Confessions of a Drunk Driver
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Confessions of a Drunk Driver

Here's the story of one drunk driver, likely not the image you had in mind.

One, Two, Maybe Three Glasses?

For most of us, if we're lucky, the closest we'll ever get to a drunk driver is reading the statistics (1.4 million DUI arrests each year, 17,602 people killed in drunk-driving crashes in 2006) or seeing tawdry photos of Lindsay Lohan or Paris Hilton splashed across tabloid covers. If we notice the names published in our local news­papers' police blotter columns, maybe we shake our heads, worry and wonder: Who are these people? What were they thinking? How soon will they be back on the road?
There are as many answers to these questions as there are drunk drivers. We offer here the story of one drunk driver, likely not the image you had in mind. She's a 53-year-old educated white-collar professional. While this is the story of her first arrest, it was not, she confesses, the first time she was guilty of this crime. She could not be compelled to use her real name and asked that some personal details be changed, but the essential facts of her case are true. We showcase her story not to give her a forum to make excuses or launch a defense but for the imperfect insights she offers into the mind of a drunk driver, a unique view few of us ever get a glimpse of. --The Editors

When I woke up I was in a green-walled prison cell that smelled of puke and urine. Me. An attractive, upper-middle-class woman with two grown sons, a mortgage, two dogs, and a kitten. Me. A former court clerk. Me. A professional writer and teacher with a master's degree who learned too late about what it is like to lose your freedom to a stupid choice -- to drink and drive.

When Lieutenant Ralph Hite [all names and some identifying information have been changed] from our small-town police force pulled me over that night, my first thought was "Uh-oh," and my second was, "Maybe this will turn out all right." After all, I'd had only three glasses of wine that night, although I had had a couple more much earlier that summer Saturday afternoon at a friend's house. Not an unusual amount for me by any means. I drank two or three glasses of wine most weeknight evenings, on average, and usually twice that many -- yes, I could finish a bottle of wine and then some by myself -- on the weekends. But by this night my boyfriend and I had just broken up for what -- the fifth time? -- and I hadn't been sleeping or eating well. At 5 foot 7, age 53, I was down to 120 pounds.

Lieutenant Hite was low-key -- I thought even regretful -- as he asked for my license and registration, then whether I had been drinking. I told him the truth: that I had been at a nearby tavern, drinking and dancing, and that I was on my way home. Please, God, I begged, just let me go home.

According to the police report that was shown to me later, Lieutenant Hite pulled me over at about 12:30 a.m. because I was driving erratically -- switching speeds and hitting the shoulder, not once, but three times. In the car with me was a male acquaintance who was also at the tavern that night (and who'd also consumed his fair share of alcohol) to whom I was giving a lift. I remember thinking, when we headed out, that I was fine to drive. After all, I had driven plenty of times, over the years, after a night when I'd been drinking, and in my whole driving life had been pulled over only a few times for speeding but never ticketed, and never because I was drunk at the time. I had never passed out or blacked out while drunk. The worst side effect I'd ever had from drinking was going on a crying jag. But the moment I turned the car onto the highway that night, it occurred to me that I shouldn't be there. Usually, when I'd driven myself home after drinking, I'd stay on the back roads where it's possible to drive slowly. That night on the highway I nearly pulled over on my own for fear of losing control of the car. I couldn't keep up the posted 55-mph speed. And the lane lines were shifting in my vision.

When Lieutenant Hite asked me to take some field tests, I wasn't in a position to refuse. The first few were given in his car. I couldn't manage to say the alphabet or count forward or backward correctly. He then asked me to step out of the car for some physical tests. I'm naturally athletic and thought I might do fairly well. But I failed miserably, even with my sandals off. I couldn't even walk the white shoulder line. It was then that he asked me to step back into his squad car and take a breath test. My blood alcohol content (BAC) registered at 0.16 percent, twice the legal limit for alcohol in my state, which is 0.08.

