Keep going

I’m returning to Eastern Europe next week for work purposes, to a part of the world where there are no English speaking AA meetings. I’ll be there for three weeks. I didn’t have to agree to go, but they asked me nicely and I couldn’t think of a good reason not to. They trust me enough to go out there on my own and do a tough job, so why can’t I trust myself?

Panic has gripped my mind since I found out on Wednesday and it refuses to let go. I’ve tried mindfully meditating; forcefully applying logic to the situation; remembering how much I wanted this kind of opportunity at work last year; reminding myself how much I used to love flying, when I wasn’t so used to it (I hate flying today). Tragically nothing has been able to free me from the fear yet. I’ve felt like I’m living on a knife edge for the past three days, and there’s a growing certainty that I’ll continue to feel like that until I arrive safely on Monday night. I still can’t work out what I’m more anxious about: the flight on Monday or the work I have to do from Tuesday on. On the surface I may appear calm, after a lifetime of perfecting the skill, but inside my days are filled with a raging turmoil.

There’s a sense that my bosses have got the wrong person – I have no idea how I ended up doing this. It’s like another person applied for the job last year, went through the interview process and impressed my superiors. Privately I’m going through this a scared, lost little boy.

The meeting last night was good but not as good as it could have been. My closest friend there was chatting to someone else when I arrived and didn’t see me going in, and I didn’t feel up to interrupting him. The rest of the meeting sort of went like that, full of missed chances to connect. The chair was really powerful and believe me I wanted to share back when the time came, but a strong fear gagged me throughout the hour and a half. Many times I experienced the gag almost physically, feeling it tighten round my mouth every time I came close to opening it. It’s happened the majority of times that I’ve been to the meeting in these eight years; pulling the gag off and speaking remained a mystery to me as I left the meeting on my own and travelled home.

Today’s meeting went much better. That is the seeming irony of my recovery at the moment: one good day follows a bad day follows a good day, and so on. I identified with almost every word of the chair, so much so I felt compelled to be the first one to share back when it was time. Sharing from the heart wasn’t a mystery today; I didn’t stumble or hold back or stop short at the most vulnerable points. I knew I had no choice but to be honest and share about my great fears of the moment, because I won’t get to share them anywhere else. For the first time in years I took up the full five minutes that were allocated to me; and I said some things I won’t forget, such as the fact I feel like I’m failing at life all the time, even when other people see me progressing and being strong.

Later I wanted so badly to connect with someone that I made myself linger and look people in the eye as they were leaving the meeting. One person came up to me and said they had found my share an inspiration. A few others told me that AA will be with me in my travels, even if I can’t go to a meeting. I will take phone numbers with me and I will be in people’s thoughts.

Every share is a liberating experience. For the first time in nearly eight years I feel like I’m sharing properly. I may not have all the friends and all the dinner invitations, but I’m doing what’s important for my recovery. It’s still really hard to accept that this is where I am after nearly eight years, learning to be honest and vulnerable for the first time. If I’d submitted fully to the program eight years ago I wouldn’t be here now, but I can’t change the past. This is where I am and I must accept and go through it. I’m going out of my comfort zone every day, doing all the things I avoided when I was younger, feeling my way ahead almost blind. Not really knowing if this is the right direction to go in, but still I go on because somewhere deep inside I know. Winston Churchill famously said “when you’re going through hell, keep going.” Today, I believe him.

Wednesday 22nd April

Friday night I turned up at my regular meeting ready to force myself through another 90 minutes of social endurance tests. The first test always involves saying hello to the people on the door. The greeters there have come to expect me at the meeting now and I’ve got used to telling them briefly about my week, so it’s not that hard to pass the first test now. The second test is going into the room and finding a seat that feels safe. Recently I’ve been sitting in the middle of the room, where not many people sit but just enough do to allow me to fill my quota of greeting one or two fellow alcoholics before the meeting starts. During the meeting there’s the third test: sharing. More important than the first two tests by far, because it’s what I really come to meetings for now. If I can share in a meeting, I understand that I have to do it in complete honesty; I can fake smiles when it’s the small talk before the meeting, but in the sharing I get my one and only opportunity to voice my truth. Not just that, I get to overcome the terror of being judged, bit by bit. I didn’t pass this test on Friday. Not because too many other people were trying to share – it wasn’t a particularly busy week for the group. I don’t know why I couldn’t share that night.

