Faith Gong: On giving up coffee

I fell in love with coffee slowly. It wasn’t until midway through college, when a friend took it upon herself to introduce me to coffee in the form of a sugary sweet hazelnut latte, that I became interested in the beverage at all. I continued to guzzle hazelnut lattes (which I now consider “adulterated coffee”) at Starbucks franchises during my post-college years, working my way up to the “venti” size (which I believe is Italian for “the approximate volume of a bucket.”) Over time my coffee drinks included less sweetener and milk, so that when my family was living in California’s Bay Area — the epicenter of coffee snobbery — I was a coffee purist.

For over a decade, I drank my coffee black, preferably from freshly ground beans. Although the caffeine kick was helpful as our household filled with young children, I drank coffee for love. Quality was more important to me than quantity: My habit was to drink two cups of coffee per day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. I loved the taste of coffee, loved cradling the warm mug in my hands and inhaling its aroma, loved anticipating my second cup during those endless afternoons of early motherhood.

Which made it acutely painful when I had to give up coffee.

Earlier this year I began suffering from uncomfortable digestive issues, including severe heartburn, stomach pain, and other forms of indigestion. While these symptoms might have been an appropriate response to 2020, they didn’t respond well to conventional medications. With no other underlying cause diagnosed, my doctor suggested that I try a “low-FODMAP diet.”

FODMAP is an acronym for a slew of fancy words, but what it really means is: “Food Or Drink that Might Arouse Pleasure.” These include wheat, garlic, onion, sugar and artificial sweeteners, most milk products, processed foods, and select fruits, vegetables, and legumes. High-FODMAP foods ferment easily in the stomach; the key is to not eat or drink any high-FODMAP products for an extended period, and then to begin adding them back gradually in order to identify the worst triggers.

Interestingly, coffee and tea are not on the high-FODMAP list, but my doctor encouraged me to consider cutting coffee out of my diet as well, because the acid and caffeine in coffee are often linked to digestive issues. When she first raised the possibility of my giving up coffee, I looked at her in disbelief, and left her office resolved to try everything but giving up the beverage that brought the greatest pleasure to my life.

Over time, though, I couldn’t deny that my daily cups of coffee were upsetting my stomach. Because it’s difficult to go through life being a loving and engaged spouse, mother, daughter, friend, and citizen while in acute digestive distress — and because all those things should clearly take priority over my afternoon cup of coffee — I decided to quit coffee, cold turkey. I thought my world would lose all color, like stepping from Oz back to Kansas.

But here’s the thing: It was hard (especially on days when I was up with the baby multiple times in the night), but it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. I was able to function, and I was able to take pleasure in other things. Life went on, in color, without coffee.

That’s not to say that I didn’t start casting around for coffee substitutes. A friend told me about something called “Teecino,” which is made entirely from roasted herbs and is supposed to replicate the taste of coffee. I picked up a box at the Co-op, trembling with anticipation. While Teecino did do a decent job of mimicking coffee (especially the bitterness), it wasn’t going to be my salvation: I was too aware of drinking something that was trying to be coffee, yet still obviously wasn’t coffee.

I turned next to tea, which at least wasn’t pretending to be coffee. The gentle herbal blends wouldn’t cut it as a daily coffee substitute, so I decided to turn to the serious tea people: the British. After sampling several brands, I landed on Yorkshire Gold, which is described as a robust, “malty” black tea. For the past months, I have looked forward to a morning and an afternoon mug of Yorkshire Gold tea, and all has been well.

During those months, under a combination of the low-FODMAP diet and acid-reducing medication, I’ve experienced a marked improvement in my digestive symptoms. I’ve begun slowly adding various items back into my diet. For the past week, I’ve had one morning cup of coffee: So far, so good. And for Christmas this year, my husband gave me two bags of Bard Coffee from Portland, Maine.

This gift has significance beyond reintroducing coffee into my life. Exactly one year ago today, our two-month-old son was hospitalized for two weeks in the pediatric ICU at the University of Vermont Medical Center due to an acute respiratory infection. It was his second hospitalization in a month (sandwiched in between two outpatient surgeries), and it felt like the bottom had dropped out from under our family. It was agonizing to see our baby sedated and intubated; it was heartbreaking to watch our other four children endure family separation, disruption of holiday plans, and fear for their beloved baby brother.

When I returned home from the hospital, I found that my cousin had sent our family a care package, which included two bags of Bard Coffee. It is a curious fact that, in those settings when one most requires a decent cup of coffee — for instance, during a two-week hospital vigil at your child’s bedside — the only coffee to be found is downright terrible. So when I came home and brewed my first cup of Bard Coffee, it tasted like the nectar of the gods.

I am turning these things around in my head as time marches us towards a new year. 2020 has been an awful year for so many: The pandemic, protests, political battles, and natural disasters have launched thousands of tragic stories. And I have walked with loved ones through pain and loss that has nothing to do with any of those events, but is part of the breathtaking hardness of being human.

No matter the year, there will be difficulty. Sometimes the bottom drops out, as when your baby is hospitalized. Sometimes you just have to give up the coffee you love. But if 2020 has taught me anything, it is that we have an unbelievable capacity to endure the most unbelievable difficulties. I see it in the smile of my healthy, hardy one-year-old son. I feel it when I enjoy my afternoon cup of Yorkshire Gold. I know it when I hear stories of people loving and supporting each other in order to survive the pandemic, loss, and pain. And no, life doesn’t always go back to “normal,” but we go on. 

It is, and always has been, hard work to be human. Still, sometimes, someone sends you the gift of delicious coffee.  

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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