April 9, 2019 by lucieromarin
I used to drink instant coffee. I was in my twenties, then, and my palate couldn’t distinguish between freeze-dried granules, freshly-ground beans or the grainy ‘hot chocolate’ I got for fifty cents from a vending machine outside Fisher Library. I had at the time a disturbed flatmate who used to make us (me or one of our other flatmates) drink tea. “Just one more cup – just one more cup”, she would say, until the victim of the day was finally able to escape. Her tea was terrible (cheap bags in too much water, steeped in a mug) but I learned to love it in self-defense, and instant coffee faded from the picture.
During my early thirties, coffee re-appeared…as medicine. I was at the time subjected to frequent migraines – by which I don’t mean ‘bad headaches, poor me’ but migraines proper. I took so much aspirin that I gave myself tinnitus, and was annoyed when I told the doctor about it, and he said, “Yes, in the medical profession we used to say ‘give them aspirin till their ears ring.’” (Apparently no one thought to mention this during the years and years I presented with migraine, but anyway). A friend, also subjected to routine migraine, told me about coffee. It was magical. At the first symptom of migraine, I’d drink that cup (and it was still a rubbishy instant) and the thing would dissolve – sure, maybe I’d be a bit nauseous and enfeebled for a while, but the migraine would go. I’d been warned about coffee being addictive, so I kept the jar in my medicine cabinet, which worked a treat. It was both literally and figuratively shelved as medicine, so I never needed to drink it in between times.
Then came the workplace bullying. For three terms (the same terms, I might add, that included my beloved friend’s passing and the priest/paramour betrayal) I worked in a school where the bullying was so awful that I would wake at four o’clock each morning and throw up. At first, I tried self-soothing with a cup of tea before school. It didn’t work. The one coping-mechanism I found was buying a fancy takeaway coffee and drinking it at the top of the road, looking at the city view, before I headed into the playground. After just three terms, I was a coffee-drinker.
Is there such a thing as an addiction that never gets worse? Mine certainly did – not overnight, of course, but gradually. At the time of the bullying, breaking my journey from home to the site of woe by visiting a café to see a community and interact with folk who weren’t going to yell at me had psychological value beyond the biological value of the caffeine. And somehow, whichever synapses learnt to fire self-soothing messages at me via this ritual have not yet been able unlearn this. What’s worse, those synapses need the product to become purer and purer to achieve the same result. Recently, I travelled interstate. Before nine a.m. my first morning, I had bought, tasted, and thrown away three flat whites from three different cafes, because none of the coffees were ‘good enough.’ Only then did I really realise that something had gone too far.
It has taken me years to understand that the addictive thing is not just the deliciousness of a quality bean, the speed that caffeine lends to my work or the clarity it gives to my prose. The ritual itself is the drug. Born as an act of self-preservation, buying a coffee and drinking it from a disposable cup tells some part of my brain, “You will survive today.” And that ritual must be performed in whole. Buying a coffee in a keep-cup doesn’t give the same reassurance; even less does making a plunger coffee at work still my anxieties.
I am grateful for my coffee-won cessation of migraines, but that victory has its price. Recent days have caused me to think more about the things I renounce for Lent or Advent, about why I choose as I do, and about the difference between loving something and being owned by it. While I’m unlikely to be suddenly overcome by the urge to found a religious order and live in sandals and sackcloth in the Western suburbs, there could be any number of reasons where my spiritual life calls me to greater renunciation than I practice now. And what do I do then? Say, “Sorry, God, I can’t embrace this or that change because it would mean living without coffee and my traumatised neurons will get too upset”?
The interesting thing is that if you’d asked me two years ago why I drank coffee, I’d tell you the migraine story. A year ago I would have added the workplace detail to explain the increase in frequency of consumption. But I could not have explained the no-keep-cup or no-office-brew quirk. I couldn’t explain why berating myself for the waste of money, or damage to the environment, or complicity in slave-labour, couldn’t keep me off my drug for longer than a fortnight, and that’s because I hadn’t understood the role of the ritual in the addiction. Only when you see how and from what your habit is trying to protect you can you begin to let it go.