A daily reprieve / fear of the known

As Saturday moves into the past I think it could become one of those ‘treasured’ sobriety memories that I occasionally refer back to in my reflective moments. Other treasured memories include things that I’ve written about on this blog before…favourite holidays, nights out dancing in London with fellowship, convivial post-meeting meals in 2008, AA conventions. Saturday was definitely as special as all those things, perhaps one of the high points of the decade because it was so unplanned for and so distant from the last time I did anything so interesting after a meeting. Of course I hope it will happen again soon – it might be quite simple to make it happen again this week – but the repetition of a special night amongst friends is never guaranteed. In the early days I think I used to take these events for granted. I used to wonder if I was going for post-meeting fellowship too much, and I made up excuses about how the people I was mixing with weren’t real friends or how they didn’t want me tagging along with them to the coffee house so much, so I could avoid going sometimes.

After a few years, I’d actively isolated myself from the fellowship so much without even realising it, that the coffees and the meals eventually dried up. I didn’t know I could cause a friendship and support network to erode (well, something deep down told me I could and the thought privately bothered me for years, until I made an effort to re-establish myself in AA last year). For a long time the convenient narrative of the disease would have me believe that I had passively watched people drift away for no reason. I thought that just going to meetings should be enough to attract new sober friends and social opportunities, but it never was. This business of fellowship is hard work, one day at a time.

*****

Tonight I attended my former home group, the newcomer’s meeting in west London, for the second week in a row. It was ok. I definitely needed a meeting, regardless of whether I’d have any friends there or not. I didn’t talk much to anyone before or afterwards, but I at least managed to share in the middle. The room was even quieter than last week so putting my hand up to share was easy. I don’t believe in sharing raw, negative stuff in a newcomer’s meeting any more so I tried to elaborate on last week’s theme of the benefits of long term sobriety. I said that once I’d accepted it as a daily program contingent on continuous hard work, things started to get better for me. Hopefully someone took some of it in.

I needed a meeting because of the edgy anxiety that has been plaguing me the last few days. It’s insomnia and the resulting fatigue – my energy levels have been slipping along with my serenity. In the meeting I suddenly had a lightbulb moment: I haven’t meditated since December. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense to attribute what’s been happening to the reduction in spiritual practise. When I was meditating I never had these problems. I didn’t have a clue that it was helping me to sleep at night, but evidently there appears to be a link.

With the increase in anxiety there is a sense of doom in my life. It’s always been there, ever since I was a kid, but I guess when I’m meditating and doing things to keep my mind well, it’s kept more at bay. For a very long time I hoped I would one day find a cure, whether it was a type of therapy I’d never tried, a stronger dose of antidepressants, writing the blog more frequently, going to more meetings, having more sober friends. I’m more willing to accept today that I just have an anxiety disorder and there is no cure. I can only keep it at bay every day by doing the things that I’ve identified as healthy. It’s sad to think I may always be a little bit ill, but people in AA are always saying that there’s no cure and they’ve learnt to live with it. I used to think they were just saying that hypothetically, to somehow trick their disease into thinking they’re ok with it and thus beating it for good, but really the truth is that I will have to learn to live with this.

Having not conversed with anyone at the meeting I knew I could and should pick up the phone to someone on my way home. I don’t normally think about phoning anyone, but I wanted to hear someone’s voice tonight. Sadly I didn’t know who I could phone at that time of night. Although I’ve been for a number of coffees recently and tentatively made a few new sober friends, I didn’t feel I was yet at the stage with any of them where I could just randomly call them. It was easier when I was a newcomer eight years ago because everyone expects newcomers to call them. If I had a sponsor then I wouldn’t have faced this dilemma tonight, but I don’t have one yet, so I did.

I thought it was going to be a lonely evening when out of the blue my phone started ringing when I was ten minutes from home. It was M, the newcomer that I had coffee with on Saturday after the meeting. He’d been having a difficult week too and wanted to chat about it for a few minutes. Apparently he nearly relapsed yesterday, but didn’t, taking himself to a meeting to share instead. I told him well done for doing the right thing. He asked how I was and I talked a bit about insomnia and anxiety – not so much that it would overwhelm him, just enough so that I could be honest and get it off my chest. He said that we could meet on Thursday and talk about meditation (he practises Buddhism) and I instantly felt better. So, without meaning to, I’ve experienced recovery in action tonight. When my phone began ringing my instinct was to ignore it – I’ve always felt a visceral aversion to answering the phone, whoever might be ringing me. Thank God I didn’t ignore it for once.

