A few years before this incident, it would have been beyond my ability to even imagine how someone could get themselves kicked out of a neighborhood bar, but low and behold, for the first
time, I did just that. Here’s a brief true tale of the insanity that nearly earned me a night’s stay in Manhattan’s 24th Precinct jail.
Late spring is a stressful time for the thousands of students on Columbia University’s Morningside Heights campus. At the graduate level, the University has an absolute zero tolerance policy for failure, barring perhaps a death in one’s immediate family or acute illness resulting in prolonged hospitalization. Any excuse short of that, a single “F” means you have to call your parents and grandparents and tell them that you won’t be walking with your cohort on graduation day. Whatever money they spent on plane tickets and hotel reservations, not to mention any tuition support they might have provided, is as good as gone – up in smoke. You compete against the brightest minds from the farthest reaches of the world under the supervision of Pulitzer and L.A. Times Book Prize award winners, former MacArthur Genius fellows, and a host of others who have fought tooth and nail through years of naysayer hellfire to become the most sought after lecturers in their fields.
It’s stressful. Not everyone makes it. Combine all that with the fierce pressure of living in Manhattan with tons of roommates in an ancient building, and you have a perfect storm of addiction triggers. Just minutes after sipping a sugary brown liquid called Jack Daniel’s, I was at peace, and my world became manageable. That is, for a few hours.
Mid way through the second semester of my first grad school year, the stress was becoming unbearable, I was rapidly gaining weight, and I found myself just barely able to hand in assignments on time. In my radio production workshop, a late assignment would ruin the weekly show and let down my group’s sixteen other colleagues. Being late in a broadcast setting simply isn’t an option. You don’t get any chances.
I had been taking a moderate dose of Zoloft for quite a long time. Still in the deepest depths of denial at the time, I thought perhaps switching to another medication was the answer, especially if it were more expensive. More expensive must mean better, right? Yes, I actually believed that. The people in those AstraZeneca and Pfizer commercials always looked so happy.
So I jumped through the hoops I needed to in order to get seen by an actual psychiatrist as soon as possible. The necessary stops included a primary care doc, a counselor, then, finally someone in psych. Home to Mailman School of Public Health and the famous Go Ask Alice, Columbia has a far above-average student health service, especially in mental health. The mental health clinic is staffed by an army of Ph.D-level psychologists, as well as doctors and residents. Getting an initial appointment takes less than a week.
I had several sessions with a young male psychiatry resident, who eventually prescribed a couple different medications. I still felt depressed, and was still barely hanging on to my academics by a thread. We had discussed alcohol use, but I neglected to tell him just how much and how often. I didn’t tell him that I was drinking the equivalent of a liter of 80-proof liquor each day, seven days a week. A liter is roughly 20 standard servings of alcohol, about fifty percent more than what experts consider moderately low-risk drinking for an entire week for men.
One day, he decided to let me try a serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (SNRI) called Effexor. I found out quickly that it’s seriously Bad News Bears if you mix this one with alcohol. I experienced what I can only describe as a series of complete functional blackouts. I use the word functional, because I didn’t wake up on the street. I apparently went to lots of bars and restaurants
without remembering them. This continued for awhile. I had to check my online banking account in the morning to see what I did the previous night, and this insanity didn’t alarm me all that much, as I’m guessing it would a normal person. Further heading down the wrong road, I started to resent the pills and my doctor for taking the fun out of my drinking, rather than blaming the actual problem. I don’t like taking something that makes me sick when I mix it with alcohol, I thought.
This behavior led to my first real wakeup call. Sure, I had many close calls and regrettable moments. But this one involved other people. One evening after our spring semester ended, two friends and I wandered into a dive sports bar on Broadway, and almost immediately the bar tender pointed a finger at me and yelled, “You! Out!”
“Excuse me?” I asked after looking behind myself to see if he was actually pointing at someone else. He wasn’t. I started to utter a “Who, me?” and I got an immediate “Yes, you, out!” I was stunned. First, because I had never been kicked out of a bar, or anywhere, for that matter. And second, because I couldn’t remember having been in the place for at least several months. Wow, Kirk, that’s pretty bad assed. We never knew, all this time we thought you were a good kid, one of my friends quipped something like that after I tried to laugh it off. Reeling in surprise at 1 a.m. on the sidewalk, I tried hard to remember having been there recently, and I couldn’t. One of my friends went back in and asked the bar tender what the problem was. I had apparently been there recently, vomited on or near the bar, and left without paying. Until then, I had somehow skated by for about five years drinking heavily without any embarrassing moments.
The incident shocked me sober for a few days, and I went to the doctor complaining that the Effexor wasn’t doing anything for me. Still, I failed to tell him the truth about what was going on. And I have yet to make amends to those two friends, who I so admired and respected for their work.
Onward and Upward, Kirk Klocke