The lesson

It was hard to go and speak at my home group last night. Normally I don’t get nervous about chairs in meetings any more, but I was more nervous than I had perhaps been since my first ever chair, when I was six months sober. When I got to the meeting, I still wanted to be at home in bed. It’s an honour to be asked to lead your home group meeting on your tenth anniversary, I’d been looking forward to the occasion for weeks, yet I couldn’t lie to them about how I was feeling yesterday. It hadn’t been a good day, and I told people that whenever they asked.

Despite the nerves I had to give the chair and make some kind of sense. I decided I would talk about recovery instead of drinking, for a change. Last week when I did a chair I talked almost exclusively about my drinking, the subject that’s normally focused on in chairs. Not many people give much time to the story of their recovery, and since I was getting a second opportunity to talk in a week I thought I would try and tell the true story of this ten years. I told them everything, about my first sponsor and my shyness around meetings in the early days, the slow build up of resentments against the fellowship, the way my understanding of the steps never really reached completeness. I talked a lot about the “six year slump” when I left meetings and decided I didn’t need a program any more. I recounted the night I was at the pub with work colleagues and I nearly drank, because they kept asking me why I wasn’t drinking and I couldn’t give them a satisfactory answer. I explained how hard long term sobriety can be to maintain in a level of detail I’ve never gone into before. Most of the time people don’t talk about that kind of thing in the meetings I go to. The only meeting I’ve been to that focuses on issues of later sobriety is the Thursday night in South London, one which I used to attend eagerly to hear about what later sobriety was like.

People shared back with gratitude for my honesty. I had been apprehensive about how such an unusual chair would go down, and the response proved there was no need for apprehension. They appreciated hearing about the dangers of letting resentments build up in the fellowship, and what happens when you don’t go to meetings. For some people out there, leaving the fellowship might be a good move; none of us knew anyone that it had worked out well for, though. I was lonely and angry for two years when I wasn’t going to meetings, and I nearly drank. The only reason I didn’t drink was because I didn’t want to lose that sobriety date.

It was nice to use my voice authentically and to have a good response to it. Prior to the meeting I had asked several people if they’d be going out for dinner afterwards, as I wouldn’t get another opportunity to celebrate being ten years sober. Many people gathered outside at the end for food, as they normally do on a Saturday, and I was a little weary of continuing to be the centre of attention. I’d been the focus of everyone’s attention for nearly two hours, and it was only set to continue. But I had put myself in that position because it was my tenth anniversary, and I knew somewhere inside that I needed to be at the centre of things, to celebrate and make some memories.

People asked me where I wanted to eat and I just suggested the place where they usually go, a busy burger restaurant round the corner. They do good burgers there and I knew I’d enjoy the food, but I also knew that it would be difficult to find a table where we could all talk to each other. Initially I was at the front leading the group with C, my crush, but somehow I got separated from him on the five minute journey and ended up stuck at the back of the group, meaning that I got last dibs on a place at the table and had to take a small, squashed space in a corner. I was sitting with two shy newcomers that didn’t say much, while the people I knew best were far away at the other end. This was why I rarely went to the burger restaurant with that group, why I preferred the coffee shop with the other group where at least I could hear what people were saying to me. Here there was loud music booming out of a speaker above my head all night, and it was an uphill struggle to get any conversation going at my end of the table. I could have cursed God for putting me in this position again. I had to wonder at why it seemed so easy for other people, people like C, who always just ends up with friends and has a great time.

Before long I knew that I was being presented with an opportunity to test my social skills, and I started to make an effort with my neighbours. By a miracle I ended up having quite a good chat with the person sitting next to me, someone I had never seen before, who happened to have studied acting at the same college where I’m studying counselling. We talked all about the college and the excitement of changing careers for a good half hour. I made an effort with some of the newcomers as well, and although it wasn’t a conversation to write home about, I felt I got to know them a little better.

My fear that I would be the centre of attention all night ironically proved unfounded. I could have been forgotten about entirely had I not opened my mouth and started speaking.

After dinner when we were all standing outside the restaurant, satisfied and ready for our beds, I continued with the effort to be part of things by laughing at jokes and offering reflections on the night. It was a lovely ten minutes, as we said farewell and crystallised our bonds. I could go home knowing the night had been a success – an unexpected one, in many ways – and I could forget the bad feelings of earlier.