I didn’t need to worry about it for long because by the end of the meeting, I was passing the fourth and probably most difficult test, which involves hanging around and chatting to people as they say goodbye to each other. I have rarely done this successfully during my eight years of sobriety. When dozens of people are clumping together in groups, taking the opportunity to catch up with each other properly, or trying to decide where to go for coffee or dinner, it’s devilishly hard to break into one of those groups if the person you’ve decided you want to speak to is in there. Because there’s no time limit on how long people can spend standing around talking at the end of the meeting, some of them can stand there talking non-stop for seemingly hours; so far in eight years I have never naturally found myself as part of one those groups, so I’m always the one trying to break in and grab someone’s attention.

For the first time something different happened this week. I picked up the conversation I’d been having with one of the greeters before the meeting, and we walked outside together, where some of his friends were waiting for him to go off to dinner somewhere. Our conversation didn’t stop when he saw them; they had to try and break into our group, which seemed really strange and therefore distracting to me as I was trying to continue the conversation with my friend. I was so used to being the one on the outside I felt bad for them, even though there was nothing to feel bad about, because I wasn’t stealing him from them: they were going to have him sooner or later. Here’s a case of some logical knowledge losing to my feelings – I know I’m doing nothing wrong and yet I start to feel bad anyway and it stops me from being able to talk to a friend properly.

The increasing gaps in my speech as I got distracted by all this allowed one of the friends to grab him and start giving him the options for dinner. All of a sudden I was left with one of the other friends who I didn’t know, a much younger guy whose name I think was M. I’d seen him in a few meetings before and heard him share with the kind of honesty and vulnerability that I’d kill for. A conversation could never have naturally arisen between us without some form of intervention; he clearly had that shyness of strangers that all normal newcomers have, while I couldn’t get from my mind all the wonderful things I remembered him sharing, and the idea of how much better than me he therefore is.

The situation became even more strange and unexpected when M and I started talking to each other. I don’t know who began the conversation, but once it got going we were talking like – my God, it felt strange – normal people. I was telling him about my job, my years in AA, my recent struggles; he was talking about his apprehensions and hopes for sobriety. There was no hesitation or stumbling over words; I didn’t have to think about what I was going to say next. I just talked, and talked, and talked.

It must have only lasted about five minutes, because before I knew it the others were calling M to join them for dinner, but it was worth a lifetime of difficult conversations. Just to have that ease with someone I’d never spoken to before, so quickly and naturally, was magical. I wasn’t unhappy when M had to say goodbye, nor was I jealous of him getting invited to dinner while I had to go home alone. I was just glad that what had happened, happened. Who wouldn’t be? I’ve waited years for a thing like that to happen.

*****

At the following day’s meeting the magic wasn’t to be repeated. As with so many things, I don’t know why I couldn’t continue being the confident older AA that I’d been the day before. I just wasn’t having that kind of day. I got to the meeting shortly before it began; no one had said hello to me and I guess this affected me on some level, despite me fighting not to let it; I couldn’t identify with the chair and then I couldn’t share in the meeting. The second the secretary announced that the meeting was over at 7.30 I walked straight out. There were so many people in the room, loads of whom I could have stopped to have a couple of minutes spiritual catching up with. For a minute I followed the script that was telling me I just wasn’t in the mood.

On my way out I saw a face I hadn’t seen in years: L, an old buddy from early AA days who I always wondered about because he just disappeared in 2008 or 09. I honestly thought I’d never see him again, and then there he was on Saturday night, not looking a day older or younger. Around the time he disappeared from the rooms I sincerely hoped that I’d see him again and that he’d be well when I did. Because I’d already decided that I was walking out in a huff when I saw him on Saturday, I couldn’t stop myself. The momentum was strong: turning to talk to him would have been like trying to stop a train at full speed. I excused myself with the false comfort that if he was there this week he might be there again next week. Then once I was out of the meeting, I remembered how ridiculous it is to assume such things in AA. In 2009 he seemed to be doing so well, and then he disappeared for six years. There’s as much chance I’ll never see him again as there is that he’ll be there again this Saturday. I shouldn’t be relying on these get out clauses when I fall into my old behaviours, but still I do, because it’s easy and I don’t feel ready to man up and do the hard thing just yet.

