Ok, Ok, I know you’re thinking “She’s a trainer and fit, what does she know about quitting?” And I would say to that, every single individual has stuff they’ve worked on, are working on and will work on, myself included. So today I wanted to talk about my own addiction to coffee. I managed to make it all the way until my senior year in college without touching the stuff, but then Black Gold and I started a life-long love affair.
After college I moved to NYC, where the caffeine might as well come out of the pipes instead of water. Then it was on to Vancouver, BC, where Pacific Northwest, X-Files type climate sends everyone running for the nearest cafe and tanning salon. Next it was Los Angeles, which can hold it’s own to any big city in terms of excellent gourmet coffee! Twenty years ago when I began my career as a personal trainer, I had to adapt to the odd work hours. I am on when everyone else is off. That means I was hitting up the local corner bodega at 6 or 6:30 am every day just to forcibly rev myself up to be able to cheerily whoop ass. Lunchtime would roll around and I’d like to indulge in a second cup, this time, for the ritual, that is to sip the bitter, chocolately goodness with my feet up, enjoying my moment of peace. But then it would be time to head back to work around 5 pm and a third dose to keep me going for a few more hours, was often in my hand. Once while hanging on the couch watching an old western in which there was a scene where the cowboys were boiling coffee over a campfire and pouring it out into tin cups, I almost wanted to lick the screen the coffee looked so enticing. I know what you’re thinking, and you’d be right, “Addict!” That was my first whisper to myself.
But I justified to myself, “I have so few vices, what does this little one hurt?” It wasn’t until I returned to my cardio workout after being sick for a week, where the coffee had been replaced with chicken soup and orange juice. When I put my heart rate monitor on, I realized my resting heart rate was 10 beats lower than normal. That is SIGNIFICANT! And I thought, “Whoa, I don’t want to be a slave to anything and certainly not to something that’s affecting my adrenal and thyroid glands or my heart and lungs to such an extent!”
The first thing I did was give myself six months to kick the habit. Even though I was thinking about it daily, I was kind to myself as I realized, I was going to fall off the wagon…repeatedly. Next I set myself the goal of trying to go every other day with just one cup in the morning. The plan being to skip the second cup at lunch. The first few weeks were spotty. Three days in and I’d have a long schedule and I would cave to the craving. BUT I didn’t throw out the game plan because I wasn’t completely successful in those first few weeks. I would average maybe, two days a week where I had just one a day. And I considered each of those days, a major victory. In a couple weeks I was definitely able to go one a day every other day and manage 7 days a week.
So then, it became “Can I go two days in a row with only one a day?” And the same struggle as before happened. But eventually I went from one successful round per week to the whole week being a perfect match. Suddenly, I got to a point where I would be just a few sips in to my allocated lunchtime coffee and it would taste bad to me and I would’t want it. And it would sit there smooth and cold until I would just dump it out.
Why was this strategy successful? First, I gave myself a realistic and generous amount of time to accomplish what I wanted. If I had tried to go cold turkey or even in a month, after almost twenty years fueling a “two-a-day+” habit I would have failed. Psychologically I needed to give myself the best shot to feel successful. Secondly, I knew at the outset that I would fall off the bandwagon and I gave myself permission for there to be short lapses. But I never lost sight that the daily game plan was taking me to where I wanted to go.
Secondly, addictions have a chemical foundation as well as a psychological one. When a substance floods the system, be it nicotine, sugar, caffeine or cocaine, the body responds by sending receptors to bond with the incoming substance. Ironically, your brain realizes after the fact, that there was too much of the incoming substance, so in an effort to protect you it reduces the number of receptors. In the hopes, that the next time if the system is flooded there just won’t be as many bondings and the excess will not be absorbed. Of course, dopamine, the resultant “reward based mood boosting hormone” is connected to the receptors. If I want to achieve the same temporary euphoria I have to flood the system even more in order to get the same number of receptor response as I did the first time. This becomes a vicious cycle, where you have to keep consuming more and more to get the same effect; meanwhile your body is chemically changing itself to try to cope. Hence, while I could drink three cups of coffee, counting one right before bed and still sleep just fine.
Most addictions have a social “friendly” component to them, and I was just as susceptible as everyone else. When co-workers would want to go get coffee I wanted to go with my friends, but I knew that if I did, I’d end up binging on black! Consciously, knowing it was only until the cravings were curbed, I would not go to the shop with the gang. Instead I would go sit in the sunshine, call a long-distance friend for a few minutes or catch up on personal emails. In a few weeks, especially, when I also began to calculate how much money I was saving by not having a deluxe drink every day, I knew I was ready to try to go with the gang again. This time, I didn’t want the coffee or some other replacement beverage. I was content to just hang with the crew; that was enough reward.
The social ritual was indeed part of my day that I found relaxing. So there were some moments that I kept and still do. On Saturdays and Sundays, while living in California, I would swing in around 7am to my favorite cafe, get a regular latte and head to a long beach walk with my dog. I recognized that this ritual was in fact something good for myself. If I had removed it I would have felt completely restricted. The body does NOT like restriction. Psychological studies on the elusive subject of “willpower” have proven that it is a substance that exists in extremely small proportions for the majority of people. In other words, if you love eating cookies all day but you decide to starkly clean up your eating habits and suddenly cut out all cookies from your day, what tends to happen is that if you are successful in that extreme rigid goal, you are likely to binge elsewhere, like going on a shopping spree, or boozing at the bar. A balanced approach is more gentle and the body has time to mentally and physically adapt. http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/willpower-limited-resource.pdf
If you have a monkey on your back, you can absolutely do something about it. If done with consideration and kindness to yourself and practicality in your approach, you will be successful…guaranteed!