Like so many other people, I relied on coffee to get me through the day. This my story of how I decided to look deeper into my relationship with coffee, and what I learned in the process.
I had utterly and completely exhausted myself, on top of the ‘normal’ exhaustion of tending to a 1 year day and night. This round of deletion began around the holidays, when my husband and I started to look into buying a house. We wanted to but a fixer upper, as we like to work with our hands and it would help us afford to a home in an area of the city that would normally be out of our price range.
With the way the housing market was going, I knew that once we started looking for a house we were all in. It demanded constant attentiveness and moving quickly. Coffee helped me face the endless tasks at hand, and kept me chipper and able to multitask. What I loved above even the coffee was walking to my local coffee shop with my son. The shop was called Crema. It’s hard not to love Crema. They have fabulous soups that my son and I adore (and killer baked goods, if that’s your thing). The baristas knew us, and it felt like home.
I looked at a lot of houses, after stopping to get a mocha or cup of coffee first, of course. After viewing each home, I spent many hours researching the repairs that house needed, and after our offer was accepted, the research evolved into planning and continued until closing. Then it was 5 weeks of scrambling to work as hard hard as we could to fix it up before moving in.
Those 5 weeks were the hardest 5 weeks of my life. It seems silly to say that, but trying to fix up a much neglected house while parenting a baby nearly pushed me over the edge. Sometimes I swear that coffee was the only thing that got me through!
At the end of March we moved in. Whew! What a whirlwind the last 4 months had been.
I was hoping for relief, but instead came Sickness. We had been majorly depleted from the weeks of working on the house, and sicknesses took advantage of our weakened state and came in all forms and arrangements. One after the other, and sometimes all at once, we all got sick.
After a few months, my husband and son were staying healthy, but I was still getting sick.
It was these continuous bouts of illness which brought me to take a break from coffee. My tender stomach couldn’t handle anything but the most simplistic nourishing foods. Just thinking about coffee soured my stomach!
But more importantly, I deeply realized that I needed to work with the energy I had, however depleted, and not push my body with coffee. I needed healing, not stimulating.
The end of May was my intended final coffee experience.
The first week of no coffee went marvelously. I didn’t miss it, or feel like I needed it, both good signs.
But after the first week I realized there was much more to miss than just the energy from caffeine.
I missed the taste of coffee. I loved the smooth bitterness with the sweet and creamy additions of hemp milk and chocolate. Yet it was easy enough to divert any tastebud cravings towards yummy rich herbal teas with milk (I’ll share my favorite recipe soon), chocolate, and and cocoa nib smoothies.
What I missed the most was the experience of going to coffee shops, where I felt comfort in being surrounded by a variety of adults who also loved coffee. I live in Portland, after all. The coffee shops here are a-mazing. The decor, the smells, the cool music (why do so many coffee shops play records?), the people who seem so functional and productive with their laptops and meet-ups.
It’s like I was no longer ‘one of them’. Without coffee, I was what I was all along underneath: an overly tired new mom trying to piece my life back together, looking for something to make me feel energetic and focused, like how I used to be pre-baby. Going to coffee shops and ordering a mocha made me feel like a normal city person, savoring in the best that urban life has to offer.
True, I could’ve ordered herbal tea or a even a chai instead of coffee, or even decaf, but I knew in my gut that I wasn’t strong enough for that yet.
Despite my cravings for the coffee shop experience, I stayed away from coffee for about 5 weeks straight. My energy was improving slightly, my son stopped teething and started sleeping well, and I lightened up on fixing the house and practiced more self care. I was feeling more nourished.
Those 5 coffee free weeks in early summer were nice. I felt a sense of contentment knowing that I could abstain from something that wasn’t the best fit for my health.
Out of nowhere I started having insomnia. Then a week later, my son started a 3 week bout of teething with lots of night wakings. Like all night long. I was, once again, pushed past my limits. Every day was a new level of exhaustion.
There was one day in July where I had a mocha. I had just a couple of hours of sleep the night prior and I had to work, and I couldn’t imagine functioning without it.
Sounds dramatic, I know. But when I’m tired and need to be on my game, I’m the epitome of dramatic and desperate.
That one mocha helped me get through the day. And it started up a regular coffee habit.
Yeah. After weeks of adjusting to a stimulant free lifestyle, I went right back to where I was.
I am all for harm-reduction and believe in releasing guilt and shame about who we are and what we do. We are all doing the best we can, myself included. I am also a big proponent of mindful eating (and drinking for that matter); if I am going to have coffee, I am going to enjoy every drop of it, dammit!
