New eyes

I’m not a fan of this time of year. Have I said that before? This year more than ever I seem to find the cold, short days and the long, dark nights unbearable. I’m struggling to get up in the mornings; and even more than usual, I’m taking comfort in nostalgia for a past that didn’t really exist. I’m starting to lose faith in the positive spin than I always try to put on things. And the logical, realistic take that I often have when positivity fails is itself failing tonight.

*

I was instantly impressed with my date on Friday. He looked great as I approached him outside a busy southern tube station. I’m thinking: I’ve scored here! Confidently he took me to a quiet coffee house off the high street, and we quickly fell into conversation about all the interesting matters of the day. The state of music and film in the 21st century. The Hollywood sex abuse scandal. Brexit. A topic that has joined the weather as a mainstay of British social conversation. You have to talk about it with everyone you meet now, it’s the law.

I almost loved my date when he let slip the names of a few French musicians that he liked – something that’s always guaranteed to raise my pulse. But by the second hour I couldn’t help thinking we were still having a very average kind of conversation. Everything was interesting and normal and…everyday. Not banal, as such. It was like a conversation you have with a favoured colleague as you pass them in the canteen. Pleasant – just not what I’m looking for at this stage in my life.

It’s never a good sign when you’re looking at your watch and thinking about how to get home. I didn’t mean to show my boredom but it slipped out anyway towards the end of the second hour, when I yawned. The enthusiasm of earlier was rapidly waning for both of us, and it was just a matter of who would decide to leave first.

For a couple of days afterwards I sincerely questioned whether it would be worth contacting him again. By today, having not made my mind up, I’ve had to admit to myself that I simply can’t be bothered. There’s been no word from his side, which I’m learning is a classic sign of disinterest on the dating game. If things had gone really well we’d have been messaging each other like mad over the weekend, I’m positive of it. I’m not upset over another dating disappointment, nor do I think this will be the last time I reach out for a potential catch. Tinder has me well and truly hooked, so there’s no danger of me giving up the game yet. My hope is that at some point I’ll get better at spotting the likely disappointments before I’ve gone to the trouble of meeting them.

Had another dreary meeting in Soho to attend on Saturday. My year of making the tea there has officially come up, and I was hoping to be replaced in a group conscience at the end of the meeting; in fact I was probably slightly more excited about going to the meeting than I’ve been in quite a while because of it. Except that no one was interested in taking on the service this weekend, so I’ll have to continue going until someone is interested. Lord, what a slog it will be.

Clearly I need a new home group at the weekend. I’ve given up trying to tolerate the crowds and the noise that swirl around the streets of Soho on Saturday evenings. It’s all right in the summer, but in December it’s the worst. At least I won’t have to attend this coming Saturday because I’ll be in Norwich on my much needed break, thank God. I asked them on Saturday if they could announce the vacancy again for me next week, but somehow I doubt they’ll remember, so I’ll probably have to come back in two weeks and announce it myself. Yes I’m annoyed. Other commitments that were available have been filled easily, and the outgoing contributors all got a nice thank you and round of applause, while I was just an afterthought. And yes, I realised years ago that waiting to be thanked in AA is a waste of time and energy, but in a meeting that I’ve called my home group for two years it would be nice to feel a bit more like one of the group than I do at the moment.

I’m doing the same thing that I did five years ago when I was on my way out of AA the first time, and I have to be careful. The only real solution is to find another meeting that I do feel part of. There are plenty of options out there.

*

Amidst the winter gloom and away from the pressures of AA service I’ve taken opportunities to cheer myself up. I went to the theatre last Thursday, to see a symphony orchestra perform the hits of the Beatles, having found a cheap ticket on Groupon. It couldn’t have been closer to the kind of show I’ve been wanting to see for years. And yesterday I went to the cinema to giggle at The Disaster Artist, keeping up what has been a sort of Sunday tradition of cinema trips this year.

The nice thing about it is that I couldn’t do those things when I was a kid, when it really mattered, and now I can take myself off to them whenever I want. Back in the push and pull of real life, I hear a small, predictable voice saying: yeah, but those things are always nicer with other people. And here lies the whole dilemma of my social life at the moment. I seem to be surrounded by people who can socialise with each other, and I’m doing it all on my own. When I cut ties with P in the summer I knew it would be like this, I knew I would find it difficult; it seems no amount of knowledge about the difficult times ahead is ever quite enough to prepare you.

For years I’ve complained about not understanding how to sustain intimate relationships with people, yet all the time there was one with P right under my nose. For the vast majority of the time that I knew him our relationship was platonic as opposed to sexual; but it had sexual beginnings, and in the discerning light of hindsight I now see that I had a ‘proper’ relationship in my life for all that time. I had exactly what I wanted – and it was never enough.

This isn’t about romantic love, I never had those feelings for him for a minute. But there was everything else. And now that I’m finding it hard just to go to a show without thinking about him, I’m realising the cruel irony of it all, because I had the partner I wanted, the perfect partner in life that I could do everything with. The irreconcilable differences that drove us apart in the end still hold, and I definitely appreciate that I can’t go back to him now, after everything. But…as an adult who is trying to grow, and be really authentic, maybe I accept that the ‘perfect’ relationship for me in the future won’t be so obviously perfect, or as full of sexual bliss as my dream made me hope for.

