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.