Caffeine, Part 3 of 3: You Are the Terminator

“As the excuses line themselves up…ask, “Why am I being cowardly in this moment? Why am I being a sissy?” It’s a bit of twisted psychology that rattles the cage and invokes passionate reaction.” -From the Chapter, “Quiet Courage,” from the third edition of “Work the System: The Simple Mechanics of Making More and Working Less.”

If you’re looking for ways to break an idle habit, lose weight or get beyond some kind of obsession, a first inclination is to drill into an intense Google session. In doing that, you’ll find plenty of mind-tricks and manipulations, but here’s the thing: For success, there has to be something substantial underneath the particular method, a recurring strength that will see you through.

It’s too often lack of fortitude that causes us to fail. To get to the root of things we need to submerge into the depths of the process – below the techniques, and into the system machinery – and talk about internal strength.

For those of you who have read my book, you’ll understand that quitting any addiction is a huge system improvement, the system being your body and your mind.

I have a tendency to be blunt (when rooting down into the simplest explanation it’s often where one ends up. Sorry about that, you politically-correct enthusiasts) and so, not surprisingly, I have a simple and abrupt theory about strength: Presuming all the relevant facts have presented themselves, every tough decision – or refusal to make a tough decision – comes down to whether one has a backbone or one doesn’t have a backbone. So when there is a challenge the question to ask is this: Do I have a spine or don’t I? Think it through: This has to do with marriage, divorce, cleaning the house, making that extra sales call at the tail end of the day, fulfilling a promise, standing up for oneself in a confrontational situation, being patient with a child, or enlisting in the Marines.

Here’s a further impolite pronouncement: Our soft Western lifestyle can cause an individual to underestimate his or her own internal strength. There’s the incessant demand for feel-good properness: the soft social warning to not offend anyone, and the sheer peer-group pressure that stymies us from making personal judgments. So taking a personal stand has everything to do with individual fortitude. Understanding the western anti-judgmental bias for what it is, is incredibly liberating: It’s OK to make personal judgments. It’s OK to decide caffeine is a drug and not a cultural ceremonial sacrament.

So here we are. In quitting caffeine (or alcohol, or painkillers, or whatever), it comes down to:

1. Having a plan, and…

2. The moment-to-moment backbone to deal with the withdrawal unpleasantness until the unpleasantness goes away.

With caffeine withdrawal, the immediate task is to get past the craving/depression/headaches in the shortest period of time. This is the heavy lifting. At first, it’s time that is the enemy, but then time becomes a friend. It’s in the very first days of withdrawal that one is most apt to fail. But later, as significant time has passed since a last ingestion, the better chance one will succeed long-term. Strength builds over time.

Quitting technique #1:
Put your chin out there and go cold turkey.

First, get through one day without any caffeine whatsoever. That won’t be so tough because this new approach is exciting. It’s the 2nd through the 21st day that are killer. The headaches are real, the depression is colossal and the excitement has devolved into coping with the decidedly difficult side-effects of withdrawal. Here’s the thing I found out about time becoming a friend: I carefully counted the days I was caffeine-free. By the time I got to four days there was much less chance I was going to ruin my accumulating accomplishment by “just having a little sip.” It’s precisely the same mind-methodology used at Alcoholics Anonymous where one gets a small coin for each year’s successive success in staying clean.

Here’s how it went for me: first it was day, then a week, then a month with zero intake. Then two months. By this time I had seriously marginalized the craving. There were occasional weak moments but most of the time I really, really didn’t want to drink any caffeine.

And what about the headaches? They aren’t going to kill you. Per the people who know about such things, the only withdrawal that can literally end your life is going cold turkey from heavy alcohol or opiate addiction.

That’s it! Keep score just like they do in AA. Build a day-by-day record and congratulate yourself at the end of each of these caffeine-free days…but you’ll always remember that you want to break the addiction, not become a monk. You may have been addicted, but unlike alcohol and other dangerous drugs, caffeine is relatively benign so your abstinence doesn’t necessarily mean “never again.”

Remember that the depression of withdrawal is not your normal mental state. Although in the moment it’s smack-up-against-the-head real, remember it’s a phony depression. Your personal life in not unraveling. Your anxiety is occurring because your body is screaming for relief from the withdrawal. Therefore, in these weak moments be careful: It is this false mental depression that will connive you into a cuppa. Power through. Things will get better as time proceeds.

When can you feel you’ve truly broken the addiction? I’d say when the occasional cravings disappears altogether. If you are heavily addicted, this can take some months.

