Oh, coffee. We have a long, sordid love affair. It all began many years ago in a cozy French bakery tucked away in the darling neighborhood of Chevy Chase. I grew up in this bakery, my parents’ business, and it was my second home. I was raised not by babysitters, but by a bakery- a shadow behind my mother’s apron, raised on scents of baguettes, croissants, and coffee in a village of customers who saw me transform from shy but sassy little girl trekking around Chevy Chase on her pink tricycle to shy but sassy stressed out pre-med student that was going to conquer the world. This transformation, the loss of innocence, the gain of stress and worry… herein lies the tale of how the siren call of coffee transfixed me, whispering sweet caffeine nothings into my ear.
Thus, you can see that I grew up surrounded by coffee culture. That liquid caffeine was always brewing within reach of my nostrils. My parents, my dad especially, drank coffee like water throughout the day. Day in and day out, people would flock to the bakery like a modern, metropolitan watering hole, lured in by that sweet, rich aroma that seems to impart a certain warmth and energy to the air. Its power is electric, its promise is tantalizing, its hold is undeniable. Except for little Nika. I don’t remember how old I was when I tried my first tentative sip of that steamy brew, shyly sipping from either my mom or dad’s mug. I do, however, remember my reaction: repulsion.
What is this venom, this propagated lie? Little Nika was aghast by the thought of drinking cup after cup of this bitter, acidic, vile inky tar. The taste of growing up, of adulthood, of not enough hours in the day, of late nights and earlier mornings. A world vastly more complicated than I could have encountered on my pink tricycle. So what did Little Nika do? I set that mug down, swore off coffee, and spent the succeeding years as a person who didn’t like coffee and certainly didn’t drink it.
That all changed in 2009, the summer after I graduated from high school. Again, I had entered coffee’s den, but this time in the form of a chocolate shop and coffee bar in Asheville, North Carolina. I was lured in by the promise of chocolate truffles, caramel drizzled turtles topped with nuts, and other bite-sized bonbons. My dad, the coffee critic, was more enticed by the coffee selection and the establishment’s collection of French presses. So there I sat, an innocent child with eyes wide over my impending, truffle-induced blood sugar spike, as coffee sneered with its crooked, seductive grin, rolling its aromatic mocha cloud around my unsuspecting ankles, preparing to wrap its lush, steamy tar-black tendrils around me like Hexxus from Fern Gully.
Why not try just a sip? It’s been years since you’ve tried coffee, maybe you’ll like it now… College is coming… The French press is the best way to drink coffee. So I poured myself a cup. Black. Straight up. Pure, unadulterated caffeine. It spread like hot tar through my veins, warming my throat, warming my mind. So I poured another cup, and another, and another, cups and cups and cups of coffee over the years. For I have known them all already, known them all; have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons, I have measured out my life in coffee spoons. Coffee had hexed me, cast its spell over me. I was as powerless as Fern Gully.
The beginning of my love affair with coffee cosmically coincided with the start of my college career, an arduous task that consumed me inside and out. Exams, homework, finals, grades, presentations, MCAT scores, medical school interviews… these were the new manifestations of Hexxus in my life, and caffeine was a beacon, a promise of hope, baiting me in with promises of energy, more hours in the day, productivity.
So I became a machine, oiled by caffeine, its tar black tendrils held my eyelids open as I poured over organic chemistry textbooks and physics problems for hours and hours every night in the basement of the library.
I remember drinking tea in the morning my freshman year. But soon, just one cup of tea was not cutting it. Enter Jazzmans: an endless fountain of coffee to be bought with meal plans and flex points that don’t even seem to have the normal constraints of “real money.” Coffee and caffeine has this oddly exponential addiction curve. You can start out with one cup… two cups… three cups… pots of coffee… lattes… espresso.
Pretty soon, my coffee maker was hustlin’ all day everyday. When I moved off campus my sophomore year and bought an automated coffee pot that could be pre-set to brew in the morning… it was game over. Rise and grind. Wake and brew. Sleep then sip.
