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CONFESSIONS OF A COFFEE ADDICT

It's not that I've been in denial, as they say in rehab. Denial is not my strong suit. For years I acknowledged my addiction with a blithe one-line toast: "Ah, coffee, the last drug of my generation."

Technically, of course, it isn't the last drug. Or even the last legal drug. But alcohol has been limited to non-pregnant, non-driving people in non-liver-and-life-destroying quantities. Smoking isn't banned but banished to doorways where a community of folks look like they're having much too much fun.

Coffee, on the other hand, is culturally approved, universally accepted, socially enabled, and financially promoted. There's a fix on every corner.

Still, I comforted myself with the notion that I wasn't a coffee junkie. Junkies drink the sludge at the bottom of the day-old pot hanging around the office. I am a coffee gourmet.

I own at least six caffeine delivery systems, from a Melita to an espresso machine. Like an alcoholic who only consumes vintage Bordeaux, I choose beans of a certain provenance. I drink politically correct, organic, bird-friendly, shade-grown coffee cultivated by small farmers who get their fair-trading share of the profits. Seriously.

Besides, I only drink two cups. Every single day. First thing in the morning. Immediately. Or else.

But for every self-deception, there is a moment when reality bites, or perhaps, sips. For me it was in the welcoming letter from the quiet, yoga-inspired, spiritual weekend retreat to which I had already sent my deposit. The brochure reminded retreaters that we were heading to an environment that was: drug free, of course; non-smoking, praise the Lord; vegetarian, no problem; alcohol free, fine; and caffeine-free -- AARRRGH!

Those two little hyphenated words struck terror in the heart of someone eager for a weekend of meditation, downward facing dog and silent breakfasts. I could do without words, but without coffee? A postscript said they would dole out tea bags like methadone to anyone who asked at the front desk, but it wouldn't be served in the dining room.

As the day approached, I realized that I wasn't thinking about withdrawal from the world but from caffeine. I wasn't contemplating nirvana and karma but sumatra and french roast.

So it is that a woman who doesn't even cheat at golf arrived at a spiritual retreat smuggling a small but humiliating amount of ground coffee, a one-cup coffee maker and a traveling mug. So it is that Saturday morning found me away from everything worldly except for the need to find hot water for my illegal stash. Now!

One secret cup of coffee later, one furtive tooth-brushing and room-airing later, I was fine, alert, anxiety-free, and ready to face my first piece of personal enlightenment. No caffeine, no karma.

I don't mean to equate caffeine with cocaine or to suggest a plot for "Traffic II" tracing little black beans from the heart of Costa Rica to a blissful shop in Seattle. But my correspondence from the decaffeinated front line may give joe-heads a way to look at the questions that rarely get aired in the drug wars.

What makes one drug OK and another forbidden? Is the problem in the substance, in its abuse, or in its illegality? Is the war waged in the name of morality, public health, behavior or fighting crime? Have we ever figured out a rational way to explain and triage which drugs should banned for which reasons?

Sitting furtively with my contraband, I ruminated on whether addiction itself is considered the moral problem. A question of highs and withdrawals? If so, coffee drinkers of America, caffeine 'r' us. And while I would never steal or sell my first born to support my habit, I had already become a fugitive.

Of course, coffee itself is a treatment for asthma, which I don't have, but never mind. But we haven't triaged the drugs that are deadly to life, work, family or brain tissues from the drugs that are only a problem if you don't have them.

Today I write this, happily, under the influence of a drug. My breathing stayed yogic, my breakfast stayed silent, and I was able to meditate on something other than drug policy.

But next time, I plan to go clean. That is, as long as I can bring one little bitty chocolate bar.

Boston Globe Newspaper Company

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