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Talk & Listen Sessions

Sunday 10 December 2023

The Unrealised Promise of Mingling at Meetups

It's Sunday morning. I'm mentally and physically drained. There's not a single cell in my system that has even a nano unit of energy. This is mostly the result of simply trying too hard and doing too much. This fluctuates with periods of doing virtually nothing other than just waiting for time to evaporate and bring me closer to the future (I have analytical thoughts on this which I will share in another post), a state that is equally draining but perhaps in different ways. Friday was the last of four weeks on Talk for Health, a peer counselling course that I've been doing once a week. By the end of the afternoon my brain was rendered virtually inoperative. There was something mentally exhausting about the course. I don't think it was even primarily the subject matter but rather the delivery and interaction; there was a tiring slowness and weightiness about it which expended considerable psychological effort. When I got home I slumped on my sofa in a zombie-like fashion from which I did not recover.

Over the past few months, when I've felt frustrated or depressed I'd been resorting to telephoning a helpline, such as Samaritans. Recently, however, I noticed that I'd developed a dependency on this which I felt was an unhealthy place to be as essentially it became a de facto addiction. A couple of weeks ago I made a conscious decision not to make any more such calls, recognising that reliance-by-default was neither sustainable nor conducive to mental wellbeing. So on Friday the confused emotional hopscotch I was experiencing would have to play out on its own. I was aiming to be at least refreshed enough by Saturday morning to function again on some level as I'd diarised a coffee afternoon with a group through Meetup. Poor weather is one other factor that has a major impact on whether I even go out but it was actually a sunny December morning, with seven degrees Celsius and virtually no contributory wind-chill factor or rain forecast.

There was a pro-Palestinian demonstration in central London resulting in curtailment of bus journeys. Having to walk a few stops as a result meant I arrived to find most people from the meetup already in the coffee shop. The host pulled up a chair for me which felt very welcoming. I counted twelve in the group; I am always counting and re-counting everything! Even whilst sitting with the group I periodically counted everyone many times over. I'd been doing the same in the Talk for Health group and I always do this in Talk & Listen as well. I can't stop counting things; even as I lie in bed I count through things or repeat numbers to myself; on buses I keep counting the number of passengers, the number of bags, mobile phones and all manner of paraphernalia. Anyway, I digress, and not for the first or last time! Whilst everyone present was engaged in conversation it was with their immediate neighbours. This applied to me as well and did not change for the entire two hours that we were there! I would have liked to talk to everyone in the group but nobody budged; there was simply no mingling. 

The whole point of these meetups is to meet people and not to get stuck with the same one or two people for the entire duration. In the unfortunate scenario, as often happens, that you end up sitting next to someone that you very quickly discover you have nothing in common with, or find very hard work, you're lumbered! There is no get-out-of-jail-card option other than just leaving which in itself would feel awkward. I don't feel I have the confidence to do that but just staying can become a real test of endurance. It just so happened that it wasn't so bad yesterday although there was an element of having to make an effort to keep some conversation going where really I would rather not have had to. On leaving I knew that my need for human connection on some semi-meaningful level at least had not been met and I realised I felt a real desperation in making some such connection. I quickly scrolled through events on the Meetup app and came across a social night meetup which boiled down to having a drink and dinner at Wetherspoons. The number eight bus would get me there.

The knock on effects of the earlier demonstration meant buses were not running normally and, again, I arrived to find that everyone was already half way through their meals; in fact I noticed the lady at the end of the table was just forking the last chip from her plate! It was a bigger group than the one at the earlier meetup; I counted twenty-two, several times, as I stood at the foot of the row of tables like a prized yucca plant. There wasn't a single spare chair. Everyone seemed busy with their food and the conversations they each seemed to be engaged in with their immediate neighbours or the person opposite them to notice me, not even the host. I announced that I was leaving, wishing everyone a pleasant evening, although my social anxiety may have prevented my voice of reaching the required number of decibels required for human auditory detection. 

