It is always nice to look at your blogs, reading about your lives and about what interests you. I find your works thought-provoking and uplifting, and I would like to especially thank those of you who keep returning here, who hit the “like” button and sometimes leave comments. I want you to know that I thoroughly appreciate the interest that you take in my life, in my struggles, in my relationship with Laura, and in my small town. Of course, if you read me and wish to remain anonymous, and not hit the “like” button, I’m writing for you, too. All of you who follow me, and those of you who just stop by for one visit and remain silent, I sincerely hope you will return, for my story is a never-ending saga, with chapters that always keep coming — the chronicles of a life worth living — regardless of its intermittent difficulties.
A lot has transpired since my last letter to you, so I guess I’ll just start at the beginning. It was the afternoon after my appointment with my primary care physician.
While I was at my desk reading a book, overindulging in my espresso habit, feeling euphoric and deeply engaged in the words, phrases, and clauses which painted a picture of philosophic thought which reached out to me across the centuries, being written by an ancient Roman stoic, who felt he could teach others how to think and how to live, my phone rang and a nurse from Dr. Jackson’s office come on the line with my test results. The news was disturbing. It was concerning my coffee intake, which was so pathological that this acidic substance was stripping away the linings of my stomach, and I was issued another warning, being told to decrease it. When I was in the examination room the previous day, Dr. Jackson had told me to quit drinking it altogether.
The next morning was my appointment with my psychotherapist, Dana, and I had planned to use my whole session to discuss this serious problem. I arose before dawn, picked up my tablet, opening the app for television station WITN, listening to the local news and weather forecast. Meteorologist Jim Howard came on, displaying a map of the southern United States, where a tropical low pressure cell was slowly moving in our direction, with a stationary front emanating from it which transversed my state of North Carolina, that would stall out today, bringing afternoon thunder showers beginning at noon. I checked the weather app on my iPhone — it agreed with this assessment — and I checked the doppler radar map and there was no rain currently in sight, so I went into my closet, retrieving my rain suit for my trip back home, rolling it up and placing it in my backpack. I also placed my book in there, wrapped it up in plastic along with my wallet and my iPhone, to protect them from the soaking rain.
I got my gear together, strapping on my backpack and my helmet, taking my mountain bike out of the shed and turning on its flashing tail-light, leaving town at sunrise. As I was pedaling out on the open road — alone, with no motorists in sight — I couldn’t help but look up at the sky, at its white mountainous clouds streaked with bluish tints, with the obliterated rising sun giving off recurrent hues of flaming fire, with a hazy perspective, evocative of an impressionist painting. As I traveled past the crops in the fields, I noticed that the wheat had been harvested, leaving behind brown carpets upon the land, while the corn was sprouting, their long green foliage reaching out for the coming rain, as we had been in a condition of draught for over a week now.
When I was half way to Greenville, I witnessed two miniature dogs crossing the road together; as I passed them, they eyed me with curiosity and I was surprised that they didn’t chase me. Later on, I saw a dead carcass upon the road, with two carrion birds receiving their morning meal, flying upwards in fear as I passed, but quickly returning after I was gone. As I grew closer towards the city and the traffic was picking up, I was appalled to see someone turning into an industrial park on a motorcycle without wearing a helmet. Soon, I was traveling along the sidewalks, across the bridge and into the downtown area. As I was passing through, I noticed that occasionally I would meet someone who was walking towards me, traveling in the opposite direction upon our common pathway, remaining in their personal bubble of anonymity. I would say, “Good morning,” to someone, who was retreating to their side of the walkway, as I was retreating towards mine, but they would never return my greeting, but would fain to make eye contact, always looking straight ahead and going about their own business without acknowledgement.
This was something I could live with — passing by people I would never see again, everyone minding their own business and nobody judging the other, remaining in their own protective selves, focused on their business at hand, and not knowing or caring what the other person was doing. It was much a much different scene in Robersonville. It was as if I had traveled from one world into another — into a larger, more cosmopolitan, more sophisticated world, one that was too fast paced for me and too expensive, but one that felt much more insulated and comfortable.
As I made it across to the other end of the city, arriving at the campus of the Brody Medical School, finding a place designed to secure a bicycle, calling Laura and my mom to say good morning as they began their daily tasks at home, I went up into the library to find a quiet place among the medical books, trying to keep a low profile among the students. I found an empty desk in a corner, unwrapped my book and my iPhone from out of the plastic, placed my phone on vibrate and kept up with the time, and opened my volume of Epictetus. As was reading his extemporaneous dialogs, I became immersed in the wisdom of an ancient Roman slave, who seemed to be admonishing me directly, with a give and take which seemed to put words into my own mouth.
