I Tried Quitting Coffee for a Month (Spoiler: I Didn't Make It)
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I’ve been toying with the idea of leaving for a while now. I’ve tried before to get out, and I’ve even lasted a while in some of my attempts. But I always come back.
Coffee is the unhealthy, one-sided relationship I’ve needed to leave for years but haven’t had the courage to walk away from. We’ve been together for over a decade, and most of our time together has been happy. In the beginning, it felt like a healthy, reciprocal relationship. Coffee was there for me. It supported me, warmed me, energized me, and filled me with joy. But the older I get, my returns seem to be diminishing on all the time, money, and energy I spend on my relationship with coffee. I love coffee, but do I need it as much as I’ve convinced myself I do?
I wake up each morning and the first thing I do is walk to the kitchen to make my coffee. I do this either with a pour-over(1) or in my Bialetti(2). Either way I do it, from set-up to clean-up, the process takes at least 15 minutes before I’ve even had a sip.
I make all my coffee at home, mostly to save money and avoid single-use cups, but it still costs me $10-$20 every couple of weeks to get the quality of coffee and espresso I prefer. It’s not prohibitively expensive, but it’s still an expense I don’t truly need.
The thing is, coffee is a part of me. I identify as a coffee drinker, nay, lover, and to remove that piece of myself would be like removing a kidney. Do you need both kidneys? Maybe not, but you were born with two of them and you’d certainly prefer to keep them both.
I prefer to keep loving coffee. But to what extent am I experiencing a sort of Stockholm Syndrome with the bitter black liquid that arouses my bowels and fucks up my stomach lining? I was abducted at 12 by a full-fat, sweetened Starbucks vanilla latte (abetted by my own mother, no less), and coffee has been grooming me ever since, pulling me closer into its arms as it gradually shed the excess layers of sugars and creams and flavorings until I accepted, loved, and relied upon it in its truest, barest, blackest form. And I didn’t even bat an eye.
I don’t have to strain even a little bit to see the toll coffee takes on my life -- I’m a slave, and it’s obvious -- but to commit to leaving is a decision I just haven’t been ready for. Until now.
So, one random Tuesday, I dumped the last of my White Rock Coffee Company Lady of the Lake dark roast grounds into my Chemex filter. I poured the hot water methodically over the grounds until I had the result: my final two cups of coffee. This is it, I decided. I’m quitting coffee.
As with most life experiments I foist upon myself, I decided 30 days would be the appropriate amount of time to try life without coffee. Trying something for one month, I feel a full cycle pass with whatever change I’m making; it makes it feel neat and tidy and slightly more difficult than the old “21 days to a new habit” trope.
So, on July 2, 2019, I set out to complete my 30 days to a new life. How was I going to do it? I didn’t know. I just knew I was ready to say goodbye, or at the very least, see you in a month.
Day 0: The Final Pour
I sit on the couch with my book(3) in my lap and my last doctored-up cup of coffee resting precariously on the sofa back. I had mixed up my favorite concoction of coffee and accoutrements, a recipe harkening back to the days in my Deep Ellum apartment, before my first thru hike, when I would pile fats and nutrient-dense powders into my morning beverage in an attempt to put on a little healthy weight and prepare my body and bones to walk all day every day for six months.
A pour of black coffee. A scoop of coconut oil. A dash of cinnamon. A teaspoon of maca powder. A generous heaping of cacao powder. One drop of vanilla extract and, if I’m feeling festive, one of peppermint essential oil. The resulting combination is something earthy, smooth, luxurious, and just a little sweet. I take a sip, feel the hot brown liquid fill my mouth and a tingly, familiar joy expand from my core to my shoulders to my lips, lightly coated in coconut oil and cinnamon grains, curving them upward. A breath in. I love this so much. A breath out. I still know I don’t need it.
I do need something, though I hate to say it. I need caffeine. I may be a slave to coffee, entrapped by years of emotional manipulation, but my relationship with caffeine is a much more straightforward, purely chemical addiction.