In recent weeks I have begun to see various aspects of my life in a new way, something I thought I couldn’t do any more, because I’d already done all the changing and growing I was prepared to do. It turns out that you’re never done changing, or growing. I never thought I was sexually abused at school, yet now I see it as clear as day. I never thought of P as a good boyfriend, but he was, in so many more ways than I ever gave him credit for. I seem to be gaining a new understanding of reality, and if I’m not careful it could tear me apart, with all the irony that I keep experiencing. Thanks to social media I have spent years seeing perfection in other people’s lives and comparing it to the vast lack in my own. With this shift in understanding I am seeing a crack in those assumptions, new ideas are starting to flood in and I almost can’t take it.

All of which seems much worse, of course, on a cold dank December evening. With nothing better to do I resort to swiping through faces on Tinder. Rather that than spend more time looking at the news. My logical side still can’t tell if all the swiping is worth the effort, but doubtless I will continue because there’s momentum now and I can’t stop anyway. It’s taking longer and longer to find matches now; when I do unexpectedly hit on one it’s heaven.

I compare myself to every face I see without questioning it. They’re all so good looking! They all have such great jobs (compared to me!) They’re all so out of my league!

I literally don’t know if there is a point to all this. I don’t know if I’m doing it right, no one’s ever given me a map to this. I’m trying harder with the dating thing than I have in a very long time, and the rewards seem a bit meaningless. No, thinking and analysing it don’t do any good, but I don’t have anything else to do in these moments.

It can feel like you’re a fish in tank, swimming aimlessly from one end to the other, on an endless cycle. When it comes to dating, has anything really changed for me since 2001? Oh, of course it bloody has. I analyse everything to death now. I can’t have a feeling today without questioning its validity. I’m becoming one of those therapists that no one likes, the type who questions every word and its inflection.

Also, I tend to try and come up with answers to my negative thoughts these days. And I can specify my problems relatively easily:

  • I don’t have enough friends
  • I can’t attract the type of man I want
  • I don’t do enough fun things

Earlier I was on the verge of thinking about abandoning AA again, for like a minute, and I know if I do that then that will be it, I won’t have any friends left at all, so I could kiss goodbye to any chance of future fun and engagement with the world. Things are tenuous enough as it is, I don’t need to be making drastic decisions right now.

Rather than using some valuable free time to study earlier I committed the crime of looking at old diary entries again. This time I jumped in a time machine to December 2003, a time when I thought I was at my most miserable, only you wouldn’t know it from what I was writing back then. Something really strange appears to have been going on in my life. While I was suffering in the throes of alcoholism, constantly either drunk or hungover and always on the breadline, I was regularly penning chirpy little vignettes about all the great things that were happening to me. It can almost convince you that I was having fun.

I suppose I was having fun, in a disturbing way. I was out there meeting people, getting myself deeply involved in people’s lives, sending text messages constantly. Without the blackouts and the vomiting and the hangovers it would have been a truly wonderful life. Except it could never have happened without the alcohol – so I have a conundrum in how to remember it now. So many things were happening in my life that I wish would happen now, and as much as I don’t like to look back to the past as some kind of guide for today, I can point out things I’ve abandoned which perhaps I shouldn’t have abandoned. I really hate to say it, but say it I must…fuck it, my life is boring today. I’ll be 35 on Wednesday, yet – no word of a lie – I feel 55. All the fun things I do involve me being on my own. In 2003 I went to people’s houses, I went to the fun fair and got on rollercoasters with people, I got into cars and drove in the night, I phoned people, people wanted to know me. In AA it’s such a cliche to say that all of life before sobriety was black and life in sobriety is white; for me the cliche isn’t true. Of course there are so many good things about life today that couldn’t have happened when I was drinking, like my career, my financial solvency. But in striving for those things it seems I have sacrificed all fun, all frivolity. And I’ve suspected this for a long time but I don’t think I dared say it until now.

More evidence of the scales falling away, or am I just fooling myself yet again? Who can say?

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Sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly

As I was thinking so much about the ongoing challenge of my social life at the weekend, I got thinking about P again. Many months ago we booked tickets to a Bananarama reunion concert; that concert took place last weekend, and I didn’t go. I never had to tell P that I wasn’t going, it was just assumed in the end. I didn’t even get a reminder from him, or a message asking if I wanted a refund on my ticket. So I had my final proof that the friendship is over, as I looked at the pictures on facebook and saw that I could never have been a part of the evening with him.

It wouldn’t have been so bad if I didn’t know about six other people who went to the same concert that night (I know a lot of Bananarama fans!) All of them from AA, I could have gone with any of them, except that I didn’t know any of them were going because it never came up in conversation, because these things don’t when I’m around. On Sunday I felt sad about that, I felt sad about the demise of the Saturday meeting that was once so important to me, and I continued to feel sad about my career prospects after Friday’s huge disappointment. I had to let myself feel sad because there’s no fighting so many feelings.

At the beginning of the working week it became somewhat easier to rally myself around again, as I remembered some therapeutic techniques, all that I’ve been learning about this year. I could remember that everything is still ok, I just need to be sensitive and compassionate to the inner child that’s suffering all these emotions. On a day to day basis my emotions can still swing a lot, and it’s hard to tell on that level whether things are getting better or not. Sadness can still lead to anxiety and panic when I’m not careful. But I think this awareness of the childish part of myself is very important, perhaps crucial to my recovery. At college we’re covering attachment theory now, and it’s all about what happens to the young child, and how that defines your life in so many ways.