I had ended my chair by talking about the fact that feelings never go away, no matter how long you’ve been sober. The most important lesson I’ve learned in sobriety is to take life one day at a time, literally. I can have a bad morning like yesterday morning and feel like shit: unlike my newly sober self ten years ago, I can acknowledge these feelings and carry on through the day, facing what needs to be faced. One day at a time, or one step at a time, I can walk through fear and anger and meet friends and smile and end a day on a good note. My fear and my anger hasn’t gone away, but I’m learning to live with it. I already knew this, but it was clear to me again last night that this was what I needed to keep doing, if I wanted to cultivate the intimate relationships that I so crave. I need to keep being around people and sharing with them. Five years ago I didn’t use my voice in meetings, and I paid the price.

Ten years sober

Today is ten years to the day since I stopped drinking. Of course I’m happy. I’ve reached a milestone that I didn’t think I would ever reach; an anniversary I dreamed of reaching when I was a year sober and I heard about these magical people who had a whole decade of clean time. I wanted to get there so badly, to achieve that miracle and have the wisdom of a true AA old timer like the rest of them. Now I’m here, it’s not in any way what I expected it to be.

It’s definitely been ten years, it feels like much longer in some ways. But I don’t feel like celebrating anything right now. I’m stressed out and I don’t have everything I wanted all those years ago when I began to fantasise about this day. I’ve agreed to chair my home group meeting later on and I’ve invited them all out to a meal afterwards, but at this moment I’d rather cancel. I can’t believe I’ve willingly made myself the centre of attention by telling them all. I just want to hide in bed!

I’m stressed about the counselling diploma that I’m starting in September (I was accepted on to it, as expected – yay for me!) I’m supposed to be receiving an information pack which will include important stuff such as a formal offer letter and necessary preparation for the course, but it hasn’t come yet. I called them and they said it was posted out yesterday. So it could come next week, but I don’t want to wait until then, I want the letter in my hands so I can be 100% confident that the course is happening. Logically, there’s no way it isn’t happening – they’ve offered me the place and I’ve accepted it. But in my emotional head, I’ve spent so long waiting for certainty about my future and this just feels like more uncertainty. Until I can see the letter confirming everything I’m not going to rest. I was hoping to have it today on this special day, it would have made the occasion so much nicer.

I’m also stressed about money. In the week I decided to lock away most of the money remaining from the 2015 RG share pay out in a fixed bond, so that I can’t spend it on frivolous things like more holidays in the coming years. A wise decision on paper, I’ve begun to experience a smidgen of regret over it. I left what I thought would be enough in my spending account to cover any emergencies that might come up in the next couple of years, while I’m studying and earning a minimal part time wage. Now I just don’t know if it will be enough. Judging by how much I’ve spent on a monthly basis in the past year, it definitely won’t be enough. I’ve got two weeks to change my mind and close the fixed bond, but I don’t want the hassle. I chose the five year bond with the highest interest, due to bank rules you can only open one of these a year so I’d lose that interest instantly. I could put a lower amount into a new fixed bond with slightly less interest, but it seems such a bother. I chose the highest interest and the longest fixed term for a reason. I’m not supposed to be spending that money, it’s far better off left where it is.

If I don’t have any more holidays, if I can live frugally in the next few years then I’ll be all right. But I’ve been saying that for the past two years and I haven’t lived frugally at all. OK, I’ve had a number of major holidays that cost the earth and if I just don’t book any more of those, I might be OK. But I don’t know what’s going to come up in the next few years. Normally in the winter I have this habit of obsessing about holidays because of the bad weather, and I’m sure this time next year I’ll be gagging for one. Maybe one a year would be doable, but I just don’t know. It wouldn’t leave room to spend on anything else that might turn out to be necessary in the long run.

I’m relying on the idea that I’ll be able to leave this part time job as soon as I graduate from the diploma and get a much better paying full time job in counselling. If that doesn’t happen in the autumn of 2019, I’ll be screwed.

Of course, I’ve been panicked about money before and my higher power has never let me down, yet. The future hasn’t happened yet and it might well be ok. The money I’ve left in my account as a buffer is still there for now. If I stick to the rules I’ve been trying to stick to all year then it could stay there. I just can’t do any big holidays or spend on frivolous things.

With all this on my mind today I can’t relax, can’t get into a celebratory mood. Knowing that holidays are where the most of the money has gone this year, I’ve come to the conclusion that I can’t justify going to France in September with P. Especially with how I feel about our relationship at the moment. Although everything is already booked and I won’t be getting any refunds, it seems like the sensible thing to just cut my losses and cancel the holiday. If I go there there’s no way I’ll be budgeting and spending wisely. It will be another £500 gone and my “prudent reserve” will be even more depleted. Always in my mind is the idea that I can just close the fixed bond and use more of that money, but I don’t want to keep spending money on things I don’t need. The next two years are an important opportunity to live sensibly for the first time, and I want to learn.

