I was addicted to a drug.
Not the kind of drugs you think of when someone normally talks about addiction, but the kind of drugs you get over the counter at your local grocery or convenience store. The kind of drug that gets a hold of you at your core, embeds itself in your life like a parasitic worm and destroys you from the inside-out. The kind of drug that looks innocuous at first blush, but slowly takes over until there is nothing left to do but give in to the addiction. That is, unless you can look it square in the eye and tell it to go to hell.
It wasn’t a lot, by most standards. A little here, a little there, and before you know it, it was something that accompanied lunch, then at dinner, and sometimes even in the middle of the day at the office. Hide a little in my desk in case there was a fix needed. It was difficult to hide from my family after a while. The withdrawal I went through if I didn’t get even a little hit was excruciating and debilitating at times, and often even caused me to miss work.
It was bad.
Until I looked it square in the eye and told it to go to hell. I was done.
1, 3, 7-trimethylxanthine—the most widely used psychoactive drug on the planet. More commonly known as caffeine. A drug by any other name, and a stealthy one, at that. This drug tricks your neurosystem into thinking that you are alert and awake by blocking the receptors that tell your body when it’s time to rest and recover. Like tricking the gas tank in your car into not shining the light in your face to tell you that you need to head to a gas station. When you false recover with caffeine, your body crashes even harder after it wears off, because you haven’t rested properly, and then instinctively, we head for more caffeine to fix the dragging feeling from not being rested. A vicious cycle continues, beating you senseless, and creating the addiction to the stimulant.
Directly, caffeine can also lead to insomnia, jitters and shakes, withdrawal headaches and migraines, increased blood pressure, anxiety and even worsen existing heart conditions. It’s a nasty drug that exists naturally in coffee, tea, cocoa and a handful of other herbs, but is synthetically added to SO many things it would surprise you. Do you need caffeine in Sunkist orange soda? Did you even know it was in there? Probably not.
The coffee industry in the US has become a $30 billion cash cow, with energy drinks pulling in over $27.5 billion (with RedBull a hefty $2.4 billion on its own) globally. The manufacturers say that they put the caffeine in these drinks because of public demand, but disregard the fact that they are just fueling the addict by increasing the dosage. You can now find caffeine jacked in everything from gum, jellybeans, mints, lollipops and even water.
We need it—give it to us, please, we can’t live without it.
About 12 years ago, I suffered pretty heavily from debilitating migraine headaches. I was getting 1 or 2 a month, and was hitting them hard with Excedrin Migraine at first blush of sinus or temple pain. The worst cases would cause me to miss work for at least a day. Hours or even a whole day spent in a completely darkened room with cold towels over my face and eyes, trying to deal with the pain. I recall one headache that included such terrible vertigo that just laying down cause it to worsen to vomiting levels. Migraines are one of those things that if you don’t get them, you couldn’t possibly understand how horrendous they are. If you do, you can sympathize.
At a wedding once, while talking to one of my wife’s aunts, we were casually discussing migraines, which she also suffered. She had been dealing with them most of her life and tried everything to get rid of them. A doctor casually asked her if she drank caffeine, and when she said yes, he said, “well, don’t.”
She quit cold turkey, dealt with 2 weeks of debilitating headaches and then hadn’t had a headache in 10 years. It was a cure for her, and an eye-opening event for me, for sure. At that point, I decided to do some research about the connection between caffeine and migraines. What I found was revolting and astounding. It seemed to be a cut-and-dry solution, so I gave it up. Just stopped. Thirteen days later, my headache finally went away (yes, thirteen straight days of one single headache and a lot of Aleve).
That was over 10 years ago, and I stayed caffeine free for almost 2 years, before falling off the wagon. See, I hate coffee, don’t drink tea, but I absolutely LOVE Dr Pepper. It’s a guilty pleasure. I know the high fructose corn syrup is bad for me. I know the caffeine screws with my system. I know there is nothing redeemable about colas/sodas at all, but I can’t help it.
My problem is that if I don’t have at least one before 2pm, a migraine is almost a sure thing. That’s all—one single can of DP. About 45mg of caffeine. Like I said, not much compared to what most people consume on a daily basis. Pretty much nothing on the Starbucks menu. An “awake & alert” pill is usually about 200mg as is a normal strong cup of coffee. But if I didn’t get that little hit every day, I was a wreck.
I know you are thinking, seriously? That’s all? Yep, that’s all it takes to develop an addiction. Caffeine affects different people in different ways, and you can most certainly build up a tolerance to it with massive consumption over time. You probably don’t even know you are doing it.
This past winter, I made a decision to change my health and change my life. It started with a change in my active level, and a return to cycling after many years away from it. I built myself a cyclocross bike and started riding indoors in January. It was hard to start, but it was worth it and I saw a noticeable change.
My next change this winter was to actively remove HFCS from my diet as much as possible. We had done it mostly as a family when we started having kids, but for me, my weakness has always been sugary carbonated beverages. Don’t get me started on HFCS. It’s horrible, and our dumbass country is one of the few in the world where it’s still legal to use. The corn growers have the gub’ment in their pockets, but that’s another soapbox for another time.
I slowly ramped down my Dr Pepper consumption over the course of a few weeks, while using quartered caffeine pills to keep the headaches at bay. I replaced the sodas with water or juice, whenever possible. At a certain point, it became almost 100% water consumption. Slowly, i started to reduce the amount of caffeine I was taking daily to almost nothing, then stopped completely. I managed to do so without any residual migraines and pain, short of a couple of mild low-level headaches. I gave up on the Excedrin, too, as it’s main ingredient for curing a devestating headache is, you guessed it, caffeine. Not a coincidence.
So, I am now going on 9 weeks, caffeine free, so to speak. Every once in a while, I’ll indulge in a Dr Pepper or Cherry Coke when we’re eating out, but mostly it’s water for me. It wasn’t easy, but it’s been worth it. I’ve had a total of 3 in the last month.
How? Well, one, I fall asleep immediately at night, and wake up minutes before my alarm goes off. That’s something of an oddity for me, as I have been a restless sleeper most of my life, waking up 6 or 7 times a night, without fail.
Two, cutting out HFCS sodas from my diet almost immediately shaved 8 pounds off of my slight frame. I previously felt “skinny fat” having a few more pounds than I would like to carry around my torso. When I’m 5’ 11” tall and 145 pounds, you can easily see an extra 10 pounds on my frame/face. It’s not a good feeling, either. Between riding regularly and quitting sugary carbonated beverages, I took 11 pounds off in just under 3 weeks.
I don’t miss it.
Well, that’s not entirely true. I do want for a DP every once in a while, and would love for a Caffeine Free version with real sugar, but that’s not likely coming along anytime soon. Throwbacks are great (no HFCS) and the caffeine-free DPs are only available regionally across the US (don’t ask me why, Dr Pepper blames it on their local bottlers), but something that would fill my wants isn’t really an option.
Until that day comes along, I’m pretty happy drinking ice water instead.