Friendship, Autism and Me
Recently I have been thinking a lot about the nature of friendship.
I have been wondering whether I was unpopular as a child because I was an undiagnosed autistic and they could tell that there was something slightly odd about me.
Alternatively, the fact that I was unpopular could have been due to something else entirely.
I managed to answer my own question in the end. I few years ago, I tried a technique called ‘creative journaling’. The idea was that you write about various significant or traumatic experiences in your life in a stream of consciousness style. Anyway, I wrote about my first day at school and when I re-read this writing, the answer to my question was staring me in the face.
The first line read:
“I was walking around minding my own business when a girl I didn’t know walked up to me, punched me really hard on the arm and ran away”
Indicating of course that,
- I’ve always behaved slightly strangely
- People don’t like it
I realized that I was autistic at the age of 48. Up until this point I had assumed that my difficulties with making and keeping friends were because my negative experiences with humanity had permanently changed the way I thought about and related to people.
It has been suggested to me that my distrust of people leads me to react to them in a visibly negative way, which gives them the impression that I don’t like them. This quite often results in them not liking me.
I know that being with people often makes me feel very uncomfortable indeed. It’s very rare that I find someone whose company I can (almost) relax in. There are people I’ve known for years and I still feel self-conscious, particularly when I’m alone with them. It’s almost like a feeling of permanent mild panic, I can feel it affecting my breathing. It takes an immense amount of self-control to be able to hide it.
My childhood experiences have damaged me beyond repair. Many years ago, I imagined that I would become ‘normal’ one day and I would be able to experience human interactions in the same way as everybody else, but now I know that this will ever happen.
I’m always feeling that people are doing me a massive favor by even associating with me. I really don’t know what they think of me, although I think it’s fair to say that if you make all the effort in the relationship and they make none, that they’re not really bothered about you. There are a handful of exceptions to this and when I find such people, I value them very much indeed.
Such is the ingrained self-hatred that even if someone actually told me that they liked my company, I probably wouldn’t believe them and would instead suspect that they may be lying for some obscure and possibly sinister reasons of their own.
The problem is that I crave friendship and conversation. I take a lot of entertaining and I get bored easily. Although I can spend long periods of time on my own and be perfectly happy, that is not the same as being utterly and entirely alone.
Many years ago, I lived alone in a tiny rundown flat on a dodgy estate. I had no job, no money and no friends and of course no internet. Life was particularly unpleasant and at times, I thought that I would go mad from loneliness and boredom. It wasn’t so bad in the day, but as darkness started to fall, I would feel a sense of deep unease, almost like a rising panic. I used to force myself out of the house to wander the streets, to walk aimlessly through the park or visit some shop faraway.
I had many acquaintances, but never really worked out how to turn them into friends. Sometimes I used to dream about visiting them and sometimes I actually would visit them and spend the time feeling awkward and guilty for troubling them. They didn’t seem to mind my visits, but I told myself that they were probably just being polite.
Various people moved away and invited me to come and stay with them, but I assumed that they didn’t really mean it, so I didn’t go. I realize now that I may have been mistaken and that I should have taken them up on the offer, but at the time, I didn’t understand. My social skills have definitely improved since then.
In my mind, I was doing someone a favour by staying away from them. After all, if you really care about someone, the kindest thing that you could do was to not inflict yourself upon them. It’s like a version of ‘if you love someone, set them free’
It’s different now. I have a long-term partner. I have someone to say ‘hello’ to me when I come home, someone to ask me about my day, someone to go out visiting with. I feel calm most of the time.
I’ve been trying to socialize on my own more recently. I forced myself out to go to an acquaintance’s birthday event yesterday. I thought that it would be good for me, I might even meet some pleasant people there and have fun. As it happened, the atmosphere seemed slightly odd and the few people that I did know seemed inexplicably cold towards me. I felt out of place, but I went through the motions.
We were all supposed to be going to the pub for a couple of hours afterwards, but I couldn’t face being stuck with a large group of people I didn’t know, who didn’t particularly want to talk to me, while I spent huge amounts of energy pretending to enjoy myself so I didn’t hurt their feelings.
I tried to say ‘good bye’ to the birthday boy, but he turned away and started talking to someone else and before I knew it, my legs had propelled me out of the door and I was half way down the road into the darkness and rain, with the beginnings of tears stinging my eyes.
I was instantly transported back in time. My overwhelming memories of being single were of roaming the streets in the darkness, feeling unsafe, feeling lost. Memories of forcing myself to do things because I thought it would be good for me or that it might lead somewhere and being bitterly disappointed.
I realize that I am standing on the edge of the abyss. Having a partner protects me from many of my social issues, but I’m not naïve ever to believe that this situation is permanent. If we were to split up, I would instantly be catapulted back to where I came from. ‘Our friends’ would become his friends and I would be alone once more.
For me, having a partner/family creates a sense of calm and stability in my life. When my basic need for human company is taken care of, I can expend my energy improving my life in other ways. When I am truly alone, I feel nothing but a constant nagging uneasiness, a sense that something deeply fundamental is missing and I need to find it.
Any decision to leave a relationship would therefore have to take into account that there would be other serious consequences. I do wonder how many autistic people end up staying in toxic relationships because the alternative seems worse.