The long journey

There’s a lot of talk in society about mental illness at the moment, and it can only be a good thing. People are taking notice of the fact that there are invisible diseases. Conditions that can be hidden, and that have no easily identifiable cause. I’m entering a profession that purports to look for the causes, and I wouldn’t be doing it if we lived in a world that hadn’t started to take mental health seriously a while ago. Yet I continue to hear messages about mental illness that don’t sound right to me, messages conveyed in adverts and documentaries that try to contain the answers in brief segments. Some of these messages include:

  • the notion that real depression can’t be caused by something going on in the sufferer’s life, it has to be chemical
  • all sadness has to pass, it can’t be ongoing because then the sufferer is just a burden

I take issue with these ideas because they go against my lived experience. I have suffered with what I would call depression for a significant part of my life, and generally I haven’t had to look hard for the links with things that have happened to me; in the eyes of one of the mentioned filmmakers I can’t call it depression then because it’s not chemical. I live with sad feelings on a regular basis that come and go without ever really passing, and so I wouldn’t be much use to the producer of an hour long documentary about mental illness, because I wouldn’t have anything positive to say about it. In the advert for one of these shows recently they had a series of celebrities talking about bereavement, and while the things they had to say were devastating and real, there was a sense in the tagline and the whole atmosphere of the show that their grief was in the past, they had moved on and therefore everything was all right.

I don’t doubt the sincerity and the importance of these programmes for a minute, but I believe that hearing the same old message about depression (it’s a chemical imbalance, it doesn’t last forever) minimises the experience of those who don’t fit the narrative, and makes it so much harder for us to identify our problem as depression. If you don’t think you can classify what you’re going through as depression because you can identify exacerbating factors in the world around you, factors which may be very hard to eradicate, you’re far less likely to seek help with it.

*

Part of my problem, as it has always been, is that I’m not sharing in AA meetings. I’ve been saving it all for therapy. Which doesn’t help because I have essentially removed the quickest way I have of connecting to a meeting and the people in it. I could have shared last night about how I was feeling, but as per usual I felt bad about potentially bringing the mood of the meeting down, and I left feeling the very same isolation that I struggled with as a newcomer.

I need to share the truth wherever I can; but that’s not easy when I have a voice in my head that constantly tells me I won’t say the right thing and I’ll upset people. At the spiritual meeting this morning I managed to speak, only because it was a very small meeting and everyone kind of had to to fill the time. I talked in a general way about the feeling of isolation that’s been creeping up on me. It’s a start, but it definitely won’t be enough to see me through tomorrow. When I wake up tomorrow I’ll have to start again with my program, do the same amount of work to keep myself sober as I have done every day for the past ten years.

This feeling of not wanting to bother is so powerful because of the pervasive misperception in the world that once you’ve worked out how to overcome a difficult feeling, that’s it, you don’t have to work on it any more. At least that’s the idea I’ve grown up with. Getting used to the fact that life will be constant work – that I will never reach a place where I’m cured, no matter how ‘well’ I seem to get – is a long journey.

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A dip in mood

That low feeling was back today, and it’s easy to see why. I was looking forward to getting to my regular Saturday meeting, but when I got there I wanted to be anywhere but. A few weeks ago I was really excited about the move to Soho, but now that it’s there permanently, I don’t know, it just doesn’t feel the same. I missed the old place today. Specifically, I missed how the meeting was two years ago, when I was just returning to AA, and there was a big group of safe coffee buddies there every week, encouraging me to join them. Apart from R and N, none of them regularly go to the meeting any more, haven’t done for a while. Now that it’s in Soho I doubt that coffee group will exist any more. There’s still the ‘burger gang’ (can’t think of a better name for the other group that sticks rigidly to its burger restaurants every week) but I have never been as confident with them, and that continued tonight.

I don’t really want to be negative, but while I’m at it, the acoustics in the new home aren’t good, and it’s not warm and cosy like the last place.

At this point I’m hearing the voice of AA, saying: a meeting isn’t a success because of the room it’s in, it’s down to the people!

Yes, that’s true, but I’ve spent so much of the last seven years in the area that the meeting’s just left, I think it’s going to be more of a wrench leaving there than I thought it would be. It was about the same when the meeting left its original home in West London all those years ago. Around that time was when I started to really drift from AA, I think. I remember getting really bored with the meeting when it first moved south of the river, and I began to feel bored and resentful in AA on a regular basis. So I must be vigilant that it doesn’t happen again, because of all the pain it ultimately led to.

