I used to be a heavy coffee drinker.
No, scrub that. I used to be a heavy caffeine drinker.
Cycles of tiredness offset by drinking more, each time with diminishing effect. A losing battle. You may have been there too. A cup in the morning. Several cups throughout the day. Tea graduates to coffee. The enjoyment of the drink disappears and it becomes fuel. Cheap, sugar-free energy drinks suggest to your already frazzled brain that they're not so bad. Being free of sugar and all. Wrong.
Soon you feel tired, jangly, and you're looking for the next fix. You can't concentrate. If you're out or driving, you're thinking always about the next stop for more. The diminishing returns gain you nothing, yet you depend on it so much. You're an addict.
Here's a little test: go without caffeine for a few days.
Willpower too weak? Enjoy it too much? Don't want to? You need it? Well, guess what: you're an addict.
Assuming your willpower is strong and you can make it through a day or two, do you get the headache? Yes? Well, guess what: you're an addict.
Time to stop. Not because it's bad for you (it is, especially the energy drinks), but because it's ineffective. It creates unbalanced energy; peaks and troughs. You're just wasting time, money and enjoyment going on like this.
I've given up caffeine before. After the headache, which lasts a couple of days, things go well. You drink more water instead. You take to naturally caffeine-free, healthy Rooibos tea. Things are good. You feel good. You feel energised in a clean way that too much caffeine does not provide.
Falling off the wagon
I started on the green tea because it's supposed to be healthy. Unfortunately it is also lightly caffeinated. Whether this makes more of a psychological difference or physiological difference I do not know. But somehow you slip back into drinking caffeinated drinks.
Well-worn patterns of the addict crawl back in your life. Mindfulness has departed. You quaff mediocre coffee at a conference, thinking that you need it to be alert (you don't).
You have a coffee the following morning because, well, a good coffee is good and just one won't hurt (it will).
You tell yourself good coffee is a lifestyle choice (it isn't).
You tell yourself you think better when you drink it (you don't).
You pretend to be a connoisseur because that's what the geeks seem to do these days (oh, please).
One more won't hurt. Nor will another. Or another.
So what is the goal of giving up, anyway? Your goals might be different, but, for me, balanced energy is a priority. Removing the pull of dependence is another: I want to go days - weeks - without needing a stimulant.
There is also this issue of efficacy. As I've hit middle age, I get more tired. This is fine most of the time. I'd rather be naturally tired than caffeinated tired. Long car journeys can be fraught with danger when you're tired. In life or death situations like driving, you need that boost caffeine gives you. It gets you to your destination safely. If you're inoculated to the effects of caffeine - that is, you're an addict - you don't have any other choice apart from rest. Sleep is often a crushingly bad option if you need to be somewhere. Besides, if you're stuck on a motorway, what can you do?
Balanced energy and effective stimulus when you need it are the goals. What's a good strategy to achieve them?
Complete abstinence is not a good strategy in my experience. I have tried it and it doesn't work.
Granted, you get balanced energy. But in those times when you're tired and must stay awake, you lack options. If you tell yourself you must never drink caffeine, then you're more likely to be in a mindset where you'll avoid it and put yourself and others in danger.
You'll also be in a mindset where just one drink means you're off-the-wagon. That one leads to another, and another. It's a psychological "failure" and you're likely to give up at this point.
A good strategy - a more effective one - is that of mindful moderation.
The specific moves to carry out this strategy are quite simple: you don't drink caffeine. Consider yourself a decaf person. But, you can deploy the caffeine when you need it most, and that's okay. It's all part of the strategy.
One coffee when you need it is a tactical deployment. An exceptionally effective counter-measure to tiredness when you need it most. Because you don't drink it often, it works with vigor. It truly gives you a boost and dramatically enhances your safety.
You might fear that getting off the caffeine and then drinking it sometimes will put you on that slippery slope again. In my experience, that's where the mindfulness comes in. You give yourself permission. Having one and not then caving-in to temptation - that's something to celebrate. It shows strength. Don't judge yourself a failure; you're a triumph.