Friday 17th April

I’m supposed to be at work right now. Or rather, I’m supposed to be doing some charity event with work right now. I’m not there, I’m at home instead because I couldn’t face it. In the end, faced with that choice between running away and facing a day of forced socialising with workmates, I chose to run. For most of the week, I wasn’t panicking as much about it as predicted. It was a relatively busy week and I had plenty of things to keep my mind off it. Last night, I felt normal enough to believe that I actually might be able to go through with today. The script telling me that my workmates aren’t all that bad to spend a day out of the office with seemed to be winning out.

When it got to this morning I wasn’t feeling so confident. On waking I experienced some of the most difficult moments I’ve had to endure in years. After agonizing over whether to be brave or run for what seemed like hours, I messaged them to say I was ill and couldn’t go. So I was doing it again: avoiding, running away when I should have been facing my responsibilities. I can justify my absence by telling them I’m ill, whilst telling myself that I shouldn’t have to go to these stupid things anyway. I can have arguments in my head about how one person not being there isn’t going to make a difference. The chances are no one will notice my absence today, or if they do, no one will care. It’s the fact that I’m being dishonest that gets to me. I hate lying – I vowed to stop doing it the day I gave up alcohol. I had no doubt then that it hadn’t served me well in my life, yet here I am doing it again, picking up an old habit like an ex-smoker picking up a cigarette.

I didn’t need to lie today, but the other option simply terrified me so much I literally shake to think about it. The last eight hours have been very long, and to think that if I’d gone today I’d still be there now, forcing smiles and words that mean nothing out of my mouth, it’s unbearable to imagine. I’ve tried to picture what advice AA would give me – what a really good sponsor would say – and I can’t come up with anything. I am not built to work in a company full of extroverts. I don’t have the strength to pretend that I’m one of them any more. Every day I’m still in this job, is another day where I have to put on a mask in the morning and ensure it doesn’t slip for the next eight hours.

Recently it’s been very hard to keep the mask from slipping, which is why my relationships with remaining teammates have undoubtedly suffered. The scariest thing of all is that I don’t exactly know who I would be, if I was always just being myself. This year I’ve been playing the part of the office misanthrope, but I don’t think that’s me either. Days like today really make me question if I’m a bad person, but in the rare moments when I manage to find some perspective I don’t think I’m bad, I think I’m just in the wrong fucking job.

Friday 10th April

I had two goals for tonight’s AA meeting: share, and stick around to have a conversation with at least one person after the meeting. I was feeling pretty low on the way there and didn’t know if I could manage it. When the meeting started and the chair was really good, I identified with nearly everything he said, about his sensitive childhood and difficult adolescent years, and I thought to myself “this is so good everyone’s going to want to share back, I won’t get a word in edgeways.” As soon as he’d finished plenty of people in the room were pretty quick off the mark at sharing back. For twenty minutes I sat through other people’s shares with my heart palpitating and words ready to burst out of my mouth. And then there was a second gap in the sharing and I forced myself to grab it.

I talked about the childhood and the sensitivity and the ways alcohol magically helped with it, then I talked about work, how much I’m hating it and how I feel ever so stuck. I didn’t want to cry but tears leapt to my eyes nevertheless. It seems to be happening a lot when I share at the moment. Once I’d finished I knew with 100% certainty that I’m not going to stop feeling stuck until I’m out of this job. And then I’m going to be free for the first time in years, because I’ve been stuck and stagnating for at least the past five in this job.

It could have been quite a negative share but I was determined to finish with something positive, so I reminded myself and the rest of the room of the old adage that this too shall pass. And it really shall. In six months from now I won’t be in this position any more, I know I won’t. So that’s all right.

Having accomplished one major goal in the meeting I could have let myself off the hook with the second one. But when it came to the end and everyone was milling around, I was compelled to linger and talk to the nearest friendly face and stay out of my comfort zone for a bit longer. There were about five faces from my early AA days in the meeting who I’d not seen in a long, long time; I could have picked any one of them. I approached J, someone I went for coffee with when I was about a week sober and whose sobriety date I never forgot because it’s almost exactly a year ahead of mine. When he was a year sober and I was a week, it astonished me that anyone could stay off the drink for so long. Now here we were, almost eight years later, happy to catch up after such a long time on a very pure and human level. It was marvellous.