Tonight I was skating closer to the edge than I have in a while, and I don’t like it. After the meeting I could easily have followed the burger gang to dinner, but since the last few times I’ve gone have been a bit of a disaster I was less inclined to make the effort in the moment. The crazy thing is that I was hungry, and I ended up on my own in another burger restaurant just round the corner from them. Mad or what?

I can justify this all I want, but when it leads to nihilistic feelings such as ‘what’s the point of going to AA?’ it’s not good at all. I’m not saying I actually entertained such a thought tonight, but there was a feeling there that I haven’t had since 2015, one that could drive me away from the fellowship altogether. It’s the same old story: when I’m in an off mood I can’t stand seeing and hearing other people who are social successes. All the sharing in the meeting had been about the wonderful friendships that AA encourages, and I knew it would be the same with the group at the restaurant, and it was all too easy to avoid it.

Again I hear the voice of AA: to be a social success I must do the work, it isn’t just going to happen to me.

Tonight I just didn’t want to do the work, it’s as simple as that. I didn’t want to force myself to go with the group, I didn’t want to burden them with my problems. It was much easier to say goodbye and leave on my own than sit there for an hour pretending to be ok. If I could have been genuine, gone with them like I wanted to and confided in someone about not feeling ok, that would have been wonderful, but it didn’t seem possible.

God, it’s so hard to be with people when I’m not in a fantastic mood! So I isolate myself and end up craving the company. On the way home on the bus I was listening to some Saturday night music and I caught myself thinking how nice it would have been to stay with people and suggest a night of dancing. I’ve no idea why such a thought occurred to me – since I officially decided that I would never go to a club and dance again a long time ago!

One final word from the voice of AA: clearly if I keep analysing my social performance in these situations I’ll find myself not up to scratch, and of course it’s going to make me feel worse. I see other people doing fantastically well, within seconds I’m comparing my life to theirs, and it hurts. If I was able to see only the positives I’d have a much easier time, and I’d probably go for a burger every single week. I keep waiting for it to get easier to ignore these moods, so that I can do the fellowship thing without all the thinking. It scares me that I could keep waiting forever.

Fixed

A familiar, heavy feeling of lethargy accompanied me to therapy yesterday morning. I have got used to feeling lethargic when I go there now: the sense of there being no point that comes from the interminably slow process of change gets stronger as time goes on. Despite the admission early on that I wasn’t expecting change to happen quickly, the little child in me still wants to know when I’m going to get to a place where I can look back and say “ah, this is what I was waiting for.” I tried everything I could not to talk about mum yesterday, but our conversation inevitably came round to her again for the third week in a row. Like the black hole at the centre of the galaxy, this subject hungrily attracts thought and discussion. At first I thought I could get away with talking about the little things that I’d noticed in the week – not saying hello to the friend at the shop near college, a serious facebook binge that I engaged in despite wanting to avoid it forever – but halfway through the session I knew I wasn’t getting anywhere with the heavy “what’s the point?” feeling, and so thoughts turned back to mum.

I have always experienced dark moods because mum experiences them. I feel disconnected from the world because mum is disconnected from it. I struggle and yearn for friends and lovers because they get me away from this time warp that I live in when I’m here. I didn’t know how to cope with trauma at school because mum couldn’t cope with it. I don’t blame mum for anything any more but I have to talk about these things. I have to change my relationship with her.

Changing the past is impossible – how I wish it weren’t – there is only the possibility of changing what goes on in the present. So I’m trying out baby steps such as: not announcing when I’m about to go out, cleaning my own room and making my own bed, not shouting at her when she needs help with her computer. If I can be more of a grown up with her then maybe she’ll see me as more of a grown up, and maybe I won’t feel so stuck in the past.

By the time the session was over the feeling of heaviness hadn’t completely lifted, but I could see it beginning to shift. In the evening, once it had completely shifted I decided to take myself to the cinema, as I hadn’t been in a while and had nothing else to do. On the train there I was fortunate to be sat opposite the picture of loving parenthood: a father and his tired young daughter, who had her head rested on his arm. He threw it around her to let her get more comfortable, and it was so sweet, I’m sure anyone watching would have had their heart melted. When I see that I can think “how lovely” but my thoughts can also jump straight to the fact that I never had anything of the sort as a child. I probably will never be able to stop myself from thinking such things. They are part of who I am. The whole problem is that I didn’t have a parent’s arm around me when I needed one (no blame here, just a statement of fact!) and I concluded deep down that I mustn’t deserve one. This is the psychological barrier that I still come up against. I don’t think I deserve the good things that are developing in my life today, and I ask “what’s the point in trying?”

