I was still in my early morning half-slumber today when my husband came back into the bedroom and asked me how I was. “Feels like February” I said to him. “Well, you’re only a couple of days early, is that a good feeling?” he asked, being used to the way I operate. “Yes!” I told him (I was feeling incredibly relaxed as I woke up today) and went on to describe to him what it conjured for me, straight out of my half-asleep stream of consciousness.
In a nutshell, it is the feeling of the first half term school holiday of the year which, for me, is a happy-safe feeling; a sigh of relief for getting there. It’s the feeling of the profound luxury of knowing I could relax and spend time alone at home, with my mum around but we were never in each other’s faces; days spent lost in my own play, plunging deep into reading books, drawing and colouring, wearing cosy clothes, being myself, losing track of time. I have strong associations between the February half-term break and many hours lost to playing with Lego bricks, and with drawing or making things out of old boxes. The rooms of our house would often be mono-chrome drab in their February colours, an edge of cold in the air but I can also recall the dazzling flash of yellow daffodils, so sunny and promising in contrast, like the first brush of paint on a blank canvas, and the strongly associated lilt of “All Thru’ the Night” playing in my head. Why that song especially? Because, typically, we would have been practicing it at school, ready for Saint David’s Day (the day we got to wear daffodils to school), and it always affected me, soothed me and I also associate it with my father singing along in his choir-trained baritone. Its poignant lullaby was one I could play on loop in my head all day long at school after we sang it in assembly (I used musical riffs a lot in this way) to help me to get through the crazy, over-stimulating hours of way too many sensory triggers going off all at once. So, the typical February fixations for me, in a nutshell, were my utter engrossment in creative interests, soft cosy sensations, my longing for quiet routine and safety, a splash of vivid colour…and, as ever, music. Most of my favourite things; no wonder it was a stand-out month in my sensory memory bank and one which I still sense the comforting essence of across all the years.
For a lot of years, when I look back at childhood, I was confused by the apparent dichotomy of such profoundly contented memories and really traumatic and disturbed ones; which was it? It made me feel bi-polar just to try and reconcile one with the other and I began to doubt the validity of my own recollections, especially since neurotypical people I knew seemed to have a much clearer idea of whether their childhood was good or messed-up but mine seemed split into extremes that ran parallel. It was only once I began to shape-sort my happiest recollections, with the help of sensory cues around seasons and music (I even used the “hits parade” to locate those memories into their precise time of year), and then the deeply traumatic ones that gave me shudders for years after, that I began to make sense of that dichotomy into two distinct groups: those times when I was forced to be at school and times when it was the tipping out months into the oh-so wonderful school holidays. And, by the way, this wasn’t because I disliked the content of school; I was always the geek and relished what I learned but, rather, it was the entire socio-sensory-emotional response that was going off inside of me, like a war zone, in response to the extremely bizarre format that schooling took, amongst children who seemed to operate very differently to me and with whom teachers naively assumed I had things in common (I mostly felt I had things in common with adults).
In plain speak, through the eyes of the child that I was, school was a complete enigma to me and, often, a very disturbing one at that. I was made to get up much too abruptly for my senses, which to this day can’t be hurried in the mornings, and dash to this place of such excessive noise and chaos from the moment you were in ear-shot of the playground (it could be heard a quarter of a mile away) to be herded around all day to the jarring sound of clanging bells, into more noisy and chaotic rooms where a teacher would bawl instructions at you over the chaos. They would invariably speak- or (more often) shout-teach things that I struggled to take in via that method, whilst also trying with difficulty to make sense of squiggles on a blackboard at the front of the room, since I much preferred to absorb information at my own steady pace via books and visual cues. The fear of being singled out and required to explain something back to the teacher in front of others (not a skillset I have since I process too deeply to quickly articulate “on demand”) was a long-running one that stayed with me all my academic years, stripping me of the power to relax in a classroom setting. Meanwhile, I would be panicking between the need to take in what they said and the necessity to field the endless stream of “social” behaviours and cues omitting from other kids themselves, even when we were meant to be paying attention, because everything you did, or didn’t, do counted either for or against you in that long-running and most perilous of social games.
