9 months, 7 days / psychology and truth

Good meeting last night, in the end. We moved to a new venue this week, which felt rather like moving house as in the past nine months I had got rather used to the old venue. I was apprehensive about the move as I’d never been to the new venue, and I wasn’t sure which floor the meeting room would be on. I went to see the new building half an hour before the start of the meeting, and from the outside it looked big and daunting. I could have gone inside and found someone to ask where the new AA meeting was going to be, but I was too nervous, so I walked around the block a few times to wait for the meeting’s secretary. In the end a big group of familiar faces arrived and we all went up to find the room together. It was an awful lot smaller than the old room, and it reminded me of one of the classrooms at University. Twenty at most would be able to fit in comfortably; unfortunately everyone had decided to come and see what the new meeting room was like, and we got over 25 in the end. People were sitting on the floor; it felt very cramped. There were people I’d never seen before. Hopefully it won’t always be like that!

Part of my anxiety about the new meeting location had been down to my role as the tea-maker. I’d need to know where I could find cups and kettles and plates. Luckily the kitchen in the new venue is right outside the meeting room, with all the tea-making implements easy to find, and it’s a lot nicer than the kitchen in the old place! All in all, last night was very interesting, with a fresh and new feeling to the meeting.

Today I’ve been busy catching up on some reading for my degree. For weeks I’ve been focused on my dissertation, forgetting about the other modules that I’m taking this term. Now that the dissertation is over I can think about those other modules again. Today I read a textbook chapter about anxiety disorders for the ‘Abnormal Psychology’ unit. It was an informative and enthralling read. By the end of it I felt somewhat emotional, because most of the symptoms being described seemed to fit into the problems I had been experiencing all my life.

It talked a lot about social phobia, something I’ve always known I have. Before taking Psychology, I never knew that social phobia was actually classed by the medical community as a psychological disorder. Apparently it is, and there various kinds of treatment for it. The reading went into lots of detail about the theoretical causes of social phobia, as well as the different treatments on offer. Apparently research has shown that social phobia can be both learnt and inherited. If one has parents who are socially anxious, one is likely to be the same. Social phobia isn’t just mere ‘shyness’, which everyone can suffer from in certain situations from time to time; it’s a lot more serious than that. It is pervasive, stressful and life-inhibiting. A socially phobic child tends to have no friends, does not tend to enjoy school, and can become greatly dependent on parents/close relatives for support in external situations. I fit the criteria so perfectly, I could have given myself a diagnosis there and then.

Part of the chapter went into even greater detail about a specific form of social phobia, called ‘school phobia’. As soon as I saw the section title, I knew I was going to identify with all the symptoms. Children who are school-phobic are not just scared of other children, they are scared of school itself, of the rules and the responsibility and the institutional atmosphere. Many children with this disorder refuse to go to school and tend to develop depression/psychopathology when forced to go in. One part of the article described a fascinating method of treatment for the condition. A therapist in America took a child with school phobia into school on a number of occasions; on the first occasion they simply went into the playground and then went back out. On the second occasion they stayed at school for a little while longer, with the therapist sat beside the child all the time. On the next occasion the therapist retreated into the background a little, to let the child become accustomed to dealing with the situation on its own. After that, the child began to spend longer and longer at school, increasingly on his own, until he felt comfortable becoming a fully-fledged pupil again. All the time, the child was rewarded for his efforts. Rather than being told to ‘hurry up and get better’, he was allowed to develop and grow in his own time.

As I was reading this, tears almost came to my eyes, because I couldn’t believe I’d gone through such a traumatic experience at school for so many years without a clinically recognised disorder being spotted. All those years of feeling isolated, almost invisible, because I was so scared of my peers and the teachers – I thought it was just me who had a problem. I really thought I was abnormal, that I was doing something wrong. If I’d been taken to a therapist and diagnosed with a real and treatable condition, I can’t begin to imagine how different my life would have been. Yes, school phobia is relatively rare in children, as is social phobia – about 1% of children have it, according to the stats. But it’s still a real problem. If someone had said to me at the age of thirteen or fourteen: “No, you’re not weird or bad, you have a condition which we’re going to help you with now,” I doubt I would have nearly screwed my education up by deliberately missing school all the time, and I doubt I would have tried to commit suicide twice at the age of sixteen.