Of course if there wasn’t a part of me questioning these assumptions I wouldn’t be in therapy. There has always been this separate part that can know what I lacked in childhood had nothing to do with me as a person. I still struggle with this duality in my life – I experience two belief systems at the very same time and it’s confusing. My therapist encourages me to sit with the confusion and to keep talking. One part of me is happy to do that because I know it’s the only answer; the other part is impatient to move on, to experience that feeling of being ‘fixed’. One part of me knows I will never have a day where I feel fixed, and that’s ok; the other part can’t handle knowing such a thing.

A deeper look

My colleagues on the diploma course and I are at the point where we’re asked to start looking for a clinical placement, and naturally am I anxious about it. Hey, if there’s something challenging that needs to be faced, anxiety will always be my go to reaction! As this is an important part of the course, and as the demand for student positions at every counselling practise in London is high, I’m sure I will be talking about this subject a lot in the coming months. I have applied to a couple of places so far, and I’ve heard nothing. I liked the look of the places based on their websites, and I put in what I thought were decent applications, but of course you have no way of knowing if you’re the right person or not for the job. The process is much like applying for jobs, which I hate, because it’s competitive and long, and at the moment there seems to be no end in sight. We’ve got until next summer to find a place, so technically there’s no urgency, but already most of the class is getting its skates on, because no one wants to be the last person to find a place. And the sooner we can get a place, the sooner we can start seeing clients and building up the necessary hours. I feel ready to start seeing clients, I really do – it’s the search for a place that’s troubling me.

In class I continue to do well, I think. Since changing tutors we have all begun to enjoy the course and get what we want out of it. Perhaps because it’s a higher level of study, I feel that it is squeezing more of the personal development and growth out of me than the previous level. There’s a demand for constant participation, and every week I find it harder not to share personal things with the people around me. I feel that I want to share more, which may be a good thing; but every now and then I catch myself wondering if I’m over-sharing. It’s the same when I’ve shared in an AA meeting, I always analyse it afterwards. It’s strange, this week I felt more confident than ever to use my voice in the group; and at the same time I felt more need to restrain myself than ever before. Whenever I speak, I always get the sense afterwards that there’s so much more I could have said, and yet when I’m actually saying it, if it’s something honest, I daren’t say as much as I can.

*

My other great anxiety at the moment is my commitment at the Tuesday night meeting. It never ends. I really hoped that by now I would be enjoying it more, but after nearly six months I still feel the same about it as I have done since May. The only thing that’s changed is that I’ve gotten used to it now, so I can go and read the script and find the speakers and inhabit my role without the slightest sign of stress. All the while I’m wishing I could be anywhere else on a Tuesday night.

As someone who is trying to be more honest in every area of my life, I have to ask myself why I feel so anxious about this commitment every week. I feel that this can’t continue to be a case of me ‘just getting through it’ for the next six months. I feel that I have to look at this and understand what’s really going on.

Every week I read out a script which says at the beginning “you are in a safe space for the next ninety minutes,” telling the newcomers who themselves might be feeling anxious that they can relax and feel ok about being there, yet I don’t feel safe. Yesterday more than anything I wanted to quit the commitment. And then, midway through the meeting, without prompting, whilst sharing about service in general, someone says that we secretaries are doing a great job and should be applauded for facing the challenge every week. And then, also unprompted, another person shares about the opportunities that service provides us with to redeem ourselves again and again. He was talking about a meeting where he fucked up a commitment in early recovery, only to be offered the same commitment a few years later, at which time he succeeded. I already know that I dread this commitment because I am scared of failing at it again. Worst case scenario: failure in such a high profile role would be humiliating, people would judge me on it forever and I would end up being shunned out of the rooms. I experienced something of the sort five years ago when I was secretary at the Wednesday meeting and it took me years to get over it. Although there is nothing to suggest that the same thing will happen here, I fear it simply because it’s an important responsibility and I don’t like being the focus of people’s attention every week.

