Two social occasions were to be faced this week: two opportunities to practise distancing myself from the overly emotional three year old logic that normally holds me back in these situations. The first opportunity came on Wednesday at the work Christmas party; the second came on Saturday after my home group meeting. I didn’t want to go to the party on Wednesday. I was only comforted by the fact that none of my colleagues seemed to want to go either. It was generally agreed that one can do one’s duty by attending for the minimum amount of time, before heading home with one’s head held high. That was my intention, as I knew I couldn’t not go, it was just expected. I’d go and I would try and have a good time; if it turned out to be terrible I’d leave at the earliest opportunity, politely. I’d not been to a work party for some years, because I gave up thinking I could enjoy them around 2012, so I wasn’t really expecting my first party in this job to be fun. But I could, at the very least, refuse to listen to the old scripts telling me no one would want me there, it would be a horrible experience, etc.
P had been the one most obviously dreading the party out of all of us, which made it surprising when she started chatting to people and having fun in front of us. I meanwhile could tell it was going to be a struggle to last an hour and a half. All these old stories about how I can’t mingle, can’t approach strangers, can’t have fun at an office party, are so established and so convincing that it’s like climbing a mountain when I try and summon the effort to stay present and engage with the atmosphere around me. In the past, nine times out of ten I’ve given up trying, which is why I rarely go to parties when I can avoid them. Since I couldn’t avoid this one I forced myself to smile and look approachable for ninety minutes, and in a few places it paid off. I had conversations with a lot of colleagues I knew well, and some I didn’t know so well, which I saw as a success. The most difficult thing when you’re trying to talk to someone is noise – there was so much fun and frivolity going on in such a confined space, I could hardly hear what I was saying at points. I don’t think anyone would say they’d chosen the perfect spot to have a party, but with it being a charity I suppose they’re not going to be able to rent out some grand decadent hall.
At 5 o’clock people started leaving, giving me cause to sigh with relief as I didn’t even have to be the first one to go. It wasn’t the best party I’d ever been to, but at least I stayed until the end and talked to people. All I had to do on the way home was not judge my performance based on how many people I didn’t speak to, or how many times I stood awkwardly waiting for someone to rescue me.
Yesterday I wasn’t expecting to go for dinner after the meeting, but most weeks I go there with a secret hope that someone will ask me. Since last year I’ve had this fantasy scenario involving Saturday night, standing outside my home group at the end, someone gorgeous asking me to dinner with the group and chaperoning me lovingly through the night. Before I was properly back “in” AA I saw the scenario as the pinnacle of what I could achieve once I was in again. All year I’ve been aiming for something like it, for the feeling of being in a good restaurant and having a good time with friends. There haven’t been any hunks to chaperone me so far, but the few occasions when I have pushed myself and done the post-meeting meal have been delightful.
Many other people in AA might see other things as more important; a meal in a restaurant might not be what Bill W and the founders had in mind as the main goal for sober people. For me it’s the kind of situation that has lit up my dreams since I was a teenager. To stroll to the restaurant with caring friends around me, to glide effortlessly to my seat and engage in genial conversation from start to end of meal – it’s how I thought happy people lived during the unhappiest time of my life, and the vision continues to hold significance in my life.
The meeting was unusually quiet yesterday, with none of the regulars. I thought about going home straight after, but there was a bunch of American visitors leading the way to the usual restaurant for dinner nearby, and I got sweetly invited along by one of them. I immediately went into self consciousness as we walked, thinking about all the things I needed to say to keep the conversation going, so I wouldn’t fade into the background. My old stories tried to overcome my social attempts, tell me that I wasn’t needed there and I’d just be a spare part. I fought hard against them. When we got to the restaurant we got a decent table in the corner where it was easy to hear what was being said around me. I was surrounded by nice people, but conversation pieces weren’t coming easy, and I spent more time in silence than out of it.
One of the guys next to me was attached to his phone throughout the meal, so there was a non-starter. Everyone else was engaged in interesting chatter that I perceived as too difficult to break into. I see that this was my perception and not the truth, but in the moment it’s hard to defy perceptions. In my fantasy it’s never hard to break into conversations; instead it couldn’t be easier. In reality I spend so much time judging what I’m doing that I can’t be there enough to really engage. I appreciate that it’s up to me to participate in these things, to give people a good impression and make them like me; I knew it last night, which is why I kept trying. I no longer expect everyone to just make it easy for me.
