It Happened To Me: My Ex Is An Alcoholic And It Took Me 11 Years And Him Driving Drunk For Me To Figure That Out
The thing is that you never really expect the ex who'd arranged a midnight rendezvous to text from the back of a cop car.
“Someone needs to come get me,” he wrote. “Either you or a cab. If it’s you, you know I’ll make it up to you.” The subtext: please don’t leave me here.
I didn’t ask why the cop had let him keep his phone. He said that he didn’t need bail money and he wasn’t under arrest, but that he had been “called in” and the officer wasn’t going to let him drive off. He told me that he was being taken to the police station, but I could pick him up from the parking lot. None of it made any sense.
The whole scenario was improbable and yet not entirely surprising.
At first, he had begged me to come over to his place. I told him that I had homework due, which was true -– it was already a day late and marked down 10% for each day it wasn’t turned in -– and I gave excuses that were less true to mask my uncertainty about going out to see him after four years without even being in the same city, let alone the same room. It was raining and it was late. I thought I would dissuade him with the sheer force of my apathy.
He’d mentioned earlier in the evening that he had a few beers while waiting for me to change my mind about coming over to his place. “I’m fine,” he claimed. “I don’t want to wait to see you.” I took him at his word that he was sober. I didn’t ask how many beers he'd had or when he’d finished the last one. I reasoned that it was his judgment call to make, my objections duly noted.
There isn’t a great “first drink” story with him. We met online in 2002. He seemed so very unlike anyone that I had been attracted to: he dropped out of high school but had a job, loved coffee and "The Catcher in the Rye."
I remember the beer in his basement mini-fridge from the night we first slept together. I couldn’t tell you what kind it was or if either of us finished the ones we opened, but I do know that I jumped when our knees touched. It was 2003, a year after meeting and breaking up, the first of many on-and-off romantic relapses between us. The commitment issues and inability to ever define our relationship beyond “friends…for now” kept me from fully trusting him, but it didn’t keep me from wanting him.
Alcohol opened him up in ways that I never could. It made him more sexually aggressive, more unguarded about his past and less likely to evade my questions about his thoughts and feelings. In each of his stories, he was always the victim of a malicious perpetrator -– the father who moved across the country, the friends who used him for rides or beer or both. I sympathized and soothed, kissed him, letting him talk until words were no longer needed.
It took time for me to learn his favorites –- he preferred tequila and beer, but would settle for rum or vodka if it was handy. He liked to drink with his friends at basement parties (adults always out of sight) and he liked to drink alone in that same basement with the turntable in the corner and year-round blinking Christmas lights strung up all along the ceiling, watching TV until I could find a ride to his house.
When I'd get there, he'd lean in for hugs and would often extend whatever bottle he had on hand as if it were flowers -– and he was not the sort of guy who ever gave me flowers. But when it came to booze, his generosity was effusive and contagious. And without fail, I always accepted. I didn’t have his bravado –- chugging straight from the bottle was unpleasant and burned the back of my throat –- but I could, at least, try and keep up with him.
Our paths diverged: I started college and he joined the military. I wrote to him while he was at boot camp, but he never responded and he kept his sentences curt and clipped when I called at the end of the summer. I decided not to contact him again.
Then there was the morning I came back from eating brunch in the dining hall to find an email from him, something about how he’d been thinking about me while riding on the bus to where he was stationed. His words were tender and only a little needy; I was touched by the gesture. He progressed to sending me text messages that startled my roommate awake at odd hours: 1:30 a.m., 3:15 a.m., 5:00 a.m.
He frequently bragged about being drunk over text and wrote long messages about being lonely and angry and insatiable. I read, replied, listened. I never told him to go away, even when the contact interfered with my social life on-campus, even when it became obvious that he was seeing someone else and hiding it from me.
I stopped seeing him, but I’d still answer if he called or wrote to me. Sometime during my sophomore year of college, he was pulled over and charged with driving while intoxicated. A first-time DWI conviction typically carries fines and requirements to attend alcohol awareness programs. If there were consequences, he never disclosed them to me. Instead, he railed against what he perceived to be the inherent unfairness of the situation. It had never occurred to him that he could be pulled over.
I worried, but he didn’t want me to worry -– he wanted me to agree that an injustice had been committed and that he was the real victim of the situation. I didn’t know what to say. The texts kept coming, but my responses trailed off.
By the time I was circling the parking lot of the police station, I had long since questioned the wisdom of reaching out for his company. And yet part of me still believed him when he claimed that the cop had overreacted. After all, he hadn’t been arrested. There seemed to be a lot of gaps in his story, but for as long as I’d known him, he was self-assured in his abilities as a driver, and he’d never been shy in the past about admitting when he had too much to drink.
It took him a few minutes to find me and with each passing minute, my stomach lurched with a familiar sense of dread. He opened the door to the front seat of the passenger side and as soon as he had started talking, I smelled the beer on his breath. I knew the cop must have smelled it, too. I knew that the cop hadn’t been overreacting at all. If anything, he was getting off easier than most.
His words came at me in a flooded rush: He was sorry to have made me drive out so late and grateful that he didn’t have to take a cab. When the officer asked if he had been drinking, he said no and stuck to that story. He had refused a Breathalyzer because he said that was the smartest thing to do in the situation. The cop let him leave his car on the side of the highway and left him in the parking lot.
He was crowing with triumph. In his mind, what had transpired was a battle of wits and he was the victor.
Back at my house, he collapsed into my bed and when I lay down beside him, he tried to kiss me, but I wasn’t responding. I wanted him to pass out. I wanted to get him back to his car. But when he realized that nothing was going to happen between us in that bed, he started talking.
He was angry. He was angry at the girlfriend who’d broken up with him nearly a decade ago and furious that she had married someone else and especially outraged that she’d had a child with this man. He was angry that his friend had told his ex-girlfriend and I about each other. As he talked, he strayed from his usual script of self-pity and began to spin violent fantasies of the harm he would cause his former friend if they ever crossed paths again.
I knew that as long as he was in my house, I wouldn’t sleep. The hours crept by until it was finally morning and I could drive him to where his car had been left on the side of the road, unharmed. He was sullen and said that it was my fault for bringing up the topic of the ex-girlfriend and his former friend.
Then he hugged me and pressed his face into my hair. He wanted to be tender. He wanted to be soothed. I wanted him to get out of my car. The smell of his sweat -– the booze and cigarettes and testosterone –- clung to my skin and my clothes. In hindsight, I can see where my loneliness meshed with his, but that will never be enough of a reason to reach for him again.