Of all the themes that has been on my mind this last year it is my sense of frustration over the lifelong quest for the “warmth and reciprocation” of in-person female friendship that mostly hangs in the air, unfulfilled. This is a quest where I don’t seem to have got very far on this planet of people from whom I feel distinctly separate in my, now diagnosed, neurodiversity (for all I now understand it better). Because, what I mean here is genuine intimacy, not all that on-the-surface showiness of familiarity that I see all around me. Rather, something much more like a glowing hearth fire I can draw close to in the form of another person and that person, likewise, to mine so that we can bathe in the warmth of trust and intimacy, without all the need for pretence. Its part and parcel of the longing to be seen as I am, to be accepted and loved without need for alteration. It’s the burning desire not to have to put on a front or use filters to make myself accessible and relatable to other people.
This may strike you as ironic given that those with Asperger’s, like me, are thought of as so cold, distant and not particularly good at relationships…but my experience is that women Aspie’s are full of love and deep feelings, we just don’t show it in the same way as neurotypicals (NTs).
More than anything, I suspect we don’t want to become part of all the fakeness that we see in so much NT behaviour, being far more straightforward than that (and we just cant do all that role-playing, stance taking stuff) and so we hold back….often withdrawing from the whole game rather than take part in what isn’t our way. We would rather wait this one out on the sidelines than play by rules that strike us as nonsensical and which would have us pretend to be what we are not, which goes against the grain of our logical mindset. So we become the classic loners, the ones deemed to be happy all alone, content to be watching the rest of the female population wrap arms around each other, operating (even in their mature years) in warm and gushing packs of females who like to be part of a crowd. As is typical of anything you are not part of, when you are not part of this it can seem like the whole world…every social media page and coffee shop…is bursting full of such women. We don’t even ask for such a crowd; tending to prefer a couple of really good friends that we can be intimate with, one at a time, but other women seek safety in numbers…which makes us shudder and back off even more. Is it any wonder we are deemed to be loners.
The irony is NTs, can seem so inclusively warm from the moment you meet them but that is really just some sort of mating dance to show off their feathers, a kind of preview…with conditions attached. You get the taster (certain voice tone with lots of up and down enthusiasm to what you say, hello and goodbye hugs though you are virtual strangers, the encouraging semblance of interest as stories get swopped, a cursory eye over what you are wearing and the way you do your hair, perhaps even a compliment though a criticism is just as likely to sound that way since there are hidden meanings in the tone of words). You get through this in one piece, you think, but then you still have to walk through some sort of baptism of fire, a testing zone, to get to that inner friendship core that you’ve been shown from the picture in the catalogue…
This testing zone is the second tier of the performance, the one where your provisional acceptance into the inner sanctum has to be put under duress, your credentials thoroughly checked out. So assuming you have got through the first stage (“what do you do/earn and where/how do you live” and a zillion hidden questions within), which you may not have done, even more chatting, comparing and swopping takes place; with a layer of filters now used to compartmentalise you. Mostly, a series of unspoken cues via body language and the need to obediently adhere to certain invisible hierarchies, like in the case of alpha and beta dogs, takes place. You will be put to the test, trip wires will be laid, opportunities for you to put a foot wrong which will determine whether you are a conformer to these unspoken rules and (you can set your timer to the moment of ejection) if you don’t pass muster, you’re “out”.
As a more experienced Aspie (though this stage may have eluded you as as child) you will feel that very moment when the eyes and even the air around you becomes subtly colder and the person turns their attention to something or someone else. It means you have failed some sort of test conducted entirely in unspoken signals, body language, pupil size and how long you can hold a gaze but, more importantly, whether you transmit some sort of quite particular electrical signal that says “I won’t rock your world or bend your paradigm further than you are comfortable with; I will live within your castle walls”. That test includes the game of passing the conversation ball back and forth (you probably dropped it or held it too long) or conveying, via some unspoken portfolio, that you have enough things in common to suggest you could meet this person’s other friends or family and it not be cringeworthy for them within a structure that says all their friends have to fit like a perfect piece of jigsaw that creates a most particular picture they have in mind. Only, you are the anomaly piece so you are thrown back in the box.
