10 months, 3 days / the traveller

Boy have I been looking forward to getting home, so I could write this weekend’s blog. It’s not just that a lot has happened; it would be a cliché, as well as an understatement, to say that it’s been an eventful three days. On Friday I went to Cardiff, the capital of Wales, and so I’ve been on a journey – in several senses of the word. Before I went to Cardiff, I had an appointment with my doctor, at which I hoped to convince them to refer me to a good therapist. It had been a few months since I’d heard anything about my request for therapy – the last time I saw my doctor, he told me to write a letter detailing the reasons why I thought I needed it.

I assumed he was too busy to deal with it himself at the time and that I’d hear from their resident therapist within a few weeks, but no letters or phonecalls came. For the past couple of months I’ve been debating whether to go back and make another request or not. Sometimes I think I could manage OK without any more personal therapy; the AA program is a kind of therapy itself, and I’ve undoubtedly changed as a person since I started on the 12 steps. People say that AA is the best form of free therapy an alcoholic could ever get, but recently I have started to feel that I need a bit more. The work that I need to do on myself is about more than alcoholism, more than resentment, more even than the past. Lots and lots of people in AA seek ‘outside help’ for lots and lots of reasons, so there isn’t really any point in justifying the decision further.

Anyway, the doctor that I saw on Thursday was different to my normal one, and immediately I found her to be twice as accomodating, empathic and personable than my own doctor. I’d prepared everything that I wanted to say on the subject of why I think therapy would help me, just in case I needed to be extra assertive. It turned out to be very easy to convince this new doctor that I was in need of some kind of help. She didn’t question me when I said that I suffered from chronic anxiety; she didn’t object when I brought long-term therapy up as an option; she took everything I had to say on board and she was more than willing to reach a shared consensus on the appropriate course of action.

For the first time in a very long time, I felt listened to by the medical profession! I talked at length about my anxiety concerning paid employment, which I am hopefully about to enter. The doctor’s decision was to refer me to a psychologist to discuss some kind of CBT. I’m not worried about going on a waiting list for such a thing, I just want to know that I’m going to get it eventually. I can’t wait until I’ve finished the 12 steps for this anxiety to subside.

Another decision that the doctor made on Thursday was to prescribe me a course of anti-depressants. Drugs such as Prozac have long been known to be effective at treating chronic anxiety as well as depression. So, in the time while I’m waiting for psychological therapy, I will be relying on the short-term solution of medication to take care of me. For someone in AA, this is undoubtedly a controversial step to take. I’ve heard people say in AA that any form of mood-altering drug is a compromise on sobriety, whether it’s prescribed or not. On the other hand, I know people in AA who are themselves on anti-depressants. It is by no means a one-sided debate.

At the moment, I am on the side which says that anti-depressants do not compromise my sobriety one bit, because they are carefully controlled, carefully administered and highly specific to certain types of mental ailment. Just like one would take beta-blockers for high blood pressure, I am treating my excessive anxiety with Prozac because it was getting to the stage where it was unbearable and debilitating. Actually, that’s wrong – it was always unbearable, it’s just that I had no idea I could do anything about it until very recently.

The effects of the drug were almost immediate when I started taking it on Thursday. For the first time in my life, my mood was stable for a whole day. I felt normal, OK, secure. I still experienced emotions, but they didn’t hurt so much. It’s not at all like getting drunk to suppress emotional pain. I wasn’t subdued or numbed in any way on Thursday. I believe that by taking Prozac, I had taken control of my mood for the very first time in my life. Of course, there are side effects to a sudden increase in serotonin circulating around the brain: I had a slight headache for the first couple of days, as well as marked drowsiness. I don’t believe that’s a high price to pay for having the constant nerves and wild emotions taken away.

The strange thing is, none of that was supposed to happen straight away. Anti-depressants aren’t supposed to start working for a few weeks. The only explanation I can think of for Thursday’s events is the placebo effect. Of course, I should know all about the placebo effect – I had to learn about it for that psychology exam which I was forced to take twice last year due to failing the first time. Even though I’d been told that the drugs wouldn’t begin to take effect for three or four weeks, my body still expected to feel better straight away on some deeper, subconscious level. If the placebo effect can be that strong, I’m looking forward to discovering what the real effects of the medication will be.

Earlier I said that Prozac is a short-term solution: it really is, because it doesn’t cure the true psychological malady behind the out of control emotions. I would only be on the drug for a year at most, by which time I will hopefully be in therapy dealing with the root causes of my illness. I don’t consider myself an expert on anti-depressants, but I’d say I know a bit more than the lay person on the topic. I know the basics of what the drug does in the brain; I also know that I can’t spend the rest of my life depending on it. All it’s doing at the moment is helping me to deal with the stressful transition that I’m going through.

