Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Alcohol and Peter: the 4-year relationship.

Back on June 16th, I wrote that I was working on a long-read about my relationship with alcohol. Nearly 3 months later, it's finished. Here's the story about why I never drink.


In high school, I never drank. There were, obviously, logistical obstacles: my mother was perpetually home, and my dad set a strict 11 p.m. curfew (Once I came home at 11:07 p.m., and ended up spending the night sleeping in my car.) But the real reason was that I never really wanted to drink.

I was content sober. My favorite activities were playing basketball at the local park (and NJB, and Asian-American basketball), playing Starcraft: Brood Wars, managing my fantasy sports teams, practicing for Speech and Debate tournaments, and, uh, doing homework. On my 16th birthday, I refused wine from my grandparents, even as the brimming cup stained my top lip. I knew what alcohol tasted like: wine was extra-tart juice, and beer was bitter. I understood it was an acquired taste, but I also understood that those who acquired it would eventually live their lives out of half-way homes.

During Bulldog Days, Yale's visitation weekend for admitted students, I was, for the first time in my life, surrounded by peers who drank. It was a sharp education in college’s social dynamics. I had prepared for my visit by reading the infamous Crimson article, The Cult of Yale, which explained to me that Yale's non-existent alcohol policy spurred its late-night revelry. At night, I bounced between parties, watching the tipsy masses, but also noticing an invisible majority of sober citizens, like me. We stood on the side, though, watching the group shots and beer pong, absorbing the room's energy. I didn't like life on the fringe, but it was a comfortable, convenient location to place my psyche. I didn't drink once during the weekend.

Eight days after Bulldog Days, I decided to attend Yale. I told my friends (and local journalists) Yale students were simply happier. I didn't know how much alcohol contributed to the increase, and I didn't care to know. What I knew was that by the time I arrived on campus, I needed to decide exactly what my stance was on alcohol. To be honest, I didn't fret over the decision too much. One day during summer, Chris told me, “Alcohol is nothing special – it’s just a social lubricant. If you don’t need it, you don’t need to drink it.” And that settled that. I didn't need alcohol.

I arrived on campus on the 24th of August, 2007. 6 days in the woods with FOOT came and went. During Camp Yale, I attended my first official party: Sig Kai's Luau, a rite of passage for every Yale freshman arriving to New Haven. When I arrived, I was lei'd, and in the frat's backyard one of the brothers handed me a neon drink from a plastic keg on a wobbly, dirty table. Welcome to college!

The drink felt weighty in my hand. I joined a group and pretended to take a sip. After 20 minutes, I passed the cup off to someone else. I forget what my excuse was. That was my first "experience" with alcohol.


Malcolm Gladwell wrote that society controls our temperance in three ways: moralizing, legalizing, and medicalizing. As college went on, a combination of all three constrained any temporary urges I had to drink. My parents would call me every month and tell me I shouldn't be drinking. I grew up my entire life adhering to rules, no matter how improbable the punishments. So legally, not being 21, I couldn't touch alcohol. As for medicalizing: it wasn't that I did my research -- I just saw too many jokers passed out during Freshman Screw. Plus, I'd occasionally grab the flab of skin on my stomach and broil in paranoia that I was becoming fat. (For my virtual acquaintances: my BMI is 20.2.)

For the first three years of college, I didn't drink. I did, however, pretend to be drunk, laugh at people who were drunk, and hold a drink in my hand, pretending to drink. At parties, people asked why I wouldn't take a shot with them, and I always gave the same answer: "It's a social lubricant, and I refuse to use a crutch." I don't know why I stuck to that answer, because it would always detract from the general flow of the conversation. Personally, I never thought any less of the people who did drink. I just thought more of myself more highly. I realized I was missing out on the delectable social offerings of college: DKE Tang, wine and cheese mixers, pre-games. It was a small price to pay to maintain my purity.

My first drink was at Yamato, a hip sushi bar in Westwood, California, during a summer internship junior year. Here's what I wrote about the experience.

I had my first real drinks tonight. It was unplanned, and almost too normal. It also improved the general complexion of the night much more than if I hadn’t drank anything. I walked into the restaurant and immediately took a shot of sake. I was burning red five minutes later. I maybe drank a ¼ a of beer later, but I was already "gone": I talked too much and joked incessantly, the jokes coming out smoothly, easily, calmly, about absurd topics (orgies, attractiveness, kleptomania)—and I said more than I needed to, but I didn't care. I was effusive with my praise: I told A he was great and really chill, and he returned the gesture almost out of forced necessity. At the end of the night, I forced myself to talk in measured, serious tones, partly because the other interns were ribbing me about being drunk. Downside: how low I felt afterwards. 

And that was it. That was my first drink. No up-welling of morality included. I crossed the line I had been toeing for the last four years and there were no regrets or consequences, though now, being wiser and older, I wish I had told them it was my first drink ever. I drank once more, two weeks later (three shots and a beer), and felt fine. My tolerance was increasing drastically. Then July 3rd came.

The company-wide email read, "Peter Lu's 21st Epic Birthday Celebration," or something equally outrageous. That night, I showed up ready to impress. So when the 24-year-olds around me handed me a black sharpie and ordered me to have 21 black marks on my arm before the end of the night, I nonchalantly took it in stride. My mind was empty; I was an unthinking receptacle of stimuli.

