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Coffee And Me: A Complicated Romance

This is a tale in two parts about how I quit, then subsequently un-quit, caffeine, and the glaringly-obvious-in-hindsight-yet-still-meaningful things I learned about my brain along the way. Come with me and find out some facts anyone with a passing understanding of even the simplest parts of neurobiology could tell you, all of which I found out after two separate month-long adjustment periods and a hell of a lot of arguably avoidable strife. It'll be fun!

Part 1: Oct 2015 - Mar 2017

A few months after I started full-time at BIG_COMPANY, I participated in a blood drive they were hosting on campus. This was nothing new for me - giving blood is one of my favourite forms of charity [1], and I'd done it roughly five times in the previous few years. What was new was something the technicians warned me about: my blood pressure was pretty dangerously high for an otherwise-healthy young adult male, around 150 systolic as I recall. I'd had problems with blood pressure (among other things) during my less-than-healthy (read: fat) pubescence, but this wasn't pudgy-short Jacob, this was just-biked-across-fucking-Europe Jacob! Something was clearly out of balance.

The staff took my blood, but not before warning me to get a professional opinion from a doctor. Conveniently, there was one near work, but instead of that I treated the whole thing as I would a bug and Googled the quickest way to fix the problem. One module-at-the-top-of-the-search-results later, I'd narrowed down the potential causes to the following candidates:

  1. Stress
  2. Alcohol
  3. Greasy Food
  4. Caffeine

I eliminated the first three as follows:

  1. I was currently the least-stressed I'd be in my entire professional life (at least at the time of this writing), because I was treating my job as I had treated my internships and the horrendous downsides of doing that wouldn't become clear to me for a few months yet.
  2. I'd already cut down harshly on my drinking a few months prior, and doing more would just hurt me socially at that point.
  3. Probably valid, but BIG_COMPANY food was so good, I'd rather just have the high blood pressure, thanks.

Basic deduction therefore left caffeine as the only possible culprit [2]. I may have already been considering this as the culprit before my extremely detailed research (read: a Google search which was lazy even by Google search standards) because at the time of the measurement I was drinking, on average, 4 coffees per day, half of which would be sugary varieties like Mochas. I knew this wasn't good for me per se, but until now I hadn't realized that it was actively bad for me. So I did the only reasonable thing.

I cut out caffeine. All of it, all at once.

I bet you're going, "Yeah, but you were drinking coffee again within the month, I bet." Keep in mind, I'd had a love-hate-abuse-quit-relapse relationship with coffee for the better part of a decade at this point, and this wasn't my first time "quitting forever", so even I had that reaction. But I was wrong, and so are you. I stuck to this dumbass idea for over two years, and I didn't even really feel tempted to break away from it until a few days before I did.

If you're wondering, here's my "Super Effective, Guaranteed to Work (Or Maybe Kill You In the Process) Cold Turkey Method For Quitting Caffeine" (patent pending), in case you want to reproduce my results:

  • Don't drink coffee. This may come across as obvious, but I mean all coffee. No decaf, no chocolate-covered coffee beans, nothing coffee flavoured. It'll just make you realize how much worse whatever you're consuming is than the real thing, and then it's all over for you. Hell, I even stayed away from tiramisu for a while, because I was so committed to this aspect.
  • Don't drink tea. This is a good rule for two reasons: first, a lot of tea is caffeinated to some degree (and hence kind of against the point), and second, tea is just worse coffee if we're being perfectly honest, which means we run into the same reasoning as we did with decaf.
  • Don't drink any hot beverages for the first month. This goes along the same rationale as the previous points, but is a hell of a lot harder, especially when you occasionally live in a cold climate, where the relief of hot chocolate is so tempting (luckily, I mostly avoided this by spending the first few months of the experiment in the land of unreasonable sun).
  • Switch to obsessively drinking water. Smokers and former alcoholics usually pick up a new habit to fill the void, so make yours a healthy one. It won't wake you up quite the same way, but you can pretend it does!

Last a month, and you're probably permanently good! Survive a trip over to a remote office in Great Britain where you don't sleep on the plane (as I intelligently decided to do) and are therefore a zombie for half the time you're away, and you'll probably forget coffee exists!

Suffice to say, my timing could have been better.

