I’m having a really hard time writing this issue. I have lots of ideas, images, some great analogies, but they’re scattered around my brain like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle—where the puzzle is of a polar bear in a snowstorm—or, more appropriately, a can of worms that someone has unwisely opened and now worms, worms everywhere. I’m blaming the chaos on my current state of caffeine deficiency, but I’ll be really depressed if I get through the withdrawal period and still can’t rub two thoughts together to make a fire.
As everyone knows, the way to start a jigsaw puzzle is to find and snap together all the straight-edged pieces so you at least have a frame of the picture. That’s supposed to be the easy part. But unfortunately, life doesn’t come with straight-edged pieces—or in a box with a picture of itself on the cover, for that matter—so I’m just going to have to wing it.
In what universe is caffeine not a drug? —Jon Carroll, S.F. Chronicle
I’m on the coffee wagon. I mean, not the latte and bagel kind, but the metaphorical kind you fall off of. The other night, I was sitting here at the computer at 12:30 a.m., feeling ridiculous. I tried to go one whole day without ingesting caffeine in any form, and I almost made it. But I spent the day nodding off in front of “Oral and Pharyngeal Reflexes in the Mammalian Nervous System”; taking frequent breaks and three (3) naps; growing a headache as the day progressed, until I couldn’t stand it anymore—knowing relief was as close as the little green plastic bottle on my desk—and swallowed two Excedrin at 9:00 p.m. (Excedrin contains 65 mg of caffeine.) Of course, my headache disappeared, I became euphoric, and I was wide awake in the middle of the night wondering if there’s such a thing as Caffeine Anonymous.
I’ve tried quitting before—usually when my stomach is bothering me and I’ve narrowed the list of culprits down to one. The withdrawal is brutal… the headaches, the depression, the logy feeling that lingers all day…. So before I know it, I’m sneaking an Excedrin or two for the caffeine hit. I say “sneaking” even though there’s no one here to care—Pookie, knowing which side his cat food is buttered on, turns a blind eye to my drug habit. But when I’m falling asleep at my desk, or the headache is driving me crazy, or I don’t want to live, I have to concoct a good enough rationalization to drown out the little voice that says, “If you stick it out, you’ll feel better eventually.”
It’s the same thing with food. The part of me that thinks I shouldn’t have the forbidden fruit (+sugar+pastry) is easily overpowered. I’m like the classic 99-pound weakling on the beach. But instead of the bully kicking sand in my face, he comes along with a dessert cart. “Oh no!” I squeal, “Don’t make me eat that cherry pie!” And so I get to put on my little show—“I really shouldn’t!”—before succumbing to the inevitable.
I’ve been known to come up with a pretty good rationalization—“If I don’t eat (drink/take) it now, I’ll just keep thinking about it, and I know I’m going to eat (drink/take) it anyway, so I might as well get it over with so I can get some work done.” What’s the rebuttal to that? There is none, except “I really shouldn’t.” So I’ll say, “Good one, Mare!,” and it actually makes me feel better about what I’m about to do. I know it’s a trick, but I’m half-convinced in spite of myself. And half is plenty.
I’m not the only one who’s ever thought of the Excedrin solution. One day I was with a friend, nutritionally correct in most things, who asked her kids after lunch, “Who wants an Excedrin?” I laughed my head off (OK, I smiled), and she looked a little miffed, as if she thought I was judging her, but in fact I was just relieved to know I was not the only one who used Excedrin as a pick-me-up. I wonder about the kids, though. Aren’t parents usually trying to calm them down?
So one day I’m sitting there with the Excedrin bottle in front of me, weighing my options, and I’m not sure if I should take a whole one, in case it bothers my stomach. My compromise is to take half—which is like deciding to eat half a cookie, the ultimate in self-delusion—can the other half be far behind? So I tap one lonely little pill with the big E on it out of the bottle onto my desk, and with a paring knife I attempt to cut it in half, hoping not to (a) crush it into a powder or (b) send pieces of it careening around the room. At that moment I feel two things. One: I am every bit as creepy and desperate as someone shooting up heroin with trembling fingers. And two: I am ridiculous, centering my addiction drama on a substance that is socially acceptable and readily available in liquid, pill, or capsule form. Good thing I haven’t had much exposure to the hard stuff. WILL YOU JUST TAKE THE DAMN PILL?, the bully cries out in frustration. So I do.
It all started with my mother. (And what didn’t?) She saw coffee drinking as a sign of maturity—so much so that the switch from milk to coffee as one’s primary beverage denoted a coming-of-age, a kind of Lutheran bat mitzvah.
