One year ago this week, I had my last proper cup of coffee.
My decision to quit caffeine began with sleeping troubles. As I've aged I have become more and more sensitive to coffee - when I was 22 I could have a cup at 5pm and still be sound asleep at 11pm. Increasingly, I needed a solid 12 hours to get the caffeine out of my system. Last year, I finally realised I slept most soundly when I'd not had my daily double shot at all.
However, being kept up at night wasn't the solo reason for quitting caffeine. Many scientific authorities - including New Zealand's Medsafe - confirm coffee's laxative potential. While it doesn't affect a lot of people's bowel stimulation, from personal experience I found it to undeniably cause me regular (emphasis on the regular) discomfort. That's right folks, I'm not afraid to say it. Caffeine gave me the trots.
Of course, there was also the caffeine dependency issue. If I had not devoured a cup of coffee by 10am, I would start to feel like Jennifer Aniston without a tanning bed. Like most people, I required coffee to function. But unlike most people, I wasn't comfortable with that addiction. I saw it as a drug; something that took hold of me. Just like Jennifer, I needed to break free.
So one Sunday last winter, I went cold turkey. I visited my favourite café for one last good latte, and then said I'd try being caffeine-free for a month. This also meant no black - or even green - tea. Definitely no Diet Coke, Red Bull, or Kombucha.
Despite the drug withdrawal symptoms I was expecting, the first week wasn't spent feeling like Lindsay Lohan does a few days into a court-ordered detox. I felt tired for the first few mornings, but every day it became easier. Only three days of minor headaches. By the end of week one, I had successfully kicked the dependency to the curb. I was waking up sprightly every morning without the need for stimulants.
However, the social ramifications were more challenging. Café culture is a way of life in New Zealand. Unlike in America where coffee is something you grab to go from Dunkin' Donuts every morning, the routine of taking 15 minutes a day to sit in an exquisite AllPress or Supreme coffee house is part of the Kiwi experience. Whether from a café on Cuba Street or Ponsonby Road, or at a tearoom in Cheviot (how does that tea-lady make such a killer cuppa?), coffee is part of who we are.
I would still ask friends to meet for "coffee", despite having no plans to drink the stuff. Instead, I'd compromise and order peppermint tea - a fine beverage, but something you realise is overpriced for daily café consumption. Hot water and a teabag is not worth $4 in any part of the world.
I fibbed before when I said my last proper coffee was a year ago. There has been one follow-up cup. About six weeks into my experiment, I decided to try a proper caffeinated latte again. I felt I'd efficaciously let go of my dependency, and could probably manage one or two proper coffees a week from then on.
But, within ten minutes, my hands started to shake. I was so energised I felt I could punch through a wall. And I had an awful, nervous feeling that took two hours to wane. All in all, the experiment failed. No more coffee for me.
I went back on the peppermint teas but for months was un-satiated. It felt like being on a continuous diet - like I was going to Murder Burger every day and ordering just a salad.
Five months in, a friend suggested I try decaf. I once met a barista with "Death Before Decaf" tattooed on his arm so I was naturally dubious. However, decaf tastes much the same as caffeinated coffee - perhaps only slightly more bitter. With a proper espresso expert at the helm, I now can't tell the difference between the real deal and the beans rinsed of their caffeine.
For half a year now, I've been back on the café circuit, drinking a decaf latté a day. I've been able to regain the cultural sense of coffee-loving I missed out on for so many months, but am no longer reliant on a drug to get me through every morning. Nor do I need to run to the loo an hour after I leave a café.
The occasional coffee companion scoffs when I order my decaf. "What's the point?" they might say, inferring, "If it's not caffeinated, it's not worth it". Oh, how lucky you are to drink coffee at night and still sleep, I ponder. By the by, the fact you throw away one in three coffees you're served makes you a snob, not a connoisseur.
I realise I can't call myself a coffee aficionado. But I can honestly say I have no plans to go back to caffeine. I'm getting my fix. It just happens to be a fix in flavour and atmosphere, not something trapping me by way of physiological dependency.