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Socialising

Following on from my last post’s sluggish determination, I write to you now from the other side. My energy levels are better. I can eat normal food again. My mood is better. But when I look back I can see how annoyed I was with my body – I felt it had let me down.

At yoga, we have been focusing on “ahimsa” these last few weeks. The principle of doing no harm – not only to others, but also to ourselves. It got me thinking about a trait which I believe is common to those with Asperger’s, and many others as well. We get cross with our limitations. We are saddened by our own selves. If we’re not careful, we can learn to hate ourselves.

I went to a wedding last weekend, and met lots of people I knew as well as a few new faces. For an Aspie, this is hard work. For a pregnant Aspie who has to stay sober, it proved to be rather painful. For about 12 hours I was trying to enjoy myself, make small talk, follow conversations, dance, and generally look like someone who fitted in at the party. All the while, a little nagging voice was making me doubt my every move and word. I wasn’t happy with my hair, my dress, or my shoes. I felt dowdy and frumpy with my bump and low heels, next to countless glamorous and willowy, confident women. I got stuck when I tried to talk to people. I had to take a few breaks, where I sat alone in the bar hoping no one would notice me and think “what’s that weirdo doing?”.

What an utter waste of a party.

My other half had good fun but I think he was a bit worried about me too.

So, I have not been very kind to myself these last few weeks. I have been sad because of my changing shape, and yes, I know carrying a baby is a wondrous and miraculous thing but I really do miss my waist.

Even so, I don’t want to turn into the person I used to be. The one who was too scared to talk to anyone. The one who cried herself to sleep most nights wondering why she was such a failure as a human being.

I must refocus on ahimsa. Happiness does not exclusively come from being a size 8 party animal, despite what popular culture tells us.

Do you fall into the negativity trap?

When you have Asperger’s, one of the biggest challenges you face is creating, and maintaining, close relationships. Sometimes, even ‘neuro-typicals’ struggle with this, so it’s no surprise that socially impaired Aspies feel like they’re scaling a sheer cliff-face making friends!

Even now, well into my 30s, I find so many of my interactions are marred by uncertainty and constant questioning. My brain isn’t sure if it’s doing the right thing. My brain doesn’t know if it read the situation right. My brain doesn’t know if this person actually likes me or if they’re just being polite. My brain doesn’t know what’s normal. My brain doesn’t know if I’m saying too much, or too little.

This chasm of understanding has always been there. But it’s only as I matured that I have come to realise it’s there. Before I knew about this chasm, I was just making errors and not knowing why. I was responding to people who I didn’t understand in a way that I didn’t understand. So we had two unknown variables. What are they thinking and what am I thinking?

Now that I know more about myself, I have this awareness of the chasm. The constant understanding that I may be reading a situation wrongly and I may be responding in a way that people don’t get. I prefer this ‘knowing about not knowing’ to what I had before. That was just overwhelmingly confusing and upsetting. I feel sorry for any child struggling in the playground now. And I feel sorry for myself when I see young girls or women who look like they’re enjoying close friendships and making it look easy.

Now I am older I have some close friends and I have managed to sustain these relationships for over a decade. This is undoubtedly my personal best and will likely never be beaten. I still struggle with ‘new’ people and I am very aware of how much I suck at showing my daughter how to make friends.

Does it ever become easy for someone like me?

The friends I have now are people I met at work a long time ago. It was hard work getting to know them and trust them. And I think there was a lot of luck involved too! How often does someone with Asperger’s find someone they have a lot in common with? I think it’s even more rare for someone with Asperger’s to find people who are comfortable with their level of social skills and not put off by the awkwardness, or shyness, or just plain weirdness.

I was also very lucky when I met my husband through an internet dating site. He says I’ve put up with a lot to be with him, but he has put up with a lot to be with me, too!

So, I had to be lucky as well as working hard.

I’ve always worked hard to make friends but it hasn’t always paid off. I can remember as far back as infant school, when I was about 4 or 5, working my butt off trying to please people and keep my friendships going. What actually happened was a series of minor successes quickly superseded by bigger failures which spanned the next 20 years. And with the failures came loneliness, self-doubt, anxiety, and self-loathing, adversely affecting my mental health for those two decades.

So, when I say that close relationships are a big deal, that’s no hyperbole.

