By: Tami Harper Winn
One red ribbon, tattered and torn, hung from the antenna of a beat up old convertible. Bruises, in various colors, outlined the exterior of the car from the countless poles and sides of buildings it had ran into. It was a hideous mess, violently used and abused by it’s owner. It was the clear victim of an alcoholic owner. Printed on the red ribbon, in white, were the faded letters MADD.
The morbid truth is that the ribbon was one alcoholic's desperate attempt to try to dissuade police officers from pulling her over when she left the bar each night, hammered to the gills. It was a pathetic and sad truth, with blatant disregard for why that ribbon was created in the first place. However pathetic it was, she called it her lucky charm, because she never saw the red and blue lights in her rearview mirror while driving that way. Let me explain, nothing with an alcoholic makes sense to anyone else but an alcoholic.
Fast forward two years later. The point of the story isn’t to address why some horrible person would drive drunk with that ribbon attached to it. The story is much broader than that. Stay with me. The year is 2012; one woman steps into the auditorium of a lecture hall at a well known university. It is the semester before she will finally graduate with a Bachelor’s degree. It has been a long, challenging undertaking. Her first day in class she is given an assignment to complete her internship in the field that she is studying. Her degree will be in Criminal Justice. This woman is a recovering alcoholic with only two years under her belt clean and sober. The place chosen for her? Madd, otherwise known as Mother’s Against Drunk Driving, of all places. Damn. Really?
As she entered the building on that first day for orientation she felt a sense of treachery coupled with queasiness. She was not supposed to be there, not here of all places. If they found out who she was, they would surely take her out into the streets and stone her to death. The filth of her past clung to her. The scent of alcohol and tobacco seemed to linger in the air surrounding her, or was that just her guilty conscience? Judas, that was who she was to this flock. She had committed the ultimate betrayal to this community and they didn’t even know it. Her insides felt like coming outside. Could this be any worse?
Act cool. Don’t sweat. Stop shaking. These were only a few of the mantras she told herself as she took her seat. Everywhere, to the right and to the left, were faces. There were faces of people who were alive and even more faces of people who were not. The faces of those who had died in drunk driving accidents were like 3-D images popping out at her from the walls around her. They were unknown faces screaming obscenities at her that no one else could hear but her. They were a call from the grave. “Judas!” “Get out of here!” “Go to hell where you belong!” They taunted her. As the meeting started those same eyes stared in horror at her. Their eyes never left her. Her skin crawled. How was she ever going to be able to do this?
She had to run. She had to get out of there. She excused herself and all but ran to the restroom. There she vomited violently into the toilet until she dry heaved. “That’s the least you deserve!” “You are a disgusting person!” The voices were still shouting inside her skull. Rinsing her mouth, wiping her brow, she weakly made it back to her seat. She was provided a sheet of paper that had words typed on it. The words didn’t matter. She never really saw them. A signature was scrawled across the bottom line of the paper. It was her signature. The deed had been done.
For the next 3 months she would be working for the organization that was founded for the purpose of helping survivors of drunk drivers. She would help spearhead the Red Ribbon Campaign for the holidays and work with survivors on impact panels in hopes of reaching the offenders. Her fate had been written. Karma was attached with all it’s strings.
Week after week she sat in the small 3 room office. She made lists, organized closets, and mass produced mailings for upcoming events. She did menial tasks, avoiding at all costs, the room with the faces that hated her very existence. Only two people ran that whole statewide operation. The rest were volunteers much like she was. Sadly, she believed, none of them were like her. She was the enemy. She hated every step she took from her car to the front door every time she came to volunteer. The pavement scalded her feet as if the fiery flames from hell were lapping at her soul. The devil himself was ready for her.
Then came that day, the day that would catapult her into a new dimension of understanding. It would be the day she would see the hand of her higher power in this whole ironic twist of fate. She would glimpse the surety of that steady hand in all it’s glory. It was a gift that she could never have given herself or accepted without the help of her higher power. When she entered the room, the room with the faces, it was empty. To her disbelief and relief she was standing in a room void of the ghosts from her past nightmares. Thank you God. The pressure valve released.
Without warning, a file fell onto the table in front of her. A sliver of a picture tried to glance upwards at her. No way. Shaking, she opened the manila folder and gasped hoping the director standing next to her hadn’t noticed. There before her were hundreds of faces. It was them. They were all there in color, smirking and forming their twisted little smiles at her. She was doomed. The all out attack on her very soul had commenced itself upon her. Confusion raced through her brain. Every unorganized irrational thought formed itself. Adrenaline mixed with terror coursed through her veins. Her skin was flush. She felt faint.
