Wednesday, January 18, 2012

On Performance-Enhancing Drugs

Let me guess: when you first saw that title, I bet that you thought this would be some kind of tearful, emotional confession that alternated between soul-crushing sadness and blind, unprovoked rage as I detailed my descent into steroid hell.

(Never mind the background change, which I thought was more in line with what the blog has become...why? Did this thing suddenly become about mathematical and architectural drawings?  Hey, Blogger doesn't give me many choices, okay? GET OFF MY CASE ALREADY!)

Let me assure you, that's simply not true.  I'm not talking about steroids, or adderall, or even something like alcohol, which I've enjoyed far too much in the past.

Nope, I'm talking about something that I had previously sworn off as a lawyer for years.  Something that made me so jittery and wound so tightly that I had to quit cold turkey just so I could sleep soundly at night.

I'm talking about caffeine.

I think I've previously blogged about how I tried to curb my caffeine usage four or so years ago, but if not, then it goes something like this: I tried to curb my caffeine usage four or so years ago.  Right after I started at the old firm, I had taken up coffee drinking fairly religiously, in large part because it helped keep me awake while performing some of the more mundane tasks associated with the law, and partially because Starbucks, international drug cartel that it is, was only a short elevator ride away, and literally across the street from my building.

I had a two cup per day habit, which often left me sleepless at night until Friday, when my system would frequently crash at eight or nine o'clock, exhausted after a full work week.

At some point, I decided I needed to sleep better and cut caffeine out entirely; no more coke, no more coffee, no more tea.  I started having a more regular sleep cycle, but my mind often felt foggy and "mushy."  That I was still drinking what was probably a bit too much booze likely didn't help with the "blah" feeling in my head. 

The caffeine moratorium continued strictly for a year or two, and another couple of years on all but the rarest of occasions, and though I was getting more sleep, the sleep that I did get never really felt like it was enough; the grogginess and fog simply settled in daily like a morning near the sea.

When I started my book, though, I knew that I had to get an early start each day to fit in the amount of work I wanted to get done, and as a natural night owl, I turned to my old friend, caffeine, again to get the brain going and my mind more focused and productive.

I hate myself for saying this, but it worked.  I'm not a huge fan of coffee, largely because I hate dealing with the way it stains my teeth and leaves me searching for a pack of gum almost instantly after I drink it, so I've taken to drinking one of the big green teas from Starbucks pretty much daily (I refuse to use the term venti in a sentence, since I still feel like an idiot for having to say it every day when I order; DAMN YOU STARBUCKS!) 

Green tea's supposed to be good for me, and I've found that it does give me a good amount more focus and energy than I would have otherwise, which in turn has allowed me to get more out on the page than I normally would have.  Not that what I've written thus far is gold or anything, but the sheer act of getting it out there means I'm that much closer to editing, which in turn means that I'm that much closer to sending the book off to a professional editor, and that much closer to releasing it, et cetera, et cetera.

"Big deal, moron, so you go to Starbucks like hundreds of millions of other people around the world every day.  What do you want? A medal?"  Not really, at least not yet.  What's interesting to me is that it's given me a different perspective on the nature of "performance-enhancing" drugs generally. 

If someone told me that drinking something else would increase my output by 50% and make it slightly better and more inspired, but had the potential for some unpleasant side effects, would I take it? Maybe.  Previously, as a sports fan, I'd have mumbled something about "purity" or something equally as absurd before going on my merry way. 

But now that I've immersed myself in this project and seen it from a different perspective? It would certainly intrigue me, as long as one of those side-effects wasn't "potential for immediate death."

The whole notion of "performance-enhancers" is a vague one; on some very basic level, food and water are performance-enhancers, as without them, we'd all be dead.

Performance enhancers for artists are considered fine, or at least implicitly endorsed as people celebrate the rock-and-roll lifestyle.  Performance enhancers for athletes are derided, as somehow detrimental to some idyllic version of "pure" competition.  PEDs for sex? Good. PEDs "to get ripped?" Bad.

You see the problem: in a society littered with value judgments, it's important to remember that a lot of times, we live by what are ultimately arbitrary rules imposed by people with more of a say in the matter than ourselves.  Sometimes, like with caffeine on one end of the spectrum and meth and heroin on the other end, those value judgments are sound.

But sometimes the waters become a bit murkier, and you're left asking yourself "why is this good and something else bad?" Why is improving some kinds of performance deemed "fine" or even applauded, while other kinds are considered "cheating" or "underhanded?"

Think about that next time you're enjoying your morning cup o' joe.

Days: 8
Words: 20,028
Pages: 68 1/2

D.J. Gelner covers the Rams beat for, and is an aspiring author.  Follow him on twitter (@djgelner) or facebook (here).  E-mail him at  You can also listen to his podcast (Bottle and Cans) here.

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