Confession: I have recently started to drink coffee. I know- I only started to drink coffee at eighteen years old, and am a complete novice to the entire concept of coffee. However, I find myself surrounded by several questions, thoughts, and situations of dependence on the subject.
My relationship with coffee, or rather all things caffeinated, began on March 22nd of 2012. I got back from school (I was a seventh grader at the time) around 4 pm and decided that I wanted to try some green tea. About 20 minutes after having one cup, something completely bizarre happened. I began to feel tingly across my shoulders and chest, and lost feeling in my fingers and toes. Before I knew it, I was lying across a couch, unable to move anything, including my lips and eyelids. The ambulance was strapping me to a bright yellow stretcher and explaining some drugs that they were going to inject in my right arm. All I could think about was my mind being a separate entity from the physical self.
In the most dramatic of ways, I discovered that caffeine had some pretty strong effects on me. It increased my heart rate so that oxygen could not get to my cells, forcing my body into panic mode. Knowing this reaction, I avoided caffeine at all costs. Now, trace amounts of caffeine, like those found in decaf coffee or chocolate, did not trigger the reaction. But a cup of coffee, black tea, or coca cola was enough to send me back to the hospital.
I survived through high school without an ounce of coffee. Every time I wanted to try it, for standardized testing, college essays, or early morning extracurricular events, for example, the fear of a panic reaction made my decision for me. In many ways I envied the added bonus people got from caffeine. At the same time, I wondered how effective all that coffee could be. Both of my parents are addicted to coffee, and that addiction has severely limited them. For example, if my parents do not have coffee the minute they get up, they cannot remember any of the daily responsibilities they will have. I relished in the fact that I would not have that problem in the foreseeable future.
After four semi-successful years of High School and a summer to transition into college life, I went to work. To all those addicted to coffee around me, I would describe the caffeine problem that dictated how much energy I would have each day. One day, I was describing it to a particularly indifferent person. After I explained what happened on that March afternoon, he exclaimed, “Drink coffee! I need a reason to drive two hours south to the hospital.” The comment was mostly meaningless, as the location of my summer job was perhaps the worst place to experiment with my reactions. It still got me thinking though.
I arrived home from the job with a week and a half before college, and extreme sleep deprivation. Alone in my house, I rashly decided that I would try caffeine, and downed three cups of earl grey tea. To my surprise, and relief, nothing happened. Did this mean that my allergy to caffeine was gone?
When I arrived at college, I told myself that I would only have caffeine when I needed it. As it turns out, I needed it a lot more then I would have liked. In fact, I feel like I need it all the time. In additional fact, I just had two cups of coffee, which spurred the idea and motivation for this post…
So now, after this long back story, I want to use my experiences with coffee to address some larger issues that coffee, caffeine in general, and mind-altering substances demand.
How do substances alter who we really are? Is coffee a drug just because it is so widely used? How are we changing our natural capacities?
So first, let me start off with how I have observed coffee in my own life. As a freshman in college, there are two chief goals I need to be aware of. Both involve getting settled in. First, my goal is to become academically stable. Second, my goal is to become socially stable. Both have required some sort of dependence on coffee.
Academically, I am extremely interested in my life at college. As I wrote about in my post prior to this, I am an environmental science major. The fact that my school allows me to declare my major in my freshman year is extremely beneficial to someone like me, who likes to know her direction before beginning projects. When designing my schedule, I tried to limit how many academic credits I took so that I would not overwhelm myself. However, upon arriving on campus, I discovered that if I wished to succeed in my chemistry class, I would need to take a supplementary course. Quickly, my schedule grew to include weekend classes, four hour physical education, and approximately 400 pages of reading a week. This did not include extra writing assignments, time with friends, discussions with parents, or even time in class. The first time I felt truly tired, I had coffee as a remedy. I immediately noticed that I could work more efficiently and longer, and swore that I would use this new tool when I needed it. And after two weeks here, I have definitely needed it. When work piles on, I immediately resort to coffee. Because I spent so many years without it, however, my body requires less. One cup will get me through twelve hours of intense focus. This morning, I have accidentally had two cups (as a product of my inability to measure correctly), so I will probably be up all night. (Oh joy?)