Parched, her voice cracking, she asked for a bottle of water. How could this be? She slammed the folder shut, keeping her hand pressed firmly on it. She couldn’t let them escape. She felt the pressure against her chest as she sat there. According to the director, she would be in charge of designing the new victim impact board. How appropriate. The purpose of the board, she said, was to educate those arrested for drunk driving, about the victims who paid the ultimate cost for their offender’s bar tab. They had paid with their lives. She was responsible for not only organizing the faces on a very large tiered poster, but also detailing their stories to go with it. This meant she would have to research each victim and find out what exactly had happened to each one. Sweat rolled down her brow. She felt like she would drown.
This could only get worse you would think, except that it wasn’t revenge the victims were seeking after all. It was a voice they knew that she needed to hear and that they needed heard. As the pages of documents and internet news stories unfolded before her, she began to forget who she was, a hopeless recovering alcoholic. She developed personal relationships with each of the faces and their stories. Sitting in the middle of her living room floor with hundreds of faces strewn around her, she no longer saw them as only pictures. Their grimaced faces appeared to soften over the course of time as they retold their stories to her. They quieted down and let her do her work. They collaborated with each other and with her to create a beautiful illustration of their stories. Each one became personal to her. Many tears soaked her carpet. Her children at first sat in disbelief as she placed each one of the victims’ pictures around her before starting. Midway through, they took up carpet space beside her and talked with her for hours about the people whose lives had been cut short by senseless acts of drunk driving. After her children would retire for the night, she could be found sobbing uncontrollably on the floor begging for forgiveness. She wept for their losses. Fierce anguish flooded every pore in her body for the families who were left behind. Even more treacherous for her was the fact that she cried also for the ones who had taken those lives. She cried because she knew the graveness of the disease. There was no justice that could ever rectify these tragedies. Lives were lost across the board. The victim was robbed of a future, the families robbed of that same future with the victim, the offenders robbed of their freedom (rightfully so) and sometimes with their lives as well, and the offender’s family robbed of their loved one as well. Nothing would ever be the same again. Not for them and certainly not for her.
She knew the disease of alcoholism personally. She was one of “the bad guys.” She ripped that red ribbon off when she got sober on May 20, 2010. She never thought about it again, until now. She couldn’t stand hiding under her anonymous cloak anymore. Sitting at her desk in the office as she presented the final project, she shed the mask she had been hiding behind. She told the director her story. She cried. The director cried with her. Her soul bled out all the poison it had been brewing in for all those months.
That gift of freedom and forgiveness opened the door for dialogue. It opened the door to understanding and empathy. It gave a face to the disease, one that was personal to the group. It hurt, but it was healing. During that time of her internship she could have kept her story secret; she could have silently done her job and moved on. But what would that have benefited any of them as a whole? It was her duty as someone who was living the principles of recovery to help others. By sharing her story, by making amends in the most personal way, she was able to help begin to forge the bridge between two very different and painful parts of this organization. Education and understanding was what occurred. She understood very deeply that she may not have ever got the chance to hurt someone with her actions, but she sure as hell could have. She owed it to the families, and to those who still suffered, to be a part of the solution.
Night after night, she entered meetings of recovering alcoholics to share the horror stories of the victims she had come to love. She cursed her disease. She shed light on the gravity of the alcoholic’s behavior not only to them, but to their survivors as well. Those victims on that wall saved her life. She owed it to them and to their families to make sure her recovery always came first.
The idea was brought about, through open mindedness, to look at helping all of the victims of drunk driving accidents. There were groups for survivors, or those left behind, to come and have a community to share and grieve with. The topic was very touchy and personal. The vein of pain ran deep and hot. There were two types of survivors though, the ones who were innocent and their families, and there were the survivors of the drunk drivers who had died in crashes as well. They needed support too. This disease left no victims untouched. She was able to help open the space for the survivors of the drunk drivers who had died, to be reached and helped too. Drunk driving accidents do not discriminate. Death does not have a preference.
Her time has since ended officially with Madd. On occasion though, she still volunteers. However, the bond she has with the community and the director is one she cherishes deeply. The irony of this story is one that ties it all together with one big red ribbon. During her time as an assistant victim advocate with Madd, both of her sons became victims of drunk drivers, as passengers in the cars they were in with the drunk driver. They were the only ones who were hurt in those accidents and they got to live to tell the story. They became the victims and the faces on the wall. She no longer flew the red ribbon on her antenna. Instead, on the back of her car she now had a bumper sticker that said, “Someone I love was injured by a drunk driver.”
~Tami Harper Winn~
*Written on behalf of all the survivors, the victims, and those who still suffer. May their stories live on. I send prayers and blessings to each and every one of them.
Please educate yourself about the effects of drunk driving. Get involved with your local chapter of Madd to see how you can volunteer in your area. Go to www.madd.org for information on how you can become part of the solution, part of the healing. Help create a safe place for dialogue and education to happen.
The story written here is solely the work of the author’s. Any use or reproduction of this article is prohibited without written consent of the author or credit to the author through works cited.