Now that I am in a position of relative strength, I see it as my duty to pass on encouragement and advice to anyone out there who is struggling the way I did. I am also watching my daughter’s progress, looking for ways to help her navigate her own social life.

When I remember my optimistic bloom from last week, I am confident. When I remember how large my own chasm of understanding seemed to be, I am full of fear.

Have you struggled to develop or maintain close relationships? I’d love to hear your stories or top tips!

Hello. Since my last post (which made me feel very brave and modern) I’ve gone through a few changes.

  • I’ve bought some new clothes in an attempt to look less like I’m always wearing my ‘mum uniform’.
  • I’ve taken on a new freelance editing job.
  • I’ve been practicing using my social skills.

This last point is probably the most significant change for me. Today I went to the hairdresser. I would normally take a book or a newspaper and I was running around trying to decide what to bring when I suddenly thought, ‘why not treat this as a chance to practice making small talk?’

I’d already had a good conversation with my masseuse when I went for my sports massage this morning. It’s surprisingly easy to make small talk when your spine is being cracked and you’re trying not to swear. When I got to the hairdressers, in the back of my mind was the memory of my last job interview and the feedback I’d got about not speaking enough. Yes, talking to strangers and people I don’t know well is tough, but I can do it. I proved this again a few weeks ago on a training course.

Sitting in a room full of parents, next to my husband, ready to learn all about first aid for babies and toddlers, and the first activity is:

Introduce yourself to someone you’ve never met and talk to them about why you’re here.

My palms instantly got a lot sweatier. My mouth felt dry. My heart was booming. I turned to my right and said “Hi, my name’s…” It wasn’t the best conversation I’ve ever had, but it certainly wasn’t the worst either. If only I could do that in yoga class! Ah well, baby steps right?

So, is it the sunshine and blooming flowers that give me this extra boost? I definitely feel that spring is in the air and that always makes me feel a little better about life. I have been imagining all sorts of new beginnings, and I feel optimistic.

Is everyone else enjoying the spring bloom? I hope so.

What’s changing for you?

Anyone who read my last post won’t be surprised to hear that I’ve been feeling lonely. I thought I was going to get a new job soon but their recruitment process is on hold and I feel really deflated. It’s not easy to find a job that suits my hours, skills, and being an aspie! Finally I thought I’d found one but, well, maybe it’ll come back to me in a month or two.

In the meantime I’ve been seeing a lot of friends. I don’t mean my friends, I just mean that whenever I go out there seem to be lots of pairs or threesomes of women talking and laughing together. I especially see a lot of ‘mum friends’. I don’t get to see my friends very often and I never had any close mum friends. It makes me sad. Sometimes I can see the babies and toddlers that are with the mum friends look bored and I wish the mums would talk more to them. Mostly I just wish I was better at making connections. Maybe then I’d be out on a weekday with a mum friend from my antenatal group, instead of always walking on my own.

It occurred to me today, as I was out on my own again, that it’s not surprising for someone with Asperger’s to feel lonely. We are a minority, and our lack of social prowess makes it hard for us to find and connect with each other. I know you’re all out there, and sometimes you like or comment on my posts and that’s nice.

I think I must try harder to make the best of things. I am still a very lucky person. I don’t live in a war zone. I don’t have Mast Cell Activation Syndrome. I’m not homeless. I do have people in my life who love me and who understand who I am. It is time to stop feeling like a child outside a sweetshop.

Who’s with me?

One of my overriding memories of school, is being surrounded by a kind of white noise. This is the noise of other people’s conversations. Difficult to distinguish or make sense of, it’s easier to tune it out. I thought I’d left this behind until…

Tumble Tots.

When my daughter was younger, a lot of the mums in the waiting room wouldn’t have conversations with each other. It was the norm to sit quietly, speaking only to your own toddler, waiting for the moment you all had to get up and go in to class. Now, my daughter is in a group for bigger kids, and the mums get to wait in the waiting room while the children jump, balance, spin, sing, dance, run, throw things, roly poly, swing, and perform triple pike turns or whatever.

So, every week, I am sitting on a plastic chair, uncomfortably close to other mothers for an hour and I am almost always the only one not talking. I take a kindle. I try to ignore the buzz. Occasionally I look around and feel sorry for myself, or wonder if I’m doing something wrong.

No. I am still not part of the buzz. But I can’t help it. To do things differently would be like trying to move a boulder with a feather.

