Pity party

I woke with excitement on Wednesday morning about a telephone interview for a customer service job. When it came the call lasted about half an hour. I thought it went well at the time. I managed to answer all except one question with ease and what I thought was confidence. The question I didn’t manage to answer was one concerning my “passion” for customer service – the interviewer said he had found it a strange thing to read on a CV. “Is anyone really passionate about customer service?” he asked. I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t exactly come out and admit that I had just put that there to sound slightly more impressive than the million other people applying for the role.

At the end of the call he told me he’d be in touch by the end of Thursday with news either way. As of yet, I’ve heard nothing. By this morning I could be pretty certain that I hadn’t been successful. Managers in small private companies don’t hang around to contact the people they want to hire, after all. P as usual tried to put a positive spin on things, persuading himself and no one else that there must have been some unforeseen delay and I’d definitely have good news by next week some time. I know it’s not going to happen. It became clear in my mind that I’d messed the interview up. Claiming to be passionate about customer service, when we all know that no one in their right mind would consider it a passion, was stupid. In fact, throughout the interview I had lied through my teeth about my positive attributes. When I described moments in my illustrious career that had made me proud, when I showed off my knowledge of the business I was applying to become part of, I was pretending all along to be someone else. Someone who actually cares about that kind of work. The interviewer probably saw right through it. His words came back to haunt me through the day: “Is anyone really passionate about customer service?”

Clearly they want people who don’t lie about their feelings, so maybe I should have been honest and said that hating the corporate world of ecommerce is what drove me to fight for customers for six years in my previous job. Maybe if I’d been really honest, said that I did it for the money, it would have made him laugh and think I was too interesting and zany not to give a chance. I’m furious that I don’t at least get a chance at a face to face interview. I don’t care what I did or didn’t say on the phone, I know I could have done that job easily. It’s the exact job I did for six years, for fuck’s sake. For someone to dismiss me in five minutes because I didn’t say the perfect thing to them – worse, for them not even to have the decency to follow up with a one line e-mail thanking me for the time and telling me I’ve been unsuccessful – I can’t stand it. I know that’s how businesses are these days, but seriously, how hard is it to send an e-mail?

Yes, I have been playing this game too long to get this upset about it, but sometimes life is hard enough without having to accept crap from these ignorant arseholes. I’m going to have to put myself through it again next week, with a first stage interview for a public sector HR role, and there’s nothing I can do except smile and accept more crap when it comes my way.

Pity party season is well and truly here again. I have no power over this never ending uncertainty, and it drives me crazy. There’s no way out, no easy route through – I’m bound to keep going. Another week of this might make me want to scream, but still I will have to keep going through it. Give up now, and I’ll never get anywhere. That’s the deal.

My reason to be upset is nothing to do with lack of finances and everything to do with how I’m seen in the world. Everyone else seems to find work easily. Everyone else manages to get by and be happy, in my eyes. No one else has these struggles, no one else ever appears to find it infuriating and demoralising. I hear people in meetings say that they feel this way but when I am under this cloud of negativity I just can’t believe them. I’m convinced that they’re lying about it being as hard for them as it is for me. Because outside of the sharing they still manage to keep smiling and looking great, they can still go to their jobs and their boyfriends and their homes, while I can only come back to a lonely hell.

The issue is that I’m comparing myself to others, it always has been. I torture myself needlessly by doing it and I can’t stop it. I just have to think about a comment P might have made, about how it would be easier to find a job and sort my life out if I had a more positive attitude; or what the government and society in general says, that jobs grow on trees and those who can’t get one are fundamentally lazy. I know these things not to be true but just knowing that those views are out there seems really unjust and I can’t stand it. I wish I could just ignore it and realise that it doesn’t matter what the world says, the world doesn’t know anything about me. I don’t know how to do that.

*****

Yesterday gave me the chance of a short break from it all. I’d booked a day trip to Copenhagen with P tagging along.

I was up at 5.30am and leaving to head to the airport for the flight at 6. I met P at the airport and we passed through security efficiently. Had a quick breakfast, got on the plane. Plane took off; half an hour into the flight, I realised I wasn’t nervous about flying. I hadn’t been nervous all morning, which was strange. I was chatting to P like a normal person, excited about the day ahead. Flying to a foreign city for a one day round trip is something that cool people do, and I was doing it. When we got to Copenhagen, the metro transported us swiftly into the centre and we began our epic exploration of Denmark’s capital on foot.

We had loosely planned the day, rather than rigidly setting schedules and buying lots of tickets for things beforehand. I prefer getting to a place and walking round and seeing what takes my fancy, an approach that P was happy to follow. Our friendly chatting continued all day. In the afternoon when we’d done all the sightseeing, we ended up in a gay bar enjoying a hot coffee on a cosy leather sofa. I hadn’t intended on visiting the gay scene as usually it takes up too much energy now, but the bar we found was nice and quiet and not stressful at all. Later on we did dinner and then it was time to go home. Our day trip had been an easy success. When I got home at 1 in the morning I felt like it had been all a dream. I couldn’t believe I’d done it all to budget and had fun (with P!) at the same time. The uncertainty and dread present in my every day life was completely absent all day.

*****

This evening I was due to be meeting A, the enthusiastic AA newcomer, for coffee before the meeting. I went, although I wasn’t in the mood. All day I had been checking my e-mails every five minutes to see if the interviewer from the other day had got in touch yet, even though I knew he wouldn’t. I had sunk into a swamp of melancholic self pity.