On Tuesday I had a normal level of nerves about taking the meeting, but these mainly dissipated once the chair had turned up. Not having a chair is a big worry every other week when it’s my turn to find one; this week, it was my main worry. Once that was resolved there were no major dramas or petty irritations to contend with in the meeting. Afterwards I accompanied an unusually large group to the chip shop round the corner. Officially I don’t like going there because of the grease, the smell and the fact that I’m the only one that can’t eat there (it would ruin my waistline). Unofficially I tolerate it because the staff know me now, and we have a good laugh every week as I order a plain can of coke while the rest of my friends order their dinners. Plus the company from the meeting is always good. This week it was nice to chat some more with R about psychotherapy. It was his career for thirty years, so he certainly knows about the subject, and I can get loads of good advice from him.

“You’ll make someone a great partner one day, you just don’t know it!” he said when I mentioned that I’ve never had a real boyfriend. I can’t remember how we got onto the subject now, but I suppose it’s on my mind at the moment, as it always is. Although I’m firmly back in the dating game thanks to Tinder, and I’m showing enthusiasm by going to meet people, I don’t know if I really believe those such as R and my own therapist who say that anything is possible. Of all the people I’ve spoken to recently on dating apps, I still don’t see how what I want in my heart is going to materialise. Even when a digital conversation goes well and you end up meeting someone, and you think there might be something there, it can die a death for no obvious reason. More on this later.

College on Wednesday was good, and as I had somehow mastered the weekend’s disillusionment with counselling as a career, I was back on track thinking I was doing the right thing. We looked at Winnicott’s theories, taking us deeper into attachment between mother & child and what it all means. According to the theory and research, a mother who is sensitive to her child’s needs and who is a constant presence will have a secure, confident and fully functioning child. Anything else leads to anxiety and developmental problems later down the line. When I first learnt about all this in Psychology twelve years ago I wondered if I had what is known as a ‘secure’ or ‘insecure’ attachment with my mother; I still wonder. The more I learn the more these theories make sense to me, and the less I think I was just born anxious.

None of this is to lay blame, by the way. It’s interesting because some in the class (particularly mothers) don’t seem to agree with the theory. For them, it makes more sense to add the child’s innate personality to the equation. They did their best as parents, and yet they still experienced difficulties with some of their kids. My personal experience probably makes me more prone to side with Winnicott and Bowlby on this. I don’t see how I could have been born insecure; equally I’ve never thought I was born alcoholic, unlike most AA members. I want to come out and say that I think it’s all learned. Which is controversial in AA because it leads to the response “so you reckon it can be unlearned, do you?” No, that isn’t what I think. I will never have a day in my life when I am not anxious and insecure, just as I will never be able to drink safely; but I hold to the view that what happened to me as a baby and as a child is crucial to how I am today, and I have the rest of my life to work on those memories.

Gradually I’m gaining in confidence in the group so that I can talk quite easily to my colleagues about AA, recovery and sexuality issues. I realised this week that I’ve never talked that much about AA with people who aren’t in the rooms. I used to talk to P about it sometimes, but only in the beginning, and he never really understood what I was talking about.

I had a chance to air my frustrations about Friday’s interview in PD group, and I cemented it as one of life’s learning experiences. It was good to get my classmates’ feedback and support on the matter.

*

I have another Tinder date tonight, my third in three weeks. It would appear I’m 21 again, discovering the gay world of London for the first time. After realising that every date doesn’t have to be a success, and accepting that people will have their own mysterious reasons for dropping you after you appeared to get on in a coffee shop, I got back to scrolling through countless pictures of muscled men with sexy beards, until I found a slightly younger Eastern European chap who doesn’t have a beard and who had matched with me. It seemed worth going for and we’re going for coffee later in South London where he lives. I was keen to avoid Soho and anything that resembles a pub for our first meeting, and he was quite happy to oblige. Although now the kid in me is wishing I could just have a normal night and go to a meeting. Despite the countless number of times in my life I have done this, I still get nervous about meeting strangers. Despite knowing that it doesn’t matter, I’m still terribly concerned with what another person will think of me. All for the sake of landing someone who will bring romance and stability into my life, someone I’m still not sure exists. As I’m in quite a good mood today I will go and I will cope with the uncertainty. Only time will tell how this pans out.

The right thing

I did the right thing: went to a meeting in the evening, shared about my experience. I had already arranged to meet my sponsor in West London to go to a small meeting that I don’t often go to. There we would find R, one of the friendly regulars from our Tuesday meeting, and we’d probably be invited to dinner afterwards as this group always goes out after the meeting. I wasn’t exactly in the mood after yesterday’s disappointment, and I seriously thought about how I could cancel, but in the end sober me knew it wouldn’t do me any good to sit indoors thinking all night.

The meeting was much busier than it had been the last time I went in the summer, and I didn’t think I would share, but all the sharing was so intimate and honest I couldn’t not speak. For the first time in ages I managed to get out the exact words that I wanted to say. It felt really true and authentic, compared to the stuff I normally say in meetings. I wish I could still share like that at my two home groups, but it’s started to feel like that time has passed.

At the end of the meeting everyone trooped off to a local Indian restaurant for a night of food and frivolous chatter. People were suitably understanding about what I had shared, some were able to give me good advice, and I started to feel better. It’s funny how this often happens when I think it won’t. I enjoyed myself as I got into an animated discussion with someone about the best shows on Netflix, one of my specialist subjects. If it had ended there it could have been a really nice evening.

Halfway through the meal someone mentioned Brexit, and for the rest of the night there was an unbalanced swing in discussion between super serious subject matter and lighthearted banter. Inappropriate jokes peppered the table conversation in an attempt to lighten the mood as we worried about the economy and terrorism and Donald Trump. I found it increasingly difficult to want to contribute, especially as it was getting late and I started to think about how to leave. Long after our empty plates had been taken away we were still there, mulling over our relationship with the EU one minute, giggling loudly at someone’s lewd joke the next. At some point it got to midnight and I wondered if I would ever get away from there. Eventually my sponsor, who by now was beginning to fall asleep, pulled his coat on, giving the rest of us permission to do the same.