*

Random thought of the day: I’ve always seen myself as highly self aware – but am I? I’m starting to think maybe ‘introspective’ would be a better way of describing myself. I certainly have always been highly aware of my feelings. My behaviours towards other people, perhaps not so much. In therapy each week I’m digging down further into the little things I do, and what they mean, and it’s fascinating as well as scary to notice the patterns that are still there. Take this thing I do when I see someone I recognise in the street – rarely will I say hello to them, even if it’s a good friend. Nine times out of ten I’ll walk straight past, even if our eyes have met and it’s clear that they were about to approach me. There needs to be a very special set of circumstances for me to stop and say hello to someone I know when it’s a different situation to the one I usually see them in. They would need to be clearly available for me to approach, so it would be much easier if they’re stood at a bus stop, for instance. If they’re walking past then I’d have to physically stop them, and I don’t tend to feel comfortable with that.

Near the college where I’m studying there’s a clothes shop, and every time I walk past I see someone I know quite well from the rooms, as they happen to work there. I’ve seen them every week since I started back at college, and I’ve felt bad about passing them by without any attempt to be sociable every single week. In my old head, to go in and say hello would just feel weird, like it’s not my place to disturb them when they’re at work. Even though we’ve talked about it at a meeting and he’s said I should feel free to pop in whenever I like, I haven’t been able to do it yet. Whenever I walk past the shop, I have to make sure I’m not looking in, in case he sees me and we accidentally make eye contact. God forbid!

I’m not sure why I’m going into so much detail about this. It’s something I’ve always done, and I don’t get the impression it’s going to change any time soon. Of course I’d like it to change, and maybe the fact I have laid it all out on paper here is some kind of first step towards change. Or maybe not.

Off centre

The week at work was busy and, despite the fact I wanted it to be busier all through my first six months there, I found it slightly too busy and therefore had my anxiety provoked. We are organising an ‘away day’ for the London team next week. A conference hall has been booked out in central London, and my team has ended up in charge of the whole thing, because there’s no one else to do it. I spent most of the week producing neat powerpoint presentations and slide shows that will be shown on the day. It’s not the most stressful job anyone’s ever had, but throughout the week I had a sense of pressure to get things done. It seemed important to do well, to not slip up and look like a failure.

Along with worrying about that I had to worry about the fly problem at home as well. Something had to be done, so on my first free day on Friday I went to the shops and spent a wad of money on cleaning products, which I took home and proceeded to use to deep clean the shit out of my room. I was determined to see the back of these tiny flies once and for all. The room ended up looking a lot nicer, once every speck of dust had been scrubbed away, and now I’d be surprised if I see anything living in this room again, although I have to try not to get my hopes up too much. They could just be hiding.

Yesterday I spent the day with T again. This time he’d come down to London at my encouragement, and I was his tour guide, as he had only been here three times before. He wanted to see parts of the city that were off the tourist trail; I decided to take him on a walk through Regent’s Park and up the canal to Camden. Not exactly miles from the tourist trail, but it was different enough to please him. We walked and talked in our usual sparse way. I tried to accept that we weren’t going to talk about feelings, or anything to do with the future. I think I had a more comfortable experience for it. Towards the end of the day he was talking about his life back home. I found out that he considered himself an introvert, as he described how he had once struggled to run a coffee house thanks to the affliction of shyness. It was the closest thing yet to a personal disclosure. I almost wanted to consider it a victory.

When we said goodbye, as always I didn’t know when or if I would see him again. He likes to be quite loose with plans, and I either have to tell him that’s not my way, or I have to accept it and move on.

I went to the south bank for my home group’s last ever night south of the river. From next week it’s moving to an exciting new home in Soho. It’s the true end of an era: no longer will I have much excuse to hang around south London, a place I’ve spent a lot of time in and made a lot of memories in over the past eight years. From now on much of my recovery will be taking place in Soho, a part of London I’ve sort of stayed away from in recent years. It will be different.

