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I haven’t socialised with anyone in six months and it is entirely my fault. I live in London and have friends within walking distance. There are many more elsewhere who I owe a Zoom. Dozens of people have messaged and I’ve been too anxious to reply; I just hope they’re thinking that I’m doing my best. As a result of my own decisions, I have not said a word aloud to someone who is not my publisher, family member or flatmate since September. And I’ve thrown up on the latter, so he’s basically family, too.
Is this some bogus monastic sacrifice? Am I resistance-training for all possible levels of a future lockdown? No, I’m just autistic, and it does not take a lot to overwhelm me.
There are some autistic people who rarely or never speak. That’s not me. I can usually talk when I need to. But then the decisions start. The verbal ones: when a casual acquaintance asks how I am, there are several permissible answers and all of them are lies. Say their name around as often as they say mine. When they request advice, back up the thing they’re already planning on doing, or dispense a platitude that would not withstand the mildest scrutiny. When they say “Have a good day”, say “The same to you” if they’re Irish, or “You too” if they’re not. (Possibly both replies are interchangeable, but I’ve noticed a pattern and will stick to it pending further information.) I need to script and consciously deploy all of this because I have no filter and even less autopilot.
Then there are non-verbal decisions. If there’s a sudden noise, I have to hide that I’m now thinking about the source and nature of said noise. When I’m really, properly listening to people, my face is blank; this often makes them think I’m bored, so I redistribute some of my concentration to intermittently changing my expression. How should I tilt my jaw? When should I tilt my jaw? Don’t fidget, though it helps me puzzle things out, because they’ll think I’m nervous and try to “help” me and then I’ll lose my train of thought. Don’t laugh, because my laughter can just as easily mean I’m sad or shocked as that I’m amused, but they mightn’t see it that way if they’re describing their grandma’s funeral.
None of this is because I dislike people. Actually, it’s the opposite: I love everyone and I give every conversation my all, which is exhausting. And I don’t have to do all this because autistic people are objectively worse at communicating. I have to do all this because most non-autistic people cannot competently adapt to my way of talking, and so the burden falls on me to adapt to theirs. We’re just as good as anyone else, but we’re a widely misunderstood minority and we have to conduct ourselves accordingly. To me, the need for eye contact is bizarre. It feels way too intense when I don’t know someone well. I only look people in the eye to accommodate their needs. (You’re welcome, guys.)
There’s always a tradeoff. One of my autistic friends who has known me since university was puzzled to watch as I went from doing less than her to blend in, to doing more. Neither of us had made an easy decision: “masking” your autism is not good, but it is encouraged. Hiding our real selves leads to emotional repression, an inability to be genuine with anyone, and a cognitive tax that diminishes the million more interesting things we could be doing with our minds. But society punishes us if we don’t do it. Not all autistics can mask in the first place – it certainly took me a lot of work to get any good at it – so if you do “successfully” mask, there’s also an element of survivor’s guilt, a feeling that you’re distancing yourself from everyone else on the spectrum.
No one should want autistics to mask. It’s like making us do everything with the wrong hand. It hurts us, and robs everyone of the potential of us being ourselves. But they hate us so much that they don’t care what they’re losing, and I can’t think about that too long without getting sad.
In some ways, the pandemic has lessened the pressure on me to socialise. What no one tells you about writing a book is that you’ll have to talk about it a lot. Plus there are fewer logistical nightmares when everything’s happening remotely. If I have to catch a train in the afternoon, I can’t do anything that morning; I’m too anxious and wary of becoming distracted. When I’ll be in a new venue for the first time, I look it up on Google maps and scour the website to get a feel for where everything is – a form of pre-familiarisation I had no idea was a common autism adjustment until I saw that some libraries offer it. Different noises, tastes, textures and temperatures need to be planned for and worked around, or else they’ll crowd my head and I might shut down. My organisation and sensory responses are often wildly out of sync with what’s expected of me, and the task of planning around this can feel like a full-time job in itself. I have managed to give my publisher headaches around matters like collecting bookplates and mixing up Zoom times, but I think by publishing my book during a pandemic, I have had a gentler time.
That said, 2020 was for me, as for everyone, an unambiguously terrible year. I wish I could see socialising as a source of comfort. But I can’t. For me it’s more stress, anxiety and fear that I’m doing everything wrong. That’s not my friends’ fault. They can, and do, reassure me explicitly that they want me to be myself around them. The pain runs deeper than that: it’s settled in my bones that I need to mask with other people, even other autistics. My childhood taught me that, my adolescence confirmed it, and my adulthood proves it every day.
That’s why fiction is enormously important to me. Novels have always served as case studies of how most people think. The social observations of Jane Austen, Zadie Smith, Bernardine Evaristo, Edward St Aubyn, Alan Hollinghurst; they all make me stop and go: oh, that’s why. And once I understand, I can do it. Like an aspiring footballer who pauses the game, I take my time reading conversations , to work out who said what, and why. Then, when I go out and do the real thing, I’m more confident. And I do love it. That’s why I put so much work in. I’m endlessly grateful for fiction, because there’s no telling how isolated I’d feel without it. Books are why I have friends at all, even if I can’t always keep up with them.
So though I have not been talking much these past few months, I have been reading a lot. And believe it or not, after six months without socialising, what finally gave me the push to do better was writing this. I saw in my own words that I was in a bad situation I had the power to change, and I’ve finally started messaging people back. So I’m looking forward to the next few weeks as lockdown lifts. When I’m ready to start again, able to finagle those long-overdue catchups, I won’t feel rusty. I’ll remember the moves, and I’ll play.
Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times is published by W&N and has been longlisted for this year’s Women’s prize for fiction. The book is out now in paperback and can be ordered from guardianbookshop.com.
Source: The Guardian
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