I was glad I’d gone to the meal, but I was really glad to get the last tube home. I enjoyed many parts of the meal, but I wasn’t so sure about the whole. Much of the lewd banter was of the form that occurs between people who know each other well, so naturally I couldn’t be part of it because I was a visitor to the group. I’m sure if you were to ask anyone there whether they thought I was part of things they’d say yes; privately I see the difference.

So much seems to depend on how I feel when I wake up in the morning. Today I think I’m at the heavier end of the mood spectrum, and so I’m thinking about all the things that could have been better about last night, rather than all the things that could have been worse. Some of the group had an absolute ball because they knew each other well and could feel perfectly comfortable saying the most outrageous things to each other; the chances of me ever having that relationship with a group of people seem remote, the way things stand. I guess it depends on whether tagging along to other people’s parties is a way to achieving it for myself, or not. At the moment, to be part of things I have to keep tagging along, asking if I can join things that are already arranged. I don’t organise anything myself because I don’t know enough people that I can reliably invite.

In a better mood I wouldn’t see this as a problem. I can appreciate that I’m starting out later than everyone else on the social circuit, and in a big city like London this is the way it has to be done. In a worse mood, I see nothing but perpetual disappointment ahead of me, as I think about all the effort I’ll have to make, all the waiting for things to happen, all the events and occasions I won’t naturally be part of.

It becomes easy to tie this in with my career disappointment, which I was so harshly reminded of yesterday in my failure to secure a role that I should have got. I see years of living in other people’s homes, scraping pennies together, competing for bottom rung jobs with countless others, waiting endlessly for things to turn around, never knowing how or when they will.

I know I’m just doing that thing now where I look at all the negatives to the exclusion of the many positives. I’m making it worse myself; yes, I’m deciding the future before it’s happened. For years I’ve been able to conclude journal entries like this with logical statements that remind me of such truths, yet I think that today, perhaps for the first time, I can believe them. As I attempt to bring myself round emotionally to the logical arguments about the future not being written, I can sort of see that yeah, I don’t know what’s going to happen, and maybe it’s all right.

Waiting…and even more waiting

The week began on a good note. I felt great on Monday and most of Tuesday, which is only unusual because it’s the beginning of the week, a time when I am normally in dread of the days ahead that I have to get through. There was a slight dip when the newcomer meeting came around, but that’s to be expected, and I wonder if I wasn’t slightly less anxious than I always am there. After last week’s discovery and disclosure in therapy, I had a definite lift in mood to be grateful about for the first half of the week.

Things changed on Wednesday, thanks to a tough day at college. Things were very much back to normal, mood wise. One of our classmates had decided to leave the course for personal reasons, and another had decided to come in just days after a family bereavement. There were a lot of emotions flying around the room that morning, and I didn’t know what to do except hide in a corner, make myself invisible like I always do in difficult situations. What do you say to someone whose grief is so raw? For a trainee therapist I appear to be woefully unprepared for this dilemma, and it was easy to distance myself from the group throughout the day. I was sure that everyone else would have the perfect words for that person; they all seemed naturally capable of providing the right level of comfort and condolence. I meanwhile couldn’t go near them.

My only option was to share about my dilemma in triad practise. From that point I discovered that others had felt the same way as me. I wasn’t the only one who had been apprehensive about coming in and facing our bereaved colleague. Most of the class didn’t know what to say to her; in most cases they had just been making it up on the spot, which turned out to be more than she needed because she had just wanted to come in and have a normal day. She didn’t want all the kind words and sympathy anyway.

Anxiety levels heightened and mood subsequently dipped again as thoughts turned towards today, and an interview I was due to have for a clinical placement. Our course requires us to be in a placement by next summer, and we have to do the work ourselves to find one. Although I have six months in which to source one, I have been plugging away at the applications the last few weeks, because about a quarter of the class is already in placement, and the last thing I want is to be the last person to find one. I’ve said before that the process is like applying for a job, and so far I’ve sent off about five long applications, with only one response.

One of my classmates recommended a place to me last week, a drug & alcohol service in East London that sounded good, and I sent off a form straight away. Within a couple of days they had got back to me, inviting me to interview. I quickly got excited, thinking that this would be a shoo in. Surely with my experience in recovery I would be perfect for them. The lady on the phone said she had liked my application. I was sure that all I had to do was answer a few simple questions and then I’d be in.

I soon found reason to worry on Wednesday when I remembered that I hadn’t heard from the BACP about my membership application. To work as a therapist one ideally needs to be a member of this national counselling body, so I sent off the forms last week, thinking I’d hear back in a few days. One of my colleagues who sent off their form at the same time as me had already heard back from them, which caused me to start to panic. I knew that if the form had gone missing I would have to do it again, it would take ages, it would be a huge pain getting my referees to fill in their sections again, and it might delay me from starting this placement until the new year. I fell into abject panic on Thursday, convinced that everything was going to go wrong and I’d never work as a therapist.

I managed to comfort myself in the evening by switching off as soon as I got home and embarking on a night of Netflix comedy watching. When all else fails, a good laugh can be a good distraction. And I do absolutely need these coping techniques, because sitting in anxiety isn’t going to help anything. It’s good that I could be aware of that and do something about it, then.

