Psychological theory describes cognitive dissonance as the mental stress or discomfort that comes about as the result of conflicting ideas, experiences or situations in one’s life. The two major things in my life, work and AA meetings, conflict with each other when it comes to my experience of them, and the ever increasing divergence between them causes ever greater stress. In one situation (AA) I am (mainly) happy, comfortable and making constant progress; in the other (work) I am so unhappy I’m practically regressing to childhood. The twelve months I was originally going to give it have quickly turned to six, and then four, then two. Just a few days after I started planning my resignation, I’m ready to leave now, no more waiting. I’ve spent my entire life waiting for things to happen. Why impose further torture on myself?
I truly believe I can’t do this job any more. But the reality is I can’t afford to leave yet. Well, I can, but if I want to go back to college to train as a counsellor, I need a bit more in my savings. I could get a part time job to help after I’ve left the bank – in fact it would probably be wise to do so – but I don’t know how long it would take to find one, and until I do my savings will be getting increasingly depleted.
And anyway, after six weeks of training with B I’ve just gotten down the process of sending out letters to customers (it’s extremely manual and complicated). When B leaves us in a few weeks I’ll be the only person in our team who can do this task. J and V never learnt how to do it, and it doesn’t seem likely that they’ll want to. I’m aware I shouldn’t have to consider inconveniencing the team as a factor in whether to leave or not, but I can’t help it. They’re bound to wonder why I’ve applied myself so diligently and willingly to learning the task if I was planning to leave all along.
For the sake of the team then, I’d help them by waiting until they’ve recruited B’s replacement, who I could pass the task onto. That way I’d earn a few more months’ worth of salary as well, taking my savings up to a much healthier level.
The trouble is, none of the reasons for staying have anything to do with my wellbeing, my sanity, my happiness. They are practical reasons designed to keep me bound in chains until a time in the distant future when it’s convenient for everyone to let me go. That’s how it feels. I want to leave now, and I can’t.
I really wonder at how I haven’t got seriously ill with stress yet. Maybe I am ill and I’m just not aware of it yet. I’m sure I must have shaved a few years off my life by now. If it’s so bad there’s always the quick fix option of taking a sick day. I could just take tomorrow off, then there’d just be Friday to get through, and Friday’s always ok. But even so, there’s still next week and the week after and the week after looming on the horizon, I can’t get away from that. And it would be dishonest to take a day off when I’m not really sick. I don’t hate dishonesty, I just can’t be it any more.
V started her company training in another office this week, so I’m truly on my own at work until she gets back next week. It’s the worst kind of alone, the feeling I experienced at school and at college, in playgrounds and common rooms, when I had to stand there in a bubble, watching as others had fun and continued with their normal lives around me. This sense of being apart from the world has plagued me throughout my life and when it happens, I become more convinced that I was born unlike other people. There is a fundamental set of social skills missing in me. I’ve heard people describe this apartness countless times over the years in AA, which is very comforting when I’m in an AA meeting, but when I have to go through it at work and there’s no AA there to save me, it’s tortuous. It’s so much a part of me I’ve even experienced it in AA at times, the safest place of all.
In this state of apartness I question how other people around me can appear to be having so much fun, when my world is crumbling. How can they smile and laugh when I’m breaking apart in their midst? The frightening thing is that I can never be prepared for this feeling. Every time it hits me it’s like the first time. I experience it mostly at work, but as mentioned I have also gone through it in AA before (not so much the past year since I have made conscious efforts to reconnect there).
The other frightening thing is that I don’t really know why it happens.
Take this job situation, for example. Yes, there are stress factors there. I’m not a fit for their culture. In our induction, the head of HR advised us all not to be “mood hoovers” at work, i.e. people who suck the happiness out of the room, thus insulting everyone who suffers from depression, and in turn, me. The basement environment is unhealthy, too. And I feel so much older than everyone else there, even people who are physically older than me. Yes, all that’s terrible. But I had stuff like that at the last place and I swear it didn’t make me this miserable.
When V’s there I can just about cope with it. When she’s not there the problem is blindingly obvious. It’s not that people are literally ignoring me all day. I get the odd word or two from neighbours now and then. What’s entirely lacking in my day is real human connection. I may have said this before, but it’s like I don’t exist to them (outside of the rare moments when I’m passing a neighbour and they have to say “hello” or ask me a work-related question.)