Instead of being reintroduced to the school environment slowly by a caring helper, I was dragged to school time after time after time, shouted at for being ‘lazy’ and ‘selfish’, ridiculed by peers who saw it as another weakness to pick on. Am I victimising myself by saying that I had a really hard time? Probably. Steps 4 and 5 have shown me that I could have handled the school situation a whole lot differently, that I have no one to blame but myself for the fact that I never got on with peers. Step 4 doesn’t encourage one to blame oneself, exactly, but it removes the possibility that anyone else could be at serious fault for situations which have caused us difficulty. That’s the way my sponsor has taught it to me, anyway.

Last time I did step 5 with him I was sure I’d made some sort of breakthrough. Suddenly I could see where I’d been going wrong all those years, and I didn’t feel angry at my old school any more. But now I’m feeling angry once again, because the truth is that for years I had a problem which went completely unnoticed by the so-called ‘responsible’ adults in my life. The consequences of this screw-up were nearly catastrophic. I really did mean to kill myself on those two occasions in 1999, I just didn’t know how to do it properly. The textbook I read today states that symptoms of social phobia in adulthood include extreme dependence on parents, chronic underachievement in the career field, and most importantly, alcohol abuse.

I don’t know if I’m so much angry after all this as I am sad. Here I am again, faced so clearly with the reason why my life has been so shit, and I have no idea what I’m supposed to do with it. Things are so much better for me now than they were ten years ago, because I’ve finally found a social support network which values me unconditionally. If I am to continue being sad about my childhood, I suppose that’s my right, but would it really serve me? I know I’ve been here before, most recently with my step 4 and 5 work, which is basically a catalogue of all the things I didn’t like about my childhood and all the reasons why I don’t need to be angry about those things any more.

What continues to worry me is what this could all mean for my alcoholism. I know now that my dependence on alcohol was a symptom of the deeper problems that I’ve just described. If I learnt to be socially phobic because I had a mother who was the same, or because I was bullied at school, or because I simply didn’t have the resources to cope with all the demands that school placed on me, then surely I can unlearn that social phobia. A theory which lends itself to the idea that alcoholism, too, can be unlearnt. Maybe I can go back to social drinking, once I’ve dealt with the underlying psychological disturbance which years of school caused me.

As I write that, I already know that trying social drinking would be like a wild goose chase. I tried to control my drinking for at least two years before I gave up. It never worked because I always wanted more. Two, three or four drinks are just never enough. Which leads me to the conclusion that at least part of my alcoholism must be biological. My dissertation supervisor has even said to me that she thinks true alcoholism is inherited in the genes. I can’t learn to control alcohol because I was built with an addictive personality. If I wanted to drink again, I wouldn’t see the point in just sticking to three or four pints. I’d want to do it properly, I’d want to go all the way and drink to oblivion again. Nothing less would satisfy me. I can’t think of any reason for that other than that it must be a biological urge.

I’m much happier not drinking, I know I am. So many benefits have come to me from not drinking. I don’t have to hang around in dirty, dingy pubs any more until three in the morning. I don’t have to waste money on expensive drinks to make myself feel comfortable around other human beings any more. I can do interesting, constructive things with my time now, such as trying exotic foods in trendy cafés, seeing cool films at the cinema. In AA I’ve become friends with a bunch of fresh, young, exciting people. Outside AA people tend to have the impression that we’re all park bench tramps, but we’re not. I’ve met writers, actors, musicians, teachers, nurses and doctors in AA. I never met people like that in pubs and clubs. 90% of all the people I met in my drinking experiences were sleazy and unfriendly. I love being in AA – I don’t need drink in my life any more. To be honest, I can’t understand why so-called ‘normal’ drinkers need alcohol in their lives!

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