This is an excerpt from my latest book Dear Hannah: 70 Methods I Used and Abused to Change Who I Am.

My First Time with a Breathalyzer

Date: October 2, 2006
Age: 24
Location: Austin, TX
Subject: The Breathalyzer

Hi Hannah. I envy your creative output. Here you are, kicking butt at Google, shopping your novel, working out, while all I can think about is staying out of trouble. Maybe it’s because I don’t know anybody, or maybe it’s just the culture here, but I’ve become a raging alcoholic all of a sudden. I say that in jest, but it’s actually kind of scary, when you consider how close I am to getting a DWI.

Nearly every Saturday plays out the same way: I wake up weighed down not only by a hangover but also with regret about my driving. The other night, for example, I somehow got the funny idea to brake at the very last second before each stoplight. The process jolts your car to a stop, and if a cop had seen me, he would’ve definitely pulled me over. Another night, I decided that I would just hold onto the parking brake instead of using the foot brake. Again, this led to some shady driving that would have certainly landed me in jail had someone noticed.

So, I bought a breathalyzer on eBay for $40, put it in the glove compartment of my Scion tC, and promised myself I wouldn’t drive if I was over 0.08. At first, I was very proud of this and couldn’t stop talking about it. I would show my breathalyzer to co-workers from Aspyr, and everybody would yank it from me and blow on it, only to be shocked by just how over-the-limit they were.

But my promise to obey the breathalyzer only held up for two weeks. Initially, whenever I tested my breath, and saw that I was around 0.15 or something, I’d calmly put the breathalyzer back in the glove compartment. Back then, I had enough wits to step out of my car and go for a walk or read The New Yorker to pass the time. For those two weeks, I never woke up stewing in regret about my driving.

Until this one night at Slick Willies, a pool hall about a mile from my apartment. It was a Monday night, when they have free pool, and I joined my roommate and some of his friends for drinks. The night started out easy-going, with a few vodka Red Bulls here and there, when some of my roommate’s lady-friends joined us. When midnight rolled around, I found myself buying shots of whiskey for everyone. Pretty soon it was last call, and one-by-one everybody peeled away. Someone had to get up early for work; another had to get her daughter to school on time.

Finally, I was the last to leave, and it was just me walking to my car alone. I opened the glove compartment and pulled out the breathalyzer. I pressed the button and held it unsteadily in my hand, waiting for it to calibrate. Finally, it beeped that it was ready, and I blew into it. Within three seconds it beeped back, but it was a lengthy beep, longer than I had heard before. When I looked at the screen, it was a little blurry because of the moisture from my breath. When I wiped it clean, it showed 0.30, over three times the legal limit. I looked at the screen for about five seconds, slightly rocking back and forth, processing what I was seeing. I then considered my options: “I could sober up, but that would take me hours. I could walk home, but I don’t want to leave my car in this shady parking lot.” So I said, “Fuck it,” threw the breathalyzer back in the glove compartment, and drove home.

I made it home all right, but I made a ton of driving mistakes in that one-minute drive. I didn’t signal. I strayed from my lanes. I drove unreasonably slowly. I almost didn’t yield on a left turn. And my parking was completely messed up. I’m really, really thankful I didn’t get pulled over, but the thought that I could’ve still sends shivers up my spine.

I guess when you’re that drunk, not even a breathalyzer can convince you to stay put. So I resolved from then on to never get so drunk that I wouldn’t respect a blood-alcohol reading like that again. So now its two rules: use the breathalyzer before driving and don’t get so drunk you can’t process the results.

- Phil

If you start measuring or pacing your drinks, your judgment will start to decline, and you’ll lose track. The best prevention methods happen before you start drinking, not after, whether it’s securing alternative transportation (biking, taxi, car pool) or choosing abstinence. The breathalyzer does help, though — at the very least it reminds you exactly what a BAC of 0.08 feels like. And I still have one in my glove compartment.

This is an excerpt from my latest book Dear Hannah: 70 Methods I Used and Abused to Change Who I Am.

Before Philip wrote his first line of code, he tried to re-program his mind. For his 14th birthday, Hannah gave him Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, which kicked off a life-long obsession with self-improvement. Follow Philip over 82 letters as he re-tells his journey from winning ThinkQuest, to quitting Stanford, to dealing with dating, happiness, and direction, to eventually making it as an indie iOS app developer. Dear Hannah is either a cautionary tale about self-improvement, or it is a filter for the 10% of self-help that may actually change your life.

PHILIP DHINGRA is a President’s Scholar from Stanford University, where he received his B.A. in Mathematical and Computational Sciences. In addition to authoring books on life change, he develops best-selling iOS apps including Nebulous Notes and The Creative Whack Pack (a collaboration with creativity pioneer Roger von Oech). Philip divides his time between Austin, Texas, and San Francisco, California.