I began Friday evening by trying to catch bad mind patterns before I went out. I thought it worked, but when I got to the meeting I tried to ignore P, the guy I’d met and chatted to after the meeting the night before. I was passing him in the street when he caught my arm and engaged me in conversation that I didn’t want. There’s no reason why I should be ignoring a fellow alcoholic that’s going to the same meeting as me, especially one who I had apparently already befriended. I simply did it automatically with barely a second’s thought, because in the space of twenty-four hours he had gone from being someone I had a pleasant chat with to someone who had probably pretended to be friendly to make fun of me. Luckily for me, he didn’t make an issue of me nearly ignoring him. He talked to me as pleasantly (and as flirtatiously) as he had the night before, and I was able to forget my instinctive (and wrong) reservations.
When I sat in the room it was busier than I had seen it in years. I felt a weight of anxiety settle on me thanks to the sense of being surrounded by too many happy alcoholics. It’s the way I can expect to feel in most busy meetings. P had taken a seat on the other side of the room, so I silently observed in my own private corner as the room got full to bursting with smiling, laughing people that I knew but felt mentally cut off from. The bad mind patterns that I had tried to catch earlier were in full force. I began to follow that old train of thought, that there were certain people who were much better at being sober than me and therefore wouldn’t want me in the room. I became tired and bored of it all. I only had to think back to how good the previous evening had been, when I’d made friends and socialised naturally in a much smaller meeting. It seemed natural to assume that it had been a one off, never to be repeated.
The meeting started and I listened to the sharing nonetheless. The chair talked about being a shy kid who didn’t know how to walk into a room full of people without shaking, over forty years ago when he first got sober. There was immediate identification and I was brought back to my reason for being at the meeting: which is that I really needed to be there. I am an alcoholic whose mind tells me lies all the time. Once again, I had to turn down the volume on my instinctive thoughts and listen instead to a new voice that reminds me I’m not alone in feeling the way I feel in meetings.
What I really would have liked was to repeat the success of the night before. To have a conversation with one of these people who seemed so confident in their skin, to be asked to coffee again – I couldn’t believe it would be possible last night, even though it had been before. I wondered if I could make it possible just by having an open frame of mind about it. I’d done that before, after all, and very recent evidence had shown it to work – yet last night I still doubted. I had to get to the end of the meeting and find out the answer.
By the end when everyone was standing up and forming their cliques, I felt ok. There had been the same amazing sharing that there is every week. I didn’t know how I was going to find a coffee group, so I just went over to the first person I saw, G, who I hadn’t chatted to in a while. He’d announced his first sober anniversary in the meeting and I wanted to congratulate him. I was pleased when he immediately asked if I wanted to go for a meal to help him celebrate. I genuinely hadn’t been expecting any socialising last night: going up to someone instead of going straight home like I always have in the past was all it took.
A group of people apparently were going to join us, but we’d have to wait around for them for at least ten minutes, because everyone had to say goodbye to everyone who wasn’t coming first. The task of coaxing people away from the meeting room at the end was slow and arduous. It always was in the old days when I used to stick around for fellowship there. I dislike standing there in the crowd as it slowly disperses – it’s like being in a school playground at the end of the school day.
Eventually our group was on its way to a nearby restaurant and I found myself talking to a flight attendant from the USA who was here visiting. I’d never seen him before, may never see him again, but after a minute we were talking like old buddies. I shared the brief story of my journey in AA and he shared his. I liked talking to him. He didn’t know much about the restaurant we were in and I was able to make some recommendations on the menu. I asked him what the fellowship was like in his home state and he described his home group at length. I ignored the awkward feelings that emerged intermittently within, just as I had been ignoring them all evening. It felt unnatural to go between chatting with my new friend and the rest of the group, but I did like a practised socialite because I was able to observe others in the group doing it. Friendly moments accumulated and turned into friendly hours; it became a classic evening of AA fellowship. And this is what I mean by a gay ‘community’: it’s what the traditional gay scene always lacked for us.
