On Moderation (re: Alcohol) (re: Caffeine)

On Moderation (re: Alcohol) (re: Caffeine)

One night last week, I woke up at 2 AM with a pounding heart and an uncomfortable tightness across my chest. I went through a lot of sites on my iPad that I hope I never have to visit again, and all of them said GO TO THE EMERGENCY ROOM RIGHT NOW. I suppose I should have, but it seemed so unlikely that I was actually having a heart attack: I’m in my 30s, I’m not overweight, I don’t smoke, I bike everywhere, and I don’t have a family history of early heart problems. Then there’s the fact that my self-purchased health insurance has a $5,000 deductible, which means that an emergency room visit could save my life and/or obliterate my savings.

So I waited, and survived, and scheduled a physical the next day. As I suspected, thanks to the biking my heart is more than healthy—so WTF? I speculated that my family history of anxiety might have something to do with it; multiple people on my mom’s side of the family are or have been on anti-anxiety medication. The doctor, though, was more interested in the fact that I was downing at least 15 drinks a week—usually packed into three or four nights of going out—and about four cups of coffee a day. “I’d cut the drinking way back,” he said. “It’s not good for you. And cut the caffeine down to zero.”

Zero? He shrugged. “It’s giving you unpleasant symptoms,” he said.

I’m not convinced anxiety wasn’t part of the equation (my friends, who admittedly have a bias via enjoying hearty doses of alcohol and caffeine, agree with my diagnosis), but that sleepless night was no fun, so I decided to take the doctor’s orders and go easy for a while. I had, after all, been wondering whether I was cruising for some kind of nervous-system bruising, revving myself up and down like a yo-yo.

It can be hard to tell when too much is too much with both alcohol and caffeine, because they’re both so woven into everyday life, and both so loaded with social and emotional connotations. This blog proudly celebrates the joys of boozing, and one of my cobloggers suggested that maybe I give myself too much guilt about what’s certainly a significant but hardly an unusual amount of drinking. “You worry that you’re doing something bad for yourself.”

Am I? Well, the doctor said so, and my dad—who loves his coffee, but rarely drinks alcohol—agreed. “I think it’s the drinking that did him in, more than the coffee,” he said confidently to my mom, pointing to me, when I reported the results of the physical.

Then there’s the go-go-go coffee culture. At the Java House in Iowa City, the baristas wear t-shirts that say, “Sleep is a side effect of caffeine deprivation.” Coffee isn’t supposed to hurt you—it’s supposed to be there for you in times good and bad! Imagine a recovering alcoholic or a person trying to quit smoking, and you probably imagine a cup of coffee in his or her hand, a promise of renewed life and vigor. How could coffee turn on me?

A week later, I haven’t given up either coffee or alcohol, but I’ve been drinking less of both—and damned if that doesn’t feel pretty good. Over the three days when I waited to see if the symptoms would recur and avoided caffeine and alcohol entirely, I was surprised at how my energy level followed the same progression—burst in the morning, sag in the afternoon, burst at night—even without me spurring it along with my accustomed doses of coffee and, on many nights, beer. In some ways, my experience resembled Becky’s experience when she gave up smoking: you know you’re going to save time and money, but you’re surprised to find how freeing it is not to always be worrying about how and when you’re going to get your next fix.

I’ve since come back to coffee, taking it slowly and thinking of it as a treat rather than a necessity. I never didn’t enjoy coffee, but now I really savor it, sipping my way slowly through maybe two cups a day. Yesterday I walked to my local gentrification station and bought a cup of coffee made with this ridiculous single-cup vacuum-pressure device that took about ten minutes to set up and run, while the barista lovingly explained every step of the process. This is meant to be something you enjoy, I thought, something you think about drinking. And I did, both.

Then last night I went to a dance night that’s infamous for its generously poured and dangerously affordable two-for-one drinks. When I went two weeks ago, I’d had a beer at a show beforehand and then had two two-for-ones of my favorite IPA. I mean, if you’re there for like three hours, that’s only a beer every 45 minutes—which doesn’t seem like a lot, but it was enough to force me to pause, the next morning, from writing a review of that show to puke in mid-sentence. I felt very ill, but also very Hemingway. See the problem?

Last night when I went out, I didn’t do any pregaming, and I just had one twofer, drinking the beers a little more slowly than before. I had a great time, and I came home, slept well, and woke up with a clear head.


Jay Gabler