Aspie women are, I suspect, quite familiar with failing this test , even if they know not what they keep doing that strikes them off the potential list without opportunity for a tribunal or a review. So the second or third meeting never happens, you watch other new friendships take off in your presence, almost in an exaggerated way (as if to show you “this is what you didn’t get”), interest around you is markedly cooled down, people are busy, they cancel and suddenly you are back where you started; watching others form gushing friendships that you are never part of.
The thing is (here’s the biggest irony) you don’t actually want to be part of all that gush, the pretence, the fake interest in each other, the very premise that sets up scenarios intended to make others fail in order to expose and make meat of them (and maybe that’s the very signal that you sent out which ensured that you failed the test…) You were a dissenter. Perhaps you forgot to arrange your facial expression into something more neutral when behaviours you saw left you incredulous. You were too honest. You conveyed your reluctance all too clearly and you were sniffed out as a spy in the camp (laughing as that auto-corrected to “Aspie”). Plus, you were a threat to the stability of the group; someone who rocks the boat, thinks in a different way, makes up their own rules, doesn’t conform to norms.
You only ever wanted one thing, the real thing…where is it? Not amongst these people, who look so warm and cosy yet the conditions they have to dance through to keep “in” the fold are painful to behold. Would you trust your innermosts with such people? They do, apparently based on their topics of conversation but then you wonder why, since this degree of intimacy only ever comes back to haunt them when things turn unpleasant; as you probably got to experience at least once or twice in your life, when your intimate shares were turned against you after the friendship with an NT ended. In fact, there is a culture of gathering-in information expressly to make one person powerful over another, holding as they now do the other person’s secrets, like the currency of power; its all too obviously flawed and convoluted for an Aspie to want to take part in. Yes, there are some genuine souls in those groups but they are sold out to that whole dance of behaviours, too fearful of being perceived as different to become too close to you and too reluctant to be bothered with you anyway, because you are “hard work”, requiring them to learn different ways of interacting and to think outside their comfortable box. Maybe you are the friend they turn to in desperation, when they are abandoned or after a crisis of some kind…and there you are, the reliable rock of support in their hour of need…but in fair weather, they often disappear again. If this has been your trend, you may not choose to offer yourself up like that any more…
So any wonder we seem cold; for we have learned many hard lessons about how it goes when we show ourselves too much too soon…as we have a tendency to do, being so straightforward that this is how we are; truthful when asked questions. This trait seems to fit in at the first stage of the NT assessment, when fake enthusiasm and interest abounds but, by the second stage, we are often deemed weird for being too frank, too honest, about interests and viewpoints that set alarm bells ringing and so we are dropped.
What you see is what you get here, we have no time or inclination for any social dances. If we are there at all, in a social setting, then we are prepared to be with this person…with full emphasis on the word “BE”….and so we expect the same back; to be received as we are, not to have to pass muster in some-sort of comedy of manners. We are there to be together, as equals with interest in each other, on a level playing field of interaction but without the games. We bring our heart and you bring yours…it really is that simple, one could almost say logical.
Because we like to get straight to the point then, yes, maybe heart on sleeve is the apt phrase, because we are either inside of ourselves all alone or with someone else wanting to get to know them, and for them to know us….so we show ourselves; we really do (or we did until we lost he nerve after so many hurts). That’s the point, right? There is no other point to friendship in our view. For us, it’s not about survival (we already know we can cope well on our own), we don’t seek safety in numbers, we are looking for a match, an interaction, a kindling of feelings. All this layering of behaviours, the secret codes of nuance, the fake friendliness over guarded sub-layers built like some sort of endurance test coated with sugar; it fazes us and distracts from the whole purpose…of two souls meeting to compare notes about life, to share special topics, to be genuinely interested in each other and to care deeply. For the sum of two to be more than their parts. Isn’t that the whole point of human relationships? I sometimes wonder…
Maybe this is why I’ve had better track record making friends on the internet; where you are expected to get straight to this heart-point, without all the frills. Yes, I’ve encountered some bitchiness, cliquiness and stance taking in internet forums but Im not talking about them; I mean real connections made one person to another through common interest. These have thrown up some of the warmest and most genuine friendships of my life, without which I might give up on expecting it any more. Three of my closest friends are in America and they check in with me often, they ask how I’m doing, they really care and they are spontaneous in their expressions of love (yes, I said love) and all of the above from me to them. We do big stuff for each other, not as transaction but out of wanting to. We can be who we are with each other and we are so important to each other; and yet we have never met!
