On Wednesday I was asked to chair the step 11 meeting in town. I’m always happy to speak – it’s a way of doing service, and I don’t get as nervous about chairs as I do about spontaneous sharing in other meetings, because I know I’m going to share, and I’ve got longer to say something meaningful. I’ve been asked to chair a lot of meetings in the last few months, which must be encouraging as someone out there must appreciate what I have to say. Sitting at the front of the Wednesday meeting was momentarily troubling, as it had been over four years since I last sat there and handed in my notice as the meeting’s secretary. Those days are long behind me now and it was only a momentary upset. But as I started to speak and share my pre-planned words of wisdom, the same underlying, niggling self doubt that had plagued me throughout sobriety and which came to the surface when I abandoned my commitment there four years ago, was palpably there, making me question nearly everything I had to say. I’d say something about gratitude or serenity, and a minute later I’d wonder if I had really meant it or if I was just parroting something I’d heard someone else say, which can understandably be distracting when you’re trying to voice a coherent and useful message.
My ten minutes were up in a flash and the rest of the meeting proceeded nicely. I had talked about those issues of later sobriety which seem to be troubling me at the moment, or at least tried to convey some sense of them in the limited time I had. My intention had been to conclude with a positive message about how God and step 11 help me to live through whatever comes one day at a time, and people expanded on this theme beautifully, some of them saying it in a far more arresting way than I thought I ever could. It was a good meeting, it was good to be there, but when I left I didn’t know if I could fully believe all that I had said.
My friend R is celebrating his belly button birthday this weekend and I have been invited to a party at his place in the west. Since I got the invitation mid week I haven’t been able to decide whether to go or not. I want to go, there’s no question of that, but whether I can go is a different matter. I have no plans this evening, but whether I have the guts to face another party full of AA’s leading lights is in doubt. It’s the third AA party I’ve been invited to this year, something I could only dream of a couple of years ago. It would be wonderful and so much less tiresome if I could simply accept these invitations without reservation or having to spend days mulling over them. But I am who I am, and we’ve long known about my devastating inclination to overcomplicate everything. I deliberately put off making a proper decision until today, the day of the party, because my feelings were bound to be changeable throughout the week, and I didn’t want to commit to going, only to have to back out at the last minute. I’ve told R that I want to come but I’m not sure how I’ll be feeling, and I’ll have to see when the time comes. He’s fine with that, he understands. In telling him the truth I suppose I secretly hoped he’d respond by imploring me to come. Had he said “oh, it just won’t be the same without you!” I’d have fallen over myself to go. But he didn’t say that, he’s simply left it up to me, as would anyone trying to organise a party for thirty people who hasn’t got the time to stroke the ego of a needy friend.
Next week everyone is having their half year appraisal at work. I will have one even though I’ve only been there for four months, because it’s done in the summer and winter for everyone regardless of how long they’ve been there. I had to spend most of yesterday adding my comments to an official review form in preparation for the meeting on Tuesday with J. The form laid out all twenty of the bank’s core values and I had to explain where I had fallen short of meeting each of these values, and how I was going to work to improve on them. We all had to do it. After three hours of writing about why I hadn’t met the bank’s standards, and providing countless examples of how I could do better, I felt even more crap about myself and the job, if you can believe that. As with everything that the bank does, I can see the reasoning for it, but I believe the execution is horrible. They don’t seem to have realised that making employees describe in detail why they’re bad at something will make them believe they’re really bad at it. There’s no option to leave any parts of the form blank, you have to answer to everything. If you can’t think of an example for one of the values, for instance “surpassing expectations”, then your only option is to embellish or make stuff up. Isn’t it? So if you were previously doing ok, but not great, in this area, once you’d done your review you might come out thinking that you suck at it, because you’ve had to spend an hour thinking about why you don’t meet the standard yet.