At 6pm as I waited outside the tube I desperately wanted to go home and sob but I couldn’t let A down. When we met I think I managed a reasonable impression of someone who was happy to be in company. We chatted for forty five minutes about our lives and our music tastes, and then it was time to head to the meeting. I was about as enthusiastic about going to the meeting as I would be about going to prison, but necessity drove me on because I couldn’t think of any good excuses not to go. We got to the place and A immediately found other people to chat to, while I sat alone in a corner like I do most of the times that I’m there. In the course of our earlier chat A had admitted to being an extrovert, after I had outed myself as an introvert, so our quick separation in the meeting room made sense in that context. Extroverts can flit from one conversation to another with ease because talking to people is their lifeblood; introverts naturally inhabit quiet corners where no one can see them.

I started the meeting wishing to be just slightly different, to not be so drawn to that isolation week after week. After a demoralising day I could have done without it. While A forged multiple friendships around the room I faded into the background, and wanted to explode. I’d have loved A or anyone to come over and sit next to me, tell me everything was going to be all right. But nobody does that if you sit there looking glum. It’s an effort with me not to seem glum.

The chair talked candidly about a childhood of abuse, bullying and isolation followed by an adulthood of addiction and humiliation. It was polished off with some lessons of recovery, i.e. if I can do it anyone can; leave victimhood behind and take some responsibility; pray and God will provide. The steps were outlined perfectly, and I felt a nerve touched. I wanted to reach out to the chair and hold him, I wanted to open my mouth and say that what was true for him is true for me too. I wanted to be how I am when I’m in a really good mood, when sharing and engaging isn’t a battle. I remained blocked throughout the ninety minutes and at the end I was ready to run home without connecting with anyone.

The whole meeting had touched a raw and painful nerve, more than ever. AA always has a way of exposing us to things that we need to hear. Today I needed to hear those things, but because I was extra vulnerable and shaky, I did what I always do, I ran. I was seething on the way home, not with the meeting but with myself, for taking such an old and easy route out of the discomfort. For over a year I have been trying so hard to find ways of reconnecting with AA, I never want to go back to how it was two or three years ago, yet tonight I automatically did the most isolating thing I could do, without even trying to stop myself.

Back home now I feel a bit calmer. I’ve texted a few people including A and I will go to sleep knowing that there’s always tomorrow to get things right again. When things were good the other day I knew that it was all contingent on daily hard work. It certainly is! Success in AA rests on endless effort. Tomorrow, whatever mood I wake up in I will have to do all the right things regardless. I need to keep doing them more than ever now.

Keep on keeping on

Saturday’s meeting was good. I found myself chatting to lots of people naturally before the start, almost as if I were an extrovert. I chatted briefly to people I knew and people I didn’t know; when I went to get a cup of coffee, I even chatted to the guy I’ve had a crush on for weeks! He was serving the coffee, so I would have had to say something to him anyway. We only talked for about thirty seconds, about nothing extraordinary. He’s already forgotten me, I’m sure.

As I was playing the role of everyone’s friend I encountered the usual doubts below the surface. Questions about whether I was saying the right things, was I boring people or making myself look stupid. Once the meeting had started and I couldn’t talk any more I had more time to dwell on these things.

I’d heard the guy giving the chair about three times already in the past six weeks, so I could kind of predict what he was going to say, and I didn’t relate to very much of it. I’d forgotten that that can happen when you go to lots of meetings. The pool of people available to do chairs is limited, and not every share I hear is going to set my world alight. Well it shouldn’t have to.

After the meeting I waited for the group to convene for coffee. I was determined to go again for the third week in a row, though it was a blustery and cold evening and most people looked dead set on rushing home to warmth. I forced myself to stick it out, because the after meeting coffees are how I’ve gotten back into AA recently.

After a few minutes four of us made our way to the local coffee place and had a good natter for half an hour. Clearly I’m in a good place with AA at the moment, with all this socialising coming more naturally than it has done in a very long time. But there’s no doubt I will have to keep working at it every time I go to a meeting. I’ll never be able to take these social opportunities for granted.

*****

My morning meditations are still asking me to think about what I’m resisting in life, and I keep coming back to P. The other day I thought that I was resisting his friendship, but today I think it’s more than that. I’m resisting being honest with him. Now that I’ve realised this it makes a lot of sense. Whether I am to let go of him or keep him in my life, I need to be more honest with him. Whenever he annoys me, instead of saying anything I resist it and keep quiet, because I think he won’t understand or he’ll get upset. That’s why he’s driving me mad, because for so long I haven’t been able to tell him the truth.

It might be helpful to have a list of things he’s done to annoy me, because there are so many of them! It might help me to decide whether I have a case for being really upset with him or not, because I just don’t know any more.

  1. We’ve established that I don’t like his politics, and I don’t like the fact that he doesn’t seem to care or realise what supporting the status quo means for most people
  2. The way he disagrees with most of my opinions and has to be right all the time – I hate it.
  3. His constant use of dating apps when we’re supposed to be socialising gets on my nerves so bad, not just because it’s rude, but it’s the fact he doesn’t realise how big of a waste of time it is
  4. The way he talks on facebook grates on me. “Lolz”, “ActuLOL”, “OMG”, “Awww” are words he actually uses all the time, along with the obligatory emojis. I want to remind him he’s not eighteen years old he’s nearly fifty!
  5. The attention seeking content of his posts gets to me as much as his teenage terminology. His need to be validated online, for example when he nagged me to wish him a happy birthday on his facebook timeline last year, grates on me so much it’s not true.

The first couple of examples may seem more important than the last few, which are just things that lots of people do online (including me sometimes). Maybe so, but since we chat online all the time they are the things I come across the most, and I’m almost more angry about them than I am about the politics and the constant playing of devil’s advocate (although I do wish he’d stop doing it). Above all it’s the immaturity of it all – it gets under my skin. Unless I opt to keep my mouth shut from now on, I’m going to end up snapping at him. At the moment it would just take one thing to set me off, I know it. I know at some point he’ll probably ask what I’m doing this weekend, because he’s bound to have nothing on. After having spent a few hours with him this month, any more would feel like too much and I definitely won’t want to see him this weekend. I might not feel like spending time with him again for a long time, the way things are going.