There are three main reasons I have no interest in quitting caffeine:
I see no ill effects of continuing to use it
The withdrawal headaches are not a joke and not worth my time
There are many less expensive and time-consuming alternatives to coffee that can still fulfill my caffiend needs
So I decide to wean myself slowly off the hard stuff with other caffeinated morning beverages, starting with matcha green tea(4) and eventually progressing to a loose-leaf (preferred) or single-serve bagged (convenient) green tea with a lower dose of caffeine. If I quit everything cold turkey, the headaches would be unbearable. I know because I’ve tried before. And, though I’m fed up with the time-consumptive process of brewing coffee, I do enjoy the ritual of enjoying a warm drink in the morning, and tea is quick and easy.
I begin journaling to keep up with my progress on the anti-coffee front.
Day 1: Matcha 😒
So I’m going off coffee. At least until I can form a healthy, non-addictive relationship with it.
I’m drinking matcha instead this morning, and tbh it’s making me angry. It doesn’t taste good like coffee does. Why can’t it just be more like fucking coffee??
Ok, maybe let’s use this as an exercise to focus on the positives. What do I like about matcha?
It is pretty and green which makes it feel really healthy
It gets a nice foam on top
It looks nice in the bowl/mug Cameron bought me
It’s very high in antioxidants
It’s less acidic than coffee
I’m hoping this will save me time (already has) in the morning, and I’ll get to the point where caffeine actually affects me and becomes something I can use to my benefit, as opposed to being reliant on it.
Day 2: My Secret 👹
I woke up this morning with a HANKERING. It’s always worst in the morning right when I wake up and I’m looking to have that cup.
I knew we were making pancakes, and I knew coffee would go so well with pancakes, so I was really trying to have some.
I talked it through with Cam, and he said no.
Cam went to the store to get eggs for his waffles, and I started losing my resolve. Matcha is stupid. Coffee is the only way.
I looked in the cabinets. None. I looked in my secret bag of trail treats. None. What the fuck? Did Cam get in my stores and hide it from me?!
No… No, of course not.
But then I remembered the box. The box in the garage with all the meals and leftover packets of oil and powders and butters and… beverages, from the trail.
I went to the garage and started rummaging through the box like a dope fiend, trying to find any trace of instant coffee.
And I did. I pulled the slender pouch of Cafe Bustelo(5) instant espresso out of the container like it was a chunk of gold from a California creek bed. I knew it might be there, but to actually find it was… astounding.
I stayed strong today. I drank my matcha and ate my pancakes and felt the urge to drink the bean water fade as the day went on.
But I kept that packet of Cafe Bustelo in my pocket all day. It was my secret. The little red and yellow sliver of security that made me feel powerful over the situation.
If I need coffee, I can have it. It’s in my pocket.
But I don't. I don’t.
Day 10: Fine? 😅
I’ve been surprised by how little I miss coffee.
I’m still caffeine medicating, of course, but it’s with matcha and green tea now instead of coffee and more coffee.
I still get up and am immediately kitchen-bound each morning, but the process involves simply boiling water and a little mixing.
I do get little pangs of covetousness when I see someone walking around work or down the street with a coffee. And I miss coffee shops, though I can’t afford those anyway.
I am really fucking stoked for when August rolls around and I can have that first cup back in coffee town. I’ll be in Chicago. It will be glorious.
But, honestly, I am doing fine without it.
Day 19: Fine. ☕️
I am having a coffee. It’s not been 30 days, but it’s been long enough that I feel reset and like I can enjoy it responsibly.
I haven’t missed it. I’ve not even felt impulses to have it. I’m hungover and it sounded good and I have a long drive ahead and so I ordered it. SUE ME.
Let’s see if it’s as good as I remember it being.
Today, Day 27: So what now? 🐣
It was. Good, that is. Pretty good, anyway. Certainly not worthy of enslavement, though.
So I had the coffee and failed at my attempt to give it up for a month. Oh well. I separated myself enough from coffee to feel the difference I was going for. Since the breaking point a few days ago I’ve had a few cups here and there to get me through some particularly long work days, but I haven’t brewed any at home or felt anything close to dependence on it.
