I started drinking caffeine about 20 years ago. It began “innocently” enough. Sure, I knew what Ellen White had written about it, but still . . . I did it rarely: for a long drive, after a hard night, or to compensate for jet lag. I did it once every two months, or maybe it was once a month . . . ? I don’t remember—only that it wasn’t much
Confessions of a caffeine addict
By William Hayden
I started drinking caffeine about 20 years ago. It began “innocently” enough. Sure, I knew what Ellen White had written about it, but still . . . I did it rarely: for a long drive, after a hard night, or to compensate for jet lag. I did it once every two months, or maybe it was once a month . . . ? I don’t remember—only that it wasn’t much.
At least at first. Then it was once a week. A treat. To get a burst of energy. “Gourmet” coffee shops were taking off; they were part of the culture. Who didn’t go to them? A number of us, Adventists all, would trudge off together. We could talk, chill out, and get caffeinated, which definitely gave us a boost to go back to work.
I’m a pastor, ordained even. Many who drank with me were too. At times I would think, I shouldn’t be doing this, but I didn’t really want to stop. I didn’t see a real need to. After all, it was just a latte, a soy latte even.
Before I knew it I was drinking coffee every day. A cup in the morning. Maybe something in the afternoon, just to keep me buzzed during the day. It would help me a lot in the pulpit as well. This went on for years. I didn’t really think much about it anymore; drinking coffee was just what a lot of people did. After all, how bad could it be when so many Adventists were doing it?
I read medical reports about coffee, and though some did warn against excessive use, most made coffee sound pretty benign; some even touted the apparent health benefits: less chance of Alzheimer’s, that kind of thing. Just what I loved to hear. In cases in which laboratory rats given caffeine would get some horrific disease, I assuaged myself by thinking I’d have to imbibe three gallons intravenously per day to equal, proportionally, what they gave to those wired-out rodents.
I Can Quit When I Want
More years went by. I would tell myself, You can quit whenever you want. I just didn’t want to. I was told of the massive headaches you’d get, and how for a few days you’d feel terrible. I didn’t want to put myself through it. Why bother? It was, after all, just coffee.
After about 20 years, though, I realized I was drinking it much more than before. I needed a cup just to feel normal. I think that’s called “tolerance,” the idea that your body, getting so used to the drug, needs more and more each time to give you the effect it had before. I remember drinking a cup of coffee in the early days and getting utterly euphoric. I can’t remember the last time it did that to me. All coffee did now was help keep me awake, give me some energy, at least for a while.
One effect I did notice fairly early on was how it impacted my sleep. I used to be able to put my head down, hit the pillow, and in 10 minutes I would be out and not move until seven hours later. I hadn’t had a night’s sleep like that in 18 years.
The Nightmare Begins
Then I decided to quit. Twenty years is enough, I thought. I wasn’t getting any younger. I was having some health issues; whether they were linked to the coffee or not, I didn’t know. I just could tell that I had been drinking too much coffee for too long. It was time. More than once I had wished I hadn’t started, but the recriminations weren’t enough to get me to seriously think about stopping. Again, I would ask, What’s the big deal? It’s only coffee!
Then, on a whim, on the spur of a moment, I said, “That’s it.” I was going to have some time off, wasn’t going to have my usual heavy load for about two weeks, and thought this would be the perfect time. I braced myself for the upcoming headaches and a few days of feeling a bit groggy, that’s all.
Little did I know . . .
Not long after I stopped I started to feel a bit sick to my stomach. Because I was having a stomach issue already, I just assumed that’s what it was. Eventually the stomach issue just got worse. I was nauseated, achy, exhausted; all things that I attributed to my ailment.
After about two days a headache came. Ah, I thought, here it is. Just what I need while dealing with my stomach. But I was determined to quit. Fortunately the headache soon went away. Though my stomach was hurting me, I didn’t feel any of the expected withdrawal symptoms. Man, this is easy. I don’t even miss it. By that time I was feeling so ill that nothing, not even coffee, appealed to me.
After about four days I was miserable. I had no appetite and was very nauseated. Plus, I couldn’t sleep. I must have had two nights in a row when I didn’t sleep a wink.
Then the real nightmare began. I was overwhelmed with anxiety. I had never had panic attacks before; now one after another would roll over me. I would think about a problem, any problem, and my chest would tighten, and I’d let out a deep sigh. Again and again waves of panic swept into me, where they firmly lodged in my head and chest. I had no idea what was happening. For almost 36 hours I’d have moments when I feared I was losing my mind. What is going on? I knew that unless something gave quickly, I was either going to kill myself or get myself committed.
The biggest stressor was not knowing what was happening. Why was I so sick? Why was I feeling this incredible anxiety? This couldn’t be the caffeine withdrawal, could it? That had turned out to be a three-hour headache, no more.
I got out of bed, got online, and much to my amazement, after looking up “caffeine withdrawal symptoms,” saw that this was exactly what I was going through. A headache is the most common symptom, but it’s not the only one, and not everyone gets it. I read about severe withdrawals and realized that was what was happening to me. What did I think—putting a drug for the past 18 years almost daily into my body, and I would quit cold turkey and get nothing but a little headache?
I am ashamed to say it, but I was going through an intense drug withdrawal. That was the horrid anguish my body and mind were experiencing.
I was relieved. At least now I knew what was happening. Looking back, I can thank the Lord that I didn’t link my symptoms to caffeine withdrawal until I was through the worst, because had I known what was causing those symptoms, I would have gone back to drinking it, and with a vengeance. Once I realized what was happening, I was over the worst. And it was bad! Real bad.
As of now, I’ve been off caffeine several months. I’m still not 100 percent myself, but every day gets better (thank the Lord!). I never knew what wicked stuff caffeine really was, not until this experience.
Learn from my mistake. If you haven’t started drinking it—don’t! Forget the fact that so many people are doing it. Many people drink alcohol; that doesn’t make it right, or healthful for you. If you are doing it only a little—stop! The longer you drink it, the more likely you will drink more, and the harder it will be to quit. It’s a drug, and like most drugs, it’s addicting. Only coffee executives will deny the addictiveness of caffeine; everyone else knows better. If you are a heavy drinker—ease out of it. Wean yourself off (you can do cold turkey, but be prepared). Though everyone is different, and you might not have the symptoms I did, you might have worse. You might even want to get professional help.
It’s not just coffee. It’s caffeine, a powerfully addictive drug. God wants better for you.
William Hayden is a pseudonym.