The Price of Complacency When You Love a Drunk Driver

By Karen Fischer 11/06/15

Yes, my brother can kill someone. Yes, this happens all the time. My consistent, seamless lie: yes, I know it’s not my fault. 

The Price of Complacency When You Love a Drunk Driver

“Hey… Do you… Do you need a ride?” 

The first thing I notice is the soda bottle in her hand. She is on the opposite side of the Texaco gas pump, her car door open. But she stopped with her mouth agape when she saw my older brother walk into the gas station. He’s not stumbling yet, but his eyes are bloodshot and his words are slurred punches. There are two Four Lokos in the front cup holders, his pack of Newports in the middle, more unopened cans clunking on the floor. I didn’t expect him to pick me up by gunning 40 into a parking lot and slamming on the brakes. When he sits back in his front seat, he chugs the grainy malt liquor like water and tosses the empty can into the garbage by the pump. 

People despise drunk drivers, but there is a special breed of disdain for people that get in the car with them.

“Are you fucking serious?” 

He responds with a burp. 

“It’s my motherfuckin' car, I do wah I wanna.” 

The standoff continues—I’m on the grass by the side of the highway, everyone is staring. He yells out, “GET IN THE FUCKIN' CAR!” 

That’s when the woman said something. 

She drove me home and I didn’t know her name. Our conversation abided by the same outline of all conversations about my brother—yes, he can kill someone. Yes, this happens all the time. My consistent, seamless lie: yes, I know it’s not my fault. 

It always felt like my fault. My brother was my best friend, more often than not, we were together. Also more often than not, his drinking made him deteriorate into the smallest version of himself. One night when I was home working on college applications, I logged into Facebook to see pictures of my big brother passed out in a kiddie playhouse with dicks drawn all over his face. The pictures bled into phone calls saying, “Hey…You need to get over here and take care of your brother.” Or another night when we were driving to a concert in D.C., and he swerved while going 100 down the crowded highway. Or when he did visit me in my first year of college, he was so wasted after drinking a 30-pack of Budweiser that he collapsed and sent a girl flailing down beneath him onto the sidewalk. All of these nights, people stared with their mouths open, eyebrows furrowed, accusing, “How do you let him get like this?” 

That question seeped volumes of humiliating, jumbled shame. I offered endless apologies. I was ashamed for a person that is a part of me, but not me, for the tendencies that are like werewolves—mythical characteristics that appear when they are most unwanted. I knew his soul inside-out, but his drinking made him into a person I will never be able to reconcile with. 

And when it came to that night at the gas station, he was trying to do what he was always supposed to be doing: he was responsible for making sure I was safe, for bringing me home. 

People despise drunk drivers, but there is a special breed of disdain for people that get in the car with them. He consistently avoided the topic of how he just shouldn’t have driven. That responsibility was elusive to him, therefore, it was my burden to carry.

I know most readers are thinking the same thing: I tried. I tried to urge him to call a cab on the worst nights. He’d garble, “I ain’t leavin' my fuckin' car here.” If I hid his keys, if I fought with him about his stumbling or slurring, he would scream, punch all the walls he saw and when he would finally drive off angry and fast, he’d let all of his frustrations out on the road. Alone. I’d be up the rest of the night with nausea curling up inside of me, sick thinking that tonight was the night, that tonight this would all end and it would be my fault, always my fault, for letting him leave even though I could never make him stay. I have a never-ending memory of the hours ticking away, convinced, “This is the night.”

So I rode with him. I always figured if he was going to die, I had to die with him. The thought of anything ever happening to him clogged my throat, but the tangible reality of me dying, of him crashing, didn’t stop him from jabbing keys into his car. 

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) lists that my home state of Maryland has a lower rate than the national average for drunk-driving arrests and deaths, but tell that to a chronic drunk driver. No statistic will tell them to stop because they have all of the evidence they need—they’re still alive. According to statistics from Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), a drunk driver is arrested after driving drunk about 80 times. My brother has had DUIs, went two years having to huff into a breathalyzer to start his car and still drives drunk. 

There are no numbers to quantify the trauma of someone responsible for caring for you, putting you in that position. 

Many people that know me in my day-to-day life comment about how I am an apology machine. I preface questions with apologies. I preface anger. I preface necessities. I know that the root of this subconscious self-blame is from seeing my older brother, my role model, passed out in front lawns pissing himself, and having people stare at me like I was the one that made him do it. I am not. 

Even now, I am lost on the line between complacency and consent. I’m not sure where the line lies, but teetering and mixing it with dependency was the only thing that made me keep getting in the car with him. It makes me question the thickness of love when I think about how he put my safety square in his hands but, to him, it didn’t weigh a thing.  

I now live in a city with enough public transit where I never have to rely on anyone and I never want to. But I can still feel all of my bones tighten remembering that night in D.C., convinced I would die and somehow his sickness would still be mine to carry. 

I want him, and other drivers, to say they were wrong. I want responsibility. For the millions of times per year that drunk drivers go on the road, they are rarely ever alone. They are putting the lives beside them at risk. 

I can’t tell if my brother’s inability to take responsibility is due to his individual character or his addiction. A tremble towards recklessness is inherent to some, but the tendency to disregard numbers drifting through blood—that is a choice. 

I have never felt as impotent as I do when it comes to the reality that I have never been enough to get through to him. It feels that those nights were an endless parade of my own inadequacies, but finally, the burden isn’t mine alone anymore.

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