My worst social trait.

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One of the things I feel the most guilty about is my inability to stay connected with people I care about.

Generally, I can actively have between 1 and 3 friends, at most, at a time.  I may have other friends who are my friends, but I don’t communicate with them.  I don’t even remember, half the time, that they exist.  It’s gotten so bad sometimes that I live right down the hall from one of my closest friends in the world and I have sometimes forgotten that she exists for over a month at a time.

People who are not tied to me closely in a way where I have to communicate with them regularly, don’t stand a chance unless they are able to keep up the lines of communication, themselves.

I try as hard as I can to change this.  I feel horrible about people that I feel like I’ve picked up and then abandoned, so many times over the years.  And then, to make things worse, it can get to a situation where I only contact them when I absolutely need something out of them.  So then it becomes “I can’t even contact you most of the time when I just want to talk to you, but I can contact you when I need something from you.”  That feels horrible.  I know that it’s not the case that I’m just “using” them, I know this is all tied into autism and executive dysfunction and movement disorders and memory problems and inertia and a million other things, but it still feels like this is what’s going on, and I can’t help wondering if they secretly resent me for it.

Sometimes, to make matters worse, there are people I think about all the time, but I can’t write to them.  I get writer’s block every time I try.  I may somehow manage to think about them every day, but I can’t write.  And then the guilt builds up and only makes it harder to contact them.  I haven’t gotten into this cycle with very many people, but when I have it’s been almost impossible to get out of.

And then I try to explain these things to people I’m “supposed to” have ties to, people who are very different from me both socially and cognitively.  There’s one person who’s repeatedly said things to me like “I know you don’t like to write to me” and no matter how many times I explain what’s actually going on, they still say things like that, a lot.

And sometimes I wonder whether everyone except me knows all this about me.  Like whether there’s conversations like “Yeah, she says she likes you, but then she disappears and forgets about you and never talks to you again, except maybe if she needs something.”  I hope not.  But I don’t know.  I always feel like I have to warn my friends up-front that this happens, because it’s so hard for me to stay in touch with people no matter how much I actually care about them.

And it’s hard to deal with this in a world where people measure how much you care by how much you think about someone and stay in touch with them.  I have the problem that I can care very much about someone, and in fact have a very close relationship with them, yet forget about them for weeks or months at a time, and fail to communicate with them for years at a time.  If my friends want to maintain a relationship with me, then they have to put in a larger amount of effort staying in touch with me than they normally would with someone who is more easily able to stay in touch, and this doesn’t seem fair.

And it still doesn’t seem fair even knowing that this is related to specific cognitive limitations.

And I still feel like a failure as a friend, because I can’t communicate with people as much as I want to, or think about them as much as I want to, or both.  I still don’t know what makes the difference between people I think about all the time but can’t communicate with, and people I forget even exist.  It certainly isn’t how close a friend they are, nor is it physical proximity.  There’s someone in particular that I think about frequently, but who I have not written to in probably seven years.  They wrote to me once a few years ago and I badly wanted to write back but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t.  It was like bashing my head against a brick wall.  And this person is someone I once had daily contact with, someone I owe my life to.

As far as I know, there’s a few things that overlap to cause this problem.

One of them is a memory problem where unless a memory is specifically being triggered all the time, I’m not going to remember it.  I have a very good memory for things that are triggered in a specific way, and a lousy memory for everything else.  I have been known to be unable to eat because my cupboards were closed and I couldn’t see the food so I didn’t know food existed.  I have the same problem with people.  If the person is not actually there, or not actively communicating with me right at that instant, then I don’t remember they exist.

Another of them is a form of inertia, where actions have to be triggered in specific ways in order to happen, much like memory has to be triggered.  This means that simply thinking about doing something is not enough to make me able to do that thing.  I have to be in a situation that triggers the right reaction.  And writing to people is not an action that is easy for me to trigger into existence.  So even if I remember you exist, I’m not necessarily going to be able to write to you.  This also explains why I’m more able to write to someone if there’s something I need — the need triggers the action.  Although need doesn’t always trigger an action, it all has to align correctly (so there’s someone I needed something from for years and I never could write to him because it wasn’t exactly aligned right to trigger the action of writing).

