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Me & My DUI

Intoxication, Incarceration: My Journey from the Drunk Tank to Redemption

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People say the 23rd year of life is one of the weirdest. Though not necessarily negative, legend labels the 23rd as a year in which one is forced to grow--often an uncomfortable prospect. In my case it was both negative and uncomfortable.

Perhaps that's why, when I was arrested in mid-February, it almost made sense; I still had a few months to g(r)o(w) before turning 24. Up to that point I'd passed the following hurdles: the protracted breakup of a long-term relationship, a freak accident in which my arm was broken and operated on, and several months spent with a giant metal clamp hanging out of the uninsured limb. And as unlucky numbers would have it, there was one more "personal journey" to take, this time as a common criminal--I got a DUII (Driving under the influence of intoxicants).

AMERICAN ROULETTE

Most people who get busted for drunk driving are playing "American Roulette"; making it home so many times without incident that they gain confidence and begin to regard it as less of a no-no. But eventually, the numbers catch up, and many get nailed. I may have been in the habit of drinking, but it had been little more than a month since I'd been able to drive at all, thanks to the aforementioned clamp.

Still, amongst most of my peers, driving your car to bars and parties means "taking it easy," but rarely abstaining. Considering Oregon's .08 legal limit for blood-alcohol level (BAL), which is just a hair over zero tolerance, it seems remarkable that more of us haven't been nabbed.

I'm not innocent, and it was one of those nights when I wound up tipsier than I intended. It was kind of a big deal to go out and drive by myself across town, because I had mostly been walking to the clubs near my apartment, thereby avoiding having to worry about being too drunk to get home. But on that fateful night, when the show ended and the lights came on, it was apparent I'd miscalculated the strength of the vodka tonics. So I lingered in the bar, drinking water and eating an entire basket of nasty onion rings, until I felt okay to drive. Not awesome, but fine.

If this scenario sounds at all familiar, you're probably a good candidate for arrest, even if it doesn't describe your normal routine. I could probably count on one hand the instances in which I've driven while feeling noticeably intoxicated (which obviously isn't even the same standard the law holds us to). My arrest was the second time I'd been pulled over at all. Statistically, there should've been a few more empty chambers in my roulette gun--like many of you, I'm a good driver, an experienced drinker, and last-ditch consumer of water and fried foods.

WHY ME?

Being arrested is by far the easiest part.

After being pulled over for speeding, I was asked to do all the tests you see in the movies; walking the line, reciting the alphabet backwards, and following the finger. I knew I was over the limit, so I was polite and cooperative. The process was almost pleasant, submitting to a system of following orders and directions, sign this, blow here, etc.; consumed in the gears of the system. It's the same way I felt before the surgery; vaguely relieved to turn over autonomy and be handled like a stack of paperwork or a test tube. It was nice having someone else drive.

It wasn't annoying until I was introduced to the drunk tank, which at first seemed to be nothing more than a waiting room with uncomfortable chairs and obtrusive televisions. It is impossible to get comfortable or sleep in there, and even if you're desperate, they won't let you lie down on the floor. They let me out in the wee hours of the morning, so I walked home, left a message at work, and collapsed in bed.

As soon as I started telling people, DUII recipients came out of the woodwork. Turns out I know quite a few people who've gotten them, and many more who admit they're surprised they haven't. Just days after my arrest, a close friend woke up wondering how he'd gotten home, then found his car in the driveway. Another passed out in the parking lot of a bar, behind the wheel, with the engine running. It was tempting to feel like I was being picked on, since I'd never done anything as hazardous as some of the stories I heard. The popular sentiment was that it could have been any of us, on any unremarkable night.

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT

The real punishment comes after your night in jail, a prolonged and expensive process. You have to pay to get your car out of impoundment and quick! Before they auction it off! The court date wasn't until a month after the arrest, and I couldn't afford an attorney, so I was left to consult with my peers and wait.

I arrived half an hour early for the appearance, nervous. I'd never been arrested for anything, and the whole process was new. A sad, older man waited outside the courtroom with me. He was up for his second DUII, within a year of the first. He reiterated what I'd been told over and over, explaining it was simply a matter of asking for diversion, which the court seems to favor for first time offenders. In fact, you don't even have to enter a plea; your choices are diversion and contesting the charges.

"It's an interesting road to go down," he said of the diversion program. "Don't worry, you'll be fine I have no idea what they're going to do to me."

Whatever jitters I had were dispelled once inside the courtroom, where citizen after citizen was called to the front with DUII charges, given diversion, and dismissed. Not so for my buddy, who was given a public defender and would have to face prosecution.

