DUI + art history degree = ?

Things went haywire and I got caught driving drunk. What will happen to my dream?

By Cary Tennis
Published August 22, 2013 12:00AM (EDT)
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I just read a letter you published and answered (excellently) about a 56-year-old man needing to start over and wanting to earn an art history degree. I found this letter by Googling "start over art history degree." Why am I Googling this subject?

I am a 48-year-old single mom of two wonderful teenagers. I've been divorced since 2005 and although it's been a struggle, I've done well for the three of us. Until last year. Due to a year of family deaths, the death of my beloved dog, the breakup of an engagement, having moved three times in a year and a half, and two serious car accidents, and due to stress and exhaustion and a series of very bad choices, last year I was convicted of a felony DUI. Not the norm for me, it shocked everyone, most of all myself.

During the course of this past year I have lost my car, driver's license, all my savings, my professional license, and in May I lost my job. I had to serve jail time in June, and am drawing unemployment; each day is a true test of my faith and resilience. To anyone hiring I look like a total loser, and I understand that. But I am not. I am a fighter, but some battles are just overwhelming. It's hard to find a job with a felony record and no car and (now) bad credit. Hard to find a cheaper place to live with no job and no savings. Hard to go back to school when you have nothing to support your dream.

I, too, find myself returning to the thoughts of earning my degree in art history. This has been my dream for many, many years, just a deeply buried one. There was always something taking priority: job, children, bills, ill parents, divorce and putting life back together for my children. Now, I truly do find myself with nothing, starting at ground zero. This has been the most frightening, painful, shameful, destructive thing I've ever gone through. I'd really like to start over, since I have to anyway, walking in a more positive direction.

I don't know where to start money-wise, or even if this is at all a possible goal for me. Would your advice to Mike (the 56-year-old in the letter) be the same to me, with all my failure and overwhelming odds stacked against me?

I made a horrible mistake but I don't want to BE that mistake.

Thank you for reading this and I hope to hear back from you.


Dear A,

I believe in the practical efficacy of outrageous dreams. I believe that sometimes the only thing between us and suicide or a life of despair and addiction is a vital, personal dream that may seem unattainable but is indeed both attainable and also necessary.

So if dreaming of a art history degree motivates you, then dream it big and hard. Dream it on paper and in song. Dream it on a sketch pad. Make drawings. Sketch yourself going to museums. Sketch yourself sketching and taking notes. Picture yourself in the Louvre. Make a collage of museums you want to visit and great works of art you want to see in person. Watch movies of great artists and make a list of your favorite top 10 movies about artists.

What do you see? Do you see yourself lecturing in a large hall to an attentive audience? Put that in the collage. Do you see yourself in solitude, contemplating great art? Do you see yourself in a museum library uncovering unknown artists? Put that in the collage. Go ahead. Feel free. Picture yourself in glory. Picture yourself in triumph.

Just don't apply to art school yet. You've got wreckage to trudge through. You've got a life to rebuild.

Keep that dream alive. Let that dream motivate you to trudge through the wreckage. Let that dream motivate you to face your current obstacles and to face your past mistakes. Let that dream energize you as you struggle to recover from this devastating course of events.

Keep that dream alive. But don't apply to art school yet. It's too early for that. You must recover. You must get strong.

You had losses that needed to be grieved and you were not able to grieve them. You lost family members. You lost your dog. You lost a lover. You moved three times. You had two serious car accidents.

What happened is understandable but it is not simple. If you were to rate these events on the Holmes and Rahe stress scale, you would see that statistically speaking you were at high risk of serious illness because of your stress. We might stretch things a little and say that your drinking was the disease that resulted.

But there is no need to stretch anything to see the plain truth: Awful things happened to you, and you sort of came apart. Before you had had time to process one event, another came on top of it. You became exhausted. This exhaustion rendered you incapable of making good decisions but you made decisions anyway. Those decisions led to disaster.

There are times when somebody should look at us and say, You need to be excused.

But that doesn't happen. Instead we run till we break. Then, broken, we keep running until some public calamity gives vivid expression to our brokenness. In your case, that was the DUI. Once the brokenness is visible, then we have wreckage. Then we have to fix it all, one broken bone at a time.

So you need a new way of living that takes into account all these things. You need a way of living that allows you to live close to the ground. What do I mean by that? I picture you close to the ground, crawling along. I picture you close to the earth. Sometimes images come to me and I just pass them on. I see a barn. I see a rutted, muddy road, and a doorway. Perhaps this is saying that you need to take refuge in the earth, on the earth. Or if you are in a city then stay close to the ground, on the street. There would be good reason for this. It would slow you down and let you heal.

It's also possible that you will need to seek treatment for alcohol abuse. It may turn out that a 12-step program becomes your grounding. Maybe that is what that image means. A 12-step program can give you a structure for facing all these things that have happened, and in a way so you don't have to look at it all at once. Many people will say, without understanding the metaphor they are making, that 12-step work is "grounding."

I do believe that having dreams and visions can save us. But I don't believe in magic. Frankly, I don't care if there is magic. It doesn't matter. What matters is helping you get out of this mess and get what you want.

The bottom line is that the art history degree is attainable. But first you will need to find peace and strength within yourself. That may mean grieving. It may mean making restitution. It may mean living simply and humbly for a time. You can have this dream. But, as Theodore Roosevelt advised, Keep your eyes on the stars and your feet on the ground.

Cary Tennis

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Alcoholism Art Art History Dui Since You Asked Stress The Holmes And Rahe Stress Scale