Once I had calmed down enough I had the presence of mind to send an email to the BACP, asking them to check if the form has been received. I await a reply.

Today I was still worried about the BACP forms, but not so worried that I couldn’t go to the interview and put a calm face on. In terms of the interview itself, I was very confident. Perhaps too confident, in hindsight. I just thought I had to get through it and get my offer of a place, so that I could go back to worrying about the BACP! I turned up and was greeted by a very pleasant lady who would be conducting the interview alone. It was a little off-putting when instead of starting with the standard questions she asked about my availability, only for us both to discover that I might not have enough of it. My first mistake was not to do my research on the place – I didn’t know they were only open during weekday working hours. It wasn’t clear how I would fit in seeing clients and attending supervision with the rest of my busy schedule, and she asked if I wanted to stop the interview at this point, go away and think about it first. I decided to plough on with the interview, because I’d come all this way, I thought it was more important to get the place first and then worry about timings later. Surely we could sort it out if that was going to be the only problem.

She got a pile of papers out and I saw that there were a lot of questions to get through. It wasn’t going to be the easy interview I had been expecting. She asked about my recovery from alcoholism, how I saw therapy in helping with those issues, what I thought the risks were of working with an addict population, how I would go about resolving ethical dilemmas. It all seemed to be going well until we came to a question about recovery, in terms of what the centre itself does. I had been led to believe that they only worked with people who were abstinent; apparently, this isn’t the case at all. For the centre, if a client just wants help to cut down on their drinking or drug use, that’s fine, because it’s what the client wants. After I had described at length what recovery means to me, the lady said: “that’s your recovery, it’s not what recovery is in general.” Honestly I had always equated recovery with abstinence, but here it’s simply about people getting back on their feet and leading less chaotic lives. Whether they are abstinent or not is not the issue.

Soon after that I was hit with another tricky question concerning empathy. I didn’t realise this, but it turns out that I thought a therapist needs to have experienced something the client is going through in order to empathise with them. My definition of empathy is also wrong, apparently, because you as a therapist can’t possibly have experienced everything your client has gone through. It’s about putting yourself in the client’s shoes entirely and forgetting what you yourself have been through.

Theoretically I always understood that, and it’s a shame I didn’t get that across, because I am actually aware that I don’t need to have lost a parent to be able to help someone who has. What tripped me up was this whole idea of addiction and recovery again. I said that it helps to have been an addict to be able to help other addicts, because that’s what you hear in AA all the time. Wrong! Some of the staff at this centre are not addicts themselves but still do perfectly good jobs, so I’ve missed something there already.

I could tell the interview was going downhill fast and it was a struggle to keep up the professional veneer for the rest of it. After a few more bog standard questions about confidentiality and ethics, my interviewer was very honest in admitting that while she didn’t think I was ready now, I might be in a few months, and I should consider contacting her again then. She was also very honest and helpful in providing feedback on where I had gone wrong: not many people would do that in such a situation. At least she didn’t just show me out the door and say: “I’ll call you.” I can take what she says on board and use it in my next interview.

The trouble is that this isn’t just a job, it’s what I hope will be my life. I don’t know if or when I’ll be called for another interview somewhere else. Reason says that I’ve got ages to worry about this and something will surely turn up in the end. But it’s so hard not to think about the future I really want and how it hangs on a thread; how much I’ve sacrificed to take this path. AA says I need to keep this in the day and let go of the future. But this is arguably more important than the things I spend most of my time worrying about.

It’s painful to be told I’m not ready yet, when I think I am. Painful to be told I don’t understand empathy, when all I’ve been trying to do for the past year is understand and practise it. I went home completely dejected, feeling like I had been given a dressing down, even though it was given with kindness and a desire to help.

In time, I’ll probably see that she was right. Perhaps I need to give this more time; perhaps an alcohol & drug centre where people aren’t encouraged to abstain isn’t the right place for me to work. It’s like 2015 all over again, not knowing what I’m meant to do and how long it will take. I could torture myself about this endlessly, even though there’s no point, by thinking: if only I had just said that, if only I hadn’t said that.

*

I’ve had no word from S since Sunday, so I guess that’s it for us then. Things seemed so hopeful when I left him at the station that evening, but since then there’s been a rapid deterioration in hope and I’m no longer sure if I care. The positives of the encounter include the fact we could talk for hours without stopping; and he was good looking. But I’ve come to question whether I can date someone who admits to not reading and who has a cynical outlook. There’s a good chance he has decided to wait for me to contact him about meeting again, so if I had the will to contact him we would probably have a nice time. By me waiting for him I know I’m just playing that game as well. But in my heart of hearts I don’t feel compelled to do anything, so there must lie the answer.

Future focused

My realisation about what happened when I was twelve becomes more of a revelation with the passing time. My perception of my teenage years has changed, ever so slightly; my understanding of why my sex life was subsequently so screwed up as an adult is greater; things make more sense than they did before. I could even trace my hatred of the winter months back to this event, because I remember that weekend at boot camp as a particularly dark, cold and wet weekend in December, and I have dreaded the winters ever since. I don’t think every difficulty in my life today can be explained by that one event, because no one event will ever explain everything. But the importance of this new perspective cannot be overstated. I feel different. Freer, more in touch with myself, more alive.

*

I was due to do a chair at a mainstream meeting on Friday night, and I knew I had to talk about what was on my mind that day. Once you have started using your authentic voice in one situation, you can’t really stop in another. My journey in therapy now is towards using my voice, there is no doubt about it. I could have been nervous talking about abuse and sexuality in a non-LGBT meeting, I would have been in the past. But I needed to say these things, and some of them probably needed to hear it.