Then there was the expectation to work in groups; which is absolutely not my strong point yet it came to dominate the favoured teaching methods for the whole two decades I was at school. For years, I wouldn’t necessarily even like the kids I was put with as there were some particularly difficult types whose behaviour was so alien to me I might as well have been put into a zoo. It was only much later, around the age of ten, when they began to put us onto certain tables according to “ability”, that I began to feel more settled, not because it guaranteed stimulating or relatable conversation with my peers but because, at least, they were less likely to chatter when I was concentrating, punch me quite randomly, grab or destroy my work or display other acts of unprovoked spite or stupidity that left me feeling completely out of my depth. This was, I was told, a place of learning yet very little focussed learning seemed to go on and what passed as fun wasn’t often very funny, or clever, though smart humour was already a huge part of my persona at home with my older siblings and parents.
The days at school just seemed to go on and on, my weariness growing with each passing hour. Playtimes and lunch were the worst as the free-for-all of being outside, where you “had” to play according to the social rules of other kids or risk (at best) isolation or (worse) being targeted, was traumatic; an ordeal by fire every day…except when it rained (and then there was the “boom” factor of so much noise and pent-up energy contained in a classroom). Once I had survived that final recess of the day, I would feel as though I was on a slide down to exhaustion and would be eager for the walk home and the armchair into which (for twelve-odd years) I would collapse as though I had been through an ordeal of monumental proportions (but not before I stuffed myself with comfort food to re-ground myself; the root of some very poor eating habits that grew out of the degree to which I felt out of my depth in social settings). If those term times felt like the origins of some sort of long-running post traumatic stress disorder than I am not far wrong in labelling them thus. They only became somewhat better, around the age of ten, when I learned to play the neurotypical game somewhat better, having made a long study of it; but that’s not to say I enjoyed or felt at home there, only that I had adapted in order to survive.
Yet not all times at school fill me with such abhorrence. I can still, to this day, conjure some very different feelings from a school environment, from small and (yes) rare pockets of circumstance which thankfully increased as I matured through secondary school and into college. In fact there were windows of time when it felt alright; almost, more than alright and I would rather be there than home alone. For instance, at times when the teacher was stricter and we were induced to put our heads down, use books, work independently (though I could still feel the collective vibe in the room, the feeling of us all focussing as one, having the same breakthroughs in understanding, breathing steadily in sync, becoming truly engrossed in the task…all of which I liked) it was a lovely feeling. We would all come out of that calmer and more cohesive, somehow, and I would wonder why the teacher didn’t orchestrate that kind of classroom behaviour more often; for instance, starting and then punctuating the day with quiet time or mindfulness and less hullabaloo.
It was a reason I came to enjoy exams; once I was over the terror of the paper being too difficult, I could settle into a groove that was almost reliant on the feelings of others in the room (I would have hated to take an exam in a room on my own, as some people did for one reason or another) and its not unlike when I move my laptop to a coffee shop these days; the subtle hum of human life acting as a comfort and a support to ideas that seem to flow better and have more relevance. It was the root of that same feeling that became the longing for academia, and a lifelong love of studying in libraries where the studious hush felt warm, cohesive, a sort of camaraderie where I felt less alone than in the crazy, noisily collaborative, socio-dependent reality that neurotypical schooling had largely forced upon me (why did people always assume that discussion was the only way to be together…didn’t they realise we can also benefit from, and pool our best qualities, in quiet time in shared spaces, using other ways of connecting?) Years after those miserable school days, when I couldn’t wait to be alone at home to get out of the fray, I would often seek out a wood-panelled library or a corner of the giant library building on campus, just to immerse in that feeling of collective study over the prospect of spending any more hours alone in my room and would go home feeling more rounded, more connected, for that time in shared spaces without excessive words…yet that reality hardly exists outside of academia.
As I gravitated to geekier, quirkier friends with whom to spend my recess time, those hellish early few years in school receded somewhat and I learned to be alright on the fringes during lessons, especially as looming exams focused everybody’s minds. There were even, albeit rare, times when there was an almost warm-and-squishy feeling conjured up in the collective setting of school (I said almost…) around Christmas time, someones birthday or some other special occasion, perhaps when some particularly poignant speaker came into talk in assembly and held everyone in rapt fascination or when a moment of kindness passed between one person and another because of some personal tragedy. I would feel these moments keenly and try to bottle them up; to fuel myself forwards with them as evidence of the very best aspects of humanity. Sadly, these moments were rare but I would find myself stringing them together in my sensory memory bank, so I could hold them (and myself) together for all the years I still had to go there amidst aliens conducting in alien types of behaviour, day after day. Times when I could immerse in a particular project or focus were my other saving graces and I would summon a degree of enthusiasm about school just to get on with “my thing”, until that project was over and then it was back to the drawing board again.
