05/26/2015 11:41 am ET | Updated May 26, 2016

The Coffee Complex

For many of us, coffee is what gets us out of bed in the morning. It is the magical substance that gets us going -- that gets us doing. According to the National Coffee Association's 2015 Survey, 59 percent of American adults drink coffee on a daily basis. Admittedly, I am one of these people.


My first exposure to coffee occurred at a very young age, when I was maybe 6 or 7. My mother has been an avid coffee drinker for as long as I can remember, and she used to let me sip the watery remains of her iced coffee once she was finished. As I got older and entered teenage-hood, my father would brew me hot coffee to go, which I would take to school in a silvery thermos. Then my obsession with Twin Peaks inspired me to try black coffee, which I began ordering at cheap diners, drinking the piping hot liquid out of thick mugs.

A little over two years ago, my relationship with coffee changed drastically, as I began to experience chronic fatigue as a result of a viral illness. Caffeine became a form of self-medication more than anything else. Today, the promise of a jolt of energy remains all too tempting. When my energy level is artificially improved, I begin to feel more like my happy, authentic self. I can "do" things: make a phone call, go for a short walk or hang out with a friend. I can feel somewhat productive.

As someone with chronic fatigue, I often wonder where I fit in to our culture of productivity. Our society, generally speaking, is result-biased; we are rewarded for the things we create or achieve externally (i.e. earning a diploma, getting a new job, writing a novel, buying a house, etc.) While all of these milestones are wonderful achievements to be celebrated, I can't help but think how our result-oriented society is rather exclusionary. What about those who are not able-bodied, for whom brewing a pot of coffee in the morning is a struggle? How can we measure their self-worth?

One alternative would be to place introspection on equal ground with external achievement. Imagine a world where people were praised for attending to their mental (and physical) health before they were celebrated for landing that promotion. A world where simply "being" was as important -- if not more important than -- "doing." A world where "feeling" was on par with "thinking."

This may sound like an absurd, utopian vision, one that is quite un-American. After all, we are a nation of doers, achievers and coffee drinkers. But I would like to see us find a balance between the internal (our thoughts and feelings) and external (our actions).

Perhaps a more realistic goal would be to redefine "being productive" on an individual basis. For some, being productive might mean getting out of bed in the morning. For others, the same could mean writing a ten-page paper. Embracing this fluid scale of productivity would empower those who do not fit the able-bodied stereotype. Eventually, we could begin to break down the shame perpetuated by ableism.

So how does this all relate to coffee?

Unconsciously, I have been using caffeine as a means of conforming to the ableist ideal of productivity. This can be dangerous, as drinking coffee can actually lead me to overexertion. In other words, I am fooled into thinking I can do more than my body is able.

I don't know when or if I will stop drinking coffee, but I will begin to use the substance with more awareness. I will allow myself the time and space to heal both my body and mind. I will give myself permission to do only what I can, and to feel a sense of accomplishment even on days when I do absolutely nothing. I will step back and simply "be."