The Scram anklet place in Kansas City is about half an hour outside of town, on I-70 headed east towards St. Louis. It was in a weird little strip center, though this one was just off an exit in one of those scrubby sad pop-up towns that live next to highways—not far from a Golden Corral Buffet and Grill the girls used to like to eat at on weekends—and the office itself was newly built and reasonably fresh and clean. Another guy was in there when I went in to get my anklet, a young guy in a jean jacket with handsomely dirty hair, and he explained to me the secret tricks for fooling the anklet, like putting lunch meat beneath it and “accidentally” short-circuiting it with water before going out on the town, none of which I tried and none of which, according to the internet, actually work.
I was in this bleak location because my soon-to-be-ex-wife did not trust me to stay sober around our children. She was worried that I’d get drunk and drive them in my car, which had been a real risk not very many months before. I tried several techniques to convince her she could trust me not to drink around them, including rehab, therapy, psychiatry, and supervised visitation. The truth is I wasn’t drinking anymore. In the end none of those were convincing enough, she wanted hard proof, so that’s why I turned to the Scram anklet.
When it was my turn to go in back the woman in charge of the anklets attached it above my ankle bone with her magic wrench and then introduced me to the owner, who sat behind a desk in a separate office. I signed her various forms and made the contact list—call me, call my ex—and got the standard lecture, which Brenda Ullmer had also given me, about how unusual it was to be doing this voluntarily rather than under the order of a judge.
“But I have a judge,” I told the woman sitting at the desk who was looking at me with the usual mildly amused cynicism of the people who work in these industries. “My ex-wife. The mother of my children.”
“Lucky her,” she said sarcastically, and I thought: good point.
A Scram anklet is not convenient or dignified. I set up a monitoring station at home, and they tested me every half hour or so. I am a philosophy professor, and my students saw it buzzing under my pant leg while I lectured and during my office hours. My children heard it buzzing and wanted to see it, and were a little frightened and disoriented. My colleagues at school heard about it and noticed it buzzing, in meetings, talking outside the conference room, and they gave me those sideways looks. One time I tried to get on an airplane with it and the security took me aside and gave me to the cops, who held me for about an hour before they believed that I wasn’t trying to break my parole (I wasn’t on parole) or flee the law as a fugitive (I hadn’t broken the law). But, it works, and there’s a certain consolation in knowing that people all over the country are wearing them for their many various reasons—parolees and early releases, drug offenders and drunks, white collar criminals on house arrest awaiting a trial, people like me just proving that they’re behaving—and, after all, it doesn’t last forever.
The first thing I’d tried, before the Scram anklet, was urine testing. After doing some research online, I’d concluded that urine testing was the least disruptive way to prove to my ex that I wasn’t drinking. While humiliating, there is nothing particularly cumbersome about the process of being urine tested: in fact, it’s the easiest way to demonstrate your sobriety to a suspicious audience. If there is anyone out there reading this who is in the situation I was at that time—staying sober and needing to prove it—trust me, go with scheduling your own regular urine tests. Every other option—blowing into a breathalyzer, random screening alcohol or drug tests, rehab followed by close supervision and mandatory meeting attendance, wearing a scram anklet, supervised visitation with your children–is worse.
But when it’s a question of missing weekends with your children or making the time and finding the money to get your pee tested, you reassess your priorities.
Online I found the closest, cheapest urinalysis place I could. It was about a fifteen-minute drive, over to the Kansas side (I live in Missouri), to a nondescript, discouraged looking little place in a strip mall, next to a discount store and some empty storefronts. When I parked my car I thought, Well, this is who you are now. The guy who parks at the back so he won’t be seen and sidles into a dingy carpeted office in a rednecky part of town to pee in a cup.
Inside they were expecting me. It smelled strange, like cats were kept somewhere in back, but otherwise it was a desk, a couple of phones and a computer, some plastic chairs for waiting, boxes of unopened supplies, mailers they used to send off the samples, and the bathroom in back where you peed.
One woman, a middle-aged straw-skinny Kansan with curly brown hair and an expensive looking sweater worked there alone. I completed the paperwork.
“So we notify you, and your ex-wife? And we notify both of you for whatever we find?”
“No, just for alcohol. Is there a way she can call you for results?”
“We call her. If she’s on this list, we call. There’s no PO? No court officer? No one at your work?”
“No, just my ex. I told you. It’s a custody thing. PO?”