Has my doctor given me good news or bad news? I should not be beholden to him either way, so he can become puffed up with his pride. Is a certain medical circumstance beyond my will to change? I should become totally indifferent to that. It is appointed to all men to die, what is the difference if he should die sooner than later? If it be within my will to change something, what difference does it make? It is that I will have control, and I should change something I wish to in order to achieve courage and virtue. And if I they should lock me up in prison, what difference would that make? They might have my body, but they certainly don’t have my mind. I could be free inside if I chose to be. And if I concerned myself with my cloak, being morbidly aware of other’s judgements of my riches or my poverty, I would be controlled by them. Why would I give them the power? Why would I give them the control? Death is a great equalizer of mankind. No rich man can pay me to die for him, he must die on his own! It matters not what the public thinks. It is my own excellence which is at question here, not theirs. Every man must wipe his own nose! I should be totally blind to the things I cannot change, change those things which are within my power, and conform to my own will, and not to the will of the collective other.
As I was reading lines such as these for an hour and a half, noticing the time on my phone was getting nearer to my appointment time, I packed up my belongings and walked inside the elevator, and, as I was leaving the library, I saw a student wearing scrubs carrying a cup of coffee. I wondered where he got it from. And I walked down a small flight of steps, down a hallway towards another elevator, arriving on the fourth floor, following the arrows on the walls and arrived at the Navigate Counseling Clinic. I picked up a magazine — I don’t remember the title of it — but it was on mindfulness, and as I began to read an article on how mindfulness can help you conquer addiction, a cheerful student entered the waiting area. “You here to see Dana?” she asked. I affirmed, and Dana entered wearing a jacket embossed in purple and gold, the official colors of East Carolina University.
Dana had an infectious smile on her face, expressing an eagerness — a personal dynamism — along with a generalized optimism which helped lift the overcast darkness covering the firmament of my mind. We went inside her office, and I told her the news I received from Dr. Jackson’s. My coffee habit was out of control, and I was suffering with daily stomach pain. Dr. Jackson had repeatedly tried to get me to wean myself down to two cups a day, but I had always failed, so now she was telling me to quit altogether, and ordered an upper gastrointestinal examination, which involved putting me under anesthesia and running a cord down my throat with a camera on its end, to take pictures of the inside of my stomach. Then I told Dana the bad news about my test results. I had received a phone call telling me that I was slightly anemic, which indicated that I might be bleeding internally. Dr. Jackson suspects that the bleeding was inside my stomach. It was coffee that was doing this to me. This made my second gastrointestinal examination as a result of my pathological espresso habit, and I was also on the pathway of contracting cancer of the esophagus, and now I had to quit again — forever this time, never to return — and I desperately needed help, because I needed to beat it this time.
Dana said that she was versed in addiction counseling. She presented me with a clipboard with a form,, which had a list of statements upon it which I was to finish, and handed me a pen. The paper had the heading “The Willingness and Action Plan.” On it, I was to list a specific goal.
I told Dana that I wished to give up caffeine for good and not use it as a crutch. Coffee gives me a feeling of motivation, of being energetic and alert, but I have quit before, and I know that it is not necessary. Coffee, to me, is like a friend who plays cruel tricks, who lures me with pleasure, then burns me with pain. When I start drinking it, I don’t know when to stop. I also drink it for emotional reasons. I drink it when I’m angry. I drink it when I’m frustrated. I drink it when I’m bored. When I had my first gastrointestinal exam, I was drinking a whole pot in the morning and a pot in the afternoon. I just cannot do things like this anymore.
Dana asked me about my values underlying my goal to quit.
I have been worried about my health in connection with this for a long time. I have been experiencing stomach pain for nearly four years now. I want better health. And I do not wish to live a life in pursuit of pleasure; there is a word I’m looking for in what I want my life to represent, but the word is escaping me — is it virtue? — no, is it self-reliance, or industriousness? — no, it’s not that, either. Temperance! That’s the word I’m looking for. I wish to live a life of temperance.
Dana asked me what my specific actions would be to achieve my goal of quitting.
I have to throw out the container of coffee in my kitchen, along with eliminating all the paraphernalia and apparatus used in brewing and consuming it. This means throwing my coffee pot into the garbage. The coffee cups have to go, too, including my favorite mug which has some sentimental value attached to it. There is a distinctive logo on the cup that I am fond of. It is an advertisement for a restaurant in Robersonville, one that went out of business years ago, that used to be a favorite early morning rendezvous for some of the townspeople when I first moved there, called “The Filling Station.” The logo is of a fish, holding itself erect upon his tail like a cobra, with fins on his left and on his right, holding a knife and fork respectively, with a charming human expression upon his face, along with an open and smiling mouth. They don’t make these mugs anymore — it is of historic significance — but I really need to let it go. And I have to throw all this out on the day the garbage men pick up the trash, otherwise I will dig around in the refuse later, trying to excavate enough coffee grounds to make just one more cup after I am supposed to have quit. I will not be able to consume energy drinks or hot tea anymore, either.
