I’m just now realizing what happened. That’s the problem with being drunk most of the time. Lapses of thought and memory that come back to sucker punch you when the alcohol finally wears off.
There was a party, a wedding reception. My cousin’s wedding, I think. Lots of drinking. Dad telling me I had too much. Put the kids in the car. Did I even fasten their car seats? Driving away. Crash.
Then the most awful silence. And I couldn’t get myself out of the car. But they were so quiet.
A small voice, “Mama?”
“It’s going to be okay, baby,” I lied.
Whimpers, sobs, screams. Sirens.
Ambulances take them away. The kids who I should have protected. Who I didn’t, in fact, buckle in. Broken bones in their arms and legs. Scrapes on their faces. Smashed nose, knocked out tooth.
I should never have become a mother.
The seat belt I managed to strap around me, the airbag that went off in my face kept me from injury. The Police officer tugged me out of the car, smelled my breath and slapped handcuffs on me. She gave me a good lecture all the way to the station.
“You know you could have killed your kids,” she said.
“I know. I’m sorry,” I said.
“What were you thinking? Getting drunk like that and driving with them. Do you even know that it was wrong?”
“I don’t know.”
“Your children will be taken away. They will be put in foster homes. You’re going to have to go to court. And I’ll be there, too.” She made eye contact with me through the rear view mirror. “I will personally make sure that they don’t get to go home with you.”
“It’s better that way.”
I was fingerprinted, photographed, processed. Questions to answer and forms to sign. Escorted to a cage.
Sobering up in a jail cell was a surprisingly dull feeling. Maybe it’s the neon lights or the drone of voices bouncing off the concrete walls. Or it’s that the soul gave up.
“I need to make a phone call,” I said to the guard who walked past the door.
“You’ll have to wait,” she said.
“But don’t I get a call?”
“It ain’t like that. You gotta wait.”
“Isn’t it my right?”
She laughed as she moved on.
And so, I sat there. Trying to figure out how I let myself become such a drunk. Why couldn’t I stop?
How did having one on the weekends turn into this? Vodka in my coffee cup, little sips here and there, then big gulps several times an hour, hiding the empty whiskey bottles in my cupboards.
And there, on that thin mattress and in the stark cell, I tried to figure out how I’d get out to get a beer. I knew it was about to get real ugly, real fast if I didn’t have something. It felt like I was dying, the fuel that kept my body going, the booze, gone.
I never understood drinking mouthwash before. Or vanilla extract. Or rubbing alcohol. But I did in that moment. There’s no way they just hand that stuff out at the front desk of central booking. That much I understood.
“Get up,” the guard said.
“Somebody bailed you.”
My mom stood in the lobby. She had a jacket for me.
“It’s gotten pretty cold outside,” she said.
She was still wearing the dress she bought for my cousin’s wedding. Lavender with little pink flowers all over. She had her hair done special, got a manicure. She was really excited for that wedding. And I messed it up.
She drove me to her apartment, the one she moved into after she left my dad. He left because of me. Because my mom would keep giving me money and a place to crash. Yet another thing that I destroyed.
We walked in the door.
My whole family was there. Sitting in a circle. Looking at me.
“We’re worried about you.”
“You need help.”
“It’s the booze or us.”
Their words swirled and mixed and clinked in my brain. And all I could think of was how I could get to the kitchen for a drink.
“You almost killed your kids tonight,” my sister said.
“What was that?” I asked. The cold air of her words startled me. “What did you just say?”
“You almost killed your kids.”
“But they’re okay.”
“They’re in the hospital. Lydia has a broken leg and collar bone. Brody’s going to have to have surgery on his arm.”
“Are they going to take them away from me?”
“Yes.” My sister’s sadness was thick. “They’re coming to live with me.”
“Then I’ll still get to see them.”
“No. You won’t.” She locked eyes with me. “Unless you get help.”
“What do you mean by help?”
“Rehab. There’s a program…”
“But I’m going to jail. Right?”
“Yes. But you need help before that.”
“It’s not like I can get any beer in jail.”
The room was quiet. My dad’s head down. He looked at a piece of paper.
“Listen,” I said. “I’m sorry that I’ve done everything wrong. Sorry that I’ve ruined all your lives. But I can’t go to rehab.”
“You will never see your kids again,” my dad said, not looking at me. “And you’ll never see us again.”
“Well, I guess that’s life.” I was trying to make an excuse to rush out of the room and chug down something. “You know, if you can all just write me out of your lives that easily.”
I stood up.
