How One Freelance Copy Editor (Mostly) Quit Caffeine

Caffeine drives much of the freelance world past earthly limits to help solo workers of all stripes crush deadlines. So why would I part ways with this magic molecule?

ONE YEAR AGO TODAY, I had my first virtually caffeine-free day in longer than I could remember. By “caffeine,” I mean three Diet Cokes or cups of coffee each weekday, and easily double that on some weekends. From these jittery heights I pared back to a mere 8 ounces of home-brewed green tea per day as the liquid base of my post-gym smoothies, which remains my current dose. Compared to my earlier intake, that’s abstinence.

To many freelancers, parting ways with caffeine, and especially the black blood of the bean, might seem an unforgivable heresy and warrant that I surrender my work slippers. But shortly after I opened my freelance writing, editing, and proofreading business, I noticed unexplained physical symptoms recurrent and serious enough for me to record them daily to discern a pattern. A spot of Google fu placed the blame on caffeine intake, which I realized had expanded considerably. With nobody to watch me go to the company fridge for a new can of Diet Coke, or to click their tongues as I took yet another bathroom break, my three-a-day habit had grown. Adding coffee to the morning mix further boosted my daily dose until, by my estimate, I was reaching well into a few hundred milligrams of caffeine. No wonder I was filling a notebook with things like “nervous,” “rapid heartbeat,” “difficulty concentrating,” and “irritable”!

When these symptoms recurred in 2010 after I’d relegated coffee to weekends and enforced my three-cans Diet Coke policy, I began investigating ways to kick the aggressive alkaloid to the curb for good. Thus armed, I began my program on September 27, using these tips and tricks:

• Tapering vs. cold turkey: All of the more credible guides said that cold turkey was a jagged slide to Hell. Instead, I bought bottles of Caffeine-Free Diet Coke, and replaced one third of each 12-oz. serving every couple of days. This is where freelancing helped; measuring out precise dosages of cola from a pair of bottles every few hours at a full-time job would have made me look, at minimum, like a displaced soda jerk mixing a phosphate for some Coolidge-era sharp in a straw boater. Or, more likely, a nut.

• Kicking Diet Coke immediately: To break me of the taste of my main drug at once, I swapped out Diet Coke for Coke Zero as my caffeine vehicle of chose these final few weeks. I wanted to end the thrice-daily sensory experience of it immediately, and I find Coke Zero vile (apologies to John Scalzi).

• Public accountability. At the risk of boring my Facebook friends to death, I posted each day’s progress, any new lower dose, and anything else related to the experience, so I could get some fans for the effort.

The dreaded caffeine headaches were far briefer and less intense owing to the tapering strategy; my previous attempts at swapping 100% decaf for hard stuff failed for this very reason. I found myself having oddly detailed, vivid dreams early in the process, perhaps because the residual caffeine, Nutrasweet, and other chemicals were finally draining from my system. I also began waking up earlier than my alarm and the sun, and found a definite drowsiness setting in earlier in the evenings, once I reduced my dosage past 2 servings per day.

One challenge came early: What to order at restaurants? I’d been so predictably a Diet Coke man that friends would order it for me if they arrived early to a bar or were seated while I was still parking. I had to stop myself from reflexively reaching for the bottomless sodas and refills that some places served. Instead, I learned to order water or, eventually, seltzer, which at least added bubbles and some flavor if I remembered to ask for lime.

But the awkwardness passed as the supply of Coke Zero in my fridge dwindled. By mid-October, I’d reached the days of a single, 4-oz. dose along with the caffeine-free soda. My last serving was on October 16, and before posting that I was at last free, I poured the rest of the Coke Zero down the sink.

And again, “free” is a relative term. I do still add a cup of cold green tea to the berries, ice, banana, and protein powder I down each morning after gym trips. The caffeine is negligible—no headaches on those few days when I’ve had to skip the smoothie—and the benefits of the antioxidants outweigh whatever the lingering stimulant effect might be (if it’s even discernible when I’m waddling around the apartment swilling straight from the blender pitcher after doing squats).

Two big benefits of the switch away from Diet Coke in particular. First, I’m hauling out a lot less garbage. Twelve empties every four days, plus the odd brace of drained 2-liter bottles if those happened to be on sale for a cheaper per-ounce cost than cans (I had a junkie’s sense of where the cheapest deals could be had at any given supermarket chain, scanning circulars and making rounds to stores like William Burroughs scrounging heroin across 1940s New York City), made for many trips to the Dumpster each week. Second, with the end of the recyclables, my bank account gained: I estimated that between sodas consumed at home and on the road, coffee beans, and mealtime caffeine at restaurants, I was spending over $400 per year on the stuff. Believe me, a starting freelancer can find far better uses for four spare C-notes than the Coca-Cola Corporation.

I don’t miss Diet Coke, but I do miss coffee. I miss the scent, lingering for hours after I’ve made a pot of java. I miss the ritual, buying a brimming bag of fresh beans from Whole Foods, spooning them into the grinder, and smelling the grounds before sifting them into the filter. I felt the same sort of gap in my day as someone quitting a far more harsh substance, like nicotine or worse, might struggle to fill. In my considerably less serious case, however, the gap was quickly filled.

By sleep, in fact. I now have a definite fence around my day, as sleep—no longer driven further into the night by extra cans or cups of caffeine—taps me on the shoulder on a more consistent and urgent basis. It’s forced me to plan out my freelance days, placing detail work like proofreading earlier in any given day so my eyes and mind are freshest and least weighted down by fatigue. My mid-2000s poker nights would be impossible now, as are the day (and night) trips to Atlantic City, during which the return trips were buttressed by stops at Dunkin’ Donuts or a last call to the poker room cocktail waitress for a cup of joe to travel.

My last Diet Coke purchase was in March 2011. I was volunteering in Jersey City on the final night of the WFMU Fundraising Marathon, a stint that would have me in the hallowed halls of America’s finest freeform radio station well past midnight. I snagged the 20-oz. bottle while driving down to the station, for medicinal purposes in case I found myself too tired to drive safely. In this one case, I told myself, if I had to crack the seal, to keep myself from nodding off and putting my car through the front of a Home Depot or into the Hackensack River, it would be justifiable, like amoxicillin for a sinus infection.

That bottle, still sealed, sits in my apartment today. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted to down the bottle to mark today’s occasion if only to see what the effects would be. Or instead, to buy a coffee from one of our better indie joints and enjoy the flavor while grabbing hold of something solid as the buzz hit. But I declined. Instead, the bottle stands as a testimony to a minor triumph of behavior, one small success while I was radically revising many other aspects of my work and life.

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