Is there an invisible line separating coffee drinkers from everyone else? Sound preposterous? I used to think so.
I spent the first thirty-odd years of my life uncaffeinated. As a youngster, I had a sensitive palate that put me right off sodas, let alone coffee, so I all but missed out on caffeine. It wasn’t until later in my working life when I developed a taste for coffee. At the time, I was struggling to stay alert through multi-hour meetings and my workplace provided an unlimited supply of java for free. So I went down to the cafeteria, loaded up a cup with enough cream to mask the bitterness and gave coffee a try.
Right away, I knew I had found what I needed. I could feel my drooping eyelids start to peel back. Sitting up and following the meeting became easier. Distractions became less distracting. The little brown bean made a huge difference in how I felt at work. Before long, I had my own favorite coffee mug, along with a coffeemaker at home and a brand of coffee I was fond of. Now a morning without coffee is, while not inconceivable, something of a letdown.
Caffeine, at least in my experience, makes a noticable difference in my disposition. On coffee, I’m a little more tense or tight. I feel like I need to be doing something even if there’s nothing in particular to be done. Without coffee, I’m fine going with the flow. The to-do list can wait.
My subjective experience on caffeine is typical. Caffeine is documented to improve alertness and mental focus. At a biological level, caffeine’s major neurological effect is to block the action of the neurotransmitter adenosine. Adenosine, when not being blocked by caffeine, signals the brain that rest is needed. The feelings of sleepiness we get towards the end of a long day may be in part the action of adenosine. Caffeine, rather than actually waking us up like an alarm clock, simply quells the sensation that now would be a great time to get some rest.
Looking back at my pre-caffeinated existence, I think there is a distinct “caffeinated mindset.” Just as sober people don’t usually enjoy being around drinkers, the caffeinated have the propensity to look down on the uncaffeinated as inattentive and unmotivated. This has happened to me several times in my own “before caffeine” (BC) era.
I remember a middle-school history class I attended first period in the morning. The instructor was excellent, and while I can’t say I was entranced with English history at the time, I liked it well enough. However, my instructor had a serious problem with my demeanor in the class. While she was kind, she told my parents in no uncertain terms that something was getting in the way of my performance.
Her hypothesis was allergies. And certainly, I did sniffle and blow my nose nearly non-stop that term. The allergist confirmed I had an outsized case of hay fever and put me on antihistamines. While my breathing improved, I don’t recall a lot of academic progress. My theory is that my instructor most likely took coffee in the morning while many of my classmates pulled on sodas throughout the day. Compared to their keyed-up baseline, I was the odd man out.
Later, in university, I volunteered to help a professor with his Psychology research. I was and am enthusiastic for the subject, yet during our morning meetings I was quiet and apt to yawn. Meanwhile, my professor, likely on his second or third cup, was bursting with ideas and possessed a stern determination to complete and publish his work.
Our differences in emotional tone did not go unremarked. Despite my morning lethargy, I was attending to him fully. Yet he was unconvinced, given my outward appearance and slower rate of speech. More than once he offered me coffee, which I declined. Undeterred, he insisted I splash water on my face in order to wake myself up and more closely match his tenor. I humored him and did my best to match his fervor. My professor and I were on opposite sides of a caffeine divide, and I’m sure we would have interacted more smoothly had I simply accepted his offer of coffee.
Today, coffee belongs in my morning routine as much as a shower and a fresh change of clothes. As a result, I’m alert, focused, and a bit driven. As a father and a practicing counselor, I am grateful for a morning boost that helps me stay on top of all the responsibilities of the day. And yet I wonder if I haven’t lost something as well. My daily cup of “logical and linear thinking” helps me do one thing without distraction, but have I taken a hit in the creativity department? Or what about humor? I wonder if I’m being slightly impatient with the uncaffeinated and sometimes fail to empathize with their unhurried state of mind. Unfortunately I can’t have it both ways, at least not at the same time. Perhaps someday I’ll quit caffeine and once again the coffee clique will wonder why I’m not like them anymore.