In the first hour, I took 7 shots.

Here's the journal entry from that night:

I have claw marks on my arm—6 perpendicular to my veins, one slashing through them diagonally. The drink count, people called it. I was doing well too: I was on track for 21. 4 shots in the first 20 minutes, 3 shots in the next 40, a drink at the club. The first seven went down so smoothly, with so little repercussions, that I truly believed that 15, maybe 20, was within reach. I'd never taken more than 3 shots, ever, but convinced myself turning 21 gave me superhuman strength. 
 The drink mix: gray goose and vodka, beer, a little Coke and Sprite. The place: R's apartment, USC flag hung proudly, a wave of smooth ambiance and conversation wrapped around us like a soft shelled cocoon. When the cabs came, I sat with K, talking about his departure into start-up land. At the bar, he bought me a red bull, and as I drank it slowly (I knew I was going to die if I took too much of it with alcohol), he noted that he was going to miss LA. 
The dancing was 45 minutes. I did my thing and didn’t care about what people thought; I thought, through the haze, about what I would have felt if I had been completely sober. I danced and danced, not caring about anything, and then went to the bathroom. I sat down, sat down again, closed my eyes, and almost passed out. 
B told me we were going home. I walked out of the club and felt fine, except I couldn't walk straight. My brain was wrapped in that gauzy fluid constricting its mental movement. After grabbing my hat, I saw the cabs, then a palm tree, and held onto one for dear life. 
I could feel the vomit coming out, and as such, I hurled, smooth and easy, 4 different times, as B said, "That’s right, get it out, get it out," while telling the pedestrians it was my 21st today. I managed to talk between nausea and actually hurling; I remember telling K I loved the tree, that it was the sturdiest piece of Mother Earth ever created, that I wanted to stay here forever, that I needed 2 more minutes. B and K dragged me into the cab and we left.
The best feeling of the night was the cool air rushing over my face in the cab. I almost told the taxi driver to drive around 30 more minutes just so I stay comatose there. I don't remember the walk to the apartment, but I do remember collapsing in bed, managing to take off all my clothes (how my wife beater landed on the other side I will never know) and experimenting with various positions until, 2 hours later, I finally fell asleep. I thought of Tommy puking on the couch junior year, and felt proud of myself for getting it out of my system early. When I woke up, at 1040am, I realized I was in my co-worker's girlfriend's roommate's bed, and on my phone were 4 text messages of varying urgency. It was great.   
I’m never getting drunk again. Never. I know what B said: “I tell myself I’m never doing it again, and somehow it ends up happening over and over.” But I have more control, and it's not a habit yet. At the very least, I understand my tolerance level (a beer and maybe one shot) and know now what I need to have a good night. Being completely trashed and throwing up will not be in the books for a very, very long time. Certainly not next week, and not during senior year. If I feel like drinking, I'll think about the +-10minutes of vomiting, when I literally thought I wasn't going to make it past the night. My social hesitancy disappeared, but it wasn't worth the fall. And being drunk corroborated my initial prediction of 4 years ago: I can be as gregarious as I want to be without the influence of alcohol.  

Of course, I didn't hold myself to that standard. In Vegas mid-July, at R's birthday, I took a double shot of Patron, which led to an amazing night. And beginning of senior year, I proclaimed it subtly: Peter drinks now.

As the weekends of tipsiness ensued, I was beginning to realize, with a creeping insidiousness, that I was  depending on alcohol to go out. I felt bad about using it to mollify my social fears, but I felt as bad when I wasn't out. Either way, I felt guilty.

Thanksgiving in Boston for Harvard-Yale, I went overboard at MIT. It wasn't actually a prodigious amount of alcohol: just 2 drinks. But the manner with which I took them was egregious. My cravenly self -- I was like a vulture looking for a carcass, asking everyone around me for a drink, and taking a used cup to pour myself the dregs of what was left. It was the worst kind of instinct: give me alcohol, so I can escape my brain. I forgot about the incident in the short-term future, but now, looking back, it gives me the chills.

I drank on and off the rest of senior year. Wine-tasting at Master Chun's house, the $40 bingefest YCC sponsored at Crown 116 event, Mardi Gras FourLoko -- they were special occasions, with the force of peer pressure to push me over the top. Then, I was sure this would be the model for my relationship with alcohol for the rest of my life.

During one of the last days of Yale, I ran into Derrick C. on Cross Campus. We joked around, like usual, but towards the end of the conversation broached the topic of alcohol. He told me he hadn't drank at all in college. I remembered the conversation we had as freshman, when he told me he was outgoing enough not to need alcohol. Seeing his success four years later made me realize I had failed. I had transformed from the brash and excitable freshman who needed nothing to interact with people to a staid and contemplative senior who justified the use of alcohol as social lubrication. Right then and there, I decided, no matter how painful it would be, that I would not drink anymore.

Other than one drink this summer, I've kept my word. I still believe in the spartan modus operandi: I need nothing external to be happy. There are no comfort foods; there is no comfort drink. What I'm going to achieve, social and otherwise, will be achieved while cogent and self-aware. I'm losing out on experience, I'm gaining in self-resolve and character. It's an unorthodox worldview, I know, but no worse than the dad in Calvin and Hobbes, the junkie for pain in below-zero bike rides.

Five years from now, my mindset might change. Right now, I'm sticking to my guns.