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Of Substance: Part 1


Jersey City, New Jersey. 2010. Jordan David Allen.

I consumed my first full-tilt alcoholic drink made just for me at age 14. It was a Summer Hummer, vodka and lemonade. I was attending a party for my step-brother’s then girlfriend, they were a few years older than I. I was excited, and also nervous. Excited to experience this feeling for the first time, nervous that it might alter my behavior in such a way that my mom might notice once I returned home afterwards.


In the end I had nothing to fear. I drank the whole thing, but never actually felt any effect from it. I returned home disappointed, but still slightly apprehensive. What if, after all, even though I didn’t feel the alcohol, the alcohol was still making me act or speak different in some mom-identifiable way?


When I got home, I did my best to play it cool and summarize the events of the afternoon to my mom while delicately neglecting to mention one specific component of the experience. Then she made me mow the lawn, which I did, and as always, resented.


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I was also 14 the first time I saw marijuana out in the wild. My step-brother and I were street skateboarders. One day while launching tricks off of a tall loading dock behind the local grocery store, we ran into a few other local skaters. One of them soon brought out a small pipe, smoked a bit, then offered it to the rest of us.


I did not accept the offer. I didn’t even consider it. Marijuana was a drug, after all. It was illegal.


I knew for sure that if my parents caught me underage drinking, I’d be in major trouble. But at the end of the day, the transgression would likely be perceived as teens being teens, just in the way most of the adults in my family had themselves acted when they were my age.

But if I got caught smoking marijuana? That would truly be devastating. That would truly make me a troubled, bad kid. I couldn’t even fathom the possibility of risking that.


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The first time I drank enough alcohol to feel it, I was 15. We’re talking shots of raspberry flavored vodka here. I was at one of my best-friend’s houses, at a party with a bunch of our compatriots from the K-8 school we had all attended. By the time we were in high school, this house was the clear favored party house, as the Dad in the situation worked as a bartender, and on weekend nights he was generally out until around 4:00am.


These were not fancy parties, generally just a group of about eight high school dudes playing low-dollar card games, eating frozen pizzas, making fun of each other, and drinking to excess whatever we had collectively been able to get our hot little hands on.


On raspberry flavored vodka night, at some point later in the evening, someone drove us not too far over to Hollywood Video, a physical video rental store. I had long hair at the time, and was wearing a leather jacket over my skate t-shirt.


The way that the alcohol made me feel, in a word, was excellent. I recall sauntering through the aisles of VHS tapes and DVDs, laughing a bit to myself at nothing in particular. But the store was super overly fluorescently lit, which I found annoying.


And then I suddenly felt a wave of anxiety hit. Here we are, a bunch of drunk, kinda loud, stumbling sophomores and juniors in the neighborhood Hollywood Video on a Saturday night. What if one of our old teachers came in with their families and saw us like this? I felt ashamed. But then I deduced that, although technically possible, this outcome was in all highly unlikely. We rented a few videos and made it back to the party house without incident.


I think I fell asleep during whatever stupid movie we had selected, somewhere around 3:00am. When I woke up a few hours later to sunlight pouring in through the windows, I noticed my first ever negative after effect of alcohol consumption: dry mouth. Though an odd and uncomfortable feeling, I just drank some tap-water and moved on with my day. Later that afternoon I went skateboarding and exerted my body with full force just like normal.


---


The highest amount of alcohol I ever consumed in one sitting in my entire life also took place at my best-friend’s party house later that same year, I was 15 years old. This one specific night, the party was bigger than usual, perhaps 15-20 people, some of whom were even female.

One of the girls had recently turned 16. While we’re all sitting around the kitchen table talking, she bragged of having drank 16 shots on the night of her birthday. Not understanding alcohol proportion or degrees of intensity at this point in my life, this news landed to me as somewhat of a challenge.


Today, this moment also reminds me of the psychological power behind the phenomenon of anchoring. As I learned from reading Thinking Fast and Slow, anchoring simply refers to the reality that mere knowledge of certain narrow data points often shape our decisions in skewed ways.


Say you set out to purchase a good bottle of wine. At this fictional store’s shelves, you find bottle A priced at $4.00, bottle B priced at $40.00, and bottle C priced at $400.00. If these are your only options, bottle B might look like a great deal. But in reality, for most of us, $40 for one bottle of wine is still pretty pricey. Had we gone to a different fictional store, where a $40 bottle was the highest priced, and everything else was under $20, we very well may have balked at the now comparatively highly priced $40 bottle.


In any case, this one fateful night, I had this random girl’s 16 shots in one sitting as a normalized anchor in my head. That night, it was a godforsaken bottle of somebody’s grandparent’s peppermint schnapps that was available. In the end, mercifully, I did not match this girl’s record. But I did end up drinking fucking 11 shots of peppermint schnapps that night.


