I can’t remember the exact moment I tasted my first cup of coffee. It was sometime in high school – maybe grade 11? – and the coffee was by no means a single origin latte made on full-fat, organic milk. It was a filthy instant, swirled together with raw sugar and tepid billy water in a tiny styrofoam cup, stirred by a wooden paddle pop stick.
What I do remember – vividly – is the impact coffee had on me after that initial cup. To put it mildly, it immediately became my drug of choice. It was cheap, legal and gave me the most crazy-ass highs. A relatively susceptible person, coffee and its side effects became one of my defining characteristics for a very memorable period of time. During my senior year at high school, I drank a lot of it. I ordered it from the tuck shop every day (that this was allowed now strikes me as decidedly odd). Friends and I would also visit the groundsmen’s room at lunchtime where, under the pretence of saying a friendly hello (if they were even there), we would help ourselves to a cup of Nescafe.
The caffeine made me incredibly hyperactive, but also sharpened my mind, made me think more creatively and helped me pump out assignments and do relatively well at school.
An innocuous fixture previously unnoticed, I now became drawn to the large jar of freeze-dried Moccona at home. I was by nature a night owl and now, fuelled by regular influxes of coffee, I revelled in staying up until 2, 3, 4am most nights. It gave me a buzz and a feeling of power and control from having pushed the edge. Needless to say, I would struggle massively to get up in the in the morning, and would float through my school day looking as pale as a ghost (and I was already a very pale person). Then I didn’t perk up until – you guessed it – I had another few hits of coffee.
To add to the already sizeable assault on my body from too much coffee and not enough sleep, I’d taken up smoking. You know, to rebel against life. Between these two habits, I wasn’t eating much. So I was pale, hyperactive, edgy, and malnourished. Oh, and addicted to junk food. Who am kidding, I probably looked like a meth addict.
My obsession reached a dramatic climax one night in grade twelve, when I was forced to experience a different side to my love affair with coffee. In this pre-Google era, I didn’t have the luxury of Googling whatever random question came into my mind, and thus I was blissfully unaware of pretty much everything. More relevantly, I was completely unaware of what having too much coffee could actually do to a person. I didn’t know caffeine poisoning was a thing. I just knew coffee gave me a buzz and made things fun, and I assumed I could push that as far as I wanted with no real consequence or impact to my health.
So this one night, I was up late typing out an assignment in my room. I had an old PC with no internet access (standard back then), so it was actually possible to be focussed on an assignment and not get distracted by Facebook. I’d prepared a large, picnic-sized thermos of coffee to see me through. I had no idea about serving sizes, and so my coffee was generally quite strong. Over the course of a few hours, I consumed the whole thermos of coffee – about six cups – and was on to my second flask. Of course, I wasn’t smart enough to drink water to offset all the caffeine, and because I was a smoker I also hadn’t eaten much that day. And far from being milky and soothing, the coffee was strong enough to jump-start a car.
As I was typing, I suddenly started to feel shaky. Really, really shaky. And nervous. My heart started beating double time, and my breath caught and I started to hyperventilate and sweat. Oh god, I thought, I’m having a heart attack.
I tried to calm myself down and breathe normally, but guess what – after seven cups of rough-as-guts coffee and no food, my body didn’t feel like playing ball. Parts of me started to go numb – my hands, my face, my arms. My heart was racing uncontrollably. I completely freaked out, and started calling for Mum. Mum appeared in my room, bleary eyed and in pyjamas. I explained as best I could what was happening and said I thought I needed to go to the emergency room as I may be having a heart attack. I was hyperventilating so much that I couldn’t talk properly – my tongue had gone numb. Mum and Dad got dressed and buckled me into the car. I couldn’t use my arms to do up my own seatbelt because they were completely dead. I later found out this was because my blood was over-oxygenated from all the hyperventilating.