I would drink an.entire.pot.of.coffee. alltomyselfomgcanyoubelieveit?! I would drink 1-1 ½ cups as I was getting ready for school and then load up my travel mug to the brim with that sweet, brown nectar of the gods. Soon, I wanted more. No longer with a meal plan and refusing to buy overpriced, shitty Jazzman’s coffee, I would drink my coffee at home, bring my travel mug, and bring a thermos with the remainder of the pot. This way, I drank coffee all day. From the moment I woke until around lunch time (when it became too cold for me to justify). I have never been much of an afternoon or evening drinker, thank goodness for that, at least I had my limits. One pot of coffee. Every day. It’s a delicious, warm, caffeinated drug. I enjoyed it like a hardcore addict: black. None of that sweetener shit, get that milk and nasty creamer outta here. Just me and my freshly ground beans.
I continued this coffee love affair throughout college and all the way up until about a month ago. I have struggled with acne and my skin for years, and recently I have been approaching my wit’s end. I became weary of my excessive coffee drinking when I began to read about coffee’s potential connection to skin. I didn’t think that my mocha lover was giving me acne, per se, but that it could be contributing to the facial redness and inflammation that only made my acne look worse. My skin is a very difficult thing for me to discuss, so when I decided to stop wearing makeup to work, I was incredibly insecure. The fact that my face seemed so damn red and flushed all the time was not helping me out, so I started searching for answers. I noticed that when I woke up in the morning, my skin was ballin’. But by the time that I had gotten ready for work and started my day, I began to notice more redness. By lunch, my face was at full flush. I knew that, being the stressed out mofo that I am, my cortisol levels were a likely culprit of this redness. Coffee, unfortunately, can trigger hyperadrenalism and an overreactive stress response– read: more cortisol. I have enough cortisol from four years as an overachieving pre-med student, thanks. Plus, cortisol can raise insulin, which can result in increased inflammation and production of oil and sebum. Lovely. Not to say that coffee doesn’t have its benefits (other than caffeine bliss), such as antioxidant capabilities, but this is hotly debated and somewhat irrelevant to my current “experiment.” With this in mind, I was a more tentative lover with coffee, more hesitant to gulp up cup after cup after cup.
Then, one morning, I awoke from groggy slumber (I am not a morning person) and realized I had not prepped my coffee the night before. Consumed by fatigue and a dash of laziness, I declared “I’m too tired for this shit” (a testament to my periodic laziness. True, I do have to grind the beans every time, but the whole process probably takes about 5 minutes, maybe 10 until it’s ready). But why take 10 minutes when I can heat a cup of water in the microwave for one minute and have a cup of tea? Boom. I abandoned my coffee maker in one fluid swoop. Thus, I began my experiment to limit coffee consumption. I will not say that I have eliminated it, as we did carry on a torrid love affair for years, and I love the way it tastes. So I will indulge in Starbucks maybe once a week and have maybe one odd cup during the week (if it’s free and right there… maybe just a tiny one). Regardless, my consumption has been reduced drastically, to maybe 1-2 cups max per week vs an entire pot per day.
The results after one month of reduced (not even eliminated!) coffee consumption? I’m hella tired, yo. My head feels foggy in the morning, and one cup of tea doesn’t quite cut it. However, it’s manageable, and I’ve been chronically fatigued for about 4 years, so I just fight through it for the cause. And why do I fight through? Because my skin is less red, less flushed, less irritated, and less oily. I have been breaking out less, but that is likely attributed to other changes in my routine. The fact that I can go to work and sit under fluorescent lighting all day with some light spot concealer and not completely hate my life is a miracle. And my skin has been thanking me too. So I will keep this experiment going, as I’m willing to do damn near anything to get clear skin. I will still indulge in a cup of coffee here and there (moderation in all things, even moderation, right? Except dairy, never eat that shit. Ugghh my tummy and skin quiver at the thought). I will never be able to refuse the siren call of a Starbucks grande skinny cinnamon dolcé latté with soy milk… my mouthful of a drink order that I always feel like should be accompanied by some sort of snobby hair flip. The weekends are hard too- it was always my routine (and my routine with my SO) to drink coffee and relax on weekend mornings. If I’m alone, I’m not tempted, but I will indulge in some weekend coffee cup clinking if the opportunity arises.
It’s bittersweet to bid adieu to my lover, but my skin and my health take priority over everything. If (no, no, I should say WHEN, dammit) my skin clears up completely, I might try adding coffee back in to see if I do see a corresponding increase in redness, inflammation, and breakouts, but until then, I’ll be sipping my 1 cup of pomegranate green tea and enjoying my day without being tethered to my travel mug. Sorry Hexxus, but I saved Fern Gully.