As I started to make my way towards the exit a woman exclaimed I should bring a chair and sit at the corner of the table. Just as I was contemplating this possibility someone else arrived; this was confirmed as I counted everyone again and arrived at a figure of twenty-three. Their arrival resulted in a revised table arrangement where the end table was split off from the rest, a bit like the small part of a rocket that detaches itself and falls away from the rest of it after launch, leaving the main rocket to fly on. I ended up sitting at the small separate table with another chap and the new woman! After a few moments she got up and somehow found a way to join the main rocket, leaving me with the chap at the fuel booster that had fallen away. The conversation required more effort as it was now one-to-one action. I'd ordered fish and chips, the seed of choice having been planted by the woman and her forking of her last chip earlier. When a meetup involves having a meal the movement restrictions are greater than when just having a coffee; one really is lumbered. Having said that, everyone remained fixed in position long after they'd finished eating. Mingling is simply not a feature of some of these meetups.   

After some time a few people got up to leave and I glided through space towards the top end of the main rocket. I perched near a cluster of three, relieved that I'd been able to move. Physically moving in space induces a shift in thought and emotional state. I've noticed if I am particularly burdened by a continual stream of negative thought I can sometimes reduce its impact or shift it entirely simply by getting up and walking about for a few moments. Sometimes even just turning my head to look the other way can be enough to achieve this kind of result. The cluster of three was quite friendly and easy to talk to but, alas, they had to leave too. There was a couple to my left but the woman got up to leave and I started to chat to the man that remained. It became apparent very quickly that there was no rapport whatsoever here. I found this individual very difficult and he had quite an aggressive way about him.

Later on I reflected on why I stay in the company of people whose behaviour makes me feel uncomfortable or with whom I really don't want to engage, but make real efforts to do so anyway. I had sat with this person for at least half an hour but there wasn't a single moment where I hadn't wanted to part company. Ordinarily one might ask why I just didn't get up and leave. The reality is I was trapped in a prison in my own mind which made it impossible. I remember that I kept thinking that I really didn't want to sit with this individual for a single moment longer and that I kept trying to think of how to make an exit. The problem was that my attempts to formulate a plan to facilitate this were sabotaged by intrusive thoughts of dropping something if I were to get up and leave, and then not being able to check if I had dropped something. I was also concerned about leaving something behind on the table and was additionally preoccupied by the bottle of ketchup whose position I found I was continually fine-tuning.

Regular readers of this blog (which we have already established don't exist because of Google's refusal to index it) will be aware that I suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and, in times of anxiety, and indeed in times of relative calm, it kicks in, hijacking my thoughts and dictating my behaviours. I needed to get away from someone, within whose presence I felt very uneasy, and the extreme anxiety that was building up launched an ongoing internal full scale attack of obsessive-compulsive disorder from which there was no escape. The thoughts of dropping something if I were to get up to try and leave and the bottle of ketchup dragged me along a path away from the one that would allow me to break away from the psychological turmoil I was experiencing. The guy said he had to go, got up, put his coat on and, as he walked through the doorway I could feel the veins in my whole body surge with a coolness of rushing mountain spring water. If Van Gogh had created a painting to represent the look on my face at that point in time it would probably have ended up being little more than a blank canvas; everything had lifted away and the prison gates were wide open exposing a blank emptiness inside.

Authenticity has become a key value for me this year. My authentic self would have said to my fellow comrade that it didn't find the conversation engaging, would have acknowledged the lack of rapport, would have expressed the discomfort and, having opened up to the vulnerability of relaying such complete and unequivocal honesty, would have felt no guilt in severing the connection. At the same time, I can't help but wonder that sometimes we may not want to express such authenticity. We do not owe anything in particular other than a level of courteousness to a transient stranger through a fleeting encounter; authenticity is the goal to formulate and maintain positive relationships with people that you want to include in your life. The ketchup man situation really just needed me to feel confident enough to be assertive in saying goodbye. My OCD, and all the other anxieties I experienced, are indicators of just how much my confidence is lacking.

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