From addiction to abstinence: What I learned from 12 months without coffee

Twelve months ago CT's Andy van Bergen stopped drinking coffee. He's learned a lot along the way.

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I woke at 3am, sweating profusely and wracked with pain. Aside from feeling like I’d been run over by a bus, everything from my torso down was on fire. There was not a single position I could hold that didn’t feel like I was in the rigours of cramping. The ache was deep. In my bones deep. In my spine deep. It felt like the worst DOMS I’d ever experienced, but not just in my muscles – it felt like it was in every cell of my body.

I dragged myself out of bed and grabbed a glass of water, half-stooped over the sink. Breathing was making my ribs ache. Through bloodshot eyes I Google-doctored my symptoms. I’d been prepared for the headaches, but thanks to the depths of my addiction, the aches were part of the withdrawals. I considered drawing a bath, but in the end settled on a bunch of painkillers. It wasn’t enough to allow sleep, but it tempered the pain to a dull roar.

It was a year ago now that my colleague Matt de Neef threw down the gauntlet (well, in truth it was more of a throwaway line) and challenged me to quit my six-cup-a-day coffee habit. I had no interest in any health benefits, I wasn’t concerned with my consumption levels, and I had no other pressing reasons to go cold turkey, other than to prove to Matt that I had control of my addiction.

And boy, was I wrong in that belief.

You can read my account from 12 months ago about how I tackled my breakup with caffeine, but as a TL;DR it was not dissimilar to Renton’s approach in Trainspotting. As a bit of a bonus I was already doing a FebFast from alcohol for the month, and I can honestly say I didn’t even think about a drink … I was too wracked with pain!

It’s been a year now since I last had coffee. When I tell people that, their first reaction is shock and surprise that I’ve abstained for this long. The most common question they’ll then ask is whether it’s been worth it. To answer that I really need to seperate out my emotional connection with this drink.

I deeply miss the ritual of the stovetop, the hiss of the Aeropress (and of course the satisfying pop of the puck into our compost), the smell of fresh grinds at 11pm as I prep the cold drip for the morning – and that’s without even mentioning the taste, social aspect, and geeking out on paraphernalia.

It’s interesting. I always assumed the kick that I was getting from a brew – whether I was rubbing the sleep out of my eyes, or looking for a recharge in the afternoon – was what was keeping me functioning at a high level, keeping me focused and on-task. I could feel 10,000 synapses firing each time I reached for a coffee. The reality? I wake up better without coffee, I can concentrate for longer, and I have far better clarity of thought. It makes no sense to me but it’s true, and not in a marginal gains sense, but in a light-and-dark, chalk-and-cheese, disc-and-rims kinda way.

Like an ex-smoker reaching for chocolate to substitute the cancer sticks, I’ve found that replacing my ritual has really helped. I never would have admitted to drinking tea, let alone decaf but I’ve found a good English brand available in my specialty grocer that does a good job of simulating the real thing.

I read somewhere that to truly shake an addiction it takes the same amount of time that you’ve been addicted, and with 20 years+ in the bag I’m staring down the barrel of a long sentence!

Whether you’re currently giving FebFast a go, or planning a Dry July or any other habit/addiction-breaking endeavour, I wish you all the best. Oh, and if anyone wants to join me in taking some time off sugar, I could use a good support group!

Here’s to being the pilot of your own ship.

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