What happens when you crave coffee, but you no longer are able to enjoy it
By Jessica Gonzalez
In light of the global celebration of International Coffee Day on Tuesday, October 1, as well as the recent passing of National Coffee Day in the United States, coffee shops, stops, and brands have all made the event nearly impossible to ignore. As if coffee wasn’t already consumed in excess, steals and deals will be advertised and available to masses. Free, discounted, and limited edition coffee will be celebrated by many millions in the U.S. – except for those like me. Watching others indulge in a luxury I cannot enjoy has evoked a deep sense of FOMO. Less than a year ago, I went through a pretty rough breakup with coffee. Though leaving this two-way toxic relationship behind has proven beneficial for my physical and mental health, there is still a small, bittersweet hole that remains unfilled by the changes I’ve made in my daily life.
The symptoms of a heart attack include cold sweat, fatigue, nausea, and the obvious chest and arm pain. I sat on the edge of my bed repeating this to myself, resting my hand over the spot on my chest where the familiar burning sensation would often originate. The back of my head still pulsed where I had hit the day before. The nurses in the emergency room assumed I had hit it on a counter because of the bruise pattern. I couldn’t remember. No one knew for sure. I braced myself against my nightstand and stood slowly, feeling my lower back and hamstrings stiffen with soreness while I recounted my objectives for the day. Flitting pieces of my to-do list whirled around my mind like flurries in light snowfall, nearly impossible for me to synthesize into one coherent plan. I dressed, brushed my teeth, and packed my bag in one mindless motion before floating downstairs to the table in hopes of organizing my thoughts. I stopped in the kitchen doorway as a warm, welcoming smell pulled the sun from behind the clouds and poured all of its golden light onto a full pot of coffee.
I dropped my bag under the kitchen table and strolled toward the Black and Decker beauty like I was running into a lover’s arms on the beach. Just as I closed my fist around the handle, the love scene eroded into shreds of burnt film as images of EMTs and bright lights from the day before made me withdraw my hand as if I had touched a hot stove. Ghost sensations of the burning, that would surely grow into a cramp if I indulged in what my mom called “black crack,” vibrated between my shoulder blades and into my underarms. I felt my shoulders slouch as I, instead, turned to the fridge for some almond milk. I turned on the largest burner and prepared to make eggs in hopes that protein could substitute for caffeine and clear the cobwebs. My mother sat in her usual corner at the kitchen table, stirring her freshly poured cup, eyeing me. I could tell by the dark circles around her pitch black eyes that she had not slept. I perked up and began cracking eggs into neat circles in the frying pan, trying to seem as well and alert as possible. My brother, stepdad, and uncle filed into the kitchen, each taking their turn pouring from the fountain of hopes and dreams until the entire first floor smelled of Folgers French roast. I sat down with my plate and sad cup of almond milk and looked up to see six coffee-colored eyes on me. “Have some bread with that,” my mom said, pushing the loaf until it was practically on my plate. I felt my mouth curl in disgust but I could tell by the lines between her brows that this was not a debate I was going to win. Everyone watched silently as I pulled a slice out of the bag like I was pulling a chunk of hair out of the shower drain. I poked at my eggs and glanced around the table. The scene was a stark contrast from a mere 24 hours before.
Sitting around the table, enjoying coffee with my family was the only part of my morning routine that I actually enjoyed. I remember the first time my mom served me a cup while I was slumped over the same kitchen table going over my planner. I had just started the sixth grade and was adjusting to having an assignment for each class rather than just one for the day. “Quieres café?” she asked. I shrugged and nodded. She placed a mug in front of me as she sat down with her own before asking “So what are you doing in school today?” And that’s how it started. My family and I would gather around the table and go over our agendas, subconsciously mapping out how our day was going to go. I had coffee a few times when I was younger, as I was a well-tempered child and my mother saw no reason to say no. She’d pour about two ounces into a cup and dilute it milk. When I tell other people this, I receive looks of confusion, shock, and sometimes horror. “Giving coffee to a five-year-old?!” I respond by comparing it to soda, pixie sticks, or other toxic foods deemed safe for children to consume. Coffee is like water to Latinos. It contains more antioxidants than green tea, and it tastes better too. We have coffee every morning, when we have guests, after a heavy lunch, when grieving, the list goes on. It competes with white rice in essentiality within our diet. So it’s no wonder I continued into high school and, of course, in college.
My second-favorite thing about my roommate, Kelly, was that she would always fire up her Keurig as soon as her alarm went off. My first favorite thing about her was that she’d always place a fresh cup on my desk before going to her 7 am lecture – bless her heart. After snoozing my alarm for the fifth time, I’d lay in bed and pat my hand around my desk until it came across the hot cylinder that encased my motivation to finally get up. My years at Elizabethtown College were a particularly hard time for me, mentally and emotionally. Though it was once the college of my dreams, one I worked hard to get into since the ninth grade, I quickly began to feel homesick and lonely shortly after moving on campus. I didn’t fit the demographic of students coming from generations of upper-class, well-educated families. I didn’t have an on-campus clique like other students coming from Wilmington Christian or some other private school. I managed to make three friends total in my three years there; the roommate assigned to me freshman year, whose name was also Jessica, Kelly, and Christoph, a German exchange student who was just as lost as I was and still managed to collect a much larger group of friends. I was too far from my family to see them most of the time, so I spent the majority of my time alone watching Netflix or doing class work. Not only was I able to complete the crippling course load of psych classes, math, and biology in a Tasmanian devil-like fashion, but sipping coffee while playing my mom’s favorite songs in the morning made me feel closer to home and reminded me that I did have a place. I did belong somewhere, even if it was far away.