Fortunately, nothing dramatic happened. Super drunk, I had a really fun time. I felt loose and free and un-anxious and bold. We crashed shortly before the sun came up. But then I woke up needing to vomit a few hours later. I made it to the bathroom and unloaded into the toilet, the smell of the peppermint laced puke was horrifying. I never drank peppermint schnapps ever again.


Then I just went back to sleep for a few more hours. I woke up once again with dry mouth, chugged some tap water, then went back home. Later that day, I went skateboarding, no problem.


---


By the time I was 16 years old, I started bringing my own cockeyed alcohol contributions to the party house. This took a bit of ingenuity to accomplish. At my mom’s house, there was a built-in, 1950s era bar in our basement. The setup was complete with a full-scale bar counter with four antique bar stools on the outer side. Behind the bar was a working sink, a mini-fridge, and large cabinets underneath the bar counter. It was behind those cabinet doors where the treasure lay. The problem was that those cabinet doors were locked. My mission became to find where my mom had hidden that key.


So, one day while she was out, I methodically scoured every corner of her bedroom; every closet, every drawer. After perhaps 20 minutes, I found what I was looking for at the bottom of a coffee mug filled with pencils and pens on her desk.


I went downstairs and opened the bar cabinet doors, thrilled, but nervous. There were perhaps 20-something bottles of liquor down there, perhaps 1/3 of them still unopened, but the rest all at various levels of fullness. I was definitely not going to touch any of the unopened bottles. But I was apprehensive even about the opened bottles as well, somewhat paranoid that she would perhaps remember at what rough level of volume any given one of them had been at during its previous use.


A strategy formulated in my mind: step one, disperse the risk. I went and found an empty Listerine bottle in our recycling bin. I rinsed it out and brought it downstairs to the bar. I decided to syphon out a small amount of alcohol out of a variety of opened, clear liquor bottles. Mixed together, it would be a disgusting, but valuable amount of hard alcohol.


We’re talking multiple different types of vodka, for starters, most of which were artificially flavored in one direction or another. Lime flavored vodka, plus coconut flavored vodka, plus raspberry flavored vodka, plus regular unflavored vodka. Next, I added a gin or two. Then finally some triple sec to top it off.


Step two, concealment. I took this half full Listerine bottle up to the kitchen and located some food coloring. A drop or two of green dye did the trick. This bottle, filled with an appalling combination of clear liquors, now presented as an innocent commitment to maintaining dental hygiene on a night spent sleeping over at a childhood friend’s house.


During these high school drinking parties, we almost never drank beer. It was nearly always straight hard liquor. The reasons for this are practical. At a party, you’d need an enormous quantity of beer cans or bottles for people to get drunk. A quantity of beer this large was both harder to steal or otherwise acquire, and then it would have been equally as difficult to clean up and conceal in the party’s aftermath.


Hard liquor was simply easier for us to get ahold of, easier to be sneaky transporting, and simpler to clean up. Plus, of course, hard liquor gets you drunk quickly and efficiently, which is exactly what we wanted.


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The first time I drank outside of the context of my friend’s party house was with my cousin and pseudo-brother, Trevor. I was 16, he was 14, it happened in my mom’s basement as he, his mom, and sisters were visiting us for the weekend from out of town. By evening, Trevor and I had the basement to ourselves, and once we were certain everyone else had gone to bed upstairs, we got our own little party started.


Prior to his arrival, I had already secured another clear liquor death combo, this time housed in an empty plastic Dasani water bottle. We started trading pulls straight from the bottle, no mixer, no chaser. It was disgusting, but it was a part of the experience we simply accepted. Within minutes, the alcohol landed. I remember 14-year-old Trevor, in an exhilarated expression, starting to physically run in place and jump up and down with excitement. “I feel it!” He exclaimed, “I can feel it!”


Fast forward maybe 2-3 hours, and as Trevor is asleep in a sleeping bag on the basement floor, I’m huddled over the nearby utility sink puking my guts out. Not quite sure I didn’t have more yet to come up, I end up curled up in the fetal position on the cold concrete floor. I’m shivering, my stomach muscles are painfully contracting, and I’m hating myself.


This marked the first time I had a straightforwardly Bad Experience with alcohol. It was also the last time I ever made a United Nations of Clear Liquors bottle. Live and learn, as they say.


In any case, the morning after, Trevor and I got up and interacted with our moms and sisters as if nothing had happened. Then we went street skating and exerted ourselves no problem.


---


When I turned 18, my mom started occasionally letting me drink small amounts of alcohol with her. These moments were almost always during special occasions of one sort or another, they were not an every night kind of thing. This decision of hers was made based on the fact that when she was 18 herself, she was legally able to drink, and she believed in turn that I’d be less likely to overdo it myself someday if I had already built some muscle in reasonable, moderate drinking with her in a safe and controlled setting.


