘How I survived as a journalist without coffee.’ Like a policeman without doughnuts.”

Dr Stefan Kieserman, the chap who removed all the joy from my life, sees me in his office. Striding through his clinic he wears not merely a mask but a full gas mask, like a villain in a Batman film, his white coat playing out behind him like a cape. He comes in, takes off the mask and sits down behind a broad wooden desk, rubbing his face. I ask him how people usually react when he tells them to give up coffee.

“Hostility, anger, frustration,” he says. “There is a sense that you are taking away someone’s teddy bear. Their day has started with this. Some people from the Asian subcontinent, they are better with just having hot water in the morning, but for most people it’s kind of a shocker.”

I ask him if he drinks it himself. “I used to,” he says. “I used to be really into it. I had an espresso maker, I had a hand press, I had my coffee corner. Recently, I’ve taken a break from it. I had a cardiac irritation.”

And that was all right?

He nods. “Humans are above all adaptable,” he says. “That’s why we stay married. That’s why we can live in all different kinds of environments. That’s why we will make it through Covid. We are endlessly adaptable.”

I had hoped it wouldn’t be too endless, the adapting, but old Kieserman tells me to stay off the brown stuff for a few more months. I’d imagined this piece would end like Great Expectations, with a glorious reunion: me and a cappuccino in the tranquil light of a New York afternoon, never to be parted again. I’d feel the old fire in my throat, the fumes on my breath. I’d go off like a rocket. I can’t wait to tell you about it in 3,000 words. It’ll be just like this, but so much better.

Written by: Will Pavia
© The Times of London

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