For years, I refused to drink coffee. It seemed like too intense a stimulant for me. Even on my most sluggish mornings, I stuck to the soft stuff. Chai. Hot chocolate. Coca Cola. Usually those did the trick. The sugar and mild caffeine buzz gave me enough of a jolt to power through the workday. I worried that if I ever transitioned into actual coffee, dark and bitter and ground from beans, there would be no turning back. I feared that once I took the plunge, I would plummet blindly into the bottomless abyss of a stainless steel travel mug, never to surface again. I actually had concerns about moving from the morning cup of joe to blowing lines of cocaine just to get up in the morning.
Of course that was a crazy phobia. Also, of course, it came half true.
Mocha was my gateway drug. As much as my maniac fear of addiction kept me off of coffee, so too did my sweet tooth. In the same way that I rarely drink because I don’t like how beer tastes, I barely ever dabbled in espresso because I didn’t like the way it hit my tongue. Mocha changed that. Last spring, I began working more nights in addition to my day job teaching preschool in the mornings. I was a lot of tired a lot of the time. One day I woke up convinced that my normal hot chocolate would not get the job done. I needed something stronger, so I opted for the iced mocha, which at Dunkin Donuts is an iced coffee with a thick glob of chocolate syrup. I was hooked within sips.
Soon I was downing a cup of coffee daily. Even if I made it through the morning without powering up, I’d have to gulp one down to keep myself awake past dark. But it gets worse. When my girlfriend, a longtime black coffee drinker, accompanied me for my daily fix, I became immediately self-conscious. It just wasn’t cool to drink what was basically the equivalent of chocolate milk laced with Ritalin. I started ordering regular iced coffee. Skim milk. One sugar. A little more respectable. A little less diluted.
Recently, though, I crossed a line I’d determined not to. I doubled up. One coffee in the morning and a second in the afternoon. I had a long day of travel, I reasoned, and I got up early. But those were just excuses. You know, like: “Of course it’s okay for me to be high. It’s a party. My nephew’s fourth birthday party.” Or: “I drive better with a couple of drinks in me and a stripper on my lap!” It was a rationalization, not a reason.
At this point, where do I stop? Two cups a day? Three? Do I get a mug and keep it on my desk, refilling it every hour or so as I empty it over and over and over again? Intravenous drip? One Pulp Fiction needle to the heart every morning? Where does it end? Would I be able to stop?
I don’t mean to belittle people who suffer from the very real disease of addiction. I don’t consider myself a legitimate addict. My real concern is that I have that potential inside me, the tendency to indulge compulsive or dangerous behavior once I start. Relying on any chemical on a regular basis makes me anxious. If I have a headache, I try to wait it out until I absolutely have to choke down a couple of Advil. As soon as I find myself wanting to dance or call a girl “Fancy Hair,” I cut off my booze intake. That’s not usual. It’s phobic. But it follows that when I drink coffee, I’m very conscious of the frequency and volume of my intake. In fact, on days when I wake up feeling fresh and chipper, I try to drink juice instead. Certainly this is far from actual addiction, but it’s enough to make me nervous. I’m probably not on the cusp of any real danger, but how can I be sure? Even the idea of it makes me confused and afraid.
All I’m certain of is if you ever hear me utter the phrase: “I’m not even a human being until I have my first cup of coffee,” please slap me in the face and make me apologize at gun point while sobbing because I have hit rock bottom.