Yes, Sadly, It is Possible to Operate a Motor Vehicle When You Have a Blood Alcohol Level of 0.24%, and This is How I Know: Part One
I have gotten a few requests from people to discuss my alcoholism and how I got sober. I started this blog long after I got sober, so there are no real time accounts of any of those escapades, but I do plan on touching upon the major points, even if only by making tangent references in the context of my writing from time to time. If you have ever been to an AA speaker meeting, you will know that, actually, many alcoholics do have a knack for repurposing their sordid pasts into hysterical monologues. Some of them even end up becoming professional comics. I think it is possible for these stories to be funny because you start out with the knowledge that the person is not drinking or using anymore. Were this not the case, it might merely be offensive and sad.
I am not confident that I am among the ranks of alcoholics with a talent for making these stories funny. However, since my psychiatrist (who also reads this blog–Hi, X!–as homework) tells me that writing about my past will give me good “work-through,” I am going to try my hand at a drunkologue with the end goal of me becoming locating a “more authentic self,” even though I suspect it might end up costing me page views. I think people hope I have a way of making this all droll and charming, but given the material I have to work with, this is a steep task. (Note to self: the fact that psychiatrist reads patient’s blog is funny, though. Sitcom treatment?)
I should say, by way of introduction, that approaching the topic of alcoholism head-on is kind of overwhelming. I have tried to do so in the past in a fictional form, and part of what appears below is reproduced from that attempt. This is for a couple of reasons: 1) it is sometimes too painful for me to accept that I am the first-person subject of this particular story, and fictionalizing it gives me a little bit of distance and more ability to be honest about what really happened, and what I really did, even if the distinction is really only academic and not fooling anybody; and 2) I was blacked out during almost the whole of the evening (and into the early morning) that this happened, so the specific timeline of events between beer number 12 and the mugshot is hazy at best. But it is very likely that something like what happened is contained in this story–everything that I share here is as close to the truth as anyone is ever going to get, given my brownout recall and the self-preservatory repressions that I have to work around.
The story of how (and, more importantly, why) I got sober is intriguing, but it would be painful for my family–parents, in particular–to read. So the next time my parents go out of the country, maybe I’ll post that story and then by the time they return, it will be buried in reviews of eyeshadow and thoughts on the political implications of the iPhone, and they’ll never have to read it. Or, I could just require the input of a reCAPTCHA code to enter the site, which would leave them confused and disoriented enough to slip a post through the back entrance.
I didn’t start drinking until age 17, and I was sober by the time I was 27. But I covered a lot of ground in that short period, and that’s why for me it ended up being a choice between giving up alcohol or coming to a violent end in due course. So I will begin my discussion of my alcoholism by beginning not at the very start, but more at the beginning of the end–the first time I had any real consequences for my drinking–which is the time I got a DUI. This story will begin to illustrate this point to you, and if I make light of certain circumstances, it is not because I think what I did was funny–it was horrific, and is the worst single thing I’ve ever done because of the potentially tragic consequences it could have had, and that I am forever grateful it didn’t.
[insert wavy screen to denote passage back in time/memory]
Hi there, my name is Anna, and I am an alcoholic. Forgive me for not introducing myself properly, but at present I am passed out, my face flat on the wheel of the 1984 Volvo GLE Turbo I bought with the insurance proceeds from the totaling of my previous car, a BMW 318i, that I purchased used for myself with inherited money at the age of 16.
The Volvo sedan is outdated by at least ten years, and there is an annoying delay between the depression of the gas pedal and the acceleration of the car that makes it tough to get up to speed on the highway. But that is irrelevant now, given that it is still in working order but resting on an unpaved highway shoulder, framed by ice plant, carpobrotus edulis, or “green French fries,” as I used to call it as a girl. I am facing oncoming traffic, but there is no danger of me being hit, given that it is just after 3:00 am on a Tuesday night Wednesday morning in the late Spring of 1997. Most productive members of society are at home in bed.
My car, having just completed an automotive triple axle, has ended its impressive spinout on the shoulder of the Interstate 5 just outside of Point Loma, in San Diego, California. Nobody has been hurt, but it is a red-letter morning for me. I do not have a distinct recollection of making a conscious decision to drive, but bits and pieces of the evening will return to me over the course of the next few days, and gradually I will accept that my decision to drive was ipso facto the decision to drink in the first place. For years after that, memories of this night will come back at the most inopportune of inopportune moments, and when this happens I will shake my head from side-to-side rigorously–not unlike my golden retriever after a bath or in the throes of an ear infection–as if I can shoe away like flies the unwelcome memories from my official history.
I was 24 and I was convinced my life was over. But this was not a failed suicide attempt, if that is what you are thinking. I have never been so grandiose, howevermuch I seem to adore that term: I am far too passive for the grand gesture, vastly preferring the I-smoke-cuz-I’m-hoping-for-an-early-death-and-I-need-to-cling-to-something brand of hackneyed self-destruction. Besides, I would never risk a car crash as a suicide attempt. What if I survived and had to live in a wheel chair?
