Getting Hooked

Room 13 needs a new sign: "I drink eight cups of coffee a day. Is that many Harvard students are depressed, insecure or psychotic--as the thousands of Room 13 posters papering the campus certainly give impressionable visitors that idea. But Harvard's number one problem is really severe caffeine addiction.

Not all of us are willing to admit this, of course. Some would answer the hypothetical Room 13 question with a resounding "no." When I confessed to a friend that I drink about four cups of coffee a day and that I thought I might have a problem, he said, "Four cups a day? That's not a problem. Four cups at breakfast--now that's a problem." This consoled me a bit--at least his problem is worse than mine--but not completely.

Recently, The Crimson ran an article on the hazards of excess caffeine, pointing out that Harvard's two staples, coffee and Diet Coke, can cause headaches, digestive problems, blindness, death, pestilence and war, but this was like labeling cigarettes with, "The Surgeon General warns that inhaling obviously poisonous smoke is a bad idea." We already Know that. What we need to know is some way to get out of our addiction--painlessly, of course, because the fact of our addiction indicates that we have no will power at all.

Kicking the habit is extremely difficult. Some people try, for a variety of reasons ranging from ulcers to existential angst to common sense ("I just know this is going to kill me someday..."), but few succeed. Every time I swear that I will go for a whole day without a Diet Coke or a delicious cafe mocha from Au Bon Pain, I end up convincing myself that, well, one or two cups couldn't hurt, and then it's only a matter of degree to three or four.

It's not like I don't have reasons. If I don't have any caffeine, I feel drowsy and am unable to pay close attention in class. I'm paying $22,000 a year for school, aren't I? I owe it to myself to be alert.


Also, after four or five cups of coffee, I'm bound to have a headache. Taking Tylenol would be risking drug addiction, thus jeopardizing future presidential aspirations, so there's really only one solution for short-term relief: more coffee.

Work, of course, can be used to justify anything, as in, "Sorry I haven't returned your phone calls for a month, Mom, but I had a paper to write," or "I really should vacuum my room, but I have so much reading...." It works the same way with coffee: "I have to be alert this week, I have 14 midterms to study for." Or "every moment is essential because I have the MCATs next month." Or "I'll never graduate summa if I get more than two hours of sleep a night. Besides, college is only four years. I have the rest of my life to be well rested."

At best this is a shallow excuse, implying, as it does, that if one were not pressed for time, one would not be drinking seven cups of coffee at every meal. But as I discovered over Thanksgiving vacation when I drank my usual amount coffee and had to stay up to watch horror movies on cable until 3 a.m., caffeine addiction is really independent of any need to be awake.

Decaf coffee is, of course, a joke. My parents have told me numerous times that the key to breaking the addiction is drinking decaf, with the hope that I could maybe trick my body into thinking it was getting the real thing. Well, it didn't work for me any better than it did for them, and perhaps that's why rehab centers today don't recommend snorting flower as an intermediate step for recovering crack junkies.

Decaf coffee is also largely unavailable in the dining halls, being about as popular as caffeine-free Diet Coke is in campus soda machines. If nothing else, this is a victory for taste, demonstrating that it is caffeine, not coffee per se, that is an acquired taste.

So caffeine is here to stay. In fact, it has probably been with Harvard long time. One can imagine, in that light, the true sacrifice that the Boston Tea Party was for students at the time. As patriotic Americans were hurling boxes of tea into Boston Harbor, doubtlessly there were Harvard students nearby desperately screaming for calm rationality: "What the hell are you people doing? You're a mob out of control! Sure we should make sacrifices for independence, but this is suicide."

We should learn not to worry about our collective caffeine problem. It's just part of our history. When I have children who go to Harvard (and they will probably have no problem getting in because of admission tips), I won't be surprised when they will come home for vacations as nervous, caffeine-addicted young adults with shaky hands. I'll probaly just pass on my favorite, yellow-stained coffee mug--and with my habit, I'll have enough to go around even if my family resembles the Brady Bunch.

Thomas S. Hixson '94, an editor of The Crimson, is a little high-strung these days.