My Everyday Drug Problem

This article was originally published in the Living Section of Epigram, Bristol’s main student paper, which I edited in my last year of study.

I’m in Shanghai, out with some locals. They hand me a cup of their favourite beverage, one which contains a  certain chemical cocktail. It’s delicious and refreshing, and their relaxed attitude makes gulping it down quickly seem like a good idea. Within half an hour my heartrate is up, the music in my ears sounded awesome, and I feel great.

Fast forward another 30 minutes and I feel awful; my stomach is tugging at the body around it and my brain is bouncing around like a pinpall. I try to calm myself down with clean cold water and slow breathing, but the only solution is to ride it out.

The drink: bubble tea. The locals I was out with: work colleagues.

Am I just soft? Maybe. But I do feel this anecdote signifies an issue that I don’t think most students – including my previous self – appreciate; caffeine is a drug, and like all drugs it has side effects.

Like most Bristol students, I’m not quite cool/sad enough (delete as you wish) to buy performance-enhancing drugs to help with deadline all-nighters, but desperation still points towards an extra boost. I’m unsure as to whether I wrote a single essay in my first two years as a philosophy student without consuming a metric shit-tonne of tea, and I’ve definitely used Pro Plus pills to help out with many a trip to both Woodland Road and Lakota.

It’s only due to my aforementioned Chinese experience that I’ve begun to realise that a rarely interrupted flow of caffeine with the occasional heavy boost might be a bad idea, as I was in a situation that wouldn’t have otherwise caused me stress.

Suddenly it all became so obvious; tea may have been helping me stay up late, but it wasn’t helping my stress at all, if anything it probably made it worse. Anxiety is just one of many symptoms of caffeine misuse – this term doesn’t signify an exact quantity of consumption; everyone’s body is different – it’s also really not great for your body’s hydration or your quality of sleep.

The problem is that it’s easy not to notice these problems when you’re already feeling pretty awful anyway, or to dismiss them because you don’t take caffeine seriously. Just as British culture’s acceptance of getting wankered in the pub as good sport increases the likelihood of drunken tears, I fear its instatement of tea as proverbial holy water can lead to caffeinated chaos. A scene comes to mind from everyone’s favourite BBC drama, Tracy Beaker, when an elderly prospective foster parent says to a young child ‘a cup of tea always does the trick’. Bloody drug-peddling Satanist.

Is this conjecture a little strong? Nah mate, sound the proper-journalist-klaxon, I went ahead and contacted Bristol’s Student Health service. Their director, Dr Dominique Thompson, commented that they ‘routinely see students suffering from a variety of ailments made worse by caffeine. This may range from diarrhoea to palpitations, gastritis, and anxiety. It also has a significant part to play in causing insomnia. So whilst we would not necessarily advise students to avoid it completely, we suggest that those with any of these issues try swapping to caffeine free versions of their favourite drinks!’

To clarify: I’m not telling you to stop drinking tea. I’m not even necessarily telling Bristol’s coffee-chugging law students to give it a rest: everyone has different limits. I know people who claim to be able to bosh down pill after pill, night after night without invoking serious self-hatred, and others who can drink their weight in vodka and still make it to the gym before midday, maybe your caffeine habit is just fine! David Lynch claims to drink 20 cups of instant coffee per day, and his career has gone pretty well.

I only ask that you appreciate that caffeine is a drug, and treat it as such. Though a quick word of warning; if you drunkenly bosh down a bunch of pro plus pills at Wide Eyes, there is the slightest chance that you may end up looking wonkier than everyone else there. I mean, that’s just what I heard…