Learning the hard way

I thought I was doing so well. After Monday I seemingly managed to pick myself back up and throw myself into the flow of life again. And until this afternoon, the narrative in my head had me believing that I was past a turning point, that there was no looking back this time. I finally understand how I can bring more friendships in my life, how I can combat that loneliness that keeps biting at me – the suggestions that I’ve heard thousands of times in meetings over the years finally make sense, and by rights I shouldn’t still be feeling isolated, alone, disheartened. Yesterday, I had it all figured out, and a social situation went fabulously well. Today, I had the knowledge, but a maudlin feeling of separation from the world was determined to cloud my view as soon as I got to the meeting, and I couldn’t escape it because I had nowhere to run.

Could it be Christmas by any chance? Everyone shared about the time of year in yesterday’s meeting, and everyone shared about it tonight. I didn’t mind yesterday. I was in a better mood about being in the Friday meeting than I was in a long time. My old friend L was there, visiting from the States, and I could feel a closeness with him and with the room, a closeness that comes from a knowledge that I’m with people who really know me. I could expect to go for dinner after the meeting, as L would probably be going and it would be a rare chance to talk with him. I liked everyone in the meeting – I even liked myself.

When the meeting was over, although I wanted to go to the restaurant I dithered over it. While L and the others rushed ahead I experienced moments of uncertainty, as I envisioned the noise and the clamour for a good seat at the table. Going with the AA attitude of doing the opposite to what I feel, I chased them to catch up. I was surprised by how many people I found at the entrance to the bustling restaurant – it seemed like the whole meeting was there. By the time I saw where L was sitting he was already surrounded by people, and the mortifying realisation struck me that I would have to sit at the far end of the long table, because I was the last person to arrive. I found myself next to G and H, two friendly but distant old timers that I talk to only occasionally.

It’s funny because I’ve been to both their homes in the past. When I was about eighteen months sober H had a new year party at his swanky Central London pad, and G tends to host AA parties every year, which I’m always invited to along with everyone else in the gay rooms. For the first ten minutes or so last night, I could only wonder at why I was there, and how I was going to get away. I’d only come because of L, and he was miles away. I did my best to smile and appear polite to my neighbours, but I somewhat felt as if I’d intruded on a private party.

After ten minutes it changed. I can only put it down to a change in my behaviour. I stopped feeling wounded, because I knew L would feel bad about being separated from me, and so I tried instead to play a part in things where I was. The certainty that I could change my circumstances for the better was strong, and every time someone said something to me I responded brightly, like a person who deserved their place at the table. It took a while for me to get a real momentum going, especially at first as the others were engrossed in the classic topics of gay conversation: men, sex and going to the gym. I became more interested when it changed into a conversation about sobriety and the meetings. I’ve never really done ‘gay’ conversation – I used to force myself to play that role in the gay bars during my drinking, even though it was never entirely me.

There was no awkward silence, no feeling lost or out of my depth during the second half of the meal. When it was over I warmly hugged and said goodbye to friends. All the while I knew it wouldn’t always be like this. Me being me, there would surely come a time when I’d feel lost once more, when it wouldn’t be so easy to smile and pretend to be ‘one of them’. I could be pleased with how I’d done on this occasion, whilst being prepared for more challenges in the future. I just didn’t expect it to be challenging again so soon.

I still felt good about things when I woke up today. Because it’s Christmas I didn’t have to feel bad about indulging in a lovely long lie in. When I set off for the meeting I was almost certain that it would be another great evening. L would be there again, and, well, it’s Christmas Eve! When I got out of the door I was shocked to come across a scene of carnage in the street. There had been a horrible traffic accident, debris and broken glass was scattered everywhere, a mangled motorcycle lay on its side, and dozens of police cars and ambulances with flashing lights surrounded the scene. Crowds were gathered on the pavement to watch and take photos on their phones, making it difficult to get past. As a human, it’s impossible not to want to look, and I couldn’t help craning my neck to try and get a better glance at what had happened. I saw stretchers and paramedics around what looked like a body in the road, but I never found out if it really was a body, as the police were starting to move the crowds away then. I later found out that the motorcyclist was taken to hospital in a critical condition; he will spend Christmas fighting for his life.