Since getting sacked would be hugely undesirable for my self esteem I feel I need to keep pretending that everything’s ok there. When J asks me how I am and how everything’s going, I can’t reply with anything approaching honesty. I appreciate that people who genuinely have a lot of options in life can tell their employers that they’re unhappy at work and expect fair treatment, but I don’t see many options in front of me at the moment. All I see is the desperate need to cling on until I have more money in the bank account.
In recovery we’re promised a life beyond our wildest dreams. Well, it’s safe to say this isn’t beyond my wildest dreams. There isn’t anything about it that I want. As soon as I’m out of this job, I know I’ll go back to feeling ok about everything, it’s just that in the moment the work problem is taking up all of my consciousness and so everything seems doomed. I guess the most important reason why I can’t just give up and run is because I put myself here. It was through my own decisions that I ended up in this horrible job. I see that I’m being shown a lesson, and my higher power is compelling me to see it through until the end. So although recovery promises us amazing things, it doesn’t say that we’ll get them by abrogating responsibility and sitting back. We have to do things the right way.
One of the few plus points of the job is that it’s often so busy a day can pass in the blink of an eye, and Friday wasn’t an exception. I barely noticed the time until the day was nearly over. An hour before finishing we all got an unexpected break when the fire alarms went, sending us outside to wait at our gathering point until there was an all clear. Two hundred people naturally huddled in cliques and gangs, repeating behaviour learnt in the playground. I clung to V, who seemed a safe bet until someone on the other side of the crowd waved her over. There she left me on my own, so I did what anyone in a crowd does these days to not look alone and unoccupied: I got out my phone. There was nothing going on on facebook, nothing in my emails, nothing in the news that I hadn’t already seen countless times. I persisted with the charade nonetheless, as I simply couldn’t look up and approach anyone around me. After a few minutes I was a bit surprised when one of V’s friends came over to get me. “You don’t need to stand there on your own,” he said in a tone that was difficult to read. I felt that V had sent him over and that he was embarrassed about it, so as soon as we reached the other side of the playground I loudly proclaimed that he didn’t need to worry because I wasn’t embarrassed. It was meant to be funny, to burst a bubble of potential awkwardness, which was the last thing we all needed.
I was really quite grateful to V for what she’d done – not only had she looked for me and realised I’d not followed her, she’d seen me stricken on the other side and sent someone to get me. At that point I realised I had the work ally I’d been looking for, a cause for some momentary relief and the idea that maybe things wouldn’t be so terrible. But then from this week she’d be going on her training and I’d have two weeks of solitude with no one to rescue me to face.
In between the difficulties I had a good weekend. Every weekend now is so precious I feel the need to make the most of it. Friday night’s downtown meeting is the main highlight of every week, so much so I miss it when I’m not there now. To think a year ago I had to force myself just to go there and sit at the back, it’s come a long way. There’s something about it now, I suppose because I’ve been on a journey with it through the years, it means a lot to me. When the meeting was over, once again it was so easy to stick around for fellowship afterwards (how I dreamed of achieving that ease last year!) A Middle Eastern guy called A, who I’ve spoken to a couple of times but not that much, was stood outside in the little alleyway looking for fellowship and conversation. He caught my eye as I was walking off and we started to talk about work. He’s looking for it at the moment; he’d just been for an interview at a company that sounded like the perfect place to work. I gave the only advice I could give: only accept work from a company that you actually want to work for!
Our conversation flowed so freely and easily I thought I was talking to an old, dear friend. Others came to join us and encouraged us to come for dinner in a nearby Lebanese cafe that I’ve passed countless times but never been in. I hesitated to go in; I’d already spent so much on eating out in the week. Another friend from the meeting, T, was about to head home, and I wanted to chat to him first because he’d been supportive a few weeks ago at another time when I was struggling. During our chat outside the cafe A came over to ask if we were coming in. At that moment I felt like such a part of things, so welcome in the world and so wanted, I could have cried. A wanted me to come one way, while T wanted me to come another so that we could continue our meaningful conversation.