If not being honest with him is the reason why I feel this way, it might just take a good long chat to sort it out. Then again, it might need more than that. It depends whether the things that bug me so much are things that can be changed or not. Some of them are things he’s always done. Can I really expect him to stop doing all these things? Is it some fundamental aspect of his character that I’m not agreeing with? I know I can’t change him as a person, I can’t change anyone, so perhaps, in the end, I’ll find I can’t be his friend any more. These things aren’t going to stop bothering me. I just haven’t got a clue how I would go about ending this friendship. Our lives are too involved, we have too much planned for the future.

Where the fuck does one start with honesty anyway? I’ve never sat him down and told him he annoys the hell out of me sometimes before. A few times I’ve tried poking fun at his obsessions, like Grindr, like saving money, and he’s just laughed along, not realising that I don’t actually find it funny at all. Maybe I should just let myself snap next time.

*****

At last night’s meeting, apart from talking to lots of people again I managed to say goodbye to some of them before I left the meeting. Usually when everyone’s gathering at the end to say their goodbyes I struggle to get anyone’s attention, and if I’m in a mood I just walk off without bothering to try. It’s what I’ve done at 90% of the meetings that I’ve been to over the years. Breaking that habit is hard. I still hate breaking into a conversation that someone’s having just so I can say goodbye to them or ask them when they’re next free for coffee. But it’s got to be done. There are people I’d genuinely like to be friends with, and they’re not always going to be stood on their own at the end of the meeting waiting for me to come over. I’m learning that by making that extra little effort to say goodbye I’m building up good will with them, with the meeting, with the world in general. Like everything else, it’s going to be a constant effort to keep doing it. I’ll have to keep on keeping on, as they say.

Resentment

I’ve been extra resentful with my oldest friend P this week. I can’t talk to him about my job search any more because he clearly doesn’t think I’m doing it right, and it’s driving me mad. Again, I don’t know whether to give into resentment and let him go, or ignore resentment and keep working at the friendship.

My Headspace meditations at the moment are focused on acceptance. Instead of encouraging me to be more accepting, they assume that acceptance is already a natural state and it’s active resistance to things that I need to be questioning. So every day I’m asking “who or what am I resisting right now?” My mind automatically keeps coming back to P. I don’t think it’s letting him go that I’m resisting, it’s him as a person, him as a friend that I am resisting. If I were to go through with breaking our friendship, I’d be giving into old behaviour that I’ve done so many times before with so many people. If I stick with him, I’m letting go of resistance against him. I’m saying “those things that annoy me don’t matter, I can see past them.” My thoughts keep returning to something I heard in a meeting a few weeks ago, where someone was talking about how they’ve stuck in their relationship for so many years, despite wanting to stab their partner in the eyes on occasion: they learnt to stick at it. More and more I’m seeing that this is what I need to do in life – with P, with AA, even with the job search – and it makes me very uncomfortable, because it’s not what I grew up doing.

*****

The meeting on Friday for once I didn’t walk into feeling resentful, like I didn’t belong there. Normally those resistant feelings become aroused about a minute before I walk into any meeting, but they were absent on Friday because I had a new AA friend to distract me. I’d met up with S for coffee, the newcomer who I’d been chatting to in the week. We went to the meeting together and I felt like I’d found the ally I was looking for, that person who would sit next to me in the meeting without thinking, who’d chat to me when it was over and not allow me to go out on my own, isolated.

The sharing in the meeting was wonderful and I managed to keep that feeling of belonging throughout. Sadly at the end, I lost S as I got chatting to someone and he got chatting to someone. By the time I was ready to leave, he’d already gone. I worry about losing people like that now, because he might have felt that I’d abandoned him, and a subtle wedge could have been driven between us without anything being said. I’m sure this wouldn’t happen to everyone in such a situation, but with me, it seems to be a curse in AA. The big friendships that I’ve had have begun to end this way in the past.

Well, at least I made it nearly a whole meeting without feeling awkward or isolated for once.

Party time

It was indeed party time yesterday. On the way to G’s fellowship and food gathering, I was more nervous than I thought I could be at this stage. It was like going to a new job. I kept an internal debate going about whether I would show up or not all the way to the door of the flat. When I got there I had trouble ringing the doorbell. I still couldn’t decide whether I was really committed to attending the party or not. Eventually I pressed it, with something telling me that it would be silly not to. I’d probably risk bumping into and facing questions from other sober party goers if I were to turn back, anyway.

G seemed happy to see me when I walked through his door, which was initially comforting. But he had barely time to talk to me as he was busy preparing food for fifty people, and there were only two other people in the room, both of whom I didn’t know. I’d have to push myself into polite small talk with these strangers until other people that I knew better showed up.

I’d gotten there early because I thought I had to (someone at the meeting the night before had commented that G liked people showing up on time). In the end it turned out to be just like every other party: people would show up in their own time, which could be one to two hours after the official start. I could have gotten there when it was much later and much busier, and it wouldn’t have mattered to anyone, and I could have found friends instantly instead of having to wait patiently with a plastic cup of juice in my hand. As time dragged by and familiar faces gradually started to arrive, I smiled as much as I could and talked to people when they talked to me, about various satellite subjects of recovery. Really all I wanted to do was stare out of the window at the sweeping view of the river that G’s flat afforded, but social convention was on my mind, so I kept talking.

It was definitely awkward, but for the first hour or so I think I performed well. I managed to find someone else who was generally uncomfortable with this kind of situation, an older guy called S who I’d seen in the background of meetings over the years. He doesn’t seem to remember but he was one of the people who gave me their number in my first ever AA meeting in 2004, three years before I finally got sober. I’ve not spoken to him much since because, like me, he tends to be more of an observer than a talker in meetings, and there hasn’t been any attempt at connecting since 2004. It was a small surprise to find myself spending so much time talking to him yesterday, and I realised that we probably could always have been friends if there’d been more effort.

