I can’t tell you how many cups of hot tea I drink a day.
I started drinking tea in college. There was an electric kettle in our department chair’s office, the first one I’d ever seen. The kettle sat on a small cabinet filled with tea bags (always stocked thanks to Ms. Kenna, the English Department mom to so many when we missed our own). After a long day of classes and helping less-nerdy students edit papers in the writing center, I’d fill a mug with Earl Grey, curl up in an oversized chair, and talk with my fellow majors about books, TV, movies, and everything my pop-culture-loving heart desired.
When I drink a cup of tea now, I want to recapture that feeling of being cozy, of rewarding myself after a hard day’s work, being surrounded by people who were much smarter than me but somehow let me hang out with them.
I work by myself now, though my tea stash conveys I work in an office of twenty. I have tea tins lining the counter, nestled in drawers, stuffed in cabinets. I could probably make three hundred cups of tea with my current supply, though I consume the stuff so quickly that if I didn’t replenish my stash, it would probably last me only two weeks.
Tea calms me down. It puts me in a better mood.
To me, A hot beverage is the liquid equivalent of a hug from someone you love.
I call my mom every Sunday for our long weekly check-in. Before I dial her number (Ha! Dial. We haven’t dialed anything since the 80’s. More like “touched buttons to reach her cellular device,” but that doesn’t have the same ring to it—ring! haha! Sorry. #phonepuns), I boil some water to steep some fruity kombucha green tea in the summer, and malty Canadian breakfast tea with just a touch of maple in the winter. If I can’t have my tea while I’m sitting across from my mom, I’ll make sure to recapture that feeling the comfort of sitting across from her by making a cup before we hop on the phone. When my cup is empty, I know my call is almost over. And that’s okay—there will be another next week.
If I’m crying, I know to drink peppermint tea. For some strange reason, it soothes my frayed nerves and dries up my tears. After a few minutes on the couch with my brew, I begin to breathe deeper and go about my day.
I think I’ve figured something out, though.
Drinking tea is how I tether myself to a feeling of peace.
If I have a cup of tea, nothing bad is really happening to me. With a cup of tea in my hand, I can change things, I can work through my problems, I can get through another conference call, I can stay up just a bit longer and finish that article. It’s my conduit for work. It’s my reward for a job well done.
Thing is, tea doesn’t really harm me. Maybe I’ve had more cups of Lady Grey than my dentist would like, but generally, my body doesn’t mind that I down the stuff like it’s growing in my backyard for free. I don’t drink it with sugar or milk or anything—no matter the flavor, I drink it straight up.
I know that’s a weird way to feel about tea. These are rather strong feelings to have about a beverage. But that’s me—I have strong feelings about everything.
The problem is when I try to chase that feeling—the conduit for work, the cozy feeling, the reward—with things that are not tea. Like chips.
Oh, how I love chips.
Chips are my crack.
No, seriously—I am addicted to chips. I eat them even when I don’t want to. I think about them if they’re in my cabinet, and I have to devour them. All of them. You have to, says my brain. They will not leave me alone until they are gone.
I eat them when I’m full. I eat them when I’m sad, when I’m tired and stressed and just need something to take the edge off.
If I’m losing my mind because my to-do list is long and my schedule is full, I guarantee all I want to do is turn on the TV and disappear into the bottom of a bag. And another, and another, and another.
It’s something I used to do when I was a kid. Sometimes when I’d come home from school, I’d open the kitchen cabinet and find a bag of whatever chips all six of us had to share for the week. I remember flipping on The King of Queens, opening a bag of my mom’s favorite Lay’s Sour Cream and Onion, and crunching my way to a quiet place, wondering how many I could eat to satisfy my craving but leave enough so my mom wouldn’t ask questions.
If I had my druthers today, I’d be downing a bag of salt-and-pepper kettle chips right now. The big bag, the one marketing teams were peer-pressured to start calling “party size” so people like me wouldn’t think, My family is only one person, so clearly this family-size bag is a perfect serving for me!
But then I eat the chips. As soon as I’m done, I’m disgusted. My body feels bloated. My mood plummets. How can you do this to yourself? I think. Then, Get another bag. It’s just this one time.
Uh-huh. Heard that one before.
Round and round and round the cycle goes until I finally decide enough is enough.
I start making breakfast again, a telltale sign that I am choosing to be a calm and collected member of society who can do things like eat meals with protein and vegetables, pay my bills on time, and solve problems at work. I don’t have time to be numb—I have things to do.
So what’s the difference between tea and chips? Why do I turn to one and not the other?
When I want to engage with the world but have a “treat yo’self” moment, I choose tea.
When I don’t want to feel anymore, when I want to turn the world off, that’s when I give in to chips.
In both scenarios, I’m trying to make myself calmer, though in completely different ways.
I know this now. I’ve come to realize it as I’ve grown older, and I’ve confirmed it through reading The Power of Habit (PS: go get it from your bookstore or library right now. It’s so worth your time).
In The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg shows why and how we make all of our decisions.
They’re based on three stages: cue, behavior, and reward.
Cue: Something that triggers us to want a reward. Think Pavlov’s dog and the bell. Say you see a leprechaun running toward the end of the rainbow with a pot of gold—the leprechaun is the cue.
Behavior: The thing we do to get the reward, i.e., you have to chase the leprechaun all the way to the end of the rainbow to grab the gold.
Reward: The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Now you got them dolla dolla bills, y’all.
Sooner or later, if we circle this decision loop enough times, we start performing this cycle automatically and develop behavior patterns. Because, you guessed it, we’re creatures of habit—we like our rewards. We know that if we run to the end of the rainbow, there will be a pot of gold waiting for us, and we like ourselves some gold.
There’s more than one way to the end of the rainbow.
Think about that for a second.
We don’t have to do the same thing to get the reward that we want.
Because, as Mr. Duhigg says, we can choose to replace our behavior to get the same reward.
We can change our habits to achieve the same thing.
We just have to consciously choose a new behavior until our decision loop changes, and then we’ll automatically choose the new behavior to get the reward we want.
Take my baby flow chart. You don’t have to chase the leprechaun to get the gold—you know he’s gonna put it there, anyway, and it’ll be waiting for you no matter which route you take. You can take a shortcut and end up at the base of the rainbow just as that leprechaun’s pulling in to drop off the gold.
That’s good news for me.
Two behaviors. Same reward. Drastically different consequences, physically and emotionally.
And while I still want to disappear when I’m face with what feels like too much, I’m getting better about recognizing the feelings of panic, the ones that tell me there’s no other way to combat my stress than shoving a handful of chips in my face and crunching away my feelings.
That’s the beauty of getting older, now that I’ve finally developed my prefrontal cortex. It knows things. I just need to listen to it more often, preferably over a cup of tea.