Nonetheless, I persevered, and stuck to my guns rejecting the one substance that had been a source of joy for me since my early teens. While it didn't actually end up lowering my blood pressure [3], I did notice an interesting range of effects:

  • As long as I kept my sleep schedule consistent, even if it was incredibly poorly-reasoned and unnatural [4], sticking to it was basically trivial because suddenly my energy levels naturally followed a static, unchanging curve.
  • My general anxiety levels, which had been middling for a few years at this point, dropped sharply and pretty much constantly stayed low. [5]
  • I was drinking a lot more water to compensate, and water's generally got a ton of good side effects (better digestion, clearer skin, lower heartrate, not dying of dehydration, etc.), up until the point where you're actually drowning and the only side effect is "water in lungs"

However, all of those things paled in comparison to the effect this whole thing had on my mood. If you've read any of my not-about-forks blog posts, you'll know I've suffered from chronic depression for pretty much all of my adult life. In the couple of years prior to this change, it'd taken the following general form:

  • A few months of barely affecting me
  • Then a month or so where it really affected me

This was bad for two reasons. First, it was unpredictable as fuck, so I had to account for both the possibility I'd be normal and the possibility I'd be barely functional when trying to plan pretty much anything significant (which was suboptimal to say the least). Second, the down-spike segments were progressively getting worse with each one, and I was handling them with unevenly successful methods even at the best of times.

Suddenly, it wasn't doing that. Instead, it looked like this:

  • A motivational lull lasting a few weeks
  • ...ramping up over the course of a few months...
  • a normal-ish level, lasting a few weeks again...
  • ...which gradually descends over a few months back down to the low

I'm not saying, "Quitting Caffeine Cured My Depression." (It really didn't.) I'm saying, "Taking A Psychoactive Substance In High Doses Isn't Always Good For Mental Stability." Quitting caffeine turned off the problems with my depression's cycle hard, making it less dangerous and more predictable all at once. Now, I knew with reasonable certainty when I'd be functioning like my normal self, and when I wasn't able to do that I knew roughly how long I'd have to pretend. Success!

This last reason is why I stuck with the whole no-caffeine thing as long as I did. Fuck getting up at 5AM reliably, fuck blood pressure, and fuck healthy consumption habits. Predictable mental states are my jam, son.

I didn't really see any downsides to all of this. It'd take a lot of shit to go down before I would.

Part 2: Apr 2017 - Dec 2017 and onward

I can hear you asking, "Why did you cut up the time periods like this? You said you stuck to this plan for over two years, but the first one is less than two years long. Plus the end of this part doesn't really make any sense since it's simultaneously a year ago and nonexistent, so what gives?" First off, that's a really detailed question, and I'm glad you're paying attention. Second off, I don't tell you how to do whatever you're doing right now [6], so don't tell me how to define my time ranges. Third, these time ranges correspond not just to my experiences to "everyone's favourite substance violating the 'I before E' rule," but also experiences in my professional life: in March of 2017 I left BIG_COMPANY and moved back to Toronto, and I joined SMALL_STARTUP a month later.

Then, in September, I got fired. Whoops!

I don't really want to detract from the subject by getting into this in depth (trust me, I've had a blog post brewing on that topic for over a year at this point), but if I can sum up some of the personal lessons I learned from all this, it would go like this: at SMALL_COMPANY, I'd spent most of the time unmotivated, easily distracted and slow to accomplish most substantial things, slower to communicate, and even slower to correct course on any of this. This didn't necessarily cause a toxic relationship with my superiors, but it certainly didn't help when one started to develop. [7]

Hmm, low motivation, low emotional energy, low mood? Why does that sound familiar?

Remember how I described the top level of the new arc my depression followed as "normal-ish"? Turns out, that "ish" is pretty important. Despite having a more-or-less even emotional temperment now, it had a lower centre than ever before, and was less resistant to things that dropped that further. (While maybe also being more resistant to factors that raised it? Hard to say.) I can think of a bunch of reasons why this suddenly became a factor when it hadn't been in the past:

  • Big companies have a lot more structure than small ones, and leaning on structure means that you always have a clear next step, so low motivation doesn't generally hurt as bad. [8][9]
  • Big companies have constant weekly check-ins and quarterly goals to hit. Smaller ones just expect you to get shit done without any of that guidance.
  • Being in a small satellite office of a small company means there aren't as many people around to siphon social energy off of [10], which I find recharges me despite being vastly more introverted than the general population
  • Things were kind of going to hell in my personal life, I was less fulfilled in my current role at work, and I'd stopped exercising and eating healthy the moment it became inconvenient, so a bunch of extraneous factors were pushing down on my mood really hard
  • Colder, darker climates are harder to function in. I know there's a term for that, but I'm not one to self-diagnose. [11]

Still, after all this, I didn't even consider going back to caffeine at first. Clearly it had been a factor, but despite it all, I was happier without it...


Fast-forward two months of moping, working out, and drinking heavily at a Cuban all-inclusive [12]. I've gotten back up, gussied myself up a bit, and interviewed around in the slightly sparse (and suprisingly interconnected) Toronto tech scene. In the process, I've narrowed my next move down to three offers I have on the table, and after several days thinking it over, one of them is pushing me for an answer, like, today. In trying to push my brain to function at high capacity, I realize that, while swimming passively along with my brain's natural currents is fine for some things, I need a surfable wave right now to get shit done. After struggling with the new meta-decision facing me for hours, I decide what needs to be done.

