I’m afraid of my coffee cup.
For 30 years, beginning at the age of 15, I smoked approximately 30 cigarettes a day. In that time I made two serious attempts to quit. The first time I lasted 8 months. The second twelve. Between those times I did things like: get gas money from my teenage child because I had spent my cash on cigarettes – and spent his on them too, sold off a set of comic books I had been collecting for several years for about 10 percent of face value, pawned the antique sword my wife bought me for Father’s Day some years back and failed to redeem it.
Can you imagine that. That sword was a gift of love that meant a lot more to me than I can easily describe, and I sold it for cigarettes. Yes, I claimed I needed the money for gasoline or for paying the power bill or whatever, but the truth is, I sold one of my most prized possessions, something I genuinely loved, for cigarettes. That wasn’t the first time.
When I was about 20, I had a hardcover copy of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. Paid $25 for it, the most I had ever paid for a book. Sold it to a bookstore for literally the price of two packs of cigarettes at the time, which would be about ¼ the price of one pack today. When I first started smoking, I could buy a pack at the local chain convenience store for $0.76. I would say things like, “If they hit $2.50 a pack, I’m done.” But, of course, like the fabled frog in the stewpot, I just grumbled and paid the price.
When I was a teen, I used to pay what was at the time exorbitant rates for specialty cigarettes. I remember paying $35 for a carton of Sobranie Black Russians. They were beautiful, black paper with a gold foil tip, triple filter (with charcoal in the middle filter), made with imported Balkan tobacco. They were sophisticated and oh-so-grown-up. I went on one of the few actual dates of my life with someone who thought I was at least 30 years old instead of 17, solely because of what I smoked and how I smoked them – casually, with just the right combination of insouciance and sophistication, lighting them with a plain steel battered Zippo that I struck by flicking against my leg, and closed the same way. I also was served alcohol in the bar that night, without being carded or questioned.
I loved to smoke. That’s the dark secret, I think. I didn’t like paying for them, and I didn’t like having to stand outside in -20 weather to have one, but in the end I really, really enjoyed smoking. If I could take the habit up again right now without consequence, I would do it right now. This minute.
But this isn’t actually about cigarettes. This is about coffee. And why I am afraid of my coffee cup.
In November of 2014, about two weeks after I took up smoking again (after a year without) I continued to ignore the pain in my chest that had been there at varying degrees of intensity for what in retrospect has to have been at least six weeks, but growing steadily worse for the preceding three. But after going upstairs for a cigarette, the pain got too intense for me to play off, and I ended up in the hospital. Three days later I was released with a stent in my heart, a stern admonition that 45 was much too young to be having heart attacks, several new prescriptions, and prohibitions on salt, tobacco… and caffeine.
Now, my love affair with caffeine is longer than my sometimes tumultuous relationship with tobacco. I literally drank coffee at my grandmother’s knee. Spent large portions of my young adulthood staying up all night in 24-hour casual family dining restaurants. I mean, the night I met my wife, after the party we went to Denny’s (with her date) where I wooed her with a Flintstones coloring book, while we drank coffee. Over the last two decades it’s been rare that we didn’t have coffee. When I worked in telemarketing, I once literally bit a coworker because my supervisor didn’t bring me coffee fast enough. Once I got my own office, I had my own coffeemaker – and that was besides the 2-4 energy drinks that I had every day.
I was drinking Mountain Dew by the case as well. When my diabetes was diagnosed, I simply shifted to sugar-free – and continued to mock people who drank decaf. My coworkers down the years have always joked about how much coffee I drank: strong, black, creamy, cappuchino, mocha, latte, iced, flavored, plain, sweet, bitter. It didn’t matter as long as there was lots of it. Weekends at home were pot after pot of coffee. Back when alcohol was an option for me, my favored drink was, you guessed it, Irish Coffee. Or, at least, coffee with some brand of Irish cream liqueur in it. (That night where I got served at the bar at 17? What I was served without question was Kaluha in coffee.)