It put quite a damper on the day, and I wasn’t quite as cheery as I hoped I’d be when I got to the meeting south of the river. When I’m in a difficult mood, that’s when the people around me seem to be their happiest, their most alive. The room was positively buzzing with Christmas cheer. The chair talked about the lovely Christmas he was planning to have, setting the tone for everyone else to share about the same thing. I gathered that some of them will be spending tomorrow together, celebrating Christmas in the true spirit of fellowship and ensuring that they won’t be alone. The waves of melancholy were rolling towards me and I became physically uncomfortable in my chair. I wanted to get up and run; and I wanted to open my mouth about how I was really feeling. I could do neither. When I needed to draw attention to myself I couldn’t bear to.

I was thinking about all those Christmas songs that get played on a loop in shops and restaurants at this time of year, how they always secretly remind me of the lonely Christmases of my childhood, when I couldn’t always expect to have a nice day because mum might not be feeling up to it. When I hear John Lennon’s War Is Over I’m reminded of seeing the video on TV in the late 80’s, on one of those Christmases when there were no presents and no decorations because there was no money. I try not to think about that part of my life now because, for a start, things are so much better now, and it’s no good wallowing. I have friends now and I never have to go without anything. But, I don’t know, maybe it’s just the mood I’m in today, making it easier to think about what hasn’t changed over the years. Mum’s still here, isolated in so many ways with her TV and Christmas songs.

I wish I had an invitation to a fellowship friend’s Christmas dinner. There, I’ve said it. I’ve never been invited to spend Christmas with friends, it has always been spent here with mum because there’s nowhere else to go. In the past I broke up the day by going to one of the Chelsea meetings in the morning, but getting a cab on Christmas day is so expensive and I don’t want to spend more money than I have to this year. Someone did offer in tonight’s meeting to give people lifts tomorrow if they need one, but this person lives on the other side of London to me, and I can’t see it being convenient for any of us. So I’ll be here, feeling sorry for myself while others sit around tables that they’ve chosen to be at, having a genuinely good time with genuine friends.

Last week it was good enough for me to be invited to the restaurant by the group after the meeting. This week it’s not good enough. I wish there was one person I was close enough to to be considered an automatic guest at a dinner party they were hosting. I wish it wasn’t such an effort to build friendships like that. I wish it didn’t have to take so long. Like any alcoholic who gets sober and notices how things work, I’m noticing that I’ve done quite well, but not well enough. I can be angry with people for not thinking of me when they’re arranging their Christmas meals, but when did I last invite anyone to anything? I may not have the means or the space to host a big meal myself (boy, there’s something else to get resentful about) but I can do something equivalent. To be part of someone’s life like that I simply have to make it happen. The trouble is, as I identified recently, I am restricted by so many subtle, defensive instincts that keep me isolated in a corner. Always on the lookout for rejection, I protect myself by backing away from things without even noticing it.

After tonight’s meeting some of the group optimistically hoped to find a restaurant nearby that would be open, so we could have the usual post-meeting meal. I was pretty much at my lowest point then and I could have gone home to pick everything apart on my own, but a sober instinct attached me to the group and made me follow them. L had his doubts about the restaurant but he came too, and we talked a bit on the way. With my sober hat on I knew I had to pull myself out of an emotional hole, so I tried to do what I’d done last night, which is make a decision to be present. If it worked last night it could work again. Sadly when we got to the restaurant we found it closed, along with everywhere else on the road. Seriously, in the 21st century in one of the world’s biggest cities, it’s frustrating that places can’t be bothered to stay open after 7pm on Christmas Eve. What reason do they have for closing? It’s not like Christmas is a religious festival for most people any more.

