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Caffeine Overload

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I’m a law student, but I’m also “sensitive to caffeine”. Yes, you read that right. I’m a walking contradiction.

Suffering from a severe case of ‘mid-semester slump’ last year, I turned to energy drinks. It was a seemingly innocent study aid that kept me alert. But it soon turned into a relationship of dependency. I felt that I couldn’t make any progress without its assistance.

At one point, I relied on four cans of Red Bull per day. One of my friends joked that it was breakfast, lunch, dinner and supper. I didn’t admit it until later, but that’s exactly what I thought.

Once I realised that I was spending the majority of my salary at the library cafe, I started buying it in bulk from the supermarket.

I was averaging five hours of sleep per night, and I’d find the most trivial of things infuriating: when one of the pages in my Torts textbook got creased, I almost cried. My appetite dropped completely, and I only ever wanted outrageous amounts of sugar.

Towards the end of semester, my immune system was decimated. I caught an ordinarily harmless cold, but that soon turned into a chest infection. I was angry. How could my body do this to me? But I was determined to keep going and just made it into exam week. I had lost almost 7kg, but no one said anything. I was beyond exhausted.

The night before the first exam, I went out to dinner. Returning home, I felt sick, and after climbing the stairs to my apartment, I couldn’t breathe. My chest felt heavy and there were sharp pains down my arms. My heart was pounding in my ears. My boyfriend rushed me to the emergency department.

The doctors immediately discovered that I had an arrhythmia. Their first question was whether I had ever used cocaine, and I was later told that my symptoms were similar to those of a heart attack. Funnily, my first lecturer joked that if we wanted to get admitted to practice, it would be better to be caught with a bag of cocaine than to be found guilty of plagiarism.

After several blood tests, ECGs, and countless painkillers, my condition had improved. I was discharged and told not to sit my exams. After working so hard, I was devastated. A diagnosis couldn’t be made, but I was prescribed strong painkillers.

A week later, I suffered the same symptoms – only worse. I was re-admitted to hospital where the nurses doted on me. I didn’t improve much. In total, I was admitted to hospital four times – the staff in Emergency and the assessment unit began to think of me as a regular. After my fourth admission, I went to see a cardiologist.

My body rebelled at the sudden cessation of its caffeine supply. I suffered blinding migraines and my body clock was a mess. I quit my job, as I couldn’t last half an hour without needing to sit down. In the two months after my first hospital admission, I was subjected to infinite tests. Most results were inconclusive and the process was draining.

Finally, I was given a diagnosis. I had viral myocarditis. In English: my heart muscle was swollen – it was strained from beating so erratically due to caffeine and was swollen from the chest infection.

In the month following my diagnosis, I slept almost all day, every day. My medication made me drowsy as it reduced my blood pressure to alleviate the swelling and chest pain. I still take this today, and I’m not due to come off it until at least November.

I sat my deferred exams soon after the diagnosis, and achieved credits. While I knew I could have done better ordinarily, I didn’t beat myself up about it. Determined to continue my degree, I enrolled in three subjects the following semester. By week three, having already missed most of my classes, I realised I was kidding myself. I withdrew from two subjects, meaning I only had to attend three hours of class a week.

The time I spent sleeping took its toll on my relationships. It affected my interactions with family and friends. I felt selfish at times, as I was dependent on those close to me. Despite the support, I felt alone and became withdrawn from my social life. Some friends didn’t understand that I couldn’t do certain activities or attend certain events.

Slowly, I began to recover. My diet improved significantly – I felt more cheerful, and I started to look healthy.

My sugar intake decreased with my increase in activity, and I had managed to cut out caffeine altogether.

It’s been almost six months since my diagnosis. My cardiologist says it’s hard to say how long it will take to fully recover, as some patients are better in six months, but others take years. However, I have made significant progress.

I need about ten hours of sleep to function properly, but that figure is slowly decreasing. Because of my lack of caffeine and the fact that I’m still studying law, I often find myself in a state of delirium that has me accidentally dispensing liquid hand soap on to my toothbrush after a demanding day...

While I now drink a small amount of caffeine (mainly in the form of tea), I’ll never go back to taking my body for granted. I’ve realised I’ll only ever have one, and that I need to look after it. In some ways, my ordeal was a blessing in disguise.

These days, I try to better manage my time. I eat small amounts frequently to maintain my energy levels, and ensure I give my body all the necessary nutrients. Although I’m not supposed to do intense exercise yet, I stay active by doing light physical activity. This also helps me deal with stress, and it’s more rewarding than my former coping mechanism.

I’m now back at university full time and doing work experience. Like everyone else, I get stressed around assessment time, and while I joke about caffeine consumption with my friends, I know that it’s not the answer. I’m proof that a law student can (and really should) live caffeine-free.

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