Dark Confines

I followed Officer O’Halloren as we snaked through the hallways between cells at the Cook County jail.  I was not expecting to get this close to the incarcerated women, and I didn’t know jail would be so dark.  And confining.

Up ahead, I saw an inmate throw a bologna sandwich through the bars.  I wanted to laugh to ease the tension building through my shoulders.  Terror and curiosity swirled within me as I wondered if any of the faces belonged to my new client.

“Wait here,” O’Halloren said, when we reached the end of a hallway.  I saw a closet-sized room with a bench.

I pulled a legal pad and a pen from my briefcase, so I could hold the tools that proved I was prepared to mount a defense for my client.

When she walked through the door to our “conference” room, I realized the absurdity of believing that legal preparation was the same as emotional preparation.

“Ms. K., I am your lawyer.” I rose to shake her hand.

She didn’t say a word as she shuffled over to the bench, her eyes focused on the floor.

How was I going to ask this emaciated stranger about the accident and the charges? My pen poised for recording the facts, I started gently.

“Do you know that the state has charged you with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon?”

She nodded, but still no eye contact.

“How is Andre? Have you seen him?”  She asked suddenly, growing agitated about her surviving son.  I hadn’t met him, but a social worker told me that their church had taken care of him.

“He is safe.  Your minister is bringing him to the hearing this afternoon.”

She turned farther away as tears fell down her swollen face.

“Can we talk about the night of the accident? The more facts I have, the better job I can do for you.”  My voice was a mix of compassion and authority, both of which she deserved from me.

“You’re probably judging me,” she said, wiping away her tears.

“It’s not my job to judge you,” I assured this broken bird of a woman.

“I didn’t drink that much.  They are lying.”  Now she was facing me, almost daring me to defy her.  I had a police report that indicated she was well over the legal limit when she was pulled from the wheel of the car.

“Why don’t you tell me what you remember?”  I suggested.

“You believe me don’t you? I loved my son. I would never have hurt him.”  She finally met my eyes with her desperate stare.

“I believe you,” I said, not as a lawyer, but as a mother.

“Good,” she said quietly.

“Do you think you have a problem with alcohol?” I asked hoping we might use evidence of recovery in mitigation.

“No. I am not going to AA.  My public defender wanted me to do alcohol rehab, but those places are full of sickos.”

I backed off the topic of recovery.  In the next 30 minutes, I got her to tell me as much as she could remember.  When I left, I couldn’t wait to scrub the dust of her anguish and denial off my skin.

I had been to Alanon for over 10 years by the time I met Ms. K., but I wasn’t prepared for how much I wanted her– a stranger and a client– to get sober.  I wanted her to walk through the pain of killing her son and whatever other demons she was trying to outrun.

But, I stuffed my desire for her sobriety each time I worked on her case; I focused on her legal issues.

When the judge eventually gave her the “best possible deal,” I cheered for her, but with only half my heart.  The other half was freighted with that persistent desire that she get sober.  All those months working for her, I never stopped wanting it.

I probably never will.

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72 thoughts on “Dark Confines

  1. Wow. Heartbreaking. What a terrible thing to have to live with for the rest of your life.

    If our desire for people to get sober was enough, there wouldn’t be any alcoholics in the world. Unfortunately, they have to want it too.

    My brother came to stay with me for a while a few years back. When he hit rock bottom, I took him to the nearest 30 day in-patient treatment facility, which was 2 hours away. I stopped and bought him booze as I drove, just to keep him from going into DTs. When we got there, they said they couldn’t take him drunk. I said it was the only way I could get him there without him being a danger to himself and others. They left to consult, and I hit my knees, praying that they would take him because I was so sick of the person the alcohol had turned him into.

    They took him and 30 days later they released him. I was so proud of him and so hopeful for his future. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be.

    Alcoholism is such a thief.

      • I still get texts from her to this day that suggest she is sill pretty sick and actively getting high or drunk. It kills me and makes me feel such rage. Thief is right. Murderer too. And I understand she should have never ever gotten behind the wheel….she could have killed me or my kids or someone I love or other innocent people. That’s horrible. But I believe that alcoholism is a disease and that she needs help that I can’t give her, especially if she doesn’t want it. Ugh. Now, I have stirred my emotional pot.

    • It was a gift from the universe to have this client, as I have my own history with alcoholism that is the subject of a slightly longer post. Since I didn’t want to shut down the internet today, I thought I would tell a sliver of Mrs. K’s story. Also, it reminds me of another lifetime for me. So weird I was her lawyer. You are a fantastic sister, by the way.