Mostly, the format of school bewildered me and felt like a prison sentence I was tied to for a lot of years. It built into me a dread of strict formats such as corporate jobs, which felt like a seamless continuation of school behaviours (to the point that school felt like a training ground for corporate workers more than a place for personal growth). The rigidity of its format was an enigma to me…all done to timings and bells and no negotiation around when you had to be inside or out, attempting to run in the wet (I had poor coordination and went to pieces in collective sports games). To skip a day or even a half day you “had to have” a proper illness; couldn’t just announce that you felt funny and needed quiet time…so, I see how this became the root in me of every smallest meltdown needing to present as a formal health complaint with a doctor-diagnosable label, preferably with a convincing name or some demonstrably impressive symptoms, or I wouldn’t be taken seriously.
I really couldn’t understand all the shouting and need for volume, the crash bang wallop of everything that went on, the scraping of chairs and dragging of chalk in a way that made my nerves hurt so much, the galloping and the shoving in corridors as though a herd of elephants had been set in motion by a gunshot. I couldn’t understand the need for sarcasm and almost vindictive levels of (largely empty) threat making resorted to by teachers; because, even though seldom aimed at me, this affected me for the way it would drop the frequency-of a room like a brick, or like a tunelessly sour note that played on and on; the default position from the moment lessons started, killing off all your new-day enthusiasm to learn. It was as though I could see through the teachers’ defensiveness, their subliminal fears and their jadedness with the job that made the resort to such cheap tactics to control their classes (in their view) so necessary and it made me lose respect for them in a way I suspect they picked up on, which didn’t help matters or warm them to me. Because, oh, they wanted to warm to me; I delivered top results and made them look good at their jobs but there was something that always kept us at arms length; a miscompute that made them wary of me and, I suppose, me of them.
Mostly, I couldn’t understand the behaviours of the other children who would say one thing (which I would then try to memorise) only to do the other. There were mind games galore and everyone seemed to be about getting one up on the other; even the best of friends were point scoring in ways I could so clearly see from my pulled-back position. People would trade what they found out about each other with others or use it as weaponry, and they would speak plain untruths without the blink of an eye. They warmed to me for a moment, often when they was something to gain in it, like there was no one else for them to sit with or they needed a genuinely listening ear and some un-agenda-ed kindness, only to change their minds the next day. Mostly, in the first few years, I was left to the mercies of another oddball who was odd in a different way to me; a way that I never got to the root of but which I came to suspect was something to do with her life at home, turning her to incredible levels of spite (and, yes, this suspicion caused to me tolerate her much more, and for longer, than I should have done). She took particular delight in playing with me, leaning into my social weaknesses to puppeteer me into whatever situations she could get me into, often turning my life to hell for days or even weeks. Yet without that there, filling my days, what else would I have been left with; would I have been the complete loner? It was the beginnings of the mentality that saw me in the wrong relationship, also with a bully, for 13 long years “rather than be alone” a couple of decades later.
But back to that February feeling; what was it that so particularly warmed me about that time of year? Perhaps it was the cold itself, meaning the house was cosy and there were few other demands on me since I couldn’t be sent to “play outside” by a parent eager to have the house to herself. Perhaps the promise of spring in the air, feelings I know I was acutely tuned-into, being micro-sensitive to bird song and the subtle change in vibration that triggered the pushing of shoots under soil and the re-energising of trees. Perhaps it was because it usually coincided with my father’s birthday and he would be in an extra jolly mood so we would have quietly intimate time together, sharing his birthday chocolate. Perhaps it was because there was always the chance of snow, as happened at least a couple of times, in which case they might close the school for a few extra days and extend my holiday…
Whatever it was, it was an interesting revisit this morning to single out some of these feelings in the light of Asperger’s which I honestly didn’t know about myself this time last year. Equally interesting, too, as I notice that I’m not inherently adverse to mixing with other people; in fact, part of me longs for and relishes it…yet I am only really comfortable around certain types of people, who must exist out there, only its harder to single them out (especially if they have had the same kind of early-life experiences as I have…making them loathe to try again) so to find them in any number is very difficult indeed. I have done particularly poorly in that respect, so far; In fact. I’ve spent an astonishing small amount of my adult life around people…at all…now I come to think of it.