Another of them is a trouble with multitasking.  Staying in touch with people is not a simple action like picking up a ball.  It is a complex action that involves many different cognitive and physical aspects all at once.  This means that in order to happen it’s not enough for one thing to be triggered by one other thing.  Everything has to line up perfectly.  If even one part of this large chain of events is out of place, then I’m not able to do it.

The multitasking problem is also evident not just in the amount of parts it takes to make the action happen, but also in terms of paying attention to multiple things at once.  There’s a reason that I am able to stay in touch with one or two people, but not more than that.  One person takes up all of my attention, then I have very little attention left over for anyone else.

And this is all besides the fact that I’m pretty introverted by nature and I don’t automatically spend my time thinking about people.  I think if I were extroverted I would still have trouble keeping in touch with people, but it would be less trouble because my mind would be more drawn to thinking about them all the time.  I can go a long time without thinking about people at all.  Even when I write for my blog, it is easier for me to pay attention to what I am saying, than it is to pay attention to all the people who might be reading it.  I am always genuinely surprised how many readers I have, and sometimes alarmed by that fact.  Even though I feel like I am someone who cares deeply about people in both the general and the particular, my mind is not automatically drawn to thinking about people, as a topic.  Right now I mostly think about crocheting.

I’m sure there’s other things, many of them autism-related, that play into this as well.  And it doesn’t just affect friends, it affects family.  I have a horrible time staying in touch with my family, and I feel constantly guilty about it.  (Worse when I get letters from relatives that contain assumptions like “I know you don’t like writing to me”… ouch.)  Especially since I get a lot of support from my brothers at times, but never ever talk to them, rarely talk to my father, and only sometimes talk to my mother.  It doesn’t matter how much I care about or love someone, it can’t overcome all these difficulties.

So if you ever notice this pattern in my communication with you (this includes my inability, sometimes, to respond to blog comments), try to understand that it’s not personal.  I only have one person in my life that I’m in consistent contact with right now, and another person that I’m in semi-consistent contact with, and that’s usually about my limit right there.  Three people happens sometimes but it’s rare.  Right now it’s one and a half people — one very consistent contact (Anne), one less consistent contact (Laura), and a lot of very, very scattered contact with other friends and family.  And I can even forget Anne exists, even though that doesn’t happen as often as it would with other people because of a type of connection we share that as far as I know is completely unique — I can’t form that connection with people on command, it just exists, and I’ve never had that type of connection with anyone else.  And even with that deep, intimate connection I can occasionally forget her for a week or so.

And I’m very sorry, to the 15+ people I’ve cared deeply about and almost entirely lost contact with over the years.  If I could change anything about myself socially, this would be it.  But I’ve never been able to change it.  It makes me feel like I’m not capable of “real” friendship, even though I know I am.  I am lucky that I have some very tolerant friends.  People who take such lapses in contact personally, won’t do well in a friendship with me.  Not that I judge you if you do take it personally on an emotional level — we just may not be compatible if you do.   But do try to understand that my level of contact with you is not at all related to how much I love or care about you.

About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods. Crochet or otherwise create constantly and compulsively. Write poetry and paint when I can. Physically and cognitively disabled. Anything you hear in the media or gossip is likely to be oversimplified at best and wildly inaccurate at worst, the only way to get to know me is to actually know me. I'm not really part of any online faction or another, even ones that claim me as a member. The thing in the world most important to me is having love and compassion for other people, although I don't always measure up to my own standards there by a longshot. And individual specific actions and situations and contexts matter a lot more to me than broadly-spoken abstract words and ideas about a topic. My father died a couple years ago and that has changed my life a lot in ways that are still evolving, but I wear a lot of his clothes and hats every day since he died and have shown no sign of stopping soon.

