Visiting hours ended at 8:30. I hugged my son goodbye and headed out of the adolescent unit, pausing at the locked exit for an attendant to buzz me through. Ben had been at the neuropsychiatric institute for nearly a week, following an acute mental health crisis. We visited him every day—either me or my husband or both of us. Tonight I was alone. Which meant that I was quiet as I took the elevator to the main floor and navigated the maze of hallways toward the main entrance—quiet enough to hear the crying woman before I could see her.
I turned a corner and there she was, standing by the payphones, covering her face with her hands. A uniformed security officer stood close by, talking to her in calm tones. I didn’t want to intrude, but there was only one way out of the building. Call someone to come pick you up, the officer was saying as I approached. There’s nobody I can call, the woman said as I walked past. The hopelessness in her voice made me stop and turn.
Do you need a ride somewhere? An audacious question, but I asked it anyway. I could drive her.
Embarrassed, she began to protest. I interrupted her with the bluntness that comes with exhaustion. I asked her where she lived until she finally told me. I told her I was going that direction. She resisted like a woman hanging on to her last shred of dignity. The security officer said it was time to lock down the building for the night. This nice lady wants to give you a ride, he said. It’s okay. Let her take you home.
She was about fifty years old, shorter than me, with frizzy housewife hair streaked grey. She chattered nervously on the way to the car, apologizing again and again for imposing on my kindness. She was still chattering as she climbed into the passenger seat. When I sat down on the driver’s side, I could smell the bitter sweetness of alcohol.
She began telling her story as we wound down the dark roads of Salt Lake City’s foothills. She was a single mother of two nearly grown sons, trying to keep her household afloat. Last week she’d started a voluntary substance abuse rehab program. Every evening she came in for a breathalyzer test; tonight was the first time she’d failed.
I had a drink earlier. Around noon, she admitted. She told me about the fight she’d had that morning with her oldest son. Afraid and overwhelmed by his violent behavior, she had escaped to a nearby bar. One drink. It was hours before her appointment at the institute, and later she drove herself there feeling perfectly sober. But after the test results, the program staff on duty wouldn’t let her drive home. I don’t understand how this happened, she kept saying. I don’t understand.
I didn’t understand, either. I didn’t understand why I’d ended up at the teen psych unit, bringing my son McDonald’s milkshakes before he swallowed his tranquilizers at lights out. I didn’t understand how I’d failed to see Ben’s collapse coming. I didn’t understand what it meant, or what might happen once he left the safety net of the hospital.
Without sharing details, I told the woman she was in good company. Our lives were different, I said. But also the same. Eventually, reality rips off everyone’s blinders.
Once we got off the freeway, the woman directed me along the route to her house. As we pulled onto her street, she told me how stupid she felt about the events of the day, how humiliated she was after the breathalyzer test, how determined she was to never make that mistake again. She’d learned her lesson, she said, and she would reconcile with her son the very next day. She would make peace in her house.
We turned a corner and there it was, a small clapboard bungalow, set back a ways from the gravel shoulder of the thoroughfare. She thanked me again. I wished her well. Then I watched her walk up the driveway and unlock her front door, suddenly loving her in a way I couldn’t express or explain.
Once she disappeared inside, I drove off toward my own neighborhood, into the coming week when Ben would be released. Wondering what would come next. Knowing I couldn’t make myself any promises. Hoping that, if I failed the test, someone would be there to drive me home.