Yesterday I managed to do something at work that terrified me: speak to someone I’d never spoken to before. I needed their help as they were the only manager around with the relevant permissions to approve a transaction I was trying to process on the system. My manager and anyone else I might have turned to were nowhere to be seen. L, the manager that I had to turn to, was perfectly nice about it, approving the transaction straight away for me, which upturned my preconceptions about people who’ve never spoken to me having to dislike me in some way. For nearly four months I assumed she was one of the hostile masses that had it in for me, even though she’d never looked at me, which made turning around and asking for a simple favour ten times as hard as it needed to be. I’m glad I managed to do it, but I hesitate to see this as a breakthrough. With my illness progress tends to happen in little drips and drabs, and this aversion to asking strangers for help will most likely continue into the future.
This week I’ve also been surprised by S, the friendly guy who’s just been made team leader of the other team. He’s been making extra efforts to get to know me and V as our teams are in the process of merging, and had I stayed at the bank he could have become my team leader at some point. Though I know his efforts may come from a new manager’s desire to be seen as a good manager, there is still a genuineness there which comes as a real surprise for two reasons. One, I’ve experienced precious little genuineness and warmth at the bank this year; two, at first sight S isn’t the person I would have expected it from. I may have said before that he is the archetypal bloke: very macho, into sports, likes a drink down the pub, likes talking about women. But in the course of a few brief conversations this week I also found out that we like some of the same music and holiday destinations. He’s made an effort to talk to me as a human being after I’ve helped him with some query or other, instead of just walking off, and through this an unexpected connection has emerged in the workplace. Today, he went as far as to say that he was sad he wouldn’t have much time to get to know me better.
Now, I could have just died of happiness there and then, to have such an attractive individual being so nice to me. God, S, just kiss me now please! I wanted to say. He really is every little gay boy’s fantasy. But seriously, I guess it is a shame I won’t know him for much longer. A few more months, and maybe I’d have been able to talk to him without feeling entirely self conscious. I’ve spent very little time talking to heterosexual males in the last fifteen years; when I do I always notice my own physical flaws more than usual. I notice how skinny and weak I am; how gay I am. S is like one of those boys at school who’d have picked on me if this was twenty years ago. Twenty years on, I still can’t accept that he would just talk to me because he wants to be nice.
I’ve booked myself onto a counselling introduction course at a nearby college in September. I knew I had to make a start on this career path at some point, and I didn’t want to spend too long procrastinating on it. This is the first of several stages of training I’ll have to go through in the next two to three years. Although it’s unequivocally a good thing to spend money on, I still hesitated in paying for that course today. I’m spending from my savings again, and I’m not going to be able to replenish them until I get a part time job. I’ve applied for a couple of jobs that seem ok this week, no success yet. I know it’s very early days and earlier in the year I found I had to apply for about ten jobs to get one interview. But I’m thinking about the fact that my CV says I left the bank after five months, how this will look to potential employers. It’s too tempting to follow those doubts down a rabbit hole and get lost. I need to remind myself almost every minute that I’m doing the right thing, that my HP has always provided for me before. I had to leave the bank for my sanity and I have to do this training because it’s the only thing I really want to do with my life.
After a nice chat with S in the morning I managed to get sucked into his teammates’ conversation across the barrier dividing our desks again. The office had the atmosphere of a kids’ party because it was the bank’s sixth birthday today, and they were playing a name game where each person in turn had to name something under a selected category, passing through the alphabet on every turn. So if the category was film, the first person would name a film beginning with A, the second a film beginning with B, and so on. Pretending to do my work on the other side of the partition, I listened to them playing this silly game for an hour, without them noticing that I was listening. They’ve never noticed me listening, it probably wouldn’t even cross their minds that I would have any interest in their discussions. To them I’ve never indicated any interest in it. I spied on their game today as it got sillier and all the rules got bent out of shape, and I could feel my blood boiling as it went on. No one could think of a film beginning with W so they decided to broaden the category to “films and TV shows”. When the category was countries, no one could think of one beginning with X so they changed it to “countries, cities and states”. I hated their willy nilly widening of the goal posts. I wanted to cry out “Watership Down” when they got stuck on W. I wanted to yell at them for being lazy and uncultured for not persevering with just countries. I worked myself up into a right state, until I realised that I had no idea why I was getting so upset.
I was particularly angry with F, the only male in the team apart from S, who seemed to be the main decision maker in terms of changing the rules of the game. He is normally the one who starts the games, as well as the one who tells all the jokes on a daily basis. People want to be his friend; he lets them be his friend. To them he is an affable guy’s guy who’s funny and witty and everything you want in a colleague. To me, he is just sarcastic and immature. Last week, it was F who laughed at the dress his teammate was wearing. (“You call that fashion?”) His way of joking around with his close friends is basically to poke fun at them. And now they all do it with each other. When they’re all together at their desks, all you hear is near constant sarcasm and teasing. When they’re playing their name games, each person’s attempt is met with snarky laughs and cries of “What? Can’t you think of any better country / film than that?!”
