Every month I go to an LGBT-themed book group in town, and it was on again Thursday. I always look forward to it because I know and like the people there pretty well, having gone semi-regularly for the past two years. I can’t believe it’s been two years. In the beginning it was nerve racking the first few times, as is everything the first few times, but I soon settled in as one of the group, once I knew who the regulars were and I could be sure my opinions were as welcome as everyone else’s.
As well as giving me the opportunity to read some great gay literature it’s shown me that I can fit into a group, sometimes. I don’t always end up on the outside of every situation. Of course it helps that it’s an LGBT book group – I’ve always felt much more comfortable in social situations where it’s other gay people. Given that, I can’t help wondering why it’s so different at LGBT AA meetings. These days the gay meetings may as well be straight meetings, for all the fitting in I seem to be doing there. I’m aware that I’ve put this block up in my head and it’s not the meetings themselves that have the problem, because the book group has clearly shown I can meld into a group with other gay people when it’s supportive. It remains a bit of a mystery how I am to overcome the block that’s still there in AA.
Is it because of the extra honesty and commitment that AA requires? Could it be that simple? The book group, as “real” as it is, is still just a book group. I don’t have to commit myself to it and I don’t have to go and talk about my most embarrassing problems every month. It’s much easier to talk about what I liked in a book than it is to talk about the visceral dread I wake up with every morning. Which is ironic because whenever I am alone I crave those serious, visceral conversations much more than I crave a conversation about a book or a piece of music. When I’m making friends and going on dates I always without fail wish I could just skip the small talk and get to the serious stuff. I tell myself that I loathe the superficial conversations you’re required to have about what you watch on TV and what political party you support. And yet when I’m presented with an opportunity to talk about spiritual pain on a Friday night in an AA meeting, I balk at it.
The weather has been unusually summery here this weekend, and P and I decided to spend Saturday out and about. We stopped in the park for a while to enjoy the evening sunshine and, as is usually the case now, the conversation came back to what I plan to do later in the year once I leave my job. My mind is virtually made up now – I want to spend three months in France learning French – which is not to say I’m not still capable of swaying when something else seemingly appealing comes along to distract me. Yesterday I remembered a dream I had earlier in the year of going to Greece, and for several hours I debated with P whether it would be a good idea to spend money on a trip there. The three months in France would still be a definite, I’d just do that afterwards.
P predictably doesn’t think I should waste the money. He scoffs at my idea of having the holiday of a lifetime in South Eastern Europe. He’s just about accepted that I’m going to spend a certain portion of my money on a long stay in France. Anything else is frivolous to him, he’d rather I put everything that I don’t spend on France away for buying a flat.
There has always been this urge in me to travel and discover other parts of the world, I don’t know why. Because I don’t know why it’s there I can’t explain it to P. If I were to explore it for a while maybe I’d find it’s because of the feeling I always had as a child of being trapped. Trapped in my bedroom, trapped at school, trapped in my home city. I can’t explain that to P – he’s never experienced it so he wouldn’t understand even if I came up with the most eloquent explanation ever.
Another thing I don’t think P would understand is the possibility of me staying in France after the three months are up. He’ll be happy if I return here in the new year and start looking for a job at some big native company like a dutiful young man. Unfortunately I’ve started to have other ideas; the possibility of falling in love with France and finding meaningful work there instead has become so real to me I might actually end up doing it. All the sensible reasons for coming back home after a few months – the language barrier, not having friends and family there, the expense – aren’t sticking in my mind at the moment. For once in my life, despite my traditionally cautious character, I’m chomping at the bit to be adventurous and up sticks forever.
It’s hard to know exactly what the path will be. Do I just go to straight to France, look for work and at least keep most of my work bonus? Or do I blow half on it on a dream tour of Europe like I really want to, using the excuse that I may never have the money to do such a thing again? The day I get to decide still seems like such a long way off, and perhaps it’s a good thing because maybe I still need the time to consider.
What’s certain is that I’ve never felt as drawn to leaving here as I do at the moment. All my life I’ve been secretly searching for a path, not knowing quite where to go, taking the first or second thing that came along as long as it wasn’t too risky. Whenever I’ve moved in the past it’s always either been the result of the throw of a dice, a chance to escape from something I want to avoid, or a financial necessity. I’ve never just moved somewhere because I felt drawn to it. This year I have a real choice in front of me and I can feel something, I don’t know what, pulling me to France. I have to go.
I’ve been getting into a daily meditation practise with the help of the Headspace app, which was recommended to me by numerous shares in AA meetings. I can’t say I’ve been the best pupil, given that 5 days out of 7 I still can’t bring myself to sit down and do it for fifteen minutes. But in spite of the haphazard nature of my ongoing practise I’m sure I’m feeling the benefits. I’ve been experiencing less stress at work; I haven’t had as much of my free time taken up with worrying about what’s going to happen at the office the next day; I’ve been able to inhabit my own skin comfortably at times. The last few weeks have been less of a drag, in other words. At the moment I’m on the “stress” pack of meditations which, surprisingly, guides you through dealing with stress.
