May 20, 2013 in Personal Thoughts
The secret’s out, for those who didn’t already know! Yours truly is a drug addict –the substance of choice, C8H10N4O2 (caffeine, for short). Between coffee, espresso, diet soda, and tea, I habitually consume something on the order of 500-1000 milligrams of this substance per day.
This habit isn’t a typical morning pick-me-up. It’s roughly five to ten cups of coffee per day, every day, consumed at every hour of the day from the time I wake up until shortly before I go to bed. In the past, this addiction has been as bad for my wallet as it likely is for my health. However, this semester it was supported by my employer in the form of a free coffee/espresso bar operating all day, every day; my habit, then, operated on similar terms.
My relationship with caffeine dates back to fourth grade, when an experimental cup of coffee offered by my grandma turned into a performance enhancement. An avid rock climber at the time, I found that a pre-climb cup of Joe (or Mountain Dew) markedly improved my speed and endurance on the walls, though at the cost of reduced temper and increased anxiety (of little consequence to a ten year old). I leveraged this to improve my performance at competitions and practices, consuming my first energy drinks in fifth grade during a climbing competition for an extra boost.
The following three years, the frequency with which I consumed coffee increased slowly — first, in the form of espressos from a drive-up kiosk (on my bicycle) on the way to school, and later, with daily coffee consumption. Though I was unaware of its addictive properties at the time, I certainly suffered the effects of caffeine withdrawal in junior high on days I didn’t consume it. By high school, I became cognizant of the effect the substance had on my body, and I worked caffeine consumption into my daily routine; cans of Starbucks espresso, mugs of coffee or tea, and cups of insta-brew from the school vending machine began to be quantified in the number of caffeine milligrams I could expect rather than my qualitative enjoyment of the drink.
Through high school, I maintained this habit with astonishing persistence. I filled my water canteens with “Caffeine Water” (sold at Jewel-Osco for $1.99 a pop) at summer camps and smuggled Five Hour Energy shots into my caffeine-free drumline practice weekends. I made coffee at home in the morning and re-heated it after school, tiding myself over through the day with a few cups of instant at school.
The stimulant paid dividends. In my senior year of high school, I managed to pull straight A’s across two AP science classes (Physics C and Chemistry), Multivariable Calculus, Linear Algebra, AP Statistics, an independent study, and AP language. I was the section leader of two drumlines — one scholastic, and one independent. I led the school’s robotics team, revitalized its physics club, and was involved in at least three other extracurricular science teams. In college, I started a company and worked for both NASA and SpaceX before turning 21.
I point this out not to toot my own horn, but to acknowledge that the abuse of a stimulant can lead to extraordinary outcomes. Through high school and college, the high levels of caffeine pulsing through my veins gave me the focus and impulsiveness that enabled so many successes. However, it came at a cost.
My work was sloppy, and I was impatient. I lacked the dedication necessary to perform excellently on homework; instead, I quickly gauged the necessary level of attempt to achieve my the required grade. I solved engineering challenges using heuristics rather than mathematics, and routinely made mistakes in musical performance. At the time, this was an acceptable compromise to allow me to contribute so greatly to the things I cared about.
With an increased intake that accompanied my college years, the downsides of the caffeine molecule started to become more prominent. Fresh off of my earlier success and fueled by the ever-positive, heuristic-supporting stimulant, I began to experience delusions of grandeur that spread across most areas of my life. My love life became driven by fantasy, and my career increasingly insufficient for my perceived abilities. I saw school as a waste of my precious time, as I was convinced I had the skills necessary to solve some of the world’s greatest problems. Meanwhile, the things that truly mattered — meaningful personal connections, deep learning, quality work,and an appreciation for the here and now — suffered.
This was not exclusively a consequence of using caffeine. But the drug was a hell of a large part of it, and part that should not be discounted. That’s the reason why the first change I am making is to abstain from caffeine indefinitely. Indeed, today was my first day in almost a year to consume none whatsoever, and I already feel more peaceful.