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How I learned to stop worrying and drink coffee already

A caffeine newbie tries not to lose his mind

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Until about a month ago, I had never in my 31 years drunk a cup of coffee. I'd sipped, I'd brewed, I'd sat in dank basement coffeehouses chain-smoking for hours with friends. But never a proper cup. I've always maintained fond memories of the faint morning scent of boiling water passing through low-grade robusta beans—my dad downed that dreck every morning—but drinking the equivalent of what tasted like a stomped-on pile of damp leaves has always struck me as pretty objectionable. And large doses of caffeine make me fucking crazy.

Close to 80 percent of the country's population consumes caffeine on a daily basis, and of all the caffeine ingested, 71 percent of it is coffee, according to research cited by the University of Chicago's Emma Childs and Harriet de Wit, of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience. If each coffee drinker stuck to just two ten-ounce cups of Dunkin' a day (which, let's get real, is a drastic underestimation), that's about what it would take to fill enough mugs to get you three-quarters of the way around the earth. I don't really get it, but how could I? Studies and common sense have revealed that coffee dupes you into craving it, not only through ritualistic allure but through physiological dependence. "Caffeine produces mild stimulant effects upon the brain and body by blocking the effects of adenosine," says Childs. "Therefore, indirectly, caffeine increases the activity of the central nervous system and enhances alertness, concentration, and energy."

Caffeine in fact mimics adenosine, a chemical the body produces that tells you to slow down. But instead of sending your brain's A1 receptor the memo that it's time to conk out, as adenosine does, caffeine tricks you into thinking you've got more juice left in you—like that enabling friend who shoots you a late-night text to meet at the Continental. It's the 4 AM bar of neurochemical poseurs.

I turned my back on the stimulant early on, following an obscene Mountain Dew intake that forced my cracked-out teenage brain to escape my skull and float off to distant neverlands (never mind that it also produced a state of incessant worrying about what that girl thinks of me). It was hardly a sensible trade-off for the promise of higher productivity and increased wakefulness.

After nearly 12 years without the stuff, though, I began to wonder whether adding caffeine to my diet would produce more of the hyperconcentration I sought and less of the shattered nerves I feared. Plus I wondered if Intelligentsia was really that great. I wondered if my life would improve as a result of being able to legitimately hang out in a dimly lit craft coffeehouse and pretend to read the New York Times. I wondered if I'd be tempted by pour-overs, grandes and ventis, espressos. I knew I was probably doomed to exacerbate my smoking habit, but to hell with it; I need more vices.

So I embarked on a controlled experiment (though I admittedly had no real idea what I was doing). I spent a little over two weeks cataloging my physical and psychological shifts as I eased myself into coffee, caffeine, and the surrounding culture. And then, once I was fully addicted, I kept drinking it, because, well, I had become addicted. I began at the ground floor, choking down Folgers instant, and worked my way up, through gas station coffee, Dunkin' Donuts, Starbucks, and mugs of Metropolis—hopeful that by initially subjecting myself to the worst, I would more quickly be able to appreciate the best. I eventually visited the craft slow-drips and French presses of an enthusiastic and extreme community of roasters that's rapidly setting up camp across the city. (Based on gasps and looks of bewilderment, most were in shock when I explained my prior coffeeless existence.)

It was a test of dependence and productivity (and anxiety), a test of how my sometimes-fragile mental state would handle both a steady flow of caffeine and the sometimes-overwrought coffeehouse environment without imploding on itself. After having ingested somewhere between 25 and 30 cups of coffee, I arrived at two hard-and-fast conclusions: one, drinking coffee is a simple and effective way to jolt yourself into coherence each morning, and two, coffee works as an excellent facilitator to finishing the story you're reading at this very moment.

DAY ONE: The best part of waking up?

Folgers instant coffee's freeze-dried crystals are concentrated shards of caffeine reliant on the amount of boiling water they're immersed in. Less water, less dilution. A modest six-ounce cup probably yields between 50 and 60 milligrams of caffeine, or nearly twice what's contained in one 12-ounce can of Coke.

And guess what? This tastes like shit. Actually it tastes more like the back of my tongue has been coated in a cigarette pack's worth of tar and dragged across a freshly trampled tennis court. How can something so tasteless taste so rotten?

In goes one teaspoon of sugar, which flattens the flavor and makes it tolerable to gulp. Then I foolishly opt to pair my first cup of coffee with an inaugural listening of Swans' album The Seer, a dark and formidable three-LP behemoth of goth, no-wave, and postpunk that would be better accompanied by a plague of locusts than some Folgers at my kitchen table on a chilly fall morning.

As the album peaks and dips—interspersed with chanting and other haunting repetition—so does my brain. I know the brain is floating in cerebrospinal fluid (no I don't, that's a lie . . . hat tip, Google), but the sensation is that of a half-inflated helium balloon struggling to float higher than a pair of outstretched arms.

And I feel nauseous.

DAY TWO: A caffeinated pile of sad

Today is an upgrade to a ten-ounce Dunkin' Donuts—the definition of "upgrade" being relative. A buck and a half to singe my tongue and walk back to the office spilling hot liquid out of a flimsy cardboard cup because of the oversize sleeve I hastily applied. I have no grasp of coffee protocol.

Also, because I enjoy suffering, I unintentionally planned this brilliant experiment to coincide with the implosion of my Cincinnati Reds in the NLDS, an experience I get to witness in the middle of a day at work. The approximately 130 milligrams of caffeine is doing nothing to assuage my nerves. Yet the taste of the coffee has lost some of its stank—presumably because this cup, compared to yesterday's, is less concentrated—and now smacks more of cotton balls soaked in novocaine than of hot, wet trash.

The Reds just lost and this coffee just went tepid.

Adding to today's hell, I'm sleep deprived and hungover, and the caffeine is making it feel like my eyelids are being pulled off my eyeballs—keeping me hyperalert and hyperirritable—but all I really want to do is go back to bed . . . or (shame) eat Arby's curly fries at my desk.

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