Two years ago today, the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, I woke up in a jail cell. I got my first DUI. It was coming. I’m not sure how it didn’t happen before. I’d driven buzzed or drunk dozens – hundreds – of times.
The fact I got one is less remarkable than my reaction, which was almost nothing. It wasn’t until I was standing in the Salem court room two days later, shaking from the weekend of drinking and nerves, listening to the police report – which sounded like a dramatic story about someone else – that it started to settle in that I might be kind of fucked.
And still. I dissociated with what was happening like I did a lot of serious things. I found a space between what was happening and myself and I floated up into it.
They read the police report – which took almost ten minutes – and I hovered up above my body a bit. The clerks voice became tinny, cartoonish.
“Miss Gaunt’s eyes were bloodshot and she seemed confused, laughing, when asked how much she had to drink, she started to say something several times and then shook her head, ‘I don’t know. I’m not sure.’”
"Miss Gaunt's blood alcohol level was a .27, well above the legal limit." At home later, I would look up an article on blood alcohol levels. .25-.30 is #9 on a list of 10, with 10 being complete unconsciousness. After that, the description reads, fatal for nearly all individuals.
The laughing was because I had smoked pot – something I rarely did because I couldn't stand the effect. But I had set out that night on a mission to obliterate. I had an entire bottle of wine within the first hour of arriving at my friend’s house. I think I was chasing a hangover, definitely some nerves. I had just started a new job with a big title and weekends without my daughter left me eager and gutted at the same time. I had been talking to a guy that worked as a bartender in Beverly and he was planning on coming over after his shift. I was excited and wanted to speed up time to get to that part, and alcohol is great at speeding up time.
In reality, the circumstances never mattered. But I wanted to believe they did.
I had arrived at my friend’s house in Salem around 6pm. By 7 I was drunk. By 8 I was stoned and drunk. By 9 I was blacked out. I vaguely recall throwing up in the bushes next to their house and deciding to leave without telling anyone, while wearing my friend’s slippers. There were six of us adults there plus kids; mine was with her dad. It was a fun group, our kids were around the same age and we’d often have dinner parties or cookouts or go to the beach and bring the kids and always, there were cocktails. That was the primary reason I was there – not their great company (which it was) or the food (always awesome) – but because I knew they’d be drinking, too.
The fact I attempted to drive is insane on so many levels. It’s a big holiday weekend. People are around, in the streets. Families. Kids. So many awful, horrific things could have happened instead of what did. What did happen was I attempted to navigate myself back to my town and got lost in a maze of streets pretty far off the path home, which I’d driven hundreds of times. I grazed a few “jersey turnpike” barriers on a street and pulled over to check the damage (I only know this because it was in the police report). One of the residents on the street heard the smashing noise and came outside, saw me, clearly not sober, wrote down my license plate and called the Salem police before I drove away.
I didn’t make it far, maybe a block or two, before they pulled me over. They gave roadsides tests (I failed) and went through the motions before they piled me into the back of the cruiser and had my car towed.
When I came to a few hours later in the detox cell, my first thought was that I didn't get to meet up with the bartender. He would be coming to my house - or maybe he'd already come - and I wouldn’t be there. Goddamit. I had no idea what time it was.
I’ll never forget the smell of that cell. Something like urine maybe, except more chemical. Putrid. I slept for several hours on the cold concrete partially covered with a stiff, disposable blanket. It was freezing. When I came to at 3am, my friend’s husband was there to pick me up. He'd been waiting while they held bail for a couple hours. He had their kids at home and I'd completely messed up their night and probably their next day. I was so ashamed, I apologized profusely, but also pretended like it wasn’t all that bad in hopes they'd feel the same. He asked me if I actually got a DUI and I handed him the ticket and said, "No! I just got pulled over!"
The next day was a painful slog. I had to collect my car and have someone else drive it home. My friend wisely suggested I call an attorney and even had a name from one of her friends who'd got a DUI the weekend before. This was comforting. It was no huge deal, right? Holiday weekend. Cops were everywhere. It could happen to anyone. I was fine.
I texted friends who I knew would be supportive and not mortified. Those who would commiserate because they’d been there, or knew someone who had. Those who would say, “Ugh” and “That sucks so bad” and “I’m sorry, so sorry” and “It’ll suck but you’ll get through it.” I didn’t tell the ones who would know that I drove drunk a lot. The ones who would be concerned and had been for some time. I didn’t tell people who knew, like I did - even if it was buried under layers and layers of denial – that I was careening toward a big fucking disaster. I didn’t tell those friends yet.
A few months later, the morning after his wedding, my brother brought it up.
“I was glad when you got a DUI. I hoped it would slow you down.”
But it didn't. And that's why we were talking. That morning there were much bigger horrors to discuss.
That morning I cried hot tears into my coffee as my brother spoke to me seriously, solemnly, letting me know in no uncertain terms that the gig was up.
“You are not someone who can drink, Laura. Some people can. You can’t. If you keep going you are going to lose everything. Including your daughter.”
I can’t imagine how hard it was for my brother to do that. The full weight of our conversation that morning has been delivered to me in chapters, as time and my sobriety unfolds. I have yet to unpack it all; I probably never will.
I have $500 left to pay my attorney from the DUI, which will come out of my account on the 15th of next month. Aside from my skyrocketed car insurance rate (which I’ll have for the next four years) that’s the last of my monetary ramifications from the whole ordeal. In total it cost me about $15,000. I wonder how much $15,000 weighs? More or less than I do? It is among the least heavy consequences of my drinking.
I sat in a recovery meeting last night and halfway through it hit me that the DUI was two years ago. At the end of this particular meeting they give away chips for different lengths of sobriety (30 days, 60 days, 90 days, 6 months, etc.). Our usual “chip girl” is on vacation so I was asked to stand up and do it. A couple people grabbed 30-day chips, one person got a two month one, someone got six months. The last chip given away is a 24-hour to 29 day one. It is silver and I've had dozens of them, but I only kept one, the last one I got.
Four women walked up to the front last night to get these chips. Four beautiful, gorgeous, brave women had the balls – first one, then another, then another, and then another - to walk up to the front of the crowded room as people erupted in whoops and claps. I hugged them each too tight as I pressed the silver chip into their palm, whispering “you are amazing” in their ears.
This morning around 6 a.m. I opened my eyes to flickers of sunlight on my desk and grey curtains billowing with ocean air. I adjusted the pillow to find a cool part and rubbed my feet together rhythmically, breathing in a long sigh of deep, deep gratitude and wonder. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Mary Oliver’s words floated into my mind:
It is a serious thing
just to be alive
on this fresh morning
in the broken world.