A few weeks ago, my brain hit a wall. That is the best metaphor I can come up with, not just because I hit a limit, but because that’s what it felt like. It felt like my brain was actually damaged. I couldn’t think straight. I couldn’t process information or communicate normally. There were times when I struggled to string words together, much less manage to go into Marketer Speak Mode, in which I use buzzwords on autopilot to sound authoratative in meetings. (“What we need is a closed digital tracking ecosystem that mirrors the customer journey,” is the kind of phrase I throw out in that mode).
This isn’t an entirely new state for my brain. I am used to a fairly bad depressive jag around November, when the days get shorter and the time change happens. Layering seasonal affective on top of existing clinical depression creates an annual drop in dopamine and serotonin that I can’t keep in check with the same practices that work the rest of the time.
This jag, however, was worse than any other year in that it was not only mentally worse, but that it brought a whole new set of physical symptoms. I get a slight vertigo when I am in a depressive state, a light dizziness combined with a sense that the world is on a 15 degree angle. In addition to that, I had a permanent headache that Advil couldn’t fix. And I was completely exhausted, lethargic in a way beyond my usual seasonal affective disorder. It was bad in that it actually kept me from doing stuff. I went so far as to be tested for Lyme, and the doctor threw a thyroid test in to boot, but no conventional test could explain the problems I was experiencing.
After ten days of this, I was also running out of hope to get through it. What if I had done something to my brain? What if I had actually broken it and my usual methods wouldn’t work ever again? I am used to being able to control my depression with a regime I’ve spent the past five years working on, a base of medication that covers about half the problem, and then a series of lifestyle changes that cover most of the remainder. But with the extreme lethargy and the headaches, I wasn’t able to get enough exercise, and exercise is a huge part of my mental health regime. What if I never got past this?
I was complaining about this to a friend, about how I felt. I told her the physical symptoms reminded me of the times I’ve gone off caffeine suddenly, like I’d been given decaf. I couldn’t feel the impact of the coffee I was drinking, so I kept slugging back more of it. Similarly, I couldn’t feel the effects of my antidepressant medication. Her response was that maybe coffee was actually the problem. Maybe coffee was over-stressing my brain. Maybe that was causing part of the issue?
My immediate response when someone suggests I cut back on coffee is OVER MY DEAD BODY. I’ve been drinking coffee since I was twelve. I asked my mom if I could start drinking it, and her response was, “It will stunt your…..oh, have a mug.” At twelve, I wasn’t freakishly tall, but it was obvious stunting my growth would Not Be A Problem, that I was trending after my namesake, “Big Jill”, my 5’11 aunt. My entire adult brain has therefore been formed around caffeine. I have a long history of it that I documented twelve years ago when I tried to quit the first time. I’ve tried quitting in the past, and found that my personality doesn’t function the same way. Gone is my innate Canadian Tigger-ness. Instead, I’m much more like a Kanga, a risk-averse milquetoast mom. (Obviously the last time I did this, I had a toddler.)
However, after ten days of my brain feeling like it was alternately too big for my skull, or missing entirely, I was willing to consider options. So I did some research. Turns out coffee can actually damage serotonin receptors over time! It turns out it can also wear out norepinephrine receptors. I take Burproprion, the generic Wellbutrin, which is a norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (different than most antidepressants, which are serotonin reuptake inhibitors). This keeps extra norepinephrine in my brain, which seems to be the missing chemical link in allowing me to function like a normal human most of the time. Maybe by damaging the receptors with caffeine, I had actually canceled out the effects of the NRI? Or I had made it difficult for my brain to process serotonin, eliminating a set of positive emotions entirely? Or I had produced too much cortisol and was exaggerating the effects with coffee? All the theories sounded like caffeine could be a factor. Therefore, I decided to cut caffeine back and see what happened.
Ten days ago, I stopped drinking my afternoon pick me up cup of coffee. And I itched for that coffee. I would droop at my desk in the overheated client office around 2pm, and long to be able to go down and get an almond milk latte from the in-house coffee bar. I still need a ten minute nap at 3pm because I can’t just slug back more caffeine like I have trained myself to do so I can push through. (Note that I do not always get said ten minute nap because work).
Last week, I cut from two 12oz cups in the morning to just one 12oz cup. This would be fine at the time, but then I’d be sleepy mid-afternoon again, and be unable to go get a pick me up cup at 2pm. On some days, the half-life would wear off as early as 11am and I’d be sleepy before it was even lunchtime.
This week, I’m down to one 8oz cup. One normal cup. Granted, I went through 3 cups of organic instant decaf yesterday (partly because I was mixing MCT oil in for a snack) but I’m down to less coffee than I’ve had in twenty-five years. This isn’t easy for me. I’m used to combating any fatigue with coffee. I’m used to caffeine being what powers me through my day. Now, I’m drinking organic decaf as a placebo, which is useless. My brain is not fooled, and it wants that steady drip of something that fights off sleepiness through its entire day.
And it may be that the coffee was the problem because I feel better. Actually, not just better, I feel joyful. I feel like everything in my world is fantastic (true, my life is awesome) and each and every day will be a wonderful set of experiences. Most of all, I believe that I will have the energy and the physical ability to actually go and engage with that world instead of being physically and mentally exhausted. It’s a night and day change from the state I was in ten days ago, where I felt like the world around me would go by and I would just count down time in it, unable to rouse myself to move, and unable to feel anything positive even if I did.
Is this all due to the caffeine cutback? Maybe. It could also be the L-tyrosine I started taking. It could be that this episode just ran its course and my brain healed itself. I know part of the headache was actually allergies – after re-visiting my morning Zyrtec, those went away almost entirely as well. But i’m still working on cutting back caffeine just in case that’s the dominating factor. I’ll cut down that 8oz of caffeinated coffee to decaf on Thursday…and over Thanksgiving weekend, I will actually try to go without coffee. (This is also why I’m staying home over Thanksgiving to detox and sleep)
Still, I’m just not willing to risk resuming that old habit just yet. I’d like to see how much better my brain gets, how much I can heal myself. I’m not ever going to not have to deal with depression, but at least I have done the work to alleviate the symptoms most of the time, and reduced a chronic condition down to an occasional flare-up. Cutting back on caffeine may be part of that self-care regimen that I have to accept in future.