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March 08, 2003: C is for Caffeine

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Finals week, freshman year in college. I am in the lounge with the others, draped across one of the ugly orange chairs that serve as dorm furniture. Like the rest of my young college cohorts I am bleary-eyed from lack of sleep, and surrounded by untidy stacks of books and papers, interspersed with a rather meager selection of highlighters and colored pens. As this is our first year in college, and the first year many of us have ever been challenged by school in our entire lives, most of us have absolutely no idea how to study effectively. But we are doing the best we can. I stare at my notes until they blur in front of me and try to figure out if there is any way I could, maybe just this once, manage to read through that horrid chemistry textbook without falling asleep.

I grab the second two-liter bottle of soda that's been slowly coming to room temperature at my side and chug down as much of it as I can. I can already feel the beginning of the queasiness in my stomach that indicates I've probably taken in too much caffeine in too short a time, but at this point, I'm desperate. Fortified with more sugar and caffeine I crack open the book….

…and promptly crash into oblivion, still wired on caffeine.

The week after finals are over (and I've somehow managed to squeak by with a passing grade in chemistry. Barely) I am moody and irritable. My head hurts constantly and my stomach is queasy for days straight. I figure it's just a bug, and since it goes away in only a few days I don't think anything more about it.

Until the end of the next semester comes around and there I am again, same lounge, same bottles of caffeinated soda, and same symptoms once all the tests are done. And finally it hits me (clever nutrition student that I am). Welcome to the world of caffeine withdrawal. Two or three days of serious discomfort and bitchiness and I *still* can't manage to stay up all night, no matter how urgently I need to study.

Fast forward another year. By this time I've actually figured out this whole studying thing, and I'm also a year older and wiser – a fact which I prove successfully by avoiding the finals week caffeine addiction and instead resorting to copying my notes over and over and over again until the information finally sinks into my head.

A few more years go by. I am now in graduate school. In my efforts to avoid taking any loans to pay for school if at all possible, I have to work a series of part-time jobs. As a graduate student I can never count on my funding from one quarter to the next. As a graduate student doing scientific research, I have to find ways of avoiding those dratted student loans while somehow also carrying a full load of classes, *and* doing all my research. Since my research involves carefully timed experiments, this means having to find a job that allows me to be flexible enough to attend classes, get to the lab, and still somehow find some time to actually try to sleep. Naturally, I turn to a local diner chain, and thus begins my year of working the graveyard shift as a waitress. This also is the catalyst for my final acceptance of coffee as the preferred mode of transportation to get caffeine into my system. I hate the stuff by itself, but with enough cream and sugar it becomes bearable enough. And when I've been doing school and research and then on my feet dealing with the bars-are-closing drunk crowd for over 24 hours straight, I am desperate for anything that will allow me to keep my eyes open and keep my brain functioning just enough. It doesn't take long before I'm addicted again, and this time to a much higher dose. The day I finally decide to quit graduate school for good, I turn in my notice to the diner and begin the slow process to wean myself off the caffeine…or at the very least, bring myself back down to more 'normal' levels.

Caffeine and I have had a rocky relationship, ever since that first year in college. Prior to going away to school I hadn't ever had much need for it. Faced with an overwhelming amount of work and not enough time to do it, I started to catch a glimpse of just why the 'adult' world seemed so possessive over their morning coffee habits. There is just something about caffeine. It sucks me in and makes me crave it when I'm tired and over worked. It stomps around, flinging withdrawal symptoms right and left like a sulky child throwing a tantrum if I ignore it too long. It comes in far too many tempting forms and flavors. Like some kind of lesser god, it has an entire culture and set of rituals built around it – from the first tentative sip of a steaming cup of coffee to the last few drops of sugar-sweetened tea at the bottom of a thin china cup.

It is, and always will be, my drug of choice.

This has been an AlphaBytes entry.

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