98: Reservation for One

98: Reservation for One

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Empowered Woman

Reservation for One

Don’t judge too harshly, for if your weaknesses were to be placed under your footsteps, most likely you would stumble and fall as well.

~Richelle E. Goodrich

Drunk drivers are selfish, and mothers who drive drunk with their children in the car should be locked up forever with the other crazy, trashy, drug-addicted, prostitute, thieving women. There is no gray area… period. Even before I had children, I knew what kind of mother I would be: giving, loving, nurturing, safety-conscious — basically perfect.

I would never put my children in harm’s way. I dreamt of being that soccer or baseball mom, you know, the kind that drives a minivan and volunteers at her kids’ Christmas and Valentine’s Day parties. I’d bake fresh oatmeal-raisin cookies (not chocolate-chip because oatmeal and raisins are healthy) and have them waiting, hot out of the oven with ice cold glasses of soy milk when the children got off the school bus. My babies would love me so much and draw pictures of them and me — with hearts for clouds; I’d hang their artwork on the refrigerator door. I’d be Supermom.

But, supermoms don’t end up doing time and supermoms’ mug shots don’t end up on the front page of the local newspaper for driving under the influence with their children in their minivans.

On November 25, 2012 at 5:36 p.m., I was stopped outside the Walgreens on Madison Street in Clarksville, Tennessee.

“Ma’am, have you been drinking?”

“Um… oh… not much. Just a glass of wine or two this afternoon,” I mumbled.

“I’m going to need you to step out of the van. Officer Mitchell will stay with the kids.”

I obeyed. He asked me to walk in a straight line, heel to toe. I failed. He asked me to say the alphabet backwards. I really failed. My three youngest, ages five, seven, and nine, watched as I was handcuffed, with blue lights flashing behind the maroon Nissan Quest that carried them to and from school, baseball practice, and church on Sunday mornings. They watched as the police officer forced my head down into the patrol car. My children watched as I was driven away to jail, all but my eleven-year-old son who was at a friend’s house.

I spent twenty-four hours in the holding tank. I was placed there completely alone. I sat on the cold, concrete floor and cried. Finally, around 5 a.m., I was able to make bail.

I never thought in all my years I would become an alcoholic. After all, I never had a problem with alcohol in college. I even worked at a winery and could take the wine or leave it. Something happened between college, marriage, first baby and fourth baby — something called life.

February 16th, the day I was to find out my fate, quickly came. I was oddly calm, thinking that surely the judge would be lenient. After all, I was a middle school English teacher and Sunday school leader and had never been in trouble in my entire life.

The court hearing whirled by me. It was fast and confusing. My lawyer came back with this proposal: Thirty days in jail — ten days for each child. I would get the child endangerment charges erased from my permanent file if I took the jail time. I decided that if I ever wanted a decent job again, I’d better take the plea, but how in the world would I be able to do jail time and with — those women? I shuddered at the idea.

I had two weeks or so to prepare before I turned myself into the Montgomery County Jail, two weeks to do my shopping for the list of items I could bring: three white shirts, socks, underwear, and three books. There would be no fashion shows in jail.

Those two weeks were just the amount of time I needed to organize my thoughts. I had to imagine that I was going on an unusual journey — a journey most women will never take, especially good, educated mothers. It was going to be a life journey — a time to gain raw experiences that would hopefully fill my personal storybook. I had an opportunity to see how those bad girls lived. Maybe I would pretend I was an undercover journalist or a missionary preparing to go into a war-torn country. Yes, that’s what it would be. This would give me a chance to pull purpose out of this tragic situation. I would help those inmates any way I could.

March 1st quickly arrived. I had to turn myself in at 6 a.m. at the intake section with the big window that is just upstairs after you walk into the jail’s main doors.

My mother had tears rolling down her cheeks.

“You’ll be okay?”

“Yes, of course, Mom. This is going to be fun. Real fun. I am excited, actually. Really excited. Don’t worry about me. It’s great. It’s going to be great. Great fun. Great excitement.”

“I will write you and visit you,” my mother affirmed.