21 responses »

  1. Hey love. I’m a NT person (whatever the heck that is!) and I gotta tell you, you have not only described me perfectly, but you have described my closest friends as well. These are people I love so much that, heaven forbid something were to happen to me, I would want involved in my son’s life! We used to talk if not every day, then several times a week. But they moved, and they have very busy lives. Now every couple months I’ll pick up the phone (or they will) and we will both say, simultaneously: “I know it’s been forever, I haven’t forgotten you. I’m sorry I’m a terrible friend, now tell me what’s going on.” Then we catch up.

    Keeping in touch with people can be a burden sometimes. Not in a bad way, but in a “I really am too tired to talk” sort of way. One thing that helps is Facebook. If these people are connected to your Facebook, they can always contact you there and keep up with your daily life that way.

    Occasionally there are people that, for what ever reason, will take long periods of time without you calling or visiting personal, but I really feel in today’s age those numbers are getting fewer and fewer (and are usually people not connected to the Internet…generally older people). If ever anyone of these people were to say something, I would respond with “Nana, I’m so sorry, I’ve been so busy, but you can call me at any time!” And make sure Nana has your correct number. This is a gentle way of saying “look, phone lines go both ways, yo!”

    My inclination is this: the majority of Americans today are SOOOOOO busy, and we feel exactly as you do.

    Now I would never ever try to downplay your feelings (so don’t think that’s what I’m doing) but I instead I am trying to validate your feelings and tell you: don’t be quite so tough on yourself. You are NOT alone on this! Almost everyone I know feels the exact same way.

    With love and sincerity….Rachele….

    More of our life adventures and fun with Asperger’s’ syndrome here: http://www.mypuzzlingpiece.wordpress.org

    • The thing is that this is all of my personal relationships, heavily affected by this. It’s not just people I don’t see regularly. It’s everybody. I’m not a busy person. I live at home and don’t have a job or a hectic lifestyle. It’s every single one of my friends, every single one of my family, every single person I ever interact with, that’s affected by this — even the 1.5 more active relationships I generally have going at a time are pretty affected by it, they’re just not as affected as the people I never talk to at all. There’s nothing about being busy that I can blame, nothing about modern society that I can blame, it’s just… like this.

      I don’t do Facebook because it’s too visually chaotic and confusing, but I do have a tumblr and between that and my blog it’s the only way most of my friends have any idea what I’m doing at all.

      • Hugs! I see. So it’s more pronounced than I originally thought. Facebook is a lot sometimes: between the drama and the updates, I have some friends that don’t do it at all. I wonder if most of your close people follow your blog? Simply writing this out might explain it to them, you know? I hate that you feel sooooo bad.

        I used to be very extroverted, and then I got very sick. I’ve been on/off hospice for the past four years (I’m getting better now!). And being sick has taught me a lot about the way my son (who is an Aspie) sees the world. One thing I discovered is that socialization takes a LOT of energy. Perhaps not physical, or metabolic energy, but psychological energy. I quickly stopped communicating with as many people, and instead went with “if you guys want to know what’s going on in my life, look on FB.” I was just so tired. That’s when my son told me that social interaction makes him tired because he’s constantly trying to understand what is going on in a conversation. He used the example of an elevator. He said, “I HATE elevators. It’s two minutes, and I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. Everyone is quiet! We are close together, but nobody else speaks, and if I do say something, nobody answers me. The smells inside the elevator are strong, plus I can feel my body moving from floor to floor, so I’m overstimulated, and I’m locked in a box where I cannot even verbalize how I’m feeling bc everyone acts weird in an elevator! I’d rather take the stairs!” He then went on to say that after a full 8 or 10 hours at school trying to “decode” the world around him he came home mentally exhausted. It took being on my death bed to understand, but I “sort of get it” now.

