I Gave Up Coffee For Three Months And This Is What I Learned

If you talk to people about drinking coffee, they will often say things like “I just love the ritual of making coffee,” or “I just love the taste of coffee.”

I gave up coffee for three months this summer, and I’ll tell you the truth: I’m in it for the drugs. The caffeine. The good shit.

Yes, the taste is nice, and I enjoy the ritual too. But I drank some decaf coffee this summer, and the taste of decaf and the ritual of making decaf didn’t really do shit for me. I just got sad for the first couple weeks I wasn’t drinking coffee, and then learned to live without it because I was doing it for something more important.

Lots of people can’t or won’t do caffeine for a lot of reasons—no disrespect to that. But I’ve been drinking coffee for two decades and I can probably count the days I have gone without coffee on two hands, so I thought I’d share how my summer without coffee went.

Here’s why I did it: I was training for an ultramarathon for six months, and I have experienced pretty bad dehydration problems (that have also, I am fairly sure, led to altitude sickness at various times) because of my coffee habit. Which is, admittedly, probably a bit excessive. So starting June 8, I stopped drinking coffee.

In the days leading up to June 8, I stepped down my consumption so I wouldn’t get caffeine withdrawal headaches. I still got other caffeine withdrawal symptoms, like a slight depression (not making this up) for about two weeks.

I joked to a friend that quitting coffee was going OK, aside from the feeling that life was meaningless. I was only partly joking. I’ve experienced quitting a number of things—I quit drinking in March of 2002 and haven’t had a sip of alcohol since, quit eating meat in September 2005, and quit smoking (from a pack-a-day habit) in November 2005. All those things were difficult to give up. I still miss pepperoni pizza and getting bombed on good beer (“I just love the taste!”), and for the first six months of not smoking, I missed standing outside, staring at nothing, and thinking for five minutes 20 times a day. And I may be forgetting some of the discomfort of all three of those things (the way you do with things like mountaineering and hard backpacking trips), but coffee was equally shitty to give up.

I hate ordering decaf in coffee shops, probably worse than turning down offers of beer and wine at restaurants, raft trips, baseball games, happy hour functions—OK, everywhere. I missed being able to give myself a little bump of 150 to 200 milligrams of caffeine during long travel days, early morning alpine starts, and drowsy afternoons at my laptop.

But here’s the big thing I learned: I don’t “have to have coffee.” I just really like it. Probably the same with all the substances we imbibe. Some things I did with zero coffee:

  • Functioned for 18-20 hours on three hours of sleep the previous night
  • Stayed awake for 42 hours (while in constant human-powered motion for 36 hours)
  • Drove a car for more than eight hours straight
  • Got out of bed at 1 a.m. to climb mountains and actually got to the summit
  • Stayed up until 2 a.m. editing video
  • Continued to write/create for a living
  • Still had insomnia induced by anxiety (dammit)
  • Ate three ounces of dark chocolate (an entire bar) almost every day, which gave me somewhere between 30 and 100 milligrams of caffeine every day

The things that didn’t happen:

  • I didn’t have nearly as many problems with dehydration while doing 20- to 30-mile trail runs in 80- to 85-degree heat
  • I did not have as many headaches
  • I didn’t visit a fraction of the coffee shops I usually do (which is a primary means of socializing when you work from home as a writer)
  • My dentist didn’t say he found anything concerning during my routine checkup for the first time in years (this could also be attributed to using an electric toothbrush, but worth noting)
  • I did not die
  • I did not become an asshole
  • I was not unbearable to live with, according to my girlfriend
  • I did not lose friends who love coffee

I also found that when I was on long trail runs, the 50 milligrams of caffeine in a half package of Dark Cherry Clif Shot Bloks felt like a rocket booster, since my body was no longer accustomed to high doses of caffeine (when you’re drinking 400-600 milligrams of caffeine per day, 50 milligrams feels like a drop in the bucket).

Quitting for three months felt like a marker had been taken out of my day: like lots of people mark the end of a work day with a beer, I marked the beginning of a day with coffee. I will drink this brown stuff, and be productive immediately after. I lost that punctuation mark for three months, and just learned to live without it every day. I forced myself to wake up, to work, and to exercise without the jolt of caffeine.

To be honest, it really wasn’t that difficult. I think I’ve learned over the years that we can often quite easily live without the things we think we can’t live without (including but not limited to substances like coffee, alcohol, and nicotine). It might be good for you to try it yourself.

Me, I’m done quitting coffee for now. I love a good Americano from a skilled barista, I love shitty diner coffee, I love drinking coffee out of mugs of all shapes and sizes, I love sitting in coffee shops and working with the background din of good music and people having conversations, I love the ritual, and I love the taste.

But let’s be honest here: I’m mostly in it for the drugs.