I’d strung together twenty-eight days on Weight Watchers without cheating, so to conserve points I drank only one big glass of wine and one oversized martini at dinner with my boyfriend. I refrained from smoking pot because I didn’t want to get the munchies and blow my calorie budget. I took my usual Ambien, long-term medication for chronic insomnia, and brushed my teeth to curb my food cravings and distract my growling stomach.
Ambien is a hypnotic and well known for causing complete memory loss. Many times when I took Ambien I woke up with crumpled napkins and food crumbs in my bed. Random bruises cued watery memories of stumbling into walls. Better were the times I woke up to a clean house or to freshly laundered clothes. I discovered that if I took Ambien but didn’t go to bed immediately, and especially if I had alcohol in my system, I sometimes hallucinated that there were groups of people standing around me, no one I recognized, but I wasn’t scared—Ambien made the experience festive. I never knew what would happen after I took one, which was part of the adventure. Sometimes I went to an imaginary party, sometimes to the refrigerator or the washer, or, this time, to my car. The last thing I clearly remember from that night is talking to my boyfriend through a mouthful of toothpaste foam. And then, as if transported, I was standing in the road next to my aging Honda Accord, surrounded by police officers, the asphalt a backdrop for bright flashes of red and blue.
Turns out I’d driven to McDonald’s to get food, and an employee had called the police after I’d proven myself unable to navigate curbs in the drive-through. The police pulled me over less than a mile later. The officer didn’t believe me when I lied and said I hadn’t been drinking, nor did he believe me when I admitted a partial truth that yes, I’d had one small glass of wine hours ago, and that was it.
“Ma’am, I’d like for you to recite the alphabet—”
“Abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxy and z!” I felt victorious and solid in my proof of sobriety.
“—beginning with the letter j,” he finished.
“What? J? Um… pq, no, wait, cdf… no, wait…”
For my efforts, the officer produced a breathalyzer. My blood alcohol content was .075, barely within the legal limits. This news elated me.
“See? I told you I’m not drunk! I’m not an alcoholic!” I was ready to sling myself back in my car and head on home for some cheeseburgers. The officer asked if I’d ingested any drugs. I smacked myself on the forehead.
“Oh my gosh, that’s what it is!” I said. “Oh, we’re fine. I took an Ambien, but it’s prescription. I have terrible insomnia.” I smiled at the officer as if we were the best of chums.
“Ma’am, I going to need you to come with me.”
My father came by his alcoholism naturally—his entire family drank—but I’d managed to convince myself this didn’t apply to me. A simple comparison to my father proved I wasn’t a real alcoholic. My drinking tethered to periods of depression as a symptom, not a disease. When I was depressed, I guzzled vodka from the bottle, but when I was doing okay, I stashed chocolate in my dresser, not liquor. My father drank daily, whiskey in the morning and beer at night. He was a postal worker and kept a pint of Wild Turkey under the seat of his mail truck. His boss put him on probation after a woman on his mail route complained about him urinating in her front yard. My family went through all the traumas that occur with an alcoholic parent: fear, uncertainty, disappointment, worry, hurt, cowering, hiding, placating, keeping the peace, pretending that everything is normal and okay when it is not. We endured his petulance, pouting, crocodile tears, promises to change, car wrecks, vomiting, slurring, and the way his eyes went flat and empty in the moments before he passed out.
And sure, on dark days I sometimes had a nip before work to calm my anxiety, but I never got in trouble. Yes, I drank vodka out of a giant travel mug during my late-night weepy drives, but I didn’t keep a pint of whiskey in the glove box. I’d never had so much as a fender-bender, much less totaled three cars as my father had. I admitted to the occasional blackout, but my father blacked out all the time. And yes, I binge drank from time to time, but never around my daughter—since my divorce, I had all kinds of time to kill and saved the drinking for the nights my ex-husband had custody. I only slurred and vomited around other adults. I’d never had to promise my daughter that I’d change, or bribe her for forgiveness. She’d never hid from me or peed her pants in fear. I marveled at how lucky I was to have escaped the pervasive addiction that ran in my father’s family. Those McDonald’s employees got it all wrong when they reported me to the police. They’d confused me with a real drinker.