“You don’t have to, Mom. I mean, if it’s too hard for you,” I said.

“No, I will write every week, and I will visit.”

I couldn’t look back to tell her, “Okay” or “Goodbye.” Knowing the pain she felt and the disappointment I had caused was overwhelming. It put too much of a damper on the pumped up enthusiasm about my upcoming venture, and without that enthusiasm, I think I would have lost it.

“Reservation for one,” I said bravely, as I smiled at the shorthaired, hard-faced woman behind the smudged glass window.

“Huh?” she said.

“Oh, um, I’m here to turn myself in — Dana Clark.”

“Sit on over there until I call you back,” she demanded.

I sat on the cold bench and reminded myself to breathe, that everything was going to be okay, and that I would find hope in this journey by helping those women.

Finally a young male guard opened the heavy metal door that led to the processing area and then guided me to a fairly large room with windows to look out. I felt like I was in there for days before another young woman guard approached the locked door. I knew her from somewhere, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. As soon as our eyes met, though, memories flooded me.

“Na’Tisha,” I said.

“Uh, yeah,” she replied.

For a moment I thought of leaving it at that. I didn’t want her to know who I was. She had been one of my seventh-grade language arts students when I taught at Northeast Middle School.

“Aw! Mrs. Clark! I didn’t recognize you. Oh, my God! What are you doing in here?”

“Uh… well… I kind of made a bad choice — totally not something I typically do, and um, yeah… that’s it.”

I lied. It was something I typically did. I had started out just drinking a few glasses of wine on the weekends to help deal with work and laundry and dinner and baths and homework and fighting siblings and baseball practices and soccer practices and dance recitals and on and on. Quickly, I was drinking every day — but not until after the kids were in bed. Soon after that, I was drinking after 4 p.m.; then it moved up to 2 p.m.; then coconut vodka in my morning coffee.

Alcohol was my pick-me-up. It didn’t make me tired or lethargic. It eased my back pain. It eased my anxiety. It made me calm and happy and willing to let my girls help me make dinner. Before, I just wanted to do everything on my own. I didn’t want the added messes and spills.

But when I drank, I felt like I was a better momma. I had the time and energy to sit on the floor and play Barbies or throw a baseball in the back yard. Alcohol convinced me I was okay to drive. Alcohol was like a really bad friend who gives you really bad advice. It’s no different than some crazy mom who is texting and driving, I fooled myself. At least I drive slowly and have my eyes on the road when I drink.

Na’Tisha stuck her head out of the room, “Hey, you guys, this is Ms. Clark. Man, she was my favorite teacher. She taught me about linking verbs and shit.”

My face turned fifty shades of pink. My stomach rolled over and over into a ball of sharp, pinching pain. I didn’t think I was going to be able to do this. I remember telling my students to pay attention in school, so they wouldn’t end up on the streets some day, or worse — jail — and here I was. The roles had reversed, and I was being checked into jail by my former seventh-grade language arts student.

“Ms. Clark,” Na’Tisha shyly said, “I’m gonna need you to strip off all your clothes, and then squat and cough.”

“Squat and what?” I said.

“Squat and cough,” she repeated, “We gotta make sure you ain’t hidin’ nothin’… I’m sorry, Ms. Clark, AREN’T hiding anything… up your, uh, well, you know….”

“Like what in the world would I hide up there?” I asked.

“Man, you’d be surprised. Mainly drugs, but sometimes knives and candy and rubber bands.”

“I promise you, I have nothing up there,” I said as I gave a slight cough.

I couldn’t believe this was happening. I stood there buck naked. I was so embarrassed… so ashamed.

After checking me for hidden contraband, Na’Tisha handcuffed my wrists and ankles and escorted me down to the P-Pod. With my one stained flat sheet; a rough blanket that was only the thickness of a sheet; and my thin mat under my arms, I followed her down the long hallway.

The P-Pod was dark and chilly. Ten or so cells were arranged in a circle around a hard cement floor they called the commons area. This is the place where you can walk around freely for one hour a day to shower, get your exercise, and socialize a bit.

