9 months, 19 days / mistakes

When I was finishing my dissertation the other day, the naive part of me thought it had to be the end of that ‘full time job’ feeling which I’ve experienced daily during the past few weeks, but it wasn’t the end. My life has continued to be a bit like a full time job this weekend, though I can’t say I really mind. Yesterday afternoon I headed to my sponsor’s flat to get on with step 5. He had been away in LA for a fortnight so I was really looking forward to seeing him again and getting some more important work done. We made some good progress yesterday, reaching late 2002, the time when I was really beginning to drink alcoholically. What’s become clear in my step 4 and 5 work is that nearly all my resentments are based on self-centredness, self-pity, pride, arrogance and dishonesty. I’ve been calling them ‘the Big 5’ because they keep coming up all the time. The name is a play on the ‘big five’ personality traits which are famous in contemporary psychology.

I’m self-centred because I’m concerned only with how I’m feeling all the time; I’m self-pitying because I have a tendency to feel sorry for myself; I’m prideful because I’m obsessed with what others think about me; I’m arrogant because I expect everyone to treat me well, no matter how I choose to treat them; and I’m dishonest because I can’t accept that other people have feelings about things which might be different to mine.

Saying all of this, it probably sounds like I’m being too hard on myself. I’m not placing blame on myself for having these character ‘defects’ – I was born with them, as many humans are, and I’m perfectly capable of doing something about them now as an adult. I still think steps 4 and 5 are the best things I’ve ever done. By writing it all down, by putting all those shitty feelings into words and exposing them to the world, I am taking their power all away. I don’t act on those character defects any more because I’m aware that I have a choice how to behave now.

Last night I went to that lovely meeting in the west of town where I have some very good friends. I didn’t get a chance to share but afterwards we all went for coffee as usual, and we sat outside the café for once because the sun was out for the first time this year, and I chatted with everyone as normal. Later on some of us went dancing in South London, as we seemed to be in the mood. I’ve talked before about this desire to dance the night away that I’ve never been able to shake off; I think it’s part of being a young gay man in London. There are some really good discos with really good music out there, in my experience at least. So dancing has become part of my life again, and I think it’s great. I never advise anyone to go to ‘wet places’, and I would never stop anyone from doing so either. There was quite a big group of us there last night, all having fun and supporting each other. Alcohol had nothing to do with it.

Of course, there were plenty of drunk people around us, which got slightly annoying right at the end of the night when I was queuing up to get my jacket from the cloakroom and someone bumped into me, spilling beer all over my shirt. Still, I didn’t turn it into a huge drama in my mind, because it was a pure accident and no alcohol passed my lips. I may leave it a month or two before I go back there; I simply don’t have the stamina to do that all the time any more. I used to be able to go out two or three nights a week, but now I just get so tired and exhausted after a while! Plus, there is only a small number of places where I would actually choose to go and dance these days. Most of the bars and clubs on the ‘scene’, I can’t stand now.

One of the brilliant things about not drinking is that I never get hangovers, which means I can go out the night before I have to work now. Today I was signed up for a shift with the the charity that delivers food around London to sick people who need it. I’ve been doing this work on and off ever since last July, when I was hungover and sick on my first shift. As I’ve said before, that experience was the last straw, and I decided to stop drinking there and then. Ever since then, it has been a constant struggle to sign up for shifts and not feel nervous about the work. I really want this experience because I know it’s good for me to have responsibility in the community. But I get so nervous about doing it, there’ve been times when I’m heading in for a shift and I feel like I’m going to prison!

Today I woke up early with that familiar wrench in the pit of my stomach, telling me to stay in bed and call in sick. I wasn’t that tired, despite having gone to bed only six hours before, but my head was already telling me that the latest shift would be a disaster, because I’d become too tired in the end. I got up nevertheless, as I’m very used to being lied to by my own head, and I know it’s all rubbish. I knew I would have nothing to worry about today: I’ve done many shifts already, I know most of the delivery routes quite well and there’ve only been a couple of occasions when I haven’t got on with my allocated driver.

As I ate breakfast the fear just wouldn’t leave me alone, so I had to sit down and analyze precisely what I was scared of. Through steps 4 and 5 I’ve learnt that I have character defects which can only be dealt with through constant analysis; through psychology I’ve learnt that the only way to combat fears is to identify them and face them. One technique used by Cognitive Behaviour Therapy is the ‘blow-up technique’, where the client is asked to identify a situation they’re scared of and take it to its absolute, most extreme, most horrendous possible outcome. For example, if someone’s scared of going out because they keep worrying about forgetting to turn the cooker off, the therapist will ask that person to imagine going out and leaving the cooker on, which sets fire to the kitchen, and then the whole house, the whole street, the entire neighbourhood, and then the city, and then the country, followed by the world, and eventually, the whole universe, until everything is burnt to ash and nothing is left.

By this point, the client should have realised that the worst possible outcome they’re really scared of is never, ever going to happen, because it’s so ludicrous and far-fetched. Yet the fear that we feel about these situations seems so real, so powerful, because we’ve avoided the feared situation for so long that we’ve forgotten what’s real and what isn’t.

Sitting down and trying to imagine the worst possible outcome of today’s shift was actually harder than you might think, because the fear tries to stop me from thinking directly about the situation. Fear is an emotion that we’ve evolved to help us avoid dangerous situations. When you’re scared of something, usually you’re right to be scared of it, so you avoid it completely, and you don’t really think about it in great detail, therefore the fear has worked.

