Retreat and revival

I’m in America! But first I must describe the weekend that passed before I got here. Arriving at the counselling residential felt like a very big deal. Half the class had arrived super early, and were already there when I got out of the cab from the local hotel where I had slept surprisingly well. I don’t think I was too apprehensive about the coming weekend at that point. A clear pattern was set as I spent more time on the edge of the group than in the middle of it; a choice I alone made. The setting of the residential turned out to be stunning, far better than any of us had expected, and the weather did it a lot of favours. The rooms were comfortable, clean and spacious, and all our needs would be provided for generously all weekend.

Our days were packed with group tasks and reflective exercises, designed to bring us together and make us use our brains. Having to spend so much time indoors seemed unfair with it being so nice outside. We were given some breaks though, and on Sunday we took off as a group for a ‘mindfulness’ walk through the surrounding country. I immediately realised that I don’t get out to the country nearly enough. Indeed, I’d forgotten the English countryside could be so beautiful; how clean the air out there is. My whole life is spent in cities; maybe a change from that would do me good.

I was given cause yet again to worry about my authenticity in the group by two significant things that happened. The first thing: during his presentation on Saturday morning about the benefits of formal counselling versus informal helping, V came out to the group as a recovering alcoholic. I had guessed previously, having heard him mention a practised abstention from drinking a few times, but this was a revelation as it showed what authenticity could really mean. He bared his soul.

The second thing: in one of the group exercises we were asked to plot some significant life events on a line that represented our increasing age, then we were asked to look for patterns. I noticed a pattern straight away in the things I had missed out. I included leaving home at 18, meeting my dad for the first time, getting my Psychology degree, getting my first job; I didn’t include coming out, losing my virginity, attempting suicide because I was so unhappy with my sexuality. One can argue that it’s my right to keep these things to myself, but in that setting, for whatever reason, I didn’t want to keep them to myself. I only left them off because it felt like too great a risk, therefore a whole part of my life was edited out.

I couldn’t stop thinking about it so, as soon as I was in the relative safety of my triad group, I decided to bite the bullet and come out, for the first time in years. It seemed important to say it, to value myself enough to acknowledge this huge part of my identity. In doing that it felt like I was being kind to an unloved, ignored child. As I think I’ve said before, many may not see the great significance in coming out these days, in an ever more accepting world where the boundaries between ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ aren’t necessarily rigid everywhere. For me, coming out in this setting functioned as a breaker of barriers. As soon as I’d done it I felt more of a closeness with my colleagues. I was more real.

On our last night at the retreat someone suggested standing out on the lawn to watch the sunset, which was a truly great idea as it was a lovely evening. Someone else brought wine, at which I got to watch twenty people trying to share two bottles between them. Conversation was free and easy that night; I felt a real part of the group.

When the retreat came to an end everyone could agree it had passed far too quickly. Emotions ran high on Sunday, with some members of the group opening up about the lack of similar ‘fellowship’ back home. While half the group got lifts back to London, I ended up in the nearby town with three colleagues waiting for a train. We stopped off for coffee and cake by the river, where I had sat by myself just a few days previously, and we talked for what felt like a day on all manner of interesting subjects. It was nice to grow even closer to these colleagues, to enjoy human connection and watch friendship developing.

Later on the train I got a message from my sponsor, asking if I wanted to catch up quickly before I had to take off to America the following day. My instinctive reaction was to say no, because I had so much washing and packing to do, I was dog tired, and I was worried about not getting a lot of time with mum before my next adventure. My actual reaction was to say yes: it was kind of him to offer to meet me that night, knowing as he did that I hadn’t been to any meetings since Tuesday and might not to get to any more for a few days. Doesn’t the big book say that it only takes two alcoholics to make a meeting? Well, we had our own brief meeting that night, in the fish and chip shop where we’ve enjoyed some nice evenings with fellows from our home group in the last year. As we talked about my upcoming big trip I felt loved by the universe: there’s no other way to describe it. I’d just said goodbye to new friends from counselling class with whom I had willingly spent the whole afternoon; now I was with someone who would come out to see me on a Sunday evening, just because they wanted to. It was easy to forget about the woes of the previous week, hard not to be filled with joy.

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