Grandma’s kitchen was bright. I remember sitting near a formica counter that was light blue, white, and yellow. I was eight. I sat up in my chair feeling very grown up as I requested my very first coffee.

“Does your mother let you drink coffee?” Grandma asked.

“Oh, yes, with breakfast all the time,” I said.

Her reply, “okay,” had the little hitch at the end that meant she didn’t quite believe me. Still, she poured me a half cup of the same instant coffee she was making for Grandad’s thermos and herself. It was horribly bitter. I gladly took the copious amounts of milk and sugar she offered to hide that awful taste. I was hooked.

Coffee was an adult beverage. It was akin to Betty Davis’s cigarettes and Dean Martin’s martinis during an age that shunned such vices. If you wanted to be sophisticated on the playground, a casual mention of how much you liked the new brand of coffee your mom just started using would vault you into cool for at least half a week. It really worked.

In high school French class, I learned my favorite way to drink coffee had a name, a sophisticated name, one that when used at the right moment was sure to garner more cool points, this time with the boys in computer club. Cafe au lait. Coffee drenched with milk and sugar. Heaven in a cup. I was still hooked.
Hooked was how I described the hold coffee had over me to my first love. I was nineteen and newly installed into my first college digs, a shared room in Lake Superior Hall dormitory at the University of Minnesota’s Duluth campus. We were sharing breakfast in the dining hall. Even from across the table, he’d noticed how badly I was shaking.

When I drank my first cup at Grandma’s table, coffee hadn’t given me the buzz so many coffee-drinkers seek. By junior high school, however, my adolescent nervous system had changed. The delightful brew I began to sip daily, hot or cold, in any form I could get it, made me shake. By mid-afternoon on just a half a cup of coffee drunk hours earlier, I shook like I was about to address the President of the United States. My best friends in debate club teased me for always being so nervous. I knew I had a problem, but in the days of “Just Say No” and anti-drug wars in Columbia, I wasn’t about to admit it. I tried quitting, but the cravings stopped me in my tracks. With or without coffee, I shook, but when I didn’t drink it my desire to do so consumed me until the next morning when I could sneak half a cup after my parents had left for work.

Days before he asked me why I was shaking, I’d quit cold-turkey. That last summer between high school and college was a heaven. By the end of high school. I’d decided to quit when I moved to college. Each day that summer I sipped my morning coffee slowly, luxuriously, knowing the end was drawing near. My first love was the first one to suggest my love of coffee was more than your casual affair. He had worldly experience, experience with addictions. He understood…and he didn’t laugh.

Twenty years have gone by, and I can drink an occasional brevé without stirring the cravings that visited my mind daily, then weekly, then monthly, then quarterly until I was near thirty years-old. Coffee was an addiction of my body more than my mind. I have the greatest respect for all those people who’ve struggled with substance abuse and won. Theirs is a daily fight that won’t end as mine has. Coffee opened a place for understanding and compassion in me that might never have opened had I never let her hook me. Coffee truly is Big Medicine.