How to beat caffeine addiction without really trying

I became addicted to caffeine in the form of diet sodas, especially Diet Pepsi, in my college years, when I was working at a Taco Bell in the late 80s. Employees had free drinks, and the free caffeine was very helpful when working the graveyard shift. Our store stayed open till 3 am to catch the “bar rush” after the bars closed, and we seldom were able to leave the store before 4 am, or even 6 am on holiday weekends.

At first, a single-liter cup would be enough for me, but before long, I was drinking two of them (nearly 68 ounces) through the course of the night. At the time, I hated coffee, so diet soda was my prime source of caffeine. I had begun using it occasionally as a drug a few years earlier; when cramming for exams, I’d buy a 2-liter bottle of some heavily-caffeinated soda to stay up through the night and through test time the following morning. Soon after starting the night shift, I became utterly dependent on it. I needed it to wake up, needed it for energy throughout the day, and especially at night when working.

I was hooked, and in a big way. Although life changed, more than two decades later, I found myself a Web developer Norfolk, Virginia, with a hard diet soda habit that I couldn’t break, though I had tried, over and over again. However, every attempt created headaches that would become insurmountable until I gave in, and then … instant relief! During this time, I saw coffee addicts kick the habit with comparative ease compared to me and my diet soda ball and chain. I’m not saying that a coffee addiction is easy, but a diet soda addiction is undoubtedly more complex. In addition to the caffeine, I believe I became addicted to aspartame itself. It’s thus a double addiction, and in my experience, extremely hard to break.

Nothing helped. Counting the cost of spending more than $1000 per year on diet soda didn’t help. “Cold turkey” withdrawals didn’t help. Weaning myself off it didn’t help. Prayer didn’t help.

But last year, I realized a longtime dream of visiting Spain, and became free on the first day. When I woke up after checking into my rented apartment, I thought I would need to get some diet soda the first thing in the morning. But when I went to Barcelona’s huge market, La Boqueria de Sant Josep, I was satisfied with a small kiwi-coconut smoothie, and to my surprise, the expected headache never came. During my two weeks there, I bought diet sodas only twice, and couldn’t finish them; they were now hideous to me.

A couple of times I did need a caffeine boost, as in waking up at four to catch a cab to the airport, but a simple cup of coffee with cream did the trick, and although I do enjoy a coffee about three times a week now, I’ve avoided becoming addicted.

What happened? How was a day in Spain able to change what twenty years of fighting my addiction in the States couldn’t? I didn’t know till now, until I decided to ask my body what happened through a mental dialogue.

I realized that in Spain I was giving my body more of what it wanted and needed. In Spain, I got outside and began exploring the city soon after waking up every day. I slept whenever I was tired, and woke up without an alarm, free of any schedule. My body enjoyed the sunlight, the fresh air, days full of walking, sightseeing, relaxing in parks, talking, and eating some of the best food I’ve had in my life. Caffeine addiction was my body’s cry for energy and stimulus (Give me something! Make me feel alive!), and with the experiences it was having in Spain, its energy and stimulus cravings were suddenly satisfied.

Now I can’t say that my everyday life now is quite as exciting as a Spanish vacation, but I haven’t become addicted to caffeine again, in spite of developing a taste for coffee and enjoying a few cups a week.

If you’re trying to beat caffeine addiction, try this:

  1. Recognize that your body craves stimulus. Take a vacation, even if it’s just a few days off from work at home. Break the routine. Make it an “active” vacation, one with plenty of walking, motion, and new experiences. Make this a time to savor as many new and pleasant sights, sounds, and experiences as conveniently possible.
  2. Get outside. Breathe fresh air. Get plenty of natural sunlight. Avoid sunburn, but be careful of using commercial sunblocks; some can actually cause cancer. Use your legs. Discover that your own body is a wonderful mode of transportation.
  3. Leave your everyday worries behind you. If you need to “check in” at home or the office, do what’s necessary and stop there. Your routine is not welcome here.
  4. For these few days, don’t set alarms, don’t try to keep any schedule at. If your body wants to stay up till dawn and sleep till late afternoon, do it. Go to bed when you’re tired, and wake up … whenever. Limit your use of alarms to absolute necessities, check out times, catching a plane, etc.
  5. Eat fruits and vegetables soon after waking. After that, start walking, hiking, swimming, biking, or whatever. As the day goes on, eat whatever you want, but only what you really want; don’t stuff yourself. Make sure that you nourish your body well, with fruits and vegetables constituting the majority of your intake.
  6. Don’t consume caffeine unless it’s absolutely necessary. If you do, take only as little as you need to catch that bus or whatever, and then stop… do you really want more, or is that just habit? You may well be surprised that your body no longer depends on it or even wants it that much.

Leave a comment, or drop me a line. Let me know how it goes!