The darkness lifted and I’ve been feeling more balanced since yesterday. Taking the time to meditate in the mornings again has certainly helped; proof if ever I needed it that it has an effect on my mental state. If one meditates as a matter of routine for a long time there is a temptation to look for overt signs of it working, but in this case it wasn’t until I stopped that the effects became clear. I suppose it’s similar to anti-depressants in that respect. So I must have found something that works for me, something I can do for the rest of my life for free. It is good to know that there is something I can do. Though the fact that it’s a daily practise for the rest of my life is, as I was saying the other day, still challenging. You spend years genuinely thinking that you could one day feel ok without trying; you fantasise about being a “normal” person who doesn’t have to do all these things just to stay afloat, because that’s how the world frames illness and wellness. People who are ill are supposed to just get better, eventually. I think more and more people are slowly waking up to the fact that mental illness isn’t quite like that, but for me it’s not been a happy realisation. Until now in recovery when I’ve experienced these attacks I’ve known that they aren’t isolated and that they would probably keep recurring for some time – but today I am fully aware that mental unbalance will be my default state for the rest of my life. There will never come a time when I’m cured, like I always secretly hoped there would. I can keep meditating, I can keep doing AA and sharing it with others, and I might experience reprieve for most of my days. But the mental upkeep will always be a job that I have to do. I simply have to start adapting to that knowledge.
I don’t tend to go to meetings on Thursdays but the newcomer I met the other day, M, had suggested a gay topic meeting in town which sounded good. He’d said it’s easy to share at this meeting because it’s quieter than the others, and they go for coffee and fellowship afterwards too (always a plus point in my books these days). On the way there I had the usual reluctance about doing something good for myself. As I hadn’t been to the meeting for a long time and probably wasn’t going to know many people there, I felt that fear. I think I managed to do a pretty good job of ignoring it, as I went straight into the meeting without hesitation. Inside I saw a few people I recognised and some I didn’t. I said “hello” to the ones I knew and hoped one of them would start a conversation with me, but none did because they were busy talking to the people I didn’t know. The ones I didn’t know seemed superficially young and glamorous, completely unlike me, and I was tempted by judgmental and critical thoughts for a few minutes.
When the meeting started the topic of dating in recovery was chosen as the theme for sharing. How apt for me, given that I have not figured out how to date in recovery at all. It soon transpired that none of us have figured it out, surprise surprise. One would have expected there to be at least one happy, balanced individual in the room who has found love in recovery and who could answer some of the questions that we have about it – but there were none. There was an even split in the sharing between newcomers who are eager to find out if sober relationships are possible, and us old timers who’ve found it to be in many senses impossible.
A lot of what was said expressed this exasperation and defeat that I have always felt around love and relationships. When it was my turn to share, I’d have loved to put some positive spin on it; maybe I could have said that one day, you never know, I might be surprised and find I could love like everyone else all along. But it wouldn’t have felt true saying that, and I stuck to a theme of “all experience has shown that relationships aren’t possible for me, and I’m learning to be ok by myself.” The nice thing is that my view was shared by pretty much all the other long term sober men in the room. As gay men who have had to shun the gay scene where most of the action happens, we’re all learning to be ok by ourselves, without that fantasy of perfect love.
At the end of the meeting I momentarily had to turn away from the temptation to say “well that was a good showing, now I can go home.” In the heart of London on a Thursday night, going for coffee with a bunch of gay alcoholics seemed like just the sort of thing I should be doing. For the second time in a week I was being sociable in AA, and it brought on that sense of deja vu again, where I was reminded of my early sobriety, and the days when I did this naturally all the time. I won’t say it wasn’t nice to be in that space again.
The theme of sober dating had captured everyone’s imagination, and most of us were happy to carry on talking about it as we walked to a nearby coffee house. Now that there’s marriage equality, the idea of shunning sex and relationships can seem even more perverse to anyone who doesn’t have a problem with them. I’m happy that there is marriage equality here now, but it hasn’t changed my life yet. I haven’t noticed an increase in men on Grindr looking for meaningful and romantic encounters; quite the opposite. With so much freedom to do what we want now, people are spending ever greater energies on satisfying their immediate needs and forgetting the rest.
There may be a self evident irony in the fact that there’s a room full of gay men on a Thursday night feeling equally disillusioned with the state of things, yet none of us could ask another out on a date. It would feel like breaching an important boundary. Although people in AA do date each other occasionally – I think many of us secretly wish it happened more frequently, in fact – the rooms are advertised first and foremost as a safe space, the gay rooms especially are a safe haven away from all the sick and twisted behaviours of the gay scene, and asking people on dates just isn’t done.
When we got to the cafe there were some predictably awkward moments for me, thanks to the “odd number” syndrome where the other six people in the group paired off to converse and I, the seventh, was left without a natural conversation partner. This didn’t last all night, luckily. Even as I was sat by myself, staring into space, I didn’t care as much as I once might have done, maybe because I knew the group would soon dwindle and someone would eventually talk to me. The only reason to care about being the odd one out is that it might lead to judgment from others, something I hope to avoid worrying about in general, just as I hope to avoid judging people myself now.
When the group had dwindled sufficiently in numbers attention did start to turn in my direction, and one of the handsome young men that I had been judging critically earlier on at the meeting came out with the old chestnut “you’re a bit quiet, aren’t you?” God, how I used to hate hearing that. I used to pour drink defiantly down my throat to show people that I wasn’t the boring, timid being they clearly had me down as. Tonight I reined in the anger that wanted to burst in me, made an effort to gloss over it and engage in the conversation that had been going on. I don’t know, maybe when he said it he meant it in a friendly way, to try and engage me. Ignoring my doubts and judgments and biases, I really tried to be part of the group once it had reached out to me because I know that’s how friends are made. I don’t know if I’ll socialise with these particular people ever again, maybe none of them will turn out to be the long term sober friends I’m hoping for. But I’m compelled to keep doing this, to keep trying in spite of everything because my only other option is going home to face loneliness and isolation. There literally is no other option for me: at eight and a half years sober I can say that with confidence.
For the last fifteen minutes or so I had the attention of a gregarious group member named P, whose conversation could have been described as borderline flirtatious. I don’t know if it was just the excitement of the occasion or if he really was flirting – I’ve always been notoriously bad at telling. His knee kept touching mine at intervals and he kept saying things like “I’m not normally like this!” Despite that we had quite a good chat about gay films that we like and some future community events that he’s going to. I wasn’t romantically interested in him to start with and it’s certain that nothing will happen between us, if indeed he was flirting – if I see him again it will be just another sober friendship, and I think he probably knew that too by the end of the evening.
Talking to such a gregarious and confident character once would have scared the life out of me. In the old days I’d instinctively think that a young, confident extrovert like that was only talking to me to make fun of me. But I don’t think P was doing that. He wasn’t cracking jokes at my expense or making sly comments about my appearance, he was just talking to me like anyone would. If I see him again, or if I meet others like that in the fellowship (which, if I carry on this way, I may well), let’s hope I don’t make the same mistake that I made in such friendships eight years ago, by allowing them to erode because of that constant underlying doubt about their motives.
Every time I’m in this situation, I have to keep reminding myself that others find it as difficult as I do. I’ll never be able to read anyone’s mind, so I’m just going to have to take it on faith.
Over all, I had a fun evening, I’m glad I stuck around for it all, and I hope I can push myself to do it again next time.
On the subject of acceptance and mental illness, I just realised maybe this is part of step one that I never did. Maybe the permanence of my disease is another thing that I am to accept powerlessness over; and perhaps in that final acceptance, one day, I will be liberated as I no longer cling to the elusive idea of a cure.