Quitting technique #2:
Tapering. Get yourself a dozen Starbuck Refreshers. Refreshers are small canned coffee drinks. Aim for having just one a day. Refreshers contain about 50mg of caffeine which is a small fraction of a regular cup of coffee but plenty enough to knock the edge off the early morning craving. Note that your morning coffee shop “small black” can contain 150 mg of caffeine, but you can go back to that same shop in the afternoon and that identical small black coffee could contain over 500 mg. The caffeine content of brewed coffee is wildly unpredictable. You need consistency, not unexpected shocks. The metrics matter: Consume small precise amounts as you wean yourself. You’ll be at zero intake, or very minor intake, in probably six to eight weeks. As you continue to imbibe at a low level, the cravings will continue for a while… (BTW, you can find Refreshers at Costco in 12 packs for $1.00 each, 30% of what you’ll pay at Starbucks…).

Expect problems with sleep for awhile, maybe several weeks, going to bed early and waking up in the middle of the night. Ultimately this will pass and you’ll find yourself sometimes napping in the afternoons and otherwise getting more sleep each night (and as we’ve discussed, getting enough sleep is critical for mental acuity and physical endurance. See Part 1 of this series). You’ll love the incredibly deep delta-sleep that occurs just before waking in the morning. Remember dreaming as a child? How vivid they were? That sweet coma-deep slumber doesn’t happen when one is addicted to caffeine, alcohol or any other drug.

There are other strategies to make the transition easier: Exercise. Yoga. A long walk. An afternoon nap! And keep this in mind: There is caffeine in Diet sodas, tea, chocolate, candy, yogurt, puddings, cookies and various other small delights. Fast food, too. Don’t kid yourself. You should consider reducing the ingestion of those, too. Also, through the weaning process, thorough hydration is important.

Let’s talk again about the future: After the initial break-the-addiction phase, there is no need to treat your quitting effort so dogmatically, wallowing in a perpetual 12-step struggle. The endless abstinence will become an obsession in itself. Yes, coffee is one of life’s small pleasures and the occasional dose of caffeine isn’t going to kill you. OK, another hint: Once the addiction is defeated, avoid having caffeine two days in a row because it’s the daily-repetition that will deliver you back into addiction. Two consecutive days of consumption easily stretches into three days, and so on. And remember that when addiction is in full swing, it’s hard to have just-a-little coffee/coffee drink. Once one starts a cup intending to drink just a few sips, the entire amount is mindlessly ingested and a second cup magically materializes.

You want to get to the place where you don’t need the caffeine-drug. And 0nce you break the addiction, you’ll find that tiny amounts of it give you the same lift you used to get only with massive quantities. That’s a very good thing because the negative impact will be that much smaller.

Like so much, it’s about control. (And, of course, having a backbone is a prerequisite for seizing control).

Get tough. Relentlessly forge ahead day-by-day until you reach your goal. “One day at a time,” as they say in AA….

So, do you have other bad habits that annoy you, recurring negative systems that you would like to dismiss from your existence? One at a time, separate them from the rest of your world, develop a simple plan, and then go after them with a vengeance. It’s about isolating your problem and then hammering it into submission. You are the one in control You are the terminator….

In breaking my habit the first time, back in 2000, I watched myself closely and remember it took nine months for the craving to totally stop. After that, I went another nine months without any caffeine at all (or for that matter, alcohol). But a cold-turkey-forever stance isn’t my cup of tea. I seldom drink booze and don’t do drugs, but dammit, I’m not dead.

What are your thoughts about all this? Are you firmly entrenched into caffeine addiction with no hope of breaking free? Or, are you happy with your habit and absolutely committed to the early-morning ritual? Or maybe you have no habit at all and don’t touch the stuff? I’d like to know your thoughts. -sam

Recommended Reading: Caffeinated, by Murray Carpenter. It’s balanced and thorough, as it looks at the pluses and the minuses. Carpenter ends with a thank you to the caffeine that allowed him to finish the book itself…Regarding sleep, get the classic books No more Sleepless Nights (Hauri and Linde), and/or The Promise of Sleep (Dement). These are older volumes but they’re still dead-on. As you can imagine, there is a slew of books on the topic of sleep (including the predictable, Sleep Disorders for Dummies). And of course, a Google search will provide endless information.Part One of the caffeine seriesPart Two of the caffeine series

Part One of the caffeine series: Scratching the Itch
Part Two of the caffeine series: Life Cold Turkey