Delving into the past

I’m being reminded of the past this week. Perhaps because I’m taking AA as seriously as a newcomer again, it’s like a few of the patterns that occurred in my early days are starting to repeat themselves. I’ve recently experienced a surge in friend requests on Facebook, all from AA (like I did when I first joined the fellowship). I understand it happens because once you add one person, their mutual friends see you and start adding you too, creating a snowball effect. Despite my policy of not considering Facebook friends real friends, I have seen its uses, like how much easier it is to reach out to some people on Facebook with a message than in real life in a meeting. Sometimes there are just things I can’t say in a meeting, much as I might need to. If I haven’t spoken with someone that I wanted to speak to at the meeting, I can always message them on Facebook instead. It’s a bit of a coward’s way out, but there are times when it’s served me nonetheless.

On Tuesday night I decided to return to my old home group, the newcomers’ meeting in west London, for the first time in years. I stopped going about four years ago after a really annoying group conscience when I felt my services as GSR were undervalued by the group. Going back may just be a sign that I’m ready forgive the meeting, and for it to forgive me. Returning to the area was strange on a number of levels. It’s not four years since I’ve been in the area, because until last September I worked just down the road from it, so I have passed the road that leads to the meeting many times in the years since I abandoned it. On Tuesday night therefore I experienced the sensation of returning to the past twice: first because it was my AA home group a long time ago, and second because it was where I worked. As soon I got to the area I sensed that I had made the right decision.

I was a little early for the meeting so I decided to stop in a nearby cafe for a cup of tea first. I was a little dazed when someone came up to me at the counter as I waited and said “hello.” I turned and it was M, an old AA acquaintance that I can’t have seen in about four years. I never knew him as a regular at this meeting but it seemed he was one now. He asked if he could join me and we sat together with our hot beverages for half an hour before the meeting, chatting about old times. I never was a particularly close friend of M’s, but I got to know his face quite well for a while in 2009 when he was coming to the other meeting where I was secretary a lot. I suppose we had a few good recovery chats back in the day. As I sat with him on Tuesday my decision to go there that night was confirmed as a good one. Even after four years of absence from my life he was still glad to chat to me as if there’d never been a gap. The fact that he was on his way to the newcomer group, that he happened to stop in at the cafe at the same time as me, made him look a little like a signpost from my higher power. I was moving in the right direction.

We headed to the meeting at 7 and we would be the first ones there, as M was the key holder and therefore responsible for opening up. When it was my home group eight years ago I never had any qualms about being one of the first people to arrive. It gave me extra time to chat to people before the meeting, and it was an opportunity to do some service as the first one there generally has to help set the room up. This week my apprehension about being so visibly the first person in the room was compounded by the fact that I didn’t know anyone at the meeting any more (apart from M) and it wasn’t clear if the whole setting up process would be the same as it always was. Did they still keep all the chairs in the cupboard at the back? Did they still set the chairs out in the same arrangement? M was busy talking to newcomers outside so I couldn’t ask him, nor could I ask the other two people in the room with me as I didn’t know them and the words that I wanted to say just sounded silly.

I ran to the toilet, hoping that when I got back a minute later someone would have begun to set up in the meantime. I got back and luckily they were. The chairs had been retrieved from the cupboard and I could see that it was the same set up as always. I could start to help, now that I knew what I was doing. This is why I don’t like most service commitments: there’s always the potential for getting things wrong and looking silly. Not exactly a healthy attitude to have, I know, but my head isn’t known for its logical approach to life.

Once we had put all the chairs out and sat down I felt a great contentedness wash over me. The room that the meeting was in really hadn’t changed at all in eight years. I loved the fact that they still had two newcomers doing the tea in the little kitchen at the back, and I loved the fact that there were still two secretaries at the front, ready to note down everybody’s sobriety length at the beginning so that they could ask all the newcomers to share. The whole atmosphere of the room and the meeting made me feel like I had come home. I never realised how big a part of my life this meeting used to be, until I went back to it on Tuesday. It could have been going back to school – it was all so familiar to me. My eight and a half years of sobriety slipped away and I felt as if I was just three months in again when the meeting started. The warmth and support in the room was incredible. Though all the other gay meetings in London are great in their own way, none of them are quite like this one. The difference in the setup and the bigger service committee really set it apart.