P won’t be happy with the email I’ve just sent him. I’ve explained why I can’t go on the holiday and apologised sincerely for letting him down. I feel bad for agreeing to the holiday in the first place when I knew it was supposed to be a year of austerity; I don’t feel bad that I won’t be going on the holiday. In my head I already had a long list of ground rules that I was going to make P agree to, things like not spending time together in the days, not checking in on facebook everywhere we go, not talking about money, not going to bars – when you have to set ground rules for a holiday with someone you’ve known for a long time, it’s hardly a good sign. It wouldn’t have been a holiday, it would have been a sentence to get through. I don’t suppose P realises that, but I hope he can in time.

In therapy for the past three weeks all I’ve talked about is P. This week I wanted to focus on sex and relationships, the big issue that brought me to therapy in the first place. It’s clear that ten years of recovery hasn’t helped me to make any progress in this area, which is why I’m keen to get on with finding the answers in therapy. When I brought it up yesterday I couldn’t avoid the certain knowledge that I already have the answers, somewhere inside. Therapy is just a safe space where I get to explore and make sense of my own inner world. The therapist can’t tell me what to do. I talked about the fact that I am stuck at sixteen years old when it comes to intimate relationships. The fact that what I learnt about myself at school is just a set of beliefs, yet such a powerful set of beliefs they still seem like facts most of the time. The fact that no amount of learning in sobriety has stopped the chance of meeting anyone good from seeming hopeless. I spent fifty minutes focusing on my life’s great paradox, and I came out feeling more sad and angry and scared than I ever feel in the course of a normal day. But the therapist’s view is that feelings are good: I have to live them, to experience them authentically, until they pass. All person centred therapists believe that this congruent living in feelings is what leads to change and growth, not words or “solutions”. As an adult I agree with that wholeheartedly, but as I child I don’t want to wait for the growth to take its own sweet time. I want to move on NOW.

All the problems I have today are not the problems I had ten years ago. I am grateful to have ten years of sobriety, I really am. It’s wonderful that I will be starting a diploma in counselling in September, and that my life is undoubtedly on the right track. I have these heavy feelings today because I have a lot on my plate, and it won’t always feel like that. Ten years of sobriety has shown me that. Later I could go to the meeting and put my happy face on, because I’ll be the centre of attention and some people might want to see a man celebrating his tenth year looking happy about it. Or I could use the time I’ve got in my chair to be honest, let some of these feelings out. At ten years I know more than ever that hiding my true feelings, trying to be something else, doesn’t work. I’ll have half an hour to speak. That’s plenty of time.

Feelings and facts

The thing about what I was describing last week is that I have all the answers. I know how to go into these situations and feel confident, be myself, make a success of it. I’ve been around for too long for there to be any mystery. In four days I will be ten years sober, and I have the resources I need to lead a good life. But I keep getting in my own way. It’s too easy to get in my own way because I’ve done it all my life. I give into the child’s fear because I am a normal human being that prefers to act on instinct rather than reason.

I can go to my aunt’s house in Surrey and have a great time despite the fears inside. I can ask someone I like out on a date despite the immense doubts that it will go well. To do anything challenging I have to do it with the feelings going on all the while. The feelings may never cease. I found out the answer twelve years ago when I looked on someone’s book shelf and saw a book titled ‘Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway’. The sentiment can seem over positive and cloying, but it’s still accurate to my situation today.

And so I must move on. The choice in front of me is the same as it ever was: take risks to get what I want in life, or remain stagnant. There’s no middle way. I won’t find myself in an intimate relationship with someone by accident. It will happen by my conscious actions alone.

All I’ve read about psychology and all I’ve experienced in therapy has brought me to the over-arching conclusion that my feelings are not facts, they are relics from the past. On a daily basis they can seem as factual as the colour of the sky or the position of my nose on my face, when I’m tired and I have a lot going on and logical questioning is a stretch too far. A couple of weeks ago these were the factual reasons why I could never meet someone and form a loving relationship:

  1. I’ve had a bad case of acne for the past five years – who’d be attracted to that?
  2. I have tummy problems that mean I can’t stop passing wind at night
  3. I still live with my mother
  4. I don’t enjoy penetrative sex and I find it nearly impossible to orgasm in the presence of another person

Today I see that they are personal beliefs I came to a long time ago, beliefs that I can choose to buy into. I’m aware that in the future they will seem like facts again, whenever times are challenging. Maybe I should have a note on the desk in my room that just says: “feelings not facts”.