I need a coffee.

After wandering up and down Roncesvalles Ave in Toronto for a good hour, I go to a cute little Polish bakery near the South end of the road, and get a Medium Dark Roast [13]. After a few hours and several whiteboards of Pros and Cons later [14], I'm able to make a decision [15].

Thank you, blessed caffeine.

After this, I grab a cup every few days, finding comfort in the lightened version of my old routines. Later, when I start at the job I selected, I ramp up to my old two-to-three-a-day habit. I then have to tweak this slightly, because I got old and now can't sleep properly if I drink coffee after dark. (Human biology: it sucks sometimes!) Apart from that, I've stuck to the new schedule pretty much unchanged since, with occasional rest days to let my brain chemicals reset. In the process, I've noticed a few things I thought were negatives, but are actually subtle tradeoffs:

  • Remember how I said I didn't get anxious anymore, but my general mood was lower? Turns out, you sort of trade one against the other: higher energy and higher volatility naturally go hand in hand
  • You also make a tradeoff on how you want your energy levels: even but predictable, or not-necessarily-predictable but available-on-demand. The first one is better for planning around, the second is way better at reacting to the unpredictable. BIG_COMPANY was fine with the first, but startups really need the second.
  • At the same time, the mood stability didn't really go away. Maybe I was just jumping to conclusions and shouldn't have been making assumptions during a time when I'd recently been super depressed
  • Fun fact: you can drink coffee and water! No need to quit your vice for that, you can glean the benefits of both at the same time!

So where does that leave us? Well, it's 11:30pm on a Tuesday and I had to stay up late the night before (fucking New Years, worst holiday). Without coffee, I'd be unable to do anything more than browse my phone in bed (or, y'know, sleep). Instead, I'm writing this conclusion to an article that I've been meaning to write for months but never got around to, and I have a late-afternoon Mocha to thank for that. What we choose to put in our bodies is always some kind of tradeoff: food that's healthy is often devoid of joy, alcohol makes people bearable but the next morning less so, and most of the other things we enjoy just serve to hurt us in some way or another. Caffeine is no different here. [16]

It really just comes down to a choice: do you want to ride the waves or try to guide them?



[1]: It's free, relatively quick, and metal as fuck. Plus they give you a cookie and juice!

[2]: Basic deduction would end up being wrong. When I did eventually go to a doctor about all this, the cause they deduced was that I get mild anxiety from medical procedures (like, say, having my blood pressure taken), and that was messing up my vitals. Turns out, the internet is no substitute for good healthcare. Go figure.

[3]: See point 2. I'm only a few rungs above people who rely on WebMD.

[4]: It was. Partially to keep more-in-sync with the East coast (where my family and girlfriend lived), partially to avoid horrendous Bay Area traffic, and partially just because, I'd committed to being out the door by 6AM every workday, and I managed to keep that up the entire time I lived in SF. Nowadays, the mere idea of that baffles me, and I sometimes can't get out of bed at 8AM. Brains are weird!

[5]: In retrospect, a) this should have been an obvious consequence, and b) this really should've tipped me off to [2] a lot sooner than it did. Whoops.

[6]: Despite the fact that I can hear you ask this, I can't actually see what you're doing. My apologies.

[7]: Another big factor, which I will mention despite being besides the point: I joined SMALL_COMPANY not primarily because of the people or the tech, but rather because they were located in SF, along with my social circle, but were opening a satellite in Toronto, where I was moving. Whenever asked for reasons why I joined in interviews, I absolutely struggled not to mention this one first. Pro-tip: logistics is not a good main reason to join a company.

[8]: I'm generalizing a bunch here, obviously, and learning to self-structure is a huge thing I picked up from this experience, on top of everything else.

[9]: There actually was a time where low motivation almost fucked me over at BIG_COMPANY, but I didn't connect that to this until...just about now?

[10]: For most of my time there, there was one other person.

[11]: My depression isn't self-diagnosed, for the record.

[12]: Some of which were healthier than others, obviously.

[13]: Sadly, I think this place has gone under since I moved. One time, they had what I would go on to describe as some of the most perfect croissants I've ever experienced (and I know my croissants). The next, they had the crappy ones that are basically just dishonest bread. I'll chock their failure up to the croissants.

[14]: Sometimes I'm more of a stereotypical engineer than I mean to be.

[15]: I'm still at this company at the time of this writing (just over a year later), so it could have been a worse decision I guess?

[16]: Also it cannot be stressed enough: THE INTERNET IS NO SUBSTITUTE FOR A MEDICAL OPINION

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