I was 24 years old when I got my first OWI. March 3rd, 2003. It was impressive that I made it that long.
I had been caught drinking and driving several times before that. Most notably, during the summer of ’99- the night I wrecked my car leaving the fairgrounds. I had been at an awful grandstand concert- the Goo Goo Dolls with Sugar Ray. I didn’t remember that, I had to look it up. I know that doesn’t make it okay but at least I couldn’t remember seeing them. I do remember that I had an ID that said I was 30 years old. I remember that I drank a ton. I remember that I couldn’t see that great when I was driving out of there. It was heavy traffic, and I was following some friends who were weaving in and out of the traffic. I assume they were much less drunk than I was because I wasn’t able to weave in and out- I just drove right into the back of another car, which I believe hit the car in front of them, and possibly so on. I remember the airbag burnt my chin and my arm. I was upset about that. I was upset that I had just wrecked my Lexus. I was a little stunned, but I remember not immediately thinking I was in trouble. I didn’t think it was my fault. I never thought anything was my fault.
I was really dazed from the accident, but the next thing I remember, my friend who was in the other car was at my window. “Give me all your shit. The cops are coming and you are going to jail.” I didn’t believe him about it being my fault, but I gave him my fake ID and some other shit I had in the car. He buried it in a big flower pot at the ice cream shop across the street. I went back and got it a few days later.
When the cops showed up, I denied that I had anything to drink. I said that the line of cars had all just slammed on their brakes and I reacted too slowly. In reality, I don’t think a 20 car line is that hard to notice, and I am pretty sure I never touched the brake.
So why did I smell like beer? Simple – I said that people at the concert were being rowdy and spilled beer on me. This was close to the truth… people had been rowdy at the concert (me) and they had spilled a lot of beer on me (again, me).
I vaguely remember the officer laughing at my attempts to lie, and getting ready to give me the field sobriety test. I remember him mentioning that I had a warrant out for my arrest on an assault charge. I told him that was a mistake. I had already spoken to detectives, and I had no part in the accused assault… another lie. I was really pleading my case, and begging the officer to just cut me free. I was really bummed that my car was wrecked, and I felt I had been punished enough. He assured me I was not going home due to the warrant and there was nothing he could do about that. Then just as I was about to have my BAC level read, the paddy wagon showed up and the officer said “hey, this is your lucky day- your ride got here before I could charge you with a OWI”
I was pretty fucking perplexed how wrecking my car and going to jail for assault was my lucky day. It took me a long time to find that silver lining.
So that was the most memorable night I didn’t get an OWI, but there were so many others. The night I was stopped at 5 am speeding on Ashworth, or stopped for making unsafe lane changes on Office Park Road, or when I fell asleep driving on Army Post (I woke up when I hit the curb), or closed my eyes and drove down Fleur Drive. Or maybe hundreds of other nights that I don’t remember, either because nothing dramatic happened or I was just blacked out. Despite everything that had happened with my brothers, I still didn’t value my own life. I still took it for granted almost every single night. I never thought twice about driving drunk.
When you get your first OWI, it’s almost no big deal. A slap on the wrist. People tend to minimize it. It’s serious, but it happens. It’s understandable. Everyone has driven drunk, right? It was just bad luck. Now you’ll have to be more careful- because the first one is no big deal but you really don’t want to get a 2nd one.
And maybe that isn’t how people were reacting to it. Maybe they were freaked out and I have revisionist history. Maybe there was more serious conversation around it, but I only heard the things mentioned above. I have a tendency to only hear what I want to hear.
It should have been a huge wake up call for me. It was my 18th interaction with the police and Iowa Courts. Two-thirds of those were speeding or seat belt tickets, but the other 6 were actual arrests, and both the offenses and the frequency were escalating.
But I was in denial. I was a victim. This was all just part of growing up. They didn’t know what I had been through, etc.
This first OWI was a perfect example of all my excuses and justifications working together in unison.
