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Hello Acid Reflux, Bye Bye Coffee and Wine

With acid reflux, dropping acid isn't what it used to be


I go through five stages of grief when my doctor tells me I have to cut out coffee and wine due to acid refux:

  1. Denial: No, I’m not addicted to caffeine, I insist, while Google-mapping the closest Starbucks on my way out.
  2. Anger: Why me? And whose idea was it for all those sexy, inviting coffee bars to proliferate? I can’t frequent my local wine store without passing a Just Java every few feet! Plus my punch cards are almost full — what a waste!
  3. Bargaining: Can’t I have just one measly cup of coffee a day? I’ll even settle for decaf! I apologize for years of ridiculing losers who eschew caffeine.
  4. Depression: Eventually I’m going to end up in senior living, subsisting on prunes and hot water with lemon anyway, so what’s the point?
  5. Acceptance: Embrace my mortality and inevitable future? Pass the Sauvignon Blanc.

OK, so I have a ways to go before reaching Stage 5. The hardest part is accepting that I’ve been diagnosed with a middle-aged ailment. I don’t take comfort in the fact that 20 percent of Americans suffer from acid reflux, and it can start in your early 20s. Risk factors include overeating (one of my core competencies), being overweight (how is it possible when I secretly slide the scale a few pounds lower before my doctor enters the exam room?) and wearing tight pants (so my waistline isn’t what it was when I was 20; is yours?).

First I cry. Then I drown my sorrows in a venti, iced, skinny, hazelnut, macchiato, sugar-free syrup, extra shot, light ice, no whip. Savoring each sip, I keep hearing my doctor’s parting words: “This is the first day of the rest of your life.”

He reeked of coffee breath as we shook hands goodbye.

Day one: I buy a book called Dropping Acid. No, not that kind. I begin an extreme two-week elimination diet. The first day of the rest of my life encompasses giving up chocolate, cheese, eggs, garlic, onions, butter, tomatoes, sausage, bacon — name a food I love and it must never pass through my esophagus again.

Mournfully, I look at my grinder and overpriced bag of Fair Trade beans I just bought — a robust, syrupy, well-balanced complex blend with a pleasantly nutty aroma, subtle hints of bittersweet chocolate, a taste of fruitiness and a nice lively aftertaste. I stash the beautifully shiny but evil acid-producers in a cabinet, secured with a lock whose combination I’ve forgotten. Detox, here I come.

Did I mention I absolutely hate herbal tea? (See Stage 2, Anger.) I drink gallons, pretending it’s coffee pulsating into my veins with an electric energy charge. I don’t get much work done, spending half the day peeing. I need a nap before noon.

The afternoon brightens. My vision clears, and I magically reconnect with my concentration, focusing on work projects. I can do this! By 9 p.m., I fall asleep like a baby, dreaming of my original Rabbit corkscrew — what a work of art.

Day two: Bounding out of bed, I feel like a new woman! Glancing in the mirror, I’m reminded how far from new I am. I skip into the kitchen, feigning optimism. This is not as terrible as I thought! (See Stage 5a, Premature False Acceptance.)

An hour later, caffeine withdrawal attack. I’m gulping Advil by the fistful. A colleague invites me out to coffee after lunch.

“Do you have herbal tea?” I ask my barista, who looks insulted by my request.

Reaching behind the oversized donuts, she lackadaisically demonstrates an array of test tubes, whose contents look like a product selection in a Colorado marijuana dispensary.

My colleague chatters nonstop over a double cinnamon latte. Why must she slurp so loud? My herbal tea is the color of urine. Maybe it’s stale; no one ever orders that stuff here. I have to pee again. I want to smack the foam residue off my colleague’s lips. (See Stage 2a, uncontrolled anger.)

“Meet for wine after work?” she asks.

“I’ve been sober,” I moan. “For 32 hours.”

“Sorry,” she says, “I didn’t know you were an alcoholic.”

“I’m not,” I insist. Some people take Xanax. I prefer Beaujolais nightcaps. “How about an after-work matcha smoothie instead?”

My colleague never invites me out again.

Day three: I’m forbidden from eating four hours before bedtime, giving my bland new diet a chance to digest. In Spain, a local once told me, “Americans don’t understand how we can eat dinner at 11 p.m. We can’t understand how Americans aren’t hungry after eating dinner at six.”

I’m famished by the time Stephen Colbert airs. Good news: I can drink all the water I want! Note to self: load up on toilet paper at Costco. I’ve always had a fear of turning into my mother, who annoyed me with her early-bird dinners and ordering “dry fish” in every restaurant. She lived to 96. Is it worth it?

Day four: I’m not supposed to bend over, as it interferes with digestion. I’m mastering picking up crumbs from the kitchen floor with a plié. Putting on socks is my next contortion.

I’m instructed to eat small meals. Why then did my Polish grandmother criticize me for “eating like a bird” and praise me for joining “the clean plate club.” It’s all her fault. (See Stage 2b, Shameful Anger at Beloved Deceased Family Member Who Loved You Unconditionally As Long As You Ate Large Portions.)

Day 15 (at last!): I’ve made it, three pounds thinner, promoted on to the maintenance phase! I can gently expand my diet, identifying trigger foods.

First, I hire a handyman to break the lock on my hidden stashed coffee. I’m allowed one cup a day. I savor it in a beer stein, sipping it like the abandoned fine wine turning to vinegar on my lonely wine rack. I lick the last bit of foam like a malnourished alley cat, joining the clean mug club. Grandma would be proud.

Candy Schulman
By Candy Schulman

Candy Schulman’s award-winning essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, Salon and elsewhere, including anthologies. She is working on a memoir about mothers and daughters. She teaches writing at the New School in New York City.

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