My only thought that sunny October afternoon is how to beat the traffic and get home quickly. My last meeting ran late, an email demanded my attention, and my computer decided at the last minute to install updates. On a normal day just one of those things can double my drive time home and I leave the office, annoyed.
I watch the construction crew begin to leave the building site across the street and know it will be a long slog home. As I turn right onto Broadway with the green light in my favor, I glance left and see a police car with lights flashing speed through the intersection. Forced to yield and even more annoyed now–You could at least use your siren so I’d know you were coming! –I pull around the corner and follow, childishly minimizing the space between our cars.
An aging juvenile delinquent, a.k.a. “juvie,” my reaction to cops is not always positive. Lucky enough to get help as a kid, I quit a brief but serious drinking career, became a social worker, and have had far more positive interactions with law enforcement than negative. Yet I still go back to that angry and rebellious teenager—usually when I’m scared or I’ve broken a rule. Personally, I believe a true juvie never really grows out of it. We may live a miserable life or spend time in prison, or even turn things around as I did, but that rebellious seed of “just tell me what I can’t do and I’ll show you!” never really dies.
The cop in front of me turns right abruptly and stops, leaving half his cruiser in my lane. I pull over to pass him, exasperated–cops think they rule the world! They’re clueless about how they get in people’s way!–when I’m unexpectedly forced to jam on my brakes.
Ten feet in front of me is a man waving a gun, running straight at my car. As he sprints towards me, I swear he’s aiming his pistol right at my face. Without thinking or looking over my shoulder, I throw my car into reverse, back up across three lanes, and stop only when my tires hit the curb on the other side. And the whole time the gun-wielding man stares directly into my eyes. To this day I can still see his eyes–glaring points of amber light–as they laser into my head.
Then he abruptly turns away from me, changes direction and runs back toward the cop car. I watch as he jumps into the driver’s seat and races away. The officer who forgot his keys in the ignition didn’t forget the rest of his training. He drops to one knee, pulls his gun, and begins to shoot at the departing police car.
My Prius and I are frozen, parked halfway across Broadway, when another police officer appears out of nowhere, waving his arms to tell me to move along. “We have to keep this area clear!” he yells, and silences my juvie rant — what the hell does he think, I’m just here to watch the show? — as I obediently follow his order.
The street was empty when I’d backed across it in a panic, but now the light at the corner has changed and I’m forced to pull blindly out into three lanes of traffic, all filled with drivers who only want to get home—just like me a minute ago.
I grab my cell phone from the passenger seat, speed-dial my boss back at the office, and burst into tears when he picks up. We don’t always see eye to eye but at that moment he becomes the most understanding, supportive person in the world. I stumble through telling him to warn people in our building that the guy with the gun is out there somewhere. He keeps asking if I’m ok, do I need him to come get me, drive me home, escort me–anything? By then I’ve pulled into a Safeway parking lot and think I’ve regained a measure of composure. I thank him but refuse more help.
I get out of my car, lock it carefully, and pocket my keys–no way anyone’s driving off in my car!–walk into that grocery store, straight to the liquor aisle like it’s something I do every day even though I haven’t for almost three decades, and buy a fifth of Smirnoff Citrus. I walk back to my car, pop open that bottle still in its brown paper bag and take three long swallows–just like a homeless person or a nut case, juvie pipes up. I call my boyfriend who agrees to pick up my son at school, go home and climb into bed. I don’t go back to my office the next day or the next.
A few days later I board a plane with my boyfriend for a long-awaited three week trip to New Zealand. This geographic cure extinguishes the nightmares that began after the shooting incident, but I was already drinking myself into oblivion every night. After twenty-eight years without a sip, I’d returned practically overnight to the misery of the active alcoholism that had ruled my juvie years so long ago.
When we got home from our trip it was clear I needed to get back on the right path. I got down to basics and returned to the self-help meetings that saved my life when I was a kid and would surely do so again now.
Clean and sober again a few months later, my boyfriend and I were in the parking lot of Best Buy where we’d just bought a new electronic toy we didn’t need. It was January eighth, and I received a frantic call from a girlfriend who told me that Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and many of her staff and bystanders had just been shot in a Safeway parking lot two miles from my house. They were on their way, she said, to that same University Hospital where my guy with the gun had been taken to die.
Panic set in as his eyes lasered into my head again, and I just wanted to go home. The following Wednesday I left work at noon to pick up my son at school so we could wait in line all afternoon to attend the service in honor of the people who’d died in that shooting. My fourth grade son is crazy about Barack Obama and, not grasping the bigger picture of the tragedy, couldn’t wait to see him in person.
On the way to his school that day I stopped at another Safeway, picked up some Smirnoff, poured it into a plastic water bottle, and all afternoon broke my bottom line rule of never drinking around my ten year old. The afternoon ended with me in the hospital, only scattered memories of how I got there. Later a friend told me the details of how my son, who’d never seen his mother drink before, watched as they carried me off on a stretcher into an ambulance. I checked myself into an alcohol treatment center the next day.
During the next two weeks of hard internal work, I wanted to blame my situation on the trauma of the shooting downtown and being retriggered by the events of January eighth. Yet while my trauma was real, I was forced to admit that those incidents were only the final straws on the back of a very weary and overloaded camel.
Yes, I had gone through a terrifying event, and sure, I still had some healing to do. And yes, it only takes an instant to change someone’s life forever. Gabrielle Giffords, her staff, all of us, would never be the same because of a guy with a gun. But for years I’d made a myriad of choices: security over joy; predictability over risk; safety over trust in the unknown. It was the sum total of all those choices that left me vulnerable to taking self-destructive actions in response to my own ordeal.
It is our reaction to circumstances that makes each of us who we are today. Regardless of genetics, parenting, growing up with privilege or without, good health or bad, I believe that who we are today is not merely the result of these factors. Each of us is the product of choices we make in response to whatever hand we’ve been dealt.
After all that had happened, nothing in my life was sacred anymore and everything received close examination. Friendships, family relationships, significant other, parenting role, job, even hobbies, fell under the microscope. I quit my corporate job of fifteen years. Many friends are no longer in my life. My primary relationship ended and I’m a single mom again.
Only the relationship with my son is still strong–even stronger. When I woke up in the hospital and realized what I’d done, it showed me how in danger I was of losing the most precious gift in my life. And that was unacceptable.
My actions of that year can’t be erased, and the lessons that came out of those actions can also never be unlearned. Yet it’s crystal clear to me that I couldn’t be where I am today without every single event in my life so far. Did I throw out twenty-eight years of recovery after picking up the bottle again? No.
Did I screw up? Yes. Every day I regret the torment my family went through that year because of me. And while I don’t recommend my path to anyone else, I’m grateful as hell for where it has taken me. The absolute conviction that I had everything to lose is what finally allowed me to walk away from so much of what previously stood for security in my life.
Am I terrified to venture out into my own business during today’s shaky economy? Truthfully, not as much as people tell me I should be. No matter what happens now, I believe in the power to choose life over self-destruction, happiness over misery, and growth over safety.
We each have the ability to make choices in response to our reality and we can’t control the outcome of those choices. We can only live knowing that our lives are the result of our own actions, and that’s where our power lies. It’s our truly and uniquely human gift to choose that which allows us to live our lives awake, aware, and on purpose.