The story of my drinking career has taken on a whole new aspect with this identification of various scenarios as abuse. I found I could talk about something very powerful as I described coming to terms with it in the present day. I am not suddenly going to get over the past now that I see some things for what they are, but I can live in peace with all of it if I choose to. I said that in my chair, and people appreciated hearing it. Some of them approached me afterwards to thank me for my bravery and wish me well on my journey. A woman who I’ve never spoken to before said I had helped her a great deal by talking about ‘my voice’ and ‘my truth’, these crucial things that others in the past have tried to crush. When you look for identification in an AA meeting and you get it, it can be amazing.

*

On Saturday the sharing should have continued at my home group, but ever since the meeting moved I have not found it in me to speak there, and the case remained so this weekend. A particular shame at this time, given what’s happening in my life and the surety that others there would identify very strongly with it. I just can’t get into the meeting any more. I’ve begun counting the days until my tea commitment ends there next month. When my sponsor said that he’s thinking of taking a break from the meeting to focus on other things, I knew that my anchor there is about to drift off.

This is something I’ve gone through with many meetings over the years, and I do want to be careful not to lose one of the two meetings that go towards my quota each week. If I stop going to this meeting I’ll have to find another one to replace it. In the past I didn’t replace them and I ended up without any that I could call a regular. I keep saying it, but I’m determined not to let that happen again. I understand how vital meetings are to my recovery. I wish I could warm to the meeting in its new home, but every week is a struggle now. It will never be the same as it was two years ago when I first went back there and felt welcomed back into AA.

In the new year, perhaps I will just bite the bullet and find another one that isn’t such a struggle.

*

I had my first Tinder date on Sunday. Success finally arrived in the form of S from Surrey. I could live with a twenty year age gap, because he seemed interesting and genuine in online conversation, and he looked good in his pictures. We met in the area where I work, familiar territory for both of us, and searched eagerly for somewhere warm. We ended up in an upmarket cafe where gorgeous cakes were consumed and familiarity was established.

S was happy to do most of the talking at first, and I was happy to listen. Initially I was a bit distracted as I tried to decide whether I liked him or not. I felt a moment of terror as I realised he wasn’t what I had expected. Listening to him I got the impression he was more cynical than he appeared online: he talked about the things people did that annoyed him. Soon I also found out that we were at opposite ends of the social spectrum, him preferring nights out in town and me preferring the night in with a book. To right myself I had to secretly adopt the role of counsellor, telling myself I wasn’t there to judge. It helped. If I’m going to have to like all my clients, I can find something to like about a man I’m on a date with. Before long, I was able to find things.

We like a lot of the same stuff when it comes to TV, music, film and theatre. We have similar views on relationships and families. We both love to travel. He dresses well, better than most of the people I know; and he is my type physically. We ended up chatting in the cafe for four hours. I made efforts to stay authentic all evening, giving things away about myself that I wouldn’t normally disclose on a first date. I talked a little about my sobriety and how things used to be; I shared that I was coming to acceptance of the difficult parts of myself. It was good to do that. For most of the evening I couldn’t tell if S was attracted to my honesty or if he found it a bit strange. I thought that since I’ve never really been honest with anyone that I’ve dated before, I could try it for a change, and he could take it or leave it.

Much later as we were saying farewell at the station he asked about meeting again, so I guess I did something right. I am not about to get overly excited like I did with T. It doesn’t seem like one of those situations so far. Whatever happens, I think it will happen slowly. I do like things about the guy I spent most of yesterday with, but I definitely need to see him a few more times before I can tell if I want him in my life. I don’t exactly know if that’s a healthy attitude to take or if I’m being too cautious about my feelings. For now it feels like the right way to go. Remember, I am still learning about this whole dating thing!

Bearing in mind the events of Friday and the new knowledge of the past that’s emerging, one might urge me to proceed with more caution at this point. On balance, I think it’s all right for me to date. I sense that as long as I stick to some boundaries, avoid going back to his place before I know it’s the right time, I’ll be ok.

*

I’ve told my sponsor that I want to leave London in two years. The dream of escaping the city once and for all has been rekindled, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to make it a reality when I qualify as a therapist. At that point I will be free to leave the part time job I’m in and find work as a therapist somewhere else. I am so tired of London; for thirty five years it’s had me trapped in its orbit and I can’t think of a cast iron reason to let that continue. Instead of wanting to run away immediately I’m giving myself two years to prepare. Since I’m committed to this course I couldn’t leave sooner anyway. In 2019 I’ll be thirty-six, I’ll have a qualification I can take anywhere, and I think I’ll be ready to finally make the break.

My sponsor is happy for me. When it comes to decisions like this he trusts me. He doesn’t want to interfere or give advice on this one; he knows that I know myself well enough. A few years ago I had my heart set on France for a while, and then it was Manchester. Today I’m not sure where I’ll go, but there are a couple of ideas. Thirteen years ago when I graduated from university in Norwich, I was all set on staying there forever. Maybe I could go back and have a career there – the place still lives in my heart to this day. Let’s face it, everywhere needs counsellors. It would be hugely cheaper than London, and I already know it.

To make up for the rotten weather of the moment I’ve booked a short trip to Norwich for my birthday week in three weeks. Since it was on my mind, I thought why not take a little break there while I’ve got some time off. Since I left in 2004 I’ve enjoyed returning every couple of years for these mini-breaks, which are always nostalgic trips down memory lane as I admire a place I once called home and witness the modern developments that change it. I am extremely excited about the trip, not least because I’ll be off work for three days in a nice place. And I’ll be in a nice hotel, away from this flat, from the noise and pollution of the capital. What a treat.