The night after I was admitted to the hospital, I had classic caffeine withdrawal symptoms. I was offered morphine for the headache, but declined because it seemed a bit out of proportion to the symptoms – I had just had morphine for the first time the day before, and felt like it was something better saved for more extreme pain. I mean, caffeine headache? Not a big deal, I had those all the time.
I had those all the time. I went without coffee/Mountain Dew/energy drinks for a day, and I got that thumping pound behind the eyes. I knew what it meant. I knew the cure – just get me a cup of coffee. Hello, nurse? Can I get a cup of coffee over here? No, not a cup of decaf. A cup of coffee.
Please. Give me a cup of coffee. Please.
Jump ahead three months and a bit. I’ve avoided caffeine, on doctor’s orders. A few people have told me that I seem calmer, but I don’t feel any less anxious and tense. I’m drinking cup after cup of decaffeinated tea – and complaining about it. “I’m going to ask my doctor for a variance,” I tell anyone who will listen. “I haven’t had coffee for three months, so I’m not quite awake yet.” So I go to my appointment, and I tell the doctor that the lack of caffeine is having a negative effect on me. He thinks, for a moment, then twinkles at me. “You can have one” holds up a finger, pointed at the acoustic ceiling tiles “one cup of low caffeine, green tea or something like that. One.”
I smile and point skyward myself, a symbol of great victory. “One”, I repeat, grinning. I feel like I’ve been released from an odious burden.
And I went to work, and did not stop on the way to get a cup of half-caff. And drank decaf tea all night. And made a pot of decaf to have this weekend.
I’m afraid of my coffee cup.
I do not think that I will be capable of controlling myself in any terms other than strict and severe abstinence. When I started smoking again, after a year of not, I went from 0 to a pack in less than a week. The last time I quit smoking, it took about three days to be fully entrenched again.
I don’t have any idea what caffeine will do to me if I start using it again. Clearly there is some physical risk, because if there wasn’t, my doctor would have said “Drink all you want.” I’ve had days in the past where my heart pounds like a pigeon trying to escape the dark cavity of my chest, because of too much caffeine (it was in high school, and involved taking my caffeine in tablet form rather than in a beverage). How much is too much, now that I have a piece of titanium shaped like the spring from a ballpoint pen residing in my frontal cardiac artery? Can I drink just one cup of low-caffeine beverage?
I don’t think I can. I’ve given up other things without significant difficulty, because I didn’t have a problem with them that reached anywhere near the level of addiction. I eventually quit smoking cigarettes, because I was presented with the Addict’s Choice: Keep using and die, or quit using and just maybe live. That was what it took to get me to quit smoking. $7.80 a pack when I had no income didn’t stop me, having to go outside to smoke in brutal Minnesota winter didn’t stop me, my kid’s teachers wrinkling their noses because his coat reeked of tobacco didn’t stop me. Almost dying, lying in a hospital bed for 3 days with no certainty that I would ever get out of it again? That was what it took. And they told me no salt, no caffeine, no cigarettes.
I cut down on my salt. It’s hard, but I can do it. I’m still taking in a lot more salt than They would like, but three months ago They told me I couldn’t have butter either, and that’s good for me now. I have not had a cigarette since The Last One. It was a Marlboro Black, strongly flavored, and I finished it in spite of the pain in my chest and down my left arm. And I’ve stayed away from caffeine.
But if I start drinking it again, I am afraid that I will do the same damned thing I have done all my life: I’ll build a tolerance in a short time. And I’ll start drinking all I want, because hey, it’s not affecting me, and it takes two cups for the headache to go away, and my heart’s just pounding because of the blood thinners. And then I’ll tell myself that I can handle it, shows what They know, like butter and eggs.
And then I’ll light up. And that would be the death of me. Because of a lousy stinking cup of coffee.
I’m afraid of my coffee cup. And, like any other addict covering up the tracks he’s leaving on the banks of that river fabled in story and song, I lied. I said “this isn’t about cigarettes, it’s about coffee.” But it’s not.
I am afraid of my coffee cup because it sits next to the ashtray. And it always has.