        Is this something you think or feel bad about often? If it’s really weighing on you I would send out an email with the link here and ask all those special people to read this. Also tell them in the email that you LOVE them, sooooo much, and that you are worried that you are inadvertently hurting there feelings and that is totally not your intention. And then give them a specific way to contact you anytime (via email, or text message…phone calls should probably be limited to emergencies only), with a promise to email/text them back as soon as you can, within a couple days or so.

        You seem like a kind person, and you are very concerned about how others feel. My kiddo is like that too. He feels frustrated beyond words when his autistic behavior inadvertently hurts someone’s feelings.

        Another thought that just occurred to me, do you have a close person, either ASD or NT, that is someone you could talk to about this? This person would be someone you could trust who is in your circle of close family and friends. That person could kind of be your advocate, sort of, when your not around she can make sure that if anyone says anything unkind about you, that she can then speak up and say, “well this is why she does that, and if you’d like I can ask she spend some time with you in the future, Nana, when she’s not feeling so overwhelmed…

        Just a couple ideas. Don’t want you to feel alone.

  2. I understand. I am so like this too. I need help with an awful emotional situation that I’m failing to cope with, and I asked for help, and people responded, and now I have an inbox full of mail that I know I can’t answer.

  3. Further complicated in your case by a bit of fame, which always is accompanied by more contacts from strangers who want to make you believe they’re long lost friends.

    I know I have different rules/policies/comfort levels for my “electronic friends,” the ones I know online (even if I do meet them F2F at some point). I feel that since I met them across sometimes unimaginable distances, I can love them over uncommon time frames as well. Written friendships permit me to remember exactly what we said, and how, and when. F2F friendships sink into the grey fog. I was reviewing the emails with a newish friend and was stunned to tally seven years. If warned, or alerted, (as you have done here) I’m perfectly willing to have discontinuous friendships.

    Perhaps you could create a “warning: discontinuous friendship” sig for your friendly emails?

    Is this complicated by friends and Friends?

  4. I have this problem too, to a lesser extent. For me it’s less that I forget who people are and more than I forget to remember (once I encounter them again I will usually remember), but I have a lot of inertia problems and executive function problems that make it hard to reach out and write an email or respond to one. If everything is aligned right, I can sometimes reply right when I get an e-mail but initiating the action later of replying to that e-mail i got last week is much harder.

    My mother doesn’t get it at all. I got my partner to write her for me because I couldn’t, I was just in too much pain and I didn’t have the spoons, and my partner tried to explain that the migraines have been too bad (which was true. the migraines make the aphasia so much worse, not to mention the bright light of the computer screen) and my mother said I should have written anyway, if only just one word.

    But writing just one word is equally difficult to writing a hundred words.

    And now it will take a lot longer to write her words, because it hurts me to be told that it’s rude to be disabled. (Not in those exact words, but she was told I couldn’t do x because of disability and she replies with it’s rude not to do x, so…)

    Maybe it’s because of my own disabilities, but I tend to have different expectations of friendship than most people — I often consider someone a friend if I’ve read their blog for a few years even if we’ve never interacted at all, and I have no expectation that any of these people have any idea who I am, or for them to remember me as the person who left a brief but nice comment a year or so ago. And even if someone is in mutual follow with me on tumblr but we don’t interact at all, I consider them a friend (with no expectation of them to press like on my posts or hurt feelings if they don’t).

    Would you prefer that people who have interacted with you before say something like “I rambled at you a little while ago about my elderly cats who are littermates” when we interact the next time to help give you some continuity? (I probably can’t promise to do this all the time, but I can do it some of the time, and I will do it when I can, if it would make you happy.)

  5. You explained this to us before in a way that let us know you care very much but can’t multi-process relationships. It explained a lot and we accepted that at face value. We took your telling us that as a caring thing for you to have done.

    You also let us know that you are often not up to our having skype sessions pre-arranged so we wait now for you to tell us when you want to talk. JB has said he looks for you on skype when he is on but rarely sees you there. We all care about you and know you care about us and respect your needs.

