The last thing I am guaranteed to do every night before bed is prep the coffee pot for tomorrow. Ground dark roast beans in the basket, tap water down the hatch, press the AUTO BREW button, beep! The smell of morning might mess with my melatonin-laden brain, but it’s a price I pay for my morning routine. I’ll mime around the dark hallway until the blue light on the coffee maker lures me in like the light at the end of the tunnel. Then I plug in the coffee defibrilator and jolt myself awake.

I make my coffee the way God makes coffee: black. I pour it into my favorite mug, that one that reads MINNESOTA WHERE THE LAKES TOUCH THE TREES AND THE TREES TOUCH THE SKY AND THE SKY TOUCHES THE SUN AND THE SUN SHINES DOWN ON… (repeat.) I have a sip. Birds chirp in my brain, bunnies twitch their noses and hop out of holes, rosy-red cheeked cartoon characters yawn and stretch while the technicolor sun rises and the trees and plants bob in sync to a happy orchestral soundtrack – Zip-a-dee-doo-

Dah! The whiz-bang of a dopamine rush lights the pilot light in my brain. Standing there in the dim range hood halogen light, lost in my disney animation hallucination, all is silent, save for the soft crunch of puppy teeth on a well-loved pizzle stick. For a moment Pup and I’s eyes meet, his ears lift, my brows rise to the occasion. We turn back to our guilty pleasures. We all like what we like.

Guilty pleasure,” you say. “What’s your problem with coffee?” you ask. “You some sort of Puritan, man?” You might point and clutch your favorite coffee mug, the one you lifted from that cheap diner in the strip mall with the long-legged egg wearing sneakers for a logo. The waiters are nice old men with Brooklyn accents, but I hope you pour better coffee than the wimpy breakfast blend they serve there, if you can even call that “coffee.” The stuff I pour is so black, if you stick in a spoon you will pull out a spoon handle. Years of working late hours in a gas station with access to French roasts and a double-caffeine blend called BLAST! have toughened my taste buds. Pretty girls would pull in to the station and I’d pound my third cup real quick, hoping it would liven me up some. Wicked shakes never got me any courage though – or the girl – just more reasons to feel uncomfortable.

My need for speed – well, caffeine – goes back farther than that. One girl and I would haunt another gas station where our pal worked and try to out-Stök each other. Stök = those little creamer-sized packets of pure caffeine with just enough coffee to drown whatever evil bitterness was lurking therein. We’d switch to flavored creamers when we got too jittery: me downing seven, she huffing eight. At half my size, I was impressed with her resolve. Our pal would beg us to stop in case his manager checked the tapes to see who was using so much creamer and Stök so late at night. Take a chill pill, I’d say. The girl would blow a raspberry or something and we’d bounce along the sidewalks back to her house. I’d glide home after, waving goodbye, my teenage heart exploding from the weight of a crush of all crushes – and my coping method of choice, the drug called caffeine.

Ah, the coffee slurping days of yore. As a teenager, I never liked coffee even when I worked at Dunkin’ Donuts. Though perhaps it is because I worked at Dunkin’ Donuts that I didn’t like coffee. I still can’t swallow the stuff America runs on. I did scarf down five or six shots of espresso as a dare once. I don’t remember what happened to me after, but I’m glad to report no one got hurt. Years later I returned to Dunks and asked them to make me an Americano – a drink they don’t serve. Just charge me for three espressos and top it off with hot water, I explained to the cruller-stuffed counter girl. My watered-down espresso tasted terrible, still. Another time, I let my mom buy me a black hazelnut coffee, which I enjoyed for sentimental reasons – getting a coffee with my mom! – but I haven’t been back since.

I was eighteen when I purchased my first actual cup of coffee at a gas station in a sleepy Montana town. I had just driven non-stop from St. Cloud, Minnesota and still had much of Montana ahead of me before I would sleep just inside the Idaho state line. (I ended up driving for twenty straight hours.) I poured the sludge into a paper cup and added some milk, which broke down into its individual, floating molecular parts. I stirred a few sugar packets into what felt more like oatmeal and threw a buck or two on the counter. I don’t remember how it tasted, but I do remember dropping it out the window of my car onto I-94 at a speed probably over 80 mph.