With all this in mind I still have no idea when or if the intimate relationship I’m seeking will form. But the future is not mine to guess at. I think I can serve myself better by focusing on now, on what’s in front of me.

*

I’ve started a new novel: my fourth attempt at one in recovery. I think I can say that my autobiography is finally finished, and that I’m ready to move on to a new project. It’s going to be about what I know, the life of an introverted gay man in London who struggles with addictions and relationships. I’ve decided to try and write as if it doesn’t matter how ‘good’ it is, because I will never know what ‘good’ is and this struggle to achieve it must be what has always held me back with writing. After years of trying to be someone else in my writing – to be a ‘good’ writer – I’m finally just writing as myself, saying what I want to say. And how liberating that has been.

*

I’m also on a diet. I’ve given up sugar (again) because of this spare tyre around my midriff that refuses to disappear. When I tell people that I’m aiming to lose weight they invariably look at me and laugh: to most people I look thin and therefore couldn’t possibly be on a diet. They don’t seem to realise how well some shirts can hide a big belly. A few years ago I had a flat tummy that I took for granted; how I miss it now!

*

P and I exchanged emails again last week after a two week silence. To sum up, he accepts my need to be on a ‘break’ from him. We’ve talked as much as we can about our political differences – he’s never going to see things from my point of view and I will never see things from his. It’s at the point where we are beyond politics. I’ve realised that the problem in our relationship is about much more than that. In my last email to him I hinted at the real issue as I see it – this lack of authenticity between us, the fact that we can’t have honest conversations face to face because he constantly without realising does this devil’s advocate thing and replies to any opinion with a “yeah, but”. He didn’t really address that point, instead just said he’s happy to wait until I’m ready to see him again.

I probably won’t see him again until September. I have no inclination to go through the motions of another social visit at the moment, even though we’re technically on good terms again. We’ll go to France in September because it’s paid for and non-refundable, and we’ll try and have as much independent time there as we can. I don’t think P really wants time to himself in his heart, but I think he’s willing to try it again for my sake. I’m determined not to be in his constant company for five days again. After the holiday, I suspect our relationship won’t ever be the same, and we may not see each other any more. I will have to be honest with him when the time comes, if that’s what I really want.

Barbecue

Yesterday I was dreading a visit to my Aunt M’s house in Surrey. The family is so normal, and I don’t mean this as an insult to them in any way, they could appear in a photo next to the word in the dictionary. It’s not their fault at all – they are like millions of nuclear families out there – just when it comes to me, I don’t naturally belong there at all. M wanted to see me and I was happy to see her, and it’s nice to be in regular touch with her again. This time for a nice change she decided to invite me to the house for a barbecue. I can handle M perfectly well on her own and I was hoping it would just be her at the house in the evening, but as I got closer to Surrey on the train I suspected it wouldn’t just be her. No one does a barbecue just for two people. When we arrived there was her husband and younger son R, neither of whom I’ve seen in many years. Both of them the epitome of heterosexual masculinity, labourers by trade. If that was the only thing I had to worry about, their maleness compared to mine, it wouldn’t be so bad, but it’s not just that: it’s the whole set up. The large suburban semi-detached house, the garden with its lovely new summer house at the bottom, the dog. Everything so dreamily TV-like, so perfect.

When I was younger and visiting there much more often I used to love it, although I always felt a little out of place, and sometimes I’d be crying silently at the end of the day when it was time to leave. Yesterday my child still loved it, but having become so aware of the tragedy of that in the intervening years, I felt wholly separate and unable to enjoy myself. Normally when I meet M for coffee somewhere our conversation is so free and open, but with the rest of the family there it was stilted and superficial. I didn’t know why I was there. I always felt the same visiting dad and his family at their house; I feel the same to an extent in all social scenarios. The feeling is the most pronounced with family because I’ve known them all my life, and I have been a stranger to them all my life. I don’t want to say that it should have been a lovely evening, with great weather and food and company that was genuinely glad to have me there. It’s a cliché to say that it should have been anything when my feelings dominated it so much.

R and his dad were a little more distant from me than M at first, but eventually they were talking to me as normally as anyone, once I’d proved myself with a bit of effort. I made a huge effort to appear that I was enjoying myself, and it paid off. No one noticed anything, or if they did they probably just put it down to the shyness that they’ve always known in me. No one would have worked out that it was an ordeal from start to finish. I felt so strongly that I wasn’t meant to be there from beginning to end, I don’t know if I can ever go there again. At least until something fundamental switches in my head and I can stop doing this to myself.

