I don’t need to study life today too closely to see that it has improved remarkably in the last nine years. Yesterday I had to walk half an hour down the road to sort something out at the nearest branch of my bank that was open on a Saturday, and for the first time in years I thought about the days when I used to do that same walk to go to the local gay pub. That must have been around eleven years ago; yes, it was 2005 when I discovered my local gay pub and spent most of my time there for a few months. Those walks were walks of pure denial: I was never going to make friends or meet someone special there, if I was lucky I was just going to drink to blackout and end up at some stranger’s house for meaningless sex. I didn’t want those things to happen but for months I kept going back in the hope it would be different this time. I was thinking about this yesterday, and how remote those experiences are from my life now. I can walk to an AA meeting instead of a pub now, and find what I’m actually looking for.
Despite the vast improvements there is still much renovation work to be done in my life. The constant internal debate about whether things are good or bad today continues. Circumstances have made me look at all my avoidant behaviours recently, i.e. this instinctual refusal to acknowledge someone before they’ve acknowledged me and made me feel safe; this week it took up a lot of thought space inside and outside of work.
- At work there’s that girl A who was perfectly pleasant to me at our interview back in March; she’s sat directly opposite me for the past six weeks in the office and I still can’t say a simple hello to her.
- Every day on the way to the tube station, I pass this homeless guy who’s always sat in the same spot in his sleeping bag; he’s seen me so many times that he recognises me now, and sometimes he waves to me, but I can’t wave back, because although he’s acknowledged me I don’t feel safe with him. I don’t know him, and he is not the sort of person I’d normally be friends with. Because I’ve never acknowledged him back I feel that I must have offended him, and whenever I see him I have this internal crisis about what to do.
- On Thursday after work I felt like I needed a meeting but I didn’t want to go to the gay one that I usually go to. I remembered that there was a mainstream newcomers’ meeting closer to work that I used to love in my early days, so I walked there. I was looking forward to enjoying a good meeting where I wouldn’t know anybody, where I’d just be able to listen to the sharing and then go, but when I got there, it wasn’t in its usual place. The room where the meeting used to be was occupied by some kind of event; clearly it had been moved to another part of the building, but I didn’t know where as there were no signs. Outside the entrance to the church there was a group of people that looked like AA greeters – they had those happy, serene smiles that you come to recognise instinctively as AA smiles – I could have asked them for directions, since their presence there indicated that the meeting had to be somewhere close by. But I couldn’t talk to them. One of them looked at me and must have seen I was a bit lost; he started to say something, but before he could I was off. I hurried home, not wanting to risk a dangerous conversation with a stranger.
The following night at the main meeting I enjoyed listening to a really good chair given by B, a friendly face I always associate with that meeting, who was celebrating 21 years of sobriety. In the middle of his chair he started to talk about ignoring our thoughts and approaching people. At that point I wished I had a tape recorder, so I could tape the next five minutes of his speech and listen back to them at challenging moments. He said that it’s always worth approaching someone in AA because you never know what connection you might make, how it might enrich your life. It’s true that I haven’t always just sat back and waited for friends to come to me in AA, I’ve managed to stick around and build a few healthy friendships over the years. But I’ve always felt that I am missing out, that I could be experiencing a lot more connections. I used to resent the people in AA that wouldn’t talk to me – used to loathe them with a passion – for making me feel awkward about my social inadequacies all the time. Now I can’t help just looking at them and realising that they’re the same as me, and I could have a meaningful conversation with any of them if I wanted to. At the same time I appreciate that you can’t connect with everyone in the world, that sometimes there are people out there that simply don’t ‘get’ us. But let’s be honest, I’m not exactly testing the theory.
I automatically avoid taking risks with people because I don’t know what they’re thinking about me and I learnt growing up to assume that they wouldn’t like me. It’s a useful attitude to take in a hostile environment like school, but in adult life it’s got me into all sorts of awkward situations like those described above. On their own they may not sound all that terrible, and they’re not, but piled up over a lifetime these missed connections leave you lonely. Who knows where I’d be now, what friendships I’d have if I had always been the first one to make a move with people. I still dream of being invited on an AA holiday.
Last week I mentioned the circular belief I have that people think I’m a bad person for not making the effort with them. The vicious cycle I get into of not making the approach, thinking it makes me look bad in the other person’s eyes, and subsequently being even less able to approach them, makes all of this so much more challenging. At the end of the day, I can’t do others’ thinking for them. Trying to determine whether someone’s ‘safe’ or not, whether someone thinks I’m a bad person or not, before I approach them doesn’t work. I’ve known this for ages, and I keep coming up against it in everyday situations. I want to change. I don’t want to be ruled by fear any more. But when it comes to it, more often than not I can’t override the instinct.
Occasionally I’ve broken through it, I’ve seen some minimal progress in the past year in AA, but changes haven’t happened quickly enough. I’m still turning away when someone looks me in the eye, still walking past people who were friends but didn’t say hello to me so I thought they were ignoring me. There can be no more justifications. I’ve realised that I will never feel confident about taking those leaps with people. It will always scare me and I will always just have to pretend that it doesn’t. AA tells me to act in spite of my feelings. Everything I want to achieve and do, I will have to do it in spite of my nature. Completely turn my back on myself and go forward.