I hate to come over all Mark Zuckerberg so early on in proceedings (although I am available to battle Elon Musk, should anybody call on my services), but I don’t drink caffeine.

In fact, I haven’t really drunk caffeine since I got pregnant with my son (who can now ride a bike and spell “sprightly”; this is apparently how I measure the passing of time). For more than seven years, I have survived on rooibos tea, decaffeinated coffee and the occasional plunge into something herbal. I do also drink decaf tea – and it has improved a lot from the grey, slightly-tuna-smelling variation my poor mother was forced to drink in the 1990s when her menopause hit early and all hope of sleep disappeared like smoke.

Many people – particularly women – I know are venturing into sobriety, but I’m not sure that I’ve seen the same swing towards caffeine-free living. To give up alcohol in this beer-soaked, prosecco-popping, pub-oriented culture is doubtless a radical act and one that seems to bring people enormous personal inspiration. But to eschew caffeine still seems, well, just weird. It’s the preserve of narcissistic, Atomic Habits-touting billionaires such as Zuckerberg; spaghetti-limbed models such as Julia Fox and Gisele Bündchen; or hand-crocheting health food shop assistants who talk earnestly and loudly about the power of ginkgo biloba and gong baths. To turn down everything from a frothy coffee in a cafe to the stewed urn tea of a school fete makes you at best a novelty and at worst a pain in the neck.

Caffeine has undergone a fairly public and gentrified renaissance in British culture this millennium. From high-street lattes to nerve-jangling espressos, staffroom Nespressos to cold-brewed concoctions, the UK middle class have become obsessed with coffee in a way that would have made my Kenco-swilling grandparents’ eyes roll out of their heads. Similarly, we are drinking caffeinated, carbonated, canned drinks at an extraordinary rate. According to Statista, in 2023, “regular Coca-Cola had the largest sales among soft drinks sold in convenience stores in the UK with a value of £780m”. That’s a lot of jitter-making fizz pouring into a lot of mouths.

But weren’t we always like this? The 17th-century obsession for coffeehouses in England turned the nation’s teeth brown while, as Sathnam Sanghera has pointed out in his brilliant radio series Empire of Tea, our appetite for a cup of char fuelled the British colonial project, and left a mark on the national character for centuries. We’ve never been great with moderation. Even in our cups.

Much as I fear the backlash against what I’m going to say, it’s actually quite nice to be unshackled from the highs and lows of caffeine. The synthetic rush of adrenaline, the chemically induced cortisol rollercoaster, and the epinephrine tango associated with caffeine were all making me, well, a bit tired. And while I gave it all up because I was pregnant, I resisted the urge to get back on that bronco precisely because I didn’t want to be tired again. Of course breastfeeding, night-waking, sling-walking, life-or-death care for a helpless infant was exhausting. But I was so terrified of drinking a cup of strong coffee, only for my son to then fall into an unexpected nap, and to have the following empty two hours pacing around my house like a rottweiler, unable to sleep, that I stayed off it. If he was going to sleep then, by God, so was I. Or so the theory went, anyway.

For a few years I kept caffeine as a sort of potential weapon, in my cupboard, for days when I had a monumental deadline or a 7pm event after being woken at 4am by a screaming child. It gave me a buzz, a headache and a feeling of uneasy guilt in my chest but it did also get the job done.

These days, when I do accidentally drink coffee, I invariably become convinced that I’ve flooded the kitchen, that everybody hates me and that I am going to get arrested for accidental tax evasion. The anxiety spiral is immediate and horrendous. When I last went to the Lake District on holiday recently, I unsuspectingly drank a cup of real coffee with my breakfast and by 10.30am could be found running home across mountains in a sweaty panic because I’d become convinced that I’d accidentally set the cottage on fire.

I’m not for a moment going to suggest that any right-thinking person start their day with a cup of warm water and a slice of lemon. Nor would I recommend bone broth, matcha, chicory, guarana or any of the other soil-tasting supposed-energy drinks. All I will say is that I probably haven’t had a decent cup of tea since Theresa May was in power and I’m still, well, awake.

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