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.

16 comments for “Passenger

  1. Wow, very nice that you were still able to give. Well written story. Praying for the best outcome for Ben.

  2. I know this is a selfish request, but I think it’s time for you to write another book, to share these beautifully raw words with all who will hear.

  3. “Eventually, reality rips off everyone’s blinders.”

    But as you illustrate here, what reality can help us see if we will let it can be something beautiful, in spite of the heartwrenching pain.

    You have a gift for finding and sharing such beauty with your writing. Thank you for sharing that gift today.

    I’m sorry for what your family is going through.

  4. sigh. My sister left her daughter there today, too. Fortunately, she did have someone to take her home, but many of us are still squinting against the new reality now that the blinders are off. My heart is with you all.

  5. Thank you all for these comments. I prolly should’ve noted that this incident took place a year ago this week. Ben’s situation has stabilized and his treatment continues. (Perhaps your caring hopes and prayers had a retroactive effect!) I appreciate your kindness in any case.

    FYI, I wrote about this incident in an essay just published by Irreantum. My copy of the printed issue arrived in the mail on the very anniversary of Ben’s crisis. The uncanny timing intensified my thoughts about last year and (among other things) led me to wonder how my passenger is faring.

    Idahospud, sending love and hope your way.

  6. So sad……I relate to your experience about loving the woman at that moment. I think that happens a lot to a lot of people, but we don’t recognize it.

    I remember when my mom was trying to stop drinking, getting her all dressed up and fixing her hair and making her apply for a job. I watched her walk out, thinking, if anybody hurts her, I’ll kill them. And my mom drove me nuts, I felt like strangling her myself all the time. It was a moment.

  7. Beautiful! Mental health issues are still so stigmatized in our society, and I’m sure all of us are always hoping that cup will pass from us and our families. Still there’s a real grace that attends us when we realize it won’t and hasn’t, and when we recognize our kinship with everyone in whatever station of life who’s ever struggled with it. Your writing makes that sense of grace come alive again for me. Thanks for this!

    Once after riding the ambulance to the ER with a family member, and watching as they were rolled up to the psych ward self-injured and restrained by cuffs on arms, and legs, I realized it was 3 am and I had no way home. After calling several cabs which didn’t come, I decided I’d have to walk. The full moon blurred by tears and fatigue guided me, and by prayer and grace I was able to transcend my various physical disabilities and keep walking until I made it home just as the sky was starting to get light. I wish you’d been there to give me a lift that night! God, obviously not having you handy, sent me that full moon instead, and enough strength to keep going.

    I hope your son is doing well. I’ll remember him in my prayers.

  8. My most recent NAMI newsletter tells me that one in five Americans will have a bout with mental illness — some more severe than others. So glad your son is stable, and that your heart had room for your passenger.

  9. “Eventually reality rips off everyone’s blinders”

    So well said. Thank you for sharing this.

  10. I have been struggling with anxiety and depression a lot recently. How I could identify with this. So glad you could be of service to this lady. Hope Ben is doing well. Godspeed to you and your family and the lady you helped.

  11. It is amazing what happens in those unexpected moments, when your guard is down, you’ve been turned inside out, adjusting to the new person that the other worldly situation has made you. The ‘it will never happen to me’ becomes reality and we’re forced to find a new way. These are the times that you really find what you are. This situation shows who you are Kathryn – a sensitive servant.

    On a completely different note; how do you determine the privacy lines of your family? What personal issues are fodder for publication? I’m fine writing about my own issues, but when it comes to my children I’m very sensitive about who could find out about their issues through my writing and use it against them. But then those issues are a huge part of my life, leaving them out is like leaving out integral characters. Have you ever regretted publishing intimate family details?

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