From the time I went off to college, my mother would ask me every time I came home, “Do you drink coffee yet?” I’d say no, and she would sigh; what a disappointment I was. Of course I didn’t mention that I was drinking scotch on the rocks and smoking marijuana on a regular basis—oh yes, I’m an adult, substance-ingestion-wise, don’t you worry about that, Mom.
When I finally took the plunge into caffeine dependency, in my late 20s, I was pleased to make the announcement on my next visit home: “YES, I’ll have coffee!” My mother heaved a sign of relief—her little girl had become a woman at last. That’s when I discovered that her coffee was so weak as to be undrinkable. I took to leaving the house early in the morning on some pretext so I could go down to the donut shop for my daily fix. The coffee was pretty pedestrian by Starbucks’ standards, but it did the job. And to this day, I prefer coffee shop coffee to the fancy stuff. You can take the girl out of the U.P….
Come to think of it, I gave up hard liquor and marijuana years ago, but the bearded, turbaned man on the red Hills Bros. can still calls to me. Mom would be proud.
So… I was going crazy, playing these little games with myself—I’ll just have 0.75 of an Excedrin today, or two-thirds of a cup of coffee, or some other ridiculous copout, and I finally gave myself over to my higher power—my therapist, J. (Just kidding, J!) And she made a practical suggestion. Usually, I hate practical suggestions; I’d rather analyze the problem to death. But I was willing to listen when I heard the magic words, “This will keep you from getting headaches.” The suggestion was to drink green tea until I get through the withdrawal period. I knew I needed more help than that, so I pushed her to be more directive with me. My fantasy was that she would march over to my house and take the coffee mug or the Excedrin bottle right out of my hand if she suspected I was cheating. J was not about to play Attila the Hun with me, but she agreed that she would like me to quit and that she’d be disappointed if I didn’t give the green tea a fair trial, but it wouldn’t affect our relationship. I latched on to that word, “disappointed.” The desire not to disappoint (the mother figure) is a powerful motivator.
So I embarked upon my withdrawal. The tea helped, but of course, the little bit of caffeine I got from it didn’t work any magic. As J had warned, “It will keep you from getting headaches, but it won’t make you HIGH.” And yet, to me, HIGH is the whole point! I wonder if people who drink this stuff for pleasure have ever tried coffee.
Making a cup of green tea, I stop the war. —Stephen Levine
In his book Healing into Life and Death, Stephen Levine has a chapter called “Stopping the War,” by which he means being present in each moment rather than waiting for the next thing to happen. “Waiting is war. Impatience is war. The moment is unsatisfactory, and there is no peace to be found.”
He describes the act of making a pot of green tea without waiting, without wanting something more than this moment:
Watching, noticing, tasting the desire for tea as the hand extends to the teapot. Feeling the cold metal of the teapot handle in the warm flesh of the hand. Feeling the texture of the handle…. Feeling the floor beneath your feet as you walk to the sink.
He goes on like this for two pages.
…feeling the changes in the musculature of the arms as the pot is tilted toward the cup….
By this point I want to scream. This is not how making green tea makes me feel. After all, I’m only in it for the 25 mg of caffeine. I’m caught ‘twixt the words of spiritually unredemptive coffee and life-affirming, war-stopping tea, wanting the one, dutifully sipping the other, but resisting the precious awareness of every bend of knee or touch of metal on flesh on bone….
Finally, he asks, “Reading this story, do you stop the war, or do you continue it?” And I say, “Damn the torpedoes—full speed ahead!”
I can resist everything except temptation. —Oscar Wilde
My twin “addictions”—food and caffeine—go together like–well, like pie and coffee. Maybe it’s stretching it to call them addictions—technically, caffeine doesn’t cause addiction, just dependency. And you do need food to live—but possibly not chocolate éclairs. But there’s some sort of compulsion going on here.
It makes me feel like a big weenie to be so lacking in willpower. Driving home from the supermarket, so many times I “come to” and realize that, whereas I went to the store to get, say bing cherries (a healthy snack), I have come out with a four-pack of Frappuccino, blackberry scones, and a bag of “99% fat-free “ (yeah, right) potato chips. What’s surprising about this is that I’m always surprised—astonished, really, that I could have such resolve on the way there and then just somehow gloss over the moment when my hand plucks up the brownie or the peanut butter cookie and plops it into my basket, while my eyes—silent co-conspirators with the hand—turn away like a security guard friendly to the local pickpockets. “Hm? What? How did those chocolate muffins get in there?”
