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  • Writer's pictureKathleen Irene Paterka

I Went to Jail Last Night

First, I surrendered my car keys and driver’s license. A buzzer sounded and a steel door swung open. Passing through, I found myself in a hallway, and then in a small room with cinderblock walls, plastic chairs and harsh overhead lighting. Sitting down, I took a deep breath and thought about that big metal door, how it sounded as it slammed shut behind me.

Knowing you’re locked in is a sobering experience.

Have you ever driven drunk? I did. Plenty of times after I’d been drinking I climbed behind the wheel, even though I knew I had absolutely no business doing so. One night, I was pulled over by city police for speeding. Watching the officer stroll up to the window was terrifying. Would he smell the wine on my breath? Would he insist I step out of the car? Give me a sobriety test? As it turned out, there was no ticket, just a warning to slow down. I drove away knowing I’d dodged a bullet. But how long would my luck last? Sooner or later, things would catch up with me. It just hadn’t happened…yet.

I’d known since college that I had a problem with alcohol, but it took some years before I was ready to face the truth about my drinking. Me, an alcoholic? Yes, I liked my wine and those sweet frou-frou drinks, but I wasn’t out of control. My life wasn’t unmanageable. After all, I was a college graduate. I’d married a great guy, we’d started a family, bought a house, built a good life together. On the outside, things were good. But inside me? That was a much different story. I couldn’t shake the vague restlessness, the feeling that something was wrong with me. Keeping busy helped. Writing helped. Drinking helped, too…or so I thought. But somewhere, somehow, I’d moved on from fruity cocktails to vodka martinis. And then one day, I suddenly noticed that having a drink had become the most important thing in the world. More important than my family. More important than my writing. I was scared. Not scared enough to get sober...that took another few months. On January 7, 2004, I finally put the cork in the bottle and walked into the recovery rooms.

After I’d been in recovery a few months, some of my vague restlessness returned. I mentioned it at a meeting and got some great advice. “Turn to the things that made you happy as a child.” I didn’t have to look far. I’ve always loved books. And so, heeding the advice of some people much wiser and saner than me, I once again turned to books. Reading books and writing my own.

Writing keeps me out of trouble. It keeps my mind occupied and stops me from wandering down sidewalks where I don’t belong. And I continue attending recovery meetings. The people around those tables help me remember who I am, and what I’m capable of when left to my own selfish desires. For today, I choose not to drink, and I choose to pass along the message of recovery.

I believe each of us are given gifts. Some people are artists, providing us with inspiring artwork, beautiful music, engrossing stories. Others are educators, working with children, sharing their passion for learning. My husband Steve, a retired 41-year veteran of our local fire department, routinely placed himself in dangerous situations in the line of duty. Steve has the gift of courage. Running into a burning building? He didn't think twice. But that's the thing about a gift. The rest of the world views it as extraordinary but to you, it's just something you do...and you're able to do it because it is a gift. If everyone could do it, they would. But they can’t (or won’t). I certainly would never choose to put my life in danger fighting fires as my husband used to do. Meanwhile, he’s dyslexic. Asking him to write even a simple letter is pure torture. But not for me. The trick is being able to identify your gift, and then putting it to good use.

My Higher Power gave me a passion for writing. Some people like my books; others don’t. But that’s okay. Writing keeps me focused. Each day I’m at my computer writing is another day that I’m not picking up. I’m using the gift I was given and trying to make my little corner of the world a little bit better than I found it.

So, let's get back to the part about me being in jail. I participate in a jail outreach program that brings the message of recovery to women inmates. I’m at our county jail probably 2-3 times each month for weekly recovery meetings. There were four of us last night: me and three women in orange jumpsuits and plastic orange shoes. They’re in jail for various reasons: DUIs, probation violations, drug related crimes. Having heard their stories, and without breaking their anonymity, let me just say this: none of those women are really that much different than you or me.

There but for the grace of God.

The other night, while I was in jail, a woman inmate said:

When I landed in jail, the first thing they did was put me in solitary. The first couple hours were rough. I cried a lot. And then the library cart went by. I found your book. Fatty Patty!

I picked it up…I read it straight through. Thank you for writing that book. I loved it. It kept my mind off things and kept me company while I was locked up in solitary.

All I did was write a book. But hearing that woman in jail share how much pleasure she took from reading my book, and how much it helped get her through a horrible day? For once in my life, I have no words…

My name is Kathleen and I’m an alcoholic. For today, I’m sober, I’m happy, and I have a new book coming out on Oct. 24. Writing Don’t Open The Door kept me occupied for nearly three years, and I’m excited to share it with you. Thanks for reading. Thanks for being part of my life, and for allowing me to be a part of yours.

Together, we get better.

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