Perhaps this is because, having not met me in person, my lack of appropriate “secret” body language can’t be judged…there is no test to be taken…so they evaluate me according to who I really am, via those things that I express, which are so much more fluent when I have written words at my disposal (another Aspie trait). Through words direct from the heart,, they regard me as anything but cold or threatening to know; quite the opposite. Its similar to those friendships I have made via my blogging. What l have come to know is that when I am seen directly via the heart, without all the trappings, it is sooo possible for people to “get” me and value me for just how true and unconvaluted my nature is; I am what I am and that’s what they love about me. Yet I stand all alone at a gathering, the one no one picked, which goes to show how much crap is over-layered “in the flesh” of human social situations!
So what I seek from a friendship is truly reciprocal and that is what I have always lacked in my in-person friendships. When I look back to my most recent crash and burn attempts, the couple that looked so promising and the long standing friend (met when our girls were just born) there is a distinct theme in common. They HARVESTED me. I was like a fascinating book the couple couldn’t put down, their questions about things they longed to hear my spin about were relentless but they never met “me” as I am, never wanted to get involved in how I felt inside, my struggles, the elephant in the room of my health challenges, those things that make me often painfully human. There was no asking how I was today, no concern if I had problems, no checking in or asking for updates afterwards; and oh how I long for these behaviours from what I imagine to be my ideal friends. In fact, it was the point when my health issues came up unavoidably, meaning I had to be firm about the way we arranged our activities together, that the whole thing went cold because it simply wasn’t convenient that I was a person with this thing going on. I suspect, I wasn’t believed and was even belittled somewhat for challenges they couldn’t see with their eyes, didn’t even want to try to comprehend with their minds (not one question asked about that part of my life…). There were too many conversations about me behind closed doors (I hate that and it loses my intimacy immediately; I could feel every disgruntled word said as a frequency, though the words weren’t audible, telling me all I needed to know…don’t people know that?). So there it was, exposed to the light; I had been milked as usual but had not been embraced or even half-way met as a flesh-and-blood person. The same with my long standing friend; when I reminisce about our highlights, these were times when I had information to share that was useful to her as a parent (she liked mostly to compare how our daughters were doing…such a limited topic to spend 20 years on, in my view, but it made her feel better in some way) or as someone with health challenges. So I would share and share and she would take note but there was no real interest in me, in how I felt, how I was really doing, what I had been through lately, no warmth or gestures of care or concern to reciprocate ways I constantly tried to draw her out…and, I guess, no surprise, the friendship abruptly ended when its reason for being (our girls) left home. Those same things that still eluded me in almost all my friendships were abjectly missing.
Tragically, my whole lifetime of friendships looks a bit like that; a one way street of entertainment with my quirkiness and humour when I was younger or of emotional support and information from the vast pool of my special interests around wellbeing and spiritual topics as I matured. It was like I did all the work and they came around for a cheer up and a crash course, sometimes (literally) clutching pen and paper in hand for their note-taking…something that has happened to me such a lot, like I was delivering a fascinating lecture or a counselling session to those people I considered to be my closest friends. They couldn’t even be bothered to read my blogs, they told me (though the topics often overlapped); they wanted it spoon fed. Sometimes, I felt like I should have charged for tickets or sent them a bill for my time after several exhausting hours of counselling, leaving them feeling much better and me depleted. I became the plot summary on the back cover, the living lifehack, the research bod, even the guinea pig and then they would take away the best of the best of what I had come up with lately and I would stand there in a cloud of dust on my doorstep as they breezed off with their arms full of booty. I would try to pass off the warm glow that “helping people” gave to me as the golden reciprocation of friendship…until I realised that they gave nothing back except exhaustion and disappointment; the feeling of being fleeced or burgled. I’ve done with being a resource; I’m holding out for the real thing now. Maybe this is another Aspie pitfall, at times when our “special interests” hold currency to certain people who call themselves friends; and maybe its one to look out for if the flow is all one way and if that energy-drain is all that is holding a friendship together.
