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"You Keep on Playing Those Mind Games"...Prescription Drugs and Alcohol - Stitches in the Nailbed
Cynthia Alden Smith is a new writer. She spent 18 years of her professional career in the cable television industry as a sales and marketing executive. She now consults part-time and writes. Cynthia received her BA from Mount Holyoke College. She lives in Venice, California with her standard poodle and cat.
Stitches in the Nailbed
“DAMN-it!” Blood erupted from the fissure across the width of my fingernail. The dog snapped her head around with a startled look.
I wasn’t quite sure how I managed to slam my pinkie in the car door but it didn’t look like a band-aid was going to fix it.
I ran inside, wrapped my finger in an entire roll of gauze, put the dog in the house and drove to the emergency room. As I spotted the hospital sign in the early morning light, I remembered the last time I’d pulled into this lot.
It had been January nearly ten years before, late on a weekday night. The hospital lot had been the first convenient place to pull off the road after I noticed the sheriff’s car flashing its lights like a video game behind me. I’d caught the deputy’s attention a few blocks back by turning left onto busy Lincoln Boulevard, heading north in the southbound lane. The concrete barrier in the middle of the road prevented a quick lane change to correct the error. Instead, I figured if I drove fast enough, I could scoot over at the next light. The rational solution – simply pulling off the road into one of the businesses to my left – never occurred to me. Logical thought was beyond my capabilities – I was drunk.
I’d been drinking on a marina dinner cruise. It was a business event – a party to celebrate a successful year in the cable TV industry. I worked in sales for a popular channel with wide distribution. I developed marketing strategies, planned sales promotions, negotiated contracts, attended conventions and trade shows, travelled a lot and entertained more. I loved everything about my job – especially the parties. Work hard, party harder. I was solely responsible for Los Angeles, my region’s most important market. I was involved in trade organizations, sat on boards and committees, and was raising my professional profile. I had become someone to watch.
But I wasn’t completely comfortable. My gut told me I’d be found out as the insecure geek I knew I was and a total failure. I wrestled with a desperate need to be liked and accepted. What kept these painful anxieties at bay was alcohol. Alcohol gave me confidence, it allowed me to throw myself into the party. It made me feel like I was finally part of the cool clique, one of the popular kids.
The officer leaned in the window for my license and registration and asked if I’d been drinking. I later learned that I gave the classic answer, “Only two beers.” In fact, I wasn’t sure how many drinks I’d had that night – maybe three, maybe four, probably more. I did know I’d been having a very good time. I’d looked great in a short suede skirt. I’d been witty, sexy, flirty, chatting fast and laughing with an almost manic gaiety.
“Please step out of the car.” The officer was polite, but stern. “I’d like to ask you some questions. Do you know where you are?”
“On Lincoln Boulevard in Marina del Rey.”
“What time is it?”
“About ten or ten-thirty.”
“Where have you been?”
“On a harbor cruise.” The questions were idiotic and I answered them with a cocky assurance. I felt mentally sharp. I’ve always done well on tests.
“Where do you live? How far away is it?”
Aha! I thought, he’s going to let me go home! “In Mount Washington, only 20 miles from here – and it’s all freeway!”
The officer took my car keys and told me to wait in my car. Why take my keys? Does he think I’ll drive away? Do I look irresponsible?
A second sheriff’s car pulled up. Two deputies got out and had a short conversation with the first officer. All three walked over to me. A female officer asked me to step outside the vehicle.
“I’d like you to do a few exercises for me. First, stand on one foot, lift the other leg, straight, in front of you and count to thirty aloud.”
“May I take off my heels?” I asked, thinking it would improve my performance.
“That won’t be necessary.”
I balanced on one leg, lifted the other, and counted to thirty.
“Do it again on the other leg.” This isn’t so difficult.
“Now close your eyes, tilt your head back, and tell me when thirty seconds have passed.” Okay so far. “Face straight ahead and follow my finger with your eyes, without moving your head.” She moved her index finger right to left several times, then up and down. I felt a little dizzy.
“Close your eyes again. Hold your arms out to each side and touch your nose with your finger as I direct: Right. Left. Right. Right. Left. Right. Left. Left.” My arms moved reluctantly and disobediently. It felt like bobbing weights dangled from each wrist.
The test was getting harder and apparently, I’d studied the wrong subject. I was getting nervous.
“Look straight ahead and walk nine steps in a line heel to toe. Turn and walk heel to toe back to me.” I wobbled and stepped out of line twice to keep my balance.
The officer walked away, conferred again with the other two deputies, looking over at me from time to time. My stomach clenched. I felt queasy. She walked back.
“Face the car and put your hands behind your back, palms together.”
The moment the handcuffs snapped shut and I was folded into the back seat of the squad car, all illusion of control vanished. Only then did it hit me that now my husband would have to get involved.