A Night in Jail

I was arrested, my car was towed, and my friend and I were taken in the backseat of the squad car to the local jail. My friend was arrested and charged for being drunk in public and released a few hours later. In a way I was actually relieved to be in custody, because somewhere in my wine-sodden brain I realized that I had been driving a potentially lethal weapon while out of control (or as a friend so bluntly put it later, "drunk off my ass") and that I could have killed myself or someone else -- or both.

Many consequences have flowed from my decision to drink and drive -- awful consequences, given new, stringent DUI laws that, as it turned out, went into effect in my home state about a month before I was arrested. But I am grateful, for I was forced to get help. Until my arrest I didn't realize how much I had come to depend upon alcohol to get through some painful episodes; the drawn-out separation and divorce from my husband of 28 years, a volatile relationship with a new man who liked to drink himself. I had been depressed, even suicidal at times, going as far as imagining drowning myself in a swift-moving tidal channel at my favorite beach.

It was 3:30 a.m. when I was finally taken to the women's cell block. The magistrate had ordered me held over until I sobered up. Deputy sheriffs placed a thin mattress on the floor of an approximately 6-by-12-foot cell and gave me two wool blankets. Neither of my two cell mates spoke to me when I entered -- both simply pulled their blankets over their heads and turned their backs to me. That's how one of them remained the entire time I was there. I pushed my feet against the in-cell toilet, my head knocking against the bars. Toilet smells were everywhere -- urine, stool, and vomit -- and the air conditioning was up full blast. I didn't feel like crying, but I was good and scared. I had never been inside a jail before and without knowing exactly what price I would pay next for my mistake, I feared that my life would change forever.

By daybreak I felt sober but was still blowing above zero on the breath analyzer. No release, not yet. It wasn't until after lunch that I blew zero and was sent before the magistrate. He set my arraignment date and ordered my release, once I surrendered my driver's license. Until this point I was completely unprepared for the fact that this was something I would have to do. After all, when I worked briefly as a court clerk, I saw first offense prostitutes who were immediately put on probation -- they were never stripped of their privileges, such as driving. The impact of what I had done and what would happen next was beginning to hit me.

I called a local lawyer from the jail phone, where they give you no choice but to call collect. He took the call and said he would represent me, but that I should steel myself. For first offenders convicted of blowing over 0.15 (which was me), five days in jail was considered mandatory under the new state law. I also faced the possibilities of a $2,500 fine, a totally suspended driver's license for one year, and an interlock device on my car, which requires you to blow into a tube to start the engine. The device will prevent the car's ignition if it detects more than a certain amount of alcohol on your breath.

I washed my face, combed my hair, straightened my clothes. I called the man who'd been with me the previous night to help me retrieve my car. I called him because he already knew what had happened and I didn't want any of my other friends to know.

A New Life

The logistics were difficult -- a foreshadowing of what my new, restricted life would soon be. He drove me to the towing service, where I wrote a check, just the first of many I would write in the months to come. Then he drove me in my car the 30 minutes to my rural home, hitchhiking on the lonely country road to retrieve his own vehicle. As he disappeared from view, I looked out at my Jeep in the driveway. There it would sit, and here I would sit, dependent on the kindness of friends to get around -- to the store, to appointments, including with my lawyer. And for how long? Potentially a whole year, if I was convicted. What on earth, I suddenly realized, would I do about my business? How would I live if I couldn't drive to the city or anywhere else on a writing assignment? Or to teach?

Four days later my father, mother, sister, uncle, and two sons (24 and 22), all of whom live several hours away, came for a long-awaited extended visit to celebrate my uncle's birthday. My elder son immediately asked why I couldn't drive my car to do this and that. I mumbled something about a mechanical problem. I freaked out when my father bought the local paper, worried that my arrest would appear in the police briefs. It never did. To this day I'm not sure why. And to this day I have not told my family what happened.