After court fees, the next expense is diversion, a treatment program designed to--duh--divert you from doing this again. This includes a "victims' panel" and a class. The panel is a one-time deal, a chance for victims of DUII-related tragedies to tell you their stories. The classes vary, depending on the program you're placed in, but are usually a couple of months at least, and a minimum of once a week.

The "victim" in "victims' panel" isn't limited to people who were injured by drunk drivers, but includes repeat offenders, recovering addicts, and people who just got on the back of the wrong drunk guy's motorcycle. Instead of shrill condemnation, or mothers holding accusing photographs of dead children, the volunteer speakers were presentational, candid, and respectful. Their stories were incredible and awful, but there was never the sense that you were being shamed or blamed for what had happened to them, and many in the audience came up to shake their hands afterwards.

The classes are expensive, but relatively painless in themselves. I can only speak from my own experience, as each class differs, but it seemed to be based on non-judgmental education (studies done on the relationship between alcohol and biology, group mentality, heart disease, advertising, etc.). Instead of the quasi AA meetings I'd envisioned, taking turns recounting our horrors and mistakes, we were led through a laser disk syllabus of graphs and cartoon characters getting wasted. The course even concluded with a written test (aced it).

Although I thought a confessional experience would be cathartic and beneficial, the class was probably more effective as it was, since now my head is crammed with factoids and statistics, which sometimes I like to impart on my cocktailing friends.

You have to pay for all of these experiences out of your own pocket, unless you have fancy insurance. In fact, the real punishment for a first time DUII is mostly about money. In class, we did an exercise where we had to add up what the entire process had cost us in dollars, including hours lost from work, public transportation while your license is suspended, the classes, the court fees, fines, tickets, etc. One of my classmate's figures added to over $30,000 once he'd factored in losing his job.

Another aspect of the diversion program (don't put your wallet away just yet) are the piss tests. The courts have to document that you've abstained from alcohol and drugs for at least a 90-day period. Of course, you practically have to be drunk, like, at the time, for alcohol to come up in your urine. If you really wanted to, you could guesstimate as to how long it takes things to wind their way through your body.

The point is that I probably could have kept drinking throughout the entire process, laying off the day before class to avoid capture. But when I signed a contract stating that I would abstain, I decided then and there I would. Not necessarily because I thought I needed to, but because I suddenly decided it was gravely important not to devalue my signature. Then, when I announced it to my friends, the "yeah rights" and "I hope you don't become borings" solidified my decision.

It's been over three months since I last drank alcohol, and the anxieties I had about it were quickly dispelled. I still like hanging out with my friends, even when they're drunk (except I notice that drunk people tend to smell bad). I thought it would be difficult, but it's been remarkably painless. I had hoped to blame all my problems on alcohol, expecting that everything would become clear along with my head. The fact that the clarity never came is the clearest, and perhaps most profound revelation I received.

ONCE BITTEN, TWICE SHY

With my DUII adventure all but concluded, and my car traded in for a bike, the recent "Belmont Tragedy" [where two bicyclists were killed by intoxicated driver, Lindsey Llaneza], and the subsequent public attention to drunk driving struck me from a number of perspectives. Before the deaths, the general reaction to a DUII was generally something along the lines of "tough break." Now, there's pressure to enact stricter punishments for even first time offenders, and although there was no damage done in my case, it's impossible for anyone who's ever driven intoxicated not to feel some vicarious guilt over the tragedy, whether you were ever arrested or not.

As the law stands, my lifestyle has been radically altered by the experience, in healthful and constructive ways--not driving and at least at this point not drinking at all, I'm not much of a threat on the road, and ultimately it's turned out well. It's difficult to say whether stricter laws would reduce the instances of alcohol-related accidents, or if added costs or jail time would be an effective solution. Even repeat offenders (like Llaneza), who have faced more, harsher punishments, can't seem to keep themselves away from the wheel--although he is an exception compared to the thousands of more or less ordinary people who get DUIIs, the most common crime.

No one around me seemed to change their behaviors after witnessing my ordeal. People still drink and drive, drink and bike, drive angry, drive recklessly. It took a violent jolt like the one our community had for them to really scrutinize drunk drivers as much more than scofflaws. Even now, I find myself clucking like a chicken every now again, because increased awareness of the dangers still have not changed a lot of people's habits.

A lot of people get only one DUII, then change their lifestyle--they don't need to be told twice. But many come back, maybe because they can still afford to pay for car insurance or fines. I'm too scared and too poor to drive these days, and happier because of it.

Between an enormous catastrophe like Llaneza's and the smaller scale of mine, cars seem more despicable than ever. Regardless, it's the people behind the wheel--with all of their inherent foibles--you really have to look out for. And try not to be.

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