I’d gone to the party yesterday for this very reason: to connect with like minded people and possibly make new friends. With everyone there being in recovery and everyone knowing how hard it is to reach out in the world, the event should have thrown up many such opportunities to find spiritual soul mates. By the time it got really busy, after 3pm, I’d been there for an hour already and my energy was beginning to flag. And people were doing what people always do: finding their friends and sticking with them. It’s such an easy thing to do, I should have been less surprised. When S found one of his friends, I was left standing in a corner, as I was at many parties in my childhood, before I had alcohol to keep me company. It seems that standing in a corner comes naturally to me.

I knew nearly all of the faces at the party, but as yet there were none that I could easily walk up to and just rely on for conversation. I’ve not been back in AA long enough to have any really close friends there. My reservations about going to the party in the first place had come about mainly from studying the guest list on facebook, which didn’t have anyone that I could really trust on it. In AA you’re supposed to trust people. But this wasn’t an AA meeting, this was a party, with no rules, no traditions, no guidelines. Initially I hoped people would be more like they are in meetings, but in a challenging situation I guess we all revert to form.

When A (a friend from the Saturday meeting) showed up after 3 it was a blessed relief. Finally someone I knew well enough to approach was there. I was tired of the feeling of being on thin ice that standing in a corner had brought about. I rushed over to A and clung to him for company for the next hour. When he moved about the room I moved with him. I knew he would have had the same doubts about the event as me, he didn’t even have to say it. This made me feel I could just trust him. He didn’t seem put out by my constant company. When he had to go to the toilet it induced a moment of panic in me: I’d be left alone again. It was like being a five year old at an adult’s party.

I knew there had to be others there finding it difficult, it couldn’t just be me. But no one was showing the slightest sign of strain. Over the years in meetings I have (perhaps unfairly) complained of other alcoholics appearing to find social intercourse much easier than me. But yesterday, more than ever before, they really seemed to be finding it a doddle in comparison to me. Apart from the moment much earlier on when S had been sitting on his own looking slightly lost, I hadn’t seen one person’s social mask slip for a minute. Everyone was engaged deep in conversation, everyone was smiling, everyone was having fun. It was the school playground all over again, where every kid apart from me had this secret guide book telling them how to socialise.

If someone had looked in my direction at some random point in the afternoon, I wonder if they would have thought that I was finding it easy. It’s possible to be rational about this and assume that over all, I had more good moments than bad yesterday, therefore on average anyone looking at me during the afternoon would have seen me finding it easy. No one can see what’s going on underneath my skin, so it’s quite possible that anyone who saw me would have had no idea what a struggle it was. From that, one could extrapolate that many people there, if not all of them, were going through an internal struggle whilst appearing light and jovial on the surface.

Despite the rationalisations my negative side still kept reminding me of the moments when I had been forced to stand on my own, with no one to rescue me. At the end I still felt like I’d had more such ‘loner’ moments than anyone else there, probably because those moments had felt much longer than the good ones where I was talking.

At 4pm I could see it was starting to get dark outside and I remembered that I could give myself permission to leave. I’d managed two hours, and since I’d have a long journey home, I had an excuse to go. I was pleased when A said he wanted to leave with me: at least I wouldn’t be the only one!

On the way to the train station we tried to convince ourselves that it had been a success. Now that I’m home, I think it certainly wasn’t a failure. I hadn’t just talked to one person that I knew well all afternoon, I’d managed to talk to a couple of new people. I’d lasted two hours, gone home at a reasonable time and said goodbye to people (instead of just running out the door like I wanted to). Importantly, I’d gone in the first place when half the cells in my body wanted me to stay at home.

I hear that G does these things often. I don’t think I can do it again for a long time. I would need an ally there from the start, someone I could always rely on, someone I wouldn’t have to worry whether I’m boring them or cramping their style. It pains me to say it, but I need someone like P in AA! There’s A I suppose, but he might not always want to do these things. I need more allies. Time will tell if I can get them.

31/01/2016

I began Friday evening by trying to catch bad mind patterns before I went out. I thought it worked, but when I got to the meeting I tried to ignore P, the guy I’d met and chatted to after the meeting the night before. I was passing him in the street when he caught my arm and engaged me in conversation that I didn’t want. There’s no reason why I should be ignoring a fellow alcoholic that’s going to the same meeting as me, especially one who I had apparently already befriended. I simply did it automatically with barely a second’s thought, because in the space of twenty-four hours he had gone from being someone I had a pleasant chat with to someone who had probably pretended to be friendly to make fun of me. Luckily for me, he didn’t make an issue of me nearly ignoring him. He talked to me as pleasantly (and as flirtatiously) as he had the night before, and I was able to forget my instinctive (and wrong) reservations.

When I sat in the room it was busier than I had seen it in years. I felt a weight of anxiety settle on me thanks to the sense of being surrounded by too many happy alcoholics. It’s the way I can expect to feel in most busy meetings. P had taken a seat on the other side of the room, so I silently observed in my own private corner as the room got full to bursting with smiling, laughing people that I knew but felt mentally cut off from. The bad mind patterns that I had tried to catch earlier were in full force. I began to follow that old train of thought, that there were certain people who were much better at being sober than me and therefore wouldn’t want me in the room. I became tired and bored of it all. I only had to think back to how good the previous evening had been, when I’d made friends and socialised naturally in a much smaller meeting. It seemed natural to assume that it had been a one off, never to be repeated.