I don’t remember being cuffed or put into a police car, though I recall the sensation of swaying in a back seat. I remember sitting in the kind of chair doctors use to draw blood—it seems they took me to a hospital, but I can’t say for sure. When the blood test showed both alcohol and zolpidem (Ambien) in my system, the police arrested me for DUI. I remember smiling for my mugshot and feeling disbelief when they handed me an orange jumpsuit. But I put it on without fuss, certain that my cooperative nature would help all of this turn out fine. The police just needed to recognize me as a law-abiding, educated woman in her mid-thirties, not some reckless, bar-hopping floozy. I didn’t think the alcohol in my system should matter because I’d tested below the legal limit—by a fraction of a decimal point, but in my black-and-white world that meant not drunk, which meant sober.
Ambien, I thought, would be my guaranteed “get out of jail free” card because I had a prescription for it. My insomnia started in my teens after a friend committed suicide. In my late twenties, the insomnia worsened as my marriage came apart. A perpetual lack of sleep escalated my already severe anxiety and depression. I started seeing a psychiatrist who prescribed Ambien along with an antidepressant. I had no doubt that my mental health issues would shield me from incarceration, so I was surprised when an officer led me to a cell.
As a child, I dreaded dinnertime with my family. From the instant I heard my father’s GMC pickup truck crunching gravel as he parked, my gut ticked off the moments until his temper exploded. His cockeyed work hat confirmed his intoxication. During the meal, my sisters and I ate with dainty bites and talked in soft voices. Tension stitched us together. But then one of us clinked a fork against the glass or used too much butter on a slice of cornbread. Within seconds, my father grew into a giant, rising from his chair to loom over us as he pounded his fists on the table. His yelling voice was an octave lower and ten times louder than his regular voice. He relayed key points each time: “You girls—you women—are nothing but a bunch of fucking cats I gotta live with and tend to. I never get any goddamned peace.” More pounding and then, “And I’ll tell you something else, girls. You think a man loves you, well he don’t. A man with a hard cock will love anything. You just remember that, by god.” Family dinnertime ended when he flung whatever he’d been eating against the wall, shattering the plate and sending food flying through the air. One of us usually peed our pants at this point.
Instead of bars, my cell had a metal door with a slot in the bottom half and a small window on top. The interior looked like a movie set, all stainless steel, including the shelf-bed built into the wall. The temperature was like walking into a meat locker. Once I was alone in the cell, I realized that the last my boyfriend knew, I’d left hours ago for some food at McDonald’s and never returned. I noticed an intercom on the wall and buzzed to ask when I would be allowed to make a phone call. I was told “soon,” which dragged into another hour before I heard the sound of wheels rolling down the concrete halls. The officer opened the small window in the upper part of the door and handed me a clunky phone receiver. I reached through to dial my boyfriend. As soon as he picked up, a recorded message played: “Will you accept a collect call from an inmate of Monroe County Jail?” When my boyfriend spoke, I could tell he’d been crying. He told me he’d spent the last few hours calling my confiscated phone and driving around looking for me. The relief of knowing where I was overshadowed the fact that I was in jail and launched him into action mode: he wanted to bail me out.
A swatch of bright orange fabric caught my eye while we talked. A laundry basket of inmate jumpsuits sat close to my cell door, within reach if I could squeeze my arm through the food slot. The freezing temperature of my cell cut through the jumpsuit I was already wearing and made me desperate. I wedged my arm through the space and could just grasp the hem. I yanked the wadded jumpsuit into my cell. It was stained and sized for a large man, but I put it on anyway. I used the extra fabric hanging off the arms to double-wrap myself, grateful I’d put on a sweatshirt before I’d left the house. And not just for the warmth, but also for the coverage—I’d neglected to put on a bra. I’d put on boots but no socks, sweatpants but no underwear.