“Okay, Ms. Clark, this is where you’ll be for a few days until we move you to the M-Pod. It’ll be all right. Don’t worry.”

I could tell she wasn’t too convinced that everything would be all right, but her kind words helped a little bit.

As she walked me closer to my cell, a pretty, young black girl with a shaved head shouted through the tiny window of the door, “Hey, she gonna be my celly? Damn, she fine. Look y’all the newbie be wearin’ real make-up. Ain’t she pretty? She’s all mine.”

Guard Na’Tisha handed me my bag of clothes and books, and then opened the heavy metal door to my new sardine-box sized home.

“This is Samantha — but they call her ‘King X.’ She’s not too bad,” Na’Tisha explained.

Na’Tisha told me to go in and make my bed. She told me at around 7:00 pm., I could go out in the commons area for my one hour of quasi freedom. I asked her what time it was. It was only 7:00 a.m. I jumped when the cell door slammed shut.

“Don’t be scared,” smirked King X, “I ain’t gonna bite you. You gay? I’m gay. You pretty. We gonna get along just fine. You cute for being kinda old. How old are you? I’m twenty-one.”

I was overwhelmed with the quick questions spewed at me.

“I’m Dana. I’m not gay. I like men. I’m thirty-eight-years-old,” I answered.

“What you in here for?” she asked.

I told her the truth and she said she understood. She had been arrested for a DUI before, too, but this time she was in for domestic violence. She had beaten up her girlfriend, she said. She beat her up because she was flirting with other women. She told me that she didn’t know why she got so angry. She said she had a five-year-old daughter that she had with a police officer who used to frequent her neighborhood. She had only been sixteen years old when she got pregnant. She said no one knew it was the police officer’s baby. She said that he was good to her at first, but then he ignored her. She didn’t care, though, because she liked women better anyway.

She told me I could have the top bunk — that she didn’t like being on top. I was wondering how this was going to work since there was no ladder, and I had a lot of lower back problems.

“Hey! For real? Let me show you how we make our beds up in here. That flat sheet ain’t gonna stay put if you don’t tie the ends up like this.”

She took charge. I didn’t know how to do this. I had never been in jail before. It seemed there were going to be many tricks I was going to learn along the way during my stay. She grabbed my sheet and began wrapping my mat like a Christmas present, tying each end together in the middle like a bow. I was impressed, and I thought it very kind of her to help a stranger like that.

She went on to show me many other things — like how to keep my whites white.

“Don’t ever have these fools wash yo clothes for ya. They’ll come back brown. See, now, watcha gotta do is take some of this cheap-ass toothpaste — just use a little bit — and you take some of the shampoo, too. You mix it up with water, and scrub your underwear with it. Turns out really white. See? I did mine last night.”

She reached for a T-shirt, a pair of underwear, and a pair of socks and held them up like she was a The Price Is Right model. She told me I could borrow some of her toothpaste when I needed it because I wouldn’t be getting any sanitary supplies for another week. “They had already come yesterday,” she said.

She took out a bag of Skittles that she purchased from the once-a-week mobile commissary cart, picked out the purple and green ones, let them melt in her hand, and then applied the color to her eyelids.

“Now see? This is how we wear make-up. Give me that pencil over there on my bed.”

I grabbed the golf-game sized pencil and handed it to her. She used the pencil as eye and lip liner and then filled in her lips with a red Skittle. She told me to remind her later, and she’d show me how to make a permanent tattoo from pencil lead, a staple, and lotion.

I thought it very sweet of her to take me under her wing like that. She knew me from nowhere, and she treated me already like a friend.

The day went by fairly quickly. King X and I talked well into the evening, interrupted only by our tasteless lunch being pushed through a thin slit in our locked door. I learned that she had been abandoned as a child, left in her baby carrier on the front steps of her grandmother’s house. She said that her mother was hooked on drugs and couldn’t take care of her.