I didn’t think until just now how similar that situation was to what had happened earlier the very same day during the fire alarm, when V’s friend came to get me. In my mind I can’t see those people at work in the same way as I see AA friends at all, however hard I try.
I chose the cafe and said goodbye to T, even though it would mean spending more money, because there were more people in the cafe that I could get to know and prolong my Friday night with. I knew all the faces at the table, some extremely well, some I’d never spoken to. Service was slow, so we had plenty of time to talk about politics, travel, TV shows, books. There was little talk about AA and recovery as such, possibly because we all got carried away talking about Game of Thrones, a popular subject with most people in my age bracket so it seems. Across the road from the cafe that we were in, the actor who plays Jon Snow happened to be starring in a theatre show, and during our meal he emerged from a side entrance to sign autographs, causing a great roar of excitement on the street outside. A couple of girls near the door in the cafe stood on their chairs to try and take photos, while A left the table to go outside and see how close he could get. The whole thing was wonderful and surreal, like a moment from a film. Though I’m as much a fan of Game of Thrones as the next person, I was quite content not to go chasing Kit Harington for an autograph. I was perfectly comfortable where I was.
Saturday morning I was booked into this anxiety workshop run by a group at the church where I’ve been going recently with my sponsor. I started the day anxious about an anxiety workshop – I’m sure there’s an irony in there somewhere. When I got there I would need to be welcomed into any group that I happened to sit with before I could say anything, and it’s this bit that always makes me anxious. Not nearly as anxious as going to work, to be sure, but there were moments before I left for the day when I could have just gone back to bed and forgotten about it. It was the same sense of obligation that keeps me going to work that got me out the door on Saturday. I was booked for the day – I had a responsibility to turn up.
I learnt nothing new during the four hour workshop, but I could be glad I at least went and saw it through. It was a mixture of small group discussion and the facilitator talking to us about theory and techniques. In my group I talked more than I expected to about what was going on at work. I got a lot of sympathetic nods, not much more because there wasn’t much anyone could say. In such a short space of time we were never going to get all the answers, it was more about the sharing and the supportive Christian atmosphere. Mixed in with her general advice, the facilitator handed out some bible quotes. For the first time ever I learned that the Bible is full of quotes that are supposed to help with despair, anxiety, fear. I really never knew.
In the evening as I sat in the AA meeting I couldn’t stop an uncomfortable sensation of panic from rising in me. Monday was coming too quickly. There was a moment when I could see time slipping by, when I wondered how it could already be the end of the week when just minutes before it had been Friday, Thursday, Monday. As I get older I witness time doing this more and more, this slipping away, and it upsets me because I keep wishing it away when I’m at work, when I should be cherishing all of it.
On Sunday I decided I’d go to the meeting in town instead of church, having been there for most of the day before. Before the meeting I had a whole afternoon with nothing planned. I needed to feel like I was putting Monday off for as long as possible, but how? It was a lovely day, and it struck me that I hadn’t been swimming in ages. As I thought about it the more it seemed like a good idea. It wouldn’t put Monday off forever, but so far in my life I’ve only found two things that make me forget about time when I’m doing them: swimming and meditation. I meditate every day; sadly I don’t swim often enough.
It was a quiet day in the indoor pool with everyone sunbathing beside the outdoor one. Being so out of practise, I managed half the number of lengths I’d normally do, before I was too tired to carry on. But despite the tiredness I was refreshed, spiritually as well as physically. In the water I’m free, I can almost forget who I am. I find it impossible to worry about trivialities like work when I’m having to focus on getting my arms and legs in sync, controlling my breath, how many lengths I’ve done and keeping in the right lane. If I can manage to start swimming once a week again, I’ll be doing well.
As soon as it had begun the weekend was over, and it was back to work for a dreary Monday. All the good things that had happened on Saturday and Sunday were quickly forgotten about as I faced another thirty seven and a half hours of mental drudgery. However long I remain at the bank, I don’t expect there to be any real moments of fun or happiness while I’m there in the office. I simply hope and pray that I can keep going through it, and that the evenings and weekends continue to be something to look forward to. I think the weekend I’ve just had will be a good template to go on.