At the end of the meeting I had agreed to help the committee by carrying some of the literature in bags across to the new home. Four of us got the tube together with our bags, and it was one of those moments that I could have dreamed about, being included in a cool group of people for something exciting. I was with R, C and J, people I admire for their recovery and their confidence. I should have been on a high but my head will always find a way to spoil these things. For most of it I could only think about how tired I was after a day of being on my feet, and how little I had to contribute to the conversation. I’m not saying that it was a terrible or unusual experience – I nearly always have these thoughts when I’m with people like that, and for the most part I don’t think my struggles showed on the surface, because I am better at appearing ‘ok’ than I once was. But it never stops being unsettling when I have these thoughts, and I faced a painful dilemma once we had delivered everything to Soho, when J asked if I was coming for dinner with them. I was exhausted and I knew I ought to take care of myself by going home; I also knew how difficult it would be to sustain the sociable facade in a loud, busy Soho restaurant. So I declined the offer, in what I think was a graceful manner, though I couldn’t be sure as it was done outside the recovery centre on a busy pavement with lots of noise of activity swirling round, so they may have not heard my excuses. They may have gone away thinking I was being rude. I’ll never find out.

Today I had plans to go for lunch with C after the midday spiritual meeting in Soho. I specifically booked this in advance as an attempt to go against those isolating instincts, and build what I hope will be a secure friendship group in the rooms. C would be a great person to know better, not just because he’s very attractive (I’m pretty sure I’ve moved past the emotional crush stage with him now, since I’ve gotten to know him better and realised we’ll always just be friends). We’re of a similar age in recovery and we share a lot of opinions on things. I really like the Sunday midday meeting that he has started, and I thought it would be nice to hang around after for lunch with him. Only as soon as the meeting ended I felt anxiety weigh on me, and instead of hanging around waiting for C to be ready I wanted to run away. The moments at the end of the meeting when everyone’s milling around saying goodbye to each other have always been a particularly stressful time for me, especially when I’m entering one of my moods and I can’t find a person or group to stand with. It took C ten minutes to say his goodbyes to everyone, ten minutes in which I was forced to stand there talking to people I didn’t know well. On the surface I may have appeared to do well – some of them wanted to talk to me, and what happened with them could be construed as a conversation – yet internally the same old doubts were filling my head. I was glad when C was finally ready to go and eat.

We’d planned to only talk in French, as it’s something we both desperately need practise at. But since C was suffering from a cold, and since I was still tired and a bit depressed, it wasn’t going to be much fun trying to stick to a foreign language for an hour, so we switched to our native tongue after fifteen minutes. C was talking about this relationship he’s been in for six months and the struggles he’s having with it. Before I realised what I was doing I was going into therapist mode, asking pertinent questions and making light suggestions. What’s clear is that even those of us who seem to have it all sorted, like C, can struggle in love. I still came away with the impression that he’s doing far better than I ever will in life, though.

A sad feeling of poignancy was threatening to take over when I said goodbye to C after lunch, and I wanted to do anything but go home. The weather was unusually warm and I decided that a long walk across London was in order. At first I stuck to the central London streets that I knew, streets I’ve trodden countless times over the years, and before long the lethargic sadness was coming back. I needed to see somewhere different, somewhere that wasn’t central London. I thought about Richmond, a part of London that feels far removed from the city. I’m lucky enough to have a travelcard that will take me to such places, so I jumped straight on the tube and witnessed the heavy feelings lift inside me as the train got further and further from the metropolis. As we reached the outer zones and the tall brown buildings were quickly replaced by green leaves and grassland, my breathing became easier, my heart rate slowed, and everything felt cleaner, and clearer.

I’ve never spent much time in Richmond, but I wish I had because it’s a lovely place. Even though the high street was busy with tourists it all felt relaxed and pleasant, compared to Oxford Street and its surrounds, the part of London I’m usually in when I go to meetings. I probably spend far too much time in the centre of the city, listening to the same old pop music on my headphones, walking the same old streets, bumping past the same old crowds. Today I put some unfamiliar classical music on and walked along the bank of the Thames, enjoying a lovely stroll in the unseasonal warm sunshine. Out there the Thames is narrow and quiet, and the path passes through parks and meadows, so you couldn’t feel further from London, even though you are well within its boundaries. It was the stroll I needed. I felt like I was on holiday.

With all the things I’ve had to worry about recently it would be natural to assume that a constant state of anxiety is my lot now. Admittedly I’ve had a number of unresolved issues to face (flies, not enjoying college as much as I thought I would, being over busy at work, not having a lot of money thanks to my part time wage). Days like today must show that freedom from worry is still possible. I need to make sure that my daily life doesn’t become stagnant, that I am always seeing new places and experiencing new things. If I keep hanging around Oxford Street and listening to loud dance music every day I’ll get depressed quickly. When I’m not in meetings, I need different places and songs to fill my time with now.