As soon as I’d taken the first pill on Thursday, I called my sponsor to talk about it because I don’t want to keep secrets from him, and I could tell that he didn’t approve. He talked at length about the reasons why he’s never chosen to go down the Prozac route to deal with his problems. At the end of the day, I respect his opinions, and he respects mine, and I’m still going down this route.

On Friday I travelled to Cardiff for the weekend break that I’d been looking forward to. With the placebo effect of the drugs still working, I wasn’t nervous or overly excited as I got onto the bus bound for South Wales. I’m quite sure that I would have been pretty anxious about going to a strange city on my own in any other circumstances. The reason I had decided to go to Cardiff on my own is two-fold: I needed a break from London, and I didn’t know anyone who would be able to go with me this weekend.

The coach journey was long and fairly cramped. By the time we reached Cardiff I had quite a headache, and I just wanted to spend the evening in my hotel room, but I knew I had to get to an AA meeting. I might not get the chance on Saturday, my designated sightseeing day. I found a Big Book Study group in the centre of town, where just ten of us sat in a circle and talked about the passage entitled ‘To Employers’ for an hour. At first glance, it’s not the most enthralling of Big Book passages. It might have been better if we were discussing the section about Step 4, or the bit about ‘spiritual experiences’. As always, by the end of the meeting I’d found my reason for being there.

The passage talks about the general lack of understanding about alcoholism in the workplace, and so this was the main thrust of the round robin discussion. Because it was round robin we all got the chance to share, and I spoke for a few minutes about my trials and tribulations with paid employment, the general fear that I have about going back to work after graduation and the old belief that I’m unemployable. After the meeting a couple of nice women told me they’d liked my share because it was ‘heartfelt’. I was touched to be told such a thing, by people whom I’m never likely to meet again.

It was really clear how much I’d moved on from January’s experience up in Edinburgh, the first time I went to a meeting out of London on my own. Back then I was shaking and terrified, with hardly a clue what to talk about. To be fair, it was New Year, in a city where everyone apart from me was drinking, and the meeting itself was very busy. This one on Friday was like the back of beyond in comparison. I felt a lot better for having attended.

Yesterday, Saturday, was a great day. I walked all the way around Cardiff, taking in the major sights, snapping monuments and nice views with my digital camera, half wishing that somebody was with me. I can’t deny that there were times over the weekend when I regretted going there alone. Given that the first dose of Prozac had afforded me a day without negative emotion, a naive part of me must have thought that I would stop feeling all loneliness and sadness about my life. That hasn’t been the case. I always feel a bit sad when I go away on holiday, even when it’s me who’s chosen to go away, me who’s in control of everything that I do. The sadness is partly, I think, to do with seeing all those happy families doing all those family things that I never got to do as a child. This will probably sound strange, but London doesn’t really seem like a family place, and so I never notice them here; when I go on holiday, I do.

Despite that, yesterday remained nice. I dealt with the sadness by taking lots and lots of pictures. The fact that I was able to go to all those places was in itself comforting. A few years ago, I rarely got to go anywhere. Having choice in the matter now is so important – this is why I like going away as often as I do. Financial concerns dictate that I can’t really go abroad often, but there are plenty of great holiday destinations in the UK, if you know where to look. After this weekend, I’d highly recommend Cardiff to anyone!

Having the choice to go isn’t the only reason why it was such a good weekend for me. The idea of walking around a strange town, taking pictures and eating in restaurants on my own would have scared me a few years ago. I don’t remember ever learning that it was all right to do things by myself. I simply had to start going out there and testing the principle a year or so ago. I still don’t know if one is allowed to book a ‘table for one’ in a good restaurant, which is why I always eat unhealthily when I go away alone. It’s always either McDonalds or Subway for me on holiday!

After a long day of sightseeing I was surprisingly energetic, and I couldn’t think of anything else to do except try out Cardiff’s gay scene. I’d been told by friends in and outside the fellowship that it had quite a good little scene. I’d been recommended various bars and clubs to try out, if I was in the mood. Unfortunately, in sobriety I had made it a personal rule never to go into bars or clubs alone, so if I was to have a Saturday night out, I was going to have to break my own rule. I had spoken to my sponsor and friends about this, and the general impression I’d got from them is that I ought to do what I was comfortable with.

