I Just Bought My Dream Car

It’s old and it’s used, but that doesn’t matter.

Photo: Spanish Coches/Flickr

I sat at the desk, signing all the paperwork, but it hadn’t really hit me yet. I didn’t feel any of the things I thought I would — no butterflies, no excitement, no nothing. It was sort of like an out-of-body experience, one in which I was watching someone else sign all the paperwork required for them to buy their very first car. But really, it was me.

When I was 16, my parents gave me my mother’s old Toyota 4 Runner, which I promptly totaled three days later. They replaced it with a new Toyota Solara, because I was spoiled, which I drove until I went to college in Boston, where I wouldn’t need a car. When I moved back home for grad school, I drove my father’s old Volvo before receiving a red Volkswagen Jetta as a graduation-slash-25th-birthday gift.

The Jetta was meant to be a congratulations for getting my master’s degree, but it was more than that, too. It was supposed to be motivation. My parents thought that if I loved my car enough, I would stop driving it drunk. At 25 years old, I was already an active alcoholic who had narrowly escaped a DUI.

I was pulled over less than a mile from my parents’ house. I remembered leaving the bar, and then blue lights behind me. “Do you know why we stopped you, miss?” the police officer asked me. My window was down and there was a flashlight in my face.

It was 4:30 in the morning. I have no idea what I said to the cop. He told me I was driving with no headlights on, straddling lanes. Based on my location, I must have driven that way for at least nine miles. He asked for my license and registration, which I was somehow able to find.

“I’m going to need you to step out of the car,” he said. He pulled open the door and I fell out of the driver’s side, physically unable to stand up. I used the car itself to keep me upright, my silver stiletto booties sinking into the grass under my feet.

“Miss, we’re going to have to search the car.”

I looked down and my navy blue, A-line skirt with the pockets I loved so much was wrinkled. It was in that moment that I realized while I may have left my house that evening looking like hot shit, I was now very much a hot mess. The officer asked where I lived. I told him it was less than a mile down the road; I almost made it home. During the search of my car, the police officer saw textbooks in my trunk. Counseling Theories and Practice, Abnormal Psychology, Family Therapy: Concepts and Methods. He asked what I was studying.

“I’m in a Master’s program,” I told him. “I’m getting a degree in mental health counseling.” What felt like an eternity passed. “I don’t want to destroy your future,” the cop said to me. “Call your parents to come pick you up.”

I went on like nothing had happened, feeling invincible. I put the almost-DUI out of my mind.

Shortly thereafter I got my new car. I’d made promises to stop driving drunk, which meant leaving my car at the bar and going home with someone else who was driving drunk. Sometimes it meant having another drunk person follow me home to make sure I got there okay. And sometimes, it meant telling myself I wasn’t really drunk and getting behind the wheel anyway. It all seemed perfectly logical at the time.

The drunk driving wasn’t the only side effect of my alcoholism. The disease also came with an inability to manage my money or live within my means. I opened credit cards I couldn’t afford and maxed them all out within weeks, then stopped opening my mail once the bills began arriving. I began going to the hospital with mild alcohol poisoning — “hangovers” — and racked up medical bills I couldn’t pay. I changed my number to dodge creditors as I sunk deeper and deeper into debt.

The drinking allowed me to forget about the mounting piles of bills, the man who had showed up to my parents’ house to arrest me for not paying. It allowed me to live in denial, in the booze-soaked present where the only thing that mattered was the ability to have one more drink, just one more drink, always just one more drink. I drank in dive bars where I was a regular, my own personal version of Cheers, where everyone knew my name and also let me drink on credit. My alcohol became just one more thing I swore I’d pay for later.

Then I got sober. When I emerged from the fog and began to pick up the pieces of my life, one of the things I finally had to face was my debt. Aside from the fact that beginning to pay it off was the right thing to do, my terrible credit score stood in my way wherever I turned. I couldn’t open a credit card. I couldn’t get an auto loan. I couldn’t apply for loans that would allow me to make necessary safety upgrades to my home. My hands were tied by the mistakes I’d made while drinking.

I began the painstaking process of paying off my medical bills, sometimes in $5 and $10 increments. I called collections agencies and made settlement agreements. And slowly, my debt shrunk. After four years, I’d paid most of it off. But my credit score didn’t recover, ever the reminder of the mess I’d made of my life while I’d been in active addiction. After posting on Facebook about the reality I was navigating, a friend reached out to me.

She helped domestic violence victims repair their credit after leaving abusive relationships, and she wanted to help me repair mine, too. And so for over a year, we would sit down and look through my credit reports. We made calls. We sent letters. Sometimes, we just waited for things to expire. It was a lot of work. Little by slow, my credit score began to climb.

I was still driving that red Jetta around. It was falling apart, in very literal ways. The ceiling was stapled together; the air conditioning didn’t work. It was full of dents and dings and scrapes from years of city driving. But most significantly, it was no longer working for me. I was now a mom with two children, two kids whose car seats barely fit in the back of my four door sedan. The car that had seemed fast and cute and cool for a single twenty-something was a hindrance to a thirty-something mom.

The need for a new car grew each year, but whenever we crunched the numbers, we just couldn’t make it happen. Then came the day that my credit score wasn’t great, but it was good enough, maybe. And I decided to apply for an auto loan and just see what happened. Well, what happened was that I was approved. Me. All by myself. I was approved for a loan with a too-high interest rate, and I screamed and ran around my living room in celebration.

My husband and I walked into CarMax to look at a 2011 Toyota Rav4, brown. Practical, grownup, six years old. It was perfect for my family. It was perfect for me. I traded in my beat-up Jetta, one of the last vestiges from my drinking days, for $1,200. I walked out later that day with keys in my hand, my name on the title, my name on the financing. I had bought my very first car.

The car is nothing fancy. It’s not new. It’s not sleek. But it is absolutely everything I could have dreamed of: something I bought on my own, something I earned through my sobriety and the hard work of clearing the wreckage of my past. It’s so much more than just a car; it’s a symbol of just how far I’ve come in my life.

I climbed into the driver’s side of my new-to-me car, shut the door, and cried tears of joy .

Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer, baseball enthusiast, and recovered alcoholic living in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc.

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