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

It was one of those last warm nights of summer when you can see the first hint of red on the leaves, signaling that if you haven’t taken your last swim yet, you will soon. Transplanted to Northern California 16 years earlier, I was spending three weeks back east, visiting old friends in my home state of New Hampshire, where my adult daughter, Audrey, still lives, on the farm where I used to live, too. 

Twenty-two years had passed since I swam in the pond by our house there and read to my children on the bed I shared with their father. That chapter is closed now. But sometimes, when I pass through as I did that day, old memories catch me up short.

I remember some good times. But also I remember those dark nights as the marriage was coming undone at last and how—when everyone else was in bed—I’d move through the rooms of our small house, laying my body down alongside first one of my sleeping children and then another, in search of rest that I could not find.

Not much of a drinker in those days, and never a fan of the hard stuff, I took to setting my husband’s Christmas bottle of Johnnie Walker Red on the kitchen counter and pouring myself a shot. Daughter of a beloved but heartbreaking alcoholic, long dead, I recognized that my father’s example—“When life is hard, pour a drink”—was part of his legacy. The final winter of my marriage, the year I turned 35, that legacy, usually dormant, had surfaced with alarming regularity. And because I wanted my husband to recognize my despair, I’d leave the bottle on the counter to greet him in the morning. “See what you drove me to do?” it was meant to tell him.

The marriage ended. I put away my Johnnie Walker habit, though in the years after, I discovered a fondness for wine—how it tasted and what it did to me, softening the many harsh aspects of my life. Two decades later, I could not name a single night I’d been drunk, but a glass of Zinfandel at day’s end had become a frequent, then nightly, event. Not just one glass either. Two. Three, if life seemed particularly stressful.

Now I was back in New Hampshire, on the last evening of my annual late-summer pilgrimage there. The farm is now owned by my ex-husband, who lives with his new family in the main house. My daughter rents the cabin behind it, where I used to write. For years after the divorce, just driving past the farm was hard for me. But I made peace with it, and my most recent visit had been a happy one, until the very last night.

Audrey and I were invited to the home of friends who live near the farm. Earlier that afternoon, she and I had plunged into the swimming hole we used to go to when she was small. The next morning I’d be turning in my rental car and flying back out west.

I was feeling fortunate that night, being with Audrey, visiting these friends, hearing the crickets just outside their screen porch. But I was also tired, feeling the tug of leaving my daughter soon and a little ragged from the memories these visits invariably dislodge. So the Chianti we drank with dinner felt especially welcome.

As the daughter of a man who got drunk every night—and got up every morning pretending nothing had happened—I know well the danger of looking to wine when I’m sorrowful or worried or tired. I’ve always been careful about how much I consume. But in moments of stress, the impulse to reach for a glass is always there.

Our friends are Italian American, and they had made eggplant parmigiana, and spaghetti in a homemade sauce. There was garlic bread and corn on the cob. I ate well and reached for seconds.

As for the wine, I can’t say how much I drank, because every time my glass got a little low, our host topped it off. No tipsiness evident, I could tell my friends a story or absorb the details of the spaghetti-sauce recipe; I even rattled off a recipe of my own. Mostly the wine just intensified the warm glow of a wonderful evening.

We left the cottage sometime around 10 PM. Audrey’s boyfriend drove us back to the cabin. During my visit, I’d been staying at the home of another friend, 20 minutes away, but Audrey now asked if I wanted to spend the night on her couch.

“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.

The officer had arranged to have my car towed to a repair shop. The owner was my old friend Gene, and I knew the place well from the years when I drove cars that always needed one repair or another. I sat with my handcuffs in my lap in the backseat of the cruiser as we drove. There was a Red Sox game on the radio. In my chest, I could feel the pounding of my heart.

At the station, they sat me in a room and explained my options. If I refused the Breathalyzer, I was subject to having my license suspended for six months. If I passed the Breathalyzer, I’d be let off with only the speeding ticket. If I failed, I’d be charged with DUI and released on bail in the custody of whomever I might find to pick me up. This would be my daughter, no doubt asleep by now back at her cabin. It was close to midnight.

The officer filled me in on the laws concerning driving under the influence: While the legal definition of intoxication stood nationally at 0.08 percent, in New Hampshire the police possessed discretionary power to charge an individual with DUI for a blood-alcohol level of 0.04 and above.