I did the form because I had to; I’ll have the meeting with J next week and verbally commit to improving in all these areas because I have to. I’m not ready to leave the job yet, so until I am I have to go along with things that I don’t believe in. It made what had already been a difficult week even more depressing. Later on Friday, the team gathered to say goodbye to C, one of the managers who’s been promoted to another part of the organisation. Given the high proportion of internal promotions that you see in the bank, these gatherings are relatively frequent, and always painfully awkward. You’re meant to stand around the person and applaud them, while they give a speech about how wonderful it’s been to work with us and how much they look forward to the new challenge. Whether you know the person leaving or not, you have to participate, you can’t just sit there and carry on with your work. I knew C beforehand in the sense that I sat near him for four months and witnessed him spend most of his days chatting to friends around him. I rarely got the impression that he was actually working. As people wished him well and heaped praise on him for being a supportive, hard working manager, I couldn’t entirely believe my ears. Admittedly, not being part of his team it’s impossible for me to say with certainty that he was a bad manager, but all the things that he was being praised for were things that I had never witnessed once. Supportive? Hard working? Friendly? A pleasure to work with? I could only think about the times when J had been away and we’d needed a manager’s support in our team, and C had just sat there with his mates, chatting as if we didn’t exist.
It was an uncomfortable ten minutes, made more uncomfortable by me questioning why I had to be there and why any of it mattered. When we were finally allowed back to our seats, the first thing I did was look at the time. Four hours left to go until the weekend. From then on the minutes began to crawl by as I watched them constantly, waiting for it to be over.
Before the end of the day there was more pain to endure as someone got a whiteboard and made us write on it things that we liked about C. He really must have been a popular part of the team, for them to give him such a loving send off. For a minute or two I thought “wow, what a genuinely nice thing for them to do for someone – maybe these are normal human beings with feelings after all!” Until that point I had been in genuine doubt as to whether my colleagues were all robots or not. Yesterday they were not being robotic at all, they were just trying to be nice, and my incessant cynicism didn’t do them any justice. But still, as I was made to go and write something on the board I couldn’t think of a single thing I liked about him so I just wrote a generic “funny”, though I have no idea whether C is actually a funny person or not.
I wanted to hate them all yesterday, I wanted to tear down their stupidly sweet message board and make myself visible to them for the first time in four months. Being told to write something on the board didn’t make me any more visible or part of things than I had been before. I was still a statue, completely unimportant. I spent the rest of the day trying not to listen to them as they got into the weekend party mood and talked about how drunk they were going to get at C’s leaving party that night. Yet again, I got completely sucked into the discussion, even though it had nothing to do with me. I analysed everything that was said, picked up on every sarcastic remark, silently berated them for every inane comment, berated myself for not being able to make them look at me. It was a mental torture all too familiar, as I have done the same thing over and over again at various points in my life: at school, at college, at University, at work, in AA. Any chance of doing any work yesterday afternoon was gone, I was far too involved in events around me. Their plans, their jokes, their gossiping, their group bonding was the most important thing in my life yesterday. I understood what they were saying but I didn’t understand why they were saying it. I had no clue how they could have formed this tight bond, how they could be so casual and familiar with each other after just a few months of working together. All previous occasions on which I had achieved the same thing with people in other situations were non-existent, just a dream.
I only talk to three people at work: V, J, and sometimes D, all of whom sit on the same row as me. Our close proximity eight hours a day must lend itself to conversation, though the fact that I was on friendly terms with three people in the office yesterday was little comfort. I wanted more than just three friendly acquaintances; I wanted to burst this bubble around me and be part of the real fun in the team opposite me. It didn’t matter that they were planning to spend the evening after work binge drinking in an expensive bar that I’d never choose to go to, it was merely the fact that I was missing out on any fun at all that was getting to me. While that was all going on D was being her usual clowny self, teasing V about a non-existent boyfriend. V would be leaving the office early yesterday for some undisclosed reason; in the absence of explanation D made something up and started telling anyone who’d listen, including me. I laughed along, wanting to look like I could participate in the silly Friday mood as well as everyone else. I instantly felt bad as V was clearly upset about the incessant jokes at her expense. At 4.30 she stormed out, saying a brief and cold goodbye that wasn’t like her. I felt bad for being such a juvenile dick to the only person who’d been genuinely nice to me at all times while I worked there. D meanwhile just got on with her day. She’s 21, a baby; these things won’t affect her as much as they affect an oldie like me.
For a few minutes I wanted to be part of the crazy school playground fun atmosphere, and it backfired like it always could at school because the joke was childish and beneath me. I felt disgusted with myself for sinking to that level, for laughing along at the vulnerable person in the group like I often did at school during the rare times when I wasn’t the butt of the class joke. Without V to hold things together, D and I stopped being part of a cohesive group and spent the rest of the day in silence. It’s an interesting human dynamic I’ve only ever noticed in work situations, where one person with a sense of humour needs at least two other people to witness it. The clown makes fun of one person to make the other person – me in this case – laugh. I was the audience, I wasn’t really her friend.