This is denial at its best. This is denial as an art form. This is grabbing the Renoir right out from under the museum guard’s nose. This is ridiculous.
I try to tell myself in advance to be “present” during those moments of temptation, as though I could transform myself into a good little Buddhist and be just so gosh-darned self-aware that I wouldn’t even want those goodies anymore. (I saw a bumper sticker, “Do something that would make the Buddha happy,” and I thought, Would it make the Buddha happy if I refrained from eating anything fattening today? Didn’t think so.)
But telling myself to be present is like going into battle armed with a feather. I saw this with my own eyes one day when I witnessed the telltale moment. As I stood at the deli counter waiting for my quarter pound of ham to be sliced, my eyes drifted down to a dazzling array of individually wrapped desserts that looked up at me like—well, I was going to say, like kittens begging to be taken home from the shelter, each mewing and romping and competing for my attention—but no, their appeal was less innocent, more lascivious… moist hunks of carrot cake with their voluptuous, creamy white icing… deep-dish fruit pies spilling their luscious juices out from between golden latticework crusts… lemon bars so thickly yellow, so purely lemony that I started salivating on the spot—and I watched myself pick up—yes, the lemon bar—and drop it into my basket. As I did so, I said to myself, “Yes, that’s how it works. The hand just puts it in the basket. Nothing could be simpler.” No guilt, no rationalization, just a bow to the inevitable. My kingdom come, my will be done, on earth as it is in Andronico’s.
So self-awareness hasn’t helped me yet. And policing myself definitely doesn’t work; it’s just playing one side off the other, and I have a feeling the criminal mind thrives on the game of cops and robbers.
I think it must be the reptilian part of my brain—we all have one, don’t look at me like that—that is responsible. It’s so old, so primitive, so “Me want cookie NOW” as it defies the more civilized neural add-ons, the Johnny-come-latelies with their grandiose ideas about deferred gratification. What’s deferred instead is the inevitable moment when She Who Made the Decision Not To Eat Dessert Today wakes up and wonders, “What happened?”
I was in the grocery store the other day and saw a mother and daughter in the coffee and tea aisle. The mother was standing in front of a huge display of Slim Fast (located conveniently across from the cookies). The daughter asked, “You drink that stuff?” and the mother said, “I’m going to try it.” I looked at her. She must have been a size 3—or a 2, if they have 2’s. She needed Slim Fast like I need a hole in the head. But it made me realize I’m not the only one who experiences grocery shopping as positively primeval—all those deep cookie instincts aligned against the forces of self-deprivation, American-style.
My mother looked down on alcoholics, as if their weakness before the bottle were a moral failing. She never made the connection with her own weakness before a lemon meringue pie. I make the connection but wonder what good it does me.
When I saw J again, 2 weeks into my caffeine withdrawal, I fully expected her to praise and commiserate with me. I didn’t really know where the conversation would go from there, but my agenda was definitely similar to that of a cat who brings home a dead mouse and drops it lovingly at the feel of her mistress.
To my surprise, J had bigger fish for me to fry; she had never cared that much about the caffeine drama in the first place. I was the one who had pushed her to play Mommy. She matter-of-factly took in the information that I had lasted the 2 weeks, but she was more interested in what lay beneath the surface. She wanted me to see that my energy doesn’t come from outside, from a substance, that there are other ways to get it—breathing, movement, etc. I was mostly into being a victim—so tired all the time now, blah blah blah. She was challenging my belief that I was nothing without the artificial high. And I was all: “Leave me alone, I’m going to be depressed for the rest of my life. If only I could drink COFFEE, waaaaah.”
After the session, as I was winding my way tearfully through Albany to the freeway, I childishly planned how I was going to go straight home and make a pot of coffee. “Oh, she doesn’t care, does she? Well, I’ll show HER.” I dimly realized that this was ridiculous, but I let myself indulge in my little revenge fantasy. A lot can happen between Berkeley and San Rafael.
Sure enough—somewhere over the Richmond-San Rafael bridge, I got it. It really isn’t about the caffeine! All the drama I manufacture around substances is a diversionary tactic that has no value. The point isn’t the means by which I run away from myself, it’s the fact that I run away from myself.
When I focus all my attention on the battle between indulgence and deprivation—the elusive high and its inevitable aftermath of penance—I can’t see where my energy really comes from, where desire and meaning come from.
I wanted caffeine to be the substitute for my own life energies. When that didn’t work anymore, I wanted J to embalm me in her unconditional positive regard. I wanted her to take away the pain, I wanted her to stop the war. I didn’t want to see myself as the kamikaze pilot of my own life.
