My worst school memory was the day I first felt really different to other kids. The teacher asked a question that probably wouldn’t be asked these days: she asked what everyone’s dad did for a living. I didn’t have a dad but not everyone in the class knew that and so, as the answers were given and it came closer and closer to my turn, I got more and more anxious about whether or not to lie and just say he was a fireman or a policeman or something the other kids would be impressed by. In fact, I needn’t have worried: I wet myself before my turn – probably out of sheer panic – so I ended up embarrassed for a completely different reason.
I’ve had trouble making friends for as long as I can remember. These days, I can recognise that I’m clearly on the autistic spectrum and suffer from the sort of mood imbalance that makes friendship difficult but for a long time (and especially when I was a kid) I didn’t KNOW this. At first I thought I couldn’t make friends because I didn’t have a dad or wore the wrong trainers and then thought it was because I didn’t like sport, couldn’t talk to girls or because I came from a working class when a lot of the kids in my school had wealthy, middle class parents. Then you start to grow up and realise that it’s not those things at all: it’s the fact that I make big, bold emotional statements over very small connections, the fact that I overshare all the time, struggle to make eye contact and primarily the fact that things which don’t seem to bother other people matter a great deal to me. I always remember becoming really popular at secondary school for a week and starting to feel really good about myself when a friend told me that while I was absent the teacher had informed the entire class that my mum was in hospital and that they should look after me to make me feel better: unsurprisingly, it didn’t really have the desired effect.
Being a loner has some fairly distinct advantages. One of the things I loved most about hanging out at Costa Coffee in the mornings was that, being a regular, I tended to fade into the background scenery and could observe the really fascinating (and often quite stark) human behaviour going on around me. After a while, I found I could instinctively tell whether people were happy, sad, angry or anxious simply by the subtle changes in their demeanour as they went through their regular morning routines. Often, their interactions with each other and their general mood would alter drastically as they had their morning coffee, probably as a result of the caffeine addiction being satiated. From their expressions, however, they all seemed to share one fairly obvious thought process: who’s that ginger psychopath in the corner and why is he reading that book upside down?
Loneliness means different things for different people. For some, it’s an empty room and for others it’s a room full of people where you don’t feel you fit. I was an isolated child and most of my friendships were with adults. I remember being quite proud of this at the time and feeling very grown up, yet as I got older I found it more and more difficult to connect with people of my own age. My friend circle now still consists mainly of people who are older than me or other isolated folks I’ve met that I can keenly identify with. As a parent, it’s always been one of my greatest fears than my children will have the same problem and will be unable to make friends easily…but as time has gone on it’s become
clear that that really couldn’t be further from the truth. My daughter is extremely gregarious and while my son shows an awful lot of the same character traits I had myself as a youngster (and regularly self isolates when he’s particularly involved in a game) he also seems to have drawn a strong social circle of likeminded kids. As for me, I ended up marrying my very best friend so I guess I can’t really complain: it’s the quality of your connections that really matters.