The emergency room scene went something like this: Dad drove to the private hospital, and dropped us off while he found a park. We waited a little while to be seen. I explained my symptoms. Someone – a nurse or doctor, I can’t remember – took me to a curtained-off bed not too far away and left me alone. Like, for several hours. By the time a doctor came to see me, I was decidedly calmer. The conversation we had went as follows:
“How are you feeling now, Julie?”
“Um…..a lot better.”
“Good. Now tell me, are you in grade twelve at the moment?”
“And have you been up late studying?”
“And drinking coffee?”
“I thought so. Next time, don’t drink so much coffee.”
Aside from my parents being slugged with the hospital bill, that was about it.
Of course, it didn’t stop me from drinking coffee, but it did instil in me an awareness of my limitations (the word respect is too much of a stretch here). It also showed me the shadow side of my beloved caffeine, which I was generally quite ready to overlook.
My love affair with coffee would continue on-and-off over the years. After high school, I wasn’t so rabidly desperate about it. When I was about 21, I got a job in a cafe that roasted its own coffee beans in house and sold a variety of its own blends, ranging from light to dark roast, and various flavours of bean – French Vanilla, Irish Creme etc.
I adored several of their darker blends, and the owner, Vlad, was always happy to slide an exquisitely-made latte my way. He took pride in making exceptional coffee, and was happy when people appreciated it. Later on when I transitioned into barista work, the personal coffee glasses would stack up beside me as I worked to churn out coffee after coffee. I was an absolute speed demon once I’d had a few double-shots in me. Usually an efficient yet meticulous worker, the proprietress (an extremely shrewd business woman and entrepreneur at the tender age of 24 who I was petrified of) had figured out that she got twice the value out of me when I was pepped up on caffeine. So even on the days when I was “trying to be good” and abstain from coffee, she would get impatient and leave and beautiful cup of my favourite blend out next to me. If I demurred, I was goaded into compliance. It wasn’t hard. I loved the stuff.
The cafe was incredibly popular and, in an exclusive waterside location, was the creme-de-la-creme for its post code. Weekends were insane and we churned through hundreds of customers, who mainly came for breakfast. One Saturday, there was chaos in the kitchen. I can’t remember exactly what happened, but I think we were in between chefs and regular staff were trying to make up the difference. With a fancy menu and hundreds of customers per day, it was a disaster. My usual job at this point was delivering orders to tables, and clearing dishes. This particular day, I had drunk waaay to much coffee, and, caught up in the adrenaline and pressure of the environment (which I always loved), was off my chops. Everything was incredibly clear but sped up at the same time. In this state of heightened awareness, I remember entering into the kitchen and seeing that it was fucking chaos. There were dozens of paper orders on the rack, nothing was moving, and everyone was overwhelmed by the stress. Meals weren’t going out, despite the yelling and moving and running about.
Without even really knowing what was doing, I ran over to the grill and started cracking eggs, flipping pancakes and plating up like a crazy woman. Snatching up a docket, I threw together a breakfast order, put it up in the window, hit the bell and then snatched up the next docket and repeated. It was so simple and clear. Coffee had sharpened my mind and brought immediate clarity to the chaos. We started to work through the backlog of breakfast orders and restore control to the kitchen. I was sending things out with my bosses and barking out orders to people. For a few hours, it was my kitchen.
Note, I have absolutely no commercial kitchen experience, and this is not my usual personality. I mean, this stuff is inside of me, but it’s usually inhibited by an overactive mind, a conscious deference to social etiquette and fair amount of uncertainty. Coffee unleashes my kick-ass alter-ego. Unsurprisingly, my boss was so surprised by what she thought was an overlooked, hidden talent, that she made me a short order cook immediately after that day. It worked out for a little while, until I got bored with the monotony and she got tired of seeing responsible, methodical Julie when she wanted crazy, speed demon Julie. But the alter ego always came at a cost. After about six months she booted me out of the kitchen and put me back where I belonged: behind the coffee machine.
