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.
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.
Walking in the doors of the restaurant was like stepping off a plane in Munich. The female servers flaunted their cleavage in tight-fitting Dirndl dresses while the men tucked their thumbs under the suspender straps of their Lederhosen. The Bavarian pretzels served with Dijon mustard were warm, soft, perfectly salted and the size of Einstein’s head including his wild hair. Revelers danced without inhibitions while the plump and jolly members of the German oompah band played taking frequent momentary breaks for big, thirsty gulps of beer. There were frankfurters and pork bratwursts and spaatzle with red cabbage. The walls were adorned with German flags and signs reminding guests to return after Oktoberfest to watch all Deutsch football matches on big screen TVs.
And there was beer.
Men and women alike strained to lift their full one-liter steins of authentic Bavarian bier. To put that in perspective, the big bottles of soda sold in grocery stores contain two liters and provide ten servings. At just half that size, I watched many of my friends consume two or three steins over the course of the evening. Please don’t mistake my analysis of their consumption as disapproval. It is meant as pure, unadulterated jealousy. I wanted my own stein or three in the worst imaginable way.
To ensure the social lubrication of his guests, Heinrich ordered a round of Jagermeister shots for his 30 or so attendees. Watching them toast and slug-back the cold, black elixir was like watching my friends hit the lottery while I slowly cut off my own hand.
Most of my friends at the celebration could be classified as drinking buddies from years gone by. Many of them have seen me abstain at recent events, and they looked at me with disappointment, but not surprise, when I declined my Jager shot and drank soda water with a lime. At this event, however, the opinions of my friends were not a concern. I have toiled and stressed and found a way to abstain in the company of drinkers without feeling shame for being the only person in the room suffering from the disease of alcoholism. That wasn’t the issue.
Everything about the Oktoberfest celebration made my senses tingle and my mouth water with anticipation. As a drinker, a trip to Munich in late September was on my bucket list. Now, it was as if I was there, but with my mouth gagged and my arms and legs shackled to a lamppost while the party raged around me.
I watched in misery while Heinrich ordered himself a third beer. I listened in anguish to clinking glasses and uncontrollable laughter and stories told in loud, slurred voices. It was agonizing to feel her breath on my neck as one of my best friends leaned a little too close to shout-whisper something funny in my ear. My pain was not out of disgust. Rather, I was tortured by a yearning to drink without fear of the ramifications.
I was sober. I was jealous. I was in a beer swiller’s paradise. I was in my own personal hell.
Sobriety has been going well for me. I have been writing a lot, and gaining confidence in my decision to leave alcoholism behind. My relationship with my wife is strong, and mundane everyday drinking temptations are almost unnoticeable.
But at Oktoberfest, I went too far. It was as if I ignored the power of the ocean’s undertow. While I have shaken the agonizing pain and paralyzing depression of addiction, I am not invincible.
No matter the strength of my conviction and the faith I have in God to help, I will always be one shaky decision away from returning to the mind-warping grip of alcohol addiction. There is probably nothing in my life more important than remembering and respecting that fact now and forever.
As for Heinrich and the rest of my drinking friends, I hope they keep inviting me to join them even when the circumstances of the occasion require me to decline. I went to the Oktoberfest to celebrate with Heinrich out of a desire to never refuse any of his requests. While I hope to always be there for Heinrich if he ever again has a time of need, I can’t be there for him in all times of glass raising celebration – especially when it feels as if we are in Munich in late September. If he hosts an Oktoberfest birthday party again next year, I sincerely hope to be invited. I also sincerely hope he understands why I have to decline.