“Sit down.” My mom’s voice was hard. Like nothing I’d ever heard from her before. ”You sit in that chair and listen to what we have to say.”
The seat felt hard. I knew that something was about to happen. I mourned the changes that I was going to be forced to make.
“This is it,” my mom said. “Either you go to treatment or we’re done.”
“Done how?” I asked. My hands shook. I had to drink something. Anything.
“We will no longer do the following things,” my dad said, raising the piece of paper closer to his face. “Number 1…”
“I want mom to read it,” I interrupted. “I don’t want to hear your voice right now, dad.”
“Listen, young lady,” my dad’s face turned red.
There was a strange satisfaction in getting him angry. For as long as I remembered his rage at me felt comfortable.
“Give me the paper.” My mom grabbed it from him. “We will no longer give you money, house you, feed you, drive you anywhere. We won’t let you into our homes. We will not take phone calls from you. I won’t pay your bills anymore. I will report the times you stole my credit card to buy beer. You will have no rights whatsoever to your children.”
“Where is all this coming from?” I dug my nails into the flesh of my thigh. “Who put you all up to this?”
“I won’t bail you out or visit you in jail.” Her face was soaked. She was crying. I’d made her cry. “You will no longer be my daughter.”
I just looked at her, stood up and walked out.
I plead “no contest” to the charges against me. Drunk driving, child endangerment, the theft of my mother’s credit card. They took me immediately to prison.
It didn’t take long for me to learn how to get things that I needed. Do a favor here or there and earn a bottle of mouthwash. It was never enough. And it burned all the way down to my feet. But I had to have it.
After a month, I sat on the floor of my cell, sipping on a bottle. Even after that amount of time I’d still gag on the stuff.
“What are you doing?” my cell mate asked. “It smells like mint.”
“None of your business.” I swigged down some more.
“Why you tryin’ to kill yourself?”
“I’m not. Just trying to get a little buzz.” I held it up to her. “You want some?”
“You know, I been watching you. You really hate yourself.”
I looked at the stack of envelopes under my pillow. All addressed to my kids. All marked “Return to Sender” in my mom’s handwriting.
“What are you in here for?”
A chill traveled up the back of my neck. “Who?”
She laughed, slapped her leg. “You’re killin’ me. No pun intended. Oh, girl I ain’t murdered no one.”
“Then what did you do?”
“Oh, just held up a gas station. Don’t sound so bad now, do it?” She sat next to me. “Let me guess. Drunk driving.”
“That and a few other things.”
“You know, you’re never gonna get better if you keep drinkin’ that stuff.”
“What do I need to get better for?”
“You’re just gonna leave here and turn around and get yourself in trouble again. You’ll be back in no time.”
Cold cement floor. Hard, creaky bed. Ugly orange jumpsuit. No freewill. No rights. Just the same thing over and over. Everyday. I had ten years on my time here. Unless, of course, I behaved myself.
I didn’t want to jump out of this cycle only to hop back in.
“How long have you been drinkin’?” she asked.
“For as long as I remember.” I put the top on the bottle. “So long I don’t know how to stop.”
“It ain’t easy. But you not alone in it.”
“What. You’re an alcoholic?”
“Nope. Never could stand the taste. But you gotta stop fightin’ this all by yourself. And that booze ain’t helpin’ you none.”
“It’s only ever gotten me in trouble.” I tilted my head back. “I need help.”
“That’s good. You’re about to get on your way. Let’s go talk to the chaplain.”
Counseling, AA meetings, accountability. Sobriety.
And then all the memories started hitting me. Partying in high school with my friends. Waking up next to strangers the next day. Sneaking drinks during pregnancy. Leaving my kids in the car while I drank in the bar. Hitting my son across the face for spilling my beer.
With every new memory I felt more and more worthless. I wanted to die. Shame, self-hate, disgust.
I screamed prayers for forgiveness. Wrote letters to everyone I could remember hurting. Tried to make phone calls.
The only response I got were returned envelopes and the click of a phone being hung up.
The chapel wasn’t what I’d expected it to be. No stained glass. No wooden pews. No candles or communion trays.
It was cold, hard, bright. Just like every other room in the prison.
The chairs were full of prisoners. Drug dealers, prostitutes, abusers, murderers, thieves. A grungy group of no-good-criminals. All drunk on the hope of another chance after this life was over.
I only showed because my cellmate was preaching. Sat in the back. Crossed my arms on my chest.
Loud singing. Arms waving in the air. Swaying hips and stomping feet.
I don’t remember what the sermon was about. All I heard from her were words that soaked right up into my soul.
