I’m not designed for jail. That’s not to say other people are, but I have a good friend who’s proud that he can stare at a concrete wall for hours at a time. Me? I don’t have that gene. Next to getting stuck behind slow people in the grocery self-checkout, it’s my idea of hell. But like most career alcoholics, I was bound to end up in a jail cell at one point or another. It was just a matter of time. I just didn’t realize it because, well, I’m an alcoholic. I’m not exactly the type of person who thinks ahead, let alone someone who believes anything bad will ever happen to them. Prisons and problems are for other people. Still, you’d think a middle-class white guy would be rattled by a DUI arrest. Nope. It was as inevitable to me as it was shockingly ordinary.
Living in Ohio, there’s no shortage of long country roads and quiet neighborhoods. When you hit as many bars as I used to, you sort of memorize those routes like an electrician memorizes circuit-board schematics. If it took me 10 minutes longer to get home from a Buffalo Wild Wings, so be it. Twelve beers in, I wasn’t going to risk getting caught on the highway. And Ohio loves its police. (One summer, I had five friends drive through Ohio on cross-country trips—and every single one of them got hit with a speeding ticket.)
I got pulled over leaving a welcome-home party in my honor. I’d just returned from grad school in Arizona and everyone decided to throw me a party. (Looking back, I’m half-convinced that I threw myself that party.) I hammered it with the hurricane-force of someone who’d been left to their own alcoholic devices for three straight years. My friends didn’t know what hit them. I sure as hell wasn’t the same person they’d said goodbye to years before. A six-pack of Labatt wasn’t cutting it anymore. By midnight, I was rooting around their wine cabinet and suggesting we open margarita mix. I chugged drinks without purpose, like the Iron Giant mindlessly eating metal in a scrapyard.
“Slow down there, Chopper,” my friend Mark cautioned me. I didn’t listen and didn’t care. Not long after that, I was wrestling with some random girl, loudly quoting Khan’s dying speech from Star Trek II. “From hell’s heart, I stab at thee!” I shouted, pinning her down on the living room carpet. (She’d said she didn’t like Star Trek but really liked seaQuest DSV, which I still believe calls for wrestling.) After that, I downed another beer and asked where my keys were. Turns out, someone had hidden them. I’ve sincerely never been angrier in my life. To this day, I can’t explain the lens-flare rage that came from discovering that someone had hidden my keys. I hadn’t lost them—someone had decided I couldn’t have them.
“Where the fuck are my keys?” I demanded.
My mood had shifted from Fake Khan to Actual Khan. I was officially the villain.
I ripped open cupboards and drawers and even the fridge, looking for those keys. I could sense that everyone knew where the keys were, which just enraged me further. I don’t recall how long it took for someone to finally just throw my keys back at me, but by that time, I wasn’t just drunk—the alcohol in my veins was on fire. Smash-cut to the flashing lights behind me. My foolproof route home, which zig-zagged me through several different neighborhoods, didn’t work.
The police officer asked me if I’d had anything to drink. I just sort of locked into it, going calm and steady. This was the part of the movie where I get arrested for drinking, I told myself. And I went along with it. That’s how my brain works—when something bad happens, I don’t react. It’s not unlike the time I accidentally bought a $115 necktie at Nordstrom—I had no idea that it was that expensive, but when she rang it up, I didn’t have the self-esteem to question the price. I just shrugged and pretended to be okay with it.
“A few beers a few hours ago,” I admitted.
“A few beers,” he repeated in a way that told me everything I needed to know about how the rest of my night was going to go.
I failed to walk a straight line. People stared out of their windows at 2 am. Maybe if I could convince this cop that I could walk a straight line, I’d get to go home. No dice. I was handcuffed and watched my Jeep get towed. I talked the cop’s ear off the whole way to jail (“You have a busy night tonight?”). When I was being processed, I chatted up everyone like it was no big thing that I’d just gotten arrested for weaving through a suburb. My name would be in the paper. My parents’ friends would find out. My girlfriend would know. I’d be That Drunk.
“You do a lot of drinking in college?”
“Because your BAC is sky-high,” the cop nodded, which I took to mean he was impressed. I almost thanked him. “You’re still able to talk good.”
“Talk well. You don’t talk good. You talk well,” I corrected him. “It’s like when someone asks you How are you doing? You don’t ever answer Doing good. You answer Doing well.”
I was locked up minutes later. I stared out the cell window at a long corridor. Just me, bare walls, concrete floor, and a metal toilet. Every once in a while, police officers would pass. I felt like a zoo animal. For the most part, though, I was alone. After an hour, I paced. I imagined that I was marooned on a lunar space station, temporarily cut off from Mission Control. It was seriously the only way I could get through the hours: imagining I was a goddamn astronaut. But truth be told, even coming down, I knew I’d be drinking again within hours. That’s how I dealt with problems—especially all the ones drinking caused me. I didn’t stop and I didn’t slow down. The DUI wasn’t a warning shot across my bow, it was simply a token I picked up along the way—something most people in my circle also earned eventually.
As a result of my DUI, I spent thousands in fees and fines (correction: my parents did) and did countless community hours. Not until I got sober, a decade later, did I regard my arrest with any shame or horror. Now, I allow things to unsettle me. I don’t automatically go numb or dead inside. Truth be told, no jail cell was ever going to cage the beast of my alcoholism, but that jail cell is exactly what my drinking problem was. It’s only when I recognized the walls I was living in that I actually became free.