A great shame, isn’t it. And here’s me, trying to become a therapist! What irony! I hate what I’m having to write today, but it’s all true. A part of my personality remains stuck in the 1980’s, when everything suggested that I didn’t belong and I wasn’t wanted in that environment. And this doesn’t just apply to visits to leafy Surrey. It applies to all intimate relationships. Whenever I’ve found myself getting close to someone romantically the same thing happens.

The thing about relationships is that nothing is ever going to change unless I take some action. I have put off for years facing this ultimate truth. The solution is with me. I can deny it sometimes, I can pretend that one day some magical person will come along and do all the work for me, it’s what I’ve been waiting for since I was thirteen. As an adult I know that magical person doesn’t exist out there in the world. I have to be that person. As a child I’m still waiting.

If I want to get involved with C, as I was making so plain on Saturday, I have to tell him. Nothing’s going to happen until I move forward, and I hate that. These feelings of not deserving it never go away! Constantly saying “here we go again” doesn’t help. It’s so easy to ‘just ignore the feelings’ but I have let them guide me all my life. If I can’t even enjoy a barbecue with my family, how would I share my life with someone?

That Christmas feeling

Friday was the day of the interview for the counselling diploma, the next level of training that I’m hoping to embark on in September. Interviews are always nerve racking, but this one was far less stressful than you’d expect, and certainly not as bad as the one I had back in December for the course I’ve just completed. There were only twelve people there on Friday, some of whom I already knew from the certificate course that I’ve been on since January; most of the others were from another certificate class that had been taking place at the same college. When the tutor that we had grown to know so well since January walked in and announced that she would be interviewing us, it set my group’s minds at ease even more. We didn’t know she would be the main tutor for the two year diploma course, which made it seem a bit like destiny that we were there.

The interview took a similar format to the one in December. The first task of the day was a group task, where we had to get together with people we didn’t already know and discuss a brief case study. It wasn’t hard. When it came to the main group discussion, I thought I put my points across well, describing the approach I would take with the case and what I thought the real problems were. I wouldn’t say I’m comfortable with speaking up in groups now, far from it; but there was a supportive group atmosphere that helped. We were all there for the same reason, we all wanted each other to do well. After that we had a written exercise, then in the afternoon, individual interview slots. Because I knew the tutor so well, it was much easier to give thoughtful and honest answers to her questions. She had already seen my progression on the course, she already knew how much I wanted to proceed to the next level.

At the end of the interview she gave nothing away about my result, but I walked away feeling positive. Doubt remains about the number of applicants and the limited number of spaces available – it’s disconcerting to imagine them having to turn people down, people who are probably well deserving of a place, and I could end up being one of them. I allowed myself to guess that I had a 60% chance of being accepted: a good chance, but I wasn’t going to be too complacent.

Yesterday, Saturday, was the final day of the certificate course that we’ve been on since January. So it was bound to be emotional, as some of us genuinely got to know each other quite well. In a place where you are asked to open yourself up and share your truth, an atmosphere of mutual respect naturally grows. For some, you could almost call it love.

I was in the lift with the tutor who had interviewed the day before on the way up to the lesson, and I could tell by her smile there was something she wanted to say. “I shouldn’t be saying this, but you did really well yesterday. Make of that what you will!” I can’t think why she would say such a thing, other than to reassure me that I’ve got a place on the diploma. My doubting child didn’t want to believe it could be true – she must have been saying it as a consolation, a kind of “don’t worry about what happens, you’ve still done well.” As we got out of the lift and walked the rest of the way to the class in silence, my adult came in and reasoned that she wouldn’t have said anything if the result was negative. She would have known it would be getting my hopes up. My confidence in my chances grew to 70% instantly.

There had been points in the course when all of us experienced intimacy with each other. I kept thinking back to that weekend in April when we went away and spent the weekend together in the countryside, how lovely the whole thing was and how easily we bonded despite our initial doubts about it all. It would be sad not to have that on Saturdays any more, even if I am glad to be getting my Saturdays back and though I probably will be progressing to the next level. We formed a unique group and now it’s over. Goodbyes are never easy.

We pretty much spent the day saying goodbye to each other. I suppose it mirrors the end of the counselling relationship in some ways: every counsellor you see isn’t going to be available forever, so maybe it was something we needed practise for. One of our ‘ending exercises’ involved sharing something personal with the group that we thought summed up our experience: most people chose a song, a poem, or a paragraph from a book they liked. The whole encounter felt very tender and loving: when do you ever get that in real life? Unlike everyone else I’d chosen to bring a drawing that I’d done in the week, of a little kid smiling up at his parent, who’s got their arm firmly around him. It symbolised the new relationship I’m trying to have with my inner child, one that’s loving and accepting instead of critical and resentful. Like everyone I was nervous when it was my turn to show & tell – I was preparing to say something very honest and intimate, something I had never said before. People responded with genuine affection and understanding. It was nice.