Though the visit went well, I noticed, as I had so many times before, how many members of my family -- excluding my sons -- would look forward to the end of a day so they could hit the beer or wine...two, three beers or glasses of wine before dinner and then several more during. I saw clearly now that my dad and my uncle had drinking problems. When I was a teenager I vividly remember my father returning from parties displaying drunken behavior, slurring his words, suffering from hangovers the next morning. That I had a drinking problem, too, and that it had now landed me in deep trouble, was something I felt I simply could not tell them. That night I had one or two glasses of wine, from what I recall, but I did not get drunk.

Soon I was describing those kinds of evenings -- and more -- to the private alcohol-abuse counselor my lawyer recommended I hire to show my trial judge I was serious about addressing my problem. She would report my family background and personal drinking habits to my lawyer for my trial. She did not agree with my decision not to tell my family. She saw owning up to my problem as a necessary part of my recovery. I decided several months ago -- at her urging -- to tell certain key friends instead. And they, including my best friend, my now on-again boyfriend and local friends from a women's spiritual circle, have provided the understanding and support that I needed and still do. It really helped when all of them, to a person, reacted by saying the same thing could have easily happened to them.

My counselor, with more than a decade of clinical experience in substance abuse and mental disorders, diagnosed me as being depressed and, if not already an alcoholic, on my way to becoming one. By my counselor's definition, even my weeknight average of three glasses was too much. And with that, she sent her first report to my lawyer.

Negotiating for Daily Life

While I stood before the kind-looking judge, my attorney argued for leniency, on the basis of my otherwise-clean record and my need as a single woman who lives alone to continue to drive to, at the very least, make a living. The judge suspended any further jail time and reduced my fine from $2,500 to $500 (with additional court costs of $200). He granted me a work-restricted driver's license for one year, which allows me to drive from home to work and back again taking the most-direct routes with no stops. He ordered me to report to a probation officer periodically in a town an hour away and to a case manager in a town 15 minutes away for alcohol safety classes ($300). He allowed me to continue to see my private alcohol-abuse counselor ($90 every two weeks) rather than enroll in a more-public, community-hospital program.

Clearly, the judge said -- looking straight at me -- I was a practiced drinker. I needed help. Get it and stick with it, he advised. Then he ordered me to sit in on a Victim Impact Panel in a few months. Sponsored by MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) and sanctioned by the court, the panel would feature what one might suspect -- the heart-rending stories of loved ones cut down or grotesquely injured by someone's choice to drink and drive.

I knew I was lucky and I knew the judge was right. Wine was my painkiller of choice, and I had come to depend on it a great deal. I first began thinking about seeking treatment for depression after my elder son left home for college and I had taken an early retirement from my job as a textbook editor in order to write freelance. I was still married then, and my husband badgered me constantly about "not having a real job," even though he made good money and worked long hours. As I saw it, outside of parenting -- and we had done a mighty fine job of that -- we didn't have a true partnership.

At first I fled from the situation, seeking refuge on long weekends in a room I rented in the country. My husband let me go, no questions asked. We lived this lie of a marriage for years, until 2004, when I finally sought professional help for myself. At my counselor's urging, I began asking my husband to make more time for our relationship and support me in my endeavors in the way I supported him. Initially I simply asked him to start coming home earlier than 9 one night a week so we could have more time to enjoy dinner and conversation together. He refused.

It was about this time, while I waited for him weeknight after weeknight, that I began to pour myself a glass of wine, then another, then another until he came home. On weekends we would host or go to parties, where we talked to other people far more than to each other. When we decided to divorce, I moved permanently to the countryside I had come to love.

I felt stronger and less depressed and, in time, I met a man who was charming, intense and highly intelligent yet also somewhat troubled and focused primarily on his own needs. We had a fitful year, a merry-go-round of highs and lows fueled by a high level of sexual satisfaction and, yes, alcohol. He and I had broken up a few weeks before my DUI.