I was surprised to receive a text from A in the middle of lunch today, asking if I was free for coffee before this evening’s meeting. I’ve known A in meetings for a long time but have never done coffee with her or spent more than a few minutes chatting to her. Last week after the meeting we exchanged numbers and she said she’d get in touch with me about coffee – I forgot about it until today. It’s been a long time since I did anything interesting on a Saturday evening that didn’t involve (non-AA friend) P. It felt a bit weird saying yes to the suggestion.
Coffee with A was good; we had a nice chat about recovery and jobs and relationships, the ups and downs associated with each. I couldn’t shake an edgy feeling inside as we talked; by the time we got to the meeting it was still there. I later realised that our conversation about jobs had reminded me of my current anxieties in the search for a new career. I was also thinking about G’s fellowship party, which is happening tomorrow. I forced myself to talk to the people that I knew at the meeting although I just wanted to sit at the back and shudder. Somehow I had enough presence of mind to know that the nerves would go after about half an hour, and they did.
The chair was given by an old AA friend that I hadn’t seen in some years. Like so many people, he was one of those who disappeared from my life in 2010 or 2011 when I was starting to drift from the fellowship. He’d made an effort to say hello to me and hug me before the meeting, and his chair was an inspiration, so I was the second person to share back when it was time – the earliest I’ve ever shared in that meeting. By the end, I felt a normal part of things, just as I have in all the meetings I’ve been to since Thursday after the initial discomfort.
At the end I tested myself further, by hanging around to see if I could do fellowship coffee for the third night in a row. I knew it would be perfectly possible if I just stood there long enough. M unfortunately was too busy to go this week, so I’d have to find someone else to tag along with. I might have expected him to be busy one week – everyone will be at some point in life – I couldn’t keep relying on him to guide me every week. For about five minutes I stood outside not knowing who I’d end up walking to the coffee house with, whether it would be a friend or someone new. After five minutes a newcomer that I’d chatted to briefly last night after the meeting came over and asked me if I was going for coffee. And so I was off.
A few familiar faces from last week joined us, and I was able to spend another pleasant hour in the company of sober alcoholics. I ended up spending most of the time talking to the newcomer, who as it turned out was only seven days back from a relapse. He was clearly struggling with things and I responded to his need for help by being wise and helpful on the surface (underneath I felt as out of my depth as I always do). I gave him my number and did that thing that always makes me cringe inwardly: I told him to call me if he ever needs a chat. I just did it because it’s what people in AA do. By now I must recognise that what I want to do (keep my number to myself) isn’t always the best thing for me, or indeed for the newcomer.
So, I hope I’ve helped another person this evening. Maybe I’ve even made a new friend. I got a nice text from him after I got home, thanking me for the company and saying that we should chat again soon. During my years out of AA, the idea of getting a friendly text from anyone other than P was alien to me. Really, I’m where I thought I could never be this time last year, talking to people and sharing the pain and joys of recovery. At that time, I imagined it would take many years of effort to get back into the AA bed, if I could at all.
There were others at tonight’s little gathering who are going to G’s party tomorrow, and I was lucky to get some reassurance from them on the subject before I went home for the night. I’m not the only one who’s nervous about going to it. It’s not going to be full of people who want to ignore me. I was still undecided about going earlier today; now I’m decided. I will be going. It may not be the best party I’ve ever been to, I may not make any great new friends, but it will be just fine, if I can keep that open mind and steer away from those bad old thinking patterns.
Eight years ago I hoped and thought that the people I was going for coffee with would be my friendship group forever. I don’t want to say I was naive for thinking that – anyone would think it, and for some people the friends that they make in early recovery do end up being lifelong pals. For me, I’ve had to accept that life happens and the people I once knew have moved on. The people whose company I enjoyed tonight may too have moved on in a few years from now. I would let this fact of life get to me a few years ago, but I can’t let it get to me now. If I’m going to meetings and doing regular fellowship I’ll always have someone to go to coffee with, whether it’s someone I’ve gone with before or someone new. The crowd I was out with last night was completely different to tonight’s crowd, that doesn’t make it any better or worse. If I can find one or two good friends amongst all these gatherings, I’ll be doing ok.