The value of remembering

While I’ve been doing all this self exploration in therapy recently I’ve noticed a bunch of random memories come up, things I haven’t thought about in years. I wouldn’t exactly call them repressed memories, but some of them would seem to be important experiences that I haven’t consciously accessed in a long time. On my way to therapy on Friday morning I suddenly thought about something that happened to me when I was twelve.

At the school I went to there was a cadets club where boys would go every Friday evening to march around in military uniform and shoot plastic bullets from air rifles. It was the coolest club that you could belong to at my school, everyone who was anyone had to join. Having recently learned that I was not like the other boys and that this was a bad thing, I joined the club along with everyone else as soon as I could in the second year, even though I hated the idea of it and I could tell it was going to be a disaster, because I needed the kudos really badly.

I didn’t like the uniforms they made us wear, I didn’t like the guns and the marching, and I didn’t like how the other boys saw it as an opportunity to be more boisterous and aggressive than they could ever get away with in the course of a normal school day. For about two months I made myself go every week, as on some level I seemed to believe I could learn to become a man there. Becoming a real man like the others was crucial: I wouldn’t survive life if I couldn’t do that.

Just before Christmas that year there was a weekend trip to this boot camp in the middle of rural Hampshire. I didn’t want to go; the whole thing seemed like a nightmare. I had no concept that I could choose to pull out of it, that I could decide I wasn’t going to be a cadet any more. I thought that now I’d joined I was in it forever. To drop out would have been humiliating. When we got to the camp it was like a prison. I desperately scanned the horizon for any women, thinking that it wouldn’t be so bad being away from mum for a weekend if I had a female authority figure to turn to. But there were no women, just hundreds of boys and men, all gearing up for a weekend of swearing and jostling for position.

We were put through our paces with military drills and mapping exercises, all designed to turn us into men. I don’t remember how I got through it, but I did. My struggling must have been obvious, because one of the teachers, known to everyone as the colonel, took me aside on the second day for a private chat. While everyone else was outside for target practice I found myself in the dorm room with this man who was all of a sudden interested in me. The colonel (I have no idea if he was ever actually an army colonel or if he just called himself that for effect) was in everyone’s eyes an eccentric. He spoke in commanding, clipped tones that were reminiscent of a 1950’s old school authority figure. Most people found it funny, and often laughed about it behind his back. It was difficult to know how to have a conversation with him. He didn’t seem quite human. Occasionally you’d hear some whispered, not so funny rumours about him. He liked being tactile with the boys, apparently. You had to watch yourself with him, apparently. Lots of sniggering, half joking gossip that I only took with a pinch of salt because I didn’t believe anyone who taught at our school would really be able to get away with that. That was until the start of the boot camp weekend, when the colonel had stood in the bathroom watching us shower, ordering us to take everything off, including underwear, because we wouldn’t get clean otherwise. “No one leaves the shower until they’ve taken everything off,” his voice boomed, making it certain that he meant business.

Even at that point I couldn’t believe there was really a pervert in our midst. It just didn’t seem very likely. I don’t know, I guess I was just naive in thinking that kind of thing only happened in the news. When I was sat with him in the dorm room I thought about what had happened in the showers, and I felt uncomfortable, but again it didn’t occur to me that I could make a choice about leaving. I’d have had nowhere to go, anyway, the whole place was one big prison with no escape.

The colonel was eager to find out why I was so shy and why I couldn’t enjoy the weekend like the other boys. He asked if I had a girlfriend back home and whether I’d had sex with her yet. I didn’t know what to say, other than ‘yes’. It was the answer you gave to such questions at school if you wanted to stay safe. Answering ‘no’ would have been a giveaway to my dirty secret, I was sure of it. The colonel became really interested in what I liked doing with this girlfriend. He put a hand on my leg, asked me where I had touched her. Moved his hand up to my crotch, asked if I had ‘put myself inside her’.

I was trapped, and really scared. I wanted him to get his hand off me, to let me out of that horrible room. I didn’t know what he was going to do to me. He was sitting so close to me, I could feel his breath on my cheek. I was overpowered.

Before that day I’d had wet dreams that featured sordid encounters with the teachers at my school, but this wasn’t like a fantasy. The colonel was a wrinkled old man, and this was all too real, and out of my control. After a minute he let me go, perhaps deciding that he had got enough pleasure for one day. I spent the rest of the weekend in a state of shock, hoping he wouldn’t come near me again, and by some miracle he didn’t. Back at school the next week, I dropped out of the cadets, never to return.

I couldn’t understand what had happened in that room, and so I put it out of my mind for years. When I heard friends in adulthood talk about abuse, I didn’t think of what I had been through in the same light. Until now I didn’t even see that the colonel must have been getting off on the power he had over me. I thought…actually I don’t know what I thought. It was always one of those moments in life that didn’t make any sense. So I’ve left it out of my narrative until now. I haven’t written about it before, never told anyone about it, not even a therapist.

When it fell into my mind on Friday morning I knew I had to talk about it. With my therapist this week, for the first time ever, I could call it abuse. It always seemed wrong to lump it in with the more general idea of sexual abuse that friends and people in magazines talk about, because it only lasted a minute, and it didn’t go very far; but this week for the first time, I saw it differently. With everything that has been in the news recently about abuse, I don’t think I can dismiss it any more. It was one of the most frightening experiences of my childhood, one that seemed to make everything I was going through worse, because it suggested to me that being gay invited men like the colonel to do that to me.