I was bartending and living with my dad at the time, just outside of town. My corporate job and West Des Moines apartment both fell apart but that’s a different story for a different blog post. I had the night off, so I went out. It wasn’t a typical going out night. I worked those nights, so this was a Sunday, Monday or Tuesday. The bars and streets were empty. I started at the bar I worked at. It’s safe to assume I had a couple drinks and a few shots there. Once I had built the courage, I moved on to some bars where I didn’t know people. With the bars being slow, I’d typically have a drink and a shot at each spot, sometimes repeating the process if I got into a conversation with someone. Eventually, I worked my way down to the last bar on Grand Ave before the long drive back out to my dad’s. I don’t remember exactly, but I believe it was after midnight. I knew I was drunk, but all I had to do was drive straight for like 15 miles. Easy money. So I took off. I was headed down that long two lane highway when I came up on a couple of vehicles moving pretty slow. I saw the other lane was wide open, so before I got very close to the upcoming traffic I switched lanes and gunned it. I was probably going a solid 20 mph over the limit when I passed them. Despite being hammered and flying, I immediately noticed that I was passing a Highway Patrolman and a car that he was probably about to pull over. Oh shit. I got back over in the correct lane and slowed down to the speed limit but I knew I was toast. He got behind me, right up on my ass, but didn’t pull me over right away. I was closing in on my driveway and really praying that God would let me make it. You know- “just this one time God, please, I know I fucked up but please God let me get out of this one. I promise I won’t do it again, I promise I will change, I won’t drive drunk anymore.” It was a variation of my other prayer “please let me stop throwing up, I promise I won’t ever drink (insert type of liquor here) again”. What a pathetic waste of God’s miracles those would have been.
As I came up over this hill, around that bend, I could see my driveway. I was going to make it! Nope. Flashing lights. Game over. Since God was apparently too busy to rescue me, I started trying to convince the patrolman that I wouldn’t do it again, I would change, and so on. I was giving it my best used car sales pitch, but he just wasn’t biting. It didn’t help that I had a pipe in the car, or that the friend who was with me was underage and we said we had been at the bars. Despite the fact that I couldn’t pass any part of the field sobriety test and my BAC was more than double the limit, I still thought the officer was being unreasonable and should let me go home. As the situation became more dire and it became more obvious that I was not going home, my tone became increasingly aggressive. I went from “I’m sorry sir, but my house is right there” to “come on man, just let me go home this one time, you’ll never see me again” to “what the fuck man, let me fucking go home, asshole!” By the time he got me in the back of the cruiser I was unhinged. I was convinced he was arresting me because he was a jealous hick who didn’t like the fact that I was a super cool city boy bartender. The latter may have been true and I don’t blame him if it was. For the first 5 minutes of the drive he had just thrown me in the backseat and I was able to lean up to the front and curse him out. I was actually begging him to pull over the vehicle so I could kick his ass with my cuffs on. The cruiser didn’t have the protective glass between the front and back seats so I was right in his ear. I called him every name I could think of to try and get him to pull over and fight me. I was relentless. It was like something snapped in me mentally. All the anger and hate I had built up just came spewing out at him because he was holding me accountable for breaking the law. He finally pulled over, and I got really excited for a second. It was going down. Gangster shit.
As he came around the car and opened my door I was still talking shit and getting ready to take my medicine, but instead he just buckled the seat belt so I couldn’t lean forward anymore. I was so disappointed. I let him know that as well. I suppose I am really lucky I didn’t try to head butt him or spit on him and end up with worse charges against me.
As the drive continued, my mood shifted. I went from anger to sadness, guilt, and shame in a matter of minutes. Maybe I just got tired. Its exhausting to be that angry. It was a microcosm of my entire drinking career in a matter of minutes. By the time we arrived at the station, I was telling the officer he should have beat the shit out of me because I deserved it. I was telling him all the stuff that had happened to me and how I was such a fuck up now. I believe he was giving me sound advice- “you should probably stop drinking.” He clearly didn’t get it.
It’s hard to say that I was in denial about having a problem with alcohol at this point because I honestly hadn’t considered that as a possibility. I really just thought some nights I drank a little too much. I let some nights get away from me a little. I could easily dial it back if I needed too. I just didn’t need to, and certainly didn’t want to.
Everyone gets an OWI. It wasn’t a big deal.
If you are keeping score at home, here are some of the justifications I’ve used so far for my drinking and life trajectory:
- My age
- My brothers
- The Goo Goo Dolls suck
- I was cool
- I was tough (thug life)
- I bartended
- Everyone does it
- Bad luck
- Self medication
- You don’t understand
It would be 8 years and 15 weeks from my first OWI to my last drink.
8 years and 15 more weeks before I hit bottom.
If any of this story sounds familiar, don’t wait. I strongly suggest you stop now. At least take some time off.
If it’s not a problem, then it shouldn’t be a problem to stop, right? And like the really smart people told me- you can always go back. That life will be there waiting. You can always go back, but you never know how many more chances you’ll have to quit.
Just a suggestion.
Spoiler alert – at no point does this story start to get better until I quit drinking.