We’re in green tea territory now.
And yet—as soon as I got home—I made a pot of coffee. My motive was no longer to spite J; I just had a dim feeling that I needed to test my insights. You could argue that a purer test would have been to do without, but too bad—you weren’t there. I drank one cup, and I got my long-awaited “high,” but I knew even as I was feeling the wired energy erupt in my veins—It’s not about this! It’s just a physiological thing!—what it does to me when I drink it, how I feel when I don’t, but it’s not the truth about my life. I have more important things to think about! This drama is not worthy of me! Imagine if Shakespeare wrote all his plays about whether to have a cup of coffee or not and had no time left to be or not to be!
Well I won’t have to chop no wood, I can be bad or I can be good, I can be any way that I feel, one of these days. —Emmy Lou Harris
It’s not as if this insight gave me an instantaneous feeling of peace and purpose, but sometimes the war slows down a bit. Midmorning, I take a break from my work—a paper about hospital statistics written by an Austrian doctor (you haven’t lived…)—and sit out on the sunny patio in a lawn chair with my feet up, drinking my tea and watching Pookie roll on his back or nibble leaves. At times, the scent of honeysuckle or a whiff of the ocean fills all four of our nostrils, and we both put our noses up in the air, catching the perfumey breeze. Pookie occasionally hunkers down by the fence, straining to see under it, as though calculating how much dirt he’d have to displace to make his escape (a lot). These moments of grace are rare, but when they come, I try to enjoy them. Try to keep from hunkering down under my own (self-created) fence, plotting my own escape. Try to make the Buddha happy.
Did you see the article in the paper about the new theory in physics? I was too lazy to cut it out, and now it’s gone to recycling—but the idea was that there are parallel universes next to ours that are sort of folded over one another like a ham sandwich (??? I distinctly remember the ham sandwich part—of course—but I’m not sure how the metaphor works). All these universes exist just nano-somethings away from us, but we can’t perceive them.
This comes pretty close to some of my own theories, if I do say so myself.
The most chilling—or thrilling—part of the article was that we might all be on this side of an infinitesimally thin membrane that separates us (doing our innocent grocery shopping in a clean, well-lighted place for food) from the bottom of the ocean floor of a completely alien universe. My heart practically leaped out of my chest when I read that. To me this is scary-exciting and a lot more believable than little green men with big heads flying around in saucers.
The physicist quoted in the article seemed to think that this theory, if true, is on a par with humans finding out the sun doesn’t orbit the earth, that we are not the center of the universe, but indeed even smaller and less significant than we thought. But I have a different take on it. The idea of these ham-sandwich universes makes me feel BIG, like I’m an integral part of something massively weird and strange and powerful—like a surfer who may look like a meaningless dot at the mercy of the huge waves but who embodies that power and mystery and is energized by it.
In fact, I’m getting my “high” right now from contemplating that mystery, from writing about it. It’s a feeling of elation that comes from way down deep. (Do you think every cell has its own universal counterpart of cellular ham sandwichness?)
Without the caffeine crutch, I feel like I’m scrabbling along on the ocean floor of my own weird universe—but it’s my universe, it’s my ham to some unimaginable parallel slice of bread—the universe(s) encompassed in a food metaphor, I love it!
You don’t really think I’m going to put all those puzzle pieces together at the end here, do you? The magician pulls the rabbit out of a hat, but you don’t ask him to stuff it back in. The can of worms, the raging battlefield, the coffee, the food, Mom, my relationship with J, the universal deli—I mean, dilemma— Stop me before I metamorphize again, I mean metaphorize. I’m out of control, it’s true. The can of worms I mentioned early on is spilling in all directions. And as Hemingway said, if a can of worms is opened on page 1, the worms had better be dispersed by the end of the story. Actually, he was talking about a shotgun, but I’m sure it’s the same principle.
Well, it’s not going to happen. It’s all worm soup at this point. (Though I must interject that our physicist friend John told us the worm was the first creature to have a heart—precursor of our own—so we owe an enormous debt to our squiggly brothers and sisters.) There’s no grand snapped-together puzzle or theory that will finally vindicate and explain our lives. I love explanations, but they don’t help me live in my own wormy heart.
I have reason to believe we all will be received in Graceland. —Paul Simon
I don’t know if we die and meet up with the old folks in the light at the end of the tunnel, or we slip through the nano-thin veil and join the new world order of a whole different universe. Regardless of our final destination, I suspect we don’t have to be thin or caffeine-free to go there. And if Graceland is right here, right now, I’d better get to work on stopping that damn war.