This post was originally published on August 4, 2015.
One of the standard drunk driving jokes that you hear from the podium at AA meetings goes something like this: “Of course I drove drunk to the liquor store. I was way too hammered to walk.”
It generally draws a big laugh, and while the line is typical of the type of gallows humor that softens the reality of just how incredibly fucked up our lives really were, I was reminded recently of just how unfunny that joke must sound to the rest of the world.
In July I attended the 80th AA convention in Atlanta and one of the final speakers at the Big Meeting in the Georgia Dome was a 30-ish guy who was celebrating his four year anniversary. But after he finished his touching story to a standing ovation and thundering applause, he wasn’t off to coffee and donuts with his sober buddies, he was going back to prison. He had killed someone in a blackout while driving drunk, was convicted of motor vehicular homicide, and was now serving a 10-15 year sentence in the state penitentiary for the crime.
He had gotten sober “behind the walls” as they like to say, and was now a volunteer firefighter at the institution. I’m guessing that he must have earned some pre-release privileges by being a firefighter in order to be sharing at the convention, because he wasn’t even allowed to go to his own mother’s funeral early on in his sentence.
He told his story in a plainspoken, matter-of-fact manner, but it was incredibly powerful. And while we can talk about the redemptive power of recovery, make no mistake, he killed someone and was suffering the consequences of his actions—something that drunks and addicts like me rarely think about while we’re using.
It was a stark reminder for me of just how lucky both I and the people in the world around me are because now that I’m sober, I’m no longer piloting a couple of tons of metal through the city streets with a quart of booze coursing through my system. In broad daylight. While kids are getting out of school.
I was a chronic drunk driver, which in my case means that I drank and drove legally intoxicated most days of my life from the time I was 18 (when I bought my first car) until I got sober at the age of 47. That’s a minimum of 29 years (10,592 days), and even if I deduct the couple of years that I quit drinking and just smoked pot, and then subtract another wildly generous five years’ worth of days for possible good behavior, that’s still a bare minimum of about 8,000 days I drove drunk. And that number doesn’t even include the multiple trips per day (to and from work, to and from the bar and my dealer) that I made towards the end of my drinking.
And what was my punishment for that disgraceful record?
Three arrests, and only one conviction for DUI. And even the conviction turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me, because it got me sentenced to AA, which I absolutely needed in order to get sober. I was also never involved in a (serious) car accident while I was driving drunk (although I hit a few things at low speed when I was parking drunk). So I am one obscenely lucky motherfucker that I never hurt anyone or myself.
And what’s even more disturbing is that my case is not even remotely atypical. There are many people in my group and my larger sobriety circles with similar stories, many of whom were never arrested for even a single DUI, despite literally tens of thousands of blacked-out drunken driving episodes.
That certainly isn’t to say that everyone gets away with it. One woman in my noon meeting was just sentenced to three years in jail for severely injuring a woman when she drove drunk the wrong way on a one-way street on the first day of her relapse after four years of sobriety. And according to the Center for Disease Control, 10,076 people were killed in alcohol-impaired driving crashes in 2013 alone.
My first arrest came when I was 21, when drinking and driving was still considered something of a sport. It was 1978, and it was not uncommon for cops to let drunks drive home with a few words of caution, or sometimes the cops would park the drunks’ cars and drive them home without an arrest. The world was very different before Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the lawsuits woke up the public as to just how huge the problem was. Still, I was not as lucky as others back then and was sentenced to the First Offender Driver Alcohol Education program (aka “drunk school”), where they taught us about the perils of drinking and driving.
I didn’t drink for about a couple of weeks after the arrest, but I soon resumed drinking—and driving. I was supposed to have been forced to go to a couple of AA meetings as part of the program, but my probation officer let me skip out because I was a “good kid.” They also cleared my record when I avoided any arrests for a year.
The second arrest came almost 20-plus years later when I wasn’t even drunk. I know that’s how every drunk feels about their drinking—that as long as they’re just not blacked out and able to walk they’re fine, but this time it was reasonably true. A cop literally smashed into the rear quarter panel of my car when he pulled away from the curb and tried to pin a DUI on me when I admitted that I had had two beers (one of the few times that had ever occurred in my drinking career) before getting into my car.
I took the field sobriety test (and allegedly failed) but refused the breathalyzer because it was a town just outside of Boston with a well-documented history of police “misbehavior” and they booked me. The police report said that I was unable to walk or talk, but my lawyer subpoenaed the booking video and the jury saw that they had lied, and acquitted me in about two minutes. It cost me $5,000, but I was drunk and behind the wheel again that night.
Two years later—25 years after my first DUI—I finally got bagged again. I drove drunk again the day after my arrest, but I pled guilty when I went to court, and was again sentenced to drunk school and AA. I’d like to tell you I stopped there, but I drove drunk to 40-50 AA meetings after I got my license back, before getting sober on September 10th 2003. I haven’t had a drink or a drug—or driven drunk—since.
And I am so grateful not to be in the shoes of the guy that I heard speak at the convention. Not just because he’s incarcerated, but more because I imagine that he must still suffer the mental torture of knowing that his drinking took another person’s life.
In the men’s group I first belonged to when I got sober, whenever the subject turned to self-pity, this old timer would always say, “If I really got what I deserved, I’d be dead or in jail.”