It wasn’t until I got that job at the gas station that I began consciously training myself to love – and rely on – coffee. I began by mixing Columbian roast with French, before making French/BLAST! mixes, to just drinking BLAST! because no one ever bought it and I could have the entire pot for myself. I avoided putting dairy in my coffee – I don’t need no science project. Sugar packets became my secret ingredient, however. I was fond of those brown packets of raw sugar that pretended they were healthy. I’d stir in three, four, five of those suckers and suddenly coffee was bearable and I loved it, thanks I’ll have another. One night I drank seven cups of coffee. Winter time in downtown Portsmouth, NH + two or three Camel Wides + freshly microwaved BLAST! = just pour a pale ale into the empty coffee cup for the snowy walk home and I had it made.

I didn’t cut the sugar out until another caffeine-in-my-veins girl showed up on the scene, swaggering with her straight-from-the-pot ho-hum-try-to-keep-up habit. I phased out the sugar, playing with stevia for a few days, before removing sweeteners completely, just so I could tell her I drink it straight, too. Gosh, I felt so rebellious. No French vanilla extra extra over here, no vendi cappucino-weeno-whatever-the-kids-are-callin’-it-these-days for me, man. Just give me a pot I can sip from, Bill Murray-style. Keep the cup.

I once purchased a tiny cup of coffee and a cigarette for a dollahhh at a cigar shop in downtown Portsmouth before it was illegal to sell single smokes. Best Parliament Light I ever tasted. I never liked sour gummy worms much, so I didn’t get into the Red Bulls and giant cans of candy-flavored Monster drinks. The five-hour shots never cut it for me, either, but then I discovered a slightly larger version of pure panic attack in a bottle called Redline. I think it’s named for the way it makes my eyes look as I grin maniacally into the bathroom mirror, watching the lines of my reality blur after chugging a bottle. Don’t drink more than half a bottle at one time, the label said. Don’t drink more than one bottle a day. Who reads labels? That stuff will kill you, people in line with Monsters and Mountain Dews told me. Wh-wh-uh-t-t-tever, dude, my teeth would chatter.

Actually, I was pretty composed with the Redline. High tolerance. After a while, I needed them to calm down and focus. It’s when I went back out at five pm to get another Starbucks that the wicked shakes got some rattle and roll.

In a high school sociology class, a fellow student who also happened to be my jock arch-nemesis supplied us with “anonymous” surveys he expected us to fill out honestly. This kid never did appreciate my counter-cultural attitude – what some people call “teenage angst.” But I never liked that he could get away with wearing a t-shirt to school that had drawings of a bird, a dog, and a bird on it – SWALLOW BITCH SWALLOW, it read. But when my aforementioned Stök-champion friend wore a t-shirt with KKK sharpied across the front to protest football cheers calling to SCALP THE SACHEMS!, her Native American ass got in trouble.

So this kid hands out the surveys and they have questions like “Do you use drugs?” and “How often do you use drugs?” and “Which drugs do you use?” There was a lot of drinking, smoking, and who knows what other riffraffing in our town. Once a kid and his girlfriend got busted while banging on the back steps of the school during class – and his sister got busted for telling everyone. I was pretty square back then, though, except that I drank a lot of Mountain Dew. That Code Red shit was delicious. All throughout my youth, there were cases of Diet Coke – and Coke Zero when that was the hip new thing – on the porch, a fresh, cold can always ready by the back door for the walk to school. My mom kept a stash of caffeine-free for herself, but for some reason we kiddoes always drank the real stuff.