“Do you think you’re so bad God can’t forgive you?” she yelled. “You think He don’t want to hear from you? Who do you think you are?”
“Amen, sister,” voices from the seats called out.
“No matter what you done, you come to God. Do you think He gonna say, ‘Uh, I don’t think so’? No, sisters. He gonna say, ‘Get yourself over here, daughter of mine. I want to show you the good way to live’.”
“Come near to God and He will come near to you!”
Come near to God. The words made me tremble with fear. And He will come near to you. It was too much.
Why would He come near to a piece of scum like me? I was nothing but filth and stink and dark.
I wanted Him. But I was nothing for Him to see. I didn’t want Him to know what I was.
There aren’t many places to be alone in prison. It felt like everywhere I turned people were watching me. Surveillance cameras, guards, other inmates. Yet, even with all those people looking after me, I still felt isolated.
“Come near to God.”
How could I come near to God? Could He even want me? How could I move toward Him with so many aches and pains for a sip of booze? It seemed impossible to want Him and alcohol at the same time.
“He will come near to you.”
What would He want with me? Nobody wanted anything to do with me.
I managed to get myself from the chapel to my cell. My cot smelled. Every night I’d sweat through my clothes and sheets. My body was sending away the remainders of years worth of drinking.
“God.” It was the first time since I was 12 that I used His name for something other than cussing. “God, help.”
I didn’t know what else to say. I just repeated it over and over. Eventually, I fell asleep.
Dreams filled my mind. Bright colored, loud dreams.
Dreams of what was. What I left behind for the bottle.
Baking cookies with my grandma. Rolling down a hill with my sister. My mom singing lullabies as I drifted off.
Dreams of what never should have been.
My children, afraid of me. Their father walking out.
At some point in the dream I found a door. It led to a field. Jesus sat on a stump, children all around Him.
“Come near to God.”
I walked toward Him. Somehow I wasn’t afraid.
“He will draw near to you.”
Jesus smiled at me and called me over. By name. As I approached Him, He got up and embraced me.
I spent 10 years in prison. Good behavior got me out a year early. No one waited for me outside. It was something I knew I’d have to do alone.
All I had were some clothes that the State gave me; jeans, a t-shirt and shoes. They gave me a little money for the bus. I had the number for a half-way house in my pocket.
That number was just my back up plan. I was going home.
So, here I sit, drinking up the $10 bucks I have left after the bus. Coffee never tasted so good.
I’m free. I’m sober. I’m one mile from my mom’s apartment.
And now, everything’s coming to me about that night. The night of the wedding and the crash.
I just know that my family hasn’t forgiven me. Brody and Lydia were so little. They won’t remember me. And if they do, it won’t be a good thing. What am I thinking? I shouldn’t do this.
But I have to. At least to beg forgiveness.
I wrote a letter to read to them. “I know you don’t have to take me back into the family. I just want to let you know that I’m sorry. I’ve changed. But you don’t have to believe me. It’s enough that I could tell you.”
I get up, toss out my empty coffee cup, walk outside.
The mile long walk to the apartment feels so far. But every step gets me closer to whatever it is that God is calling me to.
As I get closer, the thought occurs to me that she might not live there anymore. I panic.
But I see her. She’s carrying a paper bag to the door. A man is with her. Who is that?
I’ve never wanted to run so badly in my whole life. I just can’t decide if I should run to her or away.
“Jesus,” I pray. “I need strength.”
She turns around and I know she sees me because she stops and her face changes. She drops the bag. The man stoops to pick everything up. My mom is already on her way to me. Before I know it, she’s got me. She’s holding me.
“Mom,” I say.
“You’re home,” she cries.
“Is everything okay?” the man says, coming close to us.
“Yes, everything’s great.” My mom pulls his arm. “Brody, your mom’s home.”
I feel so small, so weak. My little boy stands in front of me, taller than me. With the most beautiful smile on his face.
“I know that I hurt you,” I begin my apology. ” And you don’t have to forgive me.”
My son puts his arm around my shoulders.
“But I’ve changed. I haven’t had a drink in 10 years. You don’t have to take me back into the family. I just needed you to know that I am sorry.”
“Can you come in?” My mom holds my hand. “Have a cup of coffee?”
“Sure. I’d like that.”
“Brody, let’s get everybody over. We’ll get pizzas and just celebrate.” She smiles at me. “My family is back together.”
All I can feel is the love that God has given to me. Love from Him. Love that He gave my family.
Come near to God and He will come near to you.