We embraced. Coffee was made for people like me, I felt. “I’m tired and I’m going to use it to help me through the day”.
In August, the insomnia kicked in again. I was drinking coffee about 4-6 times a week, and although I didn’t know for sure if the insomnia was related to coffee, I decided to cut back or hold off as much as I could.
Some weeks I’d reserve coffee only for mornings before going to work. Or when I had had a particularly hard night. Or when I had an early morning engagement. However, with insomnia and a up-all-night baby, every day seemed particularly hard.
I didn’t have a clear intention of what I was doing, and like many people, I feel lost if things aren’t black or white. Was I letting myself off the hook? And would that mean free-for-all coffee, all the time? Or was I trying to stay away from coffee? I was unsure and couldn’t commit to either.
In the end, it was clear that the situation was more grey. I wavered from one side to the other, and that was just where I was. I avoided committing to staying away from coffee because I didn’t know if I could do it, if I was strong enough to make a decision.
It’s unfortunate that my self-worth fit so easily into a 12 ounce cup. Like so many things related to our health and eating and drinking, I was looking at it with a conditional good-bad dichotomy.
Getting to the root
At the end summer, I finally sought help through herbs, acupuncture and body work. This is when I got to the heart of the intense fatigue I was feeling, and addressed my particular pattern of insomnia.
Coffee helped me though rough days, to be sure. But caffeine doesn’t give “free energy”, it takes it from my reserves. And when I have no reserves, or when I am using more energy than I take in, depletion sets into an already weakened system.
Coffee definitely weakened my digestion, fried my adrenals, tensed my body, made me dizzy and light-headed, and sometimes gave me palpitations and shortness of breath. It also gave me comfort, lifted my spirits, and made me feel sane and normal.
It makes me highly uncomfortable to write this as if implying coffee is a dangerous substance and that I was struggling with ‘real’ addiction and withdrawal. Let’s be real, this is the drug of choice for church-going grandmas; it is strong and pervasive, and not without consequence, but it is nothing compared to what people face with opiate, tobacco, cocaine, alcohol and many other drugs. That being said, it happened to be not the best for me, and it was difficult to live without it.
Where I am now
This coffee break adventure is ongoing. I still don’t know if I am staying away or engaging. I have cut back, and sometimes I go a week without it. Those weeks feel good. It especially feels good when I think I am going to feel like a train wreck without it, but I end up feeling really good.
Sleep is still hard to come by, but my energy is rising incrementally after taking herbs for some time. As my resilience raised, my desire for coffee decreases. The best feeling is walking to get coffee and deciding when I get there that I don’t even want it. Tea tastes just as good. I feel more complete, like I don’t have to reach outside for something that I’m lacking.
When I drink coffee, I either feel great and enjoy it, or I think, “that wasn’t what I was hoping for, oh well”. The worst is when drinking coffee prevents me from taking an afternoon nap with my son. When that happens I use it as a sign to cut back.
Strategies for balance
I learned much from this experience, which is why I was inspired to write this in the first place. Reading back on this story, I wish I would’ve started herbs and acupuncture in January when I first felt exhausted. Prevention is key, but it takes a lot of initiative. Initiative I didn’t feel I was afforded. I was too caught up in what was urgent to take care of myself.
This entire situation has forced me to recognize my patterns of disharmony in my bodily health and behaviors. I’ve come up with what I feel is essential to building my energy:
- daily creativity
- nature and being outdoors
- daily relaxation rituals
- herbal formulas
- acupuncture and body work
As a professional herbalist (and general plant person), my herbs are very important to me. But I have a major roadblock: my herbs are packed away and placed deep in the basement. Not only am I missing out on taking them for my health, but since they are a major route for inspiration and creative expression, my quality of life is reduced without them. My spirit suffers without free access to my creative currency, and thus my vitality wanes.
I realized how intensely important nature is to me and my vitality. Well, I have known this for as long as I can recall, but I became more aware of what precisely happens to me without a daily visit to an urban oasis. Without it, I tend to reach for coffee to give me a spark of energy. A simple morning walk looking at plants and trees is often enough to make me feel vibrant and full of life.
My new house has a teeny tiny bits of yard, and it’s on a corner lot in a hyper-social area of town with virtually no privacy. Once I made sense of how the lack of nature was affecting my energy, I created a semi-private area in my yard where I can retreat, and in through the fall I made frequented it in the evening with a cup of tea in hand.