The meeting started and I listened to the sharing nonetheless. The chair talked about being a shy kid who didn’t know how to walk into a room full of people without shaking, over forty years ago when he first got sober. There was immediate identification and I was brought back to my reason for being at the meeting: which is that I really needed to be there. I am an alcoholic whose mind tells me lies all the time. Once again, I had to turn down the volume on my instinctive thoughts and listen instead to a new voice that reminds me I’m not alone in feeling the way I feel in meetings.

What I really would have liked was to repeat the success of the night before. To have a conversation with one of these people who seemed so confident in their skin, to be asked to coffee again – I couldn’t believe it would be possible last night, even though it had been before. I wondered if I could make it possible just by having an open frame of mind about it. I’d done that before, after all, and very recent evidence had shown it to work – yet last night I still doubted. I had to get to the end of the meeting and find out the answer.

By the end when everyone was standing up and forming their cliques, I felt ok. There had been the same amazing sharing that there is every week. I didn’t know how I was going to find a coffee group, so I just went over to the first person I saw, G, who I hadn’t chatted to in a while. He’d announced his first sober anniversary in the meeting and I wanted to congratulate him. I was pleased when he immediately asked if I wanted to go for a meal to help him celebrate. I genuinely hadn’t been expecting any socialising last night: going up to someone instead of going straight home like I always have in the past was all it took.

A group of people apparently were going to join us, but we’d have to wait around for them for at least ten minutes, because everyone had to say goodbye to everyone who wasn’t coming first. The task of coaxing people away from the meeting room at the end was slow and arduous. It always was in the old days when I used to stick around for fellowship there. I dislike standing there in the crowd as it slowly disperses – it’s like being in a school playground at the end of the school day.

Eventually our group was on its way to a nearby restaurant and I found myself talking to a flight attendant from the USA who was here visiting. I’d never seen him before, may never see him again, but after a minute we were talking like old buddies. I shared the brief story of my journey in AA and he shared his. I liked talking to him. He didn’t know much about the restaurant we were in and I was able to make some recommendations on the menu. I asked him what the fellowship was like in his home state and he described his home group at length. I ignored the awkward feelings that emerged intermittently within, just as I had been ignoring them all evening. It felt unnatural to go between chatting with my new friend and the rest of the group, but I did like a practised socialite because I was able to observe others in the group doing it. Friendly moments accumulated and turned into friendly hours; it became a classic evening of AA fellowship. And this is what I mean by a gay ‘community’: it’s what the traditional gay scene always lacked for us.

*****

I was surprised to receive a text from A in the middle of lunch today, asking if I was free for coffee before this evening’s meeting. I’ve known A in meetings for a long time but have never done coffee with her or spent more than a few minutes chatting to her. Last week after the meeting we exchanged numbers and she said she’d get in touch with me about coffee – I forgot about it until today. It’s been a long time since I did anything interesting on a Saturday evening that didn’t involve (non-AA friend) P. It felt a bit weird saying yes to the suggestion.

Coffee with A was good; we had a nice chat about recovery and jobs and relationships, the ups and downs associated with each. I couldn’t shake an edgy feeling inside as we talked; by the time we got to the meeting it was still there. I later realised that our conversation about jobs had reminded me of my current anxieties in the search for a new career. I was also thinking about G’s fellowship party, which is happening tomorrow. I forced myself to talk to the people that I knew at the meeting although I just wanted to sit at the back and shudder. Somehow I had enough presence of mind to know that the nerves would go after about half an hour, and they did.

The chair was given by an old AA friend that I hadn’t seen in some years. Like so many people, he was one of those who disappeared from my life in 2010 or 2011 when I was starting to drift from the fellowship. He’d made an effort to say hello to me and hug me before the meeting, and his chair was an inspiration, so I was the second person to share back when it was time – the earliest I’ve ever shared in that meeting. By the end, I felt a normal part of things, just as I have in all the meetings I’ve been to since Thursday after the initial discomfort.

At the end I tested myself further, by hanging around to see if I could do fellowship coffee for the third night in a row. I knew it would be perfectly possible if I just stood there long enough. M unfortunately was too busy to go this week, so I’d have to find someone else to tag along with. I might have expected him to be busy one week – everyone will be at some point in life – I couldn’t keep relying on him to guide me every week. For about five minutes I stood outside not knowing who I’d end up walking to the coffee house with, whether it would be a friend or someone new. After five minutes a newcomer that I’d chatted to briefly last night after the meeting came over and asked me if I was going for coffee. And so I was off.

A few familiar faces from last week joined us, and I was able to spend another pleasant hour in the company of sober alcoholics. I ended up spending most of the time talking to the newcomer, who as it turned out was only seven days back from a relapse. He was clearly struggling with things and I responded to his need for help by being wise and helpful on the surface (underneath I felt as out of my depth as I always do). I gave him my number and did that thing that always makes me cringe inwardly: I told him to call me if he ever needs a chat. I just did it because it’s what people in AA do. By now I must recognise that what I want to do (keep my number to myself) isn’t always the best thing for me, or indeed for the newcomer.

So, I hope I’ve helped another person this evening. Maybe I’ve even made a new friend. I got a nice text from him after I got home, thanking me for the company and saying that we should chat again soon. During my years out of AA, the idea of getting a friendly text from anyone other than P was alien to me. Really, I’m where I thought I could never be this time last year, talking to people and sharing the pain and joys of recovery. At that time, I imagined it would take many years of effort to get back into the AA bed, if I could at all.

There were others at tonight’s little gathering who are going to G’s party tomorrow, and I was lucky to get some reassurance from them on the subject before I went home for the night. I’m not the only one who’s nervous about going to it. It’s not going to be full of people who want to ignore me. I was still undecided about going earlier today; now I’m decided. I will be going. It may not be the best party I’ve ever been to, I may not make any great new friends, but it will be just fine, if I can keep that open mind and steer away from those bad old thinking patterns.