To fill the gaps created by separation from those closest to me, I spent as much time with my friends as I could. I attended every game, group-study, and shopping trip, even if I didn’t need to buy anything. I felt myself light up when my phone pinged with a group chat notification, signaling to meet at Folklore Café on Main Street where we would study, talk about how exhausted and stressed out we were, and, of course, drink overpriced coffee. I clung to each word said between us and grabbed another cup when it was time to go. I began drinking coffee at night to console myself. Kelly recommended herbal teas or hot cocoa, but it just didn’t feel the same. Dried grass and chalky powder didn’t trigger the same memories as the precious beans I had come to obsess over. I was in no way able to afford any kind of counseling so coffee served as an alternative, a little talk-therapy session with myself. I could feel my whole head grow warm as the reward centers in my brain sparked in response like a dead car that had been jump-started. I began carrying my travel flask wherever I went, filling it between classes even if it wasn’t yet fully emptied. I began skipping cream and sugar to avoid extra calories and possibly dulling the effects of caffeine. Black coffee silenced my grumbling stomach as I relapsed back into the eating disorder I had struggled with since before I was a teenager and gave me the energy that I refused to receive through proper nutrition. It was only after watching me crawl out of bed like there were pins and needles in my bones that my saint of a roommate began leaving cups of mercy on my desk to at least mobilize, if not stabilize me. In fact, my consumption of coffee began to make just about everything in my life as unstable as it could get.
Before introducing me to any new person, idea, or event, Kelly would ask “Have you had your coffee yet?” to which I would reply with either a manic nod, or a slow turn of my head to glare at whoever or whatever had intruded on my dramatic ruminations. Without coffee, I was far beyond unpleasant. When I had my fix, I was just as bad, but with more pizzazz. Caffeine added dark humor to my sarcasm and a glow to my eyes that contrasted from the dark circles that grew darker with each sleepless night.
My family barely recognized me when I returned home in the spring. My mother made a point to spoon a heaping pile of white rice onto every plate she served me and would shove a paper bag stuffed with pan dulce into my chest, demanding I take hold before leaving to work. I remember tracing the sugary swirls on their tops while taking inventory for the corner store I worked at. While I added the monotonous ticks and checks on an order sheet, the television began to blare as it seemed someone had turned up the volume on the entire world. The blaring was slowly overshadowed by a ring in my ears as I the felt heat rise from my belly to my throat and the floor vanished from beneath me. When I opened my eyes, I was looking at a shaking, yellowed cork board ceiling. As I came to, I realized it was not the ceiling that was shaking. My boss’s voice came slowly like it was traveling through water. I narrowed my eyes on his furrowed, bushy gray brows as I began to sense his hands on my shoulders along with what I can only describe as a fiery cramp in my chest. The events that immediately followed remain a blur.
I received a call from my doctor the next day and another call from a cardiologist the day after. My normal blood pressure was 90/45 and my fasting blood pressure was even lower. Years of on and off relentless calorie restriction and incessant caffeine consumption had eaten away at my war-torn heart as it was struggling to pump blood from my legs into the upper half of my body. I was, under no circumstances, allowed to consume any kind or dose of caffeine. I was placed on an event monitor and would pick at the itchy electrodes as I laid in bed, allowing bowls of food to collect around me. Without my trusty side-kick, I was practically useless in those first few weeks. I had just enough energy to shower and remove the dishes from my room. Caffeine withdrawal supplied me with the irritability necessary to argue with my mother over the untouched food bowls.The re-feeding process goes deeper than food for a recovering anorexic. Learning to eat is learning to relinquish control of your body by taking control of your mind; learning to feel your emotions without running from them or reaching for something to dull them. I had stop using my body as an emotional punching bag and take it seriously when it signaled a need for external support. I started eating breakfast again, and finally took Kelly’s advice on hot cocoa.
After returning home and opting for an educational environment in which I can thrive, I developed a love for hot cocoa with cinnamon. I keep crackers and pretzels handy, should I see any sparks in my peripheral vision and reach for them as soon as I feel my heart rate increase, even slightly. I check my pulse whenever I feel ill or stressed, even though my cardiologist assured me I should be fine as long as I take care of myself. I’ve made changes to my routine to take as much pressure off of my heart as possible. I do yoga to destress and gently restore my cardiac muscles. I elevate my legs in the evening while I complete my assignments, as come morning I’ll be catatonic.
I still have a deep love for coffee, and secretly indulge in the leftovers after everyone has left to work, adding a splash of my poison to a full cup of almond milk. It tastes almost exactly like the glass pints of Starbucks coffee sold at any convenience store, though now it gives me the same rush as three full black cups once did. Now, if I have more than half a cup, my thoughts race and my limbs shake as I experience stimulation overload. As a result, I’ve come to prefer alternatives. I’m currently making my way through every strange, organic, non-GMO, vegan, banana-root tea in Folklore’s obnoxiously overstated menu while being pleasant company, for once, to Kelly on the weekends. I attempt to replicate these items at home, tweak them so they taste less like fertilizer, and enjoy forcing my family to try them. Sometimes it’s a hit, like the first time I made chai tea. Other times. they nod and slowly drift out of my sight with their mugs, certainly looking for the first convenient place to dump them out. I don’t let them weasel out so easily. They know they can’t avoid me for more than a day. The next morning, just to mess with my brother I wait for the perfect pause at the kitchen table to say “Did anyone else get as sick as mom’s aloe plant from that cranberry tea?.” I joke as his eyes dart from me to my mother, watching six coffee-colored eyes narrow on him.