Memoir: How Much Alcohol Is Too Much?

Joyce Maynard's father was an alcoholic, so she’d always watched her step. She was sure she never drank to excess—until one night on a dark road after she drank and drove

by Joyce Maynard
drinking and driving image

“I’ve still got some packing to do,” I said, giving her one last hug. “So I’d better get going.”

“It was a great night,” my daughter said before she went inside.

For a moment I stood alone in the field behind our old house. All the lights were out, so I took a good look at the stars. Then I headed out in my rental car.

Four miles down the dirt road I spotted it: the flashing blue light in my rearview mirror.

This stretch of road was more than familiar to me. I’d driven it every day, taking my three children to school. And on one memorable winter night, a good 25 years earlier, my son Charlie had dropped a tiny golden sword from his Playmobil pirate ship out the car window at just this spot. Because I knew how much the sword meant to him, I had spent the better part of an hour trying to find it, circling the area with my high beams on. Classic adult-child-of-alcoholic behavior there: the compulsion to protect one’s child from loss and grief, not simply because the pain would be hard for him but also because the pain would be too hard for his endlessly vigilant and caretaking mother.

I found the sword. Crossing the highway to retrieve it, I was nearly sideswiped by an 18-wheeler. But that night at least, I’d averted what would have felt—to me probably more than to my son—a heartbreak.

Now a different kind of trouble had me in its grip. I knew I’d get a ticket (turns out I was 25 miles per hour over the limit). But there was more: Taking my license, the officer asked, “How much have you had to drink tonight?” And the truth was, I didn’t know.

“One glass of wine,” I told him.

“I’m going to ask you to take a Breathalyzer test,” he said.

“Do I have to?” I replied.

Legally, no, I wasn’t obliged to breathe into the machine, the officer told me. But now he was asking me to step outside the car and perform a few simple tests.

I stood by the side of the road, in the light of the police car, with the occasional vehicle whizzing past, and walked a straight line, heel to toe. I stood on one leg, raising my other a few inches off the ground. For the final test, the officer moved his forefinger back and forth in front of my face and asked me to follow it with my eyes without turning my head.

When I was done, he shook his head. “I’m placing you under arrest,” he said. “Since you’ve been cooperative up to this point, you can wear the handcuffs in front of you rather than behind.”

At that moment, all kinds of thoughts and feelings went through my brain. Horror, for sure. Shame. Also fear. Regret. More shame.

A picture came to me then, of a long-ago night when—with my mother out of town and my sister at college—I had been left alone in the care of my father, who’d gone on a bender. It must have been 10 PM when I awoke to knocking on the door and the sight of a police officer.

“Do you know who the driver might be of the vehicle left in the middle of the street?” he asked. It was the family Oldsmobile. My father must have driven most of the way home before abandoning it. With the motor still running.

In today’s world, he would have been charged with DUI. But this was 1966. The officer, learning that the Olds was ours and that my father was asleep upstairs, moved the car himself and left it in our driveway, where my father found it the next morning, most likely with no memory of what had happened.

“Tell your dad to be more careful” was all the officer said to me. I kept that shameful message to my 12-year-old self.

Now here I was, by the side of another dark road, with no likelihood of finding similar leniency. Now the officer was opening the car door for me, since my hands were cuffed. Now we were heading to the police station in the town where I’d raised my children, back when they and I were young.

First published in the September 2012 issue

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