These, by the way, are the thoughts that proceed the consumption of an entire bottle of your roommate’s wine (after she goes to sleep and in spite of the fact that you already had 12 Sierra Nevadas of your own), and in spite of the fact that you hate wine, and in spite of the fact that it is Tuesday night. And after that, watching bad movies on tape, like the 1995 Julia Roberts vehicle, Something to Talk About (after the Pretty Woman-fueled meteoric rise but before the second coming in My Best Friend’s Wedding) getting into your car and driving to a bar you have driven past many times but always been too proud to enter–perhaps it was because it was called The Alibi, and who drinks in a place with a name like that?–by yourself, and shortly before last call, strike up a conversation with a man completing a crossword and downing a boilermaker, and decide to accompany him and his four barfly friends back to a house—you can’t remember where it is now—but you know you drove there, for a game of poker (which you don’t know how to play).
I do remember subtly suggesting other card games–screaming, in the voice that had temporarily healed from the vocal nodule incidents of a few years before, “LET’S PLAY SPADES!! SPADES!! I SAY!!” over and over again in the living room of the house in Ocean Beach? was it? I also remember having the sensation of being mocked, but not caring, since after 2:00 am (when it is illegal in the State of California (for four hours) to sell alcohol) I would go wherever there was alcohol to be had. And these people, whoever they were, had whisky, a version of alcohol I despise, but would drink in a pinch.
It was as good a place as any to hang out. Once I began drinking I always felt compelled to finish. I am that kind of girl–I have to see things out, even if I’m blacked out. If I went to bed, I might miss something, or at least this is what the spirits seemed to tell me. When I say that the spirits told me, I do not mean to imply that alcohol spoke to me in the way that some people will claim–hardcore alcoholics, many of whom without much desire to get better, they will tell you that for the rest of their lives they will walk into a bar, liquor store, or even a grocery store, that the bottles of alcohol speak to them. These magical bottles become alive to the alcoholic, growing larger than life and developing metaphorical, Alice in Wonderland-inspired DRINK ME signs and in this way, the choice to drink is taken out of their hands. Alcohol is a monster that comes to them.
I am not one of these people. I could always avoid alcohol, and I could avoid all kinds of drugs, but once I gave into the first drink, it was nearly impossible to stop. And at this point in my life, I had not identified any compelling reasons to stop.
Who were these people who had been feeding me whisky anyway? Later, piecing together the scraps of memories of the night, and trying to regain what was left of my pride, I would decide that the guy, Crossword, must have hit on me at one point in the evening, since they ordinarily did somewhere between the first six pack and the last shot of Jagermeister. I am equally convinced, based on both physical and psychological evidence, that nothing untoward had happened, which was both good and bad. Good—for obvious reasons. Bad—because it suggested that I had been so completely gone—schnookered, or blotto–as my father had called me on the occasion of my graduation from college, when I stood up in MemChu, alone, at the wrong point in the ceremony, sure that it was in fact the right time to stand, and watched the newly minted PhDs make their way back down the aisle, and disdainfully evaluate the drunk undergraduate pissing on their moment of glory—that the sketchy bar guy, a guy who went to a bar called the Alibi to do crossword puzzles shortly before last call on weekday nights (parenthetically: was that a profile of a serial killer, or what? Who does crossword puzzles 1) in a bar, and 2) at last call on a Tuesday?)—that THAT guy felt that I was too far gone to mess with. Did I have a conversation with Crossword regarding my fitness to drive? I can’t remember.
But these were the hours leading up to finding myself on the side of the freeway in the early hours of the morning. If I could have held my head up, I might have noticed the blue and red lights approaching me, not that this would have done me or the rest of the Southern California driving public any good, since I had a flat tire and was still coming in and out of consciousness. What happened next is unclear, though I have a distinct memory of failing miserably the part of the field sobriety test that involves walking in a straight line, and thinking that after that, it was overkill for the cop to ask me to recite the alphabet backwards–sadistic, really–but he did anyway, and I remember wanting to ask him, “Are you fucking kidding me?” but being too afraid.
And then being handcuffed.
Even after this, I had not entered even the ballpark outside of the ballpark of sobriety. Like, if sobriety is contained in the new Yankee Stadium, I am not even in the old Yankee Stadium that is across the street from it–if that’s where sobriety is, then I’m in Yonkers. And I don’t even know where that is.
Still, there was a growing sense that the shit was about to hit the fan, somewhere nearby, perhaps not far from where I was now sitting, which was in the back of a Highway Patrol car. And I started to realize that I had done it again–done something horribly wrong and mortifying, and it was time to pull the covers over my head and hide from the world. But I was handcuffed. So I started to cry.
“Do I have to be in handcuffs?” I asked.
“Yes, yes, she is being cooperative, no need for back-up,” the patrolman was saying to someone. Dispatch? Klinger? He said through the cage separator: “Yes, handcuffs are standard procedure for 502 arrests.”
I got the impression that he was speaking to me at that point, though he did not turn around to face me when he said these words. In the middle of the dash was an upright shotgun. You know they are supposed to be there, but when you actually see them, it is disturbing.
“Is this what I went to Stanford for?!” I lamented, the intense melodrama of my circumstances suddenly overcoming me.
“Yes, it looks like it is,” he said. I thought that I had been speaking in interior monologue there, but apparently not.
And so humiliation was complete. Tears fell down my cheek and I was silent. I felt dirty. I felt the same way I have felt every time I have been punished since I was a child: there was a pit in my stomach, a note of discord in the universe, and a strong desire to take a knife to my arm.
And then I started working on how best to spin the situation.
[TO BE CONTINUED . . .]