Can You Make Friends If You Don’t Know Who You Are?

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The psychiatrist thinks I am Autistic

But I don’t want to be Autistic; the only Autistic people I know are boys-under-ten and I am a thirty-one-year-old-woman. His words flick a switch that transports me back in time.

I am four-years-old at a playgroup in Shirley. The other children are peculiar: they are ‘cooking dinner’ and ‘talking on the phone.’ Someone should really tell them that it’s not real food.

I am five now, and in primary school. Nobody has taught me how to make friends yet, but I’ve had a go on my own: I like the boy called Henry. He has splints on his legs, a patch over one eye like-a-pirate and a trach in his neck that makes him whisper. Every lunch time I sit in the middle of the carpet and cry desolately a) because I am over-tired and b) because my teacher’s assistant goes home at lunch time and I can’t understand why.

The teachers have said I am not allowed to play with my brother at lunch time anymore.

I am nine and I can make friends but I don’t seem to be able to keep them, which feels even worse. I watch them, I copy them, I try really hard to like the things they like and I do whatever they say, but we just don’t connect. I am better alone. I don’t know my own favourite colour, favourite song, or favourite food but I know everyone else’s off-by-heart. I sit inside and re-read Jane Eyre to my friend Reuben, he has a wheelchair but he can walk in swimming pools.

I’d like to change my name to Jane Eyre.  

I am eleven and I am starting a girls’ secondary school called St. Anne’s but all the other children I know are going to Romsey School. I am completely alone: I don’t mind that at all, it’s just that girls are somewhat alien to me. There’s a group of girls in my maths class and they are ‘popular.’ They’ve grown out of things that I still like: they walk differently down the corridor; they wear their uniform differently; they talk differently; everything they do is different to me but I long to belong with them.

That night, I write them a letter in which I list all the reasons why I would be an excellent friend to have: I am thoroughly-reliable; I am loyal; I am honest; I respond well to direction.

Quickly, they conclude that I am not-worthy of being a part of their group, so the answer is “no.”

They shuffle away.

That’s when I stopped eating.

There must be something wrong about me: some sort of malfunction stopping me from quite-fitting-in. I am inaccessible. I wonder if I am a nice person. I don’t really mind alone-time, I like it and need it. I like cycling around the birch-tree outside my house, imagining what I’ll call my children when I am older. I like bouncing my orange ball up and down the garden path as a write animal-stories in my head. I like reading and running and thinking about song-lyrics. I like teaching myself how to play musical instruments and choreographing floor routines. I like fixing things and finding out how things work like brains, cranes and hearts.

But if anyone asks I’ll say “I-like-hanging-out-with-friends-and-going-to-the-cinema.”

I’m fourteen and I’m bullied by a girl who calls me ‘Mousey’ but I don’t want to talk about it. The one good thing about it is that it’s making me work harder in the gym at lunch times.

I am sixteen and I’m hyper-focussed on passing my GCSE’s but I can’t cope with my own conscientiousness. I am clever until I have an exam paper in front of me. My ‘cohort’ are choosing between going to Barton Peveril College or Peter Symonds College. They are both huge and prodigious colleges; so many rooms, so much movement. I decide to stay at St. Anne’s Sixth Form College where there are twenty-students-maximum and five-in-a-class: quiet, normal, familiar.

I am eighteen and off to University and after a lot of thought I decide I am going to smuggle-in my cuddly toy cat called ‘Anxious.’ On my first morning in halls I get up extra-early, shower, get dressed, make-up, open my bedroom door wide and sit on the edge of my bed in silence with my back-pack on my back, waiting for the other girls to get-up for the canteen breakfast.

I am not quite sure how to be.

They laugh at me.

Some of them roll out of bed and rock-up in their pyjamas: they are friendly and beautifully comfortable in their skin. I feel foolish because I expect none of them had laid out their clothes, practised appropriate sentence-starters in the mirror or slept with their breakfast-cards under their pillows.

Two girls, both called Lindsay, make friends with me and they are complicated. Lindsay-one manipulates me into being in a relationship with her boyfriend. Apparently he likes dating two-girls-at–a-time because “once you have an ice cream with sprinkles on you don’t go back” but I’ve got to keep this a secret. Lindsay-two has a rat called Dingo that follows her everywhere, but according to Lindsay-one she “wants to be [my] only friend, and tries to cut-me-off from everyone else.”

“Does this dress make me look fat?” Lindsay-one had asked one Friday night. “Not at all,” I had replied, “if you are overweight it is hardly the dress’ fault?”

Everything is bewildering apart from my boyfriend.

He is simple, chilled-out, interesting and god-does-he-make-me-laugh. I could talk forever about him.

Despite delicate times, I became a teacher at the age of 22, a really good and passionate one. I joined Love Soul Choir in my free-time to have a work/life balance and to meet new people because I’d overheard someone in the staffroom say that “that’s what functional people do” and it was one of the best decisions I ever made in my life.

“Tell me about friendships throughout your education” the psychiatrist says.

“There’s never been any one I haven’t liked…” I explain “…there’s even been many that I have loved…. I never forget a person: I think of them; I wish good things for them, I know a lot about them because I listen, and I watch, yet the more I interact the lonelier it feels.”

I think that’s why I like cats.

He listened, interested by the fact that many of my most successful friendships have been with people who are very obviously physically different to me. He said that it was “something to chew over.”

I do try and interact, but when someone talks to me I feel almost frozen-to-the-spot, it’s hard to listen and understand at the same time, and when it is over, I am left with the nagging paranoia: Did I respond correctly? Was my facial expression right? Did I talk too much? Too little?

The psychiatrist thinks I am autistic… I told my mum over coffee… he is referring me for assessments.  

She wasn’t a bit surprised.

Perhaps this is the start of getting to know who I am.

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