Eight years ago I hoped and thought that the people I was going for coffee with would be my friendship group forever. I don’t want to say I was naive for thinking that – anyone would think it, and for some people the friends that they make in early recovery do end up being lifelong pals. For me, I’ve had to accept that life happens and the people I once knew have moved on. The people whose company I enjoyed tonight may too have moved on in a few years from now. I would let this fact of life get to me a few years ago, but I can’t let it get to me now. If I’m going to meetings and doing regular fellowship I’ll always have someone to go to coffee with, whether it’s someone I’ve gone with before or someone new. The crowd I was out with last night was completely different to tonight’s crowd, that doesn’t make it any better or worse. If I can find one or two good friends amongst all these gatherings, I’ll be doing ok.

Acceptance was the answer

The darkness lifted and I’ve been feeling more balanced since yesterday. Taking the time to meditate in the mornings again has certainly helped; proof if ever I needed it that it has an effect on my mental state. If one meditates as a matter of routine for a long time there is a temptation to look for overt signs of it working, but in this case it wasn’t until I stopped that the effects became clear. I suppose it’s similar to anti-depressants in that respect. So I must have found something that works for me, something I can do for the rest of my life for free. It is good to know that there is something I can do. Though the fact that it’s a daily practise for the rest of my life is, as I was saying the other day, still challenging. You spend years genuinely thinking that you could one day feel ok without trying; you fantasise about being a “normal” person who doesn’t have to do all these things just to stay afloat, because that’s how the world frames illness and wellness. People who are ill are supposed to just get better, eventually. I think more and more people are slowly waking up to the fact that mental illness isn’t quite like that, but for me it’s not been a happy realisation. Until now in recovery when I’ve experienced these attacks I’ve known that they aren’t isolated and that they would probably keep recurring for some time – but today I am fully aware that mental unbalance will be my default state for the rest of my life. There will never come a time when I’m cured, like I always secretly hoped there would. I can keep meditating, I can keep doing AA and sharing it with others, and I might experience reprieve for most of my days. But the mental upkeep will always be a job that I have to do. I simply have to start adapting to that knowledge.

*****

I don’t tend to go to meetings on Thursdays but the newcomer I met the other day, M, had suggested a gay topic meeting in town which sounded good. He’d said it’s easy to share at this meeting because it’s quieter than the others, and they go for coffee and fellowship afterwards too (always a plus point in my books these days). On the way there I had the usual reluctance about doing something good for myself. As I hadn’t been to the meeting for a long time and probably wasn’t going to know many people there, I felt that fear. I think I managed to do a pretty good job of ignoring it, as I went straight into the meeting without hesitation. Inside I saw a few people I recognised and some I didn’t. I said “hello” to the ones I knew and hoped one of them would start a conversation with me, but none did because they were busy talking to the people I didn’t know. The ones I didn’t know seemed superficially young and glamorous, completely unlike me, and I was tempted by judgmental and critical thoughts for a few minutes.

When the meeting started the topic of dating in recovery was chosen as the theme for sharing. How apt for me, given that I have not figured out how to date in recovery at all. It soon transpired that none of us have figured it out, surprise surprise. One would have expected there to be at least one happy, balanced individual in the room who has found love in recovery and who could answer some of the questions that we have about it – but there were none. There was an even split in the sharing between newcomers who are eager to find out if sober relationships are possible, and us old timers who’ve found it to be in many senses impossible.

A lot of what was said expressed this exasperation and defeat that I have always felt around love and relationships. When it was my turn to share, I’d have loved to put some positive spin on it; maybe I could have said that one day, you never know, I might be surprised and find I could love like everyone else all along. But it wouldn’t have felt true saying that, and I stuck to a theme of “all experience has shown that relationships aren’t possible for me, and I’m learning to be ok by myself.” The nice thing is that my view was shared by pretty much all the other long term sober men in the room. As gay men who have had to shun the gay scene where most of the action happens, we’re all learning to be ok by ourselves, without that fantasy of perfect love.

At the end of the meeting I momentarily had to turn away from the temptation to say “well that was a good showing, now I can go home.” In the heart of London on a Thursday night, going for coffee with a bunch of gay alcoholics seemed like just the sort of thing I should be doing. For the second time in a week I was being sociable in AA, and it brought on that sense of deja vu again, where I was reminded of my early sobriety, and the days when I did this naturally all the time. I won’t say it wasn’t nice to be in that space again.

The theme of sober dating had captured everyone’s imagination, and most of us were happy to carry on talking about it as we walked to a nearby coffee house. Now that there’s marriage equality, the idea of shunning sex and relationships can seem even more perverse to anyone who doesn’t have a problem with them. I’m happy that there is marriage equality here now, but it hasn’t changed my life yet. I haven’t noticed an increase in men on Grindr looking for meaningful and romantic encounters; quite the opposite. With so much freedom to do what we want now, people are spending ever greater energies on satisfying their immediate needs and forgetting the rest.

There may be a self evident irony in the fact that there’s a room full of gay men on a Thursday night feeling equally disillusioned with the state of things, yet none of us could ask another out on a date. It would feel like breaching an important boundary. Although people in AA do date each other occasionally – I think many of us secretly wish it happened more frequently, in fact – the rooms are advertised first and foremost as a safe space, the gay rooms especially are a safe haven away from all the sick and twisted behaviours of the gay scene, and asking people on dates just isn’t done.

When we got to the cafe there were some predictably awkward moments for me, thanks to the “odd number” syndrome where the other six people in the group paired off to converse and I, the seventh, was left without a natural conversation partner. This didn’t last all night, luckily. Even as I was sat by myself, staring into space, I didn’t care as much as I once might have done, maybe because I knew the group would soon dwindle and someone would eventually talk to me. The only reason to care about being the odd one out is that it might lead to judgment from others, something I hope to avoid worrying about in general, just as I hope to avoid judging people myself now.

