The Caffeinated Heart

As I sit down to write this, I am cuddling a small cup of coffee, 1.5 tablespoons (down from 2) of beans I ground and placed in a camp filter perched on top of my mug.  A little puddle of half and half below, something for a nice tan finish.  Drinking pour-over, writing a blog, and wearing a knitted beanie indoors.  The very image of hipster perfection.

When I went into the doctor four years ago complaining of something, anything really, whatever they wanted to find, Dr. Doctor put the tip of his pen between his teeth and said, “Well, it may be anxiety, Sam.”

To which I replied, “Ok.  What else might it be?”  To which  he replied, “Anxiety.”

The first thing he suggested in dealing with anxiety was to cut out caffeine and alcohol, for the reason that they both disrupt the brain’s delicate chemical balance.  Thus creating Anxiety, the fear of anything.

His second suggestion? Therapy.  If the alcohol and caffeine thing didn’t take care of it.

Which it wouldn’t have.  Or maybe it would’ve.  Or will.

The first suggestion presented a small problem for me.  As aforementioned, I look and act like a hipster.  You may deduce, then, that I hold special rituals around coffee and beer.  Coffee is the warm morning process, the bitter post from which I can look at life from a safe distance without engaging.  Beer is a place of pretty colored liquids in bell-shaped glasses and wooden tables, at which I can enjoy something new.  Together, they are my cultural insulation from the cold beyond.

That’s what they were, anyway.  Like so many things, anxiety has fucked up my relationship with caffeine and alcohol, perverting their honest nature.  Still I partake, which begs the question: how serious have I been about addressing anxiety, if I’ve failed to cut either out of my life?

Alcohol’s grip is weaker.  I like drinking beer, but in the hipster sense, i.e., sipping overly strong beers while playing shuffle board.  I rarely drink more than one in a sitting, and I can’t afford even that.  Really, though, I’ve never had that good of a relationship with alcohol.  When I was 14, I drank for the first time in a restaurant closed for Labor Day Weekend.  Jack Daniels, and a double shot glass I thought was just singular.  Three hours later, I went to the hospital for alcohol poisoning, and vomited 12 times the next day.  Some might say it was a fairly honest introduction to the substance’s abilities.

In college, I held the same basic relationship with weak beer as my fellow frat bros, except I liked to stop just shy of the tipping edge.  Granted, I did tip occasionally, as any decent collegiate human, but I lacked the drive to want it.  Perhaps it points to my more loving relationship with control.

Plus, I like to go to sleep early.  Really, that settles a person’s relationship to alcohol pretty squarely.

Caffeine, however.

Oh, coffee.  It’s ironic that I love it so much, seeing as I’ve never really needed it.  I’ve come to like grouping people into two categories: “Wakies” and “Sleepies.”  My wife is a Sleepy: her default mode is napping, and her ideal sleep time, minimum, is 9 hours.  The process of waking every morning is painful and slow, sometimes taking 12 hours, and from my viewpoint, she is blessed to have it be so.

I am a Wakey.  When I open my eyes morning time, I’ve already forgotten about sleep.  It’s as if I’ve risen, made coffee, drunk coffee, and laid back down to wake back up.  You’d assume most people claim they need coffee because their bodies can’t get them back to base quickly enough.  Seeing that I wake up, somehow, naturally caffeinated, coffee only heightens me, like snorting cocaine after you’ve dived into an ice river.

The caffeine tension used to be pleasurable.  In my youthful exuberance and optimism, coffee seemed to expand my vessels’ capacity for possibility, and I felt its effects like a shapeless onesie, the vague sensation of more.  Amplified first by my love of morning habits and then by my stint as a night baker, during which I could drink a pot of coffee and fall asleep thirty minutes later.

In hindsight, I should have seen the process for its goal, the whole thing entitled, “An anxious person develops a love for coffee” and subtitled, “I think we all know where this is headed.”

Now, the caffeine tension is problematic, sometimes intolerable.  The sensations have changed, yet I try and keep the relationship the same.  At its mildest, coffee’s effects make me jumpy and more anxious, but it can get worse from there, breaching over into full tilt anxiety attacks.

The other week, I visited a coffee shop with a friend while home over Thanksgiving.  I couldn’t say the alchemy actually at work there, but the latte I drank was…. strong.  More so than usual, but, then again, I usually drink coffee over a six hour period.  These two shots of espresso I drank in an hour.  Then, what is this sweating?  Why are my legs shaking so violently?  Why do I feel like I need to scream?  I walked home to the soothing sounds of blood pounding in my ears.  My skin felt stretched to breaking from the veins beneath, likewise expanded to their thinnest.  The ground both rose and fell away from me; the badgers of the woods poured out of the undergrowth to scratch my eyes out, and I cried out, “But I’m only 29!”

Close as I felt to losing it that afternoon, I didn’t.  Anxiety is something you wait out, paradoxical as that feels, like waiting out being stabbed.  I sweated through my many Winter layers, and watched my fingers twitch. I used my excessive focus to quell the inward mutiny.  I tried to smile and imitate how relaxed people behave.

Once things settled, I asked myself the same question I ask every time: Why did you do that?  I don’t have to drink coffee, and for fuck’s sake, there’s decaf.  I hate feeling amplified, and I don’t need help waking up.  The circumstances that allowed me to foster a loving, deep connection to coffee are history now.  So why do I hang on?

I know what you’re thinking.  You and science.  It’s the chemical dependency, and with chemicals, it never matters how bad the experience is.

I actually disagree about the science.  I think it’s the art.  It’s the taste and the cream and the ritual.  It’s the things connected to it, like writing and quiet.  It’s nearly everything except the caffeine, the one component that’s holding the two of us back.  Should you not give me heart attacks, Oh Coffee, I would drink you over water.

But, more than anything, it’s the past.  In the frothing wake of Anxiety, coffee has become profoundly attached to my pre-Anxiety age, a time of blissful ignorance and easy questions.  I could be jittery.  I could be overwhelmed, but it rarely amounted to anything.  In the muddy waters I now see heart failure and high blood pressure, whereas I used to see nothing.  Just my muddy reflection, and the long life ahead.  Simple as it may be to quit, I hang onto coffee as I used to know it.  Not decaffeinated, not on special occasions, not drunk with a clonazepam.  Not with consequences.

So I imagine the conversation between that doctor and myself now.

“Well now, Sam, did you cut out caffeine and alcohol?”

“Not really.  Sort of.  But overall.  No.”

“Are you still experiencing anxiety?”


“Did you go for my second suggestion, about seeking therapy?”

“Not really.  I mean, I talk to my wife.  She’s a therapist.  But overall.  No.”

“Ok then.  Is there anything else?”

“Yeah, I’ve been feeling anxious.  What do you think I should do about that?”

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