Walking a straight line

I’ve always had faith in my own common sense, my objectivity, my sense of humor — and, most importantly, my judgment. Yet on Jan. 16 of last year, my judgment failed me: I was cuffed and carted off to jail.

I have a foggy, 3 a.m. memory colored by blue strobe lights and clean-cut men stuffed into their stiffly pressed uniforms, asking me to get out of the car and walk a straight line. I remember repeating over and over again, like a little girl, “I’m scared; I’m sorry, I’m just so scared.” I would have liked to chalk up my dim recollection of these events to adrenaline. But the fact is, I was drunk. Not drooling and comatose, but buzzed enough to believe the scene of my crime was one messed-up joke my head was playing on me.

A month later, I sat at home, my mind racing in figure eights. I was marooned on a DUI island: I couldn’t leave home, I couldn’t meet my friends at the movies. I couldn’t take that road trip to Atlanta, and I couldn’t get to work. I couldn’t do anything. I was being punished: My rights had been taken away.

The hardest part was that, deep down, I knew I deserved it. Why should I have any freedom? The state doesn’t trust me — at least not on their roads. I was just another idiot who flipped off the world as I started up my engine. But if the state understood what a sensitive, honest, well-intentioned individual I am, maybe they would come around and proclaim that they had the wrong woman, that my experience was a fluke.

Or was it? I wanted to find a loophole in the law’s logic, but it was my own I was forced to consider. How could I let something like this happen? I’ve known people who were killed in drunk-driving-related accidents. But even that did not persuade me to change my reckless behavior.

I’m a control freak; it was hard enough to confess to having lost control, much less to say, “I was wrong.” The truth is, “royally f**king up and ruining my life” turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me. Driving drunk helped me break down faulty belief systems, realign warped perspectives.

See, I’m part of the youth culture that spits on social standards. How do we do it? Never paying that old BellSouth bill till the lawyers’ letters bust open our mail slots. Stealing Blockbuster videos (Down with corporate America, man!). Hating anyone who’s suffocating in their own suit and tie. Getting blotto every night so we can bitch about what the world isn’t doing for us. Is it when we think we’re invincible that we are most vulnerable?

Alcohol is a numbing agent that drowns the gut instinct, hypnotizes your judgment. Leaving my local hangout that fateful night seemed no different to me than any other beer-drinkin’/pool-shootin’ evening. I didn’t think twice before getting into my car; I was unstoppable.

How many times have you heard “Don’t drink and drive”? It’s a bumper sticker, it’s political propaganda, it’s a loved one’s admonishment — it’s good advice that no longer resonates, because you’re just not listening. Instead I laughed, said I was “fine” and they were “paranoid,” and gave them a sloppy wink as I swooned and swayed my way out the door. I was lucky to just get arrested.

Three out of 10 Americans will be involved in an alcohol-induced car crash. An average of one person per minute is injured in a drunk-driving-related accident. And thanks to the wino-behind-the-wheel in all of us, someone is killed every 23 minutes. Whatever happened to the survival instinct?

“What ifs” can drive a person crazy. But let’s play the game: What if I hadn’t been caught that night? I might have been stopped by a tree or a telephone pole after going off the road. What if I had made it home that night, suffering only the next morning’s hangover? What if I did it again, and again? What if I extended my life — or someone else’s — by going to jail that night? But enough of questions. I am accountable for everything; blaming circumstance or dodging life’s infinite possibilities is the real crime. If I think I’m untouchable, the odds are I don’t have my feet planted firmly on the ground.

What it will take for anyone reading this to heighten their awareness? For me, it took bruises from the jailhouse floor. It took a humiliating phone call to my parents. It took my freedom and spontaneity being held for ransom. It took paying my dues to realize the value of individual responsibility in this screwed-up society.

I refuse to get patted on the back for being the rebel I am not. I fear for those in my generation who believe themselves so far into the “underground” that our collective future is as good as dead. History has a history of repeating itself: That’s my incentive now to walk a straight line.

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