Last week, I gave up coffee.
It's been a long time coming. For a while now, I have noticed certain tragic side effects of my most beloved vice: a certain shakiness and paranoia, after my second coffee, and a sweet-natured tag team of splitting headache and nausea in the event I have a coffee at any point in the later afternoon. But suddenly, in the last few weeks, coffee turned on me altogether. Just one cup would leave me shaking and incapacitated, rabbit-brained, next to useless.
I have had coffee every day of my life since the age of thirteen, with the exception of last December and a month when I was nineteen and backpacking through the backcountry of the Olympics. I started in eighth grade, during a production of The Miracle Worker (Blind Girl #3; I was awesome, and put my entire soul into my single line, "Helen, don't go!"). I had a terrible crush on the lighting tech, who was four years older, made me XTC mixtapes, told me I should get stoned and synch up Dark Side of the Moon and the Wizard of Oz, and once took me to a Middle Eastern restaurant down the street from the theater, where we drank two pots of Turkish coffee in a row. By the time I got home I was seeing double and the world was spinning. I didn't sleep for two days. And that was it; I was in love, not with the lighting tech (who would go on to make out with Blind Girl #5, who always came to rehearsals in crop tops and practiced her modern dance routines in the green room), but with coffee, which I drank black every day for almost twenty years.
Like most people I know who are, or who are trying to be, artists, I am not the most stable person in the world. Though the Rejectionist presents a cheery and unassailable front to the world, the person behind the Rejectionist is something of a hot mess of neuroses, with a rare and remarkable gift for self-sabotage: the kind of person who (more than occasionally, less than often) wakes up at four in the morning and has to go sit on the couch and sob, so certain is she of her total lack of talent, the futility of her efforts, and the complete pointlessness of her existence. But what if those voices are simply another kind of vice: not something written into my blood and bones, but a nervous habit, a crutch, a stand-in for the often far more terrifying work of making art.
It's easy to let our addictions define us, come to be a kind of shorthand for our selves. I was always a Coffee Drinker, something larger and more freighted, as silly as that sounds, than someone who likes to have coffee in the morning. A Coffee Drinker, with twenty years of history in every cup, from pretentious coffeehouse poetry readings as a teenager to working at the most pretentious coffee shop in New York as an adult (you want tiny hearts in your steamed milk, I can do that). A person who Knew About coffee, who Loved coffee, who once considered getting a tattoo of a coffeepot pouring out the state of Washington (with apologies to Replay Dave, wherever you are, and your coffeepot pouring out Florida; and with the caveat that obviously Real Coffee Drinkers use a Chemex). Sometimes, dear Author-friends, we all fall into the trap of deciding we are very neurotic, because that's what artists do: doubt themselves, suffer, drive themselves crazy with obsessive circular thinking (this book is terrible who will read this terrible book because it is terrible).
We get addicted to chemicals, but we get addicted to habits, too: to people, to places, to loves, to daily rituals--even those rituals that are a litany of self-hatred. Letting go of addictions that no longer serve us is so much more difficult than just quitting, because it is also letting go of a part of ourselves that, for better or for worse, has come to define us. Learning to give up a love that is doing you wrong--whether it's a love for a person or a love for a state of mind--is one of the hardest lessons you can learn as an adult; it's also one of the most valuable. I don't have to drink coffee any more than I have to check my email three hundred times before getting to work on the real business of writing, or spend whole nights telling myself if I had what it took I would be there by now. Wherever that mythical country of "there" is.
So: think about quitting. For me, I'm starting to think of that voice in my head as a bad habit like any other. And, dear inner critic, if I can quit coffee, I sure as hell can quit you.