A big technique involves sitting with the anxiety and letting it be. Not thinking about it, not engaging with it, not trying to question or debate with it – just letting it play out in the body. I’ve understood for years that the key to mindfulness means accepting all negative feelings as they are, but I haven’t really tried to do it on a regular basis until this year. I guess I always shied away from accepting anxiety without question because it felt reckless. Doing anything that doesn’t involve actively worrying feels reckless. Sitting there and letting the feeling, whatever it is, play itself out until it’s gone seems so strange and counter-intuitive, because my mind is used to me engaging with the feeling by questioning it and adding worry on top of worry. When I try to separate myself and simply give it space to dissolve I’m not just changing the record, I’m changing into someone else. Someone wise and peaceful and accepting. The negative voices try and say this isn’t me, going down this path is going to get me in trouble. But there’s no denying that I have seen positive results these past couple of weeks, against all expectations. So I’m really hoping that I will be able to get back to a daily meditation soon, and that I don’t just lose the momentum again like I always have in the past.
The week at the office was going relatively well until the end on Friday afternoon, when my boss managed to annoy the hell out of me by giving me a dirty look. I’d accidentally broken the fax machine by pressing the wrong button. When I saw it switch itself off and refuse to come back on I knew I had to own up to my boss. I tried to laugh it off but evidently she wasn’t in a laughing mood. If she had just told me off for being stupid, it would have been OK, at least I’d have known how she felt. But when she’s in a bad mood she doesn’t say anything, you just get a look that’s supposed to tell you everything you need to know. I can’t stand it. I couldn’t stand it so much on Friday I fell into a dark mood like none I’d experienced in weeks.
I had arranged that night to meet someone at a social group for French speaking gays uptown, but because of my mood I had to cancel and take myself to an AA meeting instead. It’s perhaps an encouraging sign that I know exactly what to do now when my negative emotions begin to take over like blinds coming down on a window.
There was some momentary regret over not being able to go to the French group – I could do with as much French speaking practise as I can get at the moment – but there are times when sober fellowship seems more important. I got to the meeting and I really wanted to be able to sit somewhere where people would surround me, one of the rows to the side of the room maybe, but old instincts took me to the centre where everyone avoids taking seats until the last minute. With ten minutes to go until the start of the meeting I found it easy to sink quickly into despair, as it became evident that yet another week would go by without me engaging with anyone.
Even if I’d wanted to approach someone for some pre-meeting sober conversation I wouldn’t have known how to get up, walk over to someone and open my mouth. Being normal was as mysterious to me during those moments as it was at the age of five when I went to school and met other kids my age for the first time. There were plenty of people in the room who I’d spoken to before, including even a couple of former sponsors, people whose homes I’d been to. They felt like strangers to me, all because there had been a gap between the present and the last time we spoke, during which I’d allowed minor resentment and mistrust to develop.
It’s in moments of the greatest need that a higher power intervenes, or so I’ve occasionally found. I was looking at the floor thinking about morbid things when someone tapped me on the shoulder, and there next to me was L, like a miracle. It must have been a couple of years since we last bumped into each other. He sat next to me Friday and the conversation came easily. I didn’t have to worry about whether I could trust him, whether he was judging me or whether I was saying the right thing; it was just a natural, easy conversation between two old friends.
As soon as the meeting started I knew I was going to have to share. Although I may not have seen L in years he knows me probably better than anyone in AA, so he knows about my struggles with sharing, and he especially knows my struggles with sharing at this meeting. I knew I wouldn’t be judged if I chose not to share that night – but with someone next to me I felt a bit more, I don’t know, engaged with the meeting than I normally do. It felt safer than it normally does, mainly because there was another alcoholic there who actually knows me for once. I wasn’t completely isolated from every single person in the room, for a change.
Halfway through I managed to put my hand up and pretty much every doubt and anxiety came out in words during the next five minutes. I had no plan for what I was going to say and it was terrifying, but I just kept on because once I’d started what choice did I have? People were nodding and smiling, which is always a good sign, when I talked about my eight year long journey of ups and downs with this meeting. I’ve heard many people share in the past few months about how terrified they are of opening up there, so I shouldn’t have felt that what I was saying was terribly controversial, but I did, because that’s where I still am. But at least I said it.
Afterwards I didn’t have the whole room congregating around me trying to congratulate me on my bravery; I wasn’t offered any telephone numbers or invitations to do chairs in other meetings. I guess what I must accept now is that all of that won’t just happen overnight. To get to the stage where I’m everyone’s friend I’m going to have to keep working hard at it, probably for the rest of my life. I’m going to have to keep sharing, every week if I can. I may not make new friends every single time I go there. It may be months before I’m able to strike up a conversation with someone new there; but there could be a week where something I say just happens to strike a chord with someone, and I may just happen to get talking to someone in the seat next to me, on the off chance, at some point. I don’t want to miss that opportunity.
I could at least rely on my friend for some socialising. We took a table outside a nearby late night cafe in the heart of the entertainment district and talked for hours about, well, everything while every shape and colour of life in the city walked by. I talked a lot about my plans for moving to France and he took a sensible tone: I should think about budgeting carefully and how much easier it will be to get another job here in the long run than it would be there.
Years and years ago when I first knew him I’d have wanted to argue about it. Things could have gotten quite nasty. I was amazed to realise that I’ve changed a great deal in that respect. These days I can talk about my plans and listen to people question and give advice without wanting to bite their heads off. I can talk about many things, give an opinion and get a response without feeling attacked – essentially I can interact with the world on an equal and confident footing now. That’s not to say I never have moments of feeling attacked any more, but it’s a hell of a lot easier to be mature these days.
It’s entirely because of that I was able to enjoy his company so much on Friday. Just knowing I can still have that kind of friendship in AA – that I can still have a good night out with a fellow alcoholic – is a great comfort. I honestly thought I’d lost all of them. It may be many years before I know and trust a whole group of people in that way again, but Friday has encouraged me to keep going, to keep trying.