Dana told me to consider the thoughts and memories, the feelings and sensations — and the urges — that I was willing to withstand in order to achieve my goal.
I have thoughts which I can almost hear, of an inner dialog, of a friendly voice seducing me, “Oh, c’mon! It’s not gonna hurt you. Think of how good its gonna make you feel!” I will have a sense of anticipation, possibly salivating — knowing the intense euphoria I will feel and how happy I will be for a few short hours if I do it — and if I have a book to read, I will feel the ultimate bliss as I surrender my mind to the voice of its author. I have quit before, and I will experience sensations of fatigue — a dullness of mind — but these are false impressions. One time after I quit drinking coffee, I felt so exhausted I didn’t know what to do, but then I took a trip on my bicycle and did just fine. The sense of lethargy is all in my mind and not in my body. The intellectual fog I will be in is a mere illusion. I will be able to read and concentrate just as well without coffee. After awhile, these withdrawal symptoms will fade away, but as I feel better and my stomach stops hurting, I’ll feel an urge — an overwhelming enticement! — to do it just one more time. Then I’ll start walking to the local convenance store to buy a single cup of coffee a day, and after about a week of doing this, I’ll get tired of walking and paying too much, then I’ll go to the grocery store to get one of those large containers of espresso they sell there, and then the cycle of pleasure and pain will start once again. One time I relapsed because I witnessed some people drinking coffee in front of me, and I felt a sense of deprivation. I need to be aware of this and stay away from these situations for a long while.
Dana asked me what would be useful to remind myself in connection to quitting.
Withdrawal sensations that flutter in my mind will be telling me lies, telling me that I will never feel motivation again without espresso, telling me that I’ll never achieve intellectually without it, telling me that I’ll always be controlled by a brown substance with a distinct aroma, that I’ll never be free. But I must break the adamantine chains of dependence — standing squarely upon my own two legs — and to do this for the remainder of my life. It is different this time. I have someone helping me. I must do this.
Dana asked, “If you could break this down into smaller steps, what would they be?”
If I enter a grocery store, to stay out of the coffee aisle. Do not enter a convenance store. Whenever I want to take a walk in the park, I will take an alternate route so I will not go past the Handy Mart. I will not even go close to it. And don’t go near a Starbucks or any other coffee shop.
Dana asked me what my smallest, easiest step in quitting espresso would be.
I will throw out the coffee, along with the cup and the pot, the morning the garbage men pick up the trash (but I want to drink it one last time before they arrive), then that will be the first day of my new life.
Dana told me I could call the clinic’s help line if the temptation struck and I wasn’t sure I could overcome it. She walked out of the office, bringing in the person who would be checking the messages, and introduced me to her. We determined that my quit day would be this coming Tuesday at 7:00 AM. Dana gave me the sheet off her clipboard that I had filled out concerning my addiction. I knew that this would be one of the hardest things I ever set out to do. We talked about Alcoholic’s Anonymous, the twelve step program where people go to meetings to help them break their addiction to alcohol. After six weeks of sobriety, a member would receive a chip. After six weeks of being caffeine free, what would I like for a chip?
I told Dana that I wanted to order a set of books from Amazon: the complete works of the modern philosopher Michel Foucault. I would bring them in with my backpack and show them to her if I succeeded. My six-week date would be July 23rd, and I would mark it on my calendar when I returned home.
I left Dana’s office with a plan. When I exited the School of Human Services building, I looked up at the sky, noticing that Jim Howard’s weather forecast, with all his maps and doppler radar, was incorrect. He said it would be raining by now, but I didn’t need my wet suit after all. I sat upon my bicycle and returned home all dry, three hours before the rains came.
Several days went by before my quit date, with the cycle of uncontrollable espresso drinking and stomach pain continuing. Then the day of reckoning arrived. Early that morning, I made my last pot of coffee, then took the lid off my trash can, took hold of my yellow plastic container of espresso, which had the image of an Hispanic woman printed upon it with the words, “Cafe Bustelo Party Size!” I removed the lid to it, dumping its contents into the trash, and throwing in the container after it. When I finished my coffee, I looked at my favorite mug.
“Please don’t throw me away,” it said to me, “You’ll miss me after I’m gone!”
The coffee mug went into the trash also, and I tied up the trash bag with the pleading imp inside. Then I got out another trash bag and unplugged the coffee pot, running cold water all over it to cool it down. As I was placing the percolator in the bag, along with my stack of coffee filters, it was as if it had a voice that could speak.
“How can you do this to me? I’m your best friend!” it exclaimed.
“I don’t need friends like you,” was my silent reply, as I tied up the trash bag with the coffee pot inside.
I carried the two bags of misery to my dumpster outside, dropping them in, rolling the dumpster out to the sidewalk in front of my apartment. By the time the sun comes up, the garbage truck would arrive, and the psychoactive drug inside the can, along with all its drug paraphernalia, will be gone for good.
Goodbye and don’t come back!