Reality Bites

Even though my punishment was not harsh, in the weeks and months after my appearance before the judge, reality kept popping up. First, I had to slow down or stop my drinking. Second, I had to live with the driving restrictions. After a bit of wrangling I got permission to drive from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. six days a week (except Sundays) to accommodate my erratic work schedule. Third, I was shelling out money all over the place -- not only for the fine and court costs, alcohol safety classes, and counseling, but also for a new, restricted license ($165) and increased auto insurance premiums (double what I had been paying earlier).

I entered a world of change. Every time I got in the car I had to carry written verification, to be shown to the police should I be stopped for any reason, to justify that I was going to a work-related activity. At first, every time I got in the car I was constantly looking over my shoulder for the police. My freedom to go out for dinner, dancing, to parties and for my beloved Sunday hikes had completely disappeared unless I could persuade friends to drive me. The price of temptation -- to take a chance and drive on a Sunday, for example -- would be total suspension of my license for one year if I was caught. There was no question about whether I would ever get in my car after one or even half a drink, even though for a reason I never learned I had escaped having an interlock device installed on my steering wheel. Under the law, if I were pulled over for anything and then caught with a BAC of even half the legal limit, I could be charged with a second DUI, the consequences of which would be disastrous for me -- I'd lose what freedoms I had managed to come away with for a year but also have to drive with restrictions for another two years, serve more jail time, pay more fines, and face the possibility of having an interlock device installed. A third DUI could lead to felony charges.

When all these facts settled in, I had quite an emotional session with my counselor. I railed against the driving restrictions that would so isolate a person with a problem, potentially driving them to drink even more, in solitude.

My counselor urged me to join AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), saying it is the most useful program for maintaining long-term sobriety. She warned me that unless I stopped drinking, chances were quite good that I would drink and drive again and, almost as if I'd broken a charm with my first arrest, I would very likely end up with a second arrest. Even if I maintained my resolve not to drink and drive, my continued drinking would lead to deteriorated health, she warned. The possible ill effects of significant daily drinking, wine included, were well known. It has been linked to not only impaired liver and kidney function but increased forgetfulness. And I'd already been drinking well over two glasses a day on average for at least 10 years.

My counselor began to treat me for depression in our ongoing sessions. So far I have resisted her suggestion that I take an antidepressant. I did start meditating and became a Pilates teacher in training. After the DUI arrest I promised myself to be more positive in all my relationships, including with myself. I began to study Buddhism as well, which led, this past summer, to my engaging in a weeklong Buddhist retreat, where we meditated, listened to religious lectures, ate a strictly vegetarian diet, and abstained from any kind of substance abuse. I felt no compulsion to drink that week and I think the key was being surrounded by people who also were not drinking. At the end of the retreat I made two pledges: not to engage in sexual relations without love and long-term commitment, and to improve the truthfulness of my communications with myself and others.

To Abstain or Not to Abstain?

Another pledge I could've made, but don't feel ready for yet, is to abstain completely from alcohol.

As of this writing I'm still drinking wine, although even on weekends my limit is now three glasses a day. Why can't I give it up? Patterns. Habit. Probably ongoing, underlying depression. So much of my adult and professional life has been associated with drinking wine, whether to mark the end of a deadline or to accompany good food or simply to be sociable and relaxed with friends or at a party. What's new is that some days I do not drink at all, and I do not drink before I drive at all. My habit is to drink lots of hot tea during the day if I'm going to drive at night, and I usually take a cup of hot tea with me in the car. I've found this quells my temptation to drink wine. If I drink wine at a friend's house, at a party or with friends at a bar, I do not drive afterward. My friends help me now, too. At parties they watch my behavior in a kind, not intrusive, way. We all make eye contact when we feel, as a group, that we should switch from wine to tea. And I have noticed a number of them have curbed their own drinking and have begun to designate a nondrinking driver to get them home.

I will continue to be as cautious as I am now. If I have an unplanned drink when I have driven myself somewhere, I will leave my car and get a ride home. I have to be that cautious. I will forever have that first DUI offense hanging over my head. If I get arrested for DUI again in my state, the consequences will be dire.

