How I’m dealing with caffeine withdrawal

Coffee addict Naoise Dolan reports on her efforts to overcome caffeine addiction


I’m Naoise, and I have a problem. A 600-milligrams-per-day problem. As addictions go, caffeine is fairly manageable. Aldi do a mainly-potable instant brand (tip: stick a pinch of salt in it to even out the flavour) that has lit my way along many a dark essay-writing tunnel. Carrying around a carton of almond milk with you is always a conversation-starter; they go, ‘What? Why?’, and then you go, ‘I’m vegan and I’m addicted to coffee and I hate drinking it black’, and then they sit back and try to process why the confluence of these facts makes you willing to constantly risk the milk exploding and all of your possessions getting soaked in Alpro’s finest.

Determined resolution

Reader, I’d had enough. Armed with facts about the horrifying things caffeine can do to your blood pressure, bullioned by an optimism that 2015 would be the year I didn’t suck, I decided to relinquish coffee until such a time as I could trust myself to drink it only moderation.

“I take a sort of pride in my ability to withstand self-inflicted pain.”

I was coming from a place of anywhere between five to eight cups a day, which is, to be clear, a lot of caffeine for a five-foot-three person to process in a twenty-four-hour period. Luckily, though, I’d get a lovely headache to remind me to top up whenever I’d gone too long without my dose. Sages on internet forums and WebMD warned that it was wiser for someone of my dependency level to cut down slowly – cold turkey would be harder to take than a gradual withdrawal.

Let me explain three things about myself. One: I am impatient, and weeks of protracted mild symptoms sounded like a much more annoying prospect than living in hell for about a week and then having it over with. Two: I take a sort of pride in my ability to withstand self-inflicted pain (see also: the fact that I developed my caffeine addiction from using coffee to pull all-nighters meeting deadlines). Three: I have no ability to moderate my intake of anything I like that’s bad for me, and generally don’t find it helpful to only have a little of it and constantly remind myself of what I’m missing.

Caffeine withdrawal

The first day holds few surprises. I’ve tried to cut coffee out a few times before, so the bevy of early symptoms don’t throw me. Oh, there’s the morning headache! Shouldn’t I be getting an inexplicable ringing in my ears right about – now! When exactly will my brain stop craving coffee and sublimate into other caffeine-containing things like chocolate? Oh, there it goes. Now I’m having trouble finishing my sentences – must be about 4pm.

Of all the symptoms of caffeine withdrawal, the most widely experienced and best-documented is the headache. This has been a weekly, sometimes daily, feature of my caffeinated life – if you’re highly addicted, you get them not only through conscious detoxes but whenever you don’t have time for your morning coffee.

And in its mildest form, it’s virtually painless and – crucially – soluble through recaffeination. But from my previous attempts to quit coffee, I know what happens if you ignore the headache. It starts superficially under your eyes, and, in my case, seems to then travel both up and out until it feels like it’s boring right through the bone. A bit later, it moves down the sides. Then a strange thing happens: the pain doesn’t stay fixed, but fluctuates depending on how I move my head, as if there’s a small amount of lava moving along a set of pipes inside my skull. The result is that you’re desperate to find some angle from which your head won’t hurt, but also scared to move it around too much in case this brings on more pain.

“Try sleeping through that. No, but seriously, don’t try sleeping through that: I did and it’s terrible.”

‘Why didn’t you just take some Panadol?’ Don’t ask me questions I can’t answer. I have a nebulous concept of painkillers as being for wusses, and of myself as not being a wuss. Obviously, those ideas are both deeply flawed in their own way.

When it became evident that I wouldn’t be sleeping for the first night, I decided to start googling things about caffeine’s effect on the body to stay motivated. Unhelpfully, a load of articles popped up about how it fights this disease and that disease and the other disease, and how it’s totally fine if taken in (ugh) moderation.

Theory of caffeine dependence

But here is my unifying theory of caffeine dependence: the more physically devastating you find it to cut out coffee, the more your current habit is probably ravaging your insides. Cf. the fact that my body apparently responds to caffeine shortage with vomiting. No, actually. That was the next stage of the Hellish First Night from Hell.

I started the second day with some choice invective against detoxes and the New Age rubbish surrounding them. ‘Inner cleanliness’ can’t actually mean anything if it makes you feel this terrible. Load of aromatherapeutic Witch Hazel claptrap. My aromatherapy-loving-Witch-Hazel-loving mother commented that the vomiting could have been my body ridding itself of toxins. My headache got in the way of forming what would undoubtedly have been a biting riposte.

The same weird ‘tilt your head and the ache moves to a slightly different part of it’ migraine thing continued throughout the day, joined by the shivers and a constant worry that I would fall asleep mid-conversation/mid-walk/mid-tutorial/mid-bungee-jumping (hypothetically). In addition to caffeine and caffeinated foods, I was now hankering over carbs in general. Is there a scientific explanation for this, or do basic twenty-something-year-olds just turn to carbs as an amorphous solution for any problem? Who can say?

“Picture a snarky person who’s lost their sense of humour but hasn’t lost their desire to put their friends down.”

By noon of Day Three, I am certain of two things: 1. this has been in no way character-building (I’m the same pathetic me, but headachier), and 2. the headache might finally have subsided. I’m proven tragically right about 1. and tragically wrong about 2. Also, I’m thirsty all the time. Memo to brain: water does not have coffee in it. Making me want water isn’t getting you the thing you seek. We’ve established by this point, however, that my brain isn’t the cleverest of the bunch.

On this day, as on the previous days, I am a monster to be around. If you’re lucky, I’m too lethargic to pay you any attention. If you’re not, picture a snarky person who’s lost their sense of humour but hasn’t lost their desire to put their friends down, and so just goes around being overtly mean with literally nothing funny about it. I mean, that’s me normally, but the caffeine withdrawal excuse really offers a convenient umbrella for being totally horrible to everyone at all times.

As of Day Four, I have learned nothing and haven’t notably grown as a human. The caffeine cravings have mostly subsided, but the headache remains.

Illustration: Naoise Dolan