The hard part now is how I move forward with caffeine. I tore through my matcha in less than two weeks, and it’s too expensive to keep buying. The green tea(6) bags I switched to after I finished the matcha proved wholly insufficient in caffeine content to sustain me. It was a rocky jump from the ~120 mg per cup of coffee to the ~60 mg per cup of matcha, and a straight up hot iron to the face when I moved a little too quickly from ~60 mg per cup matcha to ~10 mg per cup in my green tea bags. Not. Sustainable.
I’m now working my way through a box of single-serve Chai tea packets(7) I originally bought for camping and have repurposed to serve my caffeine addiction via Chai lattes. I’ve found nothing but conflicting information on the internet in my search to find out how the caffeine content of coffee, matcha green tea, black tea (found in Chai), and regular green tea compare, so I can only speculate, but the Chai felt like a step back in the right direction.
I don’t know how I feel about my continued reliance on caffeine. I about fell on the floor at the end of an eight-hour shift the first time I lived a day on nothing but one bag of low-caffeine green tea, and feeling that drastic an effect made me uneasy to say the least.
But the goal of this was to reevaluate my relationship with coffee, and that I did. I walked away from coffee and around the corner for nearly three weeks, and when I stepped back into view of it, it was from an entirely different perspective.
I do love coffee, and as a rehabilitated former captive, I can say that with confidence. It’s rich and delicious and feels like a special treat but for very serious adults. But that’s just what it is: a treat. With this experiment, it’s like I wiped a thin, staying fog off my proverbial glasses and finally got a clear look at how I interact with the substances in my life. Maybe those things we think we need, to which we feel entitled -- that cold beer at the end of a long day, that piece of chocolate before bed, that glass of wine with dinner, or even that morning cup of coffee that seems inextricable from a good start to the day -- aren’t as necessary as we’ve told ourselves they are.
Maybe it’s good to take a step back and interrogate our assumptions. Difficult as the process may be, we may a state of simplicity and intention and choice we didn’t know we wanted. Maybe it’s good to reassess our habits and shift the power of those little luxuries in life so they don’t trigger cravings and latent guilt, but inspire joy and delight.
I prefer the pour-over method for making coffee. I use the Kalita Wave for small batches, but I was recently gifted a Chemex, and I like it because it looks beautiful and minimalistic, and it is also made out of some special sort of glass that you can put on the stove on low heat to keep your coffee warm.
I discovered Bialetti moka express in my search for a zero waste coffee preparation method. It’s a stovetop Italian espresso maker that’s adorable, old school, and super easy to use. It produces rich, velvety espresso I mix with hot water for Americanos.
I’m currently reading The Pursuit of Endurance: Harnessing the Record-Breaking Power of Strength and Resilience by Jennifer Pharr Davis, a thru hiker and ultra runner who once held the supported speed record on the Appalachian Trail. She interviews and tells the stories of other record holders in an attempt to find the commonalities between those who spend months on end suffering to set a record on a wilderness trail. It’s non-stop enthralling.
Matcha is different from “regular” green tea because it’s literally made from the ground up, whole tea leaf, meaning you consume the entire tea leaf as opposed to just drinking an infusion of dried tea leaves. It’s very high in antioxidants and, when combined with non-dairy milk, has a super mellow, slightly sweet taste. There is a rich tradition in Japan of using various grades of matcha in tea ceremonies. I enjoy matcha, especially in latte form with a little cinnamon, but find it prohibitively expensive.
I got acquainted with Cafe Bustelo during my PCT thru hike. My mom would send me packets of the instant Cuban coffee because she’d heard of another thru hiker drinking it on trail. I also found it at grocery stores and would often buy it because it was a cheaper alternative to the Starbucks instant packets.
I’ve been drinking the Yogi Brand Super Antioxidant Green Tea. It’s blended with a bunch of other herbs like lemongrass, licorice, and jasmine to give it a full-bodied flavor that makes it stand out from other green teas. Like, it’s really good. Disappointed with the caffeine content obviously, but that’s a different matter.
I bought these Cusa instant Chai tea packets at REI to take camping with me as an alternative to instant coffee. The first time I tried it, I drank it black, and it was too spicy for my taste. At home, I’ve been mixing it with almond milk and honey, and it’s been delicious that way. I’ll be excited to try Cusa’s other flavors. You can make them all cold as well as hot.