I was grateful for this new opportunity; however sporadic the occasions ultimately were. To clarify, my mom had no idea at this point that I had already drank heavily and stupidly, and covertly, perhaps 10-ish times in total throughout high school.


As a high school graduation present, my mom said she’d take me on a trip anywhere I wanted to go within the continental United States. I chose to go street skating in San Francisco. The hotel we stayed at offered a free wine tasting hour in the evenings. Each night, we’d head down to the lobby and have a glass of wine or two before heading out to dinner. At dinner, we’d each get a beer.


I remember us waiting at a bus stop on our way back to the hotel after eating one night. I was feeling a pleasant alcohol buzz, and was in a jovial and lively mood. It was enough for her to notice an actual difference in my demeanor. As we waited there on the street, she made a comment, “I think someone had a little too much to drink.” This landed like a dagger to my fragile ego. I felt ashamed, as if I’d disappointed her or done something wrong. I believe this moment motivated me, moving forwards, to be careful to not act or speak any differently in front of her after drinking.


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Later that summer, I became a freshman in college, living in a dorm in Milwaukee. Among many significant first impressions of university life, it became instantly evident to me that many of my freshman peers were intent on going way overboard with alcohol as soon as the first opportunity to do so presented itself.


Something in me decided, nah, I don’t want to be one of those kids. I’ll pass on the pleasure of getting caught sloppy and belligerent by my RA. I’ll pass on getting a ride to the ER to have my stomach pumped my first independent weekend away from home.


At first, I planned to hold off on drinking at college for the first weekend. Then it turned into the first month, then the first year, then the first two years. For the entirety of my freshman and sophomore years in college, I never once had a single drink of alcohol on or around campus.


I still had the minor loophole of drinking modestly with my mom every now and again on holidays and such. At the time, that was perfectly enough for me. For those two years, at ages 18 and 19, if it was a Friday or Saturday night, you could find me at my table on the 5th floor of the university library, same as where I’d be any other night of the week.


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The summer in between my freshman and sophomore years in college, I attended the wedding of my aunt and uncle in Florida. There was an open bar at the wedding, and going in I was really looking forward to drinking, as I was then 19 and my mom was there and it was a family event.


For whatever reason, this evening I really was expecting to get to drink a little more than just a beer or two. In the end, my mom shut me down, and gave me a hard no on anything over two drinks. I suspect she was worried about how, as I was still technically underaged, she might be perceived by others there to celebrate.


I had my two drinks, I barely felt anything, if anything at all, and I spent the rest of the wedding internally fuming about it.


---


Another night when I was 19, a big chunk of my mom’s side of the family went out to dinner at this German restaurant in a Milwaukee suburb. As customary, all the adults were drinking with their meals, and my mom let me have a few with them. Whether it was beer I had or wine or a little of both, I don’t exactly recall. But when we were all wrapped up and heading out to the parking lot to return home, I definitely had had enough alcohol to feel its pleasant effects.


Someone handed me the keys to my grandparent’s van, and told me to drive. I was like, “Aaaah, are you sure?” They were like, “Yep.” This was the first time in my life when I drove a vehicle under the clear and present influence of alcohol. I wasn’t drunk, but I was buzzed enough to feel nervous about the endeavor. We made it home no problem.


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In 1872, my grandfather’s grandfather was born in Minnesota. Today we know next to nothing about the man. What we do know, is that he was a serious alcoholic.


As a result of his addiction, in middle age, he abandoned his wife and children, and was never seen or heard from again. The family’s best guess is that he headed north over the border into Canada.


This man’s wife, my grandfather’s grandmother, suffered a mental collapse in the aftermath. She ended up being institutionalized in one of Minnesota’s first psychiatric wards.

Stanley Allen, my grandfather’s father, was the oldest of this couple’s children. The kids were sent to an orphanage, where they spent at least one Christmas. After a while, Stanley was shipped off to North Dakota to stay and work on the farm of an aunt and uncle he had never met.


When Stanley turned 18, he returned to Minnesota to help get his younger siblings established. Some of them later moved next-door to Wisconsin. Working constantly and prioritizing his younger sibling’s wellbeing, Stanley married very late in life for his era, at age 32.

Stanley never drank alcohol.

But I remember my father talking about him once, he referred to Stanley, his own grandfather, as a “dry alcoholic.” By this, he meant that although the man was literally sober his entire life, he nevertheless had inherited many of the behavioral hallmarks of an actual perpetual drunk.

Mainly, in that he was emotionally cold, removed, unexpressive, and unaffectionate even with his own children. Just as his own father had been with him.

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