I spent the next several hours in my cell shivering and thinking two thoughts: I don’t belong here and thank god my daughter isn’t with me this weekend. Despite two jumpsuits and my own clothes, I couldn’t get warm. Still operating under the idea that the police would treat me differently than the other inmates—who, from what I could hear, were all loud drunk men—I went back to the intercom and pressed the button with my numb finger. A female voice responded.
“Yes?” she asked.
“Yes, may I please get a blanket? I’m very cold.”
She snorted. “This isn’t a hotel.”
“I know, I’m sorry. I just wondered if I’m allowed to have a blanket? I’d be so thankful for that.” I chose my words to convey polite respect. Surely she’d see I didn’t belong in jail.
The best present my father gave me to make me love him again was a Crayola Caddy, a plastic base that spun like a Lazy Susan and came with crayons, paint, and markers. My parents were deep in the aftermath of their worst fight. Same cycle as always—father drinks and yells; mother cries and pecks—but this time it escalated into wildness. I was playing outside when it started, and even from the backyard I could hear the murderous soundtrack: screaming, thuds, and breaking glass. One of my sisters was trapped inside and hiding under the bed. She said our mother chased our father around the house with a cast-iron skillet held high over her head.
After that, we tiptoed around the house until a few nights later when my father came home from work with pizza in one hand and gifts in the other, his work hat sitting straight. He was smart in choosing this particular manipulation—even now, years later, the memory of those perfectly molded crayons confuses me into forgetting the reason I got them in the first place.
At dawn the guards served breakfast, the same beige food you see in every movie prison scene: a glob of gelatinous oatmeal and a piece of dry, sawdust toast on a molded plastic tray the color of paste. I still didn’t get that the movies reflected reality, not the other way around. I still didn’t get that I was in serious trouble. Meanwhile, my boyfriend was forking over a thousand dollars to a bail bondsman.
That afternoon, I was released with other inmates whose bail had posted. I was the only woman among them. An officer linked our cuffs together and led us outside into the February cold and through a maze of paths bordered by razor wire fences, all of us walking in Frankenstein steps as we tried to coordinate our paces. They returned my personal belongings as my boyfriend signed various release forms. My mouth tasted like sour mash, so I dug into my purse for a pack of gum. My hands shook, and a stick of gum fell onto the slick floor. Horrified, I watched it slide under the door to a holding cell. No one else seemed to notice, and when my boyfriend finished the paperwork, we left. Minutes later, my phone rang. The caller ID stated Monroe County Jail. I answered, and a man began yelling at me.
“Do you want to get arrested for trafficking to an inmate? Do you? I saw what you did. I could come get you right now and arrest you right this second, and you’d be here a hell of a lot longer this time.”
“What do you mean?” I said. “I didn’t do anything like that.”
“I saw you slide something under that door,” he said. “You passed something to an inmate, didn’t you? That’s called trafficking.”
“I was getting some gum and a piece fell out,” I said. “It wasn’t anything bad.”
“How do I fucking know if that was really gum? I don’t, and it doesn’t fucking matter. That’s trafficking any way you cut it.”
“But no, it was g—”
“Doesn’t matter! I could fucking arrest you right this second. You’re in a lot of trouble.”
I was too scared to speak.
“Well, you better think twice next time.” Then he hung up.
It took me a minute to understand that, in his perspective, I was a law-breaking drunkard who’d been arrested and jailed, not a nice lady who was misunderstood.
I decided I would never tell anyone about my DUI. When a coworker spotted my boyfriend dropping me off at work the next morning, I lied and said I had car trouble. I lied to my mother, my sisters, my daughter, and my friends. The only person who knew the truth was my boyfriend, who carried enough guilt not to judge me. After all, he’d been drunk that night, too.