When the group had dwindled sufficiently in numbers attention did start to turn in my direction, and one of the handsome young men that I had been judging critically earlier on at the meeting came out with the old chestnut “you’re a bit quiet, aren’t you?” God, how I used to hate hearing that. I used to pour drink defiantly down my throat to show people that I wasn’t the boring, timid being they clearly had me down as. Tonight I reined in the anger that wanted to burst in me, made an effort to gloss over it and engage in the conversation that had been going on. I don’t know, maybe when he said it he meant it in a friendly way, to try and engage me. Ignoring my doubts and judgments and biases, I really tried to be part of the group once it had reached out to me because I know that’s how friends are made. I don’t know if I’ll socialise with these particular people ever again, maybe none of them will turn out to be the long term sober friends I’m hoping for. But I’m compelled to keep doing this, to keep trying in spite of everything because my only other option is going home to face loneliness and isolation. There literally is no other option for me: at eight and a half years sober I can say that with confidence.

For the last fifteen minutes or so I had the attention of a gregarious group member named P, whose conversation could have been described as borderline flirtatious. I don’t know if it was just the excitement of the occasion or if he really was flirting – I’ve always been notoriously bad at telling. His knee kept touching mine at intervals and he kept saying things like “I’m not normally like this!” Despite that we had quite a good chat about gay films that we like and some future community events that he’s going to. I wasn’t romantically interested in him to start with and it’s certain that nothing will happen between us, if indeed he was flirting – if I see him again it will be just another sober friendship, and I think he probably knew that too by the end of the evening.

Talking to such a gregarious and confident character once would have scared the life out of me. In the old days I’d instinctively think that a young, confident extrovert like that was only talking to me to make fun of me. But I don’t think P was doing that. He wasn’t cracking jokes at my expense or making sly comments about my appearance, he was just talking to me like anyone would. If I see him again, or if I meet others like that in the fellowship (which, if I carry on this way, I may well), let’s hope I don’t make the same mistake that I made in such friendships eight years ago, by allowing them to erode because of that constant underlying doubt about their motives.

Every time I’m in this situation, I have to keep reminding myself that others find it as difficult as I do. I’ll never be able to read anyone’s mind, so I’m just going to have to take it on faith.

Over all, I had a fun evening, I’m glad I stuck around for it all, and I hope I can push myself to do it again next time.

*****

On the subject of acceptance and mental illness, I just realised maybe this is part of step one that I never did. Maybe the permanence of my disease is another thing that I am to accept powerlessness over; and perhaps in that final acceptance, one day, I will be liberated as I no longer cling to the elusive idea of a cure.

A daily reprieve / fear of the known

As Saturday moves into the past I think it could become one of those ‘treasured’ sobriety memories that I occasionally refer back to in my reflective moments. Other treasured memories include things that I’ve written about on this blog before…favourite holidays, nights out dancing in London with fellowship, convivial post-meeting meals in 2008, AA conventions. Saturday was definitely as special as all those things, perhaps one of the high points of the decade because it was so unplanned for and so distant from the last time I did anything so interesting after a meeting. Of course I hope it will happen again soon – it might be quite simple to make it happen again this week – but the repetition of a special night amongst friends is never guaranteed. In the early days I think I used to take these events for granted. I used to wonder if I was going for post-meeting fellowship too much, and I made up excuses about how the people I was mixing with weren’t real friends or how they didn’t want me tagging along with them to the coffee house so much, so I could avoid going sometimes.

After a few years, I’d actively isolated myself from the fellowship so much without even realising it, that the coffees and the meals eventually dried up. I didn’t know I could cause a friendship and support network to erode (well, something deep down told me I could and the thought privately bothered me for years, until I made an effort to re-establish myself in AA last year). For a long time the convenient narrative of the disease would have me believe that I had passively watched people drift away for no reason. I thought that just going to meetings should be enough to attract new sober friends and social opportunities, but it never was. This business of fellowship is hard work, one day at a time.

*****

Tonight I attended my former home group, the newcomer’s meeting in west London, for the second week in a row. It was ok. I definitely needed a meeting, regardless of whether I’d have any friends there or not. I didn’t talk much to anyone before or afterwards, but I at least managed to share in the middle. The room was even quieter than last week so putting my hand up to share was easy. I don’t believe in sharing raw, negative stuff in a newcomer’s meeting any more so I tried to elaborate on last week’s theme of the benefits of long term sobriety. I said that once I’d accepted it as a daily program contingent on continuous hard work, things started to get better for me. Hopefully someone took some of it in.

I needed a meeting because of the edgy anxiety that has been plaguing me the last few days. It’s insomnia and the resulting fatigue – my energy levels have been slipping along with my serenity. In the meeting I suddenly had a lightbulb moment: I haven’t meditated since December. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense to attribute what’s been happening to the reduction in spiritual practise. When I was meditating I never had these problems. I didn’t have a clue that it was helping me to sleep at night, but evidently there appears to be a link.

With the increase in anxiety there is a sense of doom in my life. It’s always been there, ever since I was a kid, but I guess when I’m meditating and doing things to keep my mind well, it’s kept more at bay. For a very long time I hoped I would one day find a cure, whether it was a type of therapy I’d never tried, a stronger dose of antidepressants, writing the blog more frequently, going to more meetings, having more sober friends. I’m more willing to accept today that I just have an anxiety disorder and there is no cure. I can only keep it at bay every day by doing the things that I’ve identified as healthy. It’s sad to think I may always be a little bit ill, but people in AA are always saying that there’s no cure and they’ve learnt to live with it. I used to think they were just saying that hypothetically, to somehow trick their disease into thinking they’re ok with it and thus beating it for good, but really the truth is that I will have to learn to live with this.