While I was trying I kept being distracted by the guy next to me and his phone. He was a couple of years sober, and evidently in that stage of using apps to keep his social and sex life going at all costs. It was virtually impossible to capture his attention. In the end I could be glad that I was working harder than at least one other person at the table. It’s hard to believe anyone can rely so much on their phone – even P isn’t that bad any more – but it was only a few years ago that I was there, so I guess I mustn’t judge.
I navigated the difficulties of the occasion like the scared four year old at times, desperate for someone to throw me a lifeline and invite me into the deepest, most intimate conversation so I could feel like I’d arrived. I skated on the edge of things most of the time, and it was like Wednesday’s office party in that sense. It was only at the end that the tone of things changed slightly, when one of the New York visitors started talking about meetings back home and I bravely mentioned that I will be going there next year. He instantly focused all his attention on me and told me we should link on facebook, so that he can take me to the good meetings when I’m there. It was a genuine offer of friendship and nothing more, and I took it. For a few minutes we chatted gaily about our love of New York and London, two of the world’s greatest cities. Then it was time to say goodbye, and I could only hope that he would make good on his offer to show me New York’s best gay meetings when I’m there in five months.
I didn’t want to do that thing I always do on the way home from such events, judge my performance. When I do that I always come up with things I could have said and done better, and it quickly turns any nice event into a disaster. I spent an hour purposefully focusing on the positives, before I got home and distract myself with TV. Yes, I actually did have a good time last night. I made some friends and I will know someone else in New York now, so that for at least part of next year’s holiday, I won’t be alone. If I hadn’t gone to the meal, and if I hadn’t risked rejection by butting into a conversation at the end, I wouldn’t have made that friend.
My two selves will always see these things differently. The experiencing self in the moment will naturally see it as difficult and stressful as I’m trying to be everyone’s friend; the remembering self will always look back afterwards and frame the story to make it fit with ongoing narratives in my life. I have an ongoing narrative where I’m getting better; so when I’m in remembering mode I will naturally think of examples last night where I was recovering and improving as a person. Neither viewpoint is really true or false – it’s just my perception, and I can choose how I see the night. Whether I want to see it as a failure or a huge success, it’s up to me. And that is very liberating.
Part of the fantasy that I formed last year around being invited to this meal involved getting tagged in people’s facebook photos. One of the guys was taking photos last night, but I didn’t get tagged in any – so I could take that as a sign of failure, because none of my friends will be able to log into facebook and see what I was doing last night, therefore it didn’t really happen. No one will ever see me sitting at that table smiling and looking like a social animal.
Do I need to be tagged in a photo on facebook to make it more real and meaningful? Clearly the billions of people who tag friends in photos on social media every day think it’s important. I’ve never gone out of my way to be tagged in photos – I think it looks desperate if I tag myself – and I’ve always tried to remember that the experience still happened, whether it’s on facebook or not. I can see last night as incomplete because none of my facebook friends will ever know that it happened, in years to come facebook’s algorithms will never show me the photos and remind me that it happened. But I have my memory of it – it still happened – I had a good time. It’s over now, it will never be repeated exactly, but I experienced it and I will experience similar things again, if I allow myself to.
I’ve been able to see the positives in social situations before, when I was newly sober and I seemed to go to these things all the time. I think yesterday I may have got back some of that newcomer optimism. I’m so keen for this to continue, I don’t want to go back to negativity and judgement of others, to that place where it all seems so glum and hopeless. Recently I have come to understand that I can control how successful these occasions are for me – I’m not a slave to the whims and actions of others. I can choose how many people I speak to and how likeable I am. I always, always thought it was in the hands of others. Even today it’s still so tempting to fall back into that way of thinking, because it’s what I always knew, and no one has ever persuaded me otherwise. The messages we get in the world tend to confirm this belief, that our happiness and self image lie with the opinions of the people around us. For the first time in my life I’m trying to break out of that mindset, by actively acting against it. It’s hard, and it’s still scary, but I’m doing it, and just for today, I think I’m succeeding.