Everyone needs a friend in their life. When I say friend, I mean my version of a friend. Someone I can trust, I can rely upon, I can joke around with, cause no end of trouble with, someone I can be myself, my whole self without fear of judgement with, that is my definition of a good friend.
For myself and a lot of other Autistics, friendship is something we long for, be seldom ever truly have. I have been really lucky, in my opinion, as I have 4 fantastic ladies that fit my definition of a true friend. These women have all brought something positive to my life and I truly love them more than they will ever really know. But I have not always been this lucky. It isn’t easy and it still takes energy to ensure that I keep these relationships going.
As a child, friends weren’t very easy to come by. I grew up in Germany and my father was in the US military, which meant a lot of social-climbing to be had. I also had a lot of forced social interactions and my “friends” weren’t really ever of my choosing. The “friends” I had were all the children of people my father worked with. It didn’t matter that I may not have liked them or them me for that matter. It didn’t matter that I didn’t like the games they played or that I often found that my more controlling and serious demeanour just didn’t bode well for the other children, because it was just how it was. US children on a foreign military base were always going to have to mix. However, this mixing was for limited times only, because families transferred in and out every couple of years. So there was never really much of a chance to really develop a good relationship because soon they or we would be shipped off somewhere else.
Looking back I realise that it was through watching and mimicking my parent’s interactions that I got my original social style introductions. At 4-5 years old, I would walk up to children in the playground and say, “Hi, my name is Jenny, do you want to be my friend?” Now this in and of itself isn’t such a big deal, but imagine following that with a handshake. How many children do you know that do that? If you are reading this, perhaps you know a few on the spectrum, but non autistic children I doubt many do this. If I am also honest, I actually didn’t even care about their responses. As long as they agreed to be my sandbox minions, all would be well. I was, in fact still am, a very assertive person, and found that as a child I often lead the children in the tasks. I made my demands and usually, I assume out of fear, they did what I asked, until I was happy. Whether it was having them build a sand castle or dig a moat, get more dry sand or pails of water, everyone had a job and I was essentially the project manager. Sadly, I don’t think this approach helped me much with friendship building, but I wasn’t really too upset about it. I got my tasks done and that’s what was important to me at the time. I got the nickname “bossy Jenny” for a reason and at least it was honest.
I didn’t actually have my first friend until I was 8 years old and moved to the US. My lovely friend April was great. She was so relaxed and just let me do my thing. She didn’t mind I took control a bit, or that I was so head strong, she just went with it. She is an amazing person and to this day we still talk.
My next real friend came about when I was 11. Amanda and I just clicked straight away. Something about it just felt right and again, she was happy just for me to be me. Not that anyone was ever going to stop me. She got me from the word go. She got my humour, my craziness, my evil streak and happily let me obsess. Amanda was there for me when others weren’t and eventually when we happened to become next door neighbours I knew I had a friend for life. We were inseparable and she was my partner in crime and at that point in life too. I trusted her with me troubles, my triumphs, my annoyances and my dreams and I would like to think I did the same for her. I know not everyone can truly share everything, but she was the closest friend I had and really the closest I had until my husband. She was my best friend, through and through. It felt easy with her, I didn’t have to think too much about how it would work… it just did. I think we were for the most part, each other’s safety nets. If we had the same lunch time break we were together, we rode the school bus together, if we had a class together we would sit together, we went to each other’s houses after school, spent weekends together and more. We were completely inseparable. But as we got older we started to drift. After 4 years or so, the time we made for each other became less and less. This loss of our friendship took a long time to recover from. It is like having a routine and changing it. She was part of my routine, my life, my everyday goings on and when it stopped, it was hard to know what to do next. It was almost like a death, but still seeing her around at the same time. I missed her so much and I couldn’t get that maybe it was I who made a bad choice or that I was holding her back from things or that our bond had somehow broken and I just didn’t know why. I just wanted her to be happy and I guess I wasn’t doing that as a friend for her. She was my only real friend. Thankfully though, she and I started talking again years later and it was as though no time had passed, we just picked up where we left off. And when she shared with me something that was a very big part of her life, I felt lucky, lucky that she trusted me. When said to me, “I knew of all the people I know, you would never judge me and it wouldn’t bother you,” I felt special. Because she did…she knew me and I made her feel safe and that is all I could want for a friend. My amazing Amanda, I will love her forever.
In mid-loss of my only friendship, I was half way through in high school and while I had a group of “friends” that hung out together, they weren’t what I call real friends, more like social partners. These were people I knew more than as an acquaintance, but our relationships never extended beyond the environment from which it originated, i.e school. This group of girls, I do still talk to today, but after years of being with them, how much did I really know about them? I seldom, if ever, went to their homes; I almost never went to any activities outside of the school with them. So how can I truly call them friends? I still also talk via Facebook to them on occasion, because I like to hear more about them, their lives and how things are for them, but could I rely on them? Could I call them if something bad were to happen, would they truly or even care if something did? How much do I really want to share with them? Being 5000 miles away is there a point? Do I want to actually do the work involved to keep up with these “relationships”? Even now I don’t know if I really know the answers to those questions.
Of this group of girls, I had become close to another in the group called Michelle. Michelle was so beautiful, sassy, tall, thin, funny, nice and cool. Everything I wasn’t, but she seemed to like me anyway. I enjoyed having a laugh and joke with her and she too got my sense of humour, which was always going to bond us. Michelle seemed to have a lot of friends, they did things, hung out, and their lives seemed cool at the time or at least better than mine. My life was a disaster, my home life was horrendous, I had no real friends and school was rubbish as I was always getting into trouble for talking too much, not focusing, not completing things or completing things but using an incorrect method. So, I guess hanging with Michelle was a good release for me and it was a place I felt wanted and safe. But Michelle’s friends were mostly people who for one reason or another, just made me feel like I was looking in on a life I could never have. It is like I was standing still while everyone else was part of something else and I was invisible. They all laughed and joked, talked and did things and I always seemed one step behind. These “cooler” kids were like movies stars in that their lives seemed more interesting and it was really something I was never really ever going to experience.