Thoughts and dilemmas

A cringeworthy moment

This morning I attended the new spiritual meeting in Soho, confirming that it will become one of my regulars and I will have a new Sunday routine to go forward with. I expected to see C there and I was fairly committed to thanking him for his help at dinner last night; but once I got to the meeting place he was busy being friends with other people, as he so often is, and the moment didn’t immediately present itself. It wasn’t until after the meeting had finished that I managed to work myself up to send him a whatsapp message containing the sentiments I’d hoped to convey in person. Inwardly I cringed as I sent it. Well, he was bound to think it was a bit sad and creepy, wasn’t he? A cool, attractive person like him wasn’t going to take it for what it was, a genuine communication of friendship, was he?

Despite those reservations I managed to chuck in an invitation to coffee next week, something I want to do more and more of with people like that because it’s good for me, and it directly challenges my sense of inadequacy. C instantly accepted my invitation and told me he was only too glad to help me out last night. I know he is a nice person and all of his behaviour suggests that he wants to be one of those recovery friends that I’ve so desperately needed for so long. But from a certain perspective I still can’t help seeing this in terms of my inadequacy versus their ‘better’-ness. If I think about all the coffee dates that someone like C must be invited to on a weekly basis, I can create all kinds of differences between me and him, and I can sink back into the firm belief that I am not like other people in AA, I am not as good as them.

*

The battle for authenticity

The challenge to work out what is happening with T continues! I spent half the day again with him yesterday, three weeks on from our last meeting, and I came away feeling I had got no closer to that mind of his. I should just come out and ask him what he wants, it would make life a darn sight easier – but there are boundaries I dare not cross, boundaries that probably exist solely in my mind (and are no less real for it).

I’m discovering that there are certain things we cannot avoid doing when we see each other. These include going on some trip somewhere, walking a lot, and then returning to his place to have sex. On Friday he was surprisingly keen to get in the car and drive far out to the countryside, where we spent an hour exploring a chocolate box village in the Cotswolds. I appreciated the opportunity to see the quintessential English village that people abroad probably dream of when they think of England. In theory I also appreciated the opportunity to do something that on paper would seem romantic with him. When I’ve told friends about the sorts of things I’m doing with T, they naturally smile and sigh, “how romantic!” It is exactly the sort of thing I wanted to do with boyfriends when I was a younger man, the sort of thing I never got to do. I don’t know why it still feels like there is some missing piece, when I’m actually there doing these things. I don’t know whether there is a missing piece, or if it’s just down to the fact that reality is never quite the same as fantasy.

As ever, we concluded the day in his bed, and as ever, it was nice until the point where he expected me to climax. We approach this point earlier every time we see each other. Soon he’ll be expecting it the minute we’ve climbed into bed. After fifteen minutes of trying it was clear I wasn’t going to manage it. So I was quite surprised when T sighed and suggested getting some porn up on his computer to help. It’s almost laughable how quickly the trick worked. T seemed quite blase about the fact that I needed a porn fantasy. I think it probably says something about his character: pragmatic.

Using porn could be a solution, then, whenever we find ourselves in bed and T wants to get on with things. Or it could spell disaster for the relationship. It’s a bit depressing to think that I still don’t know what this all means for us. I still don’t know if it’s really what I want.

I should stop observing other couples on trains and in the street, because they clearly appear to have something that I don’t think I’ll ever have with T. I’m not sure if chemistry is the right word. A bond? Yes, that’s probably it. Even if I have just met T a handful of times, I would’ve thought that it would be easier to talk to him by now. We do talk, but most of the time only haltingly, and I know that I bear as much responsibility for this as he does, but as I said at the beginning of this vignette, something keeps stopping me from crossing his boundaries, so we are not getting past that stilted small talk that can be enough to drive me mad if I think about it too much.

Couples on trains and in the street always seem happy together – they can laugh, smile at each other, hold hands, give each other a little hug or peck on the cheek. They always seem natural together in a way that I haven’t been with T yet. I may be able to entertain the idea that I have some control in this matter, and that I can force some intimacy into any situation by being who I really am (my therapist self always tells me to be more like that). But in the reality of the moment I never manage to go that far, it’s only ever afterwards that I realise how much more I could have done.

And perhaps in reality, the couples I see in public are experiencing the same issues – in their heads. The surface might appear polished and shiny, but with my therapist head on I can imagine what might be going on underneath. When I see a pair of lovers smiling at each other in the most intimate way I am only seeing one brief moment in their day. I am not seeing the other 1,439 moments.