So, let’s think about it; when have I been around other people and how often have I found anyone at all like me? I found quite a few of them at university…my geeky oddball friends…and that was where I was happiest, having quiet, quirky fun with those.
Then there were a couple of quick jobs and into my first proper job, which lasted five years, during which I was happiest for about half the time, when there were just two of us in that office, both oddballs…but then the business grew, a hoard of others joined and it became bitchy, loud and baffling again.
After that, I felt I had already had enough and set myself up to work from home all alone…for the next ten years. During that time, I had a clutch of friends, made in a pub via my shared social life with my partner but that odd group of nae-do-wells were surface deep friendships that didn’t outlast the first hint of my health issues. In fact, I only got to know them, and them a version of me, though the leveller-effect of alcohol (a very typical Asperger route-in to the “normalisation” process, as I am reading in the book I’ve just started, “Asperger’s Syndrome and Alcohol: Drinking to Cope?” by Matthew Tinsley & Sarah Hendrickx with a foreward by Temple Grandin).
So, re-emerging at the age of 34 into a collective I hardly recognised, I was thrown into corporate land, planted in a massive open plan space and sat head to head with six other people. Straightaway, I noticed very similar behaviours to school; the same back-stabbing, cliquing and unspoken syphoning of people into “in” and “out” groups. My first team were OK, there were two people I quite liked but it was when I was shifted to another team, combined with the exhaustion of all the stress and sensory triggers of that work environment several months into it, that my health collapsed. Besides, after two years, I couldn’t even call these people friends and they were gone with the job; no follow up, no “how are you doing”.
Since then, I have spent fourteen long years on my own…of course, apart from my husband and daughter (and, for five years, on and off, my stepson). Oh, and my dog. For the first three years of that, I attended two to three art classes a week to ease myself into the solitude I, otherwise, craved but at the end of that time, I abruptly ceased that routine and so began over a decade of deep aloneness. When I say that to people, I think they nod sagely as though they have understood the true implication of my words but I don’t think they really have; not unless they have ever spent such a long time with just two other people plus themselves. Its hard to encompass with the mind, I think, how that kind of solitude, for so long, affects you but my friend who was made redundant in early December and who has been home-alone for over a month now is starting to grasp it as all her social confidence, and her self-belief in all her plans to travel etc “now she has the time”, seem to have fallen to pieces through the effect of being in that strange bubble of aloneness for just a few weeks; it can really get to you quickly! I met her for a coffee yesterday and she was in need of a few hours of my best wisdom as to how to turn that around to where she no longer feels as though she is floundering anymore (she just sent me a lovely message to say how much I helped). I’ve urged her to reinstate some activities, albeit chosen ones self-selected for their joy and uplift factor, before she slides any deeper into it; especially as she is not the introvert that I am (which means I energise from time alone whereas extroverts energise from being around other people).
Oh and then there’s her; she was my lodger for a year, over ten years ago (we clicked on first meeting and sharing my house worked very well when she needed it) plus I used to have two or three other friends who I saw maybe once every six months or a year but they have all dispersed for varying reasons. So, pretty much, I have been all-alone for a very long time.
Appreciating that truism right now, seeing how it came about (why it kind-of had to, organically, after the start I had not fitting in at school…which left me with a longing to be alone that was a hole I had to fill to find myself again) and also coming to understand that I don’t have to be alone any more if I don’t want to be; that a part of me might not have always wanted to be so completely alone (but that I have settled for that as some kind of inevitability…) and even admitting that I fear being alone as I get older has been important as I head into the transition of this new decade. In fact it has marked a pretty huge turning point in the journey of me.