Given my options, I agreed to do the Breathalyzer test—but first I had to sit on a bench for 20 minutes while an officer watched me. Evidently, people suspected of drunk driving sometimes surreptitiously pop a breath mint into their mouths before the test, invalidating the results. By watching me for 20 minutes beforehand, the police would detect any such insertion. “I have to keep my eyes on your mouth for 20 minutes,” the officer said. If I even touched my mouth during the waiting period, we’d have to start all over again.

Other movements were permitted, if I performed them carefully. The officer demonstrated how I could scratch my nose, for example, without obstructing the sight lines to my mouth. This involved raising my arm over my head and dropping my hand over the top of my face rather than blocking my lips.

“Some people touch their face on purpose to buy more time,” the officer said. “Try that twice and it’s an automatic DUI.”

Still unsure how much I’d had to drink, and considering all the ways my life would be altered if I lost my license, I had already come up with this very idea. This was how low I had stooped, I reflected, how desperate I felt at the prospect of a DUI. It wasn’t just the inconvenience of losing my license for months or the expense of higher insurance rates. More important was the shame—an emotion I remembered well from childhood, when my greatest terror lay in the prospect of someone (my friends, my teacher, our neighbors) finding out that my father got drunk.

Time passed. I thought about the eggplant parmigiana at dinner, grateful I’d eaten second helpings. I imagined the police calling my daughter. Shame again, at the prospect of her hearing that her mother had been charged with drunk driving, as my father never had been, though he could have been, a hundred times over.

“My daughter is a sound sleeper,” I told the officer. “She might not hear the phone.”

“We can send an officer out to the house to get her,” he said. A new scene to picture: Audrey waking to the sound of knocking at the door and going down to find a policeman standing there. I know what I’d think.

Twenty minutes passed; time to take the test. “Some people don’t blow full force,” the officer told me. “But the machine picks that up.”

I took the tube in my mouth. Blew hard. Waited. Blew again. Returned to the bench.

A few minutes later, a printout of my score scrolled from the machine like a fax. The officer ripped it off and examined it. I said a prayer. Just let me be OK, and I’ll never let this happen again.

He studied the paper. He disappeared into another room. Through the door I could hear the Red Sox game. A late inning now. They must have been somewhere on the West Coast.

An excruciating number of minutes passed. Finally the officer emerged. Maybe the Red Sox game was over. Maybe he just figured I’d suffered enough.

“You blew a .02,” he said. “You’re free to go.”

Meaning an officer would drive me to the body shop to get my car. There’d be a bill for the towing, too, along with the $200 speeding ticket. But I knew I was lucky.

I made it back to my friend’s house sometime around 1 AM. He’d waited up for me a while, then gone to bed. The next morning I told him the story, making it sound funny rather than terrifying.

At the airport I called Audrey to tell her what had happened. I didn’t want my daughter to make the mistakes I’d made. I wanted to protect her. If I carry the genetic legacy of potential alcohol addiction, so does she.

It was close to midnight when I arrived home in California. At that moment, I fully took in what had happened the night before—how close I’d come to getting charged and how my life would have changed if I had been. Not just because I live on a mountain, where every trip to the grocery store or gym requires a car. But more so for the accompanying truth that 30 years after my father’s death, I had allowed myself to become addicted to the same thing that killed him: I had to have a drink.

The fact that I had been driving under the legal limit that night did not reassure me. What did it matter that I wasn’t legally drunk if the wine had sufficiently loosened my guard and dulled my judgment that I was driving 55 miles per hour in a zone marked 30? What did it matter that I am generally a poor night driver? All the more reason I shouldn’t drink at all before I drive.

Hearing the story of that night, my daughter had been indignant at the police officer’s behavior—the handcuffs, the humiliating instructions on how to scratch my nose, the long wait to hear my test results. But I couldn’t feel offended. If he’d put on the handcuffs with the idea of shaking me up, he’d accomplished his mission.

Safe in my own kitchen now, feeling the full weight of what I’d done and what I’d been through, I felt a powerful urge to do the thing I always want to do when I’m tired, or lonely, or scared, or simply sad: I wanted to pour myself a drink.

I went to bed instead.

JOYCE MAYNARD is the author of numerous best-selling novels and the memoir At Home in the World. She no longer gets behind the wheel of her car after having a drink.

© 2012 by Joyce Maynard, excerpted from Drinking Diaries: Women Serve Their Stories Straight Up, edited by Leah Odze Epstein and Caren Osten Gerszberg, published by Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group, September 2012.

Click here for a memoir on friendship from the July/August 2012 issue.

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First Published Wed, 2012-08-01 10:17

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