At this same job, we received proper coffee training from the other owner, Vlad, who used to roast the coffee. We would stay back on a Monday evening and gather around the espresso machine. Vlad would show us the basics of making coffee, frothing milk and adjusting the coffee grinder. Then we had to practice. Once we’d mastered the basics of tamping and frothing, we got into more detail. We would note the colour and texture of a good shot of coffee as it poured (thick and honey-gold, pouring out smoothly and plumply) versus a bad one (pouring out too runny, quick, thin and dark, or super-constipated and slow-dripping from overpacking coffee into the basket).
Vlad would pour shots of each of these scenarios and make us taste them. He wouldn’t tell us which was which – we had to taste them all and then declare what was wrong with the shot, or say it was acceptable and why. He did the same for his range of different blends. We had to be familiar with all of them and their nuanced tastes so we could recommend them to customers. He would pour shot after shot, and we would pass it around, each taking a sip, and pronouncing which blend we thought it was. There were over twelve different blends.
One night driving home after training I had to pull over due to a full-blow panic attack, which had no doubt erupted as the result of the dozens of shots of espresso I was required to taste in order to improve my professional knowledge base. Already a fairly wired person, my ability to drive calmly has been impaired many a time from too much coffee.
Those early years were definitely the worst for my caffeine addiction and the batshit reactions that came from drinking too much of it. There were several years when, with the intention of mastering my meditation practice, I didn’t have any caffeine or stimulants (black tea, cola etc) at all. That lasted for about five years, more or less.
These days I drink coffee daily, but not in such a gross, intense way as when I started out. There is no instant coffee, nor is there an exuberant orgy of espresso. Until recently, I was making a nice, light plunger of Montville Coffee each morning before work, and having it in a regular-sized thermos with full-fat Maleny Dairy milk. It’s a favourite. It’s been years since I’ve had instant coffee, and I’ll take tea or water over bad espresso. I’ve been transitioning over to green tea lately, as it seems to have both a cleansing and energising effect without the rapid onset of crazy that is part of my coffee high.
I’ve had a break from coffee and black tea recently as I’ve been on holidays and have been doing a little detoxing. I broke the drought by having a couple of cappuccinos at one of Brisbane’s best coffee houses, Reverends in Fortitude Valley. It had been a while since I last visited (2014?) and had fond memories. They used to shave shards of fresh Belgian milk chocolate onto the cappuccinos instead of chocolate powder, and I was very much looking forward to experiencing this again. Alas, times have changed and they used a type of chocolate syrup instead, which I’m not a huge fan of. Nonetheless, the coffee was as good as ever, and I even ran into a friend.
Sitting there thinking about coffee inspired me to write some notes and blog about my terribly dysfunctional love/hate relationship with coffee. We all have one of these relationships, whether its with banned substances or food or a person, or even a stuffed animal……. And those who cannot relate to the sublime highs and devilish lows experienced from such addiction and dysfunction – you are winning at life, don’t ever change.
So that is the story of my highly dysfunctional and often tempestuous love affair with coffee. As for the future – who knows what will happen? It is my hope that coffee and I will be together always, and when I’m old and crippled and shitting myself, fate will intervene and ensure I am regularly supplied with good coffee ,and not in any danger of being too methodical, too orderly and too boring. Which, let’s face it – coffee or no coffee – will never happen. A glance at my bedroom floordrobe, which is a living, breathing ecosystem of it’s own, will convince anybody of that.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: “Coffee” is not a pseudonym for ice, speed, heroin or any other hard drug. Nor does it to refer to any other kind of drinking problem – only the kind associated with drinking a shit tonne of coffee. I smoked socially for a couple of years after high school, just to make sure life fully received the message that I was cool and my own kind of person and could do whatever the fun I wanted. It got the message that I was badass. Now I have a desk job and occasionally get referred to as “Ma’am” in the supermarket. Winning!