If I can accept my limitations, and live happily that way, I can show my daughter a good example. I don’t want her to think she has to torture herself to fit in, so why should I put myself under that pressure?

At the last class, I wandered into the hallway to check on my daughter’s progress. It was really just to be somewhere a bit quieter. By chance, another mum came out and spoke to me really nicely. She asked how my daughter was getting on and I asked after hers. Our children have been in the same class for ages.

It felt good to have that small interaction. That is enough for me. Just enough to prove I am a worthy human being, with just a slightly different brain.

I can’t remember what made me think of it, but something reminded me yesterday of my university experience. Technically, I should say “experiences” because there were two; two universities and two very different experiences. My best analogy for that part of my life is that uni no.1 was like being in a chrysalis and uni no. 2 was the fun part where I got to be a sort of butterfly.

Of course, it wasn’t quite that simple.

My three years as an undergraduate had taught me that I needed to change. I couldn’t spend every day of my life hiding from the world. I felt the need to do something drastic, to force a change in me. So, I went abroad to teach for a few weeks. When I returned, I knew I could do better than I had as an undergraduate. Buoyed up, I went to uni no. 2.

I didn’t really have a strategy. I just knew I’d have to do some very uncomfortable things to make my life better. At uni no. 1 I’d avoided the communal kitchen. I ate cold food in my room most days. I bought any dairy goods I wanted fresh each day so that I wouldn’t bump into anybody by going to the fridge. I feared the kitchen because anyone could come in and then I’d have to try and talk to them, or, more likely, ignore them and wish the earth would swallow me whole. When I got to uni no. 2, with the advantage of a smaller shared flat, I decided I’d have to stake out the kitchen.

Staying in the kitchen that day was one of the most painful and difficult things I’ve ever had to do. I was there for most of the afternoon, and many hours in the evening, attempting to get to know my new flatmates. I was at civil war with my brain, wanting to leave, forcing myself to stay. If I had not stayed that first day, I would have lost my nerve. I would have made a bad first impression, and that would have made every other day so much harder. Sometimes you really do have to force a change.

Thanks to that risk I made friends that year, found love, and laid the foundations for a life that was so much better than I’d ever imagined possible. It did not make my life perfect, or easy, but it was the best thing I could have done for myself.

Since that time I’ve taken many social risks. I’ve done internet dating, ran a social media café (way too much socialising and stress!), been to house parties and work events, arranged dinner parties, attended job interviews, stayed with my husband’s uni friends and their children (millions of people in one house – aagh!), made all sorts of phone calls that I was scared about, attended and hosted playdates and children’s birthday parties (double aagh!)…

Have you ever needed to force a change? How did you get on?

I have recently acted as a sympathetic listener for a friend who has been stressed out by events in her family life. This is not a new activity for me. Over the last three decades or so I’ve often been the one that friends turned to for somebody to listen openly, and advise. My aim is always to find a solution, for any problem, and I don’t like it when friends make lots of excuses not to resolve their problems or attempt a solution.

And yet… And yet today I find myself the victim of my own stifling stress. I’m tired and grumpy and I want to stay in a dark room and just avoid the event that’s stressing me out. But I can’t.

What I want to do is stifle the stress but actually, the stress has been stifling me. It makes me inactive. I can’t focus on work. Household chores are too boring. I couldn’t possibly study today… all because I’m worried about going away for the weekend with my husband and child, to visit some of my husband’s friends. How dumb is that? I’m ready to throw in the towel over a weekend party.

And it is a party, with some lovely people, and I know my daughter and husband will have a great time…and yet.

I’ve been to these parties before and they always stress me out. I have to talk to lots of people that I only see once or twice a year. There will be lots of background noise and distractions because there will be so many children there. I will be worrying about my daughter’s ability to cope with how busy everything is. And I have to stay the night in someone else’s house. If my husband read this, he wouldn’t get it.

Parties are fun!

The kids will have a great time!

They’re being really kind hosting everybody!

As usual, I am the killjoy. Or rather, my Asperger’s is. Anyway, like the friend I mentioned earlier, I really just wanted to vent, so thanks for that!

On Saturday I shall be taking my own advice and going to the party. It’s a small price to pay for my family and my husband’s kind friends. Until then – I hope I can be a little less stressed, and a little less useless because of it.

Do you find stress stifling?