I knew the romantic idea of overcoming my mood and falling back into the group wasn’t going to happen tonight, and I became quite sulky. I was hungry and I needed to get home to cook something, but people were milling around, trying to decide what to do. Someone mentioned that a Mexican place nearby might be open, so they all started shuffling in that direction. I trailed after them, despite an increasing desperation to get away so I could go and isolate. I was caught in a ridiculous bind: since I’d made so much effort to follow the group after the meeting, I couldn’t just say goodbye now, in case it offended someone (as if it would!) I had to wait for everyone to decide collectively that the night was over. Surely the decision was going to come soon. We got to the Mexican restaurant and found that closed too. The only place open in the entire district was a supermarket, which the group duly piled into to stock up for their trips home. I could have said goodbye at the door, I had food at home which was calling to me, but still for some insane reason I had to keep following people. I ended up wasting money on a microwave meal that was sure to be tasteless. I honestly don’t know if it was people pleasing or good instinct that made me wait outside the shop once I’d bought my goods. I needed to say goodbye to everyone properly, since I was there. My alcoholic half wanted to run so badly, I think it was an aversion to giving in that made me stay where I was.

I watched them come out of the shop engrossed in their conversations, words and friendship coming so easily to them, while for me it was like I’d forgotten the English language. When eventually it was time to say goodbye at the tube station across the road, I couldn’t even do that. I deliberately hid in group of tourists and went down an escalator to the left while the others disappeared ahead of me on the right, unaware that I was no longer with them. It’s old behaviour, more like me than I care to admit, coming from a desire to protect myself and push others away. For a minute I was an unhappy four year old, angry at being left out of the group, so I punished them by disappearing abruptly. I never hoped to repeat the behaviour in AA, which is why I spent so long tagging after the group tonight, so I could say a friendly goodbye and know I’d done my duty. Only it took so long for the group to disperse, I got tired of waiting for an acknowledgement and reverted to the behaviour pattern I dread. It’s not good.

For the next half hour on the train home I automatically analysed everything, looking for where the night had gone wrong and whose fault it was. So many conflicting thoughts and emotions filled my head I had to stop thinking about it when I got home. I can’t find an answer for what really happened tonight. Maybe it was a waste of time walking to the restaurant, knowing it would be closed and that awkwardness would surely ensue. Maybe I shouldn’t have pretended to be completely ok when I wasn’t; maybe someone would have listened and reassured me. Or maybe I did everything right, and no one noticed me behaving oddly. Maybe none of it matters. I can’t tell any more.

I could have got home, got into bed and sunk quickly into a quagmire of sorry feelings. It’s what I’ve always done so naturally and so well. If I’ve learnt anything about self pity and the act of wallowing in it, it’s that an emotional hangover always follows, along with guilt, and it can take days for me to emerge from my shell of isolation, in which time I’ve missed many opportunities to connect more with the very people I was feeling sorry about. Tonight is no exception, no different to any other time when I’ve done that. I can choose to repeat the same old pattern, or I can just let go of whatever embarrassment was suffered tonight and approach tomorrow with renewed confidence. I can believe that I will be alone forever or I can believe that the next time I see people, I will be as welcome and amongst friends as I always was.

It is an irony that the thing I want more than anything – to be invited into someone’s home for Christmas dinner – cannot come about by me wanting it. I cannot attract that kind of friendship into my life by craving it. Craving leads to desperation, desperation leads to disappointment and resentment. I can only make friendship and love happen by not thinking about it. By doing nothing. I need to connect with myself – to learn to love myself – that is my life’s task. With that, the rest will follow. In recovery I have found it so incredibly hard to accept that I can’t ask for people’s love, I can only love myself, the one person I’ve never loved.

I’m getting closer and closer to that hurt, lost child inside. When I’m upset I see him more clearly than ever, crying in a corner. When I’m scared, I see him cowering. I am moving closer and, like a parent who didn’t really want or expect a child, I am trying to love that child. I think I’m fumbling at the moment, I don’t really know how to do it. I hope I will learn.

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