On life’s terms

The other day I said I don’t want any of the life I’ve got at the moment. Well, it’s true I’m not where I thought I’d be after almost nine years of continuous abstinence from alcohol. But, in a better mood now, I can recognise the parts of my present life that are worth having. I can see how fortunate I am to have gay AA meetings, a group of people to share my burdens with, a safe place to visit every night if needed. Life may seem a constant struggle when I’m trapped in the basement that they call work, and all the spirituality I’ve tried to practise in the past few years may not seem to make much difference. But it’s impossible to imagine what life today would be like without the meetings and the program, whether I’d be able to survive it. Last week I was wondering at how I hadn’t gotten ill or gone mad yet. Well, maybe my spiritual program outside of work is making a difference that I’m not fully aware of.

Towards the end of the week my mood became changeable and unpredictable. I got through Thursday without the desire to cry; when Friday came I was back in despair, despite it being the end of the week. I just seemed to have woken up angry that morning. The clouds wouldn’t pass until 5.30 had come and I could leave it all behind again.

Even though I wasn’t supposed to be torturing myself over who’s to blame and what’s gone wrong at work, I spent Friday doing it because, as ever, there was little else to think about. I could say the whole situation is my fault because I’m the one who has a mental illness which is nothing to do with them; equally I could say it’s my colleagues’ fault because they’re all less mature than me and spend most of the time talking about crap that I have no interest in. I could say that the problem matters here because I’ve always managed to make friends in other contexts, and everyone apart from me in the office has friends there. At the same time, I could say it doesn’t matter because this job isn’t going to last long and I will have a good life to go back to at the end of it.

And so another day was spent driving myself mad looking for the answers, when there are none. Whether I’m to blame or they’re to blame, whether it really matters or not – I’m hurting myself by following these thoughts. I knew this on Friday yet I couldn’t stop. I’d been privately resentful of B all day, because she’s the person sitting closest to me and somehow a lot of the problems seem to come back to her. When she gets into a jovial chat with someone nearby, when she quietly gossips with J about things I’ll never be party to, when she laughs or smiles, it stings me more than it would with anyone else, because I’ve sat next to her for ten weeks and the spirit of team bonding hasn’t compelled her to be the kind of friend I need at work. Seeing other people carry on normally when I’m suffering is the worst thing, like a betrayal.

All it ever takes to snap me out of this heaviness is for someone to be nice to me. So it proved to be the case when, an hour before the end of the day, B turned and started talking to me. J had gone home early so it was just us two there, and she decided to start telling me about her weekend. The minute anyone reaches out to me like that, all of my doubts and fears vanish, as if they’d never existed. The reason is so simple: I’ve spent my life basing my self esteem on others’ approval. To stop doing it, however, is not simple. It’s the reason why in every social context, including AA meetings and anxiety workshops run by churches, I need the people present to acknowledge me and welcome me before I can interact with them.

In life there are few outdoor activities one can comfortably do alone when one has self esteem issues. Eating in nice restaurants, going swimming regularly, travelling, exploring unknown places. Most people prefer to do these things in pairs or groups, let’s be honest about it – that’s why tables in restaurants all over the world are always set up for twos and fours. You never see a table that’s been set up specifically for one person. This mentality is so widespread that it seems to have seeped into my life, so deeply that I carry a sense of guilt around with me for wanting to do things on my own. Admittedly I find it easier to eat in restaurants, travel, go swimming by myself these days, but that’s only because I have forced myself time and time again over the years, so that now I am well practised in those activities. The sense of guilt hasn’t diminished all that much, and there are still only a few restaurant chains / swimming pools / cities that I would happily visit by myself. Branching out to new places with just myself for company doesn’t come all that easily, even now.

When I’m with someone it all becomes much easier. In any outdoor (social) context, being ‘with’ someone implicitly confers that person’s approval on me, therefore I feel strong enough to do far more than what I’d normally do alone. So in an AA meeting, in an anxiety workshop, or at the office, when someone talks to me I interpret this as approval and I feel good enough to talk back. When no one’s talking to me, I don’t feel like I have anyone’s approval and I practically freeze. It’s better in AA meetings now because of the length of time I’ve been going to them and the safe group of people that I’ve come to know there. At work, spending the day at my desk in silence feels inherently controversial, as if I’ve walked into a couples bar by myself. I feel as if I’m breaking all the rules. When someone like B turns and talks to me like a normal person, it comes as a shock.

The week’s black clouds melted the minute I left the office on Friday and walked to the meeting, as they always do. The contrast between my personality at work and my personality in AA gets starker by the week. I must have experienced enough ‘approval’ in AA over the years to be able to behave normally there without any cues. I got there and I was able to start conversations with a few people – something I’d never dream of at work – and I was responding with all the warmth and humour of a likeable guy. That’s not to say the doubts are all gone when I’m in AA; sometimes it still feels like I’m pretending. But the pretending is much easier now than it used to be. I’m better at reading my lines out these days. Afterwards, it pays off when I can follow the crowd to the restaurant and be a part of the world again. For the second week in a row I was there, laughing and chatting amiably; by this point it didn’t even feel like pretending any more.

I talked to them about my plans to change careers and go into training as a counsellor. I expressed uncertainty about whether it was the right thing to do financially. One guy who happened to work in HR reassured me I could easily get part time work in a better place than where I am now, to support myself through studying. I’d been thinking along these lines already, although I had doubts about how good it would look on my cv, leaving my current employer after just three months. The guy said it wouldn’t matter, that employers know we all make wrong decisions with jobs and have to leave them sometimes. The fact that I’d been with my last employer for so long would vastly outweigh any current blips on my cv. Coming from someone in HR this went a long way to making me feel better on that score.

Later I was touched when H, one of the meeting’s long time regulars (and someone who used to scare me with his northern fierceness) told me he thought I’d make a good counsellor. A few years ago I just thought he hated me, but it wasn’t the case. Hence, more evidence that I’ll be making the right decision when I hand my notice in at the bank. For so long I’ve had no idea what I wanted to do with my life; thought I couldn’t actually do anything worthwhile with it. Counselling is just an idea at the moment, one that may never work out. But it’s the closest thing I’ve ever had to an ambition, apart from writing, a dream that I’ve given up and rekindled so many times it’s begun to seem unrealistic. I’ve actually studied counselling at an introductory level, and we all know I’ve had a lot of it over the years, so it wouldn’t exactly be a wild leap in the dark for me. It will mean I have to stay at home with mum for years to come, if I’m to afford the training. I may not be renting my own place again until I’m approaching my forties. Last month I was sure I could never last that long here. Maybe I won’t last that long, maybe I won’t have to. I can’t help seeing myself as being here for a reason, though, that maybe I’m here to finally accept life on life’s terms.

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