But I keep coming back to questions like ... if a beautiful Parisian woman can have a glass of wine at lunch, why can't I?

Except that I know the answer. It's hard for me to stop at one glass. And when I look in the mirror, I see new dark circles under my eyes. The last time I got a physical, my liver was slightly enlarged. And I don't accomplish as much on any given day as I intend to. And I'm more forgetful than I used to be. So, my New Year's resolution is to cut back even more, write more, and possibly, now that my alcohol safety classes are over, substitute weekly attendance at nearby AA meetings. I don't know what effect that will have yet. I do remember what happened when an old friend quit drinking and started attending AA meetings. One night, in a bar (he was drinking cola), he came up to me, took my hands in his, and asked me to forgive him. Perhaps I'll get to that point, where I can forgive others but mostly myself for endan­gering what has otherwise been a pretty good, healthy life.

EDITORS' NOTE: At press time the author's driver's license suspension was slated to be lifted in September.

Drive Drunk at Your Own Risk

It's always a bad idea to drink and drive, but when it comes to punishing offenders, some states are much stricter than others. MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) gives highest marks to states that mandate that all DUI offenders -- even on a first offense -- install interlock devices in their cars. These breath analyzers attach to ignitions and prevent vehicles from starting if a driver's blood alcohol content (BAC) is above a state-determined level, usually around 0.02 percent. Only four states now have this requirement: New Mexico, Arizona, Louisiana, and Illinois. (As of 2004, most other states have interlock laws, but only for repeat offenders, and they're not always mandatory.)

Who has the weakest laws? Wisconsin, the only state in which first-offense drunk driving is not a criminal offense, and North Dakota, where drivers must have five offenses before being charged with a felony, as opposed to the more-typical two offenses. On the needs-improvement list: the nine states that do not automatically revoke drunk drivers' licenses upon arrest. To find out the laws in your state and how to get them changed, go to
-- Mego Lien

How Drunk Are You?

Simply defined, blood alcohol content (BAC) is the concentration of alcohol in one's blood, measured as a percentage. A BAC rating of 0.08 percent, for example, means 1 gram per 1,250 milliliters in an individual's blood is alcohol -- and in most states, that is the point at which one is legally intoxicated. There is, however, no easy formula for calculating BAC on the basis of how many drinks you've had (the Department of Health and Human Services defines one standard drink to consist of 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor, 12 ounces of beer, 4 to 5 ounces of wine, or 4 ounces of liqueur). "Blood alcohol content is highly dependent on individual variation," says Ann Bradley, a spokeswoman for the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), in Bethesda, Maryland.

A wide range of factors influences your BAC, including how much you drink in a given period of time, your weight, any food you've eaten, and your body fat percentage (women tend to have more body fat than men, which means less water and thus slower alcohol absorption). Genetics and overall health play roles as well: Everyone's liver, for example, contains varying levels of gastric alcohol dehydrogenase, the group of natural enzymes that break down alcohol.

To further complicate matters, two people with the same BAC can experience wildly different degrees of impairment, says Vivian Faden, PhD, deputy director of epidemiology and prevention research at the NIAAA. Infrequent drinkers may feel the effects of the same amount of alcohol much more severely than do frequent drinkers. And of course, certain medications, such as anti­depressants, painkillers, and anything containing codeine, can interact with alcohol and intensify its effects, as can some over-the-counter cold and allergy medicines.

How long you stay drunk also varies a great deal, depending on a host of factors, but if you have consumed four drinks in under an hour on an empty stomach, it can take up to seven hours for your BAC to return to zero. (Coffee will not sober you up; the caffeine just makes you more alert.)

If you are driving, the best bet is to limit yourself to no more than one drink with a meal, although the safest course is to abstain entirely. For alcohol impairment charts for both women and men, go to
-- M.L.

How Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Drunk

We've all heard the phrase "friends don't let friends drive drunk," but keeping someone who has consumed too much alcohol from getting behind the wheel is rarely simple. First, few of us can assess accurately who is too drunk to drive, especially if we've had a few drinks ourselves. And second, someone who is too drunk is likely to be argumentative. So what do you do when book group is over and you and your friends have polished off enough pinot grigio to line several bookshelves with empty bottles?

You may be tempted to work out an equation to calculate just how intoxicated someone really is ("Well, we split four bottles, so that's about three glasses per person, but we've been here for four hours, so...). Don't! Too many factors affect the way people metabolize alcohol to make such guesstimates even remotely useful.

The same goes for physical cues: One girlfriend might be glassy-eyed and as giggly as a fourth grader in a candy store, while another may seem as steady as ever but, as experts point out, driving skills can be impaired even when a person shows no visible signs of intoxication. The optimal strategy is to make a pact beforehand that anyone who drinks will catch a ride with the designated driver, call a cab, or stay overnight at the hostess's home.

But let's say it's already too late for best intentions, and your friend has been tossing back apple-tinis all evening long. You must keep her from getting behind the wheel -- despite the near certainty that she'll insist, "I'm fine!" Humor her ("Yeah, yeah, you and Lindsay Lohan"). If your friend is your ride, refuse to get in the car with her. Never be embarrassed to say, "I'll get home another way -- and I think you should, too." Ask for her keys, but be prepared for a verbal assault. "What drinkers hate most is to have their keys taken away," says Bob Jacob, director of the Institute of Police Technology and Management, in Jacksonville, Florida. (In the future, consider having everyone who's drinking relinquish her keys at the start of the evening.) Try for an empathetic tone: "Hey, it happens to all of us. Next time you'll watch out for me." And offer options: "Come home with me and we'll have a pajama party."

If, despite your pleas, your friend weaves off into the night, realize that "the onus is on the person who has chosen to drink and drive," says Traci Hughes, a spokes­woman for the District of Columbia police department. And don't forget you still have a last-ditch option: Calling the cops. Your friend may wind up with a DUI charge and a suspended license, but your actions might save her life or some­one else's. Just don't expect her to thank you in the morning -- especially if she's calling from jail.
-- Maura Christopher

This Is Your Brain on Alcohol

All of us have the potential to become addicted, but not everyone who takes a drink or two succumbs. Scientists know that vulnerability to alcohol's siren song comes down to genes and environment (and sometimes a combination of the two). For example, genes that predispose to alcoholism can make someone more vulnerable to other stressors, such as anxiety or depression, which in turn can push him or her toward alcohol dependence.

Women also have an additional biological susceptibility because most naturally produce less of an enzyme called gastric alcohol dehydrogenase, which breaks down alcohol before it leaves the stomach. Women have less body water and more estrogen, which some suggest enhances the effect of alcohol.

Today's sophisticated brain-imaging technology, such as PET (positron-emission tomography) scans, means researchers can now watch brain areas "light up" and track altered blood flow as alcohol and other addictive drugs like tobacco, prescription pain relievers, and cocaine act on it.

Alcohol affects virtually every nerve cell in the brain, notes Henry Kranzler, MD, professor of psychiatry and associate scientific director of the Alcohol Research Center at the University of Connecticut.

It slows down information processing so it's tougher to think clearly; affects balance, making it difficult to walk a straight line; depresses sexual arousal and performance; and causes sleepiness. It alters levels of the brain chemicals called neurotransmitters, which relay signals controlling behavior, thought, and emotion. In particular, alcohol increases dopamine, the neurotransmitter in the brain's reward center, creating a feeling of intense pleasure.

Addiction happens in part because the brain remembers the pleasure of that dopamine surge and wants to repeat it -- again and again. Eventually, this finely tuned system breaks down: The brain adjusts to the rush by making less dopamine or decreasing the number of receptors that receive and transmit dopamine signals, gradually rendering the drinker unable to feel any pleasure at all from alcohol. This leads to drinking more to try to get dopamine levels back to normal and create the original feeling of gratification.
-- Nissa Simon