Saturday night I made a mistake. I got far too close to the edge of an alcoholic relapse. I have only my pride and ego to blame. And now as I write in the quiet hours between midnight and the break of Sunday, I am willing to trade sleep for the chance to record my brush with drinking disaster so I will never forget how close I came.
Nothing is as important to my sobriety as remembering the painful lessons of the past – failures and near misses alike.
Heinrich is a dear friend to my wife, Sheri, and me. He lost his wife to suicide several years ago when she lost her long battle with mental illness. Heinrich is a loving father to two beautiful children in the same age range as our kids. Our families attend the same church, and we get together for dinner with Heinrich’s family and some other friends a few times a year.
Despite the tragedy Heinrich and his kids have endured, they are as strong and stoic as his German name suggests. Still, Sheri and I can’t help but feel sadness for all three of them. We love them, and we would do anything we could to help them have a joyful life. We have asked Heinrich many times if we can help with the kids or in any other way. He is strong. He is a very good father. He rarely takes us up on the offer. It is important to us to try to help, selfishly, so we can feel like we are doing our part.
So when Heinrich invited us to an authentic German Oktoberfest at an authentic German restaurant to celebrate his birthday, we accepted the invitation with enthusiasm. An authentic German Oktoberfest is probably the last place a sober alcoholic whose drink of choice was strong, flavorful beer in large quantities – like me – should ever be.
I didn’t think I’d ever drink alcohol again. I couldn’t be sure, but my resolve was strong. Just when I was feeling confident about my sobriety, a day like this happened.
As I awoke from my very brief slumber alone on my neighbors’ front porch swing, the party raged on in the house behind me. What happened? Did I pass out? Only minutes earlier I was engaged in conversation with the smokers in attendance who were indulging their habit outside. I was indulging my habit, too. I was probably five or six beers into the evening when I ventured outside to join their conversation. Sometime while trading stories and laughing effortlessly as drinkers do while drinking, I passed out mid-conversation. It seemed the long work week and soothing motion of the swing combined with the alcohol to lull me to sleep. Now awake, I slithered back across the street to my house and joined my family who had left the party and gone to bed in the previous couple of hours.
I was not drunk. I was not slurring my words and I had not said anything rude or insulting. I had not gotten sick or danced on a table or spilled food or drink on the carpet – nothing like that. Nevertheless, I was embarrassed about my undignified nap.
Comfort. Comfort is necessary. Comfort is release. We seek comfort constantly – whether we are aware of it or not. Our brains are wired to equate comfort to survival, so it is the first order of priority for our subconscious, and often our conscious minds, too.
Meatloaf and mashed potatoes. A cozy sweater on a cool day. Sex. A cup of hot tea. Football in the fall. Our favorite music. Cigarettes. Social media “likes”. Sleep medication. Anxiety medication. Antidepressants. They all serve the same purpose. Above all, they bring us comfort.
As an active alcoholic, I would feel a tingling sensation at the anticipation of my first cold and bitter India pale ale. Just the knowledge that I would drink in a few hours would give me tremendous comfort as I negotiated the challenges of the day. From the first sip through about the middle of the third beer, it was as if comfort was displacing the anxiety and disappointment of the day, like pouring water into a bottle pushing out all the air. They could not coexist, and I was hardwired to know the beer would win the battle for my emotions. I didn’t drink because I wanted to. I drank for survival. For comfort.
Independence is a myth. The question is, what do we choose to depend on?
For 25 years, I grew increasingly dependent on my beloved drink. The physical dependence was frankly not that strong or hard to reverse. The psychological dependence, however, had a seemingly unbreakable hold on my thoughts and patterns. Never was this hold stronger than on the holidays – especially warm and sunny summer holidays like the one that falls annually on the fourth day of July.
I was under the influence of alcohol during the birth of each of our four children. I wasn’t drunk on any of these occasions, but I had enough to drink to prevent me from being fully engaged – fully there for my wife, Sheri. It is one of the greatest regrets of my life. I wasn’t the father my children deserved on the days they were born. How ironic it is that their being there for me is one of the most significant reasons I am permanently sober today.
As our children grew, alcohol continued to have a subtle yet profound impact on their lives. I never forgot to pick any of them up after school or after practice, and I attended all of the games and plays and other events of their lives. This fact – my perfect attendance – hid from my view what is now painfully obvious. Alcohol was taking a toll on my family even if I couldn’t see it.
The day we brought our newborn daughter, Cathryn, home from the hospital, I sat on our back porch and held her in one arm leaving my other hand free to hoist my vodka tonic. I had no idea at the time that these two precious loves would eventually be unable to coexist. I would have to choose, and it would be the hardest, and yet most rewarding, thing I would ever do.
I had alcohol in my system during the births of all four of my children, and the shame from that fact lingers to this day. I don’t think the nurses or doctors knew. I don’t even think my wife, Sheri, realizes I was four for four carrying a buzz into the delivery room. But I know. I will never forget.
Grief. Mourning. Dealing with a profound and significant loss. Processing all the feelings that accompanied the death of the love of my life was the single most critical necessity to my permanent sobriety.
I am often asked by devastated and hopeless readers who suffer in the pit of alcoholic despair how I quit drinking. The how is very complicated, but this is the most imperative piece of the answer.
My life is infinitely better now in permanent sobriety, but still, sometimes I fantasize about drinking again. If I could choose one drink in one setting and enjoy it without consequences, what would I drink and where would I drink it? My fantasy does not involve an elegant party with fluted champagne glasses or a day on the beach with umbrella drinks and pineapple wedges or a ballgame with the guys and round after round of beers. It does not contain sex or sports or dancing or telling jokes. My fantasy does not even include my drink of choice to the bitter end, India pale ale.
The sun is creeping slowly down to the horizon on a typical clear and dry Denver evening. On the secluded patio at the back of one of the restaurants on South Gaylord Street, the mood is festive as we are gathered for a business cocktails and appetizers event. There are several familiar faces, but many people are new to me which makes the purpose of the gathering – a meet and greet for our new team members – so very appropriate.
Everyone in attendance seems adept at balancing a plate of hors devours along with their beverage of choice and still managing to shake hands as we mingle. The women are mostly drinking wine while the men have various pint and pilsner glasses in their hands. I notice a margarita to my left and a clear cocktail garnished with fruit across the way. The setting sun highlights the condensation drips weaving slowly down the sides of the beautiful and shapely glasses. Classy. Elegant. The essence of adulthood.