In the end I felt comfortable with sipping on a couple of cokes in one of the more well-known gay bars in the centre of town. I should point out here that I don’t recommend spending time alone in bars to anyone, especially to a newcomer in AA. I did it because I was on my own in a new city, and I would have been in my hotel room all evening otherwise. The thing about gay bars is that there’s slightly more of a community in them, so there’s always the slight chance of not ending up alone. If you’re new to AA, bars are not good places at all. I’m ten months in now and because this is my recovery, I’m in a position to make choices about it now.

Last night I was unexpectedly chatted to by a couple of Cardiff natives, who both seemed very interested in the fact that I’d come all the way from London just for this. Of course, I didn’t go to Cardiff just to see the gay bars, but they didn’t seem to realise that. It was a funny old conversation. I seemed to get to know my new friends very quickly, even though we can only have been together for half an hour. They were drinking, which I didn’t mind. There was a distinct honesty and genuineness to both of them which you rarely find anywhere on the scene. One of them, Ewan, told me he would have asked me out were he not in a steady relationship. Until very recently, I would probably either have been upset or offended by this comment. I would have thought: “Why’s he telling me this if he’s already with someone? How dare he tease me in such a shocking way!”

Because I wasn’t drinking, I was able to keep a calm head on, realising that I didn’t need to get off with Ewan to be his friend or have a good time with him. When I was drinking, I could never get to know anyone on the gay scene in a purely innocent and friendly way. Sex always had to be involved, somehow. After six years I’d just come to accept that that’s the way it was. And then last night happened: I found two people who weren’t interested in anything but passing the time with me. OK, so Ewan did admit that he found me attractive, but he made it clear that he had no untoward intentions, and I believed him.

After half an hour they’d had enough to drink and went home. Ten minutes later, I returned to the hotel to sleep. I’d have to be up early today to check out and return home. To be able to go back at such a relatively early time without feeling miserable is still like an achievement to me. I’d say that the events of last night, as well as the weekend over all, sum up quite well the place that my journey has taken me to. There were a few sad moments, like when I was taking pictures of Cardiff Bay on my own yesterday, and when a father had to say goodbye to his daughter before getting on the bus to London this afternoon. It wasn’t a sad weekend at all, though.

It could have been a hell of a lot worse – I got everything that I wanted out of it. I got my break from London, so that I’d be able to come home and enjoy seeing these familiar streets again. Coming back to London is always nice, probably because it’s human to crave familiarity after a while. Now that I am back home, the stresses of everyday life are with me once more. Every time I return from a holiday I seem to have a letter from the bank waiting for me. This time they’re telling me I owe £50 on my credit card bill. On top of that, I have two exams this week to worry about – my final exams!

I don’t feel that sense of impending doom that I normally would on Sunday night when a stressful week is about to begin. Perhaps the placebo effect of the drug is still working on me – or perhaps this is the real effect of Prozac, kicking in three weeks before it’s supposed to. Either way, I’m grateful for it, because it’s going to make this week easier for me. If I wasn’t sober, I’m very sure that I wouldn’t have had the confidence to even go to my doctor and ask for help in the first place.

So, I’ve travelled a long way in the last few days. I almost want to say that I’m a different person tonight to the one I was last Sunday, but saying that would make me sad, because I don’t want to keep changing any more. What I’d love in recovery is to find who I am and stay that person for the rest of my life. I want to put down roots and find security. If I keep changing as a person all the time then I can’t stop anywhere to make those roots. Unfortunately, with events unfolding as they are, my life appears to be in a state of flux once again.

It was the same when I first went to University seven years ago. Every time this happens, it feels like I’m being thrown up in the air, which causes me to break into pieces; coming back down to the ground I have to hope that my pieces all fall back together. They usually do, but always in a different arrangement to the one before. The arrangement gets better each time, but knowing that it’s going to keep changing again and again means that I can never rest.

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2 thoughts on “10 months, 3 days / the traveller

  1. I just saw a blog all about how AA is a cult…if it is then how can I reconcile all that I’ve done this weekend with it? Maybe AA is different in London, but the people I know in the fellowship wouldn’t sneer at me for taking anti-depressants, and I definitely won’t be frowned upon for going into bars on my own! Basically I can do what I want now because AA has given me the confidence to do it…I understand that there are parts of the fellowship in this world where the Big Book is followed like the Bible, and dissenting voices are not afforded the same courtesy that they get here. All I can say is, people regularly ask difficult questions of the meetings that I go to, and no one is ever told to shut the fuck up for thinking too much. If we are being brainwashed, what are we being brainwashed against? Alcohol? Well, I can’t say I’d be sad to be brainwashed against that!!

  2. wonderful to read about your travels, both physical and spiritual…

    If the ADs help, the ADs help – you’re so much more aware of your real needs now: that’s the gift of sobriety.

    You’re amazing.

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