If I were sitting on my own in a cafe in London for a few hours, I wouldn’t get upset about not making lifelong friends with everyone there. So why do I have this need to impress strangers in the impersonal work environment? Once again, logic doesn’t come into it.
I spent the last ten minutes just focusing on my breathing because there was nothing else I could do. I needed to let go of all the thinking, because it was driving me mad. I went to the Friday meeting automatically, needing to be somewhere I was definitely safe and welcome. The invisible barriers went up as soon as I got there, again, and I was too tired to stop them. I breathed and I accepted that it didn’t matter if I didn’t talk to anyone, I was just there to listen. There was a powerful chair entirely focused on the subject of gay shame. At this time of year everyone is supposed to celebrate and feel pride, but the truth remains that a lot of us still live with shame about our sexualities. I hear so much about this in gay meetings, this pain that we can’t overcome because when we should have been learning to like ourselves and flourish as kids we were taught to hate ourselves by a homophobic society. Someone will share something about it in nearly every gay meeting there is, but when I hear it it never fails to touch something inside. It can still have the power to move.
I didn’t want to go for fellowship after the meeting as I was tired and sweaty and needed to save the money. I’ve also decided I don’t like the restaurant that they always go to there. Before leaving for the night I made myself stop and talk to a couple of fellows on the way out. L talked to me about his mum who’d gone into hospital that day for an operation; he’d just heard that everything had gone well and was visibly relieved about it. I didn’t know what the operation was for, I’d never met L’s mum, but I was relieved for her too. I began to notice how small my own problems were in comparison to this, and I had to turn and leave before I burst into tears over how pathetic I felt. I wanted to cry for most of the way home. Although I’d talked to people, I hadn’t really got the connection I wanted. I couldn’t even listen to someone share about their difficulties for a few minutes without thinking about my own.
The message of the whole meeting, apart from looking at the gay shame was about authenticity and learning to love ourselves. For the millionth time, I wondered how on earth I was supposed to start doing that without any practical tips and guidance. As I made my way home on a hot, sticky evening I remembered that in AA, the most complicated problems often have the simplest solutions. We have the twelve steps and the AA principle of helping others to guide us in all our affairs. Briefly I had tried to help L by listening to him as he shared relief over his mum’s operation, and while I was doing that I almost forgot about myself, until I remembered and started wallowing in it again. If I can spend more time forgetting myself, maybe that’s, like, the answer? Maybe to get authentic and love myself I can do more of what I’ve always been told to do in meetings – that is, help others, do service, make myself be part of things?
The pain I suffer from often comes back to the idea that I haven’t got everything I want in life. Materially I have all I need and more, but clearly that isn’t enough any more. In my first few years of recovery I achieved material success and I got the cash and prizes. Now, in this second stage of recovery, I’m being forced daily to look deeper. When I decided to come back to AA properly last year I didn’t know that I was on a road to authenticity and self love; had I been told, I might have been tempted to turn back, because I’ve never believed that these things are possible for me. If I’m ever going to learn to like myself, so that days like the day I had yesterday don’t eat into me so much, it will probably take much longer than a couple of years. Reason being that it’s so much more mysterious than material success. Emotional sobriety, self esteem, resilience, confidence aren’t things that can be taught. Since I’m just starting to realise that at 33 years of age, this could be a very long journey indeed.
Part of me never wants to get better because the steps involved are really hard. Having to help others and build self esteem when I’m tired or sad or angry is tough for someone like me who has spent 33 years giving into fear. I’m faced with the truth that this is all on me. Everything that’s going on at work is on me – it’s nothing to do with those other people. When I leave the job, I can justify it based on not believing in the company’s values, but I can’t justify it based on the fact I was never included in the big group.
I think I’m going to R’s party later. After writing all of this down I feel that not going would be one cop out too many. I don’t know what it’s going to be like, whether I’ll enjoy myself or end up in a corner alone like countless parties I’ve been to before. I can’t know what’s going to happen and I hate that. But if I don’t go, I’ll never know. Oh, I do hate clichés.