Outside the meeting hall I didn’t stop there. I made a beeline for two other people that I’ve known for a long time and shared a bit more about the struggles with work. Whilst one of them was turned to chat to someone else passing by I shared with the other one that I’d been thinking about death this week. His mouth and eyes opened wide in horror and I realised I’d been a bit unnecessarily dramatic. Quickly I had to reassure him that I was OK and feeling much better now that I’d shared, and I definitely wasn’t going to do anything stupid.

Waiting for the worst

I’m feeling sad and tired today. Sad that it’s come to this: I can’t face my job any more. Tired of feeling sad all the time. Returning to work this week after a break wasn’t horrendous. Nothing drastic or life altering has happened. But I can’t face it any more. Day after day, worrying about nothing. Not talking to anybody unless I have to. Feeling like everyone is judging me, all the time. I’ve returned to my worst nightmare, being back at school. The reality of the situation may be nothing like school but in my head I’ve been back there for the past several months, and I can’t escape now.

I’m trapped. I have to keep working until there’s a change in the business and we’re rewarded for it. I have to pay for my share of the holidays that P has booked for us in Europe later in the summer. I’m trapped, even though I can choose to leave my job at any time, because I’ve conditioned myself to need the money. Without the money, I don’t pay for those holidays, I don’t pay off my debts, I don’t get a deposit for a flat, I live in other people’s homes for the rest of my life. I can’t blame society for this. Society has set the framework for my situation, but I’ve chosen to remain, get stuck further and further into it.

Most days in the office I feel invisible. A left this week, two weeks earlier than he was meant to, so I’ve said goodbye to the last person I considered a friend there. When A was around there was at least a chance to laugh, have a conversation, distract myself from the tedium. I can’t blame him for leaving. His job was coming to an end anyway, it was boring and depressing him. So as he turns over a new leaf and finally puts all of this behind him, I remain locked in my own interminable hell, which he will forever be oblivious to.

Without my past behind me I would be like anyone else that I work with, not worried about being judged or humiliated all the time. Because I have that past this is all starting to seem like a sick joke. I thought tonight on the way home, not for the first time, that I must have a higher power with a cruel sense of humour. In AA they always say that your higher power has your best interests at heart, but I’ve never been completely sure of that. Well, tonight I’m really not sure. By judging my higher power so harshly maybe I’m making things even worse for myself, because to stay healthy and sober I’m supposed to be on side with my HP, I’m supposed to believe in it no matter what. Tonight I can’t. I just can’t.

Yesterday something happened that made it seem like I was back at school. Coming out of the station at 10 to 8 in the morning, I immediately noticed on the pavement up ahead of me four people from another department who I’ve never spoken to, all in a huddle, chatting and laughing as they walked to work. I’ve seen them separately on the route to work before, never together. Cautiously I slowed my pace, to ensure that I wouldn’t catch up with them during the ten minute walk to the office. After a couple of minutes I heard some familiar voices burst out of the silence somewhere behind me; two more colleagues from other departments, laughing and gabbing on their way to work, oblivious to my silent panic. I was sandwiched between the two groups with no way out; there are no other routes I can take in the morning, I couldn’t speed up to pass the other group without being noticed, nor could I slow down and let the other group overtake me, without being noticed. It’s all about not being noticed, you see. It’s my only protection.

It happened to me all the time at school. Nearly every morning I’d get off the train at a certain time and there’d be someone there, slightly up ahead or slightly behind, completely oblivious to me while I was forced to monitor their movements carefully for the next ten minutes, just to make sure our paths didn’t cross.

I want to ask if this has ever happened to anyone else, but there’s no one to ask. I feel too embarrassed to share it in AA, and I can’t talk to P about it, because he won’t get it. He says he gets my problems but I don’t think he does at all. To every problem his answer is to brighten up, look to the light at the end of the tunnel, I only have to stick it out a while longer. In a good mood on a Saturday evening, I can listen to that sort of thing. Day like today, I can’t take it.