At the end of the day the tutor’s final words to me were: “I’ll see you soon!” My confidence in being back in September rose again to 80%. For a few moments I almost thought: “this is it, this is happiness!”

My confidence in being accepted onto the course won’t reach 100% until I’ve received the result of the interview in a couple of weeks. I still can’t let myself get carried away here. Too many early experiences of being let down. To think I could be a professionally qualified counsellor in two years is incredible. It doesn’t seem real.

Most of the class were going to the pub to celebrate the end of the course and put off those final goodbyes a little longer. I chose to be authentic and go to my home meeting instead. I can now recognise that I don’t like pubs, and it would have been hot and uncomfortable standing for two hours in whichever busy central London pub they chose. I hugged and said farewell to them at the college entrance, reassuring those who were applying for the diploma course with me that I would probably see them in September. I really hope we will all get on. It doesn’t look like there are as many applicants for this level as there were for the certificate, and we’re all good enough.

As soon as I got to my meeting I was glad I’d gone there instead of the pub. After such an emotionally unbalanced day I needed the reassuring hand of AA to calm me. I was distracted throughout the meeting by fantasies of September, of starting the next level with all those friends from the certificate that I’d just said goodbye to; dreams of spending the next two years getting to know them even better until we qualify and decide to open a practice together. They were wonderful thoughts, but like alcohol, it’s very easy to get carried away with fantasy. I knew I was doing it, and in the last half hour of the meeting I forced myself back into the room. A few of us went for curry afterwards and I talked about the course among other things with friends who have other stuff on their plates.

One of the friends, C, is the guy I’ve had a crush on for the past two years. I’ve never wanted to take it seriously because it has always seemed obvious that it will go nowhere. Last night when it was time to say goodbye he hugged me extra hard, congratulating me on completing the certificate course and my prospects for continuing; then he said “aww, I don’t wanna let go!” still hugging me. Which I thought was odd. Could there be a reciprocation of feelings there? No, I daren’t entertain the idea. I’d have known a long time ago if he liked me in that way. Unlike me he’s a confident gay man who knows how to get what he wants, or so it seems. You could say that since I never give my feelings away in this area there’s a fair chance that he has kept it secret too. But that just seems like more fantasy thinking.

I still went home feeling like a kid at Christmas. The two things I want seemed to be in my reach: getting onto the diploma, and a real chance of something with C. Soon, those nice images of a happy future were turning sour as reality kicked in again and I remembered all the reasons why a relationship with someone like C would never work. I needn’t list them here again, but I will anyway because it feels like the child in me needs reminding.

  1. I’ve had a bad case of acne for the past five years – who’d be attracted to that?
  2. I have tummy problems that mean I can’t stop passing wind at night
  3. I still live with my mother
  4. I don’t enjoy penetrative sex and I find it nearly impossible to orgasm in the presence of another person

Just one of these things would probably make a real relationship with a normal person like C difficult to achieve. Together they give me no hope whatsoever. I supposedly went back into therapy this year to deal with this – to see if there was some way of lifting these psychological barriers – but last night the more I thought about it, the more impossible and stupid it seemed. The ‘kid at Christmas’ feeling was well and truly gone, and consoling myself with the thought that I’ll probably get onto the diploma course couldn’t help.

The game is up

The theory of transactional analysis could be life changing for me. I don’t have the time or the space to go into every detail of the theory now, but since I’ve now read two famous books on the subject (Games People Play and I’m OK – You’re OK – both excellent and highly recommended) I believe it’s important enough to warrant a discussion. The theory says we all have three people in us: a parent, an adult, and a child. Moral values, self criticism, ‘beating yourself up’, all the ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’ come from the parent. Feelings and emotions come from the child, statements like ‘I want’ and ‘it’s not fair’. Logic and reason reside in the adult, always the path to the middle ground. The adult mitigates the conflict between parent and child, analyses the data from each and hopefully makes wise decisions for us. The data in the parent and the child comes from the past, what we learnt in childhood; the adult exists in the now, in this moment.