When we were at home, my husband and I always had two cocktails in the evening. I’d stay in the kitchen, watching “Jeopardy” as I made dinner. My husband would take his drink to the den and watch the news. He’d refill once – dumping the melted ice, cracking new cubes into the glass and pouring a carefully measured splash of Scotch. I’d refill differently: I “refreshed” my drink as many times as I could before the ice melted. Only when the ice was gone and I had to add new cubes did I pour what I counted as the second drink. I refused to admit that I might be drinking too much, but the truth was butting up against my conscience like a dog nudging open a door.
We had been married for seven years, together nine, no children, three cats. I had married him because I’d been thirty-one and the idea of marriage was appealing. It had bothered me that I didn’t have strong feelings for him – I never “fell in love” – but I’d been fond of him. I enjoyed his company, he was well-read and interesting and we liked to do similar things. There was nothing incredibly wrong, and I didn’t think I would do much better. I also believed I would learn to love him more as time went on. I thought I would wake up one morning and look at him and my heart would fill with love and passion. But what I really wanted was someone to take care of me. I wanted to be held. He was a barrel-chested, beefy 6’5” and could engulf me in his embrace. I felt warm, tiny, protected.
I don’t remember when the fights started. He’d attack me about something inconsequential. I’d get defensive, then frustrated when he’d demand explanations for crimes I didn’t know I had committed. He’d berate me, tell me I was just like my mother, say I was trying to manipulate him and refuse to listen to anything further I’d say. I’d scream, cry hysterically, and on different occasions had thrown a glass at his head, a chair down the stairs, a pot at the door and kicked a hole in the wall. I never knew what would set him off – and he would never articulate the problem. After these fights I’d tell myself that people fight all the time in marriages – my parents did – and then everything would get better. But it never did.
At the time of my arrest, we’d been living in our second house – a 70-year-old, rambling two-story fixer of indeterminate architecture. It had a basement, wisteria arbor, double lot, fruit trees, a kidney-shaped pool and a mortgage we could barely afford. Like our marriage, it had all the right features, but it needed work we had neither the resources nor the skills to perform. It was falling down around us.
Many nights I would take the Scotch my husband knew I was drinking, and the cigarettes he thought I’d quit and sit outside in the dark on a cold stone wall. I’d stare at the tired old house and untended, overgrown lot and feel trapped in a bleak and endless future.
“I’ll need to remove the rest of the nail and suture the tear.” The ER doctor examined my pinkie, lifting my hand to show me where the stitches would go. “Do you want to watch?”
My stomach lurched at the thought of the curved needle piercing flesh where the nail had been. I changed the subject.
“How long will it take for the nail to grow back?”
“Oh, months and months.” Behind the doctor, the nurse started cleaning the wound. “However, due to the damage to the nailbed, it may not be quite the same.”
Seeing my look of alarm, he added, “Don’t worry, it will be as strong as the one you have now, but it will always be a little different.”
It had been long after midnight before I could make a phone call from the sheriff’s substation where I was held. My fingerprints, photo, jewelry, shoes and belt had been taken, and I had convincingly failed the breath test. My husband had to wake a friend to drive him across town to fetch me. On the drive, he had time for his worry to change to anger. He didn’t speak to me all the way home, but the roar of his silent reproach was deafening. Our universe shifted at that moment; I was overwhelmed with relief.
The last Scotch of the dinner cruise had been my final drink. The court convicted me of drunk driving, fined me $1500, suspended my driver’s license, and ordered me to an eight-week alcohol-education program. Sheer force of will and stubborn pride kept me from drinking, but that effort took all my strength. I had no center of gravity, nothing but an empty spot where the alcohol had been. I filled the empty place by throwing myself into work – a perfect outlet for my nervous, panicky energy. I travelled constantly, taking cabs instead of renting cars. My hard work won me a promotion. I never mentioned the DUI.
I managed to not drink but my marriage, built on a flawed foundation, fell apart. The last vestiges of an ordered home life spun out into space. One Friday that fall, my husband announced that he was leaving for the weekend and when he returned he would tell me if we were to stay married. He hadn’t returned when I left for the office Monday; by Monday evening, I’d had a tearful conversation with my empathetic boss, called the company health plan and checked myself into a 30-day rehabilitation program. I left home on Tuesday morning and never returned to the house or the marriage.
Today, the fingernail has grown back long and straight. But when I look through its translucence, I can see that the pale boundary of flesh where the quick meets the nail is jagged. It swoops and dips unevenly. The damaged tissue was cut away in the emergency room so the wound could heal.
Like the nail, my life has healed, too. My husband only knew how to handle an intoxicated wife. He never believed I could stay sober and refused to learn how to help me. Leaving my marriage took courage, but in order to mend, I needed to excise that painful, diseased flesh.
I’ve stitched together my tattered edges and let myself grow back in ways that have surprised and pleased me. I’ve slowly cultivated new friends who support and encourage me. My promotion was never questioned, and I’ve enjoyed the challenge of greater responsibility. Men have entered and exited my life without drama. I am still beset by doubt and fear, but the anxiety passes like a squall, revealing a limitless halcyon sea.