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I'm exhausted and quitting coffee

(post, Trista Cornelius)


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Ugh—another bout of tiredness.  Doesn’t seem to matter what I do, every now and then, I succumb to exhaustion.  Not yawn-and-stretch need a good night’s sleep tired, but sleep-all-day exhaustion.  I resent it because with “The Exhaustion” I lose motivation and drive.  Doesn’t matter that my husband and I planned the week’s meals and did the shopping on Sunday—it’s been all take out and TV so far.  Haven’t even washed the dishes from the weekend.  Why this exhaustion?  Why does it seem like everyone else manages to survive a full day, make dinner at home, clean and put away the dishes, and spend a little time puttering about the yard before bed?  

I’ve talked with my doctor about “The Exhaustion” a few times.  Luckily, he’s found no sinister cause.  Yesterday, however, as I forced myself out of bed after 11am, I finally had to admit that I’ve ignored one bit of advice he’s routinely given me:  “Not too much coffee.  No more than one cup a day.  Caffeine makes muscles tense,” he’s explained to me, “even if we don’t feel it, it fatigues us and leads us to drink more coffee.”  

It’s not that I don’t believe him, but one cup of coffee a day, ideally every other day, is impossible for me.  It’s like asking me to breathe a little less, maybe skip every other inhale.  
	
After my doctor told me a story about his own experience of a caffeine headache, I asked him if he still drank coffee.  No, not every day.  Maybe noticing my panic, maybe even stretching out his hand to pat my knee, he said with genuine empathy, “It’s good to enjoy a cup of coffee now and then.”

“Enjoy a cup of coffee.”  That phrase speaks comfort and security to me.  “Enjoy a cup of coffee” sounds the same as a minister raising a hand in blessing, “Go in peace.  Enjoy a cup of coffee.”  “Would you like to get a cup of coffee?” sounds like “I cherish you,” and happens to be one of my favorite things to do with my husband:  sip coffee across from each other at a little round café table, preferably rainy outside, warm and steamy inside . . . . 

My doctor said I should drink only one cup of coffee.  I assume by “cup” he means a regular coffee cup, not one of the three mammoth-sized mugs I use regularly.  I’ve tried having only one conventional-sized cup a day.  I felt ready to jump out of my skin, jonesin’ for coffee by mid-afternoon.  I waited it out with aggravation and gritted teeth but inevitably gave in that day or the next.   

My heart and mind yearn for coffee.  It’s my muse, my absinthe, my bohemian connection.  Sometimes the atmosphere of the right café contributes to the pleasure of the drink.
	
A few years ago I saw a still life painted by VanGogh after his first stay in an asylum.  He intended it to be symbolic of his vices and his loves, one and the same, and his intent to live a healthier life.  A little round table held a green bottle of absinthe (suspiciously near empty), tobacco, and coffee--everything painted tenderly, lovingly, maybe even longingly, except a white medical guide to healthy living that nearly slipped off the crooked table, melting into the bottom right corner of the canvas.

The first time I experienced a caffeine headache, I decided to stop drinking coffee.  If its one-day absence could cause this kind of life-altering pain, confusion, despair, then it must be bad.  I don’t want to be dependent on this.  The headache, the first one, started with my mind feeling like fog, nothing clear and everything distorted.  Then a vague pain all around my head, then seeping into my neck and shoulders, growing in intensity as if piercing my brain with red-hot roots, digging in.  Oh, and I was thirsty.  My tongue felt like mildewed wool, and I drank and drank water but the thickness would not go away.  	

I have waited out two of these caffeine headaches, enduring the pain for two days, followed by a coffee hiatus, but it never lasts.  I can’t recall when it starts again, but it does, with one cup.  I just want to be like everyone else, able to drink it, carefree, in my car on the way to work, in an artful ceramic mug at the office, in a sophisticated cup with saucer at the café.  It’s just coffee.  

But maybe it’s not “just coffee.”  I reach for coffee during stressful times like a security blanket.  I miss the coffee commercials for Folgers or Yuban, all those that come pre-ground in big cans.  I loved the white-toothed, clear-eyed actors waking up to light-filled mornings with fluttering curtains at a beach house as they sink into a pillow-lined sofa, their cup of coffee, held with both hands thoughtfully, peacefully, contemplative and at ease.   

More than once I’m sure I’ve offended people by my reaction when they say they don’t want a cup of coffee.  “Really?  You don’t drink coffee at all?  Not at all, huh?  Really?  What about tea?  Just herbal?  Coke?  Pepsi?  Occasionally?  Hmmm.  Have you ever had coffee?  Didn’t like it?”  Then, like a drug-pusher, “What about with sugar and cream?  No?  A vanilla latte, have you tried that?  Wow, no coffee.  Not ever?”  Then I either ask how they do it, or I squint in the bright light of their white teeth.  
	
I remember my first cup of coffee like others might remember buying their first car, or their first time . . . well, you know.

When my mom picked me up for the holiday break after my first semester of college, we ended up at a mall for some reason, sitting above an ice rink.  We each ordered coffee.  I felt so mature and intellectual that I forgot I didn’t talk to my parents.  I forgot that they didn’t understand me, that as a teenager I was alone in the world.  I forgot my adolescent existentialism and talked to my mom.  I talked and talked and talked.  I think I mentioned Plato.  I’m not sure what else, but I remember two things.  I remember feeling like we were in our own little glowing sphere of connection and that Mom sat far past our departure time and finally said, maybe reluctantly, maybe eager to have someone else witness this, “We better get going, your dad’s going to be wanting dinner.”  The other thing I remember?  Mom knew about Plato!  Who knew my parents were so cool?  It took college and coffee in a Styrofoam cup for me to catch up to them.  

And that’s it.  That’s why I don’t want to give up coffee, why I want to drink it more than once a day.  I expect every cup of coffee to hold insight for me.  Give me clarity.  Help me see the way.  It’s Yoda or Zen or faith in liquid form.  

I expect coffee to connect me to my friends and family, lift us above the quotidian stuff of life and bring us to a higher level, out of the cave if you will, to a place where souls meet and change the world.  

Coffee is symbolic for me.  Coffee provides a few rather contradictory things.  I drink it for comfort when I am stressed; it soothes me and calms me.  I drink it to wake up in the morning.  I drink it for a perk, to clear my head when I need to grade papers or write an essay.  I drink it and think of my maternal grandmother and the family crowded around her table after dinner with scraps of rich dessert left to snack as we sip our coffee in under lights casting a safe glow out into the dark, expansive farmland.  Coffee means comfort, energy, relaxation, intellectual conversation, philosophizing, staying up for important things, creativity, imagination, heritage, love.   

Could it be the same if I drank it only every other day?  Would de-caf have the same effect?  Is “The Exhaustion” really caused by caffeine?  My mom drinks it all day long, just like her mom did.  Who am I to break tradition?  

Well, here goes, attempt number who-knows-what to reduce my coffee intake, to lessen its hold on me, my dependence on it.  I hold little hope, but maybe, just maybe, I’ll be able to sip coffee with restraint, resist the two-per-block coffee shops in Portland, and cultivate a deepened and disciplined pleasure like MFK Fisher and potato chips:  

I can taste-smell-hear-see and then feel between my teeth the potato chips I ate slowly one November afternoon in 1936… They were ineffable. I am still nourished by them. That is probably why I can be so firm about not eating my way though barrels, tunnels, mountains more of them here in the land where they hang like square cellophane fruit on wire trees in all the grocery stores, to tempt me sharply every time I pass them.

Here goes……………