Surprise surprise, I wasn’t a cool kid, in fact I wasn’t part of not really “type” of group , I was just tried to be friend with kids who were nice to me. Being a “preppy” kid wasn’t really something I was bothered about, it was just how it was, life as a teen. I just didn’t want to be friendless and the more I tried to make friends the less it worked. As long as I could avoid getting beat up or threatened I was doing ok. I had a few scraps in school which, luckily for me, my big mouth managed prevent, but it was none the less scary. I knew I came across as kick arse and take names kinda girl, but it was almost always out of fear or need. I knew if I ever let people see I was weak, I would be a target and I had so much to contend with in my home life, that I didn’t have the energy, capacity or will to do it elsewhere too. I couldn’t, though, ever figure out how to try to bond with these cool cats. I tried to find things to talk about but it never flowed. So I talked about myself or repeatedly talk about things from that past that we saw or experienced together because those were the only things I thought might be good hook in the game, but even this never really worked. I felt like I was more of a tag-along rather than actually part of any group. This in turn just made me feel even more alone, so I began to realise that I needed to rely on only myself. That no one was going to be able to help me but me and maybe I wasn’t really a likable person. I still continued to struggled, at school making friends. I would walk down the halls and people would say “Hi Jenn”, as I walked pasted, but they were just people who knew my face or people from class. I would say hello too, but how do you get beyond that? How do you know when you are really friends? How do you turn that hello into something else? How do you make friends without seeming needy or weird?
Even now as old and articulate as I am, I still struggle. When I met my husband it was in a very Autistic way as we met on the internet, way back when people hadn’t even heard of internet dating. In fact, I started talking to my “future” husband within a few days of a “friend” at college telling me there was even such a thing as “the internet” and I could talk to people from all over the world. Who knew eh? But this way of “meeting” gave me a way in. I could think about what I wanted to say, how I wanted to say it, I could erase the impulsive things I said without fear that I would embarrass myself again or reveal too much too soon. This way of building up a friendship worked for me. We talked on the phone too and it just worked. Now, of course, he is my best friend. No one on earth knows me more than that boy. He knows exactly how my mind works and what I would think or say on any given issue and I love that. He even knows how I am feeling when I cannot even tell or articulate it myself. He truly is the only man I have ever really trusted and who I have ever been able to rely on, my whole life.
My lack of friends stayed with me for many years, through the rest of high school, college and even through moving to the UK. I had relationships with various people, but to really call them friends would be quite a stretch from my point of view. I knew people, in fact I know a quite a few people, but again I think more of them as social partners, rather than friends. More than an acquaintance, but not really close as a friend. I know those without Autism, use the word “friend” flippantly. In fact it seems everyone has thousands of friends if you go off Facebook numbers. But I know deep down all that is for show. Meeting a thousand people and adding them to social media doesn’t make them a “friend” it makes them someone you met once. Perhaps it was in an alley or a shopping centre or in the toilets of a club one drunken summer night, but not a real friend. Not how I see it.
All grown up and more self-confident and with little less care for the opinions of others about me or my actions or what I choose, I am free. I have some really great friends now. It took time, it took laughs, a few years and a lot of talking about me to build these friendships. They take my energy, which I am always happy to give, when I have some spare. But the friends I have love me as I am. Not the Jennifer I was when I was younger, they didn’t know her. But they know me now. They know the character I am now, they know some of my hard past, what I choose to share, but they also know my sassy, funny, mickey taking sides too. They know that sometimes, I just can’t take situations and I need to leave. They understand that I talk incessantly about my views, opinions, solutions, current obsessions, future plans and my family, without blinking an eye and I love them all for it. Each woman has their own way, their own style and they are all different and I love that about them too. They are certainly the sisters I choose and the people who make my life richer.
Now, what do I give them, you say? Well, I cannot really answer that with certainty as I am not them, but I would like to think that I offer them me. 100% free range me. I would like to think I am a good listener and when they need it, I offer them advice or a different perspective on life, in a positive way. I would like to think I make people smile too. I know I am an honest and loyal friend who doesn’t beat around the proverbial bush, which I think is good. Ok, perhaps I give too much detail, but that is me and it isn’t something I can really change, but that can’t be a bad thing right? I know friendship is give and take and it has taken me many years of hard work, effort and trial and error to develop the friendships I have now, but to me it was worth it. They teach me as much as I teach them.
Now that we are home educating our children, I am starting to meet many more new people. I am in the hope that my skills will continue grow and I can learn to relax and be less anxious about it all. The likelihood is I will always be terrified inside, I will always have difficulties with this and I will always lack the knowledge of how to do the social thing. And I am Ok with that, because I am trying. Yes, I will say things that I think are ok and offend someone. Yes, I will talk over people and I will always being discussions back to myself because that is how I show I am trying to relate to others. These are things I can’t change, I can only try to work on them. I can try to be more aware of my issues and remember that everyone makes mistakes perhaps more of a trial and error of social experiments but I can try to learn. One day I may find a process of making friends that works well for me…one day. It doesn’t make is any less scary, it doesn’t mean I am always going to find the right path or choose the right people, but I don’t know how it will work unless I try. By continuing to try, I can show my gorgeous boys that it is never too late to learn new skills and that when you have a true friend or two, life feels a little bit better.