The police had seized my car following my arrest. After several days, we were able to retrieve it. We drove through miles of beaten-down country landscape before we found the impound lot. I felt like the jagged corn stalks hacked off in the fields of rutted, frozen dirt. We pulled into the lot and drove up to a trailer sitting on cinderblocks with a sign in the window that said “office.” The man who ran the lot told us he didn’t appreciate his lunch hour getting interrupted to let some drunk fetch her car. His unbuttoned plaid lumberjack coat flapped against his sizable gut, which the hem of his dingy and wrinkled t-shirt didn’t quite cover. He had lots of hair on his belly and appeared to be on the verge of belching. He handed me the keys after I paid hundreds of dollars in towing and storage fees.
I walked around the lot looking for my car. I’d named her Betsy when we started spending so much time together after my divorce, driving the loop around the city to pass the hours on the nights my daughter was gone. When I spotted Betsy in the lot, I wanted to cry. She looked old and sad and dirty. I looked in the window and saw two bags of McDonald’s on the floorboard. I opened the door and got in. The bags were filled with enough food for at least four people. My Ambien-released id was buying for a binge. My supersized drink had tipped over, but it was so cold outside that the scattered ice cubes were still frozen. Two purple lighters, a king-sized Snickers, and a full-sized bag of potato chips sat on the passenger seat. I had a brief flash of standing at the counter of a gas station. I wondered what I’d looked like walking around braless and trippy, what I had said to the people as I bought two purple lighters. I bet I looked like my father when he’d stumble into the walls. I sank lower into the icy puddle of Diet Coke. The car smelled like the old grease congealed in the Fry Daddy that sat on the kitchen counter of my childhood home.
Looking back, I wonder why I could feel guilty for rescheduling lunch with a friend but was able to exonerate myself from the guilt of driving while impaired and risking the lives of others, as well as my own. I placed the blame on my shoddy genetic inheritance, Adult Children Of Alcoholics syndrome, mental illness, and my family as a whole. I depended on indignation to keep me from the truth. I clung to that one-hundredth of a decimal point separating me from being legally drunk, willfully ignoring the Ambien I’d taken.
Underneath all of my vehement denial was shame. I’d grown up as a cliché: poor me, my daddy’s an alcoholic. I couldn’t say it without rolling my eyes. How trashy. I’d done my best to distance myself from him—I’d gone to college, worked in an office, lived in the big city. Yet I still ended up getting arrested. I even topped my father by adding pills to the mix.
I persisted in the belief that my charges would be dropped due to my mental health issues and legitimate need for prescription medication. I was so sure of this that I borrowed over two thousand dollars from my boyfriend and hired a lawyer who specialized in DUI cases. He looked like Corbin Bernsen and shared my certainty that I’d be off the hook, no question. He acquired a written statement from my psychiatrist and pharmacy records from Walgreens. I felt confident as I walked into the courtroom. The judge gave me an amiable smile and joked about how I’d gotten myself in a little trouble, eh? Then he got down to business and convicted me. The medical notes and pharmacy records didn’t matter; the charge would stick. In the eyes of the justice system, mixing alcohol with pills and then getting behind the wheel of a car made me culpable. My lawyer acted surprised as we walked out of the courtroom. He blamed it on the county and its strict enforcement of DUI law, not on me—but I suspect now that his befuddlement was more an act to save face than anything else.
The court suspended my license for months, but as a single mother sometimes I felt I had no choice and drove anyway. No one could argue with a mother picking up her child from daycare or making a trip to the store, right? Then one day I was driving home from an errand and a police officer pulled up behind me at a four-way stop. Panicked that he would run my plates, I made an immediate turn into the nearest subdivision, parked my car in front of a random house, and half-jogged down the sidewalk while trying to look casual. I walked for nearly an hour until I felt certain he wasn’t staking me out and I could safely return to my car. Yet, even after this, I continued to drive on a suspended license—but this time with a grocery bag filled with diapers and tampons in the trunk of my car should I get pulled over, certain that those items would buy sympathy and I wouldn’t get in trouble. I was a mother, not an alcoholic.