Socially, I struggle more. As some strange mix of ambivert and introvert, I generally enjoy time to myself. I can securely stay in my single, walk to my classes, and study without interacting with a single person. And this, in many ways, denies the core goals of any college freshmen orientation. We are now living amongst ourselves constantly, and colleges understand that people need to become familiar with the faces that surround them. I personally retreated to the friends from my high school when I arrived on campus, finding it easier to interact with people with whom I had a history. But there were cases when I did not know anyone from my high school. And in those cases, instead of meeting new people and being social, I retreated into my own personal corner of journals, blog posts, and environmental policy books. However, this is not the ideal way to deal with situations in college. Students need to be social at first because everyone is new, and the only way to get to know people is to interact. Fortunately, for me, coffee was the solution. One day during the first week, I knew that coffee was the only way for me to get through my classes. I had stayed up late and would have to get through another day. I proceeded to my classes, one of which was a discussion, and noticed something very different. I was so ready to talk to people, and had so much to say. I did not think as much about what I said, but verbally communicated almost everything I was thinking. For me, this is dangerous territory. I can become very verbose very quickly, if anyone who reads this blog could not already tell. But in some ways that is an okay-ish quality to have in the first weeks of university. I have found that when I drink coffee, I meet more people, am more decisive about how I continue in conversation, and actually remember the people I meet.
So, given my personal experience with coffee, how have you perceived coffee’s effects on people? They seem pretty positive at first glance. And yet, the statistics (and allergy) that kept me away from coffee for so many years still exist. According to Wikipedia (which is where I obtain all of the general information for which I might care), coffee’s impacts on human and environmental health are confusing, or at least miscommunicated. A plethora of studies argue with one another, claiming coffee’s either carcinogenic nature or its negligible long-term health impacts. At the same time, coffee’s increasing trendiness in the form of Starbucks, local coffeehouses, and “coffee connaisseurs” has made the coffee bean devastating for sustainable agriculture. Although frequently fair-traded, coffee is acidic, and therefore its plantation (especially in large quantities) can lead to soil acidification. Although in many tropical countries where coffee is frequently planted the soil is already acidic, further acidification harms the long-term health of the soil.
In addition to coffee’s unclear impacts on humans and the environment, coffee has huge societal implications. Again, according to Wikipedia, coffee emerged as a stimulant in Ethiopia in as early as the 17th century. It was popularized in European nations, hence the tradition of Italian Espresso brewing. Indeed, coffee has been around long enough to have significance in nearly every culture, and was by every means imperative for the process of globalization. Its stimulating nature led to longer, better workdays in all economic sectors. Both factory workers and bankers could do more on the same amount of sleep and food, which before coffee were main sources of energy. And today, that reality continues. 40% of people between 18 and 24 years old report drinking coffee everyday. And then there are the people like me, who have recently started drinking coffee, have not been surveyed yet, and do not drink coffee everyday but are still becoming increasingly dependent on the substance. It is served in every college dining hall, corporate office, and kitchen. And although more people are becoming aware of alternative sources of caffeine, the idea that substances improve cognitive and social behavior is accepted and almost completely relied upon.
Of course, none of this is new. Coffee is one of the most interesting beverages because, as a legal substance, it has qualities distinctly similar to drugs people would never imagine using. Its stimulating nature makes it somewhat addictive, and also renders it useless after one drinks it frequently enough. The second half of this post, in contrast to the first, therefore identifies the drawbacks of coffee consumption.
After writing, I really do not know how to reconcile the benefits and consequences of drinking coffee. If coffee really is at the foundation of increased productivity, should we be thankful that we have coffee? Or has it justified our cultural addictions? Is coffee just an acceptable drug? Can its impacts on human neural function be equated to other drugs, and if so, what are the consequences of its pervasiveness in our culture? How are our obsessions with coffee harming the environment? Can our soil deal with our dependence, and how have recent coffee trends undermined or supported sustainable movements (such as fair trade, for example)?
Is this blog post even possible without coffee? I know that the answer is no. And yet, I think, or at least hope, that the success we have achieved as humans could happen without coffee.
Is coffee a symbol for the distance that modern development has placed between us and our natural selves?
I ask you to think of that question especially. The length of this blog post serves as a reminder for the scenarios in which coffee places people. On one hand, it increases our academic and social capacities. And on the other hand, it forces us to reconcile our natural capacities for substance-stimulated capacities. Are we ready to trade what we are born capable of doing for what coffee, or any mind-altering substance, can let us experience?
The answer is unclear. But it is worth asking.