    There is something truly beautiful about long time relationships that are accepting of circumstances, accepting of limitations, accepting of a person as they are and as they wish to be without constraints or pressure. These are the people you can see once a year or once every five years and pick up a conversation and carry on where you left off as if you saw them every day of your life.

    There are things you never have to explain because you have the same shared experience that is very basic to your being and there is no game playing either so you have a trust that is just always there. You know if you ask something of them they will stop what they are doing and listen and if they ask the same of you that you will do the same. Weeks can pass without communication and it is not seen as neglect or as abandonment.

    This may not be the norm but it is a very treasured relationship that can exist in just this way.

    Hugs, Mom

  6. My original diagnosis was Asperger’s, now ASD, but despite the different diagnosis, I could have written this. It’s a multitasking issue with me, but inertia also plays a role. I know it probably doesn’t help much to know a random stranger has the same issues as you, but I do, for what it’s worth. People think it’s personal, when it’s really just my complete inability to allot the meager amount of spoons I have at any given moment. My best to you.

    • I don’t see AS/ASD as a different diagnosis, it’s all the same spectrum. And I imagine there’s people off the spectrum entirely who have these problems too.

  7. you know i’m this way too and i thought it was ADD stuff. also when you couldn’t answer i didn’t think it was ok to write because i thought it would be an intrusion, but don’t feel like you made me feel that or something, i was maybe just confused. plus nothing very big happens to me really, only a few things in the past 5yrs or so since we were in closer contact.

    anyway, don’t worry, you’ll always be the friend who taught me what it was to be a human being and an autistic, and that saved my marriage a bunch of times with what you taught me about your and his brainstyles. and now that you have more health/energy, looking forward to catching up more reading of you.

    • also the thing you said about introverts not thinking about people naturally? so interesting. have to figure out how that applies to me, or doesn’t.

      i do forget the existence of people that matter to me and i just assumed it was because i was a bad person and didn’t care about them the way i like to think i do. but i know you’re not like that, so maybe mine too is the other thing that you’re describing.

      one time i even forgot i was married, for i donno, maybe a few seconds or a part of a second… then i remembered again and i was so relieved. i think if i didn’t live with anybody and wasn’t just about to see them in a few hours, i might possibly forget for longer time?

  8. I’m Autistic and verbal, and I don’t remember if we’ve ever interacted much, if at all. But everything you said in this post is true of me — even the part about forgetting to eat because the cupboards and fridge are closed. It affects my family as well as close friendships, and the only reason I stay in contact with my ASAN-WA friends and knitting circle friends is because I go to their events. But I rarely ever see any of them outside of ASAN-WA meetings, socials, or crafting nights, or my two knitting circle meet-ups (one from my synagogue and one from a local fabric and craft store). Like you, it takes some mysterious lineup of everything going right for me to be able to initiate communications.

  9. Wow interesting – I think I’ve known people like this and reading your post helps me to not take it personally and understand that people care or can get isolated even if they have trouble staying in contact.

  10. I’m skeptical of “making” and “having” friends; crave it but don’t really know what it means, and I most admire toddlers who just experience it but don’t hold on. If we could all be friends like that, there would be no guilt; there would not be that problem of either having too little (overdemanding others) or having too much (having to push off others). And we could be friends because of now, rather than having to always “catch up” and manage this fragile thing that we invent called a friendship.

  11. Ugh. This post will be a keeper when I can read it. It’s very close to the Big social thing I perpetually don’t do as I’d like.

    Not related, I’d like to send you something, just because it keeps telling me you’ll like it. When it’s not telling me to stroke it. If you’d be o.k. with that, could you use the address on my comment (or, if you can’t, later on come up with something else you can do, and hope I see it) to let me know where to send it?

    • Oh, god, I’m a fool, as if you can possibly accept without knowing who I am. You’d know me by Baba Yaga. No idea why that seemed difficult when I posted!

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