As I was talking about it in therapy on Friday I began to make all kinds of associations between that experience and things that happened later during my drinking years. I could finally see that some of the frightening things that happened in my twenties were almost a repetition of that afternoon. The feelings I felt with men like N, men who’d found me in blackout and took advantage of me, were exactly the same as those I felt with the colonel. Trapped, alone, helpless to stop the older man from doing whatever he wanted.

Instead of recounting the story objectively in the past tense, I actually found myself reliving it in the therapy chair. Real therapy took place, then, as I regressed and became my twelve year old self, expressing the deep feelings as they happened. For a while I forgot where I was, and my whole countenance became that of an awkward, unloved teenager as I hunched down in my seat and spoke words that burned with anger. The pain was real; but afterwards, once I was back in the room, it felt wonderful. To have finally told someone what happened, to have finally named it for what it was, was amazing.

A difficult part of me is still inclined to shy away from calling all of it abuse. I experienced many, many things during my drinking that are similar to what happened with the colonel; do I say that my whole drinking career was characterised by a string of abuse? It feels like very difficult territory, considering that I put myself in those situations repeatedly, with full knowledge of what might happen. I never said ‘no’ or indicated that I didn’t want to be there. None of the men who took me to bed would have any reason to think I didn’t like it. But here’s the rub: I didn’t like it. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was always a child, right up until the day I stopped drinking. It’s hard when you listen to these people now who are coming out with stories about the abuse they’ve suffered in Hollywood, how they can confidently name what they experienced and achieve catharsis from it. I, meanwhile, have struggled for so long with the grey areas of what I went through; the murky, elusive truth about just what happened, so much of which I’ll never remember because I was in blackout for most of it.

At the end of Friday’s session I knew that I could be on the verge of a breakthrough in this area, if I could value myself enough to call myself a victim of abuse like all those other brave people currently in the spotlight. I knew that there’s just too much evidence to keep dismissing it. I also knew that I had to start talking about it to other people, in AA, in counselling class, because that would really mean valuing myself. Whether I could take that step would remain to be seen.

Persevere

I’ve begun to feel better. I slept better last night, and when I woke I was excited about going to college. There is a growing closeness in the group each week, and I feel like I’m getting to know all of them well. There is a real, positive atmosphere of sharing in the room; it no longer seems strange to share about heavy things like what happened in my childhood. A year ago I couldn’t have imagined such a situation developing at college. We’re forging this bond because we have to, it’s part of the course; but at the same time we want to anyway. I want to.

For my part, when I hear about the difficult experiences other people have had in childhood I guess it should let me know that I wasn’t so abnormal with my experiences. A few weeks ago when everyone was sharing their happy memories, it was easy to sit there and think I was massively different to everyone, whereas this week it’s not the case at all. It turns out that many of us had painful childhood experiences, some of which still have to be worked through in therapy. The feeling of being different then was noticeably less strong today than it usually is. As a result I could tell that I was finding it easier to be my true self in the group. I didn’t have to monitor was I was saying all the time, I could just let things out for the most part. That said, there will always be odd moments when the feeling of difference rears its head, I know that, because it is such an old part of me. Moments where I can think: yeah, but my issues in childhood were still unique because…

*

For the third day in a row I’ve been looking for that spark on Tinder. Several times I’ve thought it’s happening, and then it dies and fades back to non-existence. At first I seemed to be getting a lot of ‘matches’, and naturally that was exciting, with most of them being reasonably attractive and normal. What lets it down is the fact that no one wants to be the one to send the first message. It’s bloody frustrating! And when a message does get sent, it invariably leads nowhere. You either get monosyllabic replies, or nothing; or a conversation may manage to get going, only for the other party to disappear after a few hours, never to be seen or heard of again.

All the time I question whether I should keep persevering or just give up again. There’s no telling whether any of this is really worth it. Like so much in life, there’s a dichotomy between different logical approaches. On the one hand, I may as well keep persevering because nothing will ever happen if I don’t, and I still want to find someone and have a real experience again. On the other hand, I could be going about it completely the wrong way. I could just be using yet another soulless app to avoid making real effort with relationships. I don’t think I’ll ever know what the answer to that is, so I think I will just keep using the app for now.

*

An acquaintance named O has been trying to arrange coffee with me for several weeks, without success. Or rather, I’ve been trying to arrange something with him without success. In the course of several facebook messages I’ve figured out that he wants to talk about the conflict between most counselling theory and the twelve steps (he is a trainee psychotherapist, like me). It’s a big subject that’s very much worth discussing; I have acceptance around the conflict at the moment but that’s not to say I will always.

Today we seemed to be getting somewhere when we hit on this Sunday as a possible date, but then he confessed that he’s got another coffee date earlier on the same day and doesn’t know when this will finish, so it’s probably best not to commit to anything yet. And so we’re back to the drawing board.

The curse of trying to socialise in London strikes again! I’ve come up against this problem often in the last few years, where a simple coffee date takes months of careful planning because of how insanely busy everyone is. Everyone apart from me. I’m not apportioning blame in this statement, it simply seems to be the way of things in big cities. When it happens with one person it’s fine, but there are three fellow alcoholics who I’ve set my sights on for coffee, people I’d like to ‘get to know better’ because it would be good for me, and I can’t make anything happen because they all happen to be short on space in their diaries.

As with the dating apps, the choice would appear to be between perseverance and giving up. It’s up to me which one I choose.