The following remarks were prepared to be delivered on Tuesday, November 2, 2021 at the National Press Club for the launch of Wrong Side of the Road, a new national anti-driving impaired initiative from Responsibility.org.
Thank you to each of the honorable speakers, Responsibility.org, UNITAR, and Diageo North America. It’s a privilege to be here and share a part of my journey and how impaired driving significantly impacted my life.
The link to my being here today and part of this initiative goes back exactly 10 years. Lee Axdahl, Brandy being Lee’s better half, invited me to share my experience on South Dakota’s 24/7 Sobriety Program during a transportation safety task force meeting. That was Nov. 2, 2011. How will my path’s cross with the Axdain 2031???
By 2011, I was about 6 years into an enormous life transformation.
Prior to 2005, I was a professional radio broadcaster and journalist. During my nearly decade long career in broadcasting, I was deeply addicted to alcohol and drugs but highly functional in my profession … of course, until I wasn’t.
I struggled mightily with depression and anxiety, but thought radio was my purpose. So, I woke up every single day, did my job interacting with newsmakers and 1000s of others, but lived a miserable and isolated life.
Large portions of my energy every day was planning how, when, and where I was going to drink. Usually, that meant spending most nights in my car, driving around town or around the rural eastern North Dakota country roads.
My car was my refuge. It’s where I faced all my fears, my anger, my pain, and my shame.
But my car was also where I put a lot of people in danger. Driving impaired was what I did. Despite blacking out and ending up in unknown towns and places, in corn fields, getting 5 DUIs, slamming headfirst into an unoccupied parked car, and nearly drowning – the event described in Wrong Side of the Road – I kept driving impaired.
Why? A few reasons.
I didn’t get caught much. And when I did, the penalties were not at all severe.
There was never any direct personal shame. I had plenty of shame from the stigma of my addiction, but the culture of alcohol use insolated me and others. No one in my circle was willing to intervene because it would mean holding a mirror up to their own impaired driving.
And, my decision-making ability eroded over time. But frankly, even the full onset of addiction left room for clarity and reflection. Sadly, my better angels were outnumbered.
By 2005, I lost everything. In a courtroom in Winner, SD I was sentenced to a felony DUI. Judge Kathleen Trandahl weighed public safety with public health and my own potential. She had a new tool at the time, twice daily breathalyzers. She said that if she could just keep me sober long enough, I’d find my path, my purpose.
I sat in her jail for 5 months. Lived in a sober home for 6 months. Did twice daily breathalyzers for 947 days.
I decided to go back to school and get a journalism degree at the University of South Dakota. That path was altered after taking Constitutional Law from a former public defense attorney. Sandy McKeown demanded I join her mock trial team. When she learned my story, she insisted I was wasting my life going back to journalism – no offense National Press Club. I had to become a lawyer.
I got into law school, earned a joint law degree and masters, and passed the bar exam. After a year of proving my good moral character to the SD State Bar and State Supreme Court, I was conditionally admitted.
In 2013, I got to return to the same courtroom where I was last sentenced, and Judge Trandahl administered the Oath of Attorney.
As powerful and personally rewarding as my story is, I know that most of my actions and driving impaired were entirely preventable. The pain, destruction of personal and professional relationships, and continued consequences are all avoidable.
Today, I work in technology, behavioral design, and addiction. Wrong Side of the Road is the most unique and imaginative approach to behavior change and decision-making for impaired driving.
I am proud to be part of this initiative and grateful to share my story alongside Thomas and Jesse, in hopes that others see themselves and make better choices.
Thanks again to Responsibility.org, UNITAR, and Diageo North America for your collective commitment to reducing DUI crashes and deaths.
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