I say it could be life changing because I don’t want to get over excited, but it provides a specific language and structure for vague psychological concepts that I always suspected to be true. It seems to be an accurate description of the problems I face in life. Maybe I struggle because I pay too much attention to the fear in my child and the criticism in my parent; my adult is thus ‘contaminated’ with tapes that were recorded a long time ago in the past. The mentioned books go into many examples of how these problems play out – all ring very true with me. Suddenly the mood swings I experience have an explanation: I’m replaying moods that I first experienced in early childhood when I learnt I wasn’t ok. That sort of sounds obvious on paper, but I’ve never had a proper framework for my personal psychology before. This ties in with the old recurring dream I keep having about school, why the flashbacks and the feelings of dread associated with them remain so vivid. Everyone has a part of their personality that is a child; mine was traumatised and replays scenes from the past when reminded of it. Until now I always knew that it was trauma, and that I was stuck in there somehow, but I didn’t know I could change. The writing says it’s in the nature of ‘the child’ to replay the past. People who are happy are either people who as children were free and safe and loved unconditionally, or people who’ve overcome a troubled past by practising at being their adult. I used to scoff at the idea of aspiring to being logical and emotion free, because I thought I could never change, I’d always be dominated by an over sensitive and emotional child. The book I’m OK – You’re OK describes in detail the painstaking but nevertheless possible path to emancipation from those chains.

All the theory I’ve learnt about in the course prior to this still holds true, as does the psychological work I’ve done in AA over the years. All of it seems to fit together nicely. It’s like being given a key to another door deeper inside, one I never approached before. In Games People Play, Eric Berne says that the solution to this contamination is complete awareness, a focusing on the present moment where we can appreciate life as it is. We need to strengthen the adult part of our personality so that we can get out of the past. This seems to chime so strongly with what AA believes it can’t be a coincidence (even though in his book Berne sort of criticises AA for being another kind of ‘game’ – I don’t believe he knew much about it in the course of writing).

A question of love

With all that’s going on you could think that life is getting more dangerous. That’s what, the third terrorist attack in a month now? Every time I look at the news now I’m afraid of what I’m going to see. The streets of London do feel a little less safe every day; it gets harder to see a way out of this, especially as these lunatics seem more and more eager to copy the techniques of those who’ve gone before. I keep trying to remind myself that factually, life isn’t more dangerous than it’s ever been. Yes, we are living through a tense period where some psychopathic men are determined to use any means available to them to cause terror and havoc on the streets; but this isn’t the second world war. It’s not the wars of the roses. It’s not the Viking invasion. We’re still safer than we’ve ever been. I’m as likely to live or die walking down the street tomorrow as I was twenty years ago. Calm logic can clear the head, occasionally.

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A couple of weeks ago in counselling class we did an exercise where we had a circle on a piece of paper, and we had to write the names of friends and relatives at certain places in the circle depending on how close they were to us, the centre. Mum’s name was closest to mine, naturally; moving out there was P, followed by some AA friends, followed by the people from work, and the counselling group. After that we had another circle where we had to do the same thing but for ourselves at the age of 18. Obviously nearly all the names in my younger self’s circle were different, apart from mum and a few relatives from dad’s side that I still see. The point of the exercise wasn’t entirely clear other than it was meant to get us thinking, and it worked on that score. It got me thinking about how I had so many more friends when I was eighteen! I already knew that anyway, but it was interesting to see it so graphically.

The challenge now, as I’ve probably mentioned before is to build up new friendships to fill out today’s circle. We all agree that we generally have less friends as we get older, it seems to be a part of ageing in a big city – but that doesn’t stop me wanting to have a bit more of the social life that I used to have.

I’ve talked about it a lot in therapy the past few weeks, this big challenge of building new friendships that I’ve been avoiding for years. Now that I’m trying to picture a life without P as my closest friend and confidant, it’s something I need to start taking seriously. As does P.

The “divorce” that I’ve been contemplating for the past two years finally seems to be happening. He emailed me last Wednesday, after five days of silence, as if nothing had happened. Until then I’d been thinking he was annoyed with me, and I’d been feeling quite relieved about being left alone for a change, but then an email comes through at work and it’s the same old superficial chatter about nothing. I wish I could be less hard on him but it has come to the point where I need the space more than I need him to be happy. I replied with a brief apology for the previous week’s abruptness before hammering home how angry the election made me and how much I need some time to work out where I want this friendship to go. I haven’t heard anything from him since.

The stuff I’ve learned about in counselling class this year has all shed an interesting light on it, especially the recent topic of transactional analysis, which talks about the games people play with each other. I’ve ordered the famous book from the 60’s that expounds the theory because it has struck a chord with me. TA talks about going into a childish state and playing victim games with people who might fill the role of parent: now I can see what I’ve been doing with P for such a long time. To an extent I’ve done the same with my mother all my life. Getting angry with him for “not understanding me” is me being the child while he unwittingly plays the parent/rescuer role in the relationship. I’ve seen that I have to get out of that game altogether; I have to be an adult now.