That’s why I feel like I’m becoming invisible again, like I was at the age of sixteen. All the people who might have understood or cared have drifted out of my life, leaving me surrounded with people who could be a different species to me. On a daily basis at work now I say little more than five words to anyone during the day. The one that really hurts there is L. We sit next to each other, I used to think we were friends, but whatever we were, is in the past. We don’t speak unless we have to. I don’t know what happened, but it happened gradually and subtly. One day we’d stopped saying more than ‘hello’ to each other in the mornings. I stopped laughing at her jokes. She stopped sending me smiley emojis on google chat. I’d love to know what she thinks about me now – if she thinks anything. Maybe to her nothing’s changed, maybe I’m actually imagining this. It seems unlikely.

There may be ways of improving the situation, if I were to make an effort with it like the voices of former AA sponsors keep saying I should. But the truth is I’m finding it harder and harder to want to try. If I am truly invisible to the people around me, if no one will ever really understand what’s going on inside me, then what’s the point?

Let’s face it, I’ve made everything so bad for myself, pushed myself so far into a corner, there isn’t much that’s going to take me out of it. I think of being able to get into bed with a gorgeous naked man, wrap myself in his arms, lay in his warmth and his love until it all seems better. If I could do that I’d stop complaining about work instantly, but you know what? There’s no man coming to save me tonight. There never will be any man to save me. I know for a fact the perfect man does exist, because I see hundreds of them on the train every day – not a single one of them’s going to do a thing for me, because to them I really am utterly invisible.

*****

Why don’t I go ahead and do it, then? Kill myself, I mean. Since I’m thinking about it so much. That’s a great question. Well in spite of my desperation to escape from this coffin I call my life – in spite of the daily suffocation at work and in my room at night – I really don’t think I want to die. I’d kill myself because it would be a way of getting back at the world, of showing them how serious my problems are. If I could do it without dying, that would be great. If I could do it, botch it and still somehow be alive in the morning, like a desperate teenager’s cry for help when they don’t know how to do the job properly or don’t have the tools at their disposal, that would be enough. But I don’t even really want to do that. It’s too much effort.

In me there’s still too much of a need to live through all this; there’s this seed that was planted sixteen years ago when I botched my first suicide attempt and I realised that I had to live; it won’t go away. Through everything, somehow, it waits and it hopes for things to get better. It strangely seems to know that things will get better, eventually. While on the surface I may be veering between suicidal ideation and a hopeless resignation to carrying on in life, underneath the layers this little seed of hope remains, telling me to just wait another day, my time will come. If it were to come down to it, this part of me won’t let me kill myself. At my worst times I always manage to remember it’s there: and so I just keep carrying on, ridiculous as it seems. Is it a vestige of sanity in me that’s keeping me alive? Is it a higher power?

April 4th 2015 – part 2

There’s a big meeting in the centre of town that I always went to in my early days; I’ve been going again recently to try and find what I once loved about AA. When I went tonight the smiles and hugs from fellow alcoholics couldn’t save me from the mood I’d been in all day. As always, I felt a desperate urge to share from the start of the meeting to the end, and I couldn’t open my mouth. Everyone was jumping in quickly to share, which I used as an excuse to say “Well it’s too difficult to share in meetings like this. There are other people with more pressing needs than me.” It’s a load of crap, though: I’ve managed to share there in the past, and my need is as pressing as anyone else’s.

What I can’t seem to learn is that it doesn’t matter what I end up saying in the meeting, no one’s expecting me to be witty or funny or memorable. I’m the one putting that pressure on myself. Some of the sharing there can be quite entertaining, but it’s not like every single one could be turned into a Broadway monologue! It’s always a mixture. People share all sorts of random there. Tonight someone shared in some detail about a recent medical procedure. In my head I bar myself from sharing because I think that what I have to share will probably break some unwritten rule, it won’t be positive enough or it won’t focus on drinking enough; someone shares about a bloody operation that has nothing to do with alcohol whatsoever, has the whole room in stitches, yet still I can’t jump in and share my shit, despite the proof I’ve just seen that no one gives a shit what you say.

Of course I came out of the meeting feeling angry, and I’m still angry now. There were at least five gorgeous men in the meeting, all of whom I knew I would never speak to as soon as I saw them. All these Grindr dates I keep going on, that keep leading to nothing, I do wonder if it would be different if I dated someone in AA. The meetings I’m going to prove week after week that AA is full of hot gay guys; yet I know there’s still a pretty big taboo around dating in AA, and I am the last person who’s ever going to break a taboo, real or imagined.

