Thursday, 29 April 2010


Coffee beans

I have given up coffee.

I've had intentions of doing this before, and have managed a week at best. In total I have drunk coffee routinely since I was thirteen, or twenty full years out of my thirty-three. That's a lot of stimulant.

Except that my consumption was never excessive, and in comparison to other people was positively non-existent. I'd go so far as to say it was lightweight, wimpy. I can probably think of no more than three times where I've drunk more than three cups of coffee in a day; latterly, since I started commuting into the office from my home in Milton Keynes, a decent cup of coffee was required just to get the day at work started. Just one, mind. This is contrast to people I met recently in Geneva, who would drink five or six espressos in a morning just to be able to face the day. For me it was a milky americano at about 7.30, occasionally followed by another toward the end of the morning if the day was proving especially draining.

Coffee has on occasion done some strange things to me if I stepped outside of that one, maybe two cups a day range. I recall drinking two huge lattes in a café in Colchester that was trying to capture the whole Central Perk-esque, relaxed and convivial vibe of Friends. That was at about 10.30 in the morning. Despite not having anything else caffeinated for the rest of the day, thanks to that injection, I was still awake at 3.00 the next morning. And that's the thing that was most surprising about the event that led to my withdrawal from coffee; usually, coffee would have an effect on my head, not my body. I'd come away from a strong coffee feeling light-headed and not really 'with it'.

I read an article in Esquire last year detailing the negative side of coffee drinking but despite being worried to death by what it had to say, and despite a concerted effort to start drinking coffee every other day, I failed miserably. But still I never stepped outside that one or two cups a day range.

And then, a month ago, I went round to my parents' house and had a cup of Joe; nothing too hardcore, just from a jar. And then I went home and found Mrs S making one, so I thought I'd have another, again just from a jar. I wouldn't normally have two cups so close together, but I didn't think it mattered. Remember that two cups in a day, even if they're close together, isn't in any way excessive.

So it was a surprise to me that from the moment I finished that second cup, at about 11.30 that Sunday morning, through to when I went to bed, twelve hours later, I'd endured half a calendar day's-worth of heart palpitations so relentless and intense that I thought I was either having a heart attack or about to witness my own heart break free from the confines of my chest and bounce about all over the floor of my house like some sort of psycho Space Hopper. I was petrified, and couldn't see that coffee alone had prompted this feeling.

I don't know how I was able to sleep, but I did. However, when I woke up for work at 5.00 the next day those racing palpitations were still there, so I decided to call the doctors and get an emergency appointment. By the time I got there, my heart felt almost normal again – typical – and I was just left with an equally-worrying tightness in my chest.

I told the doctor about the coffees of the day before, at which she nodded sagely, doing that semi-sympathetic, semi-patronising smile medics are so adept at, and as she explained that caffeine had likely provided the trigger, I felt stupid and sheepish. And just as I was about to slope away apologising for wasting her time, she asked me if I'd been feeling stressed recently.

The answer was that I had. A week or two before that Sunday I'd experienced some of the most frantic, busy and stretching days at work I've ever endured. She said that the coffee may well have been the trigger for the palpitations, but that the stress had provided the conditions for my body to react differently than it would normally have. The trigger for the trigger if you like.

I was genuinely surprised. Up to that point I thought I'd managed stress in my life reasonably well. The impact of that Sunday was to make me rethink my approach to complexity and uncertainty generally, and I've (mostly) been more calm and balanced since then; more like how I've been told I appear on the surface perhaps, less internalising problems. In addition, I decided to give up coffee. Completely. Cold turkey.

A month later I haven't been tempted once to order an americano at all; not once. The physical effects I experienced that Sunday prompted such a fear of what something seemingly so innocuous could do to you that I just needed to cut it out completely.

So there you are; that's why I'm no longer drinking coffee.

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