So, how do I imagine true friendship to be? It has been such a long time in the longing stage that I almost lack the stamina to say. Yet I know it exists because I have seen and heard it depicted, read about it in stories and autobiographies (it can make me cry rivers…) and I now have it with my “big” sister. Yes, it may have been a long time coming but over the last three years since she retired, my sister and I have become so close (though she lives 160 miles away) that it makes my heart sing. We can talk about almost anything, from the mundane to the meaningful and we check in with each other…really check in about how we are doing, following up, thinking about each other in our absence, genuinely showing interest in each other’s projects. We can do this stuff stream-of-consciousness fashion over the internet, which has been such a boon to this blossoming friendship, but also in person; where we are so warm with one another, so open and full of trust and mutual support, capable of being so fun and yet deep at the same time. This is what I want; have always wanted. This late summer bloom from within my own tribe has finally modelled what I am looking for from a friendship with someone who lives close enough for me to see them in the flesh, to sit knees next to knees by the light of the hearth for long chats or comfortable silences; to go on spontaneous outings; to laugh and be playful with yet also serious and deep without all the need for caution and preamble. This, this, this…..is what I want.
But then, of course, I think there is a reason this new phase of friendship has come to pass with my sister other than our pre-existing link as (to start with) not so close family members; and its that we are wired pretty-much the same way. Its not for me to say whether she has Asperger’s but she is self-admittedly “on the spectrum” in some of her ways (oh yes!) and she also has no time for faking it, for social mind games, the jumping through hoops and passing of tests. We are who we say we are and we get straight to the point. We can see, without so much crap layered on top, that each of us has this HUGE tender heart and we treat that with such care, such nurture and consideration, as though it was our own heart, so it is this reciprocity that, I realise, is everything to the kind of union I have sought all my life. There are no hierarchies, pecking orders, rules, transactions…we are so very equal that we defy such a definition in words; almost as though we are the same person. By comparison, NT friendships seem to be more about bumping shoulders together until one party gives way. What we do (ironically, since we are labelled so anti-social) is like a merger, a truth pot, returning to source, Namaste (“I see you…”) in action. It is where logic (since this straightforward heart-merger, without all the tappings, is the very epitome of logical) becomes cosmic…back to where we are all one and the same and yet we have our humanness to discuss together with ever-flowing, ceaselessly growing fascination. We are source split in two forms comparing “what have you got…here’s mine” out of our special interest pots whilst knowing, always, that we are sentient beings who long to be seen in all our complexities, our hurts, our joys; yes, seen as a whole picture, every part included and welcome to show up. We connect through frequency, which is a shared wavelength (we have many telepathic moments, as I do with my close internet friends)…and it travels any distance, flows through obstacles, speaks only truth.
This gives me hope for other Aspie female friendships but how do I make them? I suspect many Aspie women, who are already having to come to terms with their diagnosis late in life (as is so often the case), reach this point feeling as bruised and jaded about friendships as I am. They have lost faith that it can be any different to how it has always been. Perhaps they worry that such closeness necessitates very-much touching and complimenting, gushing and endearments that are not in our vocabulary (nope!), that it would be too demanding of their inner time and need to be alone (no way, we really get this!) or that they have nothing interesting to say that is of value to others (by that same token, I must be a stuck record of tediously weird and self-focused topics). What I suspect, actually, is that we would start to evolve and then model the fundamentals of friendship in some new and highly refreshing ways; that our propensity to get straight to the point would allow us to become closer friends quicker than most; and that we wouldn’t play mind games or manipulate, make up stories or put on fronts and masks, since its not in our remit to proffer falsehoods (what’s the point of that?) nor would we take people for a ride only to dump them on a whim or because of a change in the wind. We would, of course, remember things about each other, being sticklers for details and, knowing how bruised we all feel from “not having been seen” as who we really are for so long, we would absolutely SEE each other as we are, would check in without prompting and would show that we cared, long after the meet-up…in fact, outside of space and time, unconditional of setting or convenience and even if we met only seldom. This is what I imagine…not just for Aspie’s but for everyone that wants it.