This editorial gets to the real problem–the elephant in the room–Wisconsin’s alcohol culture.
Explaining heavy drinking as a cultural tradition can’t explain away the toll taken on society and those around the drinker.
In fact, saying it is a “cultural tradition” excuses abusive alcohol use and perpetuates the notion that it is okay to drink to excess. The editorial aptly points out that Wisconsin’s alcohol abuse is more ingrained than the criminal justice system can reach. Fines and jail/prison time are not treatment. At some point, it really is about addiction.
Just ask the 7th OWI offender who joined the small meeting I was attending on Friday, November 19th. Ask her how on earth she got to seven offenses? Weren’t the penalties harsh enough? What about prison? She had already served prison time on her 5th and 6th offenses. What didn’t she get?
It is not so much what she didn’t get but what everyone else continues to not get: it’s about the alcohol, stupid! And she confirmed that continued use of alcohol was just so acceptable, so easy, so “ingrained” as a part of living in rural Wisconsin. It also had become, understandably, a coping mechanism. That is what happens with the disease of alcoholism. More people in the legislature should understand that instead of demonizing every person who has the audacity to get a felony OWI, as if that is what that person really wants.
What do you think a 7th OWI offender looks like? I confess, I have stereotypes of what “that” person must be like and look like, certainly not like “us”. I feel terrible just writing that, but I know that my first impulse is to think that way. I should know better. My mother was a recovering alcoholic–but she wasn’t a repeat OWI offender. That person has been so demonized. That person makes headlines. That is the person the legislature is always getting “tough” on because heaven forbid the legislature actually focus on alcohol abuse.
The 7th offender who sat down with us on Friday is an attractive young woman. When I say “young,” I mean younger than I am so in her late 30s or early 40s? But I am guessing and I didn’t want to ask. She has reddish hair, about shoulder length, with highlights in the bangs. She is well groomed, wearing a turtleneck sweater with a Harley Davidson insignia on the front. She rode to the meeting with a woman who works in the AODA arena in the same county. She cannot legally drive and does not drive. She is looking for a job in a small community and finding a bias against hiring felons. She wants to move out of her mother’s one-bedroom trailer, but without a job, it will be hard to do. She has three children. She has been in a series of relationships. Her last relationship ended when she found out the man who she was engaged to had been cheating on her. Then she went to prison for her 7th offense.
She said she is grateful for her 7th offense because it got her into a treatment program that worked. She is grateful for her 7th OWI offense. Why did it take this long for her to get the treatment she needed? Some of it, she admits, was that she wasn’t quite ready before; but some of it was also that the quality of treatment wasn’t there until she got into the earned release program. Should it really take a 7th OWI conviction for someone to get the help she needs? At some point, it is about addiction.
She shared with us that two months before she graduated from the earned release program, her son committed suicide, leaving behind a child of his own. And then I ask myself, “How much can one person take?” The son must have had mental health issues that weren’t being addressed. Why wasn’t he able to get help? I wanted to ask more about the situation with her son; but I didn’t feel it was appropriate. She spoke at this point through tears. She said that in the past, she would have probably started drinking again to cope. But this time, she didn’t. She remained in the program. She graduated. She told us that if she could go through that sober, she could go through just about anything. But she is frustrated. There is one AA meeting a week in the town where she lives. One of the adages of AA is 90 meetings in 90 days. A person needs support to maintain sobriety. If she wants to go to an AA meeting in another town, she must rely upon a ride from someone else. She wants to spend time with her thirteen-year-old son who is living with his father. Her mother’s trailer isn’t big enough. She wants to get a job, a place to live, and her driver license when she is eligible to reinstate.
More people need to hear what this 7th OWI offender has to say. She is one of us. She deserves to be given every opportunity to better herself now that she has taken that giant leap of sobriety, which is no easy task in an alcohol saturated state like Wisconsin.