I got drunk and crashed my car, injuring two elderly people

What fresh horror awaits me?

Published May 9, 2005 7:51PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I know this is the third time I have written to you, but I have come to regard you as a friend after years of reading your column and seeing you as the sage all we lost souls turn to in times of need.

I am lost. Two weeks ago I got drunk, drove, and ended up like a public information advert -- I smashed my car into another and I hurt two people in the other vehicle. I was in court only three days ago, and have been held over for counseling and probation reports and will be sentenced at the end of the month.

I can not believe that my cycle of self-destruction has hurt people. Two elderly people (69 -- not very old, but still ...) were injured in the smash, neither seriously fortunately, but badly enough they are still in hospital. I hate myself for this. I could have killed them. Yet all the while I am wondering why my passenger didn't stop me, why didn't she insist on taking my keys? I know this is not fair to her, that my actions are my own responsibility and I did something horrendous and deserve to be punished, but why? She is half my weight and could not have forced the issue, yet I feel in some way she should have. I wish my father had realized when I spoke to him an hour earlier that I was over the edge, and though I realize it was my actions, and only my actions that got me into this state, inside me is a little girl screaming to the world, "Why did you let me do this?"

I should elaborate -- I am eating disordered, I fit the criteria for bulimia, but have never been brave enough to tell a doctor and receive an official diagnosis. The days before the accident I spent with other women who are disordered, all of whom weigh less that 100 pounds. Ten of them. Then there is me, a 140-pound bulimic that looked like an enormous monster next to them. So I drank, I drank to assuage my social inadequacy, to pretend I was one of them, to forget I am a fat fuck. And I carried on drinking from Friday morning until I got into my car, over the limit on Sunday. This is not an excuse, I know I was wrong, but I want to explain to somebody, anybody, why I was so drunk. I was too drunk to even realize I was drunk -- does that makes sense? All of them were lovely, they told me I was pretty and proportioned, yet still I hated myself. My body, my enemy. I am too much, there is simply too much of me. At 5-foot-6 I am too tall, too fat, and too much. Drinking shuts up that voice in my head, it makes me believe I am capable, independent and worth being with. Put simply, drinking calms my stupid head, gives me confidence and makes me feel like I deserve to socialize, that I can be with people rather than hidden in a bedroom ignoring the world as it happens around me.

I'm also angry. After the crash I saw a representative for the drug and alcohol counseling service in my area. I should have told the lady I saw that I puke and cut, but we only addressed my grief. Now it is too late and I am too far gone. I am supposed to see someone, but drinking is a symptom of my idiocy, not the cause. I am scared I am not alcoholic enough to receive help, that they won't refer me to anyone, that I am just going to be left. Again.

There is just too much, too many thoughts in my head, too many ideas to address. I do not sleep, I either pass out drunk or my father gives me the tablets he was prescribed because he could not sleep after my mum died. They do not work anymore, these tablets that are supposed to knock you out. But at least they slow my head down. When my head is quiet enough, that's when I examine who I am and what I hate so much. It hurts too much inside, so I use a knife and make the outside hurt. It calms me enough to sleep most nights. But self-harm with food is beyond my control. Only five or six things are "safe" to eat, everything else makes me want to throw up, and once you have that thought why not eat the house out? If you're going to throw anyway you might as well make it worthwhile. See, I'm not even a good bulimic. Others are small, plan what they intend to eat and puke; I'm just impulsive and lacking control.

You would be shocked if we ever met. On the outside I am professional, capable, I appear strong and in control. Until now I maintained that appearance. In "real life" I was calm; only at home was I a fucked-up mess. Now everyone knows. In the U.K. all courts have a journalist reporting for the local paper, so everyone knows what I did. I have nothing left; I cannot be fucked up at home and at work! Where will I run to? I am at my best when being a grown-up, being strong and respected, but my colleagues look at me differently now. I am, and always will be, the drunk driver. It makes me want to throw myself over the nearest bridge.

Please forgive these ramblings. I know I am incoherent and lacking wit, but I had to write to somebody. I needed to tell somebody how bad I feel, how I wish I could rewind time by just two weeks and stop myself from hurting people. I know I am looking for anyone to tell me I am not an evil person. I also know that I have to accept my responsibility for my actions and I am desperately looking for someone to say "it's not your fault." I know it is my fault. I know I am a horrible person, but I had to tell somebody. My head just won't shut up.


