I'm addicted to caffeine. According to the internet, my addiction is shared by roughly 90% of adults in the U.S. Such a statistic begs the question: What's the big deal? Caffeine is readily available. It improves focus and attention. Its delivery systems -- coffee, tea, chocolate -- are among life's pleasures. So you might well wonder why I have again begun a periodic weaning from the stuff, to be followed, if all goes according to plan, by several weeks or months of abstinence.
I treasure the morning coffee ritual. My husband, a serious coffee aficionado, grinds the beans, brews the grounds, heats the cups, pours the coffee. Just writing these words, I feel sad, thinking about missing out on this solemn daily ceremony, My husband loves me through our morning coffee.
In the spirit of sacrifice and self-control, I still undertake a coffee fast from time to time, often around Lent, which begins next Wednesday. This year my motivation is not simply to divest myself of pleasure. In fact, I have undertaken to discover things I genuinely enjoy as a spiritual practice. In this, my personal de-caffeination exercise is counter-intuitive.
So why do it?
I don't only drink morning coffee for the joy of the ritual. I drink it because I'm hooked. When I have broken earlier caffeine fasts, I might start with black tea. Just one cup of coffee, only on Saturday morning,. Okay, Saturday and Sunday. Then Friday and Thursday and Wednesday and Tuesday and Monday. First one cup, then one and a half, then two, two and a half. Caffeine isn't cocaine, you might say. What's the big deal?
The big deal is that I'm not free. From that first cup, I'm increasingly not free to stop. I'm not free to stick with tea or Saturdays or one cup. I'm addicted. I've given over some of my freedom to the chemical habituation that caffeine produces.
If I skip a day, I pay, as does everyone around me, as the headaches, irritability, and foggy thinking take over. I'm no longer in control of myself. Caffeine has taken over.
Maybe for you it isn't caffeine. Maybe it's alcohol. Or internet pornography. Or shopping. Or scrolling social media. We can compare, rationalize. Mine isn't as bad as hers. But none of this is freedom.
My addictions to substances or behaviors -- and I have others -- cloud my self-awareness. I use these things, consciously and unconsciously, to mask what I don't want to see. They blunt my feelings, occupy my time, keep me company. They provide background noise that allows me to avoid a silence in which I might hear things that trouble me or that I don't know how to address.
Pushing back against our addictions isn't easy, in part because they are more symptom than disease. The disease is our dis-ease with the true nature of our human condition. Our pain is real, and so we seek, not irrationally, to cover it, hide from it, and avoid it with whatever means we can. These coping strategies may have been the best we could do to allow us to function within the confines of circumstances that we didn't know how to handle. They were the solution, until they became the problem.
Freedom is the goal
Growth in freedom requires the courage to become self-aware. It can be enough of a first step to recognize the things we do compulsively. What do I do because I don't know how to stop? What behaviors do I justify, even as I know they cause me unhappiness? The challenge, the invitation, is to notice these actions without immediately judging or trying to fix them.*
If we're going to find deep and lasting healing, it's essential that we allow ourselves time to consider what these behaviors are helping us to hide and hide from. Otherwise we will likely relapse or replace our current strategies with new ones, equally designed to cover up the underlying wounds and pain, doomed to become the next problem in need of a fix.
We can practice noticing our own behavior and learn to pause to discover what triggers that behavior. We can begin to experience our feelings instead of denying or covering them up. This process takes time, patience, and above all, an environment where grace and mercy can triumph over judgment. The help of a qualified therapist or spiritual director can be essential to the healing process.
For freedom Christ has set us free. - Galatians 5:1
Ultimately, the point is not whether it's virtuous or vicious to enjoy a cup of coffee in the morning. The question is, am I free from the compulsion to do so? Am I enjoying that coffee for its own sake, or am I using it to distract me from thoughts and feelings, to excuse me from taking new action in my own best interest, action that will allow me to live out my life's purpose? Am I drinking that coffee enslaved or free?
*Certain behaviors may require immediate intervention. Suicidal ideation, cutting, anorexia and bulimia, abuse of alcohol or drugs and other such coping strategies require the support of qualified medical professionals, therapists and/or support groups.
For immediate crisis support for you or someone you know, call 1-800-273-8255 (TALK)
or text 741741. For more information about mental health resources, visit https://www.mentalhealth.gov/.