Having not conversed with anyone at the meeting I knew I could and should pick up the phone to someone on my way home. I don’t normally think about phoning anyone, but I wanted to hear someone’s voice tonight. Sadly I didn’t know who I could phone at that time of night. Although I’ve been for a number of coffees recently and tentatively made a few new sober friends, I didn’t feel I was yet at the stage with any of them where I could just randomly call them. It was easier when I was a newcomer eight years ago because everyone expects newcomers to call them. If I had a sponsor then I wouldn’t have faced this dilemma tonight, but I don’t have one yet, so I did.

I thought it was going to be a lonely evening when out of the blue my phone started ringing when I was ten minutes from home. It was M, the newcomer that I had coffee with on Saturday after the meeting. He’d been having a difficult week too and wanted to chat about it for a few minutes. Apparently he nearly relapsed yesterday, but didn’t, taking himself to a meeting to share instead. I told him well done for doing the right thing. He asked how I was and I talked a bit about insomnia and anxiety – not so much that it would overwhelm him, just enough so that I could be honest and get it off my chest. He said that we could meet on Thursday and talk about meditation (he practises Buddhism) and I instantly felt better. So, without meaning to, I’ve experienced recovery in action tonight. When my phone began ringing my instinct was to ignore it – I’ve always felt a visceral aversion to answering the phone, whoever might be ringing me. Thank God I didn’t ignore it for once.

*****

Accepting that I have some form of anxiety disorder or disease which will never be cured may make life easier on one level, because it can explain my mood swings, why I can get to eight years sober and have a wonderful weekend and then feel terrible a couple of days later. On another level, it terrifies me. It means I’ll always go from one extreme to another in my head. It means I may never truly relax in my skin, with the knowledge that my emotions can always sink again tomorrow. Granted, the daily reprieve that I get from my 12 step program will comfort me, sometimes. But I will have to spend my life being careful, watching out for my demons around every corner. I’ve been able to identify these demons for decades, and at times in the last few years it has really seemed as if I could be conquering them, but today I am finally understanding the truth that it cannot be permanently conquered. Only treated from day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute. It’s somewhat ironic that what others in AA realised years ago has taken me this long to comprehend, given the thousands of occasions on which I’ve heard it in meetings. Perhaps I should have taken someone’s advice literally when they told me to remove the cotton wool from my ears and put it in my mouth.

My disease has acted up memorably this week with an insomnia that seems insurmountable. It’s taking me hours to get to sleep at night, and then I’m waking up three or four times before sunrise. My sleep in between these gaps is never more than light. On Saturday night, despite the wonderful evening just passed, I was troubled by one harrowing thought alone: that my mother was dying. Around 11pm I heard her go to bed and quickly begin snoring in the room next door. After half an hour she suddenly stopped snoring, and I heard nothing more for the rest of the night. She doesn’t usually snore, which was unusual in itself. Instead of thinking that she must have just turned over on her side, a move which normally stops people snoring in my experience, I expected and waited to hear her start snoring again. It worried me that there was no more noise coming from her room at all. The loud snoring had alerted me to the fact that she was alive, I guess in a symbolic sense. The sudden absence of sound now began to panic me because I’d been worried about her dying for a long time and this seemed to present itself as strange but incontrovertible evidence. She could have stopped snoring as the result of a heart attack, or of accidentally choking in her sleep. I couldn’t take my mind off all of the terrifying possibilities.

For hours I listened out for any sound. Most nights I will hear her turn over in her sleep at some point: I didn’t hear that at all that night. By 3 or 4am, I was convinced she must have died. Logically I should have just gone to check, right? But in my sleep deprived and somewhat crazed state, it didn’t cross my mind. I just lay there, and lay there, waiting for a sound. Eventually a light sleep must have taken me unawares, because I woke later on Sunday morning to the sound of her up and about having her breakfast.

I’ve had very few attacks as bad as that in my life, which led me to think earlier that something’s really wrong this time and I have to start meditating again. In the light of day I can see it’s a symptom of my disease, a paranoid episode brought about by days of insomnia and unrelieved anxiety. At night, and sometimes even in the day, I wonder if this sickness is beginning to cling onto my mother as a way of keeping itself alive. The fact that my mother will probably die in the next twenty to thirty years is the hardest thing I’m ever going to deal with, I have no answer to it and so it’s a thought that can just keep going and going. I really fear that I may spend the rest of her life having moments where I am paralysed by this realisation. I may forget about it for a while, but it will always be there, ready to jump on me at the slightest reminder.

The cruellest thing is that I can’t help but follow this path, always, to its conclusion. I scare myself. My illness has me inflicting self torture.

This morning, something else happened. Her alarm started going off as it always does at around 6am for work, but this time she didn’t seem to hear it, cacophonous as it is. For ten minutes I was kept awake by the incessant noise, and I’m sure half the block was too. I began to think again that she must be dead, and that’s why she’s not waking up. I went into some kind of shocked state of emergency; adrenalin rushed through my body and I couldn’t have told you my own name as I stumbled into the room next door to see if it was true. I tapped her, and for a second she didn’t move, and my life was a horror movie. Then she woke up, said “sorry” and switched the alarm off, started to get up and begin another normal day. She asked if I was all right as I stumbled back to my room – I couldn’t answer – she must have seen something of the panic in my eyes. It left me feeling a mixture of embarrassment and horror and I’m still not totally over it, because it could happen again tomorrow.

It probably won’t – it’s a bloody loud alarm clock and she’s never missed it before – but in case it does happen again, whether it’s tomorrow or next year, I won’t be able to take it. I can’t take the mental torment that her mortality is already putting me through. What the fuck am I going to be like in fifteen or twenty years’ time when the end really will be nigh?