It’s very hard for me to hang on to such a realistic appraisal of things when I am in a mood such as the one I’m in tonight, when I want to let go entirely of reason and embrace the wild emotionality of the child.

*

The mother’s paradox

Instead of using another fifty minutes to talk about T, I spent this week’s therapy session talking about mum. By the end of the week she was in a normal mood again, as I had predicted, but it was still bothering me, and I knew the time had come to finally offload about it. I have never talked to anyone much about my relationship with my mother. I have never told anyone what I know about her past, what I think troubles her, and how it has affected my entire life. I probably could spend weeks talking to the therapist about it, because what has become clear to me is that everything is important, every small detail.

I’m aware that sometimes my long, rambling entries here can seem long and rambling, but I think that they need to be, because I can’t pick out anything that isn’t significant these days. In Love’s Executioner, Dr Yalom calls it ‘grist in the mill’. My life can seem like a succession of confusing, complicated and challenging stories. When I focus on one of them it can look a bit episodic, but I see how they are interlinked. This week I started to think that my relationship with mum is a significant underlying factor. I live in this dysfunctional relationship from day to day, and it has been dysfunctional for decades, and I get such a sense of powerlessness in it, because my mother never changes, no matter how much I change. In the past I saw my relationship with my dad as the defining factor in my life, and of course it was always defining, but it wasn’t the defining factor. It was one of many. My anxiety disorder, my uncontrollable emotions, my mistrust of the world, my feeling of powerlessness, perhaps these things started with mum. I had a tremendous sense of guilt weighing on me as I opened up to the therapist about all this, since I felt like I was betraying her, but I couldn’t stop opening up. With self disclosure there is always a point of no return.

It was good to talk about it, to express the sheer frustration of living with someone who doesn’t change. For the first time ever, I could put into words what I would want, if my mother and I lived in an ideal world: to know whether she is really happy, and to have her see me as an adult. If those two things were to ever come to happen, it would transform both of us completely. The great paradox here is that I will never be able to ask if she is happy, and I will never get her to see me as an adult, because there is a barrier in this home that can never be crossed. I can press my nose up against it and I can privately question it, but that’s about it. After thirty-four years of being up against it, I see that it can’t be broken.

Right. I’m in therapy because I want to change my life. I want to overcome the obstacles to intimacy that I face with friends and lovers. I want to become more authentic as a person. I want to be happy. Somewhere in me there must be a belief that I can achieve those things, otherwise I wouldn’t be paying so much a week for therapy. At the start of therapy I wasn’t planning to bring my mother into it at all. I have never seen this relationship as something that can change. I was willing to work on everything else, but this? It’s too much to think about. I wouldn’t know where to start.

Now that I have brought it up in therapy, it may be safe to say that the idea of change is lurking in this area too. I can vaguely imagine what I would like to happen with mum in a distant utopian future where we are both congruent and self actualised: something to aim for. But I’ve just remembered that it will be too much work, and she has no self awareness, she has spent her life living one way, keeping all her thoughts private, believing that her son will always be a child because she couldn’t cope with him growing up. It would be so unfair for the rest of her life to play out this way, so unfair for me to change so much while she never changes, never experiences reality as it is, never knows real happiness out in the world, away from her TV. But all the signs say that that is what she is destined for. I don’t know how to help her. I don’t have the words.

Turning it around

AA is not a social club!

Sometimes you hear old timers say that they didn’t go to AA to make friends, they went to get well, and I appreciate that sentiment, but I can’t stop seeing it like it’s a big, fashionable party that I’ve been trying for years to get into. Since the summer of 2007 it has been my dream to feel completely normal in an AA meeting – to walk in and not care who says hello to me and who ignores me – in recent years it’s been a little easier, but the issue is clearly still there on some level. I’ve gone to the Saturday meeting nearly every week for two years, I am one of the most regular faces there, and people like me for it; but the socialising afterwards remains one of my life’s biggest challenges. Every week they go to the same restaurant and sit at the same table, yet somehow whenever I go I feel like it’s the first time I’m there. The crowd does change from week to week, but not that much. My problem is that I can never seem to get there before everyone else has already arrived and sat down. I’m a fast walker, yet I have always been one of the last to arrive, meaning that I don’t have much choice over who I get to sit with or where.

