Inside a Coffee Cup

“You need to find your safe space.”

So said my college therapist to me-- and no, she wasn’t talking about political correctness. I’m a generally anxious person, and during certain periods of college my bouts of anxiety became severe enough that I visited CAPS, the on-campus counseling center. Sometimes, I told this therapist, I became so preoccupied with my random, illogical, yet paralyzing worries that I couldn’t focus on lectures, or my assignments, or sentences in books I was reading. Sometimes my chest would tighten up. Sometimes my heart would race. Sometimes I’d feel nauseous or trapped.

She gave me excellent advice in response, which applied not only to these periods of intense anxiety, but which I still use daily when I’m feeling overwhelmed or overburdened. She told me that often the best strategy for calming ourselves down and refocusing our attention and our productivity is to focus one a singular, specific task we can accomplish. “What is something you enjoy doing? What is something that makes you feel safe?”

It felt silly then and it feels silly now to retype it, but I answered: “Drinking coffee.”

Yes, in college I was pulling crazy hours and trying to fulfill the requirements of demanding course loads, so coffee was a necessity. But for me, it was always also a luxury. An experience. A small joy during busy days. There’s something so decadent about a perfectly-brewed cup of coffee. I think my romance with coffee began as a child. My parents didn’t drink it, but our relatives did, and so I associated the smell of it brewing downstairs with loved ones visiting and, really, with adulthood.

To me, coffee was a “grown-up” drink. Meant for people who had figured out their lives, who were self-assured and important, so they needed fuel in the mornings. There was an elegance to drinking coffee, a maturity, and I imagined one day I would be old enough, smart enough, or impressive enough to casually fix myself a cup, too. Even as a kid, the rich, slightly-burnt, slightly-earthy smell of black coffee-- like a Hershey bar with more complexity and more depth-- made me feel safe, because I associated it with security. Certainty. Assuredness.

In college, I grew to associate the smell of coffee with all of my favorite places-- the library, which had a Greenberry’s tucked in the corner. “The Corner,” a strip of student-centered restaurants and bars that led off with a Starbucks-- a Starbucks that saw more of my pocket money and my studying hours than I’d care to remember. The lobby of Nau/Gibson, an academic building where the majority of the classes in my major were held. The offices of the student newspaper, where diligent young journalists spent hours crafting rigorous and localized coverage.  Maybe it was the placebo effect or (more likely) maybe I eventually did develop a debilitating caffeine addiction, but coffee made me feel more productive. More...legitimate. More serious. I drank it because it comforted me and made me feel like I was finally becoming the “adult” I was meant to be.

So I find my safe space “inside a coffee cup,” as my therapist used to say. I find the ritual of preparing coffee calming, and the process of drinking it even moreso. When I’m feeling overwhelmed, I drink coffee. As instructed, I focus on small, intermediate, manageable steps. Oftentimes, before I had an apartment and my own coffee maker, this was as simple as “Go stand in line for coffee. Grab a lid. Go find somewhere to sit. Focus on the smell. Focus on the heat. Enjoy each sip. Don’t drink it too fast. All you need to worry about right now is this cup of coffee. Right now, you’re drinking a cup of coffee. Everything else comes later.” Everything else comes later. You’re safe.