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January 6, 2013

Mark Millican:'The caffeinated withdrawal blues

“It is inhumane, in my opinion, to force people who have a genuine medical need for coffee to wait in line behind people who apparently view it as some kind of recreational activity.” — Dave Barry

It’s confession time.

The addiction has gone on for most of my adult life, and far too long. Truth be told, I lost control years ago to this dark elixir of my soul.

Oh, I’ve made all the rationalizations and justifications, read the medical studies — pro and con — of continuing to consume it, and carried on what the late running guru Dr. George Shaheen famously dubbed “An Experiment of One.” There have been fitful divorces, usually during brief times of fasting when I pledged to give it up. But like the mythological Sirens who sang an unearthly beckoning to ancient crews of mariners where the men lashed themselves to the masts — she’s always called me back to crash on her rocky, jittery shores.

So if you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m trying to cut back on coffee.

Why, when I enjoy it so much? When it’s become such a daybreak ritual? It’s chased away the groggy dreams of sleep, helped me to focus on my early morning Bible reading, pushed me almost daily to remain clean-shaven and most important of all, act less grumpily to my wife. What am I thinking? More on that later. First, a little history.

We do go way back. Yours truly wasn’t a regular Jittery Joe before he joined Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children (aka the U.S. Marine Corps). It was then I found there’s nothing quite like a hot canteen cup of military coffee on guard duty or after staying up all night on field maneuvers. Then there was the escalation — the time in a “trattoria” in Naples, Italy, where I observed the locals drinking their steaming picker-uppers from miniature porcelain cups alongside flaky golden pastries. Those dinky cups were no way to commandeer the jolt juice, in my humble opinion — I’ll show them how a diehard Marine drinks coffee, I thought, then felt my jaws tighten and teeth begin to grind as I threw down my first cup of espresso.

And with all addictions come the extremes. Later as a member of the Army National Guard they entrusted me with driving the new M1A1 battle tank (the Dalton detachment used to be an armor unit), which was a step up from loading, unloading and reloading that godawful monster with ammo shells during firing exercises. This million dollar piece of machinery could reach 70 mph and, with its on-board computer, keep the turret barrel locked on a target no matter what you smashed over or which way you turned.

But you didn’t dare drive the steel-plated behemoth like that at Fort Stewart near the Georgia coast (endearingly known as Fort Swampy by the troops). There were some hard-and-fast rules at this military “summer camp” in the July weather — drink lots and lots and lots of water, don’t ever get off the tank in the field after dark (let your imagination wander) and don’t fall asleep at the wheel and drive the tank into the swamp on night maneuvers unless you want a higher-up NCO and officer on your case.

A rudimentary form of Mr. Coffee worked here. As drivers we learned to open the packet of dry coffee that came in our MREs (meals ready to eat, the modern equivalent of “C-rations”), take a swig of water, throw the brown powder down the hatch and take a chaser of H2O. And yes, it tasted even worse than it sounds. But it kept you awake so you could move your guys out quick when a gung-ho lieutenant fresh out of boot camp threw tear gas in the middle of the night just after the column stopped and you almost got a wink in. And to everyone’s relief, it kept us from donning that bulky NBC (nuclear/biological/chemical) suit in the still-sweltering nighttime heat.

Years later back in the civilian world, there were trips to the Seattle area where I met missionaries at conferences who doubled as coffee elitists — and if one were fortunate — brought the pungent dark beans from their exotic four corners of the world. The addiction worsened, and my expenditures for the primo brews increased.

But at another price. In the last year or so I’ve noticed increased gastric uneasiness. All that acid, I suppose. Plus I’m drinking more coffee than water at times. And the sleepless nights when working late and I forget to cut the flow in time. Yet there was always more in the morning ...

This last time I told my loving wife I was quitting she just chuckled. If I have to attend Coffeeholics Anonymous, though, that’s just the way it will have to be. Months ago I was visiting an uncle in the hospital and got into a discussion about drinking coffee with a friend of his I hadn’t seen in decades. You see, he’d quit years ago and said he felt so much better. I was encouraged, but remain ever aware I can backslide with just a whiff.

So I’m envisioning the Coffeeholics Anonymous meetings now ...

“My name’s Mark, and I’m a coffeeholic.”

In unison the other defeated yet hopeful devotees welcome me, “Hi, Mark.”

“I just have one question.”

Collectively they respond, “What, Mark?”

“Is it OK to have an energy drink at the break?”

Mark Millican is a former staff writer at The Daily Citizen.

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