As regular readers may have spotted, I don’t tend to do things by halves.
Shortly after my fiancée and I started going out we were at her place in Maida Vale on a Saturday morning. My fiancée is a tea-lover, but I – while a big fan of tea – like a coffee on the weekend mornings. It’s something of a treat, partly because only instant is available at work and my refusal to spend fifteen percent of my salary with tax dodging scumbags like Starbucks, but also because it just tastes like time to myself. It’s something I can take my time over. We were still in that early phase when you’re happy to do whatever the other wants she duly pinched some of her flatmate’s coffee and made a pot.
We then went out for the day, I forget where. I think, maybe, there was some sort of food fair taking place at the clock end of Elgin Avenue. As we walked down the road in the early autumn sunshine I was aware that things weren’t quite right. I had a nasty headache brewing and felt a little like I wasn’t entirely there. The pain in my head grew to the point where, while not actually grumpy, it was certainly distracting me. I was focussing on not being sick, on not being snappy, rather than enjoying her company.
We hadn’t done anything special the night before, just been out for a couple of drinks. I’d been more or less sober at the end of the night – see, still in the early days of trying to impress – and so it wasn’t a hangover. Beside it felt different. It was more aggressive, less regretful.
Eventually we went for a cup of tea and almost immediately the headache receded and I could think again.
Later, my fiancée apologised to her flatmate for pinching the coffee.
‘Coffee?’ the flatmate replied, looking confused. ‘But I haven’t got any coffee other than the decaff.’
This was worrying. I was aware that I’d become psychologically addicted to the routine of tea and coffee drinking which had filled my life for years, but I wasn’t aware I was so physically stuck to them too.
Eighteen months later, having successfully gone dry for the previous year’s Lent, I considered giving up all caffeine for forty days and nights. But at the time we were in India and the tea was just too nice to ignore – let alone the social awkwardness refusal could have caused. The next year we were stressed about the potential lack of anywhere to live. It wasn’t the right time, I told myself. This year, this time, there wasn’t anything I could conveniently use as an excuse. I had to go for it. I had to know how bad things were.
I’ve drunk tea for as long as I can remember. I don’t know how young I was when my parents first gave me a sip. Eight, maybe? Possibly younger. My family runs on incessant cups of tea. By the time I was at senior school, I looked forward to going home after class not just to escape the hell of enforced education, but also so I could have a cup of tea.
I liked proper coffee when I took it, but it was a rarity growing up – as it probably was around much of eighties Britain. Coffee culture didn’t really take off until the mid-late nineties. I remember the excitement when I was in Sixth Form College and a branch of the Seattle Coffee Company opened up in central Birmingham. There wasn’t such finery in Sheffield when I headed up there so it wasn’t until travelling around Europe and then living in London that I got a serious Jones on for coffee.
Tea is more fundamental to existence – like bread – but coffee, coffee is sensual. The way it smells, the way it jolts, the grounds feel sharp yet tender between your fingers: it’s a love affair, I admit.
And, Jesus Christ, coming off it was painful.
I was quite clear on the rules: no tea, coffee, green tea, energy drinks, colas, anything with caffeine in it. Decaff tea and coffee feel pointless, so I haven’t bothered. I’m just drinking herbal teas and Redbush tea, which is a surprisingly good substitute. I think it’s the milk; it almost fools my body that it’s the real deal.
As an aside, a colleague decided to be helpful and googled alternatives to coffee for me. Tea was the obvious one, but my detox is more comprehensive than most of the wimps writing on the internet. The next suggestion the website offered was cider. Yep, that would go down well first thing in the morning on a work day.
The first few days were dreadful. Lent, obviously, starts in the middle of the week so I was thrown into an office environment while going cold turkey. The headaches stormed in firing vicious shots of lightning around my brain. Pain spread through my body, random aches appeared, mainly in the chest, but also in my kidneys and liver like everything was grinding to a halt, the tank empty. I felt exhausted and like there was a fog in my brain. Weirdly, I became insomniac for a couple of nights, despite going to bed early and absolutely shattered. Sometimes it hurt to wee and I was constipated for a while. Too much information, possibly, but every ailment you can imagine threw itself at me. The only day I didn’t feel like hell was the first Sunday when we went for a long bike ride through Kent, the adrenaline replacing the caffeine keeping me sharp, the sunshine making me feel well. I was still in bed by about ten thirty, mind.
After a few days, the constant craving and pain drifted off and I began to feel more normal, although less sharp. The headaches lasted the longest, about six days. Now, the only problem is the muddle of my thoughts and the struggle to articulate myself. I am more crotchety than normal in mornings. I crave my bed earlier than usual. I run out of energy to work at about nine o’clock. I don’t feel like I’m all there.
The withdrawal has been necessary. It does one good to purge the system of toxins every so often and clearly I was more reliant on caffeine than I realised. Still the moment those forty days are up I’m going to have a bucket of espresso.