Today I wasn’t hugely keen on going, as I knew that the people I feel closest to at the meeting wouldn’t be there, it would just be the ‘cool’ people that I wish I was closer to. I went as it had been a few weeks since my last trip there, I wanted to keep up some sort of momentum with this group, and I knew I could have a good time if I just tried because it had happened before. When I arrived I wasn’t the least bit surprised to find all the good seats already taken, and the only seats left were at a small empty table far away from the main group. I could see there was the possibility of people budging up at the main table to make room for me, but none of the people I asked were willing to move, so I’d have to go to the other table and hope I wouldn’t be left on my own there. It was like the school canteen at lunch time, when no one wants you at the table so you have to find somewhere else or sit on the floor. In that moment I didn’t think anyone would care if I actually had to sit on the floor.

I skulked over to the other table on my own and tried to pretend that it didn’t matter, that I could still enjoy the food, as I would if I really were there on my own. After a few minutes someone who’d been even slower to arrive than me joined me at the loser’s table, a person I recognised but didn’t know well at all. He seemed nice, but before long we were both stuck for words. I couldn’t think of anything useful to start a conversation with. It looked like it was going to be an hour of near silence. I decided there and then I would just wolf down my burger and go home, never to darken this restaurant’s doorway again.

As the burgers arrived I was touched to see my friend C get up from the main table and walk over to join us. I could tell that he’d seen me struggling and probably felt sorry for me. It should have turned the night around and given me the confidence I’ve had in that situation before, to talk properly and be a friend amongst friends. But the thought that he just felt sorry for me kept playing on my mind, and I still thought I would just go home as soon as I’d had my burger. The minute he’d eaten his burger C left, giving me the excuse I needed to call it a night. It was by no means a disaster, but it wasn’t fun, and I left thinking that the big meal at the burger restaurant would probably never work for me. Unless people like my sponsor choose to go, I’m never going to go there knowing who I’m sitting next to and that I have a safe place at the table. Of course I could take matters more into my own hands and push my way into that group, like other people do, but that’s not me. Never has been.

My handling of post meeting fellowship has been an issue since the earliest meetings that I went to. It’s made me so angry at times that it has pushed me out of AA. In my first few years of recovery I used to find it so easy to pick up resentments against people in these restaurants, because they weren’t making it easier for me. Eventually I had so many resentments I didn’t want to go to meetings, didn’t want a program any more. I blamed them for my inability to slide into the group and take my place like they did. Today that inability remains to a large degree, as does the temptation to blame. It was hard to walk away from the restaurant tonight and not want to cry a bit, to feel like a failure. It was hard to make myself say goodbye to people, instead of just running off as quickly and invisibly as possible. All of this is behaviour that I’ve enacted throughout my life, based on feelings that I never grow out of. There is the feeling of being a statue that I have experienced many times, a statue that no one can communicate with or understand. I feel stuck and exposed in the situation, and humiliation is surely around the corner.

My therapy head tells me that no one tonight saw me that way, while the child inside strongly feels that they must have seen and judged my failing, because they’re not like me. The child’s feelings will always be with me, but I suppose it’s good that I am more willing to listen to the adult, to the ‘therapist’ in me if you like, these days. Already I can imagine seeing C at a meeting tomorrow and thanking him for joining my table, because it would be a nice thing to do, the exact opposite of what the child would have me do (isolate, pretend nothing happened, refuse all future friendship from anyone who was there tonight). It would solidify a bond and it would acknowledge the positives of tonight. I will probably always have to talk myself through this ‘positive’ approach, as I pass over thoughts of the negative, thoughts about people not wanting me to sit with them. It does feel a bit easier than it used to, maybe because I am in therapy and I am becoming more accountable to my recovering self. It’s easier than it ever was to understand why tonight was such a challenge, why I couldn’t just slip into the group and feel instantly welcome there: I have simply never tried that hard before.

So no, AA isn’t a social club, I can’t say that being invited to sit next to someone in a restaurant is as important as going to a meeting and doing service. But it’s always a nice bonus of recovery when these things happen, and it’s important to crack open my shell sometimes and go into these places, make a little effort and perhaps make a new friend that I can share some recovery with. When I came back to AA I did recognise that it was going to be hard to immerse myself in fellowship again; I would have good weeks with it and I would have bad weeks. As long as there’s more good than bad then it’s working.