Unfortunately with anxiety disorders such as social phobia, many normal situations tend to be feared by people like me, and I’ve lived my life avoiding a multitude of ‘normal’ situations such as work just because the mere thought of them sends me into blind panic. The fear tried desperately to stop me from analyzing it objectively this morning; my heart raced wildly, my forehead sweated and I felt a bit a sick. But eventually, I managed to put down on paper what it was that I feared happening the most: I was scared that I’d be given a really difficult route, that I wouldn’t find any of the homes that we needed to deliver to, that my driver would think I was an idiot, and everyone would be really angry with me. Once I’d written those possibilities down, amazingly, the fear disappeared. Just like that. I’d made myself realise that I had nothing to be scared about, because the worst possible eventualities were at most very unlikely. I decided that the thing I was most scared of, not getting on with my driver, was nothing to fear because I had got on with nearly all my drivers in the past. It’s just incredible the lies that my head will tell me, isn’t it? I had no proof or evidence whatsoever that I was going to be given a really unsociable, difficult driver today, yet my head feared it nonetheless because it’s my default setting to be scared of the worst.

I got into work feeling absolutely fine; I met my driver for the day, who turned out to be nice like all the others. Almost ironically, things started going wrong almost as soon as we had set out on the roads. When we got to the first address I managed to give the person there two meals instead of one by mistake. I don’t know why it happened, I simply took my eye off the ball for a minute, I suppose. I realised pretty quickly that I had made the mistake, but when I went back to the address I was mortified to discover that the people had already eaten both meals. Which meant somewhere further along the route, someone would have to receive one less meal (sometimes people order two or three meals, for their families).

The driver came up with the suggestion that we go back to the kitchen to see if they had any extra meals. Quite often, they do seem to over-cook, and there’s always spare food left over when everyone’s finished delivering for the day. I was, however, petrified by the prospect of going back to the kitchen and admitting my mistake. Not only would it delay all the rest of the deliveries on our route, it would involve me walking up to the kitchen supervisor and admitting that I had done something wrong. The possibility of being told off, of being criticized publicly, looked very real, and negative evaluation by others is the thing I fear most in life. The idea filled me with doom this morning; I felt like I’d rather die than go back to that kitchen.

I experienced exactly the same physical sensations on my first shift last July: the sweating, the palpitations, the sweaty forehead, the dizziness, the nausea. All of a sudden, I realised that I wasn’t only sick on that shift last July because of a hangover – I was sick because I was having a panic attack. I was so scared of being sick that I actually made myself sick!

As we made our made our way back to the kitchen having only completed a few deliveries, I realised that I was going through one of those situations that have always made me scared of paid work. The type of situation where you have to be accountable for something, to admit that you’ve made a mistake, to ask for help. I find the thought of asking for help unbearable, because it makes me look stupid; if I’m not perfect in others’ eyes, I believe I’m a failure. All of this is typical alcoholic thinking, of course!

We got to the kitchen in good time and – yep, you guessed it – no one told me off. In fact they seemed quite unfased by my unexpected return, as if this kind of thing has happened before! Could it actually be possible that other people have made such mistakes in the past?!

They had plenty of food left over, meaning that once I’d picked up an extra meal I could get back to the car and return to delivering food very promptly. In the car I almost wanted to get down on my knees and thank God for letting my biggest fear turn out to be unfounded. The rest of the shift was relatively uneventful, although (almost even more ironically) a few people weren’t in to receive their meals, and when I called them they admitted that they had completely forgotten we would be coming, and had gone out!

The shift ended quite late, unsurprisingly, but when I was walking home I felt like it had passed in a flash. On the way home several times I nearly stopped to cry, because I was so relieved and happy. I’d faced one of my worst fears, and I’d survived it. It must sound very strange to someone who doesn’t have social phobia, to hear me talking about a tiny little mistake like it’s the worst thing in the world. But this fear of being criticised, of making a mistake and failing, is so bad, it’s stopped me from carving out a career to support myself, and I used to drink on it, all the time.

The last year has given me several different names to call this disease. Social phobia, alcoholism, self-centredness, self-pity, pride, etc. They’re all the same really. If I was to put my psychologist cap on, I’d probably say that I have alcoholism as a result social phobia. I do think the fear of being negatively evaluated by others (the definition of social phobia) came first, because I was always scared of people for as long as I can remember, but I didn’t start drinking until I was 18. In AA, some might not like me putting the tag ‘social phobia’ before ‘alcoholism’, because in AA, alcoholism is the primary problem.

By talking about all of these social fears and phobias I’m not dismissing my alcoholism as a secondary problem; it will continue to be the most important part of my life, because if I ever pick up another drink, I already know I won’t be able to stop. I’ll never stop being obsessed with what people think about me, and I’ll never be able to drink normally. The 12 steps/CBT aren’t there to cure my disease, they’re there to give me tools to deal with it. By drinking, I can’t begin to deal with anything.

Right now, I am dealing with everything, and while I can’t exactly say that today has been fun, I’m glad it’s happened. I’ve made another step today, another bit of progress. I might have an extra long gratitude list to write later!

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One thought on “9 months, 19 days / mistakes

  1. Fascinating post. I can relate to a lot of the things you describe. I have a good job but every day I’m terrified I will lose it and be fired for a mistake. So good that you could persevere and succeed in the face of your anxiety.

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