“Parole officer. There’s normally several people we call. It’s the same price no matter how many reports you have. As a courtesy we call you first. You know, so you don’t get a nasty surprise. But we have to call everybody in the list.”
She came in back to watch me pee. It was like that. You unzipped your fly, pulled out your penis, put the tip in the wax paper cup, urinated, in front of her.
“I don’t enjoy this part,” she told me, while I urinated. I was trying to hold her gaze while also controlling my pee so I didn’t overflow onto myself. “But this is my livelihood, and it’s all on me. I’m legally responsible for the accuracy of these tests. They use these results in court.”
Two days later, the call came from Quest. I answered eagerly, knowing I was clean.
“Mr. Martin, I’m afraid you’ve failed your test.”
“That’s impossible. I haven’t taken a drink…I haven’t had a drink in weeks.”
“Let me see here. Yes. You tested positive for benzodiazepines.” Her tone was stern and self-congratulatory. I explained that I was taking Valium as part of my recovery process, reminded her that I’d listed valium on the form I filled out before signing the consent, encouraged her to call my psychiatrist, and so on. She explained that she was going to call my ex and let her know that I’d failed the test. It worked out in the end: after I begged and pleased, she agreed to give my ex the details of why I’d failed (“not because of booze”).
Here’s something I had to accept: no one was taking me at my word anymore. Even when I was in the right, everything had to be explained and reexplained. Until the testing process was done, and for some time after, I was just going to be the bad guy who told lies so that he could sneakily get hammered.
Next, there was the Soberlink Sobrietor. How does life with a Sobrietor work? Here’s an example. It was New Year’s Eve. I had the girls for the holiday. My cellphone started buzzing early and would buzz often for the next 48 hours. As one would guess, Soberlink stays busy on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.
“SOBERLINK REMINDER TEXT: You may send your 7:00 am test now. Do not reply to this text.” The device is a black plastic box about the size of an average paperback book. There is a small blue LED light that flashes when it is time to take the test. You put a plastic tube, half the length of a straw, in one end and blow into it for four seconds, staring into a beady little round electronic eye above the tube. The device makes an audible CLICK, takes a picture of your face and sends the report of your alcohol-free breath to the monitor. About sixty seconds later, you get another text on your phone. “Compliant Report Successfully Sent.”
I carried it around with me for fifteen months. A sobrietor won’t fit in your pants pocket so I often carried a backpack with my laptop in it as well, and if necessary in cold weather I could put it in the pocket of a jacket. I had an extra charger for it in my car. I blew into that tube and had my breath tested on the walk out to the hot tub at the Four Seasons in St. Louis, on a birthday trip for one of my daughters; from Worlds of Fun amusement park, and both of the Kansas City waterparks, Oceans of Fun and Schlitterbahn; from the bathrooms in gas stations, and in the drive-through waiting lines at Jimmy John’s, Chik-Fil-A, and McDonald’s; in Missouri, in Texas, in Kansas, on the highway driving to Iowa City; in the bathrooms and outside the theater at AMC Ward Parkway, and Cinemark on the Plaza, and several other movie theaters in Kansas City, Missouri, where we live; I’ve sent them from roller rinks, bowling alleys, community pools, Deanna Rose Children’s Farmstead; from the zoo, public parks, Home Depot, Target, Costco, restaurants and ice cream parlors; I’ve even sent them sitting on the too-short toilet in a stall in the boy’s room at Academie Lafayette, my daughters’ elementary school. I’ve SoberLinked many more pictures of myself than I’ve selfied, Instagrammed or Facebooked. Normally, of course, I was sitting in a men’s room stall, counting the seconds, hoping it didn’t take too long, feeling dirty, like a criminal. Sometimes I’d have a bad signal and I’d have to try again in a different stall or standing looking into a corner, hoping no one would pay attention.
People mostly looked away when I sober-tested. If I had to do it in the car with the girls I’d tell them what I was doing and they would look out the window the way children do when a kissing scene comes on in a movie you’re all watching together. We used to have a joke about those scenes: if I could see a kissing scene was coming up, I’d tell them, “Cover your noses during this part,” and we’d all put a hand on our faces like we were sneezing. Now when I ask them about the time I was still a drunk, or our time with supervised visitation, or about the Soberlink, they act as though they were covering their noses that whole time, for 15 whole months, but it was worth it.