Caffeine Withdrawal

There’s a tightness between my shoulder blades like some stubborn knot, and a weakness in my knees which feel creaky and slow. Worst of all though is my lower spine and my hips: that whole section of my torso feels fused and unyielding, every movement I ask of it is torturous, and sitting, standing, or lying still is worse.

How have I been reduced to this lumbering, graceless, pain-racked thing? Am I in the latter stages of recovery from a horrific motorbike accident? Perhaps my body has been invaded by some especially virulent strain of influenza: swine, avian, homunculus? No, and no - this is all because I didn’t have a cup of coffee this morning, or the last couple of days. Caffeine has been a habit for more than half of my life, and I thought it might be interesting to find out exactly what role it plays for me by cutting it out for Lent.

Day one I developed a headache: a persistent, dull throb behind my left eye which spread to the top of my skull. I’d been expecting that—anyone with a regular coffee habit will tell you that headaches are quite common if you skip your morning cup—and I’d stockpiled ibuprofen to help. It didn’t alleviate the headache entirely, but it kept it at a low ebb as it stayed resident through the afternoon, and the evening, and the morning of the next day. More then half of people who quit caffeine get this, and it was tough not to just go get a macchiato to make it stop.

I was also looking out for irritability and low mood, both of which I definitely noticed creeping in as the day wore on. That evening my girlfriend and I were trying to plan a trip and I found myself unable to concentrate on the details of travel arrangements and hotel rooms, disinterested, and yet annoyed at the lack of progress in our planning. I was also struggling to stay awake. At 8pm that first evening I had my eyes closed through most of an episode of House of Cards, and I was in bed by 9.30pm totally exhausted.

My energy levels bounced back the second day, though the headache continued - in total it lasted somewhere just short of 48 hours. I was also finding myself feeling really hungry earlier in the day than I normally would, and more quickly after eating. I started to regain the ability to concentrate, and my mood lifted, both of which I was thankful for, but the worst symptom yet started to come on in the afternoon of day two and is still with me as I type this on the morning of day four: the kind of pervasive musculoskeletal pain you’d normally associate with flu. I couldn’t get comfortable in my office chair, people looked at me weird when I tried to stretch out my hamstrings in corridors. Sitting meditation that evening was almost fruitless: although my mind was fairly calm the level of discomfort I was in on the cushion was too distracting.

Here on the morning of day four I’m convinced the headache is a thing of the past and I’m free of psychological symptoms, all that remains to fight off is this chronic aching. Painkillers don’t seem to be doing much, so all I have for solace is the fact that all of the articles I’ve read on the subject say that symptoms persist for a week at most.

Caffeine withdrawal is now listed in the DSM5 as a mental disorder, because its effects are severe enough to impair everyday functioning. If I had read that a week ago I may have found it difficult to believe, but just coming down from ~4 cups of coffee a day to none has been a real wake-up-call. It’s been a genuine shock to find out how dependent I was on caffeine for baseline normal function. It leaves me with a tough question about whether, once Easter rolls around, I renew my coffee habit. I enjoy coffee, I miss it, but I’m not sure how I feel about allowing a drug to have that much power over me.

Adam Wood @adam