A while ago my 5-year-old was telling a long and rambling story about bad guys and police officers and his musings led him to the subject of jail. "I wonder what jail is even like," he said. "Do you know, Mom?'
I told him it wasn't very nice in jail. I said it was a punishment for breaking the law. I said people in jail couldn't come and go as they pleased, and they didn't get to see their families very often, and we got to talking about yucky jail food and I think the subject eventually changed to dinosaurs and whether or not a T-Rex could hold a lightsaber (verdict: only if it was a very small lightsaber, due to T-Rex's wimpy arms).
The thing is, I could have given a different answer altogether. I could have said, yeah, I know what jail is like, because I spent the night there once.
I could tell him about a terrible night that happened over six years ago, when I was in the midst of an alcohol-related tailspin and seemingly determined to crash and burn. I could describe what it was like to see the flashing blue and red lights, how it felt to be handcuffed and pushed into the back of a police car. The hard, unforgiving plastic surfaces, the ache of the metal cuffs behind my back. The reek and chaos of a city drunk tank, my fingertips blackened with ink stains. The moment when I simply started howling in agony and self-hatred and was thrown in a cell, my shoes taken away from me.
My husband's face when he came to pick me up.
I could describe the seemingly endless repercussions from that night. The lawyer, the court dates, the fines, the classes. The community service, the license suspension, the bus rides everywhere while my car gathered cobwebs. The interlock device that was eventually installed in my car for a year, me bent over and furtively blowing in a tube whenever the alarm sounded.
And, of course, I could describe the court-ordered 24 hours I spent in jail. What it felt like to wear a prison uniform—stretched over my pregnant belly, for by the time the legal consequences began fully unfolding, I had a baby on the way. The buzz of the fluorescent lights in my cell that never turned off, even in the middle of the night. The dirt and grime that seeped into my soul and has never fully washed clean since.
I could tell him about what it feels like to nearly lose everything to alcohol. I could tell him that as awful as the arrest was, it was one of the best case scenarios for how that night could have ended. I could tell him how sobriety gets easier, but never really gets easy. I could tell him how I hope to god my children don't grow up to battle the same demons I do.
Someday, we'll talk about these things. Someday when dinosaurs no longer meander through our conversations, and mothers turn out to be flawed and broken, like everything else.