The courts funneled me into the county C.A.R.E. (Court Assisted Rehabilitative Efforts) program. I reported monthly to a probation officer. At each visit, a female officer accompanied me to the restroom and stood in the corner watching me while I peed in a cup so they could test my urine for alcohol. My probation officer reminded me on a regular basis that an officer could perform a home visit at any time and without warning to make sure I wasn’t violating probation. I nodded my head and then went home and drank for a few hours after each appointment, figuring they wouldn’t ambush me right after a check-in.
In addition to an eight-hour mandatory drug and alcohol class, the rehabilitation program required that I attend a Victim Impact Panel held in the 4-H building at the county fairgrounds. The speaker I most remember told us the story of how a drunk driver killed his teenaged son on a Saturday afternoon when the boy went to buy a bag of ice during a family cookout. This broken man spoke gently about his son, and I wanted to comfort him. I wanted to find him afterward and hug him and explain to him that I wasn’t one of those people who would risk killing a seventeen-year-old on a sunny summer day. I wasn’t like my father, who flipped a car full of his friends and nearly killed two of them. I wasn’t like the other DUI people filling the folding chairs in this massive hall.
I’d brought a book to read while waiting for the class to begin, a fairly obscure title about Tourette syndrome. As I stood in line during a bathroom break, a woman around my age came out of the stall. She was a little pudgy in her capri pants and sweatshirt, with shoulder-length brown hair and a friendly face. She looked like a nice person, like a mom who made casseroles for her kids. As she passed me, she spotted the book I was holding and stopped with a surprised look.
We spent five minutes discussing the various facets of mental illness and how Tourette syndrome runs in families, predominantly in males. I figured this polite, knowledgeable woman was one of the speakers for the class, one of the victims, one of the good people. At the end of break, we walked back to the meeting room and parted ways. She headed up the aisle, I assumed to take her place with the other speakers. Instead, she returned to her chair a few rows ahead of me and opened her pamphlet. I was shocked—she had a DUI? She’d been in jail?
I shifted in my chair and scanned the crowd. A sleek-haired woman in a tailored business suit and heels typed on her laptop while a man in a polo shirt and khakis checked his watch. A freckled young woman sat next to an older woman with the swollen eyes and puffy face of late-stage alcoholism. I saw motorcycle vests with biker patches, long gray ponytails and trucker caps, yoga pants and tank tops, jeans and sports jerseys. Some people looked like my father, but most didn’t. I looked down at the book in my hands, at my navy blue sweater and comfortable canvas shoes. And I finally got it. Maybe I wasn’t an alcoholic like my father. Maybe I was an alcoholic like… me.
I stopped drinking for several months. Getting called out and labeled as a drunk shook me enough that I couldn’t drink without feeling ashamed and gluttonous. But then, of course, alcohol crept its way back in on the gloomy days. I had three slip-ups where I drank from sober directly to blackout and woke up with that awful feeling of having a pothole where memory should’ve been.
But I am lucky because shame finally outgrew my compulsion to binge drink. I began to hate the feeling of being drunk, the headache that roared behind the buzz, the way my fat tongue garbled the words as my smile stuck to my teeth. I hated all of it and finally recognized that the urge to drink was a red flag alert that I was depressed or anxious and primed to gulp my sorrows under the rug, where they’d fester and multiply and ambush me the next morning.
A “normal” drinker doesn’t chug vodka from the bottle. A normal drinker doesn’t have to avoid hard alcohol for fear of blacking out. A normal drinker doesn’t lose control like that. My father lost control every day; I lost control sometimes. But sometimes is enough to kill someone or myself, to end up in jail, to drown in shame, to pay severe consequences for my inebriated actions, to ruin my daughter.
So, yes, I’m an alcoholic.
Rumpus original art by Lauren Kaelin.