My disease seems to focus on F in particular because he’s the only one in the group that’s never said a word to me. For four months I’ve sat opposite him and I’ve tried to smile at his jokes, and it’s got me nowhere. I’ve never exactly talked to any of the others, but they do say hello and smile occasionally. They know I exist. If I don’t manage to talk to F in the next few weeks, I’ll leave the bank without ever having spoken a syllable to the person I’ve sat a metre away from during my entire time there.
Towards the end of the day everyone had to wish M a fond farewell as it was his last day at the bank. M also sits a metre away from me on the other side, and he has also been the focus of an intense resentment for most of the time I’ve known him. I’ve resented him for being one of the office’s most popular people despite a gruff, abrupt manner. His popularity is inexplicable to me. People actually seem to like his rudeness. To see him crack a smile is a rare thing indeed; people seem to find this trait funny. He got incredibly embarrassed this afternoon when thirty people gathered round to give him his card and leaving presents, and for the first time I felt a slither of empathy for the guy. He clearly didn’t want to be the centre of attention: he kept telling everyone to fuck off, with a sheepish smile on his face I might add. The more the group persisted in trying to get him to make a speech the more awkward he looked. I felt no anger towards him by the end of the day. I couldn’t bring myself to say goodbye to him – I’ve never voluntarily spoken to him before – but I could privately wish him well.
With all of the day’s distractions it was hard to do what I was supposed to be doing. I was frustrated with that and I was frustrated with the other team and their loud, silly games, so the day could have ended on a very bad note. But after M’s strangely poignant farewell gathering, my feelings changed and I could leave the office feeling quite neutral about everything. And I could look forward to another good meeting in town. When I arrived there was the same initial awkwardness that there is every week, trying to choose the best seat. Clumsily I sat in the middle of the room, the place where I previously vowed never to sit again because no one else likes sitting there. I wanted to improve matters for myself by making eye contact and saying hello to everyone I knew, but I have this lifelong, stone cold fear of making eye contact, so it was a no goer really. It breaks my heart that it’s pretty much the same story every week there: I don’t say hello to everyone at the beginning and I spend most of the meeting worrying about it. The script never changes: “they don’t want me to say hello to them, even though they know me, because I didn’t say hello last time and they’re probably pissed off about it.” This one little thing seems to dog me constantly. The process of rejoining AA and re-immersing myself in a program has put the spotlight on it, and I know that when I start training to become a counsellor I will have to look at it even more closely. As a counsellor I understand you have to look at yourself unflinchingly.
Of course I couldn’t share in the meeting. Were this one of the other meetings I go to, it probably wouldn’t have been so bad. At the other meetings there are reliable groups that I always sit with, people who I can trust and not feel like I’m out on thin ice with. Having one or two reliable anchors in a meeting can make all the difference with me, and I don’t have that at the Friday meeting yet. Although it’s mostly the same set of people that go there every week, and although I’ve been going for years, I don’t have that anchor there yet. I keep going back week after week because I hope deep down that it will change and I’ll find some peace there eventually.
These days I recognise more and more that the problem is entirely in me. I can know that thinking of the people who go to the Friday meeting as qualitatively different somehow to groups in other meetings, because I don’t have the same bond with that group, is not useful to me. Until a few years ago a victim mentality was entrenched in my life and I couldn’t see myself as being entirely accountable for any problem in my life. I’m glad I don’t blindly blame the world out there for things any more. But this sense of accountability is a conscious effort for me. My instinct to make myself separate and blame others is my default, as proved by the awkwardness at the beginning of the meeting and my burning resentment towards F at work.
I ought to remember that they’re just people, not demons for heaven’s sake. If I can keep that in mind for the next few weeks maybe I’ll be able to leave the job without hating any of them.
I make a conscious effort to connect with at least one person before I leave a meeting now. At the end of tonight’s meeting, against all odds I managed to connect with two. This meeting can be full of surprises (which is why I like it so much). A, the extroverted newcomer who I went to coffee with a couple of times earlier in the year, came up to me and asked if I wanted to go for coffee again next week. It had been so long since the last time we made any effort to be sociable with each other, I thought he’d just forgotten about me. In fact, at times when I’ve seen him and he’s not instantly said hello to me I’ve thought he hates me. I assumed I must have pissed him off by not asking him to coffee a third time back in the spring, so because I’d pissed him off of course I couldn’t ask him again.
Shortly after that I bumped into my friend T outside and we had a good old chin wag. He’s about to embark on a Psychology degree, something I had a lot to say about since it’s my area of interest. He was a little more flirty with me than I’d have liked, but it was ok because he’s great to chat to, and I enjoyed the fellowship.
It goes to show, I can walk up to people and say hello, even when I’m sure I can’t, when it’s a stressful situation like the moments after a meeting where everyone’s forming their groups. I tried to think how I did it tonight and it occurred to me, maybe it was not thinking about it that did it. Worth a go next time, ey?