In Defense of Decaf

Yes, I drink decaffeinated coffee, and yes, you can trust me

Photo by Karl Fredrickson on Unsplash

I rise to my defense. Calmly.

Recently I read an article in which the writer claimed to not trust people who drink decaf, suspecting them of hiding something and objecting to their eerie calm. Well, I am not so placid as to accept aspersions cast upon my character merely because of my morning beverage requirements.

As peaceable as I am, thanks to my avoidance of nerve-jangling chemicals, this is a challenge that must not go unanswered. Unruffled yet resolute, I hereby cut short my savasana and step forward to proclaim my right to demand a carefully crafted pour-over of shade-grown, fair trade coffee, minus the go-go juice. And to do so without enduring sneers from bug-eyed caffeine fiends.

Yes, I’m the one ordering the decaf Americano with an extra shot

And there, caffeine drinker, you stand (at least six feet) behind me in line, rolling your eyes above your face mask. Your jitter-juice-jacked energy radiates your frustration and befuddlement: what’s the point, you think, of the extra shot? She might as well be drinking herb tea or Gatorade. What’s the point of even ordering coffee, if it’s not going to do her any pulse-quickening good? Why do I have to wait in line behind her?

I hear your silent judgment. With my brain free of jangling chemical compounds, I do so with equanimity. But that doesn’t mean I don’t find it irritating. Is it fair that I have to spend an extra five minutes in meditation just to outgas your negative energy?

Full disclosure: I was once a caffeine addict

Back in the day, my coffee consumption was the stuff of legend. I drank it all day, every day, right up until I went to bed. Not only that, but I imbibed indiscriminately: Yuban boiled to near-tar in an aluminum percolator was just fine with me. It shames me now, but I confess there were periods when I resorted to Chock Full O’Nuts because it was cheaper. 

When I hit bottom, I sometimes drank Sanka.

As with any addiction, I believed I needed my rocket-fuel java. How else was I to get through college and grad school while also working and having a social life — not to mention facing those mornings-after occasioned by said socializing? As a conservative estimate, I sucked down at least ten cups a day, sometimes 14. 

Panic attacks and insomnia? Sure. Not that I saw the connection. Besides, a good strong cup o’ Joe always perked me right up. Pardon the pun.

Then I had kids

The first of whom was a wretched sleeper (perhaps because he was imbibing caffeine with his mother’s milk — this was back in the 80s, so props to me that I even breastfed) so my dependence on the black stuff only deepened. But after the second baby arrived and I began having spells in which it felt like my heart was going off the rails, rhythm-wise, I grew concerned.

A few tests later, my doctor assured me my ticker was not about to resign its job. But nor was I going to feel any better if I didn’t get off caffeine. 

I went cold turkey, and for several weeks endured headaches of such skull-crashing, thundering intensity that I wondered if the pressure would shortly send my eyeballs shooting right out of my head. I persevered, and once I’d fully detoxed I found that not only did my heart resume its reliable lub-dub, but I slept better (between diaper changes). Moreover, I was able to regard things like a child’s tantrum or my husband’s habit of throwing wet laundry on the bed as annoyances rather than life-shattering catastrophes.

I was forced to admit: I couldn’t handle caffeine. Thus began a years-long avoidance of it. But I desperately missed coffee.

I love everything about coffee: its taste, its smell, even how it looks

My favorite ice cream? Coffee-flavored. My preferred brownie recipe has espresso powder in it. The thought of a rich, beautifully balanced, appropriately bitter cup of brewed bean juice allows me to resign myself to the necessity of getting out of bed in the morning.

So going without was a trial. And back in the day, if you could even find decaffeinated coffee, it sucked. Even by my modest standards.

Eventually, America discovered good coffee. Gourmet coffee. Small-batch, artisanal coffee. Coffee that comes with tasting notes as pretentious as any wine label. And thanks to refined, non-chemical techniques, much of it is available sans caffeine.

That coffee could not only re-enter my daily experience but be ever so much better than the mud I once settled for, all without sending my heart into arrhythmia and my brain spinning like a nightmare carnival ride — well, that was a happy thing.

I am back on the coffee bus, big time

Nowadays I mail-order my beans from a local artisanal coffee crafter. My previous Yuban-drinking self would be aghast at what I pay for my brew, but it’s one of my most treasured luxuries. I have a specialty coffee maker that cost approximately what my first car (a brutally used ’71 Volkswagen Super Beetle) did. 

And I drink pretty much an entire pot every day. So yes, even though my coffee is decaf, given the sheer volume of my consumption I’m still getting a mild jolt.

So, you scoff, I’m not such a purist after all

Indeed, I am not. In fact, if it weren’t for my heart acting like a jackrabbit on meth and my anxiety level shooting up past the closest nebula, I would be right there with you, happily stringing myself out with liquid speed. 

In fact, there are times when I am tempted to stray from the path. On an especially harried morning, it would be easy to justify just one serving of half-caf. What could it hurt?