She does remember seeing her mother from time to time at Thanksgiving and Christmas. She said she didn’t know who her father was, and that her grandmother, while she provided well for her, wasn’t very nurturing. She told me that her uncle had sexually abused her when she was just three. She told me how badly she wanted to be a good role model for her own daughter, but things weren’t working out that way. Her grandmother had custody of her daughter. She prayed that God would keep her daughter safe from sexual predators. The topic of her daughter brought tears to her sad and weary eyes.

“I never wanted this to happen to my daughter — you know, not be raised by her own mother,” she said, “I swear when I get outta here, I’m gonna do better.”

I began to think about my own children — how I had abandoned them, too, over the last few months, not physically, but emotionally, because of my drinking. The thought of me putting them in grave danger took my breath away. In that moment, I realized we are all capable of the unthinkable, given the right set of life circumstances.

King X told me that she would introduce me to the other women when we got out at 7 p.m. for our one-hour rec time. I was a bit nervous to meet them, not sure what to expect, but I felt that with King X on my side, everything would be okay.

Seven o’clock came and the cell door popped open like a jack-in-the-box makes a sudden jump. The noise was sharp and startling.

“Come on. Let’s do this,” King X said.

I cautiously followed her out into the commons area. There I was introduced to about fifteen women, many of whom looked just like me or looked just like my younger sister.

“Hey, y’all, this Mrs. Clark. She’s my new celly. She cool. She gonna teach us some Shakespeare.”

I met little Lily, a delicate longhaired redhead with freckles. She had been caught manufacturing meth. She said that she never thought she’d get hooked on that stuff, but she started using it when she began college. She said it helped her study better, plus it helped her lose weight, and because she had always been made fun of as a child for her pudgy figure, it was hard to give up. I told her that I had a daughter named Lily — my youngest, in fact. I shared with her how I had made up songs for each of my children that I sang when I rocked them to sleep. I sang my Lily song: Lily, Lily, I love you. Lily, Lily, yes, it’s true. I love my Lily. Of her I’m very fond. She’s my little lily pad just a floatin’ ’round the pond.

“Awww, Mrs. Clark. I love that song. Will you make me a song?”

“Yeah, Mrs. Clark,” chimed in Eureka, a very thin black girl with long braids, “will you write me a baby song with my name in it?”

I was overwhelmed with tenderness for these two young ladies. Everything I had thought about women in jail was slowly being chipped away. They weren’t mean; they weren’t evil; they weren’t selfish and trashy. They were simply broken women with broken pasts, just like my own.

Eventually, I was moved up to the M-Pod where we were given a few more hours of social time a day. We were able to go out in the commons area from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.; 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.; and 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. During these hours I met Stacey, an older lady who was a former physician’s assistant. She became addicted to pain pills and was caught writing false prescriptions. She was sentenced to one year in jail.

I met Lori, Tabitha, and Lydia, all heroin addicts and who sold their bodies to support their addictions. I met a precious Latino lady named Maria. She led Bible studies during the 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. rec time. She also drew beautiful greeting cards and traded them with the others for candy or shampoo. I met Muffin and Tee-Tee who often were in competition for their unique hair-braiding abilities and showed me how to give myself a pedicure with water, lotion, and the top of a deodorant bottle. I met Sara who was caught shoplifting diapers. Sara had the voice of an angel and would often serenade us to sleep.

At least 90% of the women with whom I was in jail were addicted to either drugs or alcohol. I resolved to seek treatment when I was released.

“You ain’t gonna forget me? Are you?” King X said as I walked out the cell door for the last time.

“No, King X, I will never forget you,” I cried, “You are a beautiful woman with a beautiful heart. Go be a Supermom to that baby girl of yours. She needs you.”

From there, I spent nine months at The Bethany House II, a restoration home for women where I learned to implement the 12-Step Program, learned to deal with depression and anxiety in a healthy way, and most importantly, I learned to love and forgive myself.

Those women changed my world. I had been living in bondage for years trying to be the perfect mom. I finally understood that just because we make mistakes does not mean we are mistakes. I learned to abandon my presumptuous judgments and began to see the beauty and potential of every woman no matter what her past. It was in these lessons that I found true liberty for the very first time.

~Dana D. Clark

More stories from our partners