      • Not all the time I’m not. There are days I ignore his calls because I can’t deal with having the same 5 minute conversation for 30 minutes because he forgets what he has said. It sucks.

  2. My daughter’s father suffered from addiction and was killed by his own alcohol/drug fueled stupidity shortly after we divorced. These souls are tormented and sometimes getting the help they need is too painful for them that they choose the lesser pain, which is often the physical one. Maddie and I are the lucky Ones in our story… We’ve found peace and stability and Maddie Didnt have to grow up fearing him. She can remember him as a four year old could. Anyway, rough story. Love your writing.

    • Oh, I am sorry to hear about Maddie’s father and that alcholism has touched you so brutally. I am happy to hear she has you and stability and it would suck to have her growing up in fear of him or his addiction. Tragedies. They are all around. So is recovery, but I get snagged up on the sad stuff sometimes. Thanks for reminding me that lucky ones walk among me everywhere. LIke you.

      • I guess I should say “lucky” in a tragic blessing sort of way. It sucks it happened, but so many are in danger while they are in the middle of it all. I meant no disrespect by using the word “lucky”.

  3. An awful story, but told so well. I really liked your use of dialogue and the way it carried the narrative. Such a heartbreaking tale to have to tell. Do you know what ended up happening to her?

  4. Great story telling, as always. I loved this line: “When I left, I couldn’t wait to scrub the dust of her anguish and denial off my skin.”

    Such a tragic tale. I can’t imagine living with that kind of guilt and still being unable to stop. Wow.

  5. That made me cry … as a child of a recovering alcoholic I know how scary that all must be … and I fear that what happened will lead her further into a hole leaving her life and her surviving son’s life worse off than ever … :(

  6. Oh, Christie… What a terribly difficult thing for you to do in a situation where there is clearly no winner. Except maybe you. I cannot imagine how conflicted you were as you watched her struggle. I am so glad that your recovery has taken a vastly different path than hers.

  7. Oh, Christie. What a moving, strong, haunting piece. Thank you for sharing this with us. I can’t imagine what any of that must have been like for you – or your client, a mother. God, this is tragic. This line: “….this broken bird of a woman.” was extremely powerful.

  8. I love this piece, and I completely understand. Sometimes, even when we know its necessary, its just so hard to keep a reasonable distance from a client. Some of them just get to us, and afterwards we are never, ever the same.

  9. I think that’s the difference between what she perceived and feared and what you really offered. She judged herself and expected only judgment from others. She never really understood your compassion for her, and she never really let go of her demon.
    My grandmother died of alcoholism, though the death certificate said uterine cancer. (It was detected early. She meant to do something about it, but was too drunk to attend radiation. She showed up for her hysterectomy sloshed and they couldn’t complete the procedure. You get the picture.)

    My younger sister died of, among other things, alcoholism. (The loss happened years before her death, when she stopped fighting the demons, stopped making good choices, and never opted to start again.)

    Your desire for that woman to become sober, although futile, feels noble. I hope you never do stop hoping for her.

    • That’s a great question that I am going to ask people from now on. It was hard because I wanted to tell it all– every detail– but from a writing perspective, it didn’t work to tell about her life in Africa before she came here or her graduate work or how she was beat up in jail and she was swollen all over her face the first time I saw her. It felt “wrong” to cut out the details but I did because it was for writing. The ending I changed at least 50 times. I wanted to be honest about myself and speak from my own history, having come from an alcoholic family.

      Thanks for asking.

  10. So sad. So very sad. Continuing to do your job when it isn’t the job you want to do for them must be so difficult. Going through this kind of thing would just tear me up. Though there was no way, from the position you were in with her, to save her in the way you wanted. If it were me, I wouldn’t have been able to stop feeling like I should be doing more, even if there was nothing more that I could have done.

  11. So tragic. When I was in Honduras, the mom of the family I lived with got in an accident because she was driving too fast and her youngest son ended up dying. She hadn’t been drinking, but afterward she was just a shell of herself. Alcoholism is so hard to overcome, but when you add the weight of that kind of guilt…well, I just can’t even imagine. It’s just heartbreaking.
    Beautifully told!

    • THanks and how awful for your Honduran family. I know accidents happen and I don’t know how I would do if it happened to me. Oh, lord, I hope I never have to find out. It’s too awful.

  12. Oh Christie, this was yet another amazing post from you.
    I think it intrigued me the most at first because it’s about something that I know little about. Your words were real and raw and honest. You made the sadness of the situation come through without letting it drown out the other parts of the story.
    You are such a skilled writer, and becoming better every week!

  13. Pingback: Speak For Me | Shoshuga

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