It has helped orchestrate a flip in me this year; one where it felt a little bit forced to start with but, now I am well into it, where I am relishing the opportunity to be around a great many more people than I have, on a regular basis, for a very long time…and its OK; its really turning out to be very much more than OK and I’m benefitting hugely in broad and surprising ways (I will write more on this soon).
The key is to question, do I actually want to be alone all, or most, of the time or have I settled for this due to it feeling like there is no alternative? Are there parts of myself I’m not exploring because of the fact I avoid being in a group context (because of what happened before…) and am I ready now to push my own boundaries and go there, undeterred by stories of the past?
Coming to understand why the past played out the way it did, for me, has been huge in terms of the reconciliation of it; none of those school memories feels in the least bit loaded now and there is no anguish, sadness, anger or pain, not even regret as it made me who I am. I felt very different to other people I met at school and, so it turns out, I was different from those I met most directly (probably there were others like me, lying low as I did…) and so there were challenges which, in their way, grew me. It was only fairly recently that I came to understand that I am “wired differently” in ways that made that feeling of separateness somewhat inevitable and, unfortunately (at the time) the schooling system was not geared to pick up on it, nor were there alternatives readily available to my parents, who were also completely oblivious to my quirks (to some extent, because they shared them). Now I am ready for other possibilities to emerge on the assumption that I am not different to absolutely everyone…and that there are things I have in common with neurotypical people too (plus, I find, maturity has a way of softening some of their neurotypical excesses…to varying degrees, depending on how many years they have spent in a corporate work context). Those women I have met long enough to chat to in the last few weeks (and there have been a few) have been surprisingly similar to me in various ways, with not dissimilar aspirations when it comes to friendships, and I don’t suspect any of them to be on the spectrum.
Once you have got somewhere with this self-questioning process (and remember, fear of change can colour the answer) then you can start to feel into what sort of activities you wouldn’t mind sharing with other people…bearing in mind us Aspie’s often prefer to pursue our very favourite activities solo (for instance, art is very much a solo pursuit for me and the thought of joining a writing group gives me shudders). In my case, as I have already written about, I chose walking….and I also chose music. The first of these led me to Nordic Walking, which I touched upon in my recent post (and I can update you, it’s going really well including the social aspect but I will write more on that soon). The second led me to a choir, and not just a small choir or one that is focussed on health issues (though that was suggested to me; more on the reason why not in my next post…) but a really fudging BIG choir which, six months ago, would have daunted the hell out of me and I would never have had the nerve, but I can honesty tell you its turning out to be one of the very best things I have ever done!
So, that will be in another post….today was about cogently processing through the roots of my solitude so that I could feel my way out of it, like a seedling long held under ground, finally cracking open the soil and deciding which direction to grow in. You too can do this…if you want to and, at the age of almost 52, I can also say its never too late to cease being a loner; and that it might prove easier to find your kind of people, the sort you could actually be around for tolerable bursts of time, at this stage of your life than at school or in your career (or whatever other stage of life you are comparing it with) because it does seem to get easier when (women especially) have been though those careers, parenthood and the ups and downs of life and come out somewhat mellower at the other end. Oh and please don’t confuse the state of “being a loner” that I am talking about with the state of literally being alone everyday, ruling out yourself because you go to work around people every day. Some of us have become extremely adept at being all alone in a crowd, not really fitting in or finding our people, and it might be that we now step out of our loneliness by leaving a workplace where we have been unhappily surrounded by people for a long time to now find companionship in a more self-directed and quality-over-quantity context such as semi or full retirement, or self-employment, where we get better at finding our people in small pockets of activity inspired by common interests.
Not only that but I also suspect it is going to be easier now…at this particular time… because I sense there are a whole lot of us oddball types suddenly daring to make this move “back into the current of life”, carried by a mass impulse to claim back the birth-right we all share to be included (whatever our differences), combined with a shift in people’s mindsets that is making way for the fresh perspectives people like us bring to the mix, instead of alienating our oddities so vehemently. This time, you would be doing it for different reasons. This time, you wouldn’t be changing yourself to fit in…no way! This time, there is no need to get burned; because changes are afoot, things are shifting and we get to be part of that…if we so wish. So, if any of this speaks to you or feels familiar and if you dare unpick your own story, make peace with its origins and choose a different ending, I’ll meet you out there!