I am a coffee lover. I probably love coffee much more than the average person, especially considering how picky I am about quality. Just last week, I spent a half day trying to get a good cup of coffee in Vietnam, with minimal success - sorry Vietnam, I don’t like condensed dairy milk and burnt coffee, okay!? On any given morning at home, I’ve got some 10 or so ingredients in my oh-so-typical "biohacker coffee". So I’m just as obsessed as the rest of you, if not more. But this isn’t about my coffee habit ;)
You are probably not addicted to coffee
That might sound like a bold statement coming from someone who hasn’t seen how bad you crave coffee every morning, but that’s only because in our society, we have some drastic misunderstandings of what an addiction is.
Just because you drink coffee every morning and “can’t go without it” doesn’t mean you are addicted. At the very least, you’ve got a habit on your hands, but then again, you probably have a lot of things you do each day that fall in to the category of habit.
An addiction is characterized by:
- the continued use of a substance or process despite negative consequences - AKA Harm
- a compulsion to use
- loss of control
Negative Consequences - Almost all of us experience no negative consequences whatsoever from coffee, other than perhaps the expedited liquidation of our bowels, and spent time and money standing in line, waiting for that perfect cup. In fact, its likely that adverse health effects from coffee are more attributable to mold from cheaply processed beans, or mild dairy allergies, not to mention the long term health effects of constant sugar intake for those who consume 2 or 3 Tim Hortons Double Doubles each day (me for 10 years). But as far as the coffee goes, most people don’t have much REAL harm to account for, especially since we’re talking about addiction-type-harm here.
Addiction is not just a bad habit
Bad habits (like fingernail chewing) can cause some harm – and in this case is pretty gross (I’m a nail chewer and I admit it’s gross) – but they don’t cause the kind of harm where your wife and kids leave you because you’ve drained the bank account with the intention of “winning it all back” at the casino. THAT’S HARM. Addiction is that bad. It causes divorces, lost jobs, homelessness, institutionalization, and the inability to function normally. Bad habits can get in the way, but they don’t put us in the hospital like addiction can.
Okay so coffee doesn’t cause bigger picture“negative consequences”, but what about compulsion, and loss of control?
A compulsion is defined in our culture as something that is “irresistible”, like an amazing dessert, or (again) finger nail biting. Compulsion is actually defined as an irresistible urge to behave in a certain way, especially against one's conscious wishes. So when you don’t want to spend your last 100 dollars of your rent money to play the slots, or when you don’t want to have sex with that gal you met at the bar because your wife promised she would leave if you do it again (yes sex addiction is a real thing) – but you do it anyways, THAT’S a compulsion. It’s something that takes you against your will. Some people feel like their morning coffee is at that level, but I would bet that is more of a dramatization or exaggeration than a true reality.
Loss of control? The waters of definition are murky with this one. Loss of control is characterized by a number of different symptoms but they vary from person to person. Most commonly it is defined by multiple attempts to refrain from substance use, or the inability to regulate behavior around the substance. The interesting thing is that addicts often attempt to exert control over their use, and will sometimes seem quite “in control” on the outside, because they are operating form a need to keep things under wraps. The workaholic, for instance will seem quite in control of his/her life. The anorexic seems quite in control of his/her food intake or lack thereof; much more than the rest of us in fact. But its precisely THIS control that shows those of us who are close to them, that the rest of the addict’s life (including their health) is suffering at the hand of their grasping for control.
So you’ve tried to quit coffee, lasted a few days, and then found yourself drinking it again. Me too.
There is some loss of control occurring here, so you could tick this box off, but true addiction comprises all 3 symptoms: compulsion, consequences, and loss of control.
“But what about withdrawal headaches? I get achy head and achy body when I don’t drink coffee for a day. Isn’t THAT addiction?”
Actually, that is a dependency, not an addiction. Now we've hit the root of the matter.
There is a fine line between an addiction and a dependency.
A dependency occurs when our body (or our mind for that matter) adapts to the input of a drug or action. When the drug or action is removed, withdrawal symptoms occur. In the case of coffee, the withdrawal symptoms are often headaches, but can also be any number of symptoms like achy body, irritability, etc. Another example of withdrawal would be “the shakes”, which occur in alcoholics who haven’t had a drink in a while.
What separates the alcoholic from the coffee drinker; the addiction from the dependency?
As above, the addict experiences compulsion, consequences, and a loss of control, which the coffee drinker, or nail biter, or gum chewer does not. But these are all worldly symptoms of the addiction. What is addiction really?
Addiction is a response to a deep level of pain that causes the reward system to dysregulate, meaning the brain reward system of an addict is scrambled, due to an infinite need to be comforted. It causes the above 3 symptoms, and it wreaks havoc in the life of the afflicted.
Have I seen coffee addiction in my addiction treatment work? I have seen people get VERY attached to their coffee consumption while in drug treatment, which makes sense since its the last consciousness altering substance most addicts are allowed to consume (other than cigarettes), but the most harm I've seen it cause is a series of overblown power-struggles about when and how much a person is "allowed" to consume in treatment. This is because the coffee dependency gets paired with the underlying addiction, and goes along for the ride. The primary problem is the need to drastically alter consciousness in order to feel okay.
I share these thoughts because our cultural view of addiction is a trivialized version of the real thing. We talk about being addicted to things we like or love as if being addicted to them makes them more special. This robs true addiction of its recognizability and contributes to our collective ignorance of what addiction really is.
So, you’re not a coffee addict.
This shouldn’t make you any less excited to drink it or talk about how much you love it. You are now free to obsess about it, knowing that you won’t have to go to rehab to kick the habit.