Just before the meeting started A came and sat next to me. I’ve known A from the Saturday meeting for years. He always shares honestly about his feelings and his struggles in AA, and I always identify with him. Last Saturday his sharing was particularly raw and I felt a strong urge to talk to him after the meeting, but I couldn’t because I was upset about my friend M not being there to take me to coffee, and I just wanted to run home. So later on when I was feeling sufficiently bad I sent A a supportive message on Facebook instead. He didn’t reply to the message, though I could see that he’d read it quite soon after I’d sent it. I naturally assumed that my words had offended him and that we would never be friends again. When I saw him coming towards me on Tuesday, then, my instinct was to turn away and hide. He sat next to me and immediately apologised for not replying to my message – he’d been meaning to but not got round to it – it had touched him and he was exceptionally grateful. I forgot my need to hide and turned round to face him properly, chattered with him like an old friend in the seconds before the start of the meeting and felt good again.

The whole meeting was nice like that. The sharing unbelievably struck me as even more profound than what I normally hear in my other meetings. It being a quiet meeting, it was much easier to put my hand up and share there. I kept it positive, saying how grateful I was to find the meeting still there in the same state that I left it in (all true). What would have made the whole evening even nicer would have been finding a newcomer to talk to – that’s what the meeting’s for, after all. But I couldn’t. That challenge still lays ahead of me.

In my free time this week I’ve been going back through old blog entries from 2007 (no particular reason) and an interesting research project has been to see how my challenges in recovery have changed since then. What’s abundantly clear, after reading through the entries for my first six months of sobriety, is that my challenges haven’t changed all that much. In 2007 I struggled with sharing, just as I do now. I found it excruciatingly difficult at times (I forgot that I did) because I never felt that I had anything clever or entertaining to say. I struggled with the social aspect of the fellowship as much as I do now, although I went to post-meeting coffees a lot more than I do today because, I think, there were just more of them back then. I had the same types of resentments against people in meetings, all borne out of jealousy, because they all seemed so much happier and more confident than me. I doubted my friendships, just as I do today, always wondering if they would last or not.

So if my fundamental problems in AA remain the same today, can I really say I’ve had any recovery? Well, I think a lot of recovery has occurred, externally at least. In 2007 I thought I would be unemployable forever, a belief that turned out to be incorrect a couple of years later. I suffered from these insane crushes all the time which I don’t really now. That’s not to say the sex and relationship thing is solved now because it definitely isn’t, but I know how much more level headed I can be these days when it comes to sex, if I want to be.

The problems that remain in my relationship with AA are the ones I chose never to work on. I chose to hang onto my jealousy and mistrust of others, secretly, all the while telling everyone how great I thought they were. I allowed that fear of honesty to erode my bond with AA over the years, until I was barely going to meetings any more. The fear of sharing in meetings that I experienced every week in those early days never went away, it just built and built, so that it took me until last year to start sharing again after many years of avoiding it.

It’s the subtle behaviours that are the real problem. The ones that don’t do any immediate damage, but which over time can build until I’m driven out of the fellowship by their sum total. I knew about my tendency to isolate and seek invisibility in 2007 – every time I walked out of a meeting without saying goodbye to anybody it upset me, even then, but I couldn’t stop doing it. I knew I would have to start approaching strangers in meetings at some point, but never did. I knew that with friends I hadn’t seen in a while I had this strange tendency to want to avoid them, because of the fear that the intervening time had made them not like me any more. This is the hardest group of behaviours to tackle, because I’ve done them all my life. Long before AA I was isolating, running away from situations that I found difficult, blanking people who had once been close to me.

For the first few years in AA I suppose I could get away with these things because I was still relatively new and people were willing to give me leeway. After everyone started drifting away, I became jaded with the fellowship, something I hadn’t been in the beginning. I lost hope in my ability to ever become ‘one of them’. Now I have to undo that jadedness, which sits in my core like poison and makes me feel separate in every meeting I attend. When I’m in a good meeting and I really want to share, I have to battle with that cynicism first. And then I have to battle with my fears and doubts that were always there from the beginning.

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