‘I could have killed someone’

The consequences of driving while impaired are far-reaching

Pam Frampton pframpton@thetelegram.com
Published on June 21, 2014

He didn’t hit anyone with his car when he drove drunk. In fact, he didn’t put a scratch on his vehicle. But he left plenty of psychological wreckage in his wake.

The emotional debris field was a mile wide, reaching into all aspects of his life.

He’s 52, well-educated and a respected research scientist. He lives in St. John’s.

He’s also a diabetic and a high-functioning alcoholic who suffers from chronic depression, so he knows full well that alcohol is not an antidote to anxiety and despair.

Yet that’s exactly what he reached for one night in September 2013.

His case was heard in an open court but he does not want to be named here because he is still grappling with remorse.

His voice is tremulous as he tells his story. He sounds haunted and hollow on the other end of the line.

“I’m a diabetic,” he said.

“My sugar had dropped really badly. I was full of angst. And I did the stupidest thing possible — I went out and bought a bottle of vodka.”

That impulsive purchase triggered a series of events that would lead to charges, conviction, heightened depression, hospitalization and, eventually, realization.

He wants to share his story because he doesn’t think everyone understands the rippling repercussions of driving drunk — even when you’re lucky enough to have made it home in your car without ruining someone else’s life along the way.

The day after that vodka-fuelled evening, he woke around 10:30 a.m. feeling a bit fuzzy-headed, but otherwise OK.

He drove to a convenience store for a case of beer.

An employee with the City of St. John’s, standing in the same line at the counter that morning, noticed the man swaying on his feet.

When he got his beer and left, the city worker got into his car, followed the man home, then called the police and gave them the address.

“I was in my room, trying to read something,” the man recalls. “I heard a knock and looked out the window and saw the police.”

He felt a surge of fear.

They told him he had been reported for drunk driving.

He was taken to Mount Pearl for breath tests.

“I blew into that small device and failed spectacularly. I blew 0.26. I was surprised, but I shouldn’t have been. My judgment was also impaired.”

The legal limit is 0.08.

The police were professional and polite, he says. After the test, they gave him a lift home.

        •••

He couldn’t stop thinking about it and was racked with remorse. He thought of high school friends who had died driving drunk; of the anguish of good friends whose daughter was killed by a drunk driver.

I ask him what he would have done if the police had showed up at his house that morning and told him he had struck someone with his car.

There is silence on the other end of the phone.

He says quietly, “You don’t want to hear the answer to that. I’d be dead. I couldn’t have lived with that.”

        •••

He agonized over what had happened. He found the guilt crippling; the depression overpowering, like being sucked down by quicksand.

“I was so distraught after this. I was a mess,” he said.

“I was having suicidal thoughts. I spent seven days in the short-term assessment unit at the Waterford.

“It was the public shame — that people would find out I was an alcoholic. But the truth is, they already knew.

“Mostly it was self-recrimination. I savaged myself — how could you be so f--king stupid?”

He managed to keep it together for a while.

“Maybe four days, and then I started drinking again. A really good friend knew I was having trouble with the drinking and the depression and the diabetes. He came to check on me and looked in through the window and saw me on the floor. He broke in and called 911.

“I woke up looking at the hospital ceiling and realized I couldn’t drink anymore.”

        •••

In court, his lawyer tried to offer the best defence he could, suggesting a technicality might offer hope of acquittal.

The man was terrified he would get jail time, but he was determined to plead guilty.

“I knew I did it,” he said. “I wanted to own it; take responsibility for it. I have no one to blame but myself.”

He was convicted in November 2013 — a first offence. He was fined $1,500, had his licence revoked for one year and was told to avail of addictions programming.

        •••

He wants people to know that if you drive the morning after a night of drinking, you could still be impaired; that a driver’s licence is a privilege, not a right.

He wants judges and the courts to know that things aren’t always cut and dried. That perhaps someone who suffers from depression and alcoholism — two illnesses that feed off each other — and who has committed a first offence should be sentenced to more rehab and lower fines rather than the other way around.

And he wants the public to know that the consequences are far-reaching — the public and professional humiliation; the stigma of being labelled a “drunk driver”;

the inconvenience of not being allowed to drive; the financial ramifications.

All told, that one trip to the store for beer has cost him about $10,000 in fines, legal fees, taxi fares and lease payments on a car that will sit parked in his driveway until November.

And there are other costs, too. Practical ones, like the fact that he could be stopped and turned back anytime at the United States border, where his research often takes him.

There are emotional costs. The trauma of the event and thoughts of what might have been have exacerbated his illness and rendered him more fragile.

“Personally, this has been a nightmare for me,” he said.

“It’s always in the back of my mind. I felt very strongly that other people should know the consequences. If you have a conscience at all, something like this will do a number on you.”

When I commend him for sharing his experience, he brushes off the compliment.

“I don’t see this as being brave,” he said. “I see this as information. Maybe it’ll make you take a taxi and not your car. I also felt like it might help me come to terms with this.”

He stopped drinking on Sept. 16, 2013.

It was a birthday gift to himself, he says. An avid musician, he also bought himself a drum machine.

        •••

He wants the person who reported him to the police to know how thankful he is.

“The fact that that person took the time to exercise his civic duty, I’m grateful for that. … He did absolutely the right thing.

“I could have killed someone.”

 

Pam Frampton is a columnist and

The Telegram’s associate managing editor. Email pframpton@thetelegram.com.

Twitter: pam_frampton