One of the hot guys tonight was quite clearly partnered to P, this guy who came into AA around the same time as me in 2007 and who is now doing extraordinarily well. I’d heard that he met his new boyfriend at one of the US roundups last year; to realise that this was that boyfriend, sitting there tonight, the both of them looking super hot and healthy, was like a small punch in the stomach. I mean, just going to the States and picking up a hot guy who then wants to travel across the world for you in itself is a fascinating thing; to do it sober, at an AA roundup – that’s another level. It would be quite obvious of me to say I don’t know how P did it, so I won’t. And to think, the last time I saw him in 2009 or 2010 he hated his life, and he was on the verge of drinking again. What the fuck did he do? What the fuck do I have to do?

I know, I know, I know what AA would say: share in meetings, get a sponsor, do more service, go for coffee after meetings. Do it repeatedly for years and maybe I’ll figure out how P did it in the end. Well I don’t want to do anything like that repeatedly for years. Just imagining the vulnerability I’d have to put myself through, time and time again as I leave my comfort zone, week after week, it’s unbearable. I can’t do it.

But I know that if I don’t do it, I simply won’t ever get better. Life’s taught me that in the past few years. There’s literally no other way for me. I either do AA properly, or I give up and stay where I am. I can’t throw another tantrum, disappear from meetings for months and expect anyone to chase me up and rescue me. Nor can I sit there every Friday for the next five years, trying to pluck up the courage to share and missing every single opportunity. I have to throw myself into the deep end.

When I’m about to reach out in a meeting my mind always tells me: your voice sounds weird, no one wants to hear what you have to say, it won’t be as funny as what that other person said, it will be off topic, you’ll offend someone. It happens every single time.

Sorry to be nostalgic, but I really can’t remember this being so much of a problem seven years ago. In 2008 I was sharing nearly all the time. And do you know what, I was experiencing something of the joy in recovery that P and lots of other people at tonight’s meeting seem to be experiencing. I had numerous sober friends, I was going for coffee and dinner after meetings, I was going on holidays with sober people, I was able to hug people when I went into meetings and really feel a part of things. OK I had no hope with boyfriends back then, just as I have no hope now – but it didn’t matter then. I guess sometimes I thought it did, but most of the time I was happy anyway. What happened?

All of this is what I wanted to share tonight in the meeting; if I do ever manage to share it, no one will mind, any true alcoholic will understand. But I can’t share it because it feels like too much, it all goes out of my mind when I’m sitting there and what ends up coming out feels like a pile of made up crap. So here I remain, stuck and alone.

April 4th – 2015

Before I begin let me apologise for the long radio silence these past months. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve taken a “break” and it won’t be the last, I have no excuse really except that I haven’t been doing much writing at all since last year.

What’s happened during my absence? Well I didn’t get made redundant. I got the promotion which I interviewed for in September, and ever since I’ve been unhappy with my decision to interview for it. I’m no longer in a relationship with anyone. Since J I haven’t dated or spent the night with a single person, I’d like to say out of choice but so often with me celibacy is more of a comfortable routine than choice.

I haven’t exactly been happy with my lot in life the last six months. Most of it’s been to do with my job. I thought getting a promotion would be the great kick I needed in my career, but I’ve ended up feeling more trapped and disillusioned than ever. I want out of it now, I’m just waiting for the right time.

I wasn’t attending AA much in 2013 and 2014. Now I’m back in regular meetings, trying to work some kind of program, because I’m still an alcoholic, still sick. Going back to meetings after quite a significant absence I feel more like a newcomer than I did when I was a newcomer. My sobriety date never changed, and God willing I’ll be eight years sober this year – but to say I have nearly eight years of continuous sobriety at the moment feels a little bit meaningless. Considering that I still walk into meetings and I hardly know anyone; I still struggle with sharing; I don’t have a sponsor, I don’t really do service. I’m really trying to want to improve on all of that, but as of yet, the willingness is hard to come by. What’s stopping me from just throwing myself back into the middle of the bed? Too many things to mention here in detail, but briefly: resentment, pride, fear, self pity. Things we’re all familiar with in AA, for sure, but in my head I remain the only person going through these things and so, for the moment, I remain a bit uncertain of how to proceed.