There have been times when I have relaxed my vigilance. They weren’t pretty.

This is why I always ask twice if what I’m getting is decaf

And I know that annoys you. It takes at least an extra half-second for the barista to consider the question and respond, time that you have to suffer through without your order. And if it turns out they goofed up my order (it happens), then we’re all back to square one.

A couple of years ago, while having an after-lunch coffee at an outdoor cafe, the answer to my reiterated decaf question was a snarky, “Uh-huh, I made that Americano myself.” Jeez. It’s not like I’d accused her of check kiting, but whatever. I drank about half the cup, at which point I noticed a certain frisson, an unaccustomed surge of something zipping through my central nervous system.

“You know,” I said to my husband, “I think that has caffeine in it.”

My husband, a coffee aficionado himself, had tolerated my demand for what he considered semi-coffee for years. “You’ll be fine,” he said. 

Later that evening, I did indeed feel fine

Completely fine. Extremely, very, entirely fine. So fine, in fact, that as my husband and I settled down to watch a movie, I contributed to our enjoyment by supplying a running commentary:

Wow I’ve been waiting to see this for a long time is that the woman who was in that other movie we saw with the guy from I forget and that’s a really cool floor in that bathroom don’t you think we could put one like that in ours when we redo it and I was thinking that should be this spring before it gets too hot because think of all the money we’ll save if we just do the luxury vinyl planks and do it ourselves I think we can holy cow look at that blouse she’s wearing I bet that cost a thousand dollars man if I won the lottery I would dress like that I mean of course after I contributed to wait why is he holding a gun I thought he’s the good guy did you say something no I don’t think I want any brandy but okay if you insist . . .

I believe he urged two snifters on me of the Remy-Martin we keep for occasions. I thought nothing of it and went happily to bed, and as far as I knew I enjoyed a lovely night’s sleep.

My husband reported it was like sleeping with a demonic, blanket-stealing marmoset.

Ever since, he has fully supported my caffeine restriction

If we’re together, I don’t even have to check with the barista when I get my order; he does it for me. And when I’m handed my perfectly roasted, hand-poured cup, it makes me every bit as happy and relieved as your dose of voltage nectar makes you.

Trust me on that.

8 Replies to “In Defense of Decaf”

  1. Laurie

    I had a similar coffee-related journey as you, Jan. The only difference was when I kicked caffeine, I did it gradually to avoid the headaches. I hated HAVING to drink coffee every morning or suffering the consequences.

    I will take the condescension and the snickering. I don’t want to be chemically dependent, even on caffeine.

    • Jan M Flynn Post author

      I wish someone had told me to taper off my caffeine dose, instead of the way I did it! But I survived . . . here’s to loving coffee for its taste and aroma but not depending on it (although I hate to consider a morning without it) 🙂

  2. A. Thurman

    Right there with ya, though (incredibly?) I don’t encounter much caffeine shaming. I’m one of those oddities who drinks coffee for the flavor, and while decaf is often a bit bland if I use a drip maker, decaf espresso grounds in a moka pot make a decent cup.

    • Jan M Flynn Post author

      Hmmm . . . I’ve found that if I get the really good stuff, it turns out just as delicious as the “real” thing — imperceptible in terms of difference. Caffeine, after all, doesn’t have any taste by itself. Here’s to yummy coffee, however you get it!

  3. Anni

    Me, too, Jan! I was actually told to stop drinking caffeine by my OB/GYN in the 70s, when she informed me of the link with significant fibrous growth in my breast tissue. At the time, I was starting every day with a MUG of espresso, thanks to our nifty home machine, followed by uncountable cups of whatever was brewed at the theatre. I learned from a dressing room mate that her fibrous breast tissue had responded well to additional Vitamin E, so I added that to my regimen, but like you, the cold turkey approach to deleting caffeine was headache horrible, so it took months of gradually mixing decaf espresso into the leaded stuff to get off it. And the rare errors in purchased lattes were scary, with one in particular that resulted in my nearly passing out during a matinee performance when a barista screwed up. My entire performance that day was an exercise in concentration just to speak and move without my elevated heart rate knocking me out. Fun times! NOT…

    • Jan M Flynn Post author

      I hear you . . . if I think a barista is blowing me off, I tell them I’ll need their personal phone number so I can call them up at 3AM to tell them ALL MY REALLY GOOD IDEAS I’M HAVING AT HIGH SPEED. It usually works . . .

  4. Hannah

    I am a year-round cold brew drinker, but SO MUCH of your before-going-decaf experience resonates with me – the heart palpitations, insomnia, higher irritability. You have me considering switching to decaf, or at least half-caf as a starting step!

  5. Book Club Mom

    I’m not a coffee drinker but I do like tea. That said, I’ve cut my caffeine tea by 1/2 and now drink camomile and peppermint and a lot of water. I’d ramped up my caffeine intake when I had kids (it’s tiring!) but I feel better being partially off caffeine. Great post, Jan!

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