So with the sort of grin stained brown, while sneering at the jock arch-nemesis across the room, I answer the survey questions with “Yes” and “Daily” and “Caffeine.” Minutes after he collects our surveys, he jumps up and starts yelling and swearing at me from his desk. He approaches me – in front of the teacher – and tells me I’m penciled in at the flagpole after school for the beat-down I deserve. The teacher has to bring him out in the hall to calm down.

I never even flinched. “What’s the problem?” I told the teacher. “Caffeine is a drug.”

The teacher seemed to understand it was just juvenile bullshit and no one got in trouble. And if that kid was standing by the flagpole waiting for me, I hope he felt like a jackass after.

These days, I don’t feel “normal” unless I’m hyper-wired. I can either drink a few cups of coffee and bust out the front door singing showtunes or I can dangle my dog from a balcony because HE WON’T STOP WAGGING HIS TONGUE AT ME. I opt for the one that involves showtunes. Unfortunately, like addictions go, things get easily out of control. I have my half-pot of coffee in the morning and occasionally I slip up and get a Redline. I can spread the bottle out over a few hours, though. Y’know – nips, just like the day drinker. I used to get cases of Diet Coke and leave them in my car, but I’ve finally convinced my brain that Diet Coke is rat poison. Friday night and I hit the ‘bux for a dark roast, then it’s the weekend when I can drink caffeine all day long, have crazy caffeine-dreams and wake up five hours later with a bullet-to-the-sky and start all over, pawing in the dark for that blue light and my MINNESOTA mug. Yes, it’s a vicious cycle, because what do you need the most when you don’t get enough sleep? Yeah. Good thing I set the AUTO BREW.

And I take melatonin all too often because I can’t fall asleep at one am. Once I was so overstimulated I thought someone was breaking into the house. I stood in the hall in my underwear and barked “No!” at the reflection of a headlight off the doorknob, thinking it was some scumbag’s face. I was prepared to race to the counter and unsheathe the toothy bread knife to really slice the guy up, but when I checked, the door was still locked. After returning to bed, I doubled my ‘tonin dose to get the night over with. Every little sound outside – cars driving by, screen doors banging around in the wind, the neighbor’s cat mewling in the darkness – what’s that! look out! god damn! Sheesh.

In recent years, I’ve quit eating sugar and other junk foods. I’ve quit smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol. I’ve been able to come out of my emotional turtle shell a little bit more each year, replacing shame and fear with glimmers of genuine self-esteem. I’m inching closer to the life I envision myself living: a life in which I don’t feel like a workhorse for anyone or anything. As I apply the same brutal logic that I spat at the kid in my sociology class, however, I’ve accepted the fact that it is time to ditch the caffeine.

I don’t like the label “alcoholic,” but people who sit at desks and hold clipboards would probably call me one, at least a Stage 2 dependent. On the other side of that battle, I couldn’t comprehend life without drinking. And now I am thinking the same thing about coffee. That alone is a reason to question my relationship with it. I’ve spouted off a lot about quitting caffeine over the past few months, but I never seem to do much about it. It is something like the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party: I consider my course of action while nose-deep in a fresh cup of coffee, the proverbial mercury poisoning seeping into my brain. I go madder each day.

The more I reflect on my emotional and physical well-being, the more uncomfortable I feel about my addiction to caffeine. I’ve studied nutrition and fitness information to cut some shit from my life – and I’ve studied emotional and psychological strategies to fix some more shit in my life. I will have to load up the toolbox with everything I know to meet this new challenge, the deepest-rooted of them all.

The part of my personality that is mature and ready for personal growth is asking, What would happen if I…just…quit? Like, tomorrow I wake up and I…don’t…have…coffee…

It doesn’t sound that bad. I might get a headache or something. But riding on the shoulders of my inner-ideal-self is my inner-madman, butt-naked and foaming at the mouth. Now, now, now, let’s not do anything I would do. Yeehaw! He kicks me in the kidneys. Giddy up to the ‘bux, you bitch!

I’ve been getting better at ignoring what he says. But like a good horse, I still go where I’m told to go. I wonder, though, if I can finally shake him off – and run free. (Part two on the way!)