Here are some specific tactics I have employed:
- Give up caffeine at a time when you're in control, not too stressed, or you're more likely to be able to make changes. A holiday is a good time. I gave up over Christmas and had zero caffeine intake for about 2 months.
- Prepare for The Headache. Accept it. It's a necessary part of the challenge. Take paracetamol if you need to, but live through the pain if you can. The memory of it can act as a deterrent. It's also a warning. Its presence a reminder that you're dependant.
- Keep off it completely for a good period. A couple of months is ideal. Only consider yourself ready to experiment with a mindful intake when you can honestly say to yourself, "I don't need this any more."
- Learn to enjoy good decaffeinated drinks. Actively enjoy a good decaf coffee. Don't think of it as a compromise; think of it as a treat. Learn to enjoy Rooibos tea or other caffeine-free alternatives. Make drinking water a mindful habit. Make a decision. Do it with intent. Make it a part of you and a testament to your strength. Make you control you, not your lizard-brain. Make that choice.
- Get plenty of sleep.
- Be mindful of how you feel during the day. Be aware of your natural tendency to sleep. Learn to notice it early so you can take measures to pull over if you're driving.
- As you become more aware of your own feelings, trust that you know yourself well enough to have caffeine when you know you need it. This takes courage and brutal self-honesty.
- If you know you need it, drink a regular sized, decent coffee. Don't go for a good coffee. You don't want to associate it with being a treat - something to look forward to. Save the treats for the decaf. A McDonald's coffee is a good option. It's not terrible and it's not great; it's easy to source and relatively cheap.
- Prepare for the caffeine rush. It can be quite strong and not unpleasant.
- Prepare to stay awake. This is the biggest problem I've faced. Since I now don't drink caffeine frequently (not more than once or twice a month) the effects of it work. If you're on a late night drive, you will stay awake and alert, but then when you get to your destination, you'll not be able to sleep, either. Plan for this and travel earlier if you can so you can avoid the caffeine altogether.
- Don't let one lead to another. You've deployed a coffee. Keep it at one to maintain its efficacy. If you need more, you're doing something wrong. Once you've deployed, stop. Learn to congratulate yourself on a successful mission accomplished. Treat yourself to a good decaf.
- If you notice a headache a day or two after drinking caffeine, it means you're still dependent. You should know this, anyway. Be honest.
- Talk about it with others. Accountability is a useful bolster.
- Carry some decaf drinks with you for those times when you need a hot drink but want to avoid something you don't enjoy, or is too sugary (e.g., hot-chocolate). Most places will give you some hot water for free (make a habit of dropping some pence into a tip jar or charity box, though). I usually carry around some instant decaf sachets, instant soup, and Rooibos bags in the car or in my bag. You don't want to use the caffeine just because you want a hot drink.
- Recognise when your will is weak (as with the previous point) and put in place mitigation. Be smart.
- If you buy a coffee and drink it in the car, also grab a water. I mentioned McDonald's earlier. They'll give you a large cup of water with ice with a straw in the top for free. Perfect for the car. No excuses. Do this to stay hydrated. If you're not feeling thirsty, you're less likely to crave another caffeinated drink.
- Keep going. You can do it. It's not even hard.
Does it work?
Yes, it works well. I've been 99% (to throw out a completely unsubstantiated number) caffeine free since Christmas. That's nearly five months. I have a coffee before a long, late drive and it's effective. I don't feel the need for more in the morning. After consuming a cup, I don't get The Headache afterwards. I enjoy a good decaf. I enjoy Rooibos. I enjoy lemon and ginger, and peppermint teas. I enjoy drinking water. My energy levels are predictable and mostly in balance - sleep is the deciding factor now, not caffeine.
Most importantly, I don't crave caffeinated drinks. I'm no longer addicted. Good discipline yields freedom. I don't get that feeling of somehow missing out if a drink doesn't contain caffeine. There's a sense of reassurance and safety I knowing I can use caffeine just when I need it. That's a definite boost to my quality of life.
I'd say that's a win.