Dear Desperate,

I write to you not like a writer but like a desperate man who found you crying between the tracks after midnight in the stockyards (what were you planning all alone among the locomotives?). I awake from screaming nightmares to find you telling your tale of drunk driving! I'm looking at your cuts, your scars, your smeary eyes, hearing your choked-up, hopeless voice, thinking here's a woman who knows how it feels to end up alone on the ground with a bottle. Here I've been sleeping in the stockyards, drinking Sterno strained in a sock, wondering when I'll pick the wrong track and wake up severed at the waist by wheels heavier than a building, and I hear your story and share some woe, and the things I say sound crazy but you've got nowhere to go and you thought you heard a promise of breakfast, too, so you listen to me, you hear me out, one crazy person to another.

I was like you once. That is the essence of what I say. I'm not really Boxcar Willie anymore, that hobo avatar emerging from troubled sleep like a wise but demanding ghost, somebody tough who's suffered and knows things. No, he's an idle doodle of a contented mind; I'm sitting pretty, actually, 16 years without a drink: no cutting myself, no starving, no running down old people with my car. But my despair was like yours. My hopelessness was like yours. My desire to blame others was like yours.

Your mind plays tricks on you but the tricks are not performed by a tall magician in a top hat and a girl in spangled unitard assisting with a saw. They're hardly even tricks; they're just potholes dug in secret for you to trip in; they're just traps left for you by the previous tenant of your nightmares.

So your mind is telling you things like: Find someone to blame for your difficulties. Find someone to blame so your daddy will keep on loving you. Eat to fill the void, then throw up to fill the void. And your mind doesn't seem to ask, if there is a void, where is the stuff against which the void is measured? If there is no God, where is the space God vacated?

Why is that? Because it's your mind and it's stupid. But you are smarter than your mind. You know the answers to the big questions. The truth is simpler than all this artful indirection: Life hurts. You dull the pain. Who wouldn't? However you can, you dull the pain. I'm suggesting a better way to dull the pain, so you don't ram your car into old people anymore.

You know where to go. Go to the group. You know the group. The group you go to when you can't stop drinking. The group for alcoholics that is anonymous -- that group. Go there. Go every day. Go every day like it was medicine prescribed by a doctor.

Of course, the situation is rife with paradox -- I cannot recommend a specific group because to recommend it would be to destroy it, if you catch my drift; we are all anonymous in that respect, and so I only speak in generalities, though you know what I am saying. And also I must say, to address your suffering, that in healing from addiction we realize we were always in great pain. Sometimes it is a grinding pain as in the pain of grief, and sometimes it is a spiritual pain of distraction and ennui, but just the same it makes you say, "Drinking shuts up that voice in my head, it makes me believe I am capable, independent and worth being with." Yes, it does. Of course it does. But the old people being run over, that's what it does too.

Also I must remind you, the group I am suggesting will not turn you away for being not enough of an alcoholic. That's not how it works. "I am scared I am not alcoholic enough to receive help, that they won't refer me to anyone, that I am just going to be left," you say. As to the group I have in mind, qualification for membership is remarkably easy; all you have to do is want to stop drinking.

So how it works is we gather in rooms all over the world and ask each other: What was it like when you reached the end of your rope? What did the end of your rope look like when you reached it? How long was your rope? And what do you use today to suspend yourself above the pit?

We all reached the ends of different ropes; we all arrived with different toys in different bags, different papers from different jails, different fatalities on our sheets, different birdcalls, different nicknames. We have all been cutting ourselves, or jumping off buildings, or jabbing our arms with needles, or driving into walls with cars full of children, or sitting in a locked garage with the motor running, or going slowly mad in a cell; some of us have been tortured and can't feel anything anymore; others have never been touched, but we're all in these rooms together all over the world.

That's where you need to go. It might be called this and it might be called that wherever you are. The idea is that it's people who've been through what you've been through. You go and sit in these rooms and get yourself better so you can help other people. That is how the world improves. There is nothing else to do, really, with your life, but join the army -- this army of constant surrender, dispersed in basements and coffee shops, each soldier plotting the overthrow of his own private tyranny.

What happens over time is you begin to love yourself. Not completely and not all at once, but over time. Over time, you get better. Maybe your brain changes. Or maybe angels descend. That is an epistemological problem, or perhaps a problem of nomenclature. What is an angel and what is a brain?

But, anyway, you get better. You meet frequently with this new family of yours. Perhaps eventually you tell everything, you show your cuts, you describe the thing that drives you and people nod as though they too had this thing that drives them. You begin to feel that you're all being driven together.

So you get better is what I'm saying. And then, as a way of paying back, you help out around the house. You help untie the inmates and tend to the wounded. You put the opera on hold and make do with what you've got.

But again this is a thing that happens over time. You have to trust it and you have to begin.

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