*

I’m still talking about P a lot in therapy but I’m also talking about mum a lot. All conversations lead back to mum now, it seems. Apparently I’m still angry with her, after all these years. When I’m angry at the world for not getting me, it’s really my mum I’m angry with, or so it would appear when I follow a certain controversial train of thought in the therapy room. Logically it’s hard to understand why I would still be angry with her when I forgave her many years ago. But I must know by now that my inner child doesn’t work with logic. It never will!

My therapist has pointed out a rage that exists in my inner child, and when I use the space to properly explore where that rage started it started with mum. The child in me can never let go of it; as long as I ignore it and refuse to face it I can’t properly form intimate relationships with others.

It’s such a shame because as an adult I really don’t harbour any ill feelings towards her any more. The other day I was flicking through some old photos of us when I was a kid – I’d been meaning to scan some of them to the computer for ages and now I had the time – and seeing the pair of us huddled together on Brighton beach in 1985, looking like any happy and normal family unit, made my heart swell with love. In an adult frame of mind I can be quite upset at the thought of blaming her for anything any more. But the separate child part of me continues to exist concurrently and it continues to blame her for the abnormal, difficult life I’ve had. I’m sure if anyone else were to look at those photos they would see nothing abnormal in my childhood: I looked happy and well fed in all of them. But privately I can look at them and notice the glaring absence of any other children – I had no close friends as a kid, it was always just me and mum, or my aunts. To my adult mind it’s hurtful to think that way about such sweet, charming pictures; to my child mind it’s the only thing that’s important.

Among those old photos were a few of me as a teenager, taken at a time in my life when I woke each day feeling ugly and unwelcome in the world. As an adult I don’t blame mum for any of that any more; in my child’s mind the debate is still open. The truth is that even at my most grown up and logical, it’s hard for me to look at those particular photos and see a normal, healthy kid. I haven’t forgotten how I looked in the mirror every day between the ages of twelve and eighteen and saw acne, greasy hair and cheap glasses, and it’s still the first thing I see when I look at the photos from that period now. I found loads of them in my search the other day, but I could only post two to the facebook album that I decided to create of my walk down memory lane. I was happy to post the pictures of my younger self, the ones of the sweet and innocent nine year old with perfect skin. Any later than that the only pictures I could bear to post were the rare ones where you couldn’t see the spots, because of poor focus or over exposure.

Looking at what my journey might now involve, I wonder if there needs to be a coming to terms with the way I looked twenty years ago, the way I still can look sometimes because of the skin problems that I still frustratingly have. I’ve long suspected that this has to be part of the work. But, as I’ve said to my therapist quite a few times now, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do next. I can’t make myself accept the way I looked in the 90’s; I can’t just decide to love all parts of myself, including my complexion. I know that in my dark moments I am regressing to that teenage state of mind – I don’t get how I can stop that from happening. I don’t get how to make peace with that poor, sad child.

There’s one haunting photo that mum decided to take of me one day when I was sitting in the kitchen, staring into space. I was about fourteen or fifteen. I was wearing this awful garish jumper that she had bought for me; my face was covered in acne; I was wearing round prescription glasses that cost nothing; my hair was greasy and unruly. It was the time in my life when I felt the ugliest, the most alone and unloved. Had anyone told me that day I would eventually make friends and experience moments of real happiness, I’d have scoffed. It wouldn’t have seemed feasible. In my eyes there’s a faraway look that speaks volumes to me now, twenty years later. It’s a look that says how I really felt about life at that time. Everything just seemed so hopeless and pointless back then. Within a year of the photo being taken I would be desperate enough to attempt suicide. I don’t know why mum took a photo of me that day: it’s one of very few photos that ever got taken of me in those years. She must have just got herself a camera and decided to have a play with it. I very much doubt she noticed anything wrong with me that day; if she looked at the photo later I doubt she saw anything meaningful in it at all.

My problem was I saw myself as unlovable – I believed everything the bullies were telling me. If I can’t learn to believe something different now then I don’t think I will progress in this journey. Have I missed something in AA’s message? Is there something I’m supposed to be doing to make this feeling of self love and self worth appear? Looking at that photo now I feel so sorry for my teenage self. God, what a lonely existence I had. But to see that kid as innately beautiful and worthy of love? I just don’t know.