*****

Accepting that I have some form of anxiety disorder or disease which will never be cured may make life easier on one level, because it can explain my mood swings, why I can get to eight years sober and have a wonderful weekend and then feel terrible a couple of days later. On another level, it terrifies me. It means I’ll always go from one extreme to another in my head. It means I may never truly relax in my skin, with the knowledge that my emotions can always sink again tomorrow. Granted, the daily reprieve that I get from my 12 step program will comfort me, sometimes. But I will have to spend my life being careful, watching out for my demons around every corner. I’ve been able to identify these demons for decades, and at times in the last few years it has really seemed as if I could be conquering them, but today I am finally understanding the truth that it cannot be permanently conquered. Only treated from day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute. It’s somewhat ironic that what others in AA realised years ago has taken me this long to comprehend, given the thousands of occasions on which I’ve heard it in meetings. Perhaps I should have taken someone’s advice literally when they told me to remove the cotton wool from my ears and put it in my mouth.

My disease has acted up memorably this week with an insomnia that seems insurmountable. It’s taking me hours to get to sleep at night, and then I’m waking up three or four times before sunrise. My sleep in between these gaps is never more than light. On Saturday night, despite the wonderful evening just passed, I was troubled by one harrowing thought alone: that my mother was dying. Around 11pm I heard her go to bed and quickly begin snoring in the room next door. After half an hour she suddenly stopped snoring, and I heard nothing more for the rest of the night. She doesn’t usually snore, which was unusual in itself. Instead of thinking that she must have just turned over on her side, a move which normally stops people snoring in my experience, I expected and waited to hear her start snoring again. It worried me that there was no more noise coming from her room at all. The loud snoring had alerted me to the fact that she was alive, I guess in a symbolic sense. The sudden absence of sound now began to panic me because I’d been worried about her dying for a long time and this seemed to present itself as strange but incontrovertible evidence. She could have stopped snoring as the result of a heart attack, or of accidentally choking in her sleep. I couldn’t take my mind off all of the terrifying possibilities.

For hours I listened out for any sound. Most nights I will hear her turn over in her sleep at some point: I didn’t hear that at all that night. By 3 or 4am, I was convinced she must have died. Logically I should have just gone to check, right? But in my sleep deprived and somewhat crazed state, it didn’t cross my mind. I just lay there, and lay there, waiting for a sound. Eventually a light sleep must have taken me unawares, because I woke later on Sunday morning to the sound of her up and about having her breakfast.

I’ve had very few attacks as bad as that in my life, which led me to think earlier that something’s really wrong this time and I have to start meditating again. In the light of day I can see it’s a symptom of my disease, a paranoid episode brought about by days of insomnia and unrelieved anxiety. At night, and sometimes even in the day, I wonder if this sickness is beginning to cling onto my mother as a way of keeping itself alive. The fact that my mother will probably die in the next twenty to thirty years is the hardest thing I’m ever going to deal with, I have no answer to it and so it’s a thought that can just keep going and going. I really fear that I may spend the rest of her life having moments where I am paralysed by this realisation. I may forget about it for a while, but it will always be there, ready to jump on me at the slightest reminder.

The cruellest thing is that I can’t help but follow this path, always, to its conclusion. I scare myself. My illness has me inflicting self torture.

This morning, something else happened. Her alarm started going off as it always does at around 6am for work, but this time she didn’t seem to hear it, cacophonous as it is. For ten minutes I was kept awake by the incessant noise, and I’m sure half the block was too. I began to think again that she must be dead, and that’s why she’s not waking up. I went into some kind of shocked state of emergency; adrenalin rushed through my body and I couldn’t have told you my own name as I stumbled into the room next door to see if it was true. I tapped her, and for a second she didn’t move, and my life was a horror movie. Then she woke up, said “sorry” and switched the alarm off, started to get up and begin another normal day. She asked if I was all right as I stumbled back to my room – I couldn’t answer – she must have seen something of the panic in my eyes. It left me feeling a mixture of embarrassment and horror and I’m still not totally over it, because it could happen again tomorrow.

It probably won’t – it’s a bloody loud alarm clock and she’s never missed it before – but in case it does happen again, whether it’s tomorrow or next year, I won’t be able to take it. I can’t take the mental torment that her mortality is already putting me through. What the fuck am I going to be like in fifteen or twenty years’ time when the end really will be nigh?

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