• There's a very good reason why a cup of coffee can make us feel better. (Javier Molina)Source: Javier Molina
After a decade of fighting to give up coffee, I finally understand why my addiction to a daily brew has nothing to do with caffeine.
Sarina Lewis

22 Mar 2017 - 2:26 PM  UPDATED 1 Oct 2020 - 9:23 AM

Every six months for the past 10 years I’ve tried to give up coffee. 

I don’t drink a lot of it – just one good café brew a day. My moderation means there’s no medical or mental health reason why I would need to wave goodbye to my single soy flat white: I don’t have trouble sleeping; I’m not possessed of digestive issues; I’m not overweight or overly stressed. 

It’s the feeling of addiction that I don’t enjoy; the need for a daily stimulant to keep me connected and en forme. So every couple of months I attempt to prove to myself that mine is not an addiction but a preference. And yet every time I try to concrete this personal hypothesis my certitude is crushed when Sunday morning rolls around and it becomes apparent how powerless I am to give coffee up.

Now to give you a little background, coffee and I have a history.

I descend from a long line of tea drinking Indians. The everydayness of family connection was brewed within a looseleaf-filled morning pot. Tea was a comfort. It was a hot drink that contained within it the calm of the familiar. But the excitement of new social situations was always experienced through coffee.

Coffee’s first taste occurred at a café table in the small main street of our coastal hometown. Mum would be meeting a girlfriend and, at some point, she asked me to start coming along. I was not-yet 10. When her cappuccino arrived the lure of those chocolate sprinkles on the coffee’s frothy top was too much to resist. She handed me her spoon and allowed me to dig into the sweetness.

I listened to the scrape of café tables and chairs, to the clinking of coffee cups, to the easy laughter of Mum and her friends and the feeling was like that of connecting to this great big and social world that existed outside my own.

This was a sensation I would experience again as I grew into adulthood and left my small town to find what was there in the world.

There were the tall, non-fat, no-sugar vanilla lattes I used to down with my triathlon girlfriends in Southern California after the morning’s swim, run or bike practice. Back in Australia, it seems so foreign, now, to drink coffee like that. But this is the other lesson I would learn: how we consume coffee is as unique to culture as language.

Needless to say the years I spent in Paris called for a different approach. Every morning when Scott, my husband, left for work I’d walk the short distance from our beautiful Haussmanian apartment to the Place Victor Hugo. On the corner of the Place was this lovely local boulangerie called La Petite Marquise. It was here that I would begin my day with coffee. It took me ages to feel comfortable; with no French, I would stumble to be understood as I ordered a double express. But the day the cranky woman behind the counter smiled at my order and complimented my French following six months of daily visitation? That was the moment Paris welcomed me in.

Now it wasn’t until my conversation with anthropologist, Dr Caroline Schuster, that I recalled any of this.

As an anthropologist lecturing at the Australian National University, Schuster’s passion and life’s work is in understanding what’s behind, as she puts it, “all of our weird human rituals”. And though we talk briefly of the origin of coffee houses in the West, of the ties created in 17th and 18th century London between coffee and politics and social trend drivers, it’s not until we make history personal that I begin to understand what my addiction is REALLY about.

Schuster notes that what makes a particular type of consumption pleasurable is the social interaction we have around it – scooping the froth from a loved one’s cappuccino, for instance, and the connection within us that engenders; the flavour and experience of coffee that we use to access a series of subconscious associations; the ritual and meaning we imbue in coffee that can bring us closer to an idea of ourselves or to someone that we love.

Or, as Schuster experiences it, the way in which our experience of coffee can sometimes work to make us feel further apart. 

“I had to bring my special American drip coffeemaker with me when I moved to Canberra in order to make my coffee the way I like it, but this means I have to consume it on my own, “Schuster laments, “and it’s one more reminder of the distance that separates me from home.”

Back in my Margaret River local finishing up this piece with a soy flat white at my elbow – the familiar and pleasant buzz of friends in conversation around me – I’m grounded in the beautiful reality of why stepping back from coffee is not an action I’ve ever been willing to take.

I don’t need caffeine. I need a connection. And if it’s the ritual of tea that draws me into a world of familial love and intimacy, it’s the ritual of coffee that connects me to an idea of myself as a person of worth within